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Carolyn Hax Live: Moving for love, Breaking up for a bachelor party, Incessant throat clearing, Revealing your 'number,' Greedy grandkids, 'I will never ___,' Chilling out for the holidays

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009; 12:00 PM

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.

Carolyn was online Friday, November 20, 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.

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.

Carolyn's Recent Columns

Past Carolyn Hax Live Discussions

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Carolyn Hax: Hi everybody, happy almost-weekend before Thanksgiving. Or, happy calm spell before the bird hits the fan.

There won't be any chats the Friday after Thanksgiving, so get it all off your chest now. I'll be back the following Friday, Dec. 4, with the annual holiday fest, so that'll give us a chance to linger over the leftovers.

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You know, the one we call life.: It's almost 12:00! All aboard the StrangeTrain!

Carolyn Hax: That too.

Speaking of leftovers, "strange train" is a carryover from I think the late '90s, when a producer (name escapes me, he has long since moved on) got a little punchy.

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Baltimore: Hi Carolyn! Love your chat and would really appreciate your insights on this question:

I often see people in your chats mention moving across the country with their spouse for a job/school/family/etc. as if the decision were fairly easy to make.

This is the big issue for my boyfriend and I as we discuss getting engaged/married. We are both looking forward to a lifetime together, but we can't agree on a location to spend it in. For a combination of work, school, and family reasons, we're split on where we'd like to end up. Neither of us want to push the other one to compromise, but neither of us want to be the one to compromise either. We don't want there to be any resentment or inequality in terms of who's needs/wants are more important.

Seeing that this seems to be a fairly straightforward decision for other couples makes me wonder if this is a sign that we aren't ready to become a married couple, that makes decisions as a unit. Do you think that a strong, healthy, marriage-ready relationship would make this decision easy? And that this is a sign of us not having that? Or is our struggle normal?

Thank You!

Carolyn Hax: Back to front:

Your struggle is normal;

Some elements of your struggle suggest you're not ready to make a life commitment to each other ...

But some couples in strong, healthy relationships do also struggle with decisions like this;

For that reason, and for a few others, I would not characterize this as "a fairly straightforward decision," not by any stretch. In fact, in may cases the couple's home town becomes as significant as a third member of the marriage;

You're right not to want any resentment or inequality in the marriage, but it's possible to get so caught up in line-item fairness that you miss the point of being together. If you don't see his needs as not just equal to, but virtually indistinguishable from your own, and vice versa, then you still haven't reached the level of intimacy that I would suggest you take into a marriage;

The real ding!-ding!-ding! evidence of that is that neither of you wants to be the one to compromise. When both of you want to make stupid sacrifices to please the other, then you've reached the sweet spot of intimacy. And when each of you keeps the other from making that stupid sacrifice, that's your confirmation of arrival.

I think that covers everything you wanted except an actual way to make your decision.

For that, I would suggest that both of you let go of your current notions of what it would mean to "win" this tug of war. It's an extension of the classic "be careful what you wish for" advice. Chances are, both of you have legitimate reasons for wanting to settle in Place A or B. But when you start making your cases to each other, it's natural to bring in other arguments for A or B that are more for the sake of bolstering the original argument, and not as legitimate or essential as you make them out to be.

These are the things you need to identify, and surrender. These are the ways you need to open your minds to each other's ideas.

And if you're worried that you will open your mind and he won't, then we cycle back to the "you haven't reached the necessary level of intimacy" problem. You know you're there when you -know- the other person has your back. Even when you're disagreeing about something.

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Strange Train: I haven't taken it, but I hear there's a Hot Mess Express running on that same line.

Carolyn Hax: You haven't? I thought everyone got on for at least a couple of stops--if not in mid-to-late adolescence, then when a delayed adolescence kicks in.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: My boyfriend of 13 years has a daughter who is getting married next summer. His ex-wife had the bride-to-be inform me that I can come to the wedding but I cannot be in the wedding pictures. Also, that she won't be able to talk to me in front of her mother. Should I go? (Just to give you some background, I came into the picture a few years after they divorced.)

Carolyn Hax: I'm tempted to say, yes, go, because clearly it will be painful for the bride's mother if you do--but that would be petty. Instead I'll say, yes, go, because you belong there.

Obviously the MoB is asking you for ridiculous and insulting concessions, and it would be understandable if you felt that going would be construed as consenting to your second-class citizenship.

However, what she's asking either isn't that big a deal (a get-out-of-posed-pictures-free card strikes me as a gift, but maybe that's just me), or isn't even remotely enforceable (not talking to bride in presence of MoB? she jests), so it's an easily shrugged off set of concessions.

An even better argument for going is that weddings have more than their share of crazy injected into them at the planning stage. Everyone who gets subjected to that crazy has an opportunity to up the crazy quotient by having a strong reaction to it. If everyone instead had a "whatever" reaction to it, the crazy levels would at least be minimized. If you handle this right (patient, forgiving, whatevery), then either the MoB will be the only one worked up over your presence, or MoB will have so little to get upset about that the whole thing will turn out to be a complete non-drama.

BTW, if you do go, please let the bride know that you needn't be on the list of things she has to worry about. There was probably a good deal of dread involved before she spoke to you, and there's probably more to come as the date approaches.

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re: not on the strange train: I'm fairly sure if you think you've never been on the strange train, then you're still on it and don't realize it...

Carolyn Hax: I think that's even more true of the Hot Mess Express. Or whatever it was.

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Moving for Love: Home is where my honey is. For me it really is that simple.

Carolyn Hax: Which is great, and probably true for some people who think otherwise, but who haven't been pushed close enough to the edge to have their minds changed.

However, place can affect people, and so can affect who your honey is. I don't want people thinking they love their mates less just because they have a strong opinion on their location. Simple can easily become complicated without diluting the feelings.

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Speaking of delayed adolescence: My boyfriend just asked me, with a totally straight face, whether we could take "a break" while he goes on vacation for his brother's bachelor party, and then get back together when he gets back. In other words, he wants the freedom to behave like a single person while the strippers and barhopping madness is going on. I have no idea where to begin tackling this one.

Carolyn Hax: Seems like a pretty easy place to start, actually: Do you want a relationship with this man, knowing what you know now? Yes/No.

If yes, do you want an open relationship, where each of you gets to act like a single person for designated periods of time? Yes/No.

If you hit a "no" at either stage, you break up.

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Louisville: The other day, the guy I've been out with exactly four times asked me for my "number." (Not my phone number, the other one.) I was offended that he'd even ask at this early stage, so I didn't tell him. Instead of respecting my privacy, he decided I must be embarrassed about my number or else I would tell him. Is this thing DOA? I know asking that question is a no-no, but is it a dealbreaker? I'd almost be willing to tell him my number, which is normal, if it means getting past this awkwardness.

Carolyn Hax: Gah, no, don't. It's none of his damn business, but that's not the reason to keep it private. It's very important that you don't cave in to people just because they make that the easier option for you. It is a classic form of manipulation: Ask for what you want, and then indicate you're going to make someone's life hell if they don't give it to you. Toddlers do it, adolescents do it, immature adults do it, and abusers do it.

So unless you want to be in a relationship with a toddler, an adolescent, a boundary-challenged man-child or an abuser, please tell him you're not interested in seeing him any more.

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Does anyone get to choose where they live anymore?: The first question today brought up one of my own. Are there people who get to choose where they live? And how do they do that? Seriously. It seems like for most people, their job (or a spouse's job) dictates where they live. I moved constantly growing up because of my parents' careers. Now that I'm grown, I've already had to make two major cross country moves for my career. I'd like to pick a place I want to live and then look for jobs there but this doesn't seem practical. How does one do that?

Carolyn Hax: There are countless careers that aren't pegged to any one specific location. Look around you for things that are everywhere. Shops, services, schools, local publications, gardens, homes, cars, furniture, restaurants, libraries. and endlessly on. All of these need to be designed, built, run, staffed, maintained, supplied.

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Moving for love: After ten years of marriage and two children, my husband's industry vanished from Massachusetts and continued in California. I -hated- the idea of moving and he commuted for a year and a half before we finally decided to uproot. I was miserable in California because I'd been reluctant to move and then made it worse by harping on the move... We moved again two years later, to the Seattle area, which I found more appealing (better weather). Last year we moved again, to Portland (OR), which I adore.

If you -do- decide to move--in my case it was move or divorce and I knew I didn't want a divorce--do it wholeheartedly. It takes time to make new friends, but don't spend all your time calling/Facebooking the old ones to complain... Get a job, volunteer, invite everyone you meet over for coffee. Just do what it takes to settle in. Even though it's painful and annoying.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, bet this helps.

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What "number" are we referring to?: Why so cryptic?

Carolyn Hax: Sex partners. It's pretty routine discussion fodder around here, so there was no need to be cryptic out of respect to our sensitivities. So, I would guess it was about the letter-writers' sensitivities.

If true, that squeamishness would be another powerful reason for LW not to cave to pressure: It suggests vulnerability to such pressures, which gives the letter writer lower defenses against manipulative people.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: How can I communicate, in polite or humorous words, to my employee that her incessant throat clearing is distracting, to say the least? Due to space limitations, we work within close proximity - without office doors; concentration is impossible.

Carolyn Hax: Have you ever needed to clear your throat and not done it?

Whatever she has--a cold coming on, allergies, a nervous tic--it's probably safe to assume it isn't a matter of choice. You can either bring her a glass of water, or find a way to concentrate through it.

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Washington, DC: Hi Carolyn, A very close friend said she was never going to do XYZ and now, nearly a decade later, she is doing XYZ. I was thrown by this decision. I thought she was the type of person to stand by her principles and what she believed in and not do something based on what society or someone told her. Or, she was lying to me the entire time, and to herself. Either way, I couldn't stand by her decision, or at least, what her decision proved to me.

We are no longer close friends. I don't regret my decision not to be friends anymore because we had already been having a lot of other problems. But I do wonder if I was right to feel the way I did about what was ultimately her decision and her life. Is it ever okay to feel the way I did or react the way I did?

Carolyn Hax: Honestly, I can't answer you without knowing what XYZ is. Depending on what it is, you're either heroic and principled, or punitive and petty. Or a lot of milder things in between.

To see for yourself, try this exercise: In place of "do XYZ," plug in "divorce a spouse for having a disability that inconveniences her." Now plug in, "mix plaid with paisley."

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No City, No State: My husband and I had a huge fight that started when I accidentally dropped a full glass of water on the living room carpet. Husband's initial reaction was to get mad -- not at me, he kept insisting, but at the situation. I didn't handle it well and started crying, which at first upset him more (he said "Aren't I allowed to react in the way that I feel?"). Eventually, he started to calm down, I was able to explain my feelings, and he started to feel really rotten. This led to a discussion of, what if we had a kid who spilled? I could see him struggling to understand my view, that reacting that way to a kid would not be right, while remembering his natural reaction.

After several days I can see him still struggling with this. We saw a commercial in which a kid spilled juice and the dad's reaction was to spill a little too, and my husband started crying, saying he wished he'd reacted that way to me.

We've just been starting to talk about having kids, something we both want, but this experience has terrified me. He seems to hear and understand my feelings, yet at one point he admitted "I don't know if my first reaction could have been anything but angry." Is there any hope for us? I feel really lost and would appreciate any counsel or perspective you could offer. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: There's a lot here to suggest you have a real concern about his ability to be a loving and flexible, vs. knee-jerk punitive, parent. But I'm not going to tell you that someone can't be a good father based on one spilled glass of water. It's one piece of damning evidence, not an open-and-shut case.

Because you're married to him, and so presumably have witnessed his day-to-day behavior in many different settings and under different levels of pressure, you have a whole pile of evidence to work with that I don't. You also have some idea, I hope, of his background--for example, whether he came from a home environment without pity, where the slightest crumb on his mother's white carpet meant the silent treatment all week.

These are what will tell you where he is emotionally right now; his disposition and attitude will tell you of his willingness (and to some extent ability) to address any problems in order for him to have a healthier set of reflexes; and your gut is what will tell you whether you have any business raising kids with this man.

If you struggle to make out the message in any of these, then please get a professional to have a look at the situation. In fact, given the sky-high stakes (reflexive anger plus babies) I feel I have to recommend counseling no matter what. take the time to find someone good, and start digging.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: My grandmother recently passed away and left a fairly decent size inheritance to my mom, who was her only child and has been her guardian for the last 10+ years of her life. My siblings and I had the fortune of living nearby to my grandmother during her later years and included her in family get-togethers. Not that I don't think my parents should receive the lion's share of the inheritance, but feel my grandmother would have wanted her adult grandchildren to also benefit. I've voiced my opinions to my parents who are retired and were comfortable before receiving the inheritance. My wife is incensed that I received no portion of the inheritance (nor did my siblings supposedly).

Carolyn Hax: Yuck. The money was your grandmother's, and she gave it to your mom. Period, over, done. The money is now your mom's, legally and morally, to do with as she pleases.

If you had just loaned your parents a substantial sum and were having trouble making ends meet because of it, then I might see the logic in going to your mom to request the share you felt you deserved. And if your wife had been your grandmother's guardian for the last 10-plus years, then I could see her being hurt by the exclusion from the will, even angry.

But you invited Grandma to Sunday brunch occasionally, and now your wife is "incensed"? Wow. She isn't looking pretty from here, nor are you for your appeal to the bank of Mom.

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Spilling water = angry?!?: Please help me understand why this isn't a HUGE red flag. What an inappropriate reaction! This guy sounds a little scary.

Carolyn Hax: This is a huge red flag, and I never meant to suggest otherwise. I just want the wife to broaden her focus from the incident to the whole picture. There's more here, a lot more, and where is it? If she missed the lead-up to this incident, then that is significant information about her state of mind/emotional health. She needs to look at the pile of evidence, methodically, now that the dropped-glass incident has shaken her awake. Someone else posted a comment that he needs anger-management counseling; yes, but she needs counseling too. There was no background, no list of similar blow-ups--and as you all probably know from reading this stuff for a while, it's rare to see just one example. Thus the high stakes, thus the counseling.

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XYZ: Sorry - it's just hard to explain. We are both Asian but born and raised in the US. She was the first Asian person I met that I liked, and we bonded over not really fitting into our culture and being different. I was really happy to find someone who thought like I did about certain aspects of our culture and we vowed we would be true to ourselves and not succumb to cultural expectations. She was always more vocal about it than I was, and now she's decided she wants to be a whole different person. She wants to do all those things we made fun of in the past. I have much more respect for the culture and have reconciled more to the idea of being different than what has been expected from me, but I still don't want to do those things and I still don't like what it represents. Basically, patriarchal, antiquated notions of what children, in our case daughters, must do out of familial and traditional obligation, regardless of our happiness. I felt all alone again, on the outskirts of our society, and doubting more than ever about my own decisions not to do what my family expects me to do.

I didn't really want to get into this because of the cultural aspect, but I hope that's enough explanation. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: That's enough, thanks. Still, it doesn't elicit an automatic answer, a la "yes she sold out" or "you have to respect her choices." There's so much nuance to a change in life course that I don't think even you, her once-close, now not-so-close friend, can draw conclusions about her decision without getting her side of the story.

Was her rejection of these traditions originating all along in the kind of hate that lies right next to love, whereas yours had more clinical distance? Did she have an epiphany resulting from some other big change in her life? Is your resentment more about your feeling abandoned than it is about your assessment of her principles?

I would say that you're more than within your rights to decide she isn't much of a friend anymore--especially if your friendship was more one of timing and like-mindedness than one of deep emotional connectedness. But if you do have have felt a strong connection to her, it might be worth the effort to try to understand why she made this change, instead of just condemning it out of hand.

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Uh-oh...: ...looks at plaid trousers and paisley blouse... this is bad??

Carolyn Hax: No no, you have the flair to pull it off.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: This feels like an absurdly specific question, but it's emblematic of a kind of question about politeness and courtesy that I have sometimes. I'm in college; sometimes, after class, a friend and I head over to a certain cafeteria to have lunch together. Her boyfriend lives nearby, so my friend tells me to go ahead while she uses the boyfriend's bathroom and fetches him to come have lunch with us. The problem is that this boyfriend-fetching enterprise often takes FOREVER. On multiple occasions, I've been completely done with my meal by the time my friend and her boyfriend show up. She always apologizes for keeping me waiting, but then it happens again. (From what I know about their relationship, I gather that the delays are caused either by spontaneous makeouts or by her coaxing him out of a bad mood to come to lunch.) I find this more annoying than I feel I should.

My friend is normally the most considerate, courteous person I know; she would be mortified if I told her how cranky I get waiting for her to show up. The thing is, even if I were to bring it up, I have no idea how I'd even phrase it. I don't want to embarrass her by bringing it up spontaneously when the boyfriend is there, but it seems weird to be all planning and calculating to tell her later, "You know how sometimes when we have lunch it takes you a while to go get X from his room? I find that irritating." Part of me thinks that given how great this friend is normally, I should forgive her the tendency to sometimes make out with her boy for a little too long. But this part of me is having trouble convincing the part of me that is repeatedly sitting alone at lunch, wondering when my friend, who was just with me, is going to join me. I cannot believe how much brain real-estate this is taking up, but I just don't know how to handle it.

Carolyn Hax: Yikes. next time she tells you to go ahead without her, say, "Why don't you just call him? When you go up there, I end up eating alone while I wait."

That's for you. For your friend, if she happens to read this:

1. Stop "coaxing" your boyfriend out of a "bad mood." You might as well be diapering a baby. (Alas, babies eventually grow out of diapers, where big babies often don't outgrow their enablers.)

2. Stop ditching your friend to go make out! Cheez. Either excuse yourself from the lunch date, or skip the boyfriend visit out of respect for your friend, who needs to grow a spine but who, until she does, isn't going to tell you how rude and annoying she finds your little detours.

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Wowville, Md.: Carolyn, so glad you're still on. Please help me figure out what to say to my sister who got a tattoo yesterday. I have 2 myself so have no problem with tattoos. However, it's HUGE. Big black lettering on her back huge. I think it's awful but she loves it and keeps asking "Isn't it great? Dontcha love it?" My only response thus far is "wow, it's bigger than I imagined." Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: "Do you love it?" [she presumably responds affirmatively] "Then I love it for you."

Repeat as needed.

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A very close friend said she was never going to do XYZ and now, nearly a decade later, she is doing XYZ. I was thrown by this decision.: Sometimes people really don't know how they'd react to a certain situation until they are in that situation and forced to make a decision. Pregnancy, for example. I have a friend who was a very outspoken on abortion (she was vehemently against no matter what he situation). When she got pregnant due to failed birth control, she got an abortion. I do not blame her for doing something she said she'd never do. When she said that she really didn't know what she was going to go through, and how tough this decision was going to be.

Carolyn Hax: This is a great point, thank you.

I will add, though, that there's a sell-by date to the grand pronouncements and vehement oppositions, especially to things outside one's sphere of experience. If people in that "10 years later" mode, who are now at least a decade deep into their adult lives, and have presumably shared or at least witnessed up close the lives of many and varied others, and they're still going out on that "I'd never ... " limb, I reserve the right to a private, "Yeh, good luck with that."

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Ariz.: Hi, Carolyn. How does a female decide if or if not to change her name upon marriage? I just got married, and I cannot make up my mind. I see valid reasons for both choices, and while I've kept mine until I reach a final decision, I go back and forth on it often.

p.s. I find it totally irritating that men do not generally deal with this issue.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, they do deal with this issue when they choose to, and some do choose to. (Yay to all of you.)

As to how women decide, it's really too personal a decision to say. The decisive factor can be personal attachment to (or loathing of) one's name, professional considerations, considerations for future/hoped for children, a desire to preempt confusion, or even a complete lack of interest in all of the above. It's not a statement, it's just how you want to introduce yourself, and if you run across people who want to make a statement out of it, okay, they can have their statement if that makes them happy.

So instead of your valid reasons (which can be a valid way of deciding!) I would say just ask yourself, "What would I most like saying when I say, 'Hi, I'm _____'"?

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I said I'd never...: Live in the suburbs, be a stay-at-home mom, go to law school or go on a cruise. Ten or so years later, I've done all of those things.

I grew up and realized that life is about having a broad perspective and doing what is right for you in the situation. It's also about expecting more from yourself (law school), loving other people immensely (staying at home), realizing what's practical (suburbs) and sometimes, pleasing your mother-in-law for five days (cruise).

I love being with my kids, I loved my legal job, we live in a fabulous neighborhood and that cruise was a great way to get to know my in-laws.

I still won't wear mom jeans, though.

Carolyn Hax: Okay, but can we lay off the mom jeans? They are the 00's version of tut-tutting when women "let themselves go"--and I think it's in everyone's interest to mount a lusty defense of letting oneself choose one's own shape and one's own packaging. I mean--some of my favorite moms (and a few favorite dads) are pears in elasticized denim.

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grand pronouncements and vehement oppositions: A recent favorite of these was delivered to me by a childless acquaintance who swore that if she had kids she would never, ever let any of them use a horrible, horrible sippy cup. We are still laughing at that one.

Carolyn Hax: Nice. Howsabout: I know one who swore never to use a stroller.

(Us: "Whe?")

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"What would I most like saying when I say, 'Hi, I'm _____'"? : Hi, I'm Mrs. George Clooney.

Carolyn Hax: The weekend's just hours away. Hang on.

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Pompano Beach, Fla.: Can we please post on Facebook what we thought XYZ was going to be? For instance, I live in South Florida so I at first thought "boob job" and my second thought was "divorce". One would assume in DC first thought might be "vote for a Democrat/etc". I can only imagine California. Hee

washingtonpost.com: Carolyn's Facebook fan page

Carolyn Hax: Actually, in DC proper it would be "vote Republican," but I'm splitting hairs. Go, please, post away--sounds like fun.

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Holiday feelings: Posted earlier, trying again. Any advice for how I can do better at just sitting back and taking the holidays in stride, rather than feeling like it's my personal responsibility to ensure that everything is going smoothly and everyone is having a good time? That strategy just leads to me being stressed out and inevitably stressing out those around me.

Carolyn Hax: How's this: If you're the host, then it is your personal responsibility to ensure that things are going smoothly and that everyone is having a good time (more or less).

Since your history shows that the way you've tried to fulfill this responsibility hasn't worked (see: stressed out guests), it's your responsibility now to try a new strategy. Letting things be? Delegating? Doing more to prepare things in advance? Bringing a Twister set and a disposable camera?

In other words, instead of trying to do better emotionally, maybe your emotions are in the right place, and you just need to do better logistically. That can include backing off and letting more things just happen, because that has a way of luring others into the breach, which can then get them more invested in the holiday itself. Which can make all of you happier.

As can pumpkin pie for breakfast.

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Where's the Thanksgiving Drama: I was really hoping that I would see my petty whiny self in another poster, jerking myself of my pity party. Is everyone happy about their plans? I have much to be thankful for but hanging out with a bunch of television-obsessed in-laws who whine about everything and talk about everyone (yes, that first part is ironic, I know) while my family (warts and all) will spend a significant portion of the day just spelling out the rules of the football game, never actually playing it, eating far more wonderful food than a person ought, and then charades'ing themselves late into the night. This get-together only happens every other year so I'm out until 2011, and even that's only if we can switch the every other from my MIL without incident. She sees Norman Rockwell where everyone else sees Mr. Bates. Tell me I'm selfish. Or at the least, please give me a good attitude perspective. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: The question count is high today, but so far surprisingly low in pre-Thanksgiving angst. I guess the message of abject resignation and stuffing worship is starting to take root.

Here's how I reacted when I read your question, and it's probably all wrong and biased and unhelpful, but trust that it's genuine:

I am so jealous that you have your goofball football rules and great food and charades, and you have it waiting for you every other year if you can swing it. (You can swing it, btw--just double up on the in-laws where possible/necessary when making the switch, to keep them happy).

For various reasons that have nothing to do with anyone's wonderfulness or lack thereof, that's not happening in my family any more, either side. I doubt I'm the only one in that boat. So, cast your misty eyes on 2011 and see "abject resignation and stuffing worship," above.

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Re: Holiday feelings: My wife used to be a HUGE holiday stresser-outer.

One year I proposed an experiment; let's pretend we're anthropologists and we sit back and see what Thanksgiving would TRULY be like if we let relatives live freely in their natural state. Tada, it turned out that everything was fine and nothing was different except that wife actually got to enjoy having company.

If the people you're with can entertain themselves and don't mind a too-brown dinner roll, then there's no need to stress. If they can't entertain themselves and have to have perfect food, then reconsider hosting.

Carolyn Hax: "Let's pretend we're anthropologists and ...": better than Twister. Except to anthropologists, who might just see it as a busman's holiday.

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Northern VA: Hi Carolyn, Help! How do I tell my husband that he sometimes acts like a micro-managing a-hat: he seems to think our 3 year-old should only do what he wants him to do, or what is convenient to him, rather than be an independent being with a mind of his own. Occasionally it spills over to me ala you should do/say whatever -i.e. I just get home and he tells me the favorable comment I should make on his just-finished project). When he does it to me I'm kind of dumbstruck and have a hard time responding; when he does it to our son, I don't want to undermine his parental authority, so I say nothing instead of advocating for our kid. How do I respond productively?

Carolyn Hax: I'm going to punt this to counseling, too. One reason is that if you guys were communicating in a free and healthy and loving way, you could say to him, "Stop being a micromanaging a-hat"--and (a) you wouldn't actually be angry (because your freedom to communicate keeps things from building to the anger point) and (b) he'd be able to handle it as constructive criticism, since he too would know it was funny-serious and not angry-name-calling serious.

But you guys aren't there. Your husband is trying to control things that are not his place to control, and you freely admit you are not calling him on it--probably because you at least sense that the consequences would make you regret speaking up.

The other reason: As you also freely admit, this is impinging on your son's autonomy and therefore growth, so it's serious business. Serious business plus your inability to take steps on your own toward a remedy = call in a pro.

As always, take the time to find someone reputable and compatible, and go alone if your spouse won't go with you.

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Fairfax, VA: With the holidays approaching, I want to know: why is it that there are always so many problems with mother-in-laws? Everyone always seems to hate theirs. I LOVE my mother-in-law, although in all fairness, she is one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life. But in general, why are there always MIL problems? Are people expecting too much or do MILs always have trouble letting go of their children (particularly the boys)?

Carolyn Hax: My hunch is that it's a territorial thing, and so it's at its most pronounced when it's two women (MIL and wife) duking it out over the shared man (the son/husband, obviously).

When you add kids, that commonly creates a unique and challenging setup: The woman who raised the dad watches her grandkids get raised not in the style with which she's familiar and of which she's often (and often rightly) quite proud--but instead largely in the unfamiliar style of the daughter-in-law as handed down from her parents.

This isn't as much of a given as it used to be, now that men are taking a so much greater role in raising kids. Also, too, plenty of MIL/DIL pairs find ways to get along, find common ground, see and adopt and praise the best of what the other brings to the family.

But that still leaves a lot of people who see their child's kids--an attachment for many that approaches mother to child--being raised in a way that seems alien, even wrong. And some people don't have the generosity of spirit, or willpower, or strength of character just to roll with it. And that still leaves a lot of DILs who get so protective of Their Way that they can't handle having a MIL anywhere near their families. Either way, tension and ugliness ensue, especially if the man in the middle doesn't himself have the character to stand up for whoever's right in each particular battle.

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Turkey with a side of yelling: My mom has always been a great and generous holiday hostess. But she would always be so stressed out getting ready for the event. This often resulted in screaming and barking orders at her kids and husband. Now as an adult, the yelling is what I remember most more than the perfect meals and ironed napkins. I'm girding myself for Thanksgiving and I'm not going home for Christmas. So I guess my message to parents who play host to these events is to think about what your kids will remember when they are older. If it takes screaming to make the perfect holiday, the memories will be anything but.

Carolyn Hax: Oh my. I agree with you completely, while still hoping you find room to forgive your mom.

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anthropologists: My friend and co-worker is an anthropologist. I passed along that bit of chat and she said "Funny. And also my life."

Carolyn Hax: Cool. Suggest this:

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Let's pretend...: The actual anthropologists can all go play Twister on the lawn. Binoculars and notepads for everyone else!

Carolyn Hax: Alrighty then. Must go--hope everyone has their high expectations met, and their low expectations rewarded with joy in surprising forms. Or, short of that, with pie.

Thanks for stopping by, and type to you Dec. 4. (Pops is furiously at work on "The Night Before Christmas," 2009 Edition.)

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Spilled water follow-up: Carolyn, thanks for taking my question. I'm sure this doesn't change your answer but just to clarify, while my husband has a temper (and so do I; we argue more than either of us likes), this incident seemed kind of out of left field. It was the tying into kids that really shook me. Frankly, though, I think his reaction shook him, too. And yes, as you guessed, he was raised in what you might call a tight ship, and has a history of abusive romantic relationships behind him.

I was pretty sure you would recommend counseling, and I'm glad to have the affirmation. Just to be clear, did you mean joint counseling? Would it be useful to see someone who's a family psychologist?

Thanks again. This sucks, but knowing more concretely how it sucks somehow makes it a little better.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for following up. I would suggest joint counseling as well as individual, because in joint counseling (esp. in cases like this, where tempers are involved) there's a real chance you'll hold back--even if it's just out of habit from your history of fighting. And, too, you say you have a temper, so this isn't all about him/the two of you together.

I'm glad to hear it was out of left field. The bit about his past is disturbing, but you don't make clear whether he was the abuser or the abused in those other relationships. Either one merits careful attention, but one merits a decision not to have kids (unless and until there's a significant and enduring improvement in his emotional health).

A family psychologist is a fine place to start, but also keep an open mind--it can take a couple of tries to find the right therapist.

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Another anthropologist:: Probably too late for the chat, but as an anthropologist in grad school I spent most of my time sitting back and observing chimpanzees scream, fight, and throw poo at each other. Probably not all that different from some people's Thanksgivings.

Carolyn Hax: On that note ... bye for real.

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Somewhere in the East: In March, I think it was, you printed a plea for help from a couple who had an eight-month-old whose birth, they realized, had been a mistake for them. We could have written that letter. Counseling has not changed our conviction that parenthood, for us, should never have been. Our child is well taken of and in no danger, except that which might come from having more sympathy than love from one's parents. Is there no support out there for surrendering a child older than a newborn for adoption? We've talked our heads off and nothing is changed; what else can we do?

Carolyn Hax: PLEASE please e-mail me--tellme@washpost.com

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