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Carolyn Hax Live: 'I did the best I could;' Overly-compassionate 6-year-olds; The open-relationship debate; Wedding vow-musings; Buttered tightropes and more

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Friday, January 7, 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.

Good news! Carolyn's archives have been updated. Check out the sidebar on Carolyn's archive page to find even more transcripts from past Hax chats.

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Carolyn Hax: Oops--I was composing an email, and just as I hit send, I saw the 12:02 time stamp. Sorry about that ...

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Carolyn Hax: And, hello, and happy New Year. Mine is brighter today since we got the tree to the curb yesterday--very late for me. Usually I launch a full assault on Christmas on New Year's Day. First love, then overexposure, then desperation to get away from it. How familiar that sounds.

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Wales: My cousin has recently come out and told the family he's gay. No one was particularly surprised and while some of the older generation are a bit uncomfortable, most of us are OK with it.

The problem is my cousin seems to think we're not reacting in the right way. He keeps pushing at the family as if he's trying to make us react badly. At Christmas he gave somewhat inappropriate to open with the family gifts to his long-term but never met by us before boyfriend (the poor guy gave him a sweater) and later got drunk and started a huge row about us not taking him and his relationship seriously.

I don't know what we should do. I thought just taking it our stride would be the best reaction but it doesn't seem to be.

Carolyn Hax: How about: "As much as you seem to want us to respond dramatically to your news, we still love you and accept you as we always did, and appreciate that you felt comfortable enough to be open around us and to introduce us to Long Term Boyfriend--who seems great, by the way. I hope you can come to accept our acceptance someday."

That could be entirely the wrong tone or entirely the right one, depending on his state of mind and the state of his relationship. But if you think you have standing to talk to him that way, then you'd be a good person--a peer, not his immediate family, etc.--to deliver the loving reality check.

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Carolyn Hax: Oh, I should add--if you don't feel you have standing to say that, then just sit back, keep treating him warmly in a low-key kind of way, and give him time to work this out. Needless to say, it's a big transition for him, too, even though technically his life hasn't changed.

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Oahu, HI: Dear Carolyn,

The guy I'm seeing is trying hard to talk me into the idea of an open relationship, i.e., one where we're each allowed to date and sleep with other people as long as we're each other's top priorities. I hate this idea, but he has fought all my objections with logical responses ("We're not thinking about marriage yet anyway," "We live long distance and we both have needs," "Sex and love aren't the same anyway," etc.). I was thinking you'd have a more succinct answer to the question he keeps asking, "What would be wrong with opening it up?" So...shoot!

Carolyn Hax: "What's wrong with it is that I'm not comfortable with it."

No fancy reasoning necessary.

It does sound as if you need to propose the one alternative to his open relationship that also takes into account the distance, his need for sex and the fact that you aren't thinking about marriage: breaking up. If it comes to pass that you're able to move closer to each other eventually and you're still interested in being a couple, you can get back together then.

And if you find that while you're apart you miss talking to each other, then, go ahead, keep talking to each other. But step into this middle ground with full awareness that it's where you're most likely to get hurt.

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20904: I have a bit of a holiday hangover--I'm still recovering emotionally and financially from a stressful family week, still need to take down the decorations, still owe cards and thank-yous to various relatives for the gifts they gave my kids. As such, I can barely muster up the energy to attend my friend's wedding tomorrow, but bailing the night before seems like such poor form. How terrible a friend would I be if I told her sorry, I just can't?

Carolyn Hax: You do not, do not blow off a wedding, not because you're tired, not because you're at risk of appearing ungrateful, not because you're emotionally traumatized by a stressful family situation, not because you're emotionally traumatized by the dessicated greens on your mantel. You suck it up, and you go.

Who knows, just the opportunity to let your eyes rest on something different from your trampled home base might actually lift you up a bit.

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Washington, DC: Hi Carolyn! I started seeing this guy a few weeks ago, and subsequently found out that he's also seeing someone else. He assures me that this other relationship is not exclusive, but I have no way of verifying this. I am not looking for an exclusive relationship with this guy, but do not want to be "the other woman" if it turns out that he and the woman he's already seeing have a different understanding of the nature of their relationship. I am very attracted to this man and enjoy his company, but do not want to get involved in any drama. Based on the nature of our social circles, it is inevitable that at some point all three of us will be in the same place at the same time (she and I have met, I was aware of their relationship but she is not aware of my relationship to the guy). What should I do?

Carolyn Hax: Take his word for it until you have evidence that you can't or shouldn't.

And know that as long as you aren't sure whether you can trust him, your relationship needs to stay as light and shallow as possible. If you start feeling yourself falling for him, make -sure- you've got the trust questions as settled as they can be, or step back.

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Carolyn Hax: I feel like I just gave instructions for walking a buttered tightrope.

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Fairfax, VA: I have had multiple dreams lately about being intimate with someone other than my spouse. I don't like these dreams and actually feel unsettled, almost nervous, when I wake up. What the heck is going on???

Carolyn Hax: Nothing. You're human.

If the dreams are in fact a sign of something that's going wrong while you're awake, there will be signs of that, most likely in plain sight. Be on the lookout for those, but otherwise don't let the dreams get to you. Brains are weird.

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re: Oahu: If your SO thinks "sex and love aren't the same thing anyway", and you see sex as a manifestation of love, then your fundamental values aren't compatible. Sadly, end of story.

Carolyn Hax: Ah, right--that too.

But I want to reiterate that he's trying to persuade her, with "logic," to do something she doesn't feel comfortable doing. There doesn't need to be any further point of disagreement; that alone is a dealbreaker.

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"Need to know": I have a friend who has, shall we say, a different stance on honesty than do I (especially when it comes to dating). I'd be happy to let this be his thing to deal with (in fact I'd vastly prefer it!), but he keeps involving me in his deceptions, leaving me either to lie for him to these women or be the one to break the bad news (usually, the fact that he's dating more than one person.) I really hate being put in this position, but when I've tried to address it with him, he says what he chooses to divulge is none of my business and if I were more mature, I would (at minimum) agree to disagree with him. From where I sit, "agreeing to disagree" would mean he keeps putting me in a position I really do not like, and I do think I'm entitled to have an opinion on things that affect me or ask for my participation. But for whatever reason, he's kind of got my goat with the maturity argument (he's also said I'm being naive, unreasonable, etc.), and I'm wavering... Can you give me an outside opinion: am I embarrassing myself here?

Carolyn Hax: Yes, by falling for his arguments that you're somehow defective for not agreeing to lie for him.

You owe him one thing: a clear statement of where you stand, backed by actions consistent with that stand. (Or is that two things.)

In this case, that means you say to him something along the lines of, "I won't chase people down, but I also won't lie to someone who asks me a direct question. What you do with that is up to you." If he calls you naive and unreasonable, then just say thank you, because from him it's shaping up as a compliment.

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DC: Dear Carolyn,

To put it simply, I can't stand the group of people that my BF socializes with. They remind me of the "in crowd" from seventh grade (they are all in their 30s and 40s). One of them was always flirting with me and then told his wife that I was hitting on him (I was not). The wife then told everyone but never said anything directly to me. The other couples in the group are even worse. They are constantly badmouthing each other and creating drama. They play games and don't show up to social events just to one up each other. I also know that they make fun of me (among others) behind my back. They are highly critical in there comments towards me to the point of being insulting. I told the BF that I have no problem with him socializing with them but I won't be joining them anymore. He thinks I am being too hard on them. I think it is a matter of self-respect for me not to be around these people anymore. I really like him but I am starting to wonder if it is true that the people we associate with are a reflection of ourselves. Do you think I should walk away?

Carolyn Hax: Idunno. Your take on the friends seems to indicate that you have a good grasp for--and a calm enough detachment from--social intricacies, so I imagine you have collected all kinds of useful information on your boyfriend's integrity, maturity, character, etc. That's where your answer is, not here.

As for whether the people we associate with are a reflection of ourselves, of course they are. It's just that it's not a nice sharp mirror; it involves at least some interpretation, especially when there are so many variables--for example, amount of time people spend together, how long they've known each other, what they have in common, how well they know each other, to what extent they're choosing vs. forced to spend time together, etc.

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Houston, TX: A lighthearted question for a dreary time of year. I am getting married in two months, and my fiance and I have decided to write our own vows. He wants them to be a surprise. I am no poet. Are there any good ways to ensure the vows are compatible, without ruining for him, the importance of the emotional moment? Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: If the surprise element is stressing all the fun out of the exercise, then tell him that, and ask to make it a joint project. You can still love and appreciate his preference for surprise while respecting your own limits on that front.

If you're game to try, though, then you might want to start by getting inspiration. Favorite songs, poems, novels, all can offer passages that work as starting points. Get online and read through other people's vows, and keep an eye out for one you can use as a skeleton--it's okay to put your own words into an existing framework.

Also consider working from a list of the things you love about him. I know you don't feel like a poet, but often the best words are right there, one step away from the hackneyed ones. So, scribble out your thoughts without regard for cliches, then go back and ask yourself, is this really the best word? English is such a vast language, you can have 10 words that express the same concept with 10 minute variations, and finding just the right variation is often what gives writing its emotional power.

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DC: Carolyn,

I recently had my suspicions confirmed that my father has a drinking problem. I'm angry with him and with my mom, who always knew he had an issue with alcohol but didn't know the extent of it. He has an appt with a psychiatrist next week (and also has co-occurring mental health issues) but my mom reports the drinking continues unabated. Rationally I know alcoholism is a disease that he has no control over but I can't help thinking that he continues to choose drinking over his wife and marriage. I'm angry b/c when he was staying with us recently, he was sneaking swigs out of his wine bottles during the day, when he was supposed to be watching my baby, and driving my daughter to and from school. I know about Al-Anon and I'll attempt to get there. Right now, I just need someone to slap some sense and compassion into me.

Carolyn Hax: He was babysitting and driving your child! You have every right to be angry. Alcoholism is an addiction, and it has a plain, well-established physiological component, but it also involves a choice--or else no alcoholics would ever stop drinking, which millions do.

You have the right idea with getting seasoned counsel to help you with the strong feelings you have now about your dad's drinking, and to help you with the basic information about dealing with an addict. In the meantime, though, don't add to the confusion by trying to devalue what you're feeling or beat yourself up for feeling it.

The two things that matter most ... well, the things that matter most right now are the safety of you and your children, and the fact of getting your father into treatment before he hurts himself or anyone else.

But the two things that matter most emotionally right now are that you remedy the source of the anger, and manage the way you express it. The anger itself is there, like it or not, so there's no point in cursing or denying its presence.

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Wedding Vows: My wife and I were going to write our own vows. They were going to be a surprise. I did mine. She got writers block and couldn't think of anything "good". She was also working full time, planning the wedding (I can barely plan lunch ...), planning her family's travel to the wedding. (They are less good at planning than I am ...) Two days before the wedding she told me she just couldn't do it.

I told her no problem, we could just use some of the suggested options given to us by the priest. This was the plan until after the rehersal dinner. She asked to see what I had wrote. We ended up using mine, we just both used them.

My point is talk to your future husband. Figure out what works for both of you. His surprise is not as important as your sanity. But you have to let him know that it is causing you grief for him to act.

Carolyn Hax: So much better when it's firsthand. Thanks.

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Surprise vows?: That sounds like a recipe for hilarious disaster. "I swear to honor and respect your pants and their contents."

Carolyn Hax: Ta da! The start she was looking for. Thank you, from the bottom of my chair.

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ROCKVILLE: I want to thank the reader who suggested volunteering at Food and Friends, during the last discussion. I have had a rough year; bad break-up, death of a loved one etc. and I spent the last few months being a downer. But getting out and helping those people really gave a different perspective on my life. I may not have everything I used to this year, but I still have plenty to be greatful for. Thanks again and I encourage anyone whose in need of a different perspective to get out and volunteer!

Carolyn Hax: Sometimes it's great to be the messenger.

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"Need to know" again: Ha, fair about embarrassing myself! I agree (and am reassured that it's not crazy to think) his arguments aren't cool. But I'm still not sure where to go from here, as unfortunately refusing to lie hasn't had any effect. I've actually said and followed through on this twice...and if anything I think he's a little bit happy that I've done his dirty work for him! And I can understand why--it's MISERABLE to have to break the news to these women, and I'm getting seriously pissed to have that foist off on me! His shots about my being naive/unreasonable/immature (/out of line/unfair/etc. etc.) came when I said I don't want to have any part of it (whether the lying or the news-breaking), and that I can't stay friends if he keeps involving me. That's what I'm wavering about: cutting out a friend is a drastic thing, and we do have a lot of mutual friends, to whom I know he's going to go say that I'm--well, see above for list of adjectives.

Carolyn Hax: CLUE. That is a CLUE. Just as the best question to ask before you get serious with someone is whether s/he'd behave well during a breakup, the best question you can ask yourself about someone's worthiness as a friend is whether s/he'd take cheap shots at you if you dropped the friendship.

In this case, though, the CLUE isn't telling you to "cut out a friend," since that entails unnecessary drama and confrontation. Instead, let your mutual friends start to become the only reason you see him.

This may be criticized as too passive and/or dishonest by omission, but I think of it as handling a rotten egg. Why smash it when it's perfectly okay to place it gently in the trash can and back away slowly.

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Wedding Vows: We used vows that were given to us by the officiant. I'd reviewed them what felt like a million times and was sure that I knew them by heart, forward, backward, and upside down. When we got to the wedding there was so much going on emotionally that they were still a surprise to me. You know your fiance best, but don't discount the emotional surprise of hearing something you've heard before with all of the emotions of a big situation.

Carolyn Hax: Something to consider, thanks.

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Vows: My wife and I had a similar problem. We both struggled, and both admitted to coming up with stuff we thought was super corny, even if it was accurate.

So we waited until after the reception, back the hotel, just the two of us (and a bottle of champagne) and exhanged our own written vows there. It worked perfectly.

But the important advice is to talk. If not, we both might have regretted reading our super corny vows in front of all of our friends and family.

Carolyn Hax: Another option ...

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Re: vows: Oh wow, this reminds me of a truly wonderful set of vows I witnessed several years ago. It was my husband's cousin's wedding, and they wrote their own vows that were a surprise for each other. They agreed to list the things they love about each other. I will never, ever forget the joy in my heart and HUGE lump in my throat that came as I watched the groom fall to -pieces- reading his list. It was the sweetest, most genuine thing I have ever witnessed. The list started off with (hear it in a cracking, near-tears voice) "I love you because you've worn the same beat-up tshirt to bed for as long as I've known you!" and it went on from there. Not poetry, just intensely sweet, genuine honesty. There wasn't a dry eye in the place.

Carolyn Hax: ..and the option that probably will exacerbate the dread she already feels that his vows will send everyone to the hankies and her vows will scare the tears back in.

But it is a wonderful story, thanks.

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Re: Houston: You could always write your own vows, then both give them to a third party (such as your officiant) for review so that you're both still surprised, but you can be clued in if one of you is writing a public love letter while the other is trying a comedy routine.

Carolyn Hax: A couple of suggestions along these lines, which I like, thanks.

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New Year's Resolution...: is to be less critical, esp. of my mother-in-law, who is a piece of work. While she infuriates me (and my spouse) on a regular basis, I don't want to sour any grandparent relationship by speaking ill of her in front of my toddler. Any hints for saying nice things about/to people who aren't very nice to you?

Carolyn Hax: There are very, very few people who have zero redeeming qualities. Find the redeeming qualities, and say them out loud, first to yourself or to your spouse, just to get used to saying it out loud, and then you can take it live and say it in front of your kid.

Best part is, by doing that, you keep the positive thought in the front of your mind, which serves both as a pathway to other, related positive thoughts, and as a constant reminder of her humanity. It has been documented for as long as humans have been documenting human behavior that negative thoughts don't just sit there harmlessly; they multiply, spread to others and motivate negative actions. If you keep telling yourself, "Mary is doing the best she can," "Mary raised my spouse and got a lot right doing it," or whatever shred of praise you can muster, then you're likely to bring down the fury a couple of degrees when you most need to keep your cool.

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Falls Church, VA: Married my high school sweetheart almost five years ago. His older brother is now engaged and his fiancee wants to get married on the same day my husband and I got married. (The date is not significant in a family way nor is it on a Saturday). I'm trying to be ok with this, but deep down I guess I'm saying "mine, mine, mine." Is this normal?

Carolyn Hax: It's hard for me to say, because I can't even imagine caring. And if someone acted on the "mine, mine" feelings you describe, I would be completely unsympathetic. You can't own a day.

As long as you don't act on the feelings, or express them in a way that becomes a de facto action (e.g., pouting or complaining at their wedding, or boozily raising a glass on "MY wedding day!!!"), then you're probably okay. Besides, a wedding seems like a romantic way to spend an anniversary, and it's just one year. Other years it's each couple to themselves.

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Arlington, VA: My six-year-old daughter has a huge heart of gold, which is one of the things I love about her. Yesterday, I had HGTV on, and while I was out of the room, the ASPCA commercial with the abused cats and dogs came on. I came back into the room just as the commercial was ending, and she had tears streaming down her face - and a lot of questions. She wants us to help all of the kitties and doggies, she wants to give all of her money from her piggy bank (not an insubstantial sum), she wants us to make the monthly contributions suggested on the commercial - and I think she's inching towards getting really put out with me if we don't. I tried explaining that we already donate a lot of money to other causes (which we do - and my husband and I both work for non-profits). But that didn't assuage her. Any suggestions, before she gets even more put out with me?

Carolyn Hax: Let her give! Just not everything in her piggy bank (or yours). Your local shelter probably has a wish list, so give a call. If they say they need blankets, for example, you can take your daughter shopping (clearance section, thrift store--do your homework first to find stuff under $10), let her use her money for a blanket, and deliver it to the shelter with her.

In other words, please don't try to snuff out her impulse completely; instead, walk and talk her through the process of doing something practical and good that doesn't involve going completely overboard.

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Carolyn Hax: I haven't fallen out of my chair or anything, I'm just working on a long one that I didn't think would be a long one.

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"doing the best she can": Carolyn, this is a hot-button phrase for me for a different reason. My mother tells me "I did the best I could" raising me. But she stayed with an abusive man and didn't divorce him until I was in my 30s. Our arguments always came down (I've given up on having them) to "I did the best I could" versus "that wasn't good enough because the long abuse did us irreparable harm." Is there any resolution to what has now become something we can't get past?

Carolyn Hax: "I did the best I could" doesn't mean she did enough. You know that from living it, but I think it's important to spell out the fact that claiming the first isn't the same as claiming the second.

Also, "I did the best I could" can leave room for the possibility that your mom had already sustained "irreparable harm" from the abuse when you arrived on the scene--or even brought emotional damage into her relationship with him in the first place--and that harm or scarring is what hampered her ability to protect herself and protect you. It could be that she left when she did only because he had weakened over time and/or she got stronger in the years after her responsibility for raising you tapered off.

I'm offering these not as a definitive or comprehensive take on your situation, but instead as illustrations of the way even black-and-white situations (he abused you + she knew about it = you blame her) can leave room for gray. She's as much a victim as an abuser herself; she's as much an abuser as she is a victim.

And when there's gray, there's opportunity for reading more into the situation than you're currently seeing--which can in turn allow for finding common ground with your mom. If she didn't say, "I did my best," but instead allowed, "I wasn't strong enough to save you," would you look upon this as an impasse still?

It's essentially saying the same thing, though the statement of failure is plain instead of implied. It may be that you want the plain statement, and I can see why, but, then, you'd be asking it of a woman who was abused for over 30 years, probably closer to 40--and I could argue for letting it be on the grounds that that kind of strength may have been yelled or beaten out of her, and it's better to take it on faith.

It doesn't make what happened to you any less unfair, and it doesn't make your mom's inability/unwillingness to leave any less wrong, but I think it does give you enough to justify forgiving your mom. And by forgiving her, you would be taking an action that -only- you can take to put your upbringing to rest. Given that abuse is the ultimate statement of power over the powerless, your making the decision to accept that your mom "did her best"--that if your mom had the strength and courage and emotional good health to leave when you were a baby, she would have--would be a way to give yourself power over this situation.

In other words, you'd no longer be looking to your dad to stop abusing you, or to your mom to save you from him, or to your mom to apologize to you. You'd be the one taking the actions, making the decisions, and deciding where to file your past. That might feel pretty liberating, at this point.

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To Arlington: If you and your husband already give to charities, why not speak to your daughter about those charities and redistribute some of your giving to her choice of charities? She's part of the family, too, and though I know she isn't earning the money, you already consider her in other spending decisions. Why not involve her from an early age in what it means to give to others?

Carolyn Hax: The last sentence is what I was getting at, but the first two make a really good case for thinking about this as more than a single episode, thanks.

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re: Arlington: Good answer regarding the six-year-old with the heart of gold, but to take it one step further, WHY do you let your child keep a "not insubstantial sum" of money in her piggy bank?? When I was that age, I had a savings account at a bank, and my parents would take me down on Saturday after I got any money (for birthday, Christmas, etc.) and they would guide me through cashing it, putting most of the money in the bank and then keeping a small portion for spending/giving. In addition to teaching your child good and vital financial habits now, it's just not safe to keep a "not insubstantial sum" of cash around the house.

Carolyn Hax: One way to handle this that I've shamelessly swiped from another parent is dividing any spoils or allowance the same way every time: X to savings, Y to charity, Z for spending. 50 percent, 25 percent, 25 percent, say. Good math lesson, financial management lesson and civics lesson.

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MY special day: Carolyn, this question prompted kind of a followup question for me. What do you do when you're feeling completely irrational about something? You KNOW it's irrational, and you aren't going to act on it, but you can't stop thinking it? I get like that sometimes, and it would be nice to be able to line my brain up with my gut.

Carolyn Hax: If it's a matter of self-absorption, then maybe it would help to get perspective--there's certainly no shortage of need in the world to remind you that your fixation (to use the wedding-date example) on being the only one you know with your anniversary is silly to the point of undermining your character.

Whether you write a small check to a charity every time you feel self-indulgent, or start reading world news online, or get out to volunteer, there's a huge range of ways you can condition yourself, a la Pavlov's dogs, to associate your own self-pity moments with appreciation for your good fortune, and to rein yourself in.

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Re: Arlington's Heart of Gold: I love that little girl, and I've never met her. I volunteer a lot for dog and cat rescue groups- there are some great ones in the NOVA area. Volunteer to work one of the weekend adoption shows at the area petstores with your 6 year old. That way she sees that good things often result in those sad cases, and she gets an appreciation of volunteering at a young age. Also, take pride in the fact that her values come from your raising her. Kudos!

washingtonpost.com: And come home with a new kitten or puppy! ;) - Jodi

Carolyn Hax: I know, there's a very definite risk to being around shelter animals. I wish I had a picture to post of the expression on Billy's face when he picked me out.

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Washington, DC: Carolyn

My sister is going through a situation similar to the one mentioned in today's column - except it's a husband of 17 years staying out several nights a week until all hours, saying he'll be home at a certain time and not getting home until hours later, etc. He has an alcohol problem to boot. Any suggestions for her in dealing with the situation?

Carolyn Hax: This actually bears little resemblance to today's column. Your sister needs to get some sort of support for spouses of alcoholics, quickly--which I hope will lead to her getting the seasoned, professional 411 on handling an ultimatum to a substance-abusing spouse: He gets help or she calls an attorney. If she hasn't yet taken concrete steps to treat this as a serious drinking problem -and- marital problem, then she also needs to seek her own treatment for enabling. This is not the time to mess around with "He says he'll ..." or "I'm afraid it'll ..."-type dithering.

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Re: irrational reactions: I would also say that if you keep having "irrational" reactions to similar things, take some time to dig deep and figure out whether there might be an underlying reason why you might be having that reaction, so you can try to work to undo it at its core. For example, I finally realize (after years) that I am bothered by certain clothes my boyfriend wears because they remind me of the way my dad used to dress (and he used what he wore as a sort of "weapon" to embarrass us sometimes). Causing me big emotional, irrational-feeling reactions that I could neither logic away nor justify.

Carolyn Hax: Well said, thanks.

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Washington, DC re: MY special day: Another idea when you're feeling irrational is to write about it in a journal. It helps me get to the root of why I'm upset, and what (if anything) I want to do to address the situation.

Carolyn Hax: Another good one, tx.

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Battling seft pity: I recently spent three days in the hospital with my daughter when she had mysterious symptoms. Fortunately, she was okay. But there were a lot of kids at the hospital who weren't. Trust me, three days in a pediatric ward are enough to make you very grateful for what you've got. I realized that the little things that were stressing me out (getting holiday shopping done, etc.) were NOTHING in the grand scheme of things. I ended up spending the holidays awash with gratitude.

Carolyn Hax: This made me snuffly ...

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Vows: Maybe it would help to write some anti-vows? Write the corniest, awful, worst vows you can think of...You smell like spring cheese in the morning and I love the clip of your toe nails being cut!!!

Carolyn Hax: and this made me barfy.

Carolyn Hax, advice puppet.

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How important are life choices in a relationship?: Hi Carolyn - thanks very for you chats. They are always interesting and entertaining. I am wondering if you can help me shed some light on something I'm having difficulty sussing out on my own. I'm trying to figure out if differences are a sign of incompatibility or if it is a more of a reflection of some personal hangups that might not be coming from a good place on my end. I've been out a few times with a guy who I had known while I worked a summer job in college. We'd reconnected recently to play tennis over the summer and have since gone out on a few dates. I enjoy seeing him and have a nice time when we go out. One of the issues I see as a difference is that he didn't go to college. Despite coming from an academic family, he describes himself as being a headstrong teen and didn't do this for himself at the time. He also said he made bad choices for himself during that time period (early 20's) and would have done things differently (he's mid 30's). I went to school and have a traditional 9-5 office job. There seem to be other differences that stem from these life choices, as well. In short, I think he's a bit less cosmopolitan than the ppl I surround myself with and I think that it comes from the different choices we've made. I'm wondering if these differences in our lives carry much weight, or if I am being judgemental and superficial. Again, I enjoy his company and am aware that the world simply would not go round if we all had the same kinds of jobs and made the same choices. Right now, I'm mostly focused on just having a nice time going on dates and enjoying the moment, yet I can't help but wonder how much I should think about investing given these life differences. Any thoughts on how to address this with myself?

Carolyn Hax: Get to know him better for as long as you remain interested in getting to know him better, and let him (and his intellect and interests and current choices) answer your questions.

Actually, what you're looking for is only one answer to one question: "No, it doesn't matter." That's what you'll learn if your relationship grows into something real and permanent. If instead you find yourself losing interest, either now or at some point in the future, that won't tell you definitively, "Yes, going to college matters." That's because you can lose interest in someone for a thousand different reasons, and you'd have no way of knowing if rewriting his past and making him a college graduate would magically make him attractive to you now. He is who he is, and you either enjoy/like/want/love him that way, or you don't.

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Kansas City, MO: This is for the "I did my best" and it wasn't good enough for the daughter. Carolyn, I agree with everything you told this gal. The mom may very well have been cowed for years or may have even chosen to stay vs. having to scrabble to give her kid(s) the basics on her own. I lived a horribly sheltered life although no abuse. I felt terribly unprepared to deal with a lot of issues because they just didn't exist in my "ideal" childhood. I asked my mom why she hid so much reality of the world from me and she explained that she "did her best" and kids should be allowed to be kids. After I expressed that it really wasn't the best to leave me naive and unpreppared she told me that as a mom and adult that she did the best she could after experiencing her own tragic childhood and that as an adult it was now time for me to overcome my childhood (as it was) and do the best I could. This was such a liberation to me I can not even explain. I saw my mom as an individual woman for the first time that day. I saw myself as a potential adult that day. The "why wasn't it this way" was the child in me still wanting someone else to fix things. Can anyone swear they would do better in any situation? You don't know until you're there. And you won't do better until you decide you are now responsible for here on out. You survived. You can choose how well you survive or you can waste new years on past years.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for this. Maybe it's just an occupational hazard, but I doubt I'm the only one who looks at families and their inevitable quirks--things the parents choose emphasize, ignore, fight over, center their schedules on, try to correct from their own childhoods (that's the doozy), etc.--and tries to project the results into the future. E.g., this is the thing that's going to put them in marriage counseling, this is what the kids are going to be great at, mad at their parents about, etc.

I wonder about my own kids, too--what are they going to pick out from their childhoods as the thing they'll try to correct with their kids, if they have them? (A: Overthinking everything, ha.)

I think it's useful to keeping things in perspective to -know- there's going to be something. If nothing else, it tamps down zealous devotion to one way of doing things.

And, it actually helps to advance the cause you're promoting here, of accepting your parents as humans who, here it is again, did their best. It reminds you that the perfect upbringing is a mythical beast, one that doesn't exist in nature.

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She did her best: What, exactly, are you looking for, from your mom? To say, "I was a terrible mother and I failed you?"

Do you think she doesn't already know that? Do you really need to emotionally beat that out of her? And yes, I use that word intentionally.

You are already stronger than your mother ever was. Why did you need her to "cry uncle"? I don't think you even realize what you are asking of her. The fact that she failed to protect her children from harm is such a huge source of shame in her. It's like rubbing her face in it to make her say it aloud. Just imagine you standing over her, screaming, "Say it! Say it!" Now who does that remind you of?

Carolyn Hax: Powerful.

I think the futility of demanding the words also applies to the parents who refuse to admit, even to themselves, that they failed to protect their children from harm--the ones who are presented with irrefutable evidence of the abuse and still blame the victim for spreading lies or whatever horrible cover/counter-accusations they concoct. Imagine the weakness there that forces them to stoop so low to protect themselves from the truth.

Not that people should cry any tears over the parents who do that--instead, I think it's worthwhile to recognize the hell they live in as a type of punishment, and decide from there whether anything further is necessary for them or healthy for their victims to pursue.

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MY special day followup: Carolyn, thanks for taking my followup question. The irrational thoughts I have are in my relationship. My boyfriend has women friends that he spends time with, just as I have male friends that I spend time with. I KNOW I can trust him, but I still have an awful feeling in my stomach. This has happened with both of my boyfriends since - guess it - a boyfriend cheated on me with a friend who I trusted him to hang out with. So I know the source of this. And I also volunteer twice a week and feel VERY grateful for what I have in my life. And yet, this still persists. Any other thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: This is a very different situation from the wedding-date issue, and if I'm not losing my mind, you used that Q as a stepping off point for this one. You've had a legitimately painful experience that taught you one thing, and now you're trying to overrule your brain into thinking something else just by dismissing your thoughts as irrational. That isn't about shaking off self-absorption.

What you need is to refine the lesson your cheating boyfriend taught you. "He cheated so guys with female friends will cheat" is the lesson you took away, and you're rightly identifying that as wrong. So ...

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Carolyn Hax: instead, look back to that boyfriend/relationship and think about what happened you missed. Did you miss signs that he was selfish, dishonest, losing interest in you for normal reasons? Were you immature and expecting too much, was he? Did you get together for superficial reasons and form the kind of weak bond that you'd expect from such an attraction? I could go on but I hope you get the idea (cause it's late ...).

When you examine the relationship that imploded, you'll become a better judge of your relationships since, and specifically of trustworthiness of the relationship you're in now.

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Carolyn Hax: I was looking for a quick exit Q when I saw that, and so now it's really really time to go. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend and see you here next week.

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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.

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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