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Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Friday, November 13, 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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Arlington, Va.: My girlfriend has told me that she's finally done "sowing her oats." She cheated on me two months into our relationship (she says we weren't exclusive at that point - I argued that we'd slept with each other and were). I just found out that after two years of dating, she slept with two other guys as well. She cried and told me how sorry she was, but I don't know if I can ever trust her. She says she has an extremely high sex drive, but I don't buy that excuse. How can I rebuild trust between us.

Carolyn Hax: To rebuild trust, the foundation has to be smooth, meaning the bad behavior that destroyed the trust is completely gone.

I don't see how you can regard the bad behavior as completely behind her. She's not "done" if she's still rationalizing (i.e, defending) the behavior, and "I have an extremely high sex drive" is about as juicy as rationalizations get.

For what it's worth, I don't necessarily agree with you that your having slept with her at the two-month point meant you were exclusive (if that's in fact what you were arguing); that's not safe to assume, since different people have different ideas about when a commitment starts.

But her still sleeping with people two years in means crying and saying she's sorry isn't enough to make a credible case for her wanting to change. She needs to own the behavior and the dark part of her that drove her to it, and deplore that side of herself, and articulate the way she wants to be. I don't see any sign of that here. Looks to me like she wants to get safely back in the relationship without doing any of the hard work on herself.

_______________________

Carolyn Hax: And, hello.

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Los Angeles: Carolyn, My husband's assistant, who is also a friend of both of ours, has been confiding to him about her marital, financial and other personal problems. I told him I was uncomfortable with this. Then on the weekend, while her husband was at work and he and I were at home relaxing, she asked him to meet up with her to "continue the discussion." I felt excluded and disrespected, so he canceled the meeting. He later told her how I felt. Instead of apologizing, she now ignores me completely. He wants to remain friends with her and her husband and thinks I should figure out a way to make things right. But I think she still owes me an apology. What course of action, if any, would you recommend?

Carolyn Hax: Does your husband think you did something wrong, or does he think you were right to be miffed but wants you to smooth it over anyway because he's conflict-averse, or does he think both of you are overreacting and he's asking you to be the one to reach out because you're the one he's married to, or ... ?

In other words, his rationale here is everything. Just from what you wrote here, he could be anything from a little misguided to way out of line, and it would help to know which before I go off on a rant. Thanks.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Dear Carolyn, I am a 35 year-old single woman with lots of loving friends, 99 percent of whom are married. I have had a few long term relationships, one of which I might have wasted too much time on, and I am struggling now to meet someone special. Part of it is that I find online dating tedious and false, which rules out a giant avenue for meeting men, I realize. But I prefer connecting the old-fashioned way (I'm not on Facebook, either), and my experience has taught me you can't identify a potential match based on a two-dimensional photo and a self description that tells little about how two people might relate.

Another part may be that I am independent and rather self-contained, okay doing things on my own and in some ways enjoying the freedom that brings. It could be that I appear aloof when I'm by myself in public, but often when I become aware of men noticing me, they seem to be the guys who are interested in the way I look, not in ME.

My well-meaning friends offer little in the way of advice beyond suggesting every single guy in the vicinity or suggesting I wear tighter pants. But I'm tired of playing the hoochie mama and I don't want to go on a thousand first dates, I just want to meet someone who I can relate to, who GETS me. And the only man who has ever really gotten me is married (a whole other story).

I'm not sure if I'm looking for advice here or someone to just commiserate. Part of me really rebels against the societal stereotype of single women and the subtle validation a woman gets by "having a man".

Carolyn Hax: The parts of you need to have a long talk to figure out what you want, why, where your anger fits into it, and how you can dismantle that anger and heave it into a Dumpster.

Yes, you're right that online dating sets up a false dynamic, and that photos and profiles are no way to grasp the entirety and subtleties of someone, and that Facebook is shallow. But when you get into, "when I become aware of men noticing me, they seem to be the guys who are interested in the way I look, not in ME," then you betray yourself as having your defenses up so high they're blocking out all the light.

Of -course- someone who doesn't know you will initially find you interesting for the way you look. That's not as bad a thing as the don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover people would like to think. There are people out there who will take a second look because someone looks interesting, unique, natural, confident, creative, gutsy, refreshingly un-made-up, or whatever other qualities pass the "real me" sniff test. It's not as if surfaces are meaningless; they're just incomplete.

So of someone finds your surface attractive, maybe instead of ruling them out for their interest in your appearance--which, I could argue is just as much a shallow, surface-based prejudice as the one you're condemning them for--instead give them the benefit of the doubt, and see whether they found attractive in your appearance the hint of something more lasting and substantial--like the aforesaid confidence or creativity or guts.

And if you're looking for someone who GETS you, then GET yourself into some things you like to do on your own but that also put you in regular proximity to other singles. That way, if you meet someone you like, then you're with someone you like, and if you don't, then you're being your single independent self and doing something for no one but you.

In other words, less energy on how everyone's letting you down, please--your ex, dating sites, social networking sites, men, your friends, the married guy--and more on doing what works for you, come what may.

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re: Arlington's girlfriend: How should she address her behavior? Counseling? Does this fall under the sexual addiction category that would require a specialist, or is this just a general therapy issue?

Carolyn Hax: It doesn't have to be either, if it's just a choice to satisfy herself in a way that seems appealing at the moment. I really didn't detect any remorse in his description of her teary "I'm sorry"--it really came across as, "Just don't dump me." If it's just a choice, then all it takes is for her to 1. stop wanting to be this way, and then 2. stop being this way. Someone who passes it off as "wild oats," and then "a high sex drive," is already pre-justifying the next time she strays, suggesting a lack of will to look inward and figure out what's wrong.

If it is something she regrets and doesn't like about herself, but it's also a compulsion that has resisted her prior efforts to change, then I would suggest therapy with someone who at least has solid experience treating sexual addiction, if not necessarily specializing in it.

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Washington, D.C.: Great boyfriend, but I am divorced and he's never been married. I love having a steady boyfriend and if I were to get married again it would be him it's just that I am in the let's take it slow what's the rush lane and he's driving the autobahn to the altar. I know it's probably not fair to hang on to him while I figure it out but I've had two years of freedom and I'm not too sure I'm ready to give that up but I also don't want to lose a great guy in the thought process. What to do to get off the fence?

Carolyn Hax: Nothing. Fences make for very uncomfortable long-term seating, and if you've been there a while, then, sure, it's worth asking why neither side looks better than the other.* But if you haven't been there long, then it makes sense just to accept that you're there for a reason, that your indecision is legitimate and justified, and wait to see if the answer comes to you on its own.

By the way, that he's on the autobahn to the altar is reason in itself to watch from the fence. Stores use limited-time offers to nudge people to buy whether they're ready or not; do you really want sales pressure to be the motivation behind your life partnership?

*If both freedom and a mate look like equally appealing choices, then -always- choose freedom--if only because that's the decision that's far easier to reverse in the event you make a mistake.

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Halfway to Divor, CE: Five months ago a friend left her husband. They'd only been married about 18 months, but within six weeks of the wedding she was dropping by for long spells of crying that she'd made a horrible mistake. They've both got issues, and kids, and they probably moved too fast, but she decided to stick with it for at least a year. They saw a therapist together, she continued to see her own therapist. It seemed like such a relief when she finally left--she'd been so miserable and the whole relationship (post-wedding) really brought out her very worst insecurities.

And now I hear through the grapevine that they've been sighted in public together. I don't know if they've just decided to be friends, or are working on getting back together. I don't want her feeling like she needs to slink around or not tell me, but hearing this, I was honestly overwhelmed with dread. I'm not sure that I can fake being supportive. Am I just going to have to suck it up and start practicing my fake-supportive smile for when I see her next.

Carolyn Hax: She'd have less reason to slink around if your default response were to think, "Well, let's see what's up and whether they've fixed their problems before I put on the fakey face."

Since you didn't have the default, then it's likely one of two things is going on here: 1. You tend to be quick to see the negative, or 2. She has a history of waffling her way through these lousy relationships and your well of optimism about her choices ran dry years ago.

The former means some self-examination is called for, to see if you've gotten a bit too cynical for your own good; the latter means it's time to examine this friendship, to see if it has run its course.

Either one beats fake support.

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Forest Hill, Md.: A couple we've had a long relationship with have suddenly started to treat my husband and me in a very casual and thoughtless manner. The latest blow was being stood up for dinner at a restaurant, where we waited for an hour and a half, with no phone call to let us know what was going on. Eventually we left. I found out later that they had been held up in traffic,and despite having a cell phone with them, never thought to call the restaurant to explain. This couple is my 83 year old dad and his long-term significant other, who is 82. They don't seem to be losing mental cognition, and are quite independent, healthy and mobile. My husband says it's "diminished capacity" and I should start getting used to it. How does one do that, exactly?

Carolyn Hax: Um. Did you call them?

I know a bunch of you are going to weigh in with answers, but I'm waiting on this bit. Thanks.

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Tall and short of it: I have never understood the "a man has to be taller then the woman" thing. Can you please explain why it is so important to so many people? I just don't get it.

Carolyn Hax: I don't know. I always figured it was a caveman protector/provider thing--or its flip side, the cavewoman not wanting to feel large--but I can't say that I get it either.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Single person here who would like to know what "freedoms" I enjoy now that I will have to sacrifice if I get married, aside from the obvious freedom to sleep with anyone I want. My married friends don't seem like prisoners to me, but maybe I'm just not fully aware of the terms of their imprisonment.

Carolyn Hax: I don't see it as imprisonment, but there are limits to what married people have a right to do or decide unilaterally. They can't spend big money on whatever they want; they can't just plan a vacation for themselves wherever and whenever they feel like it; they can't just up and change careers, or quit a job, or choose to relocate, or whatever else without considering/discussing the impact that change will have on their mate. They can't just paint a wall their favorite color without asking if the other likes it. Hell, you can find yourself in the middle of a faux pas just by accepting plans on the spot without making sure your mate didn't already schedule something for that date.

When it's a good partnership, these aren't burdens, they're privileges. But they are compromises in one's freedom all the same.

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Stick, In the Mud: Dearest Carolyn,

My 3-year-old daughter has just been invited to a classmate's birthday party, to be held three weeks from now. The prickly part for me is that it is a heavily-themed princess party ("bring your princess dress-up clothes!"), to be held at one of those all-inclusive sixth circle of Hell places for kids.

Aside from my personal aversion to the play/party place, our family has tried not to expose our daughter to the princess-stuff. I have a very hard time with the fantasy part and the female expectations that subtly play upon girls from an increasingly early age thanks to media. From my position, I'd prefer not to expose my daughter to this party. My daughter would love it, no question. What do you think?

Carolyn Hax: Your daughter would love it, no question. Why does it have to be more complicated than that?

Please don't take away two hours of kiddie bliss just because it's not what you want for her during the other 22 hours of her day. Those other 22 hours X 365 X 18-21 years will have a much more lasting impression on her than a brief exposure to flashing lights and glitter.

Besides--I haven't yet heard anyone fret that a bowling party will turn girls butch or taint them with a lifelong yearning for used, color-block shoes, so I would advise applying the same lack of significance to this.

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Anonymous: Can a couple survive a canceled wedding?

Carolyn Hax: Depends on the couple.

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El Paso, Texas: Let's say someone (adopted long ago) found out that a half sibling wants to meet/get in touch/whatever. What is the incentive to meet this person? Is there an obligation when allowing a blood relative in your life? Is it hurtful to say to no? Are you missing something then?

Carolyn Hax: I'm going to have Jodi (hi, Jodi!) post this to the Hax-Philes, because I think you'd benefit from a range of responses, instead of the two or three I could post here.

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Arlington, Va.: My husband has very erratic sleeping habits, which usually means he will stay up until 3 a.m. or later, and then crash until 10 a.m.--even on workdays--then work late to make up the hours (fortunately his job allows this). Prior to having a baby, this wasn't really a problem. But now it means that when the baby wakes up in the mornings, I take care of her 100 percent of the time until it is time for her nanny to arrive, and in the evenings, I feed and bathe her, and my husband might get home around the time I am putting her to bed. I explained that his sleeping habits are a problem for me, and he said that he would be willing to see a doctor if I really want him to, but he has done the sleep study thing before (about 10 years ago), and doesn't want to be drugged, and that basically this is how he is wired.

So if he has already predetermined that a visit to the doctor would be a waste of time, should I push it, or learn to accept that it is going to be my job to always take care of our baby in the hours before and after work (which is getting exhausting)?

Carolyn Hax: "You are missing out on our child, our child is missing out on her father, I am missing out on an equal partner--so, yes, I do really want you to make an effort to address your sleep problem in a way that doesn't shift everything onto me." His life is different now, treatments for sleep disorders may well be different now, and thus his excuses are weak now. Stand up for yourself and your family. You'd actually be doing him a favor in the end.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Forest Hill sounds kinda ridiculous, like she's just waiting for her dad to mess up so she can accuse him... of being 83 years old. You can tell by the way the letter is structured: the fact that it's her dad doesn't even come in until the very end, which means she wants vindication first before introducing mitigating factors. It's like asking "I don't understand why my friend can't drive well. Oh, by the way, he's blind."

Carolyn Hax: That's how I read it, thanks. Still waiting to hear back.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Dear Carolyn, I hope this doesn't seem petty compare to the serious nature of many of your posts, but I've been pulling my hair out over this. I just sent out birthday party invitations for my son's second birthday. My MIL responded that she was happy to receive an invitation considering she was not invited to his first birthday party. I did not send out formal invitations to his first birthday party (it was a brunch at our house with my family). I did not formally call her up to invite her because she said she would be out of town when I mentioned the brunch several weeks prior. She said she still should have been invited. Maybe this is better suited for Miss Manners. But the comments about this from my MIL are driving me to go take a swim in bacon pants.

Carolyn Hax: She should have been invited--maybe she would have liked the chance to change her plans to be there.

I certainly won't defend her strategy of mentioning it a year later--stop peck-peck-pecking and just SAY it, "You really hurt my feelings last year," and be done with it. But the way you phrased your question, it sure sounds like you heard she'd be away, said a private, "Phew," and went ahead with your preferred plan of having only your family. This is your notice: She feels left out, and your "body language" (the written version of it, at least) says you wish you could leave her out more. Be the bigger person--admit you screwed up, and mend the fence.

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To the 35-year-old single lady: I wrote in with a sort similar question awhile ago and asked if I should consider talking to a therapist about it. Carolyn's advice was "why not?" So I went. A year and a half later, I'm in the best relationship of my life. Just a thought. But I do think that if you go talk to someone, you have to be ready to hear whatever it is that person says. It might seem ridiculous and totally off the mark sometimes (and sometimes it is) but you have to go away and really think about it before you decide. I was at a complete loss and had no idea why my romantic life wasn't playing out the way I wanted. I think it was just a few subtle things that shifted in me (definitely some defensiveness coming down) but it worked.

Carolyn Hax: Excellent take on the mind set necessary for therapy to do its job. (Therapist also has to do his/her job, obviously, but can't if the patient remains defensive.) Thanks.

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Buttins, Ky.: Carolyn,

I'm concerned about my newly married sister. After 6 months of dating, she called to tell me they were engaged, and thinking of eloping... completely unlike her usual pragmatic self.

I mentioned a couple red flags to her at the time (i.e., that he read an old diary of hers and then called her at work to confront her about it, claiming he accidentally came across it while cleaning her apartment -- which was just one of several 'trust issues' in the short time they were dating.

Also, he had been In Recovery for less than a year, which after a lifetime of immersion in The Program, I understand is too short a time to begin a healthy relationship.) I also noticed when with them how possessive he was of her. She assured me they were working on the trust issues, and I haven't said a word since.

But now, a few weeks after the wedding, she seems miserable. She is far away, so I can't judge for myself. But she has mentioned that they barely see each other anymore (he took on a second job) and have been bickering. Also, when she had the flu last week and saw no reason to see a doctor, (just felt like riding it out), he became angry and called her "selfish" to expose him to it.

My question is, is this normal for newlyweds? And, if not, should I broach the topic of how unhappy she seems, or wait for her to come to me?

- Can't Stop Being the Big Sister

Carolyn Hax: 1. Stop seeing yourself as the "big" sister. You're her equal. Be her equal.

2. Keep communicating with her, but do not present her with any conclusions yet. You want her talking, and you want her to trust you. She won't trust you if she believes you've made up your mind, be it for her, against him, or anything else.

3. Do not discount the connections between your recovery and her marrying someone in recovery. Substance abuse, as well as the emotional patterns that lead into and stem from such abuse, run in families. If you and she grew up with an alcoholic parent or parents, your best approach might be to encourage her to see someone about that stuff, vs. focusing on her marriage, since it's never the marriage that's sick, it's always the foundation.

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Halfway to Divor, CE, followup: 1) I am a little quick on the negative response and I'm the person who has _always_ chosen freedom instead of a bad relationship, so often I don't have a lot of empathy for "sticking it out".

2) She does have a history of waffling through bad relationships with passive-aggressive manipulative bullies. Except that this time they weren't together long enough before the wedding to sort out that he was the same as her previous long-term relationships. This time they looked blissfully happy (from the outside) until she started to breakdown. And from that moment the dread set in for me, but I worked really hard to be supportive while she tried to work things out for the past year. But I was deeply relieved when she finally moved out.

Thanks for the advice, it's likely I'll either see her this weekend or hear from her soon. I'll try to suspend judgment and just see how she is.

Carolyn Hax: So it's (3) Both of the above! Thanks. Funny how people of your persuasion and hers so often find each other as friends. I guess the generator of eye-roll-worthy relationships needs an eye-roller, and vice-versa.

Since you're honest with yourself about your own contribution to the whine-and-dine dynamic, your best bet might be--once you hear what really is going on--to be more good-naturedly accepting of your role as her designated eye-roller. For example, if does in fact appear she is repeating her usual mistake: "It's hard for me to see what you get out of this, since I hear your complaints and think, 'This is making her unhappy.' But if you are in fact happy this way, then I can accept that. Better that we aren't exactly alike anyway, right?"

I typed that more as an example of internal dialogue, but if you make it conversational, I guess it's a sentiment that bears saying out loud.

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North Carolina: My dad's been diagnosed with a stage four chemo resistant cancer. The progression is leading to poorer and poorer neurological function, mostly in his communication/comprehension abilities. It's heartbreaking to watch, but I am committed to being around him and helping him and my mom as much as possible. I know you understand this heartbreak, do you have any advice on staying present for something that is tearing you apart to witness? I'm also struggling with guilt over having wished my dad would just die peacefully during a recent surgery. Everyone was gleeful/thankful when he came out alright. I was just disturbed at the road he's now going to have to travel. Also, how to stay present for my kids when this situation is all I can seem to focus on? I'm having trouble being the mom who kicks a soccer ball around. Sleep is elusive and I'm reading stuff on his type of cancer online over and over.

Carolyn Hax: I;m sorry.

First, I would suggest getting offline. It isn't helping, it won't help. The only thing it can do is eat time that you don't have to spare, deny you sleep and fray your nerves even more.

If you're open to medical intervention on this front, consider talking to your doctor about your sleep problems. You're no good to anyone if you aren't rested, and your doctor can help you with responsible ways to get the lights out when they need to be.

These two are the precursor steps to the real advice: Clear the decks of everything extraneous, and free yourself to be fully in the moment of the important things that remain. When you're with your kids, -be- with your kids. Let your hard lesson in life's impermanence provide the enthusiasm you haven't been feeling on the soccer field lately. There's also nothing wrong with watching them play, appreciating a little youth in action while you rest a bit, and there's nothing wrong with hugging your kids a trace too hard and a second too long while you get yourself through this.

Likewise, when you're with your dad, -be- with your dad. When it gets too hard to watch, put yourself to work at something that will make him happier/more comfortable/somehow better off. Play music for him, decorate his room with your kids' art, go through photo albums, whatever seems appropriate to his condition at the time.

And when you're struggling with guilt, just stop fighting your awful thoughts and know they're what everyone thinks in these situations. Yes, you wished your dad had died peacefully in surgery. It's not a bad thought, it's a loving one. His suffering haunts you, and you'd rather give him up then have him at such a painful and disorienting cost. That's a compassionate and unselfish thought.

Obviously you don't want to act on your awful but compassionate/compassionate but awful thoughts, but there's no shame in just having them. If you don't have someone you feel comfortable talking to about them, then don't be afraid to enlist a pro.

In general, this is going to be a time of big emotions, and those emotions are going to slop out of their container sometimes, often when you least want them to. The best thing I can suggest is that you just know this is going to happen, know it's going to pass, and feel it all without fighting it so hard.

Take care, and good luck.

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Re: Forest Hill: I don't think she is looking to get mad at her dad, I think she is just having a hard time facing the idea that maybe he isn't quite as sharp as he used to be. She wants validation that the problem is rudeness so she doesn't have to face the prospect of "getting used to" his diminished capacity.

Carolyn Hax: Anger is a notorious defense against pain (and convenient--my distress is your fault!), so, yes, a possibility. Thanks.

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Cleveland, Ohio again: Dear Carolyn, Thanks for your thoughts. Not sure if more details make a difference. My son's birthday fell on Thanksgiving last year, so my family decided to come to our house to celebrate the holiday and the birthday that long weekend (they live eight driving hours away). My in-laws live 15 minutes away, and decided to fly to CA to spend the holiday with my BIL. My husband mentioned that they would be missing our son's birthday when they planned their trip, but they went ahead anyway. She is mad because I (and not my husband) did not formally invite her anyway.

You read between the lines correctly. I do not like my MIL. And I could have moved the birthday celebration to another time, but then my family would not be there. Yes, I chose my family over my in-laws. Considering they see him more often than my in-laws and are more involved with his life, my conscience is clear about this decision.

But I will apologize to mend the fence (and then take that swim).

Carolyn Hax: How about this. The details of what happened (i.e., that they knowingly passed on the birthday to travel elsewhere) do change the answer somewhat. While I still think your MIL is over the line in her targeting your for her displeasure, and I (now) think her son needs to stick up for you here, the substance of your apology should be a little different from what I suggested before. It's not, "I should have invited you," but instead, "I should have realized how important this was to you, and held a separate celebration when you returned."

The good part about this is not only that it's specific to the situation and therefore credible, but it also gives you a chance to say--if you're up to it--"Please, though, in the future, tell me what you're upset about so I have a chance of making it right. A year later, there's just so much I can do."

It's both a bona fide attempt to mend the fence, and an unmistakable lobbing of the ball into her court.

_______________________

Single freedom, Va.: Here's a perfect example for the person who wanted to know what freedoms they'd have to give up - once you're married with a kid, you have to give up going to bed at 3 a.m., because now there are people in your life who are affected (and most likely annoyed) by it.

Carolyn Hax: Picture this as flashing lights, confetti and noisemakers to mark an excellent merging of threads.

_______________________

Three sisters: I had to laugh at the question in today's column about the two older sisters who didn't like to hang around with the little one. A perfect description of me and my sisters growing up! (I was the middle one.) I can't recall what my mom did, but I know we older ones were not terribly kind to little sis. But we're all adults now. Great friends. And that started already in our teens. So, Mom of three -- don't worry so much. Just be kind to them all and understand that this is probably very normal.

Carolyn Hax: Kind, yes, and -fair.- I can't emphasize that enough. Unequal treatment, whether real or perceived, is a killer. Thanks.

_______________________

For North Carolina: For North Carolina,

Call your local Hospice Chapter ASAP. Your father might not be ready to be admitted to hospice care, but I was a hospice social worker and not only can they help you with your father's new diagnosis, they will have a bereavement support group to help you with day to day life and mourning. Furthermore, the staff will be a great help when and if you need additional services.

But if nothing more that to find others who are coping like you, please call.

Carolyn Hax: Excellent suggestion, thanks.

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I know this is kind of silly to be worried about: But I'm hosting Thanksgiving this year(for the first time ever) and am worried that my mother will try to take over on the big day. I have everything well planned (you should see the lists), but can see her coming in and saying shouldn't a, b, or c be done this way or shouldn't we set this up this way. As a side note, I should add that she has been know to walk into my house and start moving furniture around because she things the layout of my house could be improved. A lot of times I just let things go if I think it will cause an argument, but don't really want to giving how much effort I will have put into everything. I want to be able to get her to back off without offending her and starting a fight.

Carolyn Hax: This is not silly to be worried about. You have a mother with boundary-blindness, and you have a significant need for your mother to respect your boundaries. If our sense of self and our relationship with our parents is silly, then what exactly qualifies as important?

The problem you have coming is that working up a big emotional investment in this day with very little (realistic) forethought in protecting that investment. If you've got the mom you describe, then you need to KNOW--as in, not just fear--that your mom is going to barge into your kitchen and make pronouncements, pass judgments and take over. That's who she is, that's what she does.

So now you, with the benefit of this knowledge and a couple of weeks to prepare, need to figure out what you're going to do WHEN this happens. You need to decide, among other things, when you'll say "Thanks, Mom," and keep doing things your way, and when you'll say "No, thanks."; when you will stand your ground or let things go; whether you'll continue to stand your ground if she tries to start a fight; whether you will fight back or walk away; whether you have any allies who can say, "Come on, Mom/Auntie Lou/Mrs. X, come into the living room and tell me all about your trip to Y." And don't be afraid to prepare what you'll say, such as: "Mom, you may well be right about everything, but I want a chance to try this my own way, even if it means I get everything wrong. When I want your expertise, I will ask, but right now I'm excited about doing this alone."

Another noodge-management tactic is to figure out a time-consuming bit of busy work you can assign her when she gets all up in your stuff. Have a few of them thought out in advance, even.

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Rockville, Md.: Dear Carolyn, Is there a polite way to tell someone to stop asking so many questions? Whenver I see my MIL (about weekly), I am peppered with question after question. Often, I am the last one eating at dinner because I have to respond to so many questions. My husband and FIL talk amongst themselves. I think they are relieved to not be the target of the Spanish Inquisition. I have tried one-word responses, changing the focus onto something else, to no avail. Even pleas to my husband have not worked. I am going to have to take this bull by the horns, but want to do so in the most tactful way. Thanks for any suggestions.

Carolyn Hax: Do you ask her any questions? Not sure if that falls under "changing the focus."

It can actually be a nice flourish if you try this: She asks you a question and you, in lieu of answering, say, "Oh, I'm glad you brought that up ..." followed by a question to her. Gives her zero traction. If she persists, you can say, "We always talk about me, and I'm a bit tired of myself as a topic. What's up with X?" You might do better if X is someone not her, maybe your FIL, another child of hers, anything that might get her going.

And if it doesn't, then: "No, really, I'd like the topic to be anyone but me."

I realize Im not addressing the substance of her nosiness, but that's because it could be she's nosy, or that she wants to feel closer to you, or that she lacks receptors for social nuance, or ... etc. So, I;m dealing only with the symptom.

BTW, your husband is half of the bull you need to wrestle here. What's with the once a week visits and no backup, when you're clearly unhappy? A little help is in order, and a lot of help would be even better.

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Stafford, Va.: My 15-year-old son crawled out of his bedroom window yesterday and left a note saying he was not happy with the plans we (his parents) had made for his life. He also said he did not want to have a relationship with us. My wife called him and he lied to her saying he was at home when he was at a friend's home. Later, when my wife got home from D.C., she discovered he had left by way of the window. When she called him at his friend's home, he refused to return home, said something about wanting to be on his own, but would not tell her that anything was wrong or what he might be upset about. My wife is heartbroken and cried half the night. I expect he will return home in the next day or two, how should we deal with him? This is the second time in the last month that he has pulled this stunt.

Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: It's not a "stunt." It's the behavior of someone who is at least weighing the idea of taking serious action to be heard.

Have you gotten family counseling yet? Let him know you want to listen to him and take his concerns seriously--thus introducing the therapist as the third party. You don't have to agree with him or indulge him, just hear him out. He's likely to think the counselor is there just to repeat/enforce the parental party line, so you probably have to knock that down upfront.

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RE: Princess: "Your daughter would love it, no question. Why does it have to be more complicated than that?"

Thanks, Carolyn. And piling on: My daughter became enamored early on with an activity that not only bored me, but I actively dislike. My wife backed me off of discouragement, and I'm so glad she did.

Years later, I still don't like the activity. But that, I realize, is MY problem. My daughter absolutely blooms when she partakes, and her happiness is MY happy.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, well put. A few people responded to the issue in a what's-the-big-deal kind of way, but it is a big deal.

We do need to be mindful of how a culture's messages will affect our children, but there's a fine line between that and rigid parental thinking. The latter is so stifling to kids, and really messes with the way they see themselves, which of course is their primary source of strength--and the very thing most parents have in mind when they feel the need to protect against bad cultural influences.

Which is, like, trippy, man.

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North Carolina: Oh, and thanks in particular for the suggestions about how to handle when things get overwhelming being with Dad. I think I'll copy your entire answer and keep it around to help me think in those moments.

Also, thanks to the 'nut who wrote in about hospice. I had the idea that we wouldn't be contacting them until we were really almost "there". I'm glad to know there's more to the picture. I'll get in touch with them this next week.

Carolyn Hax: I'm guilty of under-recommending hospice. I know about it but always forget. It is, at the moment at least, the most widely accessible resource we have with the most rational and compassionate attitude toward death. This is no small thing given the awkward relationship Americans have with the subject.

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Carolyn Hax: That's it for today. Thanks everyone, have a great weekend and I'll type to you next week.

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re: Stafford, Va.: Maybe this is me being a little too suspicious, but why did the kid have to climb out the window if he was assumedly at home alone? (Mom called to check in.) Just seemed like a weird detail...

Carolyn Hax: Right, I missed that--unless it was about dodging neighbors? Stafford, if you're there, a clarification? tx.

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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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