Carolyn Hax Live (Friday, Dec. 23)

Dec 23, 2011

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, Dec. 23 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.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

Got any of Carolyn's answers or readers' questions from the past year stuck in your head? Submit them for next week's Best of Hax 2011 chat that will take place while Carolyn is on vacation.

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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Hello, everybody who isn't off doing holiday things.

Hi Carolyn and Merry Christmas! The other side of the question people are always asking about "should I tell my friend I hate her boyfriend"... Do you have any advice for how to sort out when you're friends have a point and when you're being overly influenced by them? My friends and my boyfriend don't get along very well, and I think that the things they don't like about him are things I don't mind, but sometimes I doubt myself because generally they know me pretty well and I wonder if they're seeing incompatibilities that I don't. (Not abuse, just personality stuff.) Thanks!

Ask them if the boyfriend gets on their nerves, or if the person you are when you're with your boyfriend gets on their nerves. (Or, in a similar vein, if you just generally seem unhappy or out of touch with your former self.) The former is a bummer, but the latter is a problem that deserves your attention. 

Hey Carolyn, I am a devoted fan of your column! I'm 17, and a junior in high school. Up until this year, I've had two best friends, "Beth" and "Carly". Carly and I are still best friends, but Beth has decided to ditch us completely to hang with a crowd of people who drink and party, things my friend are I were never interested in. We've seen for a while that she had no interest in being friends with us anymore, but now she won't even talk to us, or look at us. A huge part of me wants to confront her about how much she has hurt me by this abandonment, but another part of me thinks its better to leave it alone. She seems to be having so much fun, and that her life is all the better with her "cooler" friends. Should I just forget about her and move on or should I confront her?

Thanks for the kind words.

There's a lot of room between those two choices you offer, because they represent the extremes--refuse to get involved or get over-involved in her choices. They also have one important thing in common: both"forget about her" and "confront her" are punitive responses to the choices she has made.

Whenever you're not sure how to respond to someone, try using these steps:

1. Put yourself in her place. What you're seeing now is only your hurt feelings. What do you think the view might be from her perspective?

2. Ask yourself whether you're seeing things in black-and-white, and then try to imagine the same scenario in shades of gray.

3. The less sure you are, the less talking you need to do. Listening is the surest path to a solution, not just here, but almost universally.

In this case, you can apply these three by considering, for example, that Beth isn't ignoring you because you're not "cool" enough, but instead because she thinks you might be judging her. 

Again, that's just an example, but it's one that comes with a completely different approach when it comes time to talk to Beth, right? Instead of, "You hurt me," it calls for, "I miss you. How are you doing?" I.e., an open-ended question vs. a declarative statement, and an expression of kindness vs. an accusation.

Certainly give this some thought before you talk to Beth, and also prepare yourself to get nowhere with her. askingnice, open-ended quesitons doesn't magically produce results. But I do think if you prepare to go into any conversation with her with the intentions of being nice to her and listening, you'll at least lay the foundation for her to consider your friendship bookmarked for a later date, instead of buried for good.

Oh, I forgot to post this at the beginning--I'm off the next two Fridays, so there will be a Best Of chat at this time next week (check out the Hax Live transcripts from August to see what that means ... Levi, would you be able to post a  link?) and then a chorus crickets on Jan. 6. Sorry about the back-t0-back absences; the reasons are coincidental.  

Here's the link to August's "Best of" chat: http://live.washingtonpost.com/carolyn-hax-live-082611.html

I'll post the link to next week's at the end of this chat shortly after Carolyn's done.

Hi Carolyn, I know you have addressed the topic of flirting in chats past. This question concerns my husband who is either oblivious or willfully hurting/irritating me. Or, I am a controlling, overly sensitive witch, I guess. When we are out in public my husband will just start random conversations with strange women. I am not talking about talking to folks at a party or running into an acquaintance. I mean just standing in line and striking up a chat or sitting at a bar and leaning over to discuss the game/her bag/etc with someone he has never met before. From my perspective, when a guy does that I usually figure he's hitting on me or trying to open the door to a larger conversation that may go that way. Certainly I don't strike up chats with unknown, random guys in bars or other public places because I don't want to open those doors. In the end I've gently suggested that people may misunderstand his intentions and that those chats leave me feeling like I am watching my husband hit on someone. He nods and then keeps on doing it. Should I just let this go?

Depends. Does he talk to men also? Women of all shapes, sizes, ages and positions on the heat index? Are they long conversations or brief exchanges? When he's talking to these strangers, are you just sitting there wondering why you're all alone on what was supposed to be your evening out with him--or does he do it when you're otherwise occupied, like takign a call or running to the ladies' room?

I don't think it's fair to call this one without context, because he could just be a friendly guy whom you're unfairly judging on your own friendliness scale (e.g., you're judging an extrovert by introvert standards), and he could also be mistreating you, or doing something else at some other point along the decency scale. 

I have cordial relationships with my ex husband and my boyfriend from high school. These relationships consist of the occasional phone call and seeing each other once or twice a year in a group setting. My boyfriend thinks this is really, really, really weird. So weird. And he says all his friends agree with him. Am I crazy?

You do know my history, right? As the one whose kids from remarriage call my ex-husband "Uncle Nick"?

Of course you're not crazy. It's also not crazy to be suspicious of people who treat you like you're crazy just because your approach to things differs from theirs.

If your boyfriend wants (and his friends want) nothing to do with exes, that's just fine, and their prerogative. But please take very seriously his  unwillingness to believe there's more than one right way to handle exes--or handle anything else, for that matter, since life cane be very unpleasant with someone who criticizes the way you talk to your mom, celebrate holidays or dice onions any time your way differs from his. You want someone who trusts you enough to trust that you're both headed toward the same goals, even when you take different paths to that goal, whether that goal is fidelity or financial security or an edible dinner. 

Hi, my sister-in-law is inviting several family members over for what is billed as a holiday get-together and dinner. Her most recent communication about the event suggests that everyone bring a gift, ostensibly to exchange, but for no particular person and the gift should be marked as being for a small child, boy, girl, teen, adult male, etc. Since she is very active in her church it may be that she is planning on collecting the gifts for her church, which is OK, but people should be told. Plus she isn't on the best of terms with some relatives she's inviting so if they get there expecting one thing and seeing a room full of people they don't know all belonging to her church it could leave people feeling deceived. Still it is the season and so forth. How do you think it should be approached? I told my wife we can go with an open mind but if it does turn out to be mostly a room full of strangers instead of a family affair and we don't feel like staying, we are under no obligation and can make our regrets and leave. I also told her that we can offer a cash contribution instead of a wrapped gift. Sound fair?

Why don't you just call her and ask for specifics ("Is this a family exchange or are you collecting for your church or ...?"), since that information is awfully useful at gift-buying time. If she  is "very active in her church" and not a raging hypocrite, then you can count on her to be truthful about her intentions. 

Hi Carolyn, I just attended a holiday party and I am still in shock over an incident between a guest and the host. Guest yelled across the crowded room to the host " Host, there is something on the plate I picked up, that's disgusting". She was not kidding and was being very stern and condescending. The host looked flabbergasted and embarrassed and finally said "well then please get another plate". I am friends with both of them but I was appalled by what Guest did and felt so bad for the host who spent a lot of time and money putting a great party together. My boyfriend said I was right not to say anything but I feel like I should have said something to her and defended the host. Guest is very self absorbed and has done things like this before. What is your take on this? I plan to never invite her to anything that I have in the future and really don't want to be friends with her anymore but I am really wondering if people should say something when they are confronted with this kind of hostility and rudeness in a social setting.

I think a comment to the  host shortly after the incident, along the lines of, "Great party, you've outdone yourself," would have been just right. But, even then, it's okay to trust that Guest was really the only one who looked bad here. Even though Host was no doubt embarrassed, this is one of the rare occasions where it was safe to assume s/he had the sympathy of the room. That's the beauty of shocking rudeness: It actually elevates the victim. It's subtle rudeness that leaves victims most in need of validation and support.

My husband's brother is in the middle of a very nasty divorce, and my husband and are grieving the loss of a wonderful friendship with our ex-sister-in-law. Husband's brother has been adamant about our cutting ties with her. We are not so sure we can do this, and have been thinking of including her in our holiday plans. Would you agree that it's okay to make an exception at Christmastime, especially for someone who doesn't really have other family in the area?

This is another one that is wholly dependent on context. The simplistic answer is to say that your BIL has no right to tell you that you can't stay in touch with his ex. And, he doesn't. But: That doesn't account for one of the most important elements of a decision like this: Who wronged whom in the marriage? I've read too many accounts of an abuse victim whose family insists on staying in touch with the abuser s/he just divorced. And that, to me, is a huge betrayal by that family.

On the other hand, if your BIL mistreated his soon-to-be ex, then the family has more standing to say,"You want nothing to do with her, and that's your right, but she was good to us and we grew to see her as a sister over these  7/17/27 years." You can even ask for justification, along the lines of, "If she mistreated you, then please say so, because we don't want to be the unwitting providers of shelter to someone who did you harm. But if this is just about your not loving her any more, then I feel I have a right to stay in touch with her, just based on my own relationship with her that we built over the years."

I realize the nastiness of the divorce can make even an alienation-of-affection divorce into one of enemies and purposeful harm, but it's stil possible, I believe, to tease out the threads of responsibility and decide accordingly whether you're betraying family by staying in touch with an ex.

Just make sure you base your decisions on what you think is right, since any choice in these circumstances is likely to alienate someone. If you're not willing to lose your relationship with your BIL, for example, or if your husband isn't, then that has to factor in to your allegiances. If instead you want to do what you think is right, and are ready to accept any consequences of that, then you maintain ties as you deem appropriate and let others decide how to respond.

 

It's December 23, and I know my beloved ADD husband hasn't done a thing about my Christmas present. I tried to make things easy on him by asking for one thing related to his hobbies and interests, but honestly, he forgets. I try not to badger him, but keep blurting out attempts at humorous reminders ("now you'll have to get me diamonds AND chocolate!"), but I don't like myself when I say stuff like that... I just get so frustrated. Any wisdom?

Can you live with not getting anything, knowing that's part of the package of your life with this beloved ADD husband?

Happy Festivus Carolyn and 'nuts! What to do about a good friend who constantly complains about her bf and won't make the obvious choice? I have my own holiday blues to deal with and I want to be there for her, but she's bringing me down.

"I see. You've talked about this quite a bit lately--what do you plan to do about it?"

or, variations:

"Wow, I can see why that gets to you. What are you going to say/do about it?"

"Yeah, I hear you. What comes next, do you think?"

"Yep, that's a tough one--but I know you'll figure it out."

Or even: "You keep saying some version of this, yet you haven't taken what seems like the obvious next step and broken up with him. Why is that, do you think?"

Or anything else your imagination conjures, as long as it steers her right back to herself--because "being there for her" by providing her with bottomless sympathy and unending patience  is actually a great disservice to a friend. You're rewarding her inaction.

 

Hi Carolyn, My husband and I are planning a post-Christmas visit to my step-son and his new wife, who has a five-year old son from a previous marriage. We're fond of her and very happy for them. I find the little boy a bit overindulged and whiny, but figure that's not my business, and that we'll grow to enjoy each other over time. So here's my problem. We've only been around the youngster a few times, and he's not very comfortable with us yet (we live about 5 hours away). On our last visit, when it was time to say goodnight, my daughter-in-law coaxed him, "Say 'I love you,'" which of course he wouldn't do, so she kept urging. At the first possible opportunity I very maturely sneaked out of the room. I am so-o-o-o uncomfortable with children (or anyone) being coerced into insincere expressions of love, but don't want to hurt the feelings of a new family member who means well. Any idea what I can say to head off a repeat of this scene, especially bearing in mind that whatever I say will likely be in the presence of the little boy? signed, OK with being liked

"Oh, that's sweet, but I'd appreciate a hug." Defuse, defuse, defuse. I know that's hard when you're already uncomfortable with kids, but at least you know a few things you can anticipate on this visit, and can prepare some responses. When someone asks too much of this boy or of his relationship with you, gently demur and -specifically- request something less.

Carolyn, I agree with what you said in the general case, but the way I read the question it appeared that she wanted to include her sis-in-law in a family celebration that already included the brother. It's one thing to maintain ties, but another to purposefully create an awkward situation by having the brother and his soon-to-be ex at the same Christmas dinner.

I'm going to take your word for it and answer this without going back to the original. Yes, putting the two together without their mutual consent wouldn't be fair.

You've also reminded me that I wanted to make another point in that answer, but forgot to: It's one thing to keep in touch with the ex, but it's another to attach that to holidays. Stay in touch with the ex, sure, based on the parameters I talked about in the first answer. There's no need to add extra voltage ot an already charged situation by including the ex in your holiday plans, whether the BIL is going to be there or not. You may be thinking of it as an act of kindness, but it will look like an act of defiance. The ex is a grownup, and can handle a holiday without your family's embrace.

I don't think the woman was uncomfortable with children, but with children being coerced into showing affection. Your advice still stands, just pointing this out

You're right to, thanks--it was the kid who wasn't comfortable with them yet. A bit of wire-crossing. 

I didn't drink or party in high school either. I had a conversation with my two best friends who did and said I knew we were in different worlds on that, but still wanted to be their friends in the non drinking things. We did a mutual respect thing--they didnt bring me places they knew I'd be uncomfortable and I didn't judge their choices , even though I disagreed with them. I missed some stuff, and they were closer to each other than me, but by respecting each other's choices, we stayed friends. And still are 15+ years after high school.

Thanks. This gets tougher when partiers go off the rails, but, then, staying agree-to-disagree friends actually helps in those circumstances, too.

Even if she can live without the presents, how bad does the husband feel when it's midnight on Christmas Eve and it all suddenly clicks, and he's frustrated with himself and feels guilty for messing up another Christmas? Another option might not be to write off gifts all together, but to write off Christmas morning surprise gifts--to either shop together, or plan something special together, that both acknowledge "counts", and doesn't make him feel like the screw up, and her the loving/understanding martyr, *agan*

Right. Adults of all stripes rarely respond well when they're set up to fail. And, since each of us has shortcomings, each of us has an area where we can be expected to fail--it's just part of everyone's package deal. So, given that the greatest gifts our loved ones can give us are acceptance of the things we can't do and gratitude for what we can, holidays (or other milestone occasions) are great opportunities for couples/families/friends to give each other chances to shine. Ask for things they give well, and wipe out your expectations for things they rarely or never produce. E.g., stop throwing your intovert into your family's holiday melee for three solid days, and instead plan a one-on-one outing for Day 2 that will allow you to enjoy him or her in prime conditions. Tell your ADD spouse you want to skip the gifts and go shopping together at post-Xmas sales. Ask your compulsive organizer to take over holiday meal-planning vs. expecting him/her to roll with an unstructured afternoon. Etc.

For the Step-Grandmom - I bet the step-son of her step-son would be intrigued, if not thrilled, to learn his new "dad" also had a new grown-up introduced into his life. Kids love knowing they aren't alone in their experience.

Excellent point, thanks.

I don't know, I think asking for a hug may be just as hard on the child who doesn't want to say I love you. I really think this might be an instance where it would be best to say something like, "oh, Jake and I are still getting to know each other, aren't we?" - taking it lightly, but letting the child off the hook for coerced expressions of affection, oral or physical.

If they don't hug, then, yes--the point is to ask for something you have a precedent of getting from the child without resistance. Thanks.

Wow, I really disagree with you on this, which surprises me because I usually think you're spot-on with how to handle such relationships. I think the ex absolutely should be included in the holidays. I also have a brother who has an ex-wife who is a great person (and would otherwise be alone for the holidays), and I simply told my brother, "I am inviting your ex-wife for Christmas dinner, and if you can't be civil to her please don't come." He did come and that Christmas turned out to be a good first step toward my brother learning to at least be cordial when she was around. You think I was wrong to do that?

Not if it worked out, and, again, if the context supported it. But this is so fraught. If the ex had wronged your brother and if he had decided not to tell you that because he didn't want to badmouth her, then your "She's coming and you're sucking it up" approach would have been really insensitive. 

Since in this case the brother has laid down a law, since their divorce is ugly and currently in progress, and since I don't have the details on who is being a jerk to whom and whether the misbehavior runs one or both ways, I still think it's best to include the ex with great discretion, and with great care not to aggravating an already tough situation by crusading where consideration would make more sense. Given all this, I say invite the ex to come over at some point in the next few days but not for any Family Traditional Event. The benefit doesn't appear to outweigh the potential pitfalls--and, again, a grownup can handle a year off from hiking the ho ho ho trail.

Carolyn - Love the chats. My MIL and I have a decent relationship. She's annoying, but as MILs go, not so bad. But this year, I am not feeling so great about her. I opened her Xmas card. A picture of the entire family (my husband is the second of four) spouses, grandchildren, etc. Everyone but me and our youngest daughter. No mention of us, no shout out. Okay, full disclosure: I had just had a baby six weeks prior and this picture was taken at a cross-country family wedding that the baby and I did not attend. I think my MIL was hurt that we didn't go, but still. In the age of photoshop, couldn't we have been pasted in? Or at least included in a small note that we weren't present, but that we still exist? How do I host this woman in my house for three days? Feeling stung

Is this the closest she has gotten to a complete family pic in quite a while? If so, then you need not to take this personally, because in that case, the alternative would have been to send out no record of her family in its current state, and incomplete is better than nothing when keeping up with friends. For all you know, she put into her cards to others that you and baby weren't there. No reason to write that in your card, right?

If she did have an alternative, full-family shot, then you do have grounds to feel miffed--but only if you also have accumulated other hints that you're regarded as an unpleasant afterthought by your MIL. That's because, for all you know, she thought she looked bad in the other pic and she's more inclined to be vain than inclusive. Not fair, maybe, but also not about you. Best not to trouble yourself with onetime slights. 

At least I sure hope it is. I'm 23, the oldest of six kids, and my 50 y.o. Dad just walked out on us to be with a 26 y.o. hottie. Mom has never worked and Dad doesn't make all that much money. I'm in grad school, 2 are in college and the youngest is 9. Even if he comes to his senses , how can we possibly survive this?

I'm sorry, that is a punch in the gut. A survivable one, though, as you know.

The two in college need to talk to their advisers asap to see what forms of tuition relief are available to them should your dad stop providing whatever financial support he has been giving, and any of the olders who are home need to step in to help care for the youngers as much as possible while your mom tries to find 1. free or inexpensive legal assistance and 2. a job or job training. For the legal part, try legal clinics at local law schools if there are any, contact the local family court for resources or call a local women's center to see if they offer legal advice as part of their services. Many do.

A lot of this information won't be accessible over the holiday weekend, so concentrate on staying calm, staying close and staying positive.  Hang in there--there are, at least, four of you who are in a position to care for the most vulnerable three kids in your family, and that can be the string you hang onto as you find your way through the maze.

 

Hi Carolyn - I am set to fly off to a gorgeous resort for a week-long vacation with my boyfriend and his family. However, we've been fighting so much recently (even having discussions about splitting up) that I'm now looking forward to the trip with dread rather than anticipation. I had already made arrangements to stay separately from the family for appearances' sake, but I will still be spending a great deal of time with them and am worried about how to get through this without A) lying through my teeth or B) allowing my relationship problems to sap all the joy out of this. FWIW, the plane tickets and hotel stay are non-refundable, so excusing myself isn't an option. How do I manage to make this an enjoyable and memorable-for-all-the-right-reasons experience? -Morose in Maui

1. You can cancel; you'll just have to pay back any part of it his family paid for you;

2. You can also go and treat it as a chance to find out whether you and he can get past your differences. I.e. if you can ;t like each other in Maui, where can you?

3. You can leave partway if you're miserable. 

Bon voyage!

The phones are not ringing, most of my colleagues are gone for the holidays, but I have one client that keeps emailing me and making me do work...Can I tell them to go on vacation already? :)

You can tell me! That's it for today. Thanks everyone, and have a great weekend--in the spirit of low expectations, I'll wish you a nice break from the routine, punctuated by cookies. 

And don't forget next week's Best of Hax 2011 chat. Please submit your favorite questions and answers from the past year so we can reminisce while Carolyn's on vacation.

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Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on washingtonpost.com. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their three boys.

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