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Carolyn Hax Live: Advice Columnist Tackles Your Problems

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Friday, October 9, taking your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

Carolyn's Recent Columns

Past Carolyn Hax Live Discussions

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"Sweatpants Girl" here again!: Hi Carolyn,

So I wrote in last week about dating a coworker who made a comment about sweatpants being a dealbreaker, and my staying mum. You pretty much hit the nail on the head about my being pretty passive around guys. I wish I had spoken up and said, Hey, I wear sweatpants! I'm not sure why I didn't, except that I don't want to get serious with him, so I'm trying to keep things cool.

I was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship for several years, and part of me wonders if I'm "damaged goods" emotionally. I mean, I KNOW the current guy I'm seeing is on the selfish and controlling side, and I don't see myself marrying him or being with him even exclusively. We have fun when we hang out, lots of chemistry, yet he'll throw out these scathing comments and I feel judged or belittled or even degraded sometimes. But then other times he's really complimentary and great. Yet I have the hardest time sticking up for myself, because I think, "I don't want to let him think that he has the power to 'get' to me." It's almost like I know he's not emotionally invested in me, so I don't want to show him that he has the power/influence to hurt my feelings. I'm sure this sounds crazy, and I probably need therapy. I want to break up with him this weekend, but I feel like that's letting him win, and he'll see me as the weak and vulnerable girl. We're only supposed to be casually dating, after all. Any advice, besides the counseling I know I should get, to break it off with this guy with my dignity still intact?

- Sweatpants AND baggage

Carolyn Hax: Thinking someone's a jerk doesn't mean that person "got to you." Not having the same tastes as someone doesn't mean you're weak. Not enjoying someone's company isn't "letting him win."

You are a sentient, independent adult, with your own thoughts, feelings, opinions, preferences, tastes, ideas, whims, hangups and soft spots. If this guy's versions of same don't happen to line up well with yours, then you don't need any other reason or justification for choosing not to spend any more time with him. He's not doing it for you. Done. Bye.

That is an expression of autonomy. If we're going to assign a value to it--really no need to--then I'd call it an expression of strength, not weakness, to be able to act on your preferences.

(more)

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Carolyn Hax: And, hi everybody!

(still more)

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Carolyn Hax: Since you also have an abusive relationship in your history, and you know yourself to be passive around guys, then the whole part about assigning values is of greater consequence. Currently, you're assigning negative values to your expressions of choice, self, autonomy. You bite your lip over wearing sweatpants. So I think it would be useful for you to train your mind to see these expressions as explicit strengths: "I'm a sweatpant-wearing, jerk-dumping, coffee-swilling (or whatever you happen to swill) goddess," only you will have a much less dorky way of pulling it off.

The goal is not so much to promote yourself to goddess as it is to counterbalance the longstanding negativity you've attached to being you. Where you really want to go with this is to a place of assigning no value at all. You are you and so be it. He is he and so be it. You and he aren't well matched, and so be it.

It's liberating as hell.

(more)

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Carolyn Hax: Also because of your history (not just the abusive relationship, but your emotional history that leads you to regard domineering men as your comfort zone, and to suppress your true self to please them), it might not be realistic to believe one sustained metal exercise will be enough to break this probably ancient pattern.

In other words, yes, therapy probably wouldn't be a bad idea, as long as you choose a competent, reputable, -compatible- mental-health pro. But you can start doing the work now by 1. breaking up with the guy, for no reason other than that you;re not enjoying yourself; 2. making a conscious effort to regard your opinions/preferences/etc. (a) as no more or less valid than anyone else's, in the grand scheme, and (b) as the last word in the business ofy our day-to-day life. Practice practice practice.

(more)

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Carolyn Hax: I was about to wrap it up, when I realized I almost forgot to mention that you aptly described an abuse cycle and probably don't even realize it. If abusive people weren't also charming by turns, then they'd have no one around them to abuse, right? Enter the cycle: Shower victim-to-be with charm and attention, enter and cement relationship with victim, exert control over victim in small, hard-to-detect increments, re-introduce charm when victim shows signs of resisting, repeat.

As always, the suggested reading on this is "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin de Becker. It is skewed toward physical violence and toward male on female abuse, but the lessons in it and the dynamics it illuminates apply equally well to emotional abuse and to women who abuse men ... and to domineering parents even. (Really, it's just the 101 on spotting controllers, and how not to fall in their sway.)

Thanks so much for following up, and please check back in sometime.

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Springfield, Va.: Dear Carolyn, My husband believes that all couples have arguments that involve name calling, threats, put downs and demeaning statements. Am I foolish for thinking that with counseling a couple can learn ways of disagreeing that do not leave one of the two feeling verbally beaten up? How does one discuss painful topics with one's spouse in a kinder way?

Carolyn Hax: With counseling, a couple can learn ways of disagreeing that do not leave one of the two feeling verbally beaten up. But both members of that couple need to be invested in getting well. For this to work for you, your husband somehow needs to realize that some couples don't even argue-and they aren't all just suppressing their true feelings, they just actually like each other and are of like minds on the things that matter to them. There are also couples who argue without showing disrespect for each other's opinion, or for their humanity.

It's going to take an epiphany on his part. I hope you have a talented counselor lined up, as well as an idea of what you hope to get, and need to get, from this counseling to satisfy your needs.

The last question I'm going to let you explore with your counselor, because it's a long one and I don't want the whole top of this chat to belong to boundary-challenged men. I do think I'll kick it to the Philes, to get a peek into the way a lot of different couples (and even friends) have negotiated the love-and-honesty shoals.

And if I get a moment later in this session, I'll get to it myself.

Now, onto boundary-challenged women.

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Out West: How do you move on when your spouse has had an "emotional affair" with someone who is still in his life on a daily basis? I'm not having trouble with the forgiving, just the forgetting. I'm tired of constantly being washed over with that hurt feeling every time I see them together. Any advice?

Carolyn Hax: In what context are they still together? That's everything.

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I want to break up with him this weekend, but I feel like that's letting him win: I almost swallowed my tongue at this. Please, ma'am, don't fall into this self-invented trap. Break up with him for the right reasons: he's controlling and abusive (even "borderline" -- you'll find that border moves), he makes you feel bad, even though he also makes you feel good (classic behavior), you know he won't change (you DO know that, don't you?), and -- best reason of all: Who cares who "wins"? This is not a game, it's your life. Why do you care about how someone like that sees you? You'll be off living a happy life full of self-esteem and he'll be out there searching for the perfect non-sweatpants-wearing victim.

Carolyn Hax: And, sadly, he'll find one. But we can all hope it's not one who knows better.

Thanks.

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Ashamed, USA: I just found out I got HPV from my first partner. I didn't lose my virginity until I was 29 and it sucks that this had to happen, especially since we recently broke up after a year and a half of dating. On one hand I understand the statistics were against me but on the otherhand I feel like shoes are dropping on me left and right. And I can't help but feel dirty. How do I get over this?

Carolyn Hax: You're not dirty, you're a member of a club that includes, what, half of the sexually active population? A quarter? You caught me with my statistical pants down--it has been about a year since I re-visited my usual Web sites to see how they were doing. (I like www.cdc.gov and www.ashastd.org, and think EVERYBODY who has sex with anyone should have at least working familiarity with the contents.) But I'll check in a second for the number. In the meantime, please know that your HPV will likely run its course. It's different from HSV and HIV that way.

Oh, and if you're female, keep up with your regular gynecological exams, to watch for cervical cancer. But, then, every woman should anyway.

The short answer is, really, it's not that big a deal.

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Carolyn Hax: Here you go, from the American Social Health Association's site (ashastd.org):

"It has been estimated that 75 percent or more of sexually active Americans will contract HPV sometime in their lives. This means that anyone who has ever had sexual relations has a high chance of being exposed to this virus, but only a small number of women infected with HPV develop cell changes that need to be treated. In almost all cases, the immune system will keep the virus (including the cancer-related HPV types) under control or get rid of it completely."

But please do visit the site to find out the full story.

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Sweatpants-wearing goddess: As a third-year law student, I went through an (uncharacteristically) intense period of dating. It coincided with the 3L on-campus interviewing process. It struck me how similar those two processes were. While I'd always been comfortable rejecting jobs or employers because the fit wasn't good, I'd never been comfortable rejecting dates because the chemistry wasn't there. Once I realized that, like a job search, dating was as much about my desire to continue seeing someone as it was his to continue seeing me, I felt a lot better about dating and relationships.

Carolyn Hax: Deftly argued, thanks.

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Sweatpants are a dealbreaker?: Speaking as a dude, they make some really hot sweatpants for the ladies these days. I could see how the old school, baggy, elastic around each leg type sweatpants could be a "dealbreaker," but really - that's like the difference between low-cut bootleg jeans and "Mom Jeans."

Carolyn Hax: "The ladies"? I just fell in love with my Mom jeans and elastic-leg sweatpants, even though you, Dude, are correct about the range of hotness currently available in stores.

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My husband believes that all couples have arguments that involve name calling, threats, put downs and demeaning statements. : Does he believe that both parties are allowed these nasty weapons, or does he reserve the right to threaten, put down, and name-call for himself? Crucial. Not that that behavior is acceptable in any case, but I think his attitude about it says a lot about whether he's fixable.

Carolyn Hax: Interesting theory, thanks.

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Atlanta: For Sweatpants Girl: Willingly putting yourself in an awful situation in order to prove to yourself that you can withstand emotional punishment is not a noble, independent, or emotionally toughening thing to do. It's not strength at all. It's foolishness. You're ceding control of your relationship to someone else and then claiming points for staying in it. You need to get out. Now.

Carolyn Hax: Another rally from the galley, thanks.

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...: My best friend met (and slept with) a guy on a cruise. They happen to live in the same city, so when she came back she assumed something would happen between them. They haven't seen each other ONCE in the eight weeks since (despite living only 15-ish miles apart), but she talks about him incessantly like he's a serious love interest or even a boyfriend. I've seen her reject attention from other guys since then out of loyalty to the cruise guy, who communicates with her only by occasional text message - just enough to keep her believing something might happen. What's my responsibility as a friend here? How long do I have to keep listening to her gush about this guy she spent three nights with?

Carolyn Hax: I think this is where one is allowed to say, "Get your head out of your [porthole]." That's what true friends do.

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For the HPV Diagnosee: I note, too, that the writer writes she did not "lose her virginity" until she was 29, and wonder if that choice of terminology and the reference to feeling "dirty" because of a very common condition is deserving of any introspection. In other words, I get something of a linkage between sex/risk/"dirtiness" - I know, words are only words, but I wonder if it would be helpful for her to focus on her words/attitudes, not just the facts re: the prevalance of HPV -might help with the blame she seems to be attaching to herself and the condition.

Carolyn Hax: I think you're right to pick up that it's tied into the virginity. I'd add that the breakup matters, too. We don't know that this just-ended relationship was the loss-of-virginity one, but that would make sense. "I waited 29 years for my special someone and all I got was this lousy virus."

This love business is not for the faint of heart.

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My husband believes that all couples have arguments that involve name calling, threats, put downs and demeaning statements.: Not all couples, only those headed to Divorce Court. Or Criminal Court.

Carolyn Hax: Or 60 years of hell. This pairing has many outcomes (not one that I'd wish on anyone).

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Somewhere, Va.: So...how do you tell someone who's emotionally abusive from someone who's just a bit of a control freak? It's easy to spot the more egregious examples out there (people--ok jerkfaces--who limit your movements, actively insult you, and so on), but what about more subtle examples?

Carolyn Hax: It's more about your comfort level and your own vulnerability to control than anything else. If you feel yourself (1) pressured to conform to someone's preconceived idea of you, and (2) fearful of resisting that pressure, then you're not in the right relationship for you. There's actually no need to apply labels.

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Atlanta: I was my boyfriend's date to a wedding, where I met his entire nuclear family and many close friends. He and I have been dating for over a year, are exclusive and have exchanged I love yous, yet he introduced me to everyone as "my friend _________" and went out of his way to not be affectionate with me at the wedding. It was clear that he did not want his relatives to treat me as his girlfriend, but I have no idea why. I haven't yet found the words to ask him to explain himself, but is any explanation good enough?

Carolyn Hax: Sure, you never know what might have been on his mind. Find your spine, and ask. Your [er, hogwash?] meter will take over the heavy lifting from there.

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Is it easier to be unhappy?: I recently read one of your columns where you said it was easy to be unhappy. Do you think it's easier to be unhappy? With now many years of experience under your belt, why do you think people protect their bitterness, anger, weaknesses and past truamas to the end,no matter what they lose? I've watched some people lose almost everything and everyone in order to hang on to what a friend called "their triumphant unhappiness."

Carolyn Hax: I love that phrase, please thank your friend for it.

Yes, I do think it's easier -day-to-day- to be unhappy. meaning, when we're faced with these little decisions about how to perceive something, it's always a little bit easier to blame than it is to celebrate (how often is it "another bleeping meeting," vs. a chance to leave your desk, see some people, scam a donut?), and it's always a little bit easier to put that blame on someone/something else.

Long run, those little easy choices make life -so- much harder, which is what life amounts to when you're pessimistic and/or fundamentally negative. You choose to accept a lower allotment of joy.

The reason I think it's harder in the short run to choose celebration over blame is that you have to take responsibility for more of your own bad outcomes, you have to be grateful for what you have when you're plainly receiving less than someone else, and you have to make a conscious decision to assess individuals and discrete situations solely on their merits, instead of just lumping them all into some category of Things You Already Know. In other words, you have to assign yourself to the role of student in life, instead of the more secure feeling Master of All Knowledge.

Choosing optimism is choosing vulnerability and humility on an ongoing basis, and that's often in conflict with our nature.

It's a theory.

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Seattle: I had a gut feeling, did some digging and found out that someone who works for me told a MAJOR lie. And not even a "useful" lie; it was totally unnecessary. This is not the first time I've had suspicions, but the other times were impossible to prove. Now I am sure she is a pathological liar. How do I confront this person? I have to look into the employment laws and her contract, because I want to fire her. I am so angry, though, that I am having trouble finding the words to confront her. Give me a script!

Carolyn Hax: Look into the employment laws and her contract. This is a business transaction, not a personal one. Repeat to yourself as needed.

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From Carolyn's Inbox: Hi Carolyn.

In Friday's chat, you mentioned and article by Brigid Schulte dealing with the labor intensivity of raising children in their later years.

Unfortunately, I can't find it. Can you post a link in next week's chat?

I also want to say I enjoy the links you've cited in recent chats, the one on bullying was very good.

washingtonpost.com: Nowhere to Go but Home Alone, The Washington Post, September 27, 2009

Carolyn Hax: Ooh, almost forgot this--refers to last week. Thanks, Jodi.

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Maryland: Just found out my 17-year-old daughter is sexually active. Her father, a doctor, has counseled her on birth control, and I know and like her boyfriend, but I still feel very creepy and raw about this knowledge. Considering we've covered all bases within our power, am I overreacting?

Carolyn Hax: It isn't overreacting to -feel- creepy and raw. Any overreaction would be in the way you act on your feelings. It sounds like you're doing your best to handle it responsibly, so, you've got that going for you. Which is nice. (I'm sorry, that was a totally gratuitous movie reference. Anyone?)

All I would add is that you might want to ask yourself if this would be your reaction no matter who her boyfriend was. It might be hard to speculate about that, but it might help to use as a point of reference any similar unwelcome news in the past. Say ... you found out an ex was dating again while you were still not over the breakup, or ... finding analogous situations is tough here, for obvious reasons, but I think if you can conjure one that involves sex, secrecy and a high emotional investment on your part, you'll get close.

The point of the exercise being, if that past reaction tracks with this one, then you can take comfort in knowing this is probably just your way of processing the news. Your daughter is more adult than child now. That's good but tough to hear.

And if your reaction doesn't track with similar past revelations, then you need to ask yourself if you have misgivings about something (I'd assume the guy, but it could be something else) that you need to reckon with.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Carolyn. I'm going through a really rough time with my mom. She and I have always been close, but she has kind of arbitrarily decided to hate my boyfriend. Last weekend we came down to D.C., for a housewarming party, and did not stay with her, due to her dislike of him. However I asked if she would like to have lunch or something - her answer was that she would love to see me, but had made it clear how she felt about him. I'm incredibly hurt. To care more about proving a point than seeing your own daughter (I haven't been home in months) seems monstrous. She has been talking to me like everything is fine, but I am considering not coming home for Thanksgiving. Is this really something I should forgive? I think I may marry this guy.

Carolyn Hax: What are the reasons she gives for disliking him? ("Kind of arbitrarily" tells me nothing.)

What are your reasons for choosing him?

What would you describe as the basis and tenor of your close relationship with your mother?

How does your relationship with your boyfriend differ from your relationship with your mother?

How is it similar?

Surely your mother has disliked someone or been displeased with something in the past. To your knowledge, what is her standard operating procedure in these situations?

These are essay questions for your own use, but I would also like to try to answer, and for that you can just send in the bullets.

I haven't been a (formal) student since 1988. Do they still use bluebooks for tests?

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Negative Nancy: I have a friend who's been a bit of a thorn in my side lately. If I suggest a bar to meet up, she doesn't like it, but if I ask for another suggestion she doesn't have one. And that's just one example - she constantly puts down ideas/points out problems without offering any of her own.

She's never been a cockeyed optimist, but it's gotten to be a drag. I don't really want to make plans to hang out with her, because I know it's going to be a hassle. I've asked if there's anything bothering her, she says no. Should I cut her some slack and assume that it's a phase, or confront her?

Carolyn Hax: I don't know that this has to be a big deal. If you still want to see her (that could be in doubt as her put-downs mount), then start making suggestions in either-or form: "Wanna meet up? I was thinking Bar X or Club Y." You can list 2, 3, 4, whatever works without getting ridiculous. If all of them get a no, then you can go one of two routes: ask for a suggestion, not get it, and then say, "Oh, well, if you change your mind on the ones I suggested, lemme know." Meaning she's in or she's out. Or, you can say, "It's hard to find a place to meet up when you shoot down all my suggestions. I'm trying to spend time with you, not pick the perfect bar."

In other words, either drive around her, or drive right at her. There are merits to both--it just depends on how much you want out of it all and how close a friend you want to be.

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Abusive Men: Carolyn,

I just read your post re: the abusive cycle. Do these men realize that they are doing this? Are they doing it on purpose?

Carolyn Hax: First, I feel I need to point out that women do this too. One of the worst emotional abusers I know is female, pulling this crap on her husband.

Second, "on purpose" makes it sound so premeditated, when I think it's more like an emotional reflex. The would-be abuser (Abuser, or A) has a need to feel in control. That's the abusers' common denominator, and it needn't be conscious.

So, Abuser seeks a mate. A trait that will appeal to A is any sign that the would-be victim (Victim, or V) is a pushover. People-pleasers are prime, since they'll pretzel themselves to make a mate happy, and not even ask themselves whether Abusers have any right to try to change them. They just start pretzeling because that's what they do.

The way to be in control at the beginning of a relationship is to be a one-person love boat. As will shower Vs with attention, professions of love (often/usually premature), gifts reflecting a close (even eerily so) study of V's likes and dislikes; they'll even suck up to V's friends and family, if that's needed to seal the deal. Remember, A needs to feel in control, and that means A can't get dumped by anyone--in fact, it's A who trades on the threat of leaving V (thus making V work harder to keep A happy).

(more) (sorry ...)

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Carolyn Hax: Okay, so, now V thinks A is the answer to dreams, right? Because A has been in the business of V's wish-fulfillment, while also making occasional reference to being hard-to-get/being hard-to-please/havign exacting standards ("sweatpants are a dealbreaker," anyone?)--thereby tricking V into thinking A's opinion is valuable, and therefore having A like you is an accomplishment.

(Ugh, it's painful just to type this.)

Next phase, A has "won" V, and V is thrilled because A treats V soooo well, and V doesn't like just anybody!

That's the lockdown. That's when A feels safe around V--it's usually when there's a marriage in place, because that's a legal hold that A has on V, but it can also be true of living together. Havign a child with V is the ultimate lockdown. Anyway, when A feels oh so safe (remember, that's all A wants, that sense of securtity anf control), A also feels less compelled to suck up.

That's when V starts hearing that A doesn't really like V's friends and relatives, and are you really wearing that ... ? And if V's going out with XYZ, then A's going, too ... or if A can't come, then V has to call every hour, because the first time V went out solo (still thinking this was a great relationship V had with A), A was waiting at home in a near rage over some perceived threat to A's security. So, V will hereafter try to pre-empt rage by calling to check in, by leavig early, eventually by not going at all ...

Do I need to keep spelling this out? As you see, it can all be subconscious on the part of A. A's just protecting that sense of calling all the shots, and leaving nothing to chance.

Of course it's a false assurance, and who wants someone who needs to be stripped of emotional will just to stick around? But it's surprisingly common, in forms from mild to extreme.

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Centreville, Va.: I laughed at your answer to Negative Nancy... You know that's the best way to deal with 3-year olds.... would you like to wear the striped shirt or the polka-dot one?

Carolyn Hax: Believe me, I know.

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From the girl with the boyfriend/mom problem: I tried to answer these as quickly and concisely as I could, even though friends have remarked that my mom and I should have our own soap opera.

What are the reasons she gives for disliking him? ("Kind of arbitrarily" tells me nothing.)

Basically, she feels that he's "not what she imagined for me." She had spent time with him on two occasions with him and declared him "OK for now" but on the third occasion he told my sister to stop yelling at me, and she decided that was inappropriate and controlling.

What are your reasons for choosing him?

He's someone who allows me to be completely comfortable with who I am, thinks my weird quirks are cute instead of weird, and is non-stop supportive of everything I do. He's smart, loves animals, loves me...the list goes on and on.

What would you describe as the basis and tenor of your close relationship with your mother?

My mother is harsh on me - we have one of those relationships where she's always harping on my weight, my job, my appearance, etc. But she has also devoted her life to me and my sister. I also had a lot of health problems growing up that included a lot of major surgeries, so I think that bred closeness between us. She used to be the person I told everything to, but unfortunately now we barely speak.

How does your relationship with your boyfriend differ from your relationship with your mother?

Well all that harping - he would never do it. And gets really mad when she does it.

How is it similar?

He loves and supports me in a lot of the ways she does, and is snarky in the same way that she is. I actually think there's the potential for them to get along really well!

Surely your mother has disliked someone or been displeased with something in the past. To your knowledge, what is her standard operating procedure in these situations?

Yeah, she has disliked and been displeased with A LOT of things. And unfortunately, her reaction is a lot like this. Shut down, refuse to deal with it, and try to pretend everything is ok otherwise. To be fair to her, I've been guilty of letting her get away with it. But she is uncompromising.

Carolyn Hax: Wow! I should be so quick. (Yeah, yeah.)

That sounds like good stuff about your boyfriend. Given that your relationship with your mom is rife with emotional goodies (I swore I'd never use the word "co-dependent" in this chat, so I won't), you still might at least consider counseling to help you sort out which elements of your life are you talking, and which elements are you talking back to your mom. You want your choices to be choices, not acts of defiance. And even the greatest guy in the world won't be the right guy for you if he's more statement than choice.

Up to you.

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re: Negative Nancy: Instead of suggesting locations or events, how about just saying "I want to see you" or "Can I come over?" and see where that takes you?

If a friend is feeling down, what's wrong with going over there with a DVD and some microwave popcorn?

Carolyn Hax: Nothing, and there's a lot that's right with it. Even though I do know that was a rhetorical question. Thanks.

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Gunga de gunga: I really don't know how you spell it. But it's nice to have total consciousness going for you.

Caddyshack, in case I've stretched the reference too far.

Carolyn Hax: Heh, I almost forgot about my gratuitous movie quote. "Caddyshack" it is.

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So You've Got That Going For You. Which Is Nice.: Bill Murray as Carl the golf course groundskeeper in Caddyshack, referring to his conversation with the Dalai Lama - classic!

Carolyn Hax: More specifically. Thanks.

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Mom girl again: Believe it or not, I've begged for counseling - she won't go. She offered to go to family counseling, but only after I threatened to not go on a family vacation. And then she kind of reneged on it by saying that it had to be on a weekend (so that my dad wouldn't have to miss work) and that we couldn't afford it.

Carolyn Hax: Can you go solo? Since this is Control Day (wearing my control-top pajamas and slippers in honor of), it's worth pointing out that counseling with domineering and/or manipulative people isn't always productive, and can be counter-. What makes sense here is for you to talk to someone on your own to help you set and maintain boundaries with a mom who doesn't acknowledge them. It's a project, but it can be done.

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Sweatpants Issue: My husband who is about 15 years older than me has always been clear that I need to keep my looks up. And yeah, we're one of those-He has the money, she has the looks-couples. But I really fell in love with him for more than that. And years later, so much pressure to keep the figure of a 20-year-old bears down on you. Don't settle for someone who will always be focused on your appearance, even if it does seem you love him, whatever because it will just bring pain later.

Carolyn Hax: This makes me ache. I hope you find some peace.

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Baltimore, Md.: How do you nicely tell your father that you do not want his girlfriend at your graduation? I am deeply indebted to him for paying for graduate school but I don't want to feel indebted to the point of having to invite his girlfriend. She is not very pleasant for me to be around and would only be a reminder of that fact that my mother is not alive to be there.

Carolyn Hax: Which impulse is stronger in you, to celebrate your moment, or to thank your dad? I know which I'd choose, and I have an opinion on which choice is the more evolved (and less regrettable) in your case, but you need to come to it on your own.

I'm sorry about your mom. If my own experience is any guide, you will be acutely aware of her absence regardless.

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Redding, Calif.: My finance and I used to have really ugly fights. I mean, we would verbally BRAWL. It was completely unattractive, and made me reconsider whether our relationship was healthy.

About a year ago, after we had a particularly nasty fight, we woke up ashamed and embarrassed by our actions. He initiated the talk by asking me why I thought I fought as dirty as he did. He had obviously done some self reflection on where he had learned his behavior, and had both an answer and an apology for me. I took a few days to think about it, because I needed to come to terms with my own behavior/past influences.

We haven't brawled like that since. Even though we disagree, we both remain mindful of how ugly we can get - to keep the name calling in check. It is a conscious decision that requires us to set boundaries on when/how/where we will have tough discussions.

I share this to let this woman know such behavior can be changed, but it is not easy.

Carolyn Hax: From an early thread, but I missed this the first time through. Thanks for the story.

Reminder, I will post the how-to-fight-clean question on Philes, probably early next week.

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Aldie, Va.: My wife and I have have passed 30, and while we eat reasonably well with a few parties thrown in, we aren't in the same shape as we were at 20. We exercise regularly and are active people. We aren't even what I would call chubby, just not so 'tight' anymore. Anyway, I now buy clothes that fit the current me, but my wife won't give up on her "college sizes", and this stuff now does not flatter her. She always models her new purchases for me for my opinion, but if I am ever iffy on how something looks, she just says, well I like it so it stays. Anyway, I have been taking a few things back when it is possible and buying them in one larger size, and sometimes two sizes up. She hasn't caught on yet, but she will. How much trouble will I be in?

Carolyn Hax: Instead of trying to negotiate with her tender ego--a bad role for any spouse to get into, since you're supposed to be the front line in protecting that ego against a cruel world--I'd suggest sending in a pro. Arrange and pay for (and even lay down a line of credit for) an appointment with a personal shopper at a good-quality department store that specializes in clothing for people who aren't 20.

I probably can't name names, but I can say that one of my favorite players in the NHL is Niklas Backstrom.

With a competent salesperson, that one appointment will get the size issue straightened out, unless your wife is absolutely unwilling to budge. (One letter away from bulge. Coincidence?)

If it involves a long drive, then make it a romantic weekend. Then at least if she discovers your exchange-ploits, she'll be more inclined to forgive.

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For the girl with mom problems...: I have been through something similar. Individual counseling helped immensely in that it gave me the tools to deal with her manipulative BS. (She of course, refuses family counseling or individual counseling for herself.) I do sometimes still let her get to me (she is my mom after all, and I love her!) and overall we have a slightly more distant relationship. But, in the end it has been a small price to pay to be able to look to the future of my life rather than be tethered by her issues that she refused to confront.

Carolyn Hax: Nice nutshell argument for getting a guided tour of the swamp. Thanks.

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i thought it was: gung ga rung ga rung

Carolyn Hax: I hate to let an inaccuracy stand.

Oh, and a few weeks ago, I apparently posted something about -paid- leave under FMLA (read it so fast it didn't register), when in fact the law stipulates that it's unpaid. I forgot about 20 times in that chat to fix it, and so, here it is. A Bill Murray-inspired straightening of the record.

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Blue Books: My department uses blue books, but they have green covers now because they're made from recycled paper. However, they are still called blue books, because it's fun to mess with the children's heads.

Carolyn Hax: How sinister, and how perfect that all these tests start with a blatant factual inaccuracy. Thanks.

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Pacific Northwest: How much credit to you give to the simple act of aging as a method of figuring out what is important in life? I used to think many of the things the writers talk about were important too, but now that I am pushing 50 and have lost some important people in my life, I can't believe I was concerned about those types of things. For example, my dad had a wife who was a bit of a control freak and I was worried about her being at my wedding, but now they are both gone I can't believe that I cared. I would go back to that day just to see them both again. I certainly don't mean to belittle anyone's problems, but maybe if they could project into the future thirty years or so they could see that maybe the issues aren't so overwhelming.

Carolyn Hax: This is what I was getting at when I used the term "less-regrettable." Ceremonial/milestone decisions are best made with an eye to decades from now, though we'll still get a lot of them wrong in spite of that (and ourselves), in the exact way you say--regarding as important things that don't stay important.

To answer your question, I see aging as an agent of perspective only in the extra experience those years bring. Years usually bring experience and experience often brings insight, but those are possibilities, not guarantees.

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Md.- re the girl with the boyfriend/mom problem: Sounds like she's let her mom get away with controlling her because she feels guilty about her childhood illness being a strain. That wasn't your fault. Distance from the mom sounds like a good thing. Your mom (just like any of the people you let into your life) should be supportive, not constantly tearing you down.

Carolyn Hax: Useful take, thanks.

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Carolyn Hax: Graduate-to-be, are you there? And have you made up your mind? Because I have a queue full of opinions from the nutterati, and I'd like to see where you are before I unleash the legumes.

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Over my head: I watch hockey...and now who Backstrom is (but Mike Green is my fav) and have NO IDEA what you were trying to say to that guy!

Carolyn Hax: Think department stores.

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Am I Controlling?: Carolyn, after reading your advice today, I am a little scared that I am controlling of my fiance.

I have tremendous anxiety problems. Over the years I have really worked hard, both on my own and with his incredible loving patience and emotional support, to get to a place where I am mostly okay every day living a relatively "healthy" normal life. It's taken a lot of trial and error and learning a lot of tricks as to what works both for me individually and for us as a family, but he is patient and I fight hard to be healthy for both of us.

One of the things that works best for me though is for him to "check in" several times a day through a text or brief phone call. Now I'm worried that I'm secretly controlling and don't realize it. I don't do it because I don't trust him or worry that he is somewhere doing something I wouldn't agree with; we do it because I feel safer knowing he's okay.

Should we wean this from our routine and try to find something else that works? He has fielded a couple of "you're so whipped" comments from people who don't know me too well, but I've always chalked it up to them not knowing my situation. I'm a little embarrassed and don't advertise that I have a problem.

Carolyn Hax: If you've gotten/are in treatment for your anxiety, and if you and your fiance have come to this solution as equals, and if he sees these calls not as a burden but as a small gift he can give you in return for everything you give him, then I'm inclined to stay out of the mechanics of your relationship. As I've said many times before, couples make their deals.

But if you regard these calls as actual assurances of safety, then that's problematic. And it's especially problematic if you are not in the care of a professional.

Not only do you owe it to the people you love to take reasonable steps to be well (and certainly professional care for an ailment is a reasonable step toward wellness), but you also owe them freedom from the responsibility of being your caregiver by default.

He may be patient and loving and a lovely person, but he's not (I assume) a mental health professional, and it's not fair to ask more of people than they're trained to provide. There are so many friends and lovers serving as caregivers just out of love, and that's a heavy responsibility. The loving thing to give them is a pass, by choosing to shift that responsibility to the people who are trained and paid to carry it.

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Mom's passing.....: Carolyn, it seems to be a Mother's influence chat day! Since your Mom has passed--- how common do you think it is that a parent's (Mom) passing could spark a mid-life crisis in a child. I'm almost 40 and since my Mom passed away last year--it's really crystallized my thoughts on a number of issues that I've been vaguely unhappy with for a couple of years. My parents didn't have a great marriage, but endured because that's what you do---but I've now realized that I can't live like that for the next 30 years. So how do I (and those around me who will be affected) deal with what will seem like me suddenly going crazy out of the blue and making a giant mid-life change like separation or divorce to be the me I want to be and not the good daughter and wife that I was supposed to be?

Carolyn Hax: If you only knew.

I would suggest a grief counselor. That way you'll not only find out how very common it is, but you'll also have a compass through a notoriously stormy time. If you're D.C.-ish, try the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing (www.wendtcenter.org). Hospice organizations are also a reliable bet, and they're everywhere. Hang in there.

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A suggestion for Hax-Philes: I wish the topics in Hax-Philes would expire after a while--a month, say. Otherwise, the conversations get really long and tedious. The older the topics, the more likely it seems that they turn into nasty arguments between two (or a few) people. Ick.

Given what happens, I haven't frequented Hax-Philes lately. What say you?

Carolyn Hax: Seems easy to solve--check in early, check out early. Hell, it's my forum, and I read only as long as it's fresh and rewarding. That can be for 2 pages, or all of them.

But I'll certainly float the idea of closing the questions to new posts after a certain period (while leaving the transcript available for latecomers).

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Re: Baltimore: The only classy way to ask your Dad not to include his GF in your graduation is to say (and only if this is true) "Dad, I've only been given three tickets. I would like it if you, brother and Auntie would attend the ceremony." It's understandable if your tickets are limited that you would want them to go to immediate family. Then you make sure that his girlfriend is invited to your after-ceremony celebratory dinner. Do the right thing, even if it's hard.

Carolyn Hax: Okay, no sign of grad-to-be, so I'm posting this as the most practical, least rabid of the queue offerings. Thanks, everyone.

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Carolyn Hax: I'm whupped. Bye everyone, thanks, and type to you when I get the feeling back in my fingers. Or next Friday, whichever comes second. Seeya.

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Graduate, Md.: I am very thankful to my father but I did not solicit his help for graduate school. He offered and I accepted. My mother actually passed during the first month of medical school so this is a big deal since it will be the first thing. My dad's girlfriend has made no effort to get to know me and at most family events finds a way to criticize me. She actually ruins most things she is at for me. When she does that it just makes me wish my mom was there more.

Carolyn Hax: Okay, here you are--thanks so much for weighing back in. This sounds like a conversation you need to have with your dad. Not premised on, "I never asked you to pay and she's a witch to me," but instead, "I am grateful beyond words, but also in an awkward position on the graduation. Can you explain my [girlfriend] is so critical of me?"

It's quite possible she feels threatened by you, and handles it reprehensibly, for sure ... but might handle it better with an overture from you, instead of the go-away waves you've been emitting.

Anyway, communicate non-defensively with dad. Or, invite her and treat it as a new start. That's my take.

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In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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