Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems (Friday, January 4)

Jan 04, 2013

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, January 4, 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 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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Hi everybody, happy New Year and happy Friday. I have the flu and a fluey kid home from school, so I might not go the usual distance today, if one of us starts wilting.

Just curious - why was today's letter chosen to be published? It was seemingly written by the friend of an aunt of a child that the aunt sees very very infrequently. The letter writer just wanted confirmation of whether her advice to the aunt was sound. Aren't letters written by the actual person interested in receiving the advice more important, more helpful, less confusing, and overall better to publish?

Her advice wasn't sound, it was awful, and it was the product of a thought process I see and hear too often-- one I was happy for the opportunity to analyze. I thought my last line explained well enough why I answered her, but I guess it didn't. Sorry about that.

Dear Carolyn, My husband and I met in early 2011, got married in early 2012, and are expecting our first baby in early 2013. (Slight rush because of age/fertility concerns; I'm on the cusp of 40.) So in other words, the transition from first date to married/expectant parents was a pretty quick one. We are arguing bitterly over how to name our child, with one of us angling for a traditional name that honors a family member (no specific name in mind, just that one consideration) and the other looking for something creative and unique (again, no specific name in mind). There is no overlap between these categories, so no answer that will satisfy both of us. The bigger issue is, I worry that if we can't get this settled, we're in for a much rockier marriage than we realized. Question 1: Any suggestions? Question 2: Am I overthinking?

What each of you needs to think about--run this by him if you think it would help--is why winning this argument has become more important than your relationship with each other. A name does matter, yes, to a degree, because a bad one can dog a person and a good one can be a source of confidence and connection. Still, a name doesn't matter even close to as much as the happiness and stability of one's childhood home matters. Specifically, the relationship of co-parents serves usually as a child's first and most enduring example of how to have an emotional relationship--encompassing such essential elements of human fulfillment as warmth, respect, perspective, cooperation, self-control, fair play, delayed gratification, I could go on. Whether your child is named Lucille or Lulubelle is not going to mean a bucket of spit if you and your husband fight for leverage over everything each of you finds individually important. 

You matter. He matters. Lucillebellulu matters. Go be grownups now and choose a name that aims neither for flair nor ancestral significace, but instead sounds nice to both of you. If you can't do that, find a good marriage class, seminar or counselor to help you get your priorities and communication strategies unbent. Wouldn't be a bad idea anyway, even if you do agree peacably that Annabeth Artichoke has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Hi Carolyn, I am a huge fan of your chats and really value your advice. I was interested in your response to Thursday's LW who was having doubts about getting married. However, you didn't answer her question which was: how much doubt is normal and when can you settle on your decision to get married? I am curious what your thoughts are on that. The other posters suggested that there were huge red flags and that she should run, but when I read the post, I thought the LW was thrown off by a big fight, and that fight caused her to question her relationship. When we have big moments, good or bad, isn't it a good thing to question what it means, even if we question it in the form of doubts about the strength of the relationship? I am engaged, and while I never think "oh god what am I doing" as the LW did, I do sometimes wonder "Will we be happy?" and "do we really have what it takes to succeed?" How much of that is normal and how much of that is cause for concern? Thanks for taking my question.

Nice catch, thanks--I didn't answer her question. In part that's because it makes so much more sense to me to treat each of these decisions individually, both for the person making the decision in question and for people looking to extrapolate an answer that applies to their situations.

Maybe worth noting, maybe not, is that I didn't read the letter the same way you did, as a one-off doubting session arising from a fight. What stuck out for me was the difference in the LW's thinking when the fiance was with her vs. absent. I can't speak for anyone else, but there aren't a lot of people in my life of whom I think differently when they're present vs. absent--and the few who do have that effect on me tend to be problematic for me.

If there's one thing a mate shouldn't be, it's that. Marriage is a long walk, and you want comfy shoes.

 

 

HA. You thought I wasn't going to answer the question again? (I hope so, or else this whole device was wasted.)

Anyway, here's my best shot at an answer: I'm suspicious of people who -don't- have doubts, if only because so many marriages don't make it. It's when those doubts have a specific place to anchor themselves--his tendency to do X, her annoying habit of Y, your history of Z ...--that I think it's important to stop the wedding-plan machinery and deal with the doubts, to the point where you're confident one way or the other.

 

For Thursday's LW who wants to marry when she's with Fiance, but has doubts when alone: I had doubts five years ago, when I was madly in love, yet harboring doubts about my fiance's personality. He was my first serious relationship and I had nothing to compare my feelings to, so I was wracked with doubt. The month before our wedding I found myself emailing a friend wondering if I should call it off because of my doubts. As I wrote, I came to my own answer. Instead of thinking of ways I wanted him to change, I asked myself if I could I see myself with him forever, exactly as he was, with absolutely no changes. I also made a list of the ways he made me feel each day. I was brutally honest. You sound as though your doubts might be about whether your future with him will include these past mistakes. You simply can't know that right now. If you're afraid of them happening again, ask yourself: can I be happy with him fully knowing that another mistake is possible--just as it's possible with *anyone*? Can I be happy with him knowing that he will remain who he is now? Or will you live a life in fear of that mistake instead? It's not fair for him to be with someone who wants him to be different. It's not fair to you to be with someone you need to change in order to be happy, or who you can't trust.

Yep, this works, thanks.

My brother-in-law "Fritz" has asked me for advice about his marriage to my sister "Jo." He says that they are fighting about money, which is standard stuff, and housecleaning, because Jo's always been a neat freak. What worries me is that he says Jo has gotten increasingly angry and sullen, and she is yelling at their kids and saying they don't care and never will care about a clean house. But they are nine and thirteen, so it's a little early, you know? Fritz says he's afraid to discuss any of their issues because he doesn't want to anger her. I know I don't want to get in the middle of their marriage, but I have to say something to Fritz, who is a sweet man who wants to work it out. And I don't like hearing that my sister is sad. Any advice?

Yes. Please advise Fritz to urge Jo to see a doctor for a depression screening to start, and possibly OCD or anxiety beyond that. Then urge Fritz to check their insurance coverage, or his or Jo's employer for an EAP, to see if there's room for a good family therapist in the strained budget they appear to have. 

More six-degrees-of-advisory-separation, but Fritz is a sweet man who needs to find his backbone and get more powerful help than a sib or I can provide.

 

My boyfriend and I have started talking marriage and he's indicated a desire to do some sort of premarital counseling. We're not "officially" engaged so we don't have an officiant to guide us in this and neither of us are active in churches so I'm not sure where to find resources on a secular version. Any help?

Try smartmarriages.org, and yay to both of you for doing this.

Hi Carolyn, I hosted a small gathering on New Year's Eve. After the party, my husband mentioned to me that one of the guests was visibly upset (tears) after a conversation with another one of my friends. He said the topic of conversation was pregnancy and I suspect there is something going on with the tearful guest that I am not aware of. She's a close friend's wife - so while I know her, my friendship is more with him. My gut tells me to butt out, but then part of me thinks it would be the "polite" thing to ask after her well-being. Do I need to do anything here, or just pretend nothing happened? Hoping for the latter answer...

This is your lucky day. The right thing to do is not pry.

I do think, though, that these friends might need friends now, so it would be thoughtful if you made an effort to plan something with them soon. (And if they say no, accept that without pressing. Not even in a cheerful, "Aw, c'mon," kind of way.)

How do I get past the feeling that I'm -waiting- for my boyfriend to propose? I feel ready for and excited about marrying him, but I recognize and respect that he needs more time. While I am about 90% sure an engagement will happen eventually, and am trying to be patient, I can't get past this antsy feeling. I'm sure this is all too common, especially among people in their late 20s. Thanks - I love your chats!!

Thanks, much appreciated.

This will sound darker and grumpier than I mean it to be, but I think it's important to poke as many holes as you can in this happy-antsy-anticipation. It's just so natural for people, when they have a goal in mind off on the horizon somewhere, to train their attention on that--and that's when they're most likely to miss what's happening right under their feet. 

To the extent that  you're able, please regard the moment you're in now as the rest of your life, instead of imaginging a better something awaiting you somewhere. Let yourself absorb how today feels exactly as it is. -This- is what you're hoping to have forever, if it does result in marriage. In fact, if most people's trajectories are any measure of what yours will be, what you're hoping for will actually be just this, only much much harder.

Familiarity, illness/losses/aging, career and financial ups and downs, hard decisions that come with every tandem life (where to live, how to deal with extended family, etc), and children if you go that route, will all test your ability to work with, grow with and love each other. Are you and he strong enough for that? Do you not just agree on things, but also disagree on them well?

Comedies end with a marriage, and dramas start with them, right? So let yourself both enjoy the comedy and be realistic about the drama. That'll put you in a great position to see whether -you- want to marry -him.- That's the most important thing, even (especially?) when you think you've already figured that out. This is bonus time to wear your choice before it's legally binding.

I'll try to make this as simple as I can: after a death in the family, my younger (early 30s) cousin decided to move closer to family/friends and put her house on the market. She was going to break up with her live-in boyfriend (who she was largely supporting and who can barely keep a job), but then he proposed. She deliberated for a few weeks and decided to accept, even though family/friends tried to talk her out of it. I'm being asked to talk some sense into her, and as much as I wish I could, it seems pointless. I keep hoping she'll wake up and realize this is not for her, but it doesn't seem to be happening. Even so, there's nothing I can say to make her change her mind. What can I tell the well-meaning loved ones who insist that I'm not doing enough besides "sorry?"

You could point out that if they all had a better grasp of boundaries then maybe she'd be in a better position to make healthy emotional choices, but that would just be mean-spirited. 

So please deflect the insistent loved ones with, "She's a grown woman, and she hasn't asked me what I think." As many times as needed.

If she is in touch--or if you have a close enough relationship to make this kind of call to her make sense--then I do think there's something you can do to help her (not change her mind, just help). You can say, "I understand you've been hearing a lot from the family about your engagement. How are you holding up?" If she wants to toss ideas around with someone who won't judge her or try to live her life for her, that's her invitation, and if she doesn't, then that's your token of respect for the fact that it's not your business until she makes it so. Seems she could use either of these right now.

My best friend had a baby a month ago. I saw her and the baby in the hospital when he was just born and then about week later. I've called at least 10 times, with no response. I'm trying hard not to take it personal. This is normal, right? Is there anything else I can/should be doing to help her out and maintain the close bond we had pre-baby? Caveat: I don't have kids and this is the first of my close friends to have a baby.

It is normal for a new, first-time mom to be busy and overwhelmed, but I don't feel comfortable saying it's normal for a best friend who wants to help to be completely shut out for three weeks. It could be, sure, but it could also be that something's wrong--postpartum depression comes immediately to mind, but that's not the only possibility.

I assume you have some relationship with other people close to her? You don't mention a husband/partner, but that's the best bet if there is one, and her parents are another. Explain that you don't mean to make a pest of yourself, you've just been calling, you're worried about the non-reponse and just want a yea or nay on whether all is well. Say that if she just needs space, you'll back off, no hard feelings--but if things are overwhelming for her then you'd like to help by _______. 

Good things to fill in that blank: 

1. bringing by dinner or dinners that can be easily frozen and reheated.

2. Doing some laundry or dishes or running some errands for them.

3. Taking the baby out in a carriage, weather permitting, or holding him while your friend takes a hot bath. 

Hope it turns out to be nothing besides normal, rookie scrambling to get through these early days.

(Producer)

Hello, chatters! I'm briefly interrupting this chat to bring you the latest Hax Philes entry, which was just posted. Check it out and give some advice. Thanks!

Hi Carolyn, I'm pregnant with my first baby and in the process of determining whether I will return to my job (public interest lawyer) after the baby is born in April. I'm the last among my friends to start a family, so I have seen friends choose both paths--some stay home now, others are working moms. I don't know a better way to say this: NO ONE seems totally happy. My friends who stay home are bored, strapped for cash, and fighting with their husbands. My friends who work are busy, stressed, and fighting with their husbands. I love my husband, but who knows how parenthood will change our relationship. I am very excited to welcome this baby, but worry that what I'm seeing means that no matter what, life is about to take a turn for the worse. Can you set me straight on this?

The fighting-with-spouse aspect of childrearing is not inevitable. These are inevitable for parents:

You will be tired.

You will be faced with things you have no idea how to handle, fix, solve.

You will not agree with your co-parent on every detail.

You will disappoint each other.

You will have bad moods, and they often will be exacerbated by lack of sleep, especially early on.

You will have responsibilities that are boring, repetitive, relentless, mildly irritating, of great consequence to your bond with your child, and rewarding mostly in the very long term. (Diapers, feedings, play ...)

Obviously, it's easy to see why the combination of these on a daily basis over years can lead people to fight. But, again, it doesn't have to. Probably the biggest thing you both can do to prevent bickering is to put everything you've got into this. That means not rolling over and making it the other person's turn to get up unless it actually is. It means seeing what needs to be done and doing it, instead of hoping the elves will get it. It means communicating--"I do plan to do the dishes, I just need to sit for a second."

When both of you can plainly see that neither of you is taking advantage of the other, then you can use these other, highly effective fight-preempters:

Recognizing the other person is tired, too.

Occasionally giving the other person a break, even when it's technically not your turn.

Admitting when you're faced with something you don't know how to solve, and asking for ideas.

Leaving it alone when you disagree on something small--it's okay for kids to have two different experiences with two different parents--and taking it sit-down-and-talk seriously when you disagree on something big. It's not okay for there to be such great differences that kids (at surprisingly young ages) know they can use you against each other for leverage. It's also not okay when one parent insists on something genuinely risky (texting while driving, say).  

Apologizing when you let your spouse down, and forgiving when he lets you down.

Finding family-workable ways to deal with your bad moods. Will a walk do it? A trip to the gym? A loosening of the rules that day? (Ice cream for breakfast once in a while will not derail the train.) Make sure you both have outlets the other knows about and is willing to provide when you cry uncle.

Last but not least, build something into your schedules that serves to remind you of why you like each other.  Date night, a favorite show, a favorite team, etc.

I'm sure I missed a bunch, but by now you probably all think I've fallen off my chair.

 

 

 

I'd be tempted to send an e-mail to her saying you've noticed she's been a bit down - perhaps the two of you could go out and do something cheery like to funny movie (insert something else). That way, you've signalled you're there if she wants to open up but she can also a. decline b. accept but just not confide. Is there something I'm missing here?

I think that's fine, too, but if I remember the question correctly it was a friend once removed--spouse of a friend. So, yes with an asterisk, that it's an email that would make sense knowing what you know about the person. Thanks.

Hi Carolyn- I'm the extremely doubtful OP from Thursdays column, although not so doubtful anymore. I just wanted to thank you for taking my question and honestly just asking it really helped me organize my thoughts. I did end up leaving him and it was absolutely the right decision. He didn't cheat (problems were mostly financial) and he wasn't manipulative, I just felt very stuck in a relationship that on a basic level worked but when things got tough the relationship would almost implode- seeing it in front of my mother just put it in a different perspective. It's so hard to uproot your life when you're so invested in a person and taking that step was the scariest decision I've ever made but I'm so glad I did. He was a good guy, just not the guy for me.

Hey, thanks for writing back. It sounds as if it was tough on both of you, I'm sorry, but it also sounds as if you made an important call. When things are tough, that's when you need to be able to count on each other.

Has the friend tried texting or emailing? I hardly ever answer my phone or listen to voicemails, and it's so much easier for me to text or email someone back when I'm feeling overwhelmed. Just something to consider.

Yes, could be that simple, thanks.

Back in October, when a woman wrote in about her husband yelling at her, you urged her to treat it as abuse and gave her a hotline to call for help. Today, when someone wrote in about a wife yelling at her husband, you advised that the husband needed to "find his backbone." I'd be interested in hearing from you why reversing the sexes produces such a different reaction from you. Here's the October chat I'm referring to. It's the third letter down.

Thanks for giving me a chance to address this.

To me, at least, the details of the two situations are very different. In the October question, a man is yelling at a woman for failing to show him the proper respect. That's red flag stuff. There's also very little other context to help me point them in a possibly more accurate direction.

By comparison, we have a "neat freak" in today's question--useful context--who is "increasingly angry and sullen" (emphasis added). That tells me this is a case for mental-health screening first, where someone who had tendencies toward a certain disorder but was on the near side of clinical has crossed over into clinical.

The backbone issue for me is about the kids--she's yelling at them, saying apocalyptic/defeatist things, and the co-parent is afraid to do anything about it. 

I'd say gender was irrelevant here, and I do think it is in the second one, but I don't think it is in the first. It would be only if power imbalances hadn't been such an important element of interaction between men and women, but they have.

I try to call each of these based on details alone--that's my way of dealing with the fact that there's no way to work entirely without the lenses of who I am, what I've experienced and what I believe. All I can say is that, while I surely have biases, I have no agenda. I'm not trying to empower or undermine women, empower or undermine men, save marriages, end marriages, whatever else. I'm just looking for what makes sense.

Well, okay--equality is an agenda, I guess, and I do try to promote that. (Thus this response.)



A then-again to my then-again: If someone wrote to me who wanted a non-equality-based, gender-traditional relationship, I would advise what I thought that person needed to accomplish that goal. So maybe the best answer for the question really is all I'm trying to write after all. Need to think about this more.

For the woman wondering whether to go back to work after having a baby: Go back, at least for awhile. The infant phase is exciting but also stressful and boring, and the baby won't remember it if you're not there every second. I never wanted to stay at home (and I still don't), but with a preschooler I feel it much more acutely when I don't get enough time with him (as does my kid). Plus if you try that WOHM thing on and decide you made a mistake, you can switch without a problem. It's much harder to quit your job, realize after a year or two that you made a mistake, and then try to re-enter the workforce.

Good points both, thanks--though baby bonding is important. Take whatever maternity and paternity leave is available, even extend it as possible before going back. You didn't say otherwise, but "the baby won't remember" breezes past it a bit too fast. Babies need good, safe, highly attentive care for their emotional security and brain development. It can come from somewhere other than mom (and in fact a SAHM or SAHD isn't the answer if s/he's depressed, lonely and stressed) but it has to come from somewhere. 

 

I don't know about public interest law ... but could you work part time/work share? Do volunteer/pro bono work to keep your hand in and get a different type of day while being a sahm? Have you explored non-either or options?

Also a good thing to consider, thanks. We who are flexible in our work are still busy and sometimes stressed, but the flexibility is a huge advantage.

I guess everytime I've read seen this phrase (myself and friends) it never ends well. I've never seen a person (usually the guy) who claims to "not be ready" go through with it. Ten minutes later, he's married to someone else. I think it's great you're advising her to check herself, but isn't his hesitation a red flag too? If he really wanted to marry her, he would propose.

Yeah, often the case. I was going to say it depends, but I'm having trouble thinking of a scenario where it makes sense for half of a couple to be fully invested and in love but still in need of time. I'll blame the flu. 

You know what I'd like to see? The success rate of those "Ten minutes later, s/he's married to someone else" marriages. Do they suffer the post-pheromone fizzle or do they stick? That would be useful information.

Take into account what her family is like, too. If she has in-laws staying at the house, or an extended family that will call at all hours and DEMAND to be updated, you might be the one person she can trust to understand a few weeks of silence. Basically, she has limited mental/emotional resources now--if she's ailing or the baby's got a cold or her relatives are being demanding, she might trust you to take her absence in stride.

True, thanks--the context of the new mom's temperament and situation, and of the friendship, probably has a lot to say here.

One idea that might help keep the anticipation in check is that often we as humans are not good at all at predicting what types of things will make us happy. I remember thinking for so long with happy anticipation about owning my own home and decorating in perfectly. But when it happened it made me happy but not nearly as happy as I thought it would. I think there is a study or a book out there about this phenomenon. So if you are truly happy in this moment with your boyfriend now then enjoy it for what it is. Marriage won't be eternal bliss and you are likely overestimating the amount of happiness it will bring so enjoy what you have now.

Good point, thanks. The Post just had a story on optimism bias. 

It's true. My boyfriend is the one person I never get tired of being around, if that makes sense. We can spend the whole day together, or the whole week together, and if he ever wears on me, it's never, "AARGH I CAN'T STAND THIS PERSON," it's always, "AAARGH I WANT TO BE BY MYSELF FOR A WHILE." I say so, more politely, of course, and he doesn't take offense. He feels the same about me. We're not ready to get married, but I can say with confidence that I could happily spend the rest of my life with him.

What a nice, important distinction, between  "AARGH I CAN'T STAND THIS PERSON," and "AAARGH I WANT TO BE BY MYSELF FOR A WHILE."

I want to think about that for a bit, too. 

 

I also have a big ball of self-pity waiting for me to crawl into it, so I'm going to go. Thanks everyone for stopping by today, and hope to see you back here next week. 

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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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