Carolyn Hax Live: Wife material, bathroom talkers, wedding anxiety, small talk rut, fluffing cats, much more

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010; 12:00 PM

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.

She was online Friday, March 5, at Noon ET 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.

A transcript follows.

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

Past Carolyn Hax Live Discussions

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Carolyn Hax: Hey everybody. Set your DVRs for Saturday Night Live tomorrow--the host is the guy I got to know as Nick's cousin Zachie, a k a Zach Galifianakis.


Cant Win, In: MIL is dying. She has always hated me because I took away her beloved daughter. My wife's sibs have apologized to me for the MIL's behavior many times over the years. So now I am supporting the wife and her sibs, but I am not grieved in the least. Afraid wife will someday turn on me and say 'easy for you, you never liked her'. How do I get my marriage to survive this?

Carolyn Hax: It's a bit premature to be talking marriage survival, isn't it, given that your wife's accusatory turn is as yet a product of your imagination?

Even then--if it does come to pass as you fear, all you have to do is point out to your wife that you love her, and so watching her grieve is by no means "easy" for you.

If that's not sufficient, you can also point out that her mother never liked you, and so you're grieving in your own way--the finality of your never being accepted. The MIL's death is complicated, not joyous for you by any stretch. I could argue you've been grieving since you realized you weren't going to have a MIL who looked out for you. That's a grief you and your wife share, and so it can help you stay connected IF (since this is all hypothetical) the MIL's death strains your bond.


Washington, DC: I'm 34 and have bad anxiety issues which I control (barely) with medications. My husband and I would like to have two kids; we planned on waiting till my anxiety was under control but I'm starting to suspect that will never really happen. Would it be absolutely indefensible to go ahead with getting pregnant anyway?

Carolyn Hax: You know how you are when your anxiety gets the better of you, and you know how often that happens. You also know how available others would be to "cover" for you during a bad spell. And you know what it's like to be a kid and what it's like to have parents.

So: Would you like to have a parent who behaves the way you do?

No parent is going to be a bargain 100 percent of the time; all are human, and that humanity is going to be on display for the kids (probably even more than it is for others). But wanting kids isn't a good enough reason to have them. You also have a responsibility to think hard about the life you'd give them, and try to predict whether that life will be a means to a healthy adulthood, or an obstacle to one. You make your most responsible guess, act on it, and own that choice ever after.


Cleveland Park, DC : Hi Carolyn,

I'm 26, madly in love for the first time ever, and thrilled about it. I try hard not to be obnoxious about it, i.e., don't talk endlessly about my boyfriend when he's not around out of general respect for my friends' stomachs. But I have one friend who seems to feel the need to remind me again and again that (1) most relationships don't last, (2) most men in their 20s aren't ready for serious commitments, and (3) the beginning of a relationship is just a big swirl of hormones. I know these things are probably true, and I don't need to hear them from a friend who is supposed to be happy for me. I've tried asking her not to talk this way about my relationship...didn't work. Time to jettison an old friend?

Carolyn Hax: Maybe, but unless there's context here to say your friendship has run its course, it's possible you're both overreacting, which is survivable. "Thanks for your input, Chuckles/Sunshine/Mr. Smileyface," repeated as needed, can go a lot further in the shut-your-pie-hole department than the earnest, "Please don't talk about my relationship that way," of the lovestruck. Give it a shot, see if it triggers any epiphanies.


Carolyn Hax: Oh, and congratulations! Enjoy it while it lasts. Snarf.


Anywhere: I am in major need of a self-esteem boost. Where does one go for that and/or how does one go about getting one?

Carolyn Hax: Don't stew, do, and do things that you're good at naturally and/or that tangibly benefit others. Exercise where feasible and healthy eating work, too--treating yourself as valuable is a subtle and persuasive gesture.

_______________________ Carolyn is experiencing a few technical difficulties - there will be a brief intermission so she can reboot. Thanks for your patience! - Jodi

_______________________ In the rebooting stage, Carolyn lost the answer she was working on, so there will be some more intermission time. Sorry for the wait! - Jodi


Carolyn Hax: Hi again. I'm back, for now at least--my connection is still funky so I can't promise it won't crash again, but obviously now's not the time to use the unplug-everything-and-let-it-sit remedy.

meanwhile, I lost the question I was working on, just as I was about to post it, so it'll take me a minute or two to reconstruct everything. Sorry about all this.


(1) most relationships don't last, (2) most men in their 20s aren't ready for serious commitments, and (3) the beginning of a relationship is just a big swirl of hormones: So what? I think I'd ask the friend what she is -really- trying to say here.

Because what I got out of her three items was "don't enjoy things that come your way."

Really, nothing lasts. Nothing. Enjoy beauty, whether in relationships, nature, books, art, music, whatever, while you have it. Anything else isn't living, but a premature death instead.

Carolyn Hax: This just brought to mind that great scene in "A Room With a View," in which the Julian Sands character climbs a tree to shout, "TRUTH! BEAUTY!"

I.e., thanks.


"Wife material" : I'm in my 20s. I've been in three major relationships, and each one ended with the guy saying "you're exactly the kind of girl I want to marry someday." What does this mean, if anything? Is it just something people say to soften the blow of dumping someone? I'd rather be the kind of girl someone DOES marry, rather than the one who gets dumped to make way for the next one, so I'm starting to take offense at hearing this again and again.

Carolyn Hax: You really are a cool one--I would have been offended at the first dropping of that line. What a load of breaker-upper-makes-self-feel-better bull.

But since you're a three-time recipient, you need to look at yourself as the common denominator to see whether your own behavior is backing you into this corner. The two usual suspects are taste in mates (do you go after the swashbuckling, the elusive, the driven, and pass by the steady and approachable?), and attitude in a relationship (are you the sturdy accommodator whose own imprint on the relationship is faint at best?).

These are just examples, but they're also common patterns, and they could create an image of you as loving, supportive, hard-working, unflappable provider of stability--or, Cliche Wife. Of course, these traits are admirable in spouses of both sexes, which is what makes this such a tricky thing to spot. Where it goes wrong is when you're pushing your own personality/needs/wishes/quirks aside to present this smoothly likable front. And people who do that tend to leave their mates feeling dissatisfied; healthy people, at least, want to be in a relationship with a full-fledged person, not a spousebot.

Again, I could be off in the wrong direction for you--your problem could have a completely different culprit--but this is just a common reason why things fizzle out for good, likable people, so I thought I'd float it out there.


Chicago IL: But doesn't it matter how long Cleveland Park has been in this relationship? Whether it's a few days or a few months helps to determine if the friend is off the mark or not.

Carolyn Hax: Mmmmmm ... Idunno. Ms. Happypants, no matter how close a friend, is not the person responsible for keeping her smitten friend's expectations in check, whether she has been smitten for five days or five months. That's for the smitten friend herself to manage. The friend's duty is to voice any concerns she has--once and clearly with specific evidence vs. generalizations--and then to listen to the response. Beating a drum of generalized bad news that may or may not apply in her friend's situation, despite being asked not to, makes it sound as if it's about Ms. Happypants more than it is about the smitten friend.


DC Metro Area: OK, not a life altering issue - just an awkward work situation that I am not sure how to address. I work in a fairly small office, and there is one person who insists on carrying on a conversation while in the bathroom stall..... I have tried one word grunts in response, and know I should just say "I am really uncomfortable having a conversation while going about my business" but -- well the whole thing is awkward! Am I being a prude/stickler? Any suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: "Hang on, I'll be out in a sec." Or, power through it--why be a slave to one's discomfort?

Either way, it's nice to see a small problem every once in a while. Kind of like a potty break.


New York, NY: What's the difference between someone who likes to drink, and someone who has a drinking problem? One of my friends visited last week and remarked on the number of beer/wine bottles in my recycling bin. I hadn't really thought about it, but I do have 1-2 drinks every day, and I started wondering if I should be worried. I'm not experiencing any ill effects and I drink mostly with meals -- I like the taste of wine or beer better than water or tea -- but I'm super-petite and don't have a very high tolerance for alcohol, so I do sometimes end up buzzed after beer #2. Is this abnormal consumption? Should I be concerned?

Carolyn Hax: Have a look at good information on alcohol and what constitutes abuse. The FAQ is very straightforward.

On a fuzzier level, you do want to think about what your friend might have been doing. It's possible s/he was being nosy and presumptuous--who knows how often you empty the bin, or whether you had guests recently, or ...--but it's also possible this friend already had concerns and used the bin as an opening. Since you know your friend, you're in a better position to guess.


DC: Carolyn ... did you pick up on an odd level of detachment from today's LW? It just struck me how formally/distantly she spoke of her parents, family, their community, the funeral plans, everything. (Telling her family they could go ahead and go to the funeral without her IF it would make them feel better ... wow.) Some of the 'nuts actually thought the letter was fake, written by a family member to shame the reluctant funeral-goer into seeing the error of her ways. Others thought there was unworded family drama going on. What do you think?

Carolyn Hax: I did pick up on the detachment, but since the writer was asking for permission to detach, it didn't strike me as "odd."

What does strike me as interesting, if not necessarily odd, is that just about everyone who has commented on this letter has used the pronoun "she." There was no sex indicated, and I do believe the writer is male.


Somewhere, USA: Hi Carolyn, What do you say to a friend who has asked for advice about anxiety over her upcoming nuptials? Anxiety is her word choice; she has not specifically said "I have doubts that John is the one". She has asked me for help and I'm honestly not sure what to say. I remember being nervous for my own wedding, but there was never a doubt in my mind that my now-husband was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I want to be able to provide thoughtful advice to my friend, but I also know she's looking for someone "to tell her what to do" (again, her words). This decision has to be one that she comes to on her own terms. FYI, the anxiety has been occurring for about 8 months now, we've had more than one conversation about this, and she has seen a counselor, but not regularly. Thanks very much!

Carolyn Hax: Tell her to call it off. In these words: "You're asking me to tell you what to do?" (She, presumably, says yes.) "Okay, then call it off." Whatever she says at this point might be telling enough to move the decision-blockage, but if instead she just asks you why you said that, then tell her it's not about the guy, or about her, or about the relationship. It's just that "no" is the only choice you have: She's the only one who has the standing to say "yes."

It's more of a gambit than it is actual advice to her, but someone with this level of emotional paralysis needs a flick to the forehead. And more consistent attendance at her therapist's office.


Potty Break, DC: What does "power through it" mean? I am currently, and usually, a slave to my discomforts in the workplace (I work with loud conversations and eating noises) and if this will help I'd really like to know.

Carolyn Hax: Meaning, have the conversation from the stall, and see it as a first step toward a "whatever" attitude about gum-snapping, audible time-wasting, or whatever other petty annoyances have you in their sway.


Wash DC: How many chances do you give someone before you call it quits. I have been off and on with someone for years and this time he said he has figured out his problem, said it was not my fault and wants to try again. Do I do it, is it possible for someone to really change?

Carolyn Hax: Are you ready to get back together, only to find out that nothing has changed? Unless you can say "yes" to that, pass. In other words, don't count on change--count on what you know, and decide accordingly. Let any change come as a pleasant surprise.

By the way--being off and on for years is what you two produce together, and that's as much your doing as it is his, no matter what he says now that he wants you back. Take responsibility for your role, then decide if this is the person/relationship/life you want.


For DC Metro: My condolences. Our office shares a bathroom in the hallway with a couple other small offices on the floor. One of the women from the other offices is incapable of leaving her cell phone behind when she visits the bathroom. She walks in, does her business, and walks out all while chattering away on the phone.

The first time it happened I thought maybe there was an emergency and I should try to keep the background bathroom noises to a minimum out of consideration for the caller. Those days are long gone. But it's still really weird to be sitting in a 2-stall bathroom alone with one other person who is carrying on a lively conversation with someone else.

Carolyn Hax: There are comic strips and shows and movies about this stuff, but nothing beats the genuine article. Thanks for sharing.


San Francisco, CA: Your advice for dealing with a toilet chatter is to "power through it"? I...I'm at a loss for words.

Carolyn Hax: Mission accomplished? Where's my banner.


Charm City: I think the Washington Post should spring for a new computer and/or modem for you!

Carolyn Hax: Nice thought, but it's just standard cable modem stuff. Sometimes they need a reboot. At least, that's been my experience in the past ... wow I'm not even sure. Seven years maybe? I can remember doing research papers on a computer for the first time ever (1984), but can't remember how long I've been wireless.


The pronoun "she": That's not the messed up part. The messed up part is that when I went back and reread the letter, with the assumption that the writer was male, I totally gave the writer a pass on wanting to skip it.

I feel like I've been hiding some really messed up things inside my head now.

Carolyn Hax: We all have a tangle of biases in our minds, by necessity. We learn from our past experiences, and apply cumulative knowledge to future ones. We also learn through schooling, which for the sake of argument we'll call an aggregation of the experiences/lessons of others. And while that's a pretty good combination--we humans get by pretty well, considering--it's a flawed one, with huge information gaps. Sometimes what we experience is lopsided, or what we learn is misleading. And yet we apply the lessons sometimes without thinking--we just read and react. Sometimes we're going to read something wrong, and react unfairly or inappropriately.

Since people who believe they don't have biases aren't challenging their own readings or reactions, I would argue they're the ones most likely to act on their biases. When people understand there's always room for their thinking to be flawed, that's when you have a solid foundation for fairness.

So, short version, think of this he-she thing as good news.


small talk?: Carolyn - my husband and I have fallen in to a "small talk" rut. He's been unemployed for a year, and on some days he just sits at home watching TV and I'm the only person he interacts with. I feel like a general "how was your day?" question can be a springboard to other conversation - but not when he just says, "fine". What can we do about this rut?

Carolyn Hax: Obviously this is a bigger problem than small talk--unemployed spouse, getting depressed, losing confidence and sense of self--but sometimes small adjustments can help ease the stress of bigger problems. In this case, I'd start with tailoring your questions to his mood and to the way he spends his day: "Anything interesting in the news," or, "What happened to X," if he follows a series, or "Anyone make any big moves," if he's glued to SportsCenter.

As for the bigger problem, it sounds as if you both would benefit (as the community would) from his volunteering his time and skills somewhere. While the most pressing need is for jobs right now, that need has set off a cascade of other needs. Everyone's doing more with less--schools come immediately to mind, but there are also homeless shelters and food banks and elder services and animal shelters that are cutting back. A sense of purpose and a resume item aren't to be sneezed at, either. Please suggest a few things to him.


Carolyn Hax: Personal note, it's my dad who reminded me this weekend of the power of -doing- something. He received an award from the local ALS Association this past Saturday, and in his acceptance speech, he told of being lost in his grief when my mom died. He was grateful for everything that group had done for the two of them during Mom's illness, so checked to see if they needed anything. He wound up helping them move offices, putting up shelves, delivering equipment to patients all over Connecticut--and he's still at it. And so now, almost eight years later, he has a steady supply of new people to meet, a sense of purpose, a shape to his days and a community that's grateful he exists. In all, not a bad epilogue to a story that ended sadly.


Pronoun 'she' second reader: Sorry, I don't give either sex a pass. I think skipping out will lead to family resentments later. I think the writer might have regrets later. Suck it up for half a day.

Carolyn Hax: Agreed, but I don't think that was the person's point--it was, "Eek, I had no idea I'm biased."


Washington, DC: One of my friends (a bridesmaid) hates my husband. It's a personality clash; she has never liked him and he knows it. After a recent (rare) social gathering, she sent me a scathing email about how she can't tolerate him. How do I know when I should just "break up" with her over this? She's single, and to be honest, there are very few spouses/SO's of ours she deems acceptable. I am also upset b/c she's spoken her mind, I've politely listened, and I'm very happily married.

Carolyn Hax: Question for you: Why isn't this an easy decision, at this point?


Toilet chatter: When someone next to me is talking on the phone, I flush. Constantly. Yes, I'm wasting water but there is a larger crime here.

Carolyn Hax: I dunno--since you're not the only one who wrote in to say this, there's apparently a lot of water being wasted.

I'm just disappointed that my trips to the rest room aren't so reliably dramatic as everyone else's seem to be.


I've heard of singing in the shower, but...: To continue the bathroom theme... I work in a building with multiple agencies on the same floor. There is one woman from another agency who uses the bathroom and talks out loud to Jesus the entire time- "Oh Jesus. Here we go, Jesus. Help me do it. Ahhhhhhh." She NARRATES HER BUSINESS. If you are in the common area washing your hands when she is done, she will TALK TO YOU FURTHER about what -just happened-: "Didn't think I was gonna make it! Oooooh Lord, I'm tired now." At first I wanted to tell her to stop- that hearing her was grossing me out- but now I just think it's hilarious. Little joys, right?

Carolyn Hax: We'll make this our last trip to the rest room today, mostly because, after this, there's nowhere else to go.


Washington, DC: I'm pregnant and my husband and I are both thrilled. The problem is his oldest sister, who...isn't, to say the least. She called both husband and the other sister to complain that we're "taking her thunder" since she just had her children (who are 4 and 2), she's been trying for seven months (news to us) and that we're irresponsible bringing another child into this world when there is so much pollution. I understand how fertility issues can mess a person up, but we had some of our own (that we kept private) and I just don't know how to deal with a person who ended a phone call with "I hope your kid has some major disability." The "Wow" comment doesn't work with her, and any attempt at rational conversation ends in hysterics and hang ups. Any suggestions on how to deal with her and minimize stress?

Carolyn Hax: Wow. (Still works for me.)

That's not the behavior of somebody who is anywhere near rational--it sounds more like mental illness. Has that ever been explored? Obviously you can't just take the sister to a psychiatrist, but, you and your husband can have an informal conversation about it with a doctor--an OB or psychiatrist, depending on whether this is recent bizarre behavior from her (OB) or a sliver of a lifetime's worth of hostility from her (psychiatrist).


Seattle, WA: I want to move somewhere warm and sunny, but my boyfriend wants to live by his family and keep his very good job in Seattle. Is this a stupid reason for me to leave him? We've been together for 3 years.

Carolyn Hax: There are no stupid reasons. Stupid is choosing not to act on your desires because you're afraid your reasons are stupid.

So, which do you want more, the guy or the sun? If you choose the sun, then he gets to decide which he wants more, Seattle or you. It's all part of the process. (It just hurts less to sit here typing it than it does to live it.)


Lady praying in the bathroom: I'm reading this chat at work, and that posting made me laugh so loud that I drew attention from about a half-dozen colleagues. Then I showed them the posting (busted, I know)...and they all had the same reaction.

Is this bathroom talking gender-related? I'm a guy. I go in, I do my business, and I leave. I can't imagine (literally CANNOT IMAGINE) having a conversation with someone while in the bathroom.

Carolyn Hax: I already shared that my bathroom breaks are usually drama free, so while that's just one report from one circuit of ladies rooms, I think that rules out potty prayer as gender-related.


Exasperated: How can I get my family to butt out of my work life? My problem is that my family seems to know tons of people that get services from our office.

It seems like any time these people have any complaint about our services (and in some of these cases I've investigated carefully and found that the fault was not with us, eg. someone disappearing utterly after a couple of appointments and never calling or returning calls, only to turn it into "Those people in that office ignored me!") I hear about it through my family.

Leaves me feeling quite stuck, because if I don't investigate I feel like I'm not doing my duties to the consumers who may have legitimate complaints, but if I do it's "Why are you sticking your nose in/assuming I'm doing a poor job?" from Understandably Cranky Coworkers unless I mention I heard a rumor of complaint, and then the question is "From whom?"

How can I make my family understand that my work life is not their business, even if they're excited to discover that their friend Joe Schmo uses our services?

Carolyn Hax: I'm admittedly a little lost (why does everyone care, exactly?), but why can't you say to your family, "I'm so sorry X had a problem--please encourage him/her to call me to make a formal complaint," and even hand them a card if you have one. That tells your family that you're on it, if it's real, and that you're on to them, if it's just stirring up trouble, for whatever mysterious reasons people have for trouble up-stirrage.


Maryland: My then-boyfriend bailed when I broke my collarbone and was basically an invalid for weeks. I was really in love with him, so that came as a huge disappointment. At the time, he continued to call occasionally to see how I was doing, and once I got well again, his calls turned flirty, and now he wants to get back together. I never stopped loving him, nor did I have time to "get over him" (tough to do when you still talk to the person on a regular basis), so I'm tempted to just do it, but I can't forget how he withdrew in a tough time. Is that in itself a dealbreaker?

Carolyn Hax: When one of you loses a job, or gets seriously ill, or when a parent or child does, or when you have an active toddler and your new baby is colicky, or when the dog pukes on the rug just as you're leaving the house and late for a meeting, and you're stuck with all the heavy or even just inconvenient lifting, and this makes you pause to reflect back on this deal-breaker question, you're so going to wish you had said "yes."


Washington, DC: I lost my job in 2008. The next day I signed up to volunteer at a local animal shelter. I went in twice a week, walked dogs in the am and fluffed cats in the pm. It totally saved my life and sanity. I was out of work for seven months. When I finally got offered a job it was hard to give up the pups. I still go in on weekends.

Carolyn Hax: I don't even like cats, and now I want a job fluffing cats. Thanks.


Nowhereville: What do you say to people who look at you like you've lost your mind because 30 days after your cat died you still cry every day? He was my best fried (sometimes my only friend) and I'm just not moving past it like everyone thinks I should. I tried a grief counselor but she just blathered about waves of grief and how they will lesson over time, but I find they are getting stronger, and more uncontrollable. I thought maybe if I got a new pet, but the thought just makes me cry more. I need to be able to work and function, but the more I try the less I am able to do.

Carolyn Hax: Maybe a two-pronged approach: talk to your regular doctor about the possibility of depression, and stop by an animal shelter to visit the kitties. If you can manage to break through the first visit or two (so you cry--a little public crying always feels worse than it really is, in the scheme of things), then make it a regular stop, till you find yourself bonding with one of the cats.

Hang in there. The blatherer was right, even if she wasn't helpfully so.


fluffing cats: Tell me that's not a euphemism...

Carolyn Hax: I knew someone would say that. Talk about knowing one's audience.


Carolyn Hax: Alright, everyone out of the stalls and back to work. Thanks for stopping by on this very strange day, and have a great weekend, and ... gah I did it again. I just remembered I have a conflict next Friday. Jodi, can we do this Thursday next week?


May Your First Child Be A Masculine Child, USA: Hi Carolyn, I'm pregnant with my first child. My in-laws, who have twin granddaughters, keep saying at every turn that they are hoping for a boy. Is there anything I can say to them to get them to stop without turning it into a big confrontaion? We get along great otherwise, but this whole boy obsession is REALLY annoying.

Carolyn Hax: I'm posting this in part to wait for Jodi's answer, in part because it's a quick answer, and mostly because any Luca Brasi quote is welcome here.

Just say to them something really obvious and manipulative and fusty like, "Really? I'm just hoping for a healthy child." The implication being, of course, that you're appalled that they'd want anything other than a healthy child. Frankly they deserve it, but also it's not worth imploding your relationship with them over this.


Carolyn Hax: Okay then, it's done--next week I'll be here Thursday at noon. Thanks again, and seeya.


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