Dear Carolyn:

My husband's family is not speaking to me. There are three adult siblings, two of whom have longtime significant others. This, in addition to parents, aunts and grandparents, makes holiday shopping a real financial burden. So a few weeks ago he and I suggested to his folks that we try what my family has done for years, a name swap where everyone draws one name and buys a present for that person. It works great in my family, and we still get to give a little holiday something to everybody. But his family decided I was trying to run their lives and ruin their holiday. The fact that it was my husband's idea to suggest this to them, based on how well he's seen it work on my side, mattered not at all. I have no idea what else I can do except keep saying it was just a suggestion. Is this really such an awful idea?

--Washington

And here I was afraid there'd be no good contestants for the first annual Putrid In-Laws Pageant.

It was a fine idea. Of course, I say this because we do the same thing not only in my family, but now also in my husband's. The two of us pitched the idea to them last year--based, whaddayaknow, on how well it worked on my side. Granted, this depends on your definition of "worked"; you all have to be honors graduates of the Thought That Counts School to pin your holiday on one gift, like it or not, so it's not for everybody. I failed the first time I tried to convert my in-laws. I was simply overruled, though--not taken out back and shot.

But if my idea had drawn hostile fire, it would have been up to my husband to say, "Get over it, freaks, it was just a suggestion." So where's yours? Has he taken the heat? Said, "If you stop speaking to her, you stop speaking to me"?

I get the sense this family doesn't have all its tires on the road, and that's why they can't roll with a minor difference of opinion--and why the son, I'm guessing, can't demand it. Throw in a little history of chafing between you and the rest of them . . . yes? And you were probably destined for a family pileup. "Ruin their holiday": Secondary. "Run their lives": Big.

Dust yourself off, smile, live like you want nothing but joy for everyone and buy the ten million gifts. Better, make them yourself. You'll trim expenses and win the thought-that-counts battle. If time and a handmade ornament can't fix it, it's more than a holiday break.

Dear Carolyn:

Where can I find out about marriage counselors?

--L.N.

"Get help" is easier typed than done. When it comes to marriage counselors, psychotherapists and a specialist for your (okay, my) debilitating shoe addiction, the usual option--asking around--suddenly isn't so palatable an option. But neither is gathering up your private agony and hitting the Yellow Pages.

Your first step should be to ask for a referral from a health professional you trust. Your regular doctor would be ideal, but anyone you've seen regularly and liked (on a professional and a gut level) would have the magic combination: familiarity with you, connections to the health community and professionally mandated tact. Some medical plans also offer confidential referrals.

Of course, not everyone has his own personal Wonder Doc on speed-dial. So I asked a couples counselor, Chicago social worker Melissa Berler, to counsel me on other ways to seek her counsel. She says:

* First, make sure anyone you find is a licensed practitioner, and therefore continually held accountable to certain standards. Look for the following wall decor: There's AAMFT (Marriage and Family Therapy), MD (psychiatrist), PhD (doctor of psychology) and LCSW (licensed clinical social worker). The American Medical Association (www.ama-assn.org/aps/amahg.htm), American Psychological Association (800-964-2000) and National Association of Social Workers (www.naswdc.org) can provide names of members or will refer you to local chapters.

* Check area hospitals. Most have outpatient mental health centers where services are rendered on a sliding scale based on income. Clinicians there will be from a variety of educational backgrounds and all will be licensed.

* If it's the Yellow Pages or nothing, steer away from individual clinicians. Look (under mental health) for agencies with "Family Service of . . ." in the title or for Jewish and Catholic community mental health centers. They are usually religious in name only; the services are nondenominational. These types of agencies are not for profit; are accountable to boards, government contracts, etc.; and have licensed clinicians. Typically these charge fees on a sliding scale based on income.

* Larger universities also tend to offer outpatient services, and are accountable to the standards listed above.

* If you have school-age kids, the school social workers may be able to make some referrals.

One more thing, from me: This will be an important relationship, so don't beat yourself up if you're not happy with the first person you see, or second, or third. But don't get weird about it, either.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or tellme@washpost.com, and join Carolyn's live discussion at noon today or at 8 p.m. Monday on The Post's Web site, washingtonpost.com/liveonline.