Baggage Check Live: Glitch in the matrix

Nov 20, 2018

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior was online to take your comments about her advice column, Baggage Check, and any other questions you might have. These comments may appear in an upcoming column running in Express and online.

Want to read more? Read Baggage Check columns.

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Hi, all. Happy Thanksgiving Eve Eve. (Eve Squared?) How is everyone doing?

Zainab is out today, but we are lucky to have the eagle eye and good humor of Rachel in her place. Thank you, Rachel! If anything goes wrong, it is most definitely still my fault.

In today's Baggage, we've got someone whose sister-in-law is constantly trying to rope her into a multi-level marketing plan. Ought to make for a lovely Thanksgiving. And in L2, we've got someone struggling with how hard to try to connect with siblings and a Dad that she just doesn't feel connected to after her beloved Mom's death.

Any extra advice for them?

Let's begin.

My husband and I have been living together for about a year and a half now and it seems that the cleaning chores generally fall to me (cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming, laundry, guestroom prep). In the past month we have had a conversation about me feeling unsupported, and I have made clear what chores are important to me. I showed him a schedule of chores I think should be done biweekly, weekly, and monthly and asked if he had anything to add. He agreed that it was a good list, and didn’t have anything to add. When it comes down to it I still find myself doing most the chores during the week after I go to work for a full day. Generally, he will do an organizing chore either when he sees me working on a cleaning chore, a cleaning chore when I specifically ask him to do x chore "today", or when he knows we are going to have company- which then becomes A BIG CLEAN where we both prepare and end up stuffing items where they don’t belong to "make the place presentable." I hate this rush to get things done and making a bigger mess for later. I have voiced this before, and I also have told him that I feel unsupported in the chores. He says that he will do x chore which quiets me in the moment but as the week goes on he does not follow through. He likes to relax when he gets home from work which I understand, but he schedules us out socially during the weekends, so even though A BIG CLEAN may be his style, he generally does not do chores on the weekend. I know he has the best of intentions, and I'm not expecting the chores to be 50/50, I just want a few chores to not revolve around my example or my request. I think a chore chart is too much for two grown adults but if that is what it takes I’d be willing to explore what that looks like for spouses. -Tired of toilet duty

Perhaps you can make a chore chart that's not actually called a "chore chart." Just like my snugger-than-a-sausage-casing tights that are not actually called a "girdle."

But there is a deeper issue here. Is he truly on board with your way of cleaning? Is he not following it because it's not coming naturally and it will take some practice and some extra structure, or because he doesn't think he should have to do it, and this is his (perhaps passive-aggressive) way of showing you?

Because if he's not really on board mentally with this, then a further compromise needs to be made before his resentment grows into something toxic. Sometimes, one partner simply doesn't believe the same amount of time/effort/energy should be spent on cleaning, that it's just not a priority. And that needs to be heard and worked with.

But if it's more the follow-through that is his problem, then that is less fraught to deal with. You have to create structure. Maybe it really is a chore chart (again, without necessarily calling it that if that gives you the willies), or maybe it is building 10 minutes in to your routine each day where you both take care of stuff, complete with energizing music or a "reward" afterward (even as simple as sitting down to dinner or finally getting to relax with TV.) Make it part of the routine, as basic and standard and not-to-be-pushed-aside as brushing one's teeth. Or, if he really does respond better to a "big clean," then build that in to the routine as well-- with HIM being the one to spearhead it before going out.

This is one of the most common areas that need to be trouble-shot in a marriage/co-living situation. I am sure other chatters will chime in here-- you are not alone! But respectful, clear communication is key-- as is structured expectations that can be built into daily living in a REALISTIC way that feels good for both parties.

Good morning Dr. Andrea, I've signed up for your Buzzfeed articles and they are really helping me address how my goal setting is counterproductive. The problem (maybe?) has been every three years or so I get an itch to leave a job. Sometimes I'm bored with the work, other times it's difficulty with working with co-workers, etc. When the situation occurs, I usually try to fix it by working on the thing that is most apparent. For example, if I'm bored, I will work with superiors/management to figure out creative solutions for additional/more challenging work. If it's coworkers, I'll find other activities outside of my job to preoccupy my time to find others to socialize with, and figure out ways to constructively work with them where I don't alienate myself. Sometimes I don't find a solution and get fired, because my performance begins to wane. I currently see myself beginning this cycle again. What I can't figure out this time is why? No job is perfect, but I have reasonable autonomy, intellectual challenge, decent income and working relationships with the people I'm around, yet feel the need to move, and do something different. So much so now, that I'm looking to an entirely different profession. I'm at the "Arrival" point, and I'm just exhausted by this cycle. What do you think gives?

It's hard to know what's objectively "right" here.

I worked in therapy with an entrepreneur for a while who was constantly hard on themselves (clunky phrasing, but being gender-ambiguous here) for having this itch. And they gradually came to realize that it was just who they were, and it wasn't necessarily holding them back. They liked to start companies. They were really good at it. Once things got off the ground, they lost interest. Now, we could look at that as a problem, or we could look at it as their having certain strengths that were very well-suited to entrepreneurship and starting companies. The world has all kinds of people in it.

Now, I realize you are not (necessarily) an entrepreneur, and that it is not practical, in general terms, to leave a job every three years. But at the same time, what is practical? Is it four years? Five years? Ten years? Who holds this yardstick? It's not like you are dissatisfied after six months. There's definitely a reasonable argument that three years is not too shabby a tenure, and that if it makes you happy to move, why not do it?

I think you would benefit from being a little more specific about this current job and how it meets your strengths and weaknesses, and how it does or does not address your sense of meaning and purpose (which could be underlying your chronic search — the idea that although the checklist is met, there's a lack of deeper fulfillment there.) Perhaps a career coach and some assessments could help. What is it about this "entirely different profession" that interests you? What aspects would be different? What aspects would be the same? Do you have this chronic itch in other areas of your life as well? Are you running toward new things, or running away from something?

Don't pathologize this without further exploration. Some people are just meant to have more lines on their resumes.

I've been in an unsettling number of circumstances recently where it's felt like reality was a bit "cracked." I missed an important meeting at work and had 3 different people tell me 3 different, mutually exclusive, versions of the outcome. (It took me days to figure out what actually happened - 1 person had it right and the others were wildly incorrect.) A friend disappeared several months ago and when we finally talked, he told me that I'd said something to make him uncomfortable. I felt awful, because it was unintentional, but his version of events turned out to be untrue when I looked back at the texts. (He acknowledged this when I pointed it out, but acted like his discomfort mattered more than what really happened.) It's even little things -- I met someone last week who repeatedly called me the wrong name, even after I corrected him. These are just a few examples. I feel like I'm losing my mind, but I'm also angry because in most cases there is an obvious "truth" that's being ignored. (I know my own name!) It would make sense if it were confined to one aspect of my life or if it always involved the same person. But, every time it happens I feel like there's one more thing I can't rely on. This is of course compounded by a general sense that facts are optional in the world right now. How does a person cope when it feels like everything is open to interpretation?

First, by realizing that it's not really "everything." That part of the glitch in the matrix is actually the cognitive error called confirmation bias (rising out of selective attention) —and right now you are in a slippery slope of noticing these things (and being bothered by them) much, much more than you would normally, because you are looking for them. Just like we suddenly notice everything there is to notice about cars on the road when we're in the market for one, or couldn't give a hoot about someone's teeth until we've been told by a dentist we should consider cosmetic work on our own (just me?)

So. I get it. This is unnerving. But these types of things are just the tax we pay for interacting with other people. Glitches, annoying mistakes, misinterpretations, "alternative facts." (Granted, that latter problem may be increasing somewhat in this dystopian hellscape, I mean, political climate.)

So, handle each interaction on its own. Some will need a gentle, momentary correction, some will need a larger conversation. But none of them should require a total loss of faith in the universe, or other people.

Take heed — you are not losing your mind. But you are also getting trapped by a relatively common cognitive bias, believing that some notable examples — which you are now hyper-alert to — say something about the entire world at large.

Let yourself reset. Consider it a run of bad luck that has no bearing on what will happen the rest of today or tomorrow. Perhaps soon you will get another round of coincidences that are more fun than trying. Like the time I heard three different people mention Debra Winger over the course of one weekend. Now there's a crack in the matrix!

Family dynamics are simply that, dynamic. Relationships do not remain the same when some major factor changes, e.g. death, birth or moving away. I understand, in my large family, what happened when mom died and then when dad died later on. The unifying presence is gone and like an electron splitting, all the electrons have bonded elsewhere. My brothers and I no longer had a common place to gather. We might talk to each other individually but never gather. What has happened is that we all have commitments to our own nuclear family. We have also realized that we are very different people with divergent interests. Some, such as my brother in law & wife, are so caught up in their own little world that they seem never to think of us. We also may be seen as caught up in our own life. As we have children, this is certainly true. Yes, we are the ones that make the calls to maintain some semblance of family or some sort of bond. They seldom call us. As Bruce Hornsby sings “That’s the Way It Is.” Understand it will never be the same. Understand that you may always love your siblings but sometimes you may not care for them too much. As my wife says, “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.” A bit sad but true. So my advice to the LW is this, accept that it will never be the same, because it really isn’t and try to shape the what you want or don’t want in terms of your siblings.

I really like this approach.

Ultimately, everyone must decide for themselves how much they are comfortable giving, and trying, to turn a relationship into something it is not. And everyone may have their own individual threshold for what actually counts as positive reinforcement, and how much of that they need to get, in order to make it worth it to keep trying. Because "I'll change them! I can do it! I know I can!" is rarely the least bit realistic.

Thanks.

Just because LW2 and her father only manage to talk on the telephone NOW for only about 5 minutes doesn't mean that it'll always be ever thus. They might discover that over the years they'll talk longer, or more often. (Or not, I suppose, but my point is that circumstances can sometimes change)

Yes. Most definitely!

I recently attended a industry conference and made some mistakes. At the end of the day I was having too much too drink at a bar and ended up chatting with someone else at the same conference. We were getting along and then ended up walking around for a bit together. I made the mistake of going to his room - nothing happened, but he was trying to get me to stay the night. Now I am riddled with guilt (I'm married and haven't told my partner) and terrified and anxious that I'll see this person again at a future conference. How do I manage this, with a career that I am becoming more and more visible in?

Well, let's not shy away from this: did you actually do anything in that room that you regret, besides just being present?

If not, then I dare say — I smell a total double standard here. You don't say if this guy is married or not, but if it was HIM who was pushing for you to spend the night — and you declined — then why is it you who is wracked with guilt? Why is it you who has made this "big" mistake? Look, I get it — you wish you hadn't done this, and we're not going to pretend that it boosted your professional image, or was something that was helpful to your marriage. But how is your being propositioned something that you should carry around with you as some sort of albatross?

I think a reframe is important here.

You got somewhat intoxicated in this man's company, but drew a line, and declined stepping over it even when pressed.

Yes, it is awkward and not something you'd like to revisit.

But is also not by any means an impeachable offense, and if you feel like you behaved more inappropriately than he did, then I wonder why you are being so hard on yourself.

So. How do you manage this? You take a breath and reset. You develop a simple, distanced, professional mantra of what you would say to him if you saw him again. ("Hello, Dan. Nice to see you. Nice job on the presentation about TPS reports.") You develop a simple mantra for yourself: "I made a mistake, but I stopped it before it did serious damage. The damage it did do is to cause me embarrassment, but everyone has some of that in their past. It's the price we pay for living, and I am a competent professional who can rise above a half-hour incident at a conference."

You take back control by realizing that you were never OUT of control.

You take a look at your drinking and decide whether this was a fluky, excruciating one-off, or whether there is a pattern here that you need to be more aware of. And if it's the latter, then you get serious about working on it.

And you decide to learn from this experience while acknowledging that ultimately, you still chose the right thing when things got murky.... and that is a positive, not a negative. 

I've been enjoying your series via emails. I've just done something I feel crappy about, but didn't see a non-crappy way to do it. I was housesitting, and the owner turned out to kind of see me as a mini slave. Telling me I couldn't talk to people in the nearby community, having me do lots of tasks that weren't in the original agreement. She even yelled at an elderly neighbor via phone after she found out she'd introduced me to some people — and, lastly, haranguing me with phone calls where she just started in on something and never stopped to listen. Since I knew she'd never listen, I just put everything in tip top shape and left ... and then told her I was gone. Of course she is furious, and that makes me feel crappy. How do I get over feeling crappy? Thanks, Andrea!

I am so glad the Detox emails have been helpful!

I do think there are a couple of different factors here. On the one hand, we have the question of whether or not there is still some intervention needed in terms of our interactions with her — does she realize your leaving was due to her ridiculous demands? I know it seems she may not listen, but might it be worth it for her to get some feedback about just what a nightmare she was — if not for your sake, then for a future house-sitter of hers? It's unclear to me if this is a friend, acquaintance, business arrangement, or some nail-biting combination of them all, so that will of course affect how much effort you want and need to give to making sure that at least she understands what went wrong.

But, in terms of your own mind, I would start by isolating the feelings. Guilt? Embarrassment? The general yuckiness of having someone unhappy with you? Give it a label, and a concrete form. Then remind yourself that it is just a thought, and that it can't hurt you. ("Hi, Mr. Feeling-Crappy Voice. You crop up when I've done something I feel uncomfortable about. I hear you, but I don't have to listen to you. You are a big blob of billowing smoke that I am going to breathe through and feel my chest lighten as I let you go.") I know, I know, this may sound rather abstract. But the more that you can identify your thoughts and give them some form, the more you can diffuse (and de-fuse!) them, without conflating them with reality, and without letting them stick into your beliefs about yourself.

How do I talk about this issue from my past to my therapist? I am embarrassed and ashamed about the topic but it is affecting me and how I look at myself today.

First, I am really sorry that this happened to you.

And I can imagine how hard it is to talk about. But therapists are trained to listen to hard things.

One thing to remember that may actually be helpful for you, but is pretty hideous from an everyone-else-standpoint, is that sadly-- your therapist has heard these stories before. Unfortunately, there are many others who have been through what you refer to in your header. And it's awful and I so wish it wasn't the case.

But it also means that your therapist has heard it and has chosen to be in a profession where they hear it, and want to help.

And best of all, they will know how.

You could send an email beforehand, or give a note at the end of a session, saying "There is something that I've been wanting to talk about but am having difficulty. I am just letting you know this, because I've decided to talk about it next week but it will be very hard for me. I wanted to let you know."

That can help pave the way and give you the courage to bring it up. They won't force you, of course, but it might take away some of the initial hurdle.

Good luck. Just know that you'd be doing this for a reason-- because it really will pay off.

Response from a recently bereaved parent to “What can I do to help?” and “Opioid Deaths” (from this chat) My adult son died six months ago. Unfortunately, the actions of others do have a profound effect on me, as with other bereaved parents (and people in general). And, unfortunately, many people have trouble being supportive. Here are my suggestions. If you do ask the open-ended question of what you can do to help and you get a specific answer, don’t “forget” that you agreed to do something. Bereaved parents need to be surrounded by only people they can trust to handle their fragile emotions. Agreed that people should “hang in there” with the bereaved, as you advised, but just as important they must also listen carefully and take cues. Notes are always welcome. Calling and texting, not necessarily. It’s very possible that you are not on the list of people who is trusted, who feels safe to those fragile emotions, who is close enough. If a bereaved parent keeps telling you “I’m not up for talking,” stop pestering them to talk. Food is always needed. Cooking is not on the list of things bereaved parents want to do. That lasts for a very long time. Don’t use the food, though, to push your way into conversations that are not wanted. Don’t focus on the death; focus on the child’s life, the love the parents have for the child. The love doesn’t die. And the death does not define either the child or the love. Never ask for any information about how the child died. If the parents wants to talk about it, he or she will make that decision. If they start talking about, don’t take that as an invitation to ask follow-up questions. Don’t forget to talk about the child by name, unless the bereaved parent doesn’t want to hear that (some don’t). Pretending that a child didn’t die means pretending they didn’t live. Even if talking about or mentioning the child makes the bereaved parent cry does not mean it’s bad. We cry all the time anyway. We remember all of the time anyway. Assume that bereaved parents, whether they know it or not, are suffering mentally and physically. We are in a fog, we can’t remember things, we can’t express ourselves well, we are slow to do all sorts of things, we may not even care that we have lost capability. We are under a lot of stress. Remember that we are all different as bereaved parents. Some of us seek solitude. Some seek normalcy (like going back to work). Listen for the cues. Don’t assume that we’re entirely helpless but assume that we may be. My husband and I can still do the laundry and find friends who try to step in to do something so easy and basic to be intrusive. But a bereaved parent with small children may find laundry overwhelming. No, there is no perfect tip, you may stumble, your stumbles may make you feel dangerous to fragile emotions. But imagining the unimaginable in order to be empathetic, being supportive without being pushy and overbearing, listening, taking the specific parents into account with their specific circumstances, that’s how you can help. And if you couldn’t manage anything—writing a card, bringing food, offering specific or open-ended help—in the beginning, know that grieving parents will need all the support you can give them for a long time. Thank you for caring.

And thank you for writing this. First, I've got to say that I am so truly sorry for the staggering loss that you have been forced to endure. It defies words, I have no doubt.

You've done a very kind thing here, giving a glimpse into how others can try to be supportive in the most considerate, thoughtful and respectful ways possible. I hear so often from other bereaved individuals some of the same things reflected here.

I think a lot of people will be reading and rereading this very carefully.

May you continue to find meaning in your son's life, and may the pain eventually be dwarfed by the love.

Thank you again for writing.

My spouse loves his job but has recently been struggling to cope with some of its challenges — long hours, difficult clients, lots of pressure both from himself and his superiors. I know that in the long-run, he wants to succeed at this (and he is really good at what he does) so I'd like to help him cope with the negatives better. He refuses to take time for himself and it seems like things are just compounding now. Short of forcing him to take a leave of absence, which I really don't think is the right move yet, is there anything I can do to support him? Exercising tends to help reduce his stress, and he's cut that out due to time constraints. Any other ideas?

Okay, as much as my 3rd-grade PE teacher would've thought I'd be the LAST kid to end up advising this someday:

EXERCISE IS KEY AND MUST BE PRIORITIZED.

I say this because you've already identified it as a stress reducer for him. And if he's cutting it out, it's a double-whammy — because not only is he losing the benefits of it, but the lack of it is probably actively making him feel worse.

That's a first step. Then help him identify what other things would be most helpful for his self-care. Even in daily 10-minute increments. Social time, meditation, vegging out with the TV, dabbling in a little bit of a creative hobby that has nothing do to with work, etc. It can be anything. But getting him on board to start small is the best way to make a dent in the big picture. 

I've got a friend who always seems to begrudge me my joy, if that makes sense. If we're out to dinner and I have a rich dessert, she says "I wish I could eat stuff like that but it goes right to my thighs!" Or if she texts me in the middle of a Saturday afternoon and I am lounging with Netflix, she says how much she envies that I can just veg out on weekends — she is taking a grad school class so she has work and she "never" gets to veg. I go on dates and she talks about how she doesn't have time to date, or doesn't have money to buy the types of purses I have..... it gets sooooo old. It's driving me up the wall. We have a long history overall and I like her but I have no idea how to respond to these comments. I don't feel like feeling guilty just because I have a different type of life than she does (and hers is pretty good by plenty of people's standards!)

Here's the fun part-- you get to trouble-shoot various types of responses and see which one gets you the best mileage.

There's slightly-annoyed-but-loving-sarcasm ("I know, I know.... I live the life of luxury and it drives you bananas"). There's the attempt at a heart-to-heart ("I don't really know how to respond to that. I feel like you say those types of things a lot, and it kind of feels like you object to how I live my life.") There's the conversational forward pass ("Huh. So, how about those Caps?") There's the blunter intervention ("Hmm. I'm not really sure what you want me to do with that. Are you saying you're unhappy?")

What works and what doesn't is going to depend on her personality and your relationship. It could be that these are conversational fillers that she doesn't even realize how annoying they are. Or — it could be she is in a bad place, or is jealous of you, or is a chronically negative person.

But start throwing stuff back at her and seeing what sticks.

If the brother is putting that much pressure on LW about the need for "support", it's probably safe to assume that the MLM scheme isn't going well for SIL. LW absolutely does not need to host parties or become a distributor, but some empathy and "how else can I help you" might be in order.

It's true. All too often in these situations, there is desperation and panic, as someone has gotten into debt and is starting to realize the damage that has happened.

It's a delicate balance to strike — offering help without letting yourself get roped in to the scheme itself. But I'll always get on board with empathy. So thank you!

Sorry I could not stay with the live chat. I appreciate your hearing me out and your response. You asked: “If Julie stops coming to planned outings, what is OP supposed to do? Show up at her house…..And how is it “dumping” someone to not do that.” My response is that what you ideally should do when Julie or any person can’t get together due to their mental illness is the same thing you do when a person can’t get together due to their physical illness: For example: Tell them “I am so sorry you aren’t up for getting together. I do hope you feel better soon. I look forward to seeing you when you are up to it” Tell them you care and are thinking about them. Continue to offer invitations and when you are sad or frustrated by the refusals think to yourself “I am so glad I don’t have her illness”. You recognize that they might miss the connectivity and/or need support to fight a good fight with their illness and you occasionally reach out (call, text, email, send a note, flowers or whatever). Granted not everybody does this when loves ones are incapacitated by physical illness but one thing most people don’t do with physical illness is get their feelings hurt and/or get mad at the person who is ill for their inability to do normal things. I feel passionately about this because the above things are often done by family but in many instances the mentally ill don’t have family capable of doing these things and it matters a lot that their friends step in. Again I appreciate your giving consideration to what I have said.

And I appreciate your writing.

I really do believe in my heart of hearts that OP has done all this, and is continuing to. And I certainly wouldn't advise against it.

I do think in that situation it's particularly complicated, because the "mental illness" (which I am certainly not diagnosing) is currently an anxiety about the friendship itself. So at some point if Julie wants to pull away, there are those who would advise that that could actually be good for her, and that there is only so far she should be nudged without it being an active intrusion.

Once again, I am glad that you have written back.

Hi. Do you consider binge drinking to be alcoholism? I have a friend who doesn't drink during the week but goes overboard when she does drink on the weekend. I think this is a problem because she nearly got an DUI from driving home after a work happy hour. She thinks it's fine to have as many as she wants as long as she takes a taxi home next time. I suspect that there's an underlying issue that may need to be resolved to understand why she can't have a few drinks and then stop. She has a history of addiction with some other substances too. I've suggested that she see an addiction counselor but wasn't sure if this type of situation is something that a counselor can help to resolve. Thanks.

Oh, most certainly this warrants attention, and most certainly this is a situation that could use some help.

I don't get bogged down in semantics. Alcoholism versus alcohol abuse versus alcohol problems.... terminology isn't as important as addressing the problem. There are lots of people who struggle with substances that may not be classically "addicted," and there are lots of people with dysfunctional relationships with alcohol who can abstain most of the week but their main problem is that they cannot stop themselves once they DO start drinking.

Given that she has a history of addiction with other substances, it's even more clear that the path she's on is a concerning one.

Please keep us posted.

Hi Dr. A: Lately, my misophonia is driving me even crazier than normal. Normal office noises distract and even enrage me (I definitely feel the fight-or-flight adrenaline hormones kicking in at various times during the day). The worst two offensive noises (to me) are knuckles popping/cracking and the insistent, anxiety-provoking sound of keyboards clacking. I have done almost everything I can think of doing, from wearing headphones non-stop to fleeing to a quieter place in my office, to even hypnotherapy and mindfulness. But nothing is working. Now, smells are starting to bother me. A man sits next to me who has a terrible odor. He's prone to depression so I don't want to say anything directly to him in case it shames him. What can I do? Please, please help.

First, with the odor. It could be that if it's really extreme, then this could be delicately and discreetly handled by HR. Everyone deserves a reasonable baseline of comfort at the workplace, and if his presence is aversive to others as well, keeping quiet is not doing him any favors either.

Or, it could be that you are oversensitive to this particular sensory input as well and that he's not that far off the charts of normal odor. (Now there's a fun chart to make!) There is definitely some evidence that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (when it is specialized for this purpose) can be helpful for misophonia. If you are in D.C. or a large city, you have a decent chance of finding someone who can help you with this. In my understanding, it would be similar to systematic desensitization-type exposure, along with some behavioral techniques to help you better cope with the sounds you do hear. Since there's a little bit of overlap with OCD (not saying you have OCD, but there's some ways that they are somewhat related in conceptualization), you may have your best bet starting with those types of clinics/providers. And ask specific questions about their experience with treating misophonia.

I know there are also some audio types of treatment, which are by no means my area of expertise. Do some exploration. The more we learn about this condition, the better help is available.

Please do keep us posted. You are by no means the only person I hear from about this!

Long story short, after an expected breakup, I discovered that the man I was dating was far more immature than I realized. We had worked on communication (with some of your tips - I’m the one who “got him down” with my moods...and that was part of the breakup). Things were apparently going well. Until he decided they weren’t. And, that’s ok. Some people are only right for a time in your life. When I reflect, though, his inexperience, emotional blowups, and, quite frankly, ability to escalate the smallest argument led to argument spirals, and I can’t be responsible for someone else’s moods when they don’t do any personal work. I think my question is this: how do I know when I’ve found the right partner? Is it when it’s the one who has a meta-talk about communication up front? Is it the one who can calmly sit in an argument, use “I language” (something that’s so important to me!), and even if we don’t immediately resolve a difference, is willing to temporarily hug it out, take some space, agree we’ll be OK, and come back with cooler heads and a single agenda point? What questions should I be asking?

You are most definitely on the right track.

No two couples need to have the same conversations at the beginning, just like no two couples have the same criteria for being the "right" fit. But you are beginning to identify what is important to you, and also what patterns you are prone to falling into. Both of those are key for helping guide your road map of what to look for.

When communication is the area of importance (and really, when should it not be?) you can start by looking at even the most subtle of signs up front. Do they take responsibility for their actions? Are they able to talk about uncomfortable things without avoidance or blame? Do they mean what they say and say what they mean? Do they listen with respect for feelings — both yours and theirs?

These are just a few things off the top of my head. But trust me, by having the motivation to be on the lookout for these things, you are already halfway there.

You may have an incompatibility when it comes to how much energy/effort to put into cleaning. Some people need very clean spaces and some don't. This may be about nothing more than just one of you not feeling like cleaning is important enough to spend time on when you could be doing other fun things. My husband and I have a secret: we hire cleaners! They come twice a month, and it is worth every penny. We don't fight about cleaning, and we divvy up the daily chores to "keep it even." Even on a small budget you can hire people to come occasionally and do just the stuff you really hate (the shower!!). We did this even when we made half what we currently do. Worth every penny!

Yes! The incompatibility is really common, but can be worked through if both people are motivated and respectful of the others' stance.

And yup, being in the position to hire some help is... quite a help!

Thanks!

My husband (who is cleaner than me) and I (naturally messy!) divide it up by chore. I'm responsible for laundry and cooking, he does dishes and clutter-organizing. We divided this based on our strengths and preferences. The key is that we don't dictate how or when the other person does their chore. He likes to do the dishes every day before we go to bed. I like to do a huge batch of laundry at once. Sometimes we are messier as a result of me than he would like when people come over. But we don't do the other person's chore and we don't complain about how they do it. The key is a clear, agreed upon division and then a complete willingness to let the other person do it their way (yes, even if people are coming over and its not to your standards).

I really like this. "Clear and agreed-upon" seem key here. Thank you!

Are you fully invested that he do cleaning around the house? If you are then have the sort of conversations Andrea suggests. Have you considered having him take on something else instead - perhaps it's paying all the bills, perhaps it's making dinner more nights, do the shopping ... Is there something other than house cleaning he might take off your shoulders that he'd be less reluctant to do and you'd feel was equitable?

Great question.

There are many, many spheres of work to be divided when it comes to running a household!

My SO is a germaphobe, and maybe bordering on OCD when it comes to hand washing and cleanliness. For example, they don't keep tea towels in the kitchen so you must wash your hands with a paper towel meaning we could cook one meal and go through an entire roll, they have to throw away any food item that touches the counter, and they won't reuse utensils to say cut up vegetables and cut open the plastic wrap on something. None of these habits are about preventing cross contamination or disease, they are ingrained habits. They don't really extend to anywhere but the kitchen. We haven't moved in together yet, but are planning to in the next year or so. I'm worried that these habits when we cook together are going to make me go a little crazy because there isn't any logic to them and I hate how much water and paper and resources are wasted. How do I cope with something like this?

Well, on the one hand, I think we could almost treat this like the previous discussion in terms of different standards of cleanliness, and how to come to a clear, respectful compromise.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that your SO is a bit of an outlier, and really is suffering from some obsessive-compulsive types of patterns that have the potential to get worse. How do they conceptualize it? Is it really because it's just a habit they grew up with and the way that they think things should be done, or is it an anxious compulsion that starts to feel out of their control?

The former is capable of some nudging and compromise.... like the gradual introduction of a tea towel that is used SOME of the time at least. The latter is a bit more of an issue, since it may respond to nudges with heightened anxiety.

Any further details here?

Some people like to be the center/heart of a group. They like to coordinate, organize, and bring everyone together. The mom sounds like one of these people. And that's great! But LW doesn't have to be. Would your mom really want you to try to be someone you aren't? And if you decide in the future that you do want to be that person, it is never to late to reach out and say "I love you" and "we should get together".

Yes. This is a really insightful angle here-- that there may be a subtle feeling of responsibility to become her mother in terms of her role within the family. And that doesn't serve anyone's needs well if it's not a good fit-- and doesn't serve her mom's memory.

Thank you.

LW 2, is it possible that Mom raised you to be her second-in-command when anything about the family dynamic needed fixing? (I suggest this because I have a young cousin who's been programmed from childhood to Stay Single So You Can Take Care of the Aging Parents...and somewhat to my dismay it's working great. For the parents.) If LW2 feels she's now stepped into Mom's job, she should try to free herself of that expectation. Mom may have wanted you to do that work. Mom is gone. You can interact with the others as much as YOU want, not as much as she's trained you to do. Take a breath. Your late mother's expectations are not automatically a responsibility you must accept.

Could be a possibility. I think the pressure could be pretty fierce either way, even if it didn't directly come from Mom herself. Thanks.

A guy and I have been seeing each other for a few months now. He and I work together, but he is transferring offices (to somewhere else on the East coast a plane ride away) at the beginning of 2019. We both always knew this, so we had an somewhat unspoken agreement to keep things casual. That was fine for a while, but the problem is I really really like him. I could see wanting to do long distance with him (or if I'm being completely honest, even wanting to transfer offices with him. I am in a different department so it is not like we are together all the time at work.) But I don't know how to address this. I realize it's sort of like changing the rules as we go, and it might not be fair to him now to put pressure on him to get more serious. Now that it is November, I feel like the holidays are sort of a make or break time for relationships. It's like we should be winding down if he's going to make this move and we're going to end things. But that's not what I want. I could use some help thinking through my approach here because I don't want to scare him off.

I don't think I'm alone in feeling like, if being honest about your feelings scares him off, maybe that's important to know sooner rather than later.

I mean, I get that people have all kinds of ways of interacting in dating to not blow the relationship up. And there's a whole spectrum, with "playing games" on one end and "letting it all hang out and talking about your hemorrhoids on the first date" on the other. And the sweet spot is different for everybody.

But the way I see things here, you've been with this guy for a little while. You like him. You really really like him (Hi, Sally Field!) And yes, that may be "changing the rules," but if he is up for it, then that's extremely important information for you to know. (And if he's not up for it, that's just as important.)

Your agreement to remain casual was "unspoken." It's time to speak. Even just a "You know, I'm more bummed than I let on that you are leaving," can be an opening.

It's a cost-benefit here. What is the upside of staying so silent that you miss a potential opportunity to find out that he wants to keep things going as well?

Please do keep us posted.

Hi Andrea, My partner is extremely controlling, but if I tell her, she is saying she isn't. I ready your article about "20 signs your partner is controlling" and she is showing about 18 of the signs obviously. What do you think is the best way to explain her that I feel controlled? Would you recommend to read through your article together? Thanks in advance for your reply.

I do think reading through the article together could be a good first step. And seeing how she responds will tell you a lot about whether there is hope of her changing.

Because here is the difficult thing — and I'm choosing your question today in the hopes that the several others that are similar will also be served by my answer — often the very nature of being controlling means that they are not willing or able to look at their behavior objectively, and/or put in the work to change it. Depending on the severity, causes, and duration of what's going on, there might be hope — or on the other hand, even trying to get change to happen could lead to an abusive situation.

So, have the conversation. But be alert to the fact that if your partner has nearly all of these signs, then by definition this may be an untenable situation. Make sure you are physically and emotionally safe with support systems in place. And please do keep us posted.

Something that helped me immensely when I was mourning a child's death was the person who asked the following: What can I be for you? How do you need me to react to you? What is off limits? What is not off limits? Where am I most helpful for you right now? And if that changes, please tell me your needs have changed and what the new needs are and how I can better serve you by changing my interactions with you. So many people are not mind readers, despite my grief, I told people exactly what I needed in a calm rational and caring way and my real and best and honest friends truly come through for me. Even to this day 16 years later.

What a kindness your friends showed you, and what a kindness in turn you gave them by showing them exactly how they could help.

16 years later or not, I am truly sorry to hear of the loss of your child. Thank you for writing in.

If the guy's a blabbermouth, or tells it to a few people who are (especially if he embellishes the details), it could be hard on the OP's reputation. Yes, double standard, but some things can't be controlled (cf. genie out of the bottle, or Pandora's box).

Very true. Thanks.

She definitely can't control the potential of his being an arse. But again — is that something to feel guilty about? Anxious about, sure. But if he is an arse with a capital A, still not her fault!

Never forget that conferences, holiday parties, etc. are WORK, not play. You should no more drink yourself stupid at these events than you should at your desk on a Wednesday.

But what about on a Tuesday?

Sorry. Yup. I do think there's a culture of raucousness at certain types of conferences, in certain industries, that doesn't lead to good things for anyone.

Because my sister is type A and never had any friends of her own, she has decided that her immediate family is all she'll ever need. The problem is that I don't find my immediate family particularly fun to be around. Although I'm the youngest, I'm still a fully fledged adult. I'm never treated that way, yet I'm "too sensitive" about it. (I've asked a number of times to stop being called the baby because I'm not one.) Plus my sister has a nasty habit of saying whatever comes to her mind. Because we're all family, it's okay because you're family never leaves you. The more she pushes for closeness, the less she gets it, but bless her trying. I also find that the people who really want to push for familial closeness are the same ones who refuse to adjust to a new reality.

Yup.

"You're too sensitive" is often just a sign of insensitivity on the part of the person whose mouth it comes out of.

I do think it's worth giving your sister some feedback. I'm guessing you've already tried, but it can help bolster your boundaries a bit... and perhaps lead to at least a LITTLE behavior change over time? (I can dream, can't I?)

Life changes, and friends come and go. You are NEVER wedded to a particular person forever, just because you used to have a good relationship that's gone south. One of the life lessons that comes with decades of adulthood is that it's OK to drop a friendship for any reason.

Uh-oh. I dare say this may bring up a conversation about the potential dumping of "Julie!"

Your point is well taken, though. I would add that the "dropping" just needs to be done with respect and empathy.

If this were me, this is why I would feel bad. As Dr. Andrea said - did you bring any of this up?  "Doing X is not in our agreement and I'm afraid I don't have time to do it / will have to add an extra fee." "Do not shout at me." "That is an unreasonable request, of course I will talk to the neighbors." She might not have listened and you might have left, but you will have given her a reason for your actions and where you drew your boundary. Clarity on that is important for your own peace of mind.

Agreed. Thank you!

SIL won't take "no" for an answer because MLM salespeople can't make much (if any) money selling product; they can only earn by getting others to join the business. There might be a lawsuit against her company by a consumer protection agency; look it up.

Could very well be.

Honestly, it is so disheartening how many people's financial lives can be absolutely decimated by these arrangements. Some of them are downright predatory.

Thanks.

I am hoping that you can tell me the reality of what is normal and what is not when it comes to being physically intimate in a marriage. Me and husband: mid 30s, one preschooler, he has had some health issues that made it difficult for a while, in addition to having a young child. He also has weight issues. But it has still been a loooooong time. Before we were married, the longest we would go without was a few weeks. Now it has been more than a year. I don't miss it as much as I thought I would, and I almost feel I could get used to it. We don't talk about it. And I know I've heard a lot that this isn't that uncommon in a marriage. And yet it doesn't feel right either. I guess I'm wondering what to do from here, whether this is worth trying for or should I accept it. Thanks.

Well, you can probably predict my answer here.

Change the "We don't talk about it."

You are absolutely right in that this is a common issue, more common than many people may realize. And you have very mixed feelings about it — it's not a simple issue. So that's all the more reason to talk about it. But it's important to remember, it's not about some hypothetical yardstick of what a marriage "should" be like. It's about what feels right to you and your partner. Now, this arrangement may very well feel okay for now. Or it may feel okay to one of you and horrible to the other. Or maybe horrible for both but you are resigned to it. Or anything in between.

So, first step? Figure out what's getting in the way of your talking about it.

This! Yes! Once I was able to let go of when things got done and just appreciated that SO was doing them, things became more comfortable for both of us. My way isn't necessarily the "right" way (even if it is the quicker way), it's just a way.

Lovely perspective. Thanks.

That once happened to me - everything got turned up from 11 to 15 - and it was a side effect from a prescription medication. Oddly enough, it was a mild sedative which kind of makes no sense, but our bodies know what they don't like and tell us so. And since you're so sensitive to smells, have you tried aromatherapy? The right scents give me an immediate boost of dopamine or serotonin flush or whatever, but they work.

Interesting things to consider. Thank you!

Maybe tell him that, semi-apologetically, but add that you hope he'll take it as a compliment. See how he reacts, and you should get the answer, one way or the other.

Yes!

I think there are a lot of people pulling for her.

It's your resident alcoholic again (coming up on 19 years in Jan - woohoo!). At the risk of repeating myself I think anyone who can't put the damn glass down has a problem. She may go without drinking just fine Monday-Friday. But if she's way over drinking on weekends, sorry it's an issue. It worries me that you say she has a history of other addictions. She may be drinking too let off steam or self-medicate to get away from personal problems for the weekend. But it's not right, not healthy, not normal. She may be more open to a suggestion of therapy rather than wanting to face the dreaded addiction counseling. We alcoholics are world champion deniers!

Yes. Definitely means a lot coming from someone who's been there. Thanks for this!

Reminds me of the interview NPR's Terry Gross had with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman where he said, ""A couple of glasses of wine is, you know, not interesting to me at all... That's kind of annoying. Like, why aren't you having the whole bottle?" He knew once he started it wasn't going to end well. So many of us listening to that interview knew exactly what he was talking about.

Yes. So true — I've heard this from many people over the years.

Philip Seymour Hoffman — wow. One of far too many giant talents that addiction got a hold of and took far too soon.

Thanks for writing.

And if he is an arse with a capital A, other people already know that. They will judge him, not you. If he is not an arse, then he's probably feeling pretty bad about the situation himself.

Here's hoping!

This is a bugbear of mine. We are taught that disposable is cleaner ... perhaps to get you to buy their products. I think of it this way — I know what's happened to my tea towels but I have no idea what goes on on the factory floor when they're making paper towels.

Good point.

The paper-towel-versus-hand-towel debate is one that rages in many households!

Yes, you are changing the rules as you go along. But that is life: circumstances change as life goes along. It is normal and expected to change along with them. And unless he was planning to hop on a plane and completely ghost you (and I assume your emotional ages are over 17), then he is probably expecting to talk about this at some point in the near future. He may tell you he doesn't want what you want (LDR), and that will hurt. But it is way better to talk about these thing openly and honestly then letting them emotionally-fester inside. Good luck, we're rooting for you!

Hear, hear.  Very well said!

Whether you scare him off or don't say anything, the consequences are the same: he leaves without knowing how you really feel about him. You might as well risk it.

Yes! The cost-benefit analysis here is resoundingly clear.

Thank you.

Another thing is communication stye. Years ago, I was seriously dating a lovely guy but he didn't articulate his feelings / need etc ... and I'm not at all good a reading people's minds, even those I know well. I'm also a pretty up-front person, I try to put things nicely, but I'm direct, which made him want to run away. Fast forward — my husband and I are up front with each other and the ex has found a lovely wife who is more instinctual so things unsaid are still understood. We're all good friends.

A very happy ending! Thank you.

But isn't it actually okay for two people to watch TV together in a hotel room? If I don't want to watch TV in a bar, it should be okay to just watch TV in a room with a work colleague without calling the marriage police, right?

I would assume so!

That's why I was so curious about details.... I do wonder if the going-to-his-room was part of something more overtly complicated.

How about just owning the truth? Yes, this is one area i cannot support your wife. And i find your repeated entreaties are coming between us. please stop. i cannot help and will not participate in this.

Yes. Another good way of wording it when directness is called for. Thanks.

It's that time again, unfortunately!

Thanks for taking time out of your search for fresh thyme and canned pumpkin to be here today. May you have a restful and relaxing week, whether you are celebrating Thanksgiving or not.

In the meantime, I will hope to see you in the comments, on Facebook, and with Detox Your Thoughts.

Take good care!

In This Chat
Dr. Andrea Bonior
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist and the voice behind Baggage Check since its start in 2005. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and is the author of the Publisher's Weekly best-seller "Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World" and "The Friendship Fix.”
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