Baggage Check Live: Schadenfreude is best enjoyed sparingly

Jan 08, 2019

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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Cue the hard-charging ACDC bassline, because we're BAAACK! (Yes, I'm BAAAA-HAA-HAAA-HAA-HAACK!)

Happy New Year, everyone! How have you been? I'm so happy to have you here after two weeks off. What is on your mind?

In today's column, we've got someone who wishes for a reset button after a return back to school hasn't turned out the way they'd hoped. And in L2, we've got someone who keeps being told to chill by their partner. Might they need to chill their way out of this relationship?

Here's to everyone affected by the shutdown-- in the DC area, that's no small thing. How has it been going?

Alright, let's get started!

I liked your advice to the letter writer, and would add a couple of things. First, really look at WHY you're feeling like "It's not for me" - is it just the school environment, or the stress of not having mastery over the content (like you did in your job), or a more general anxiety about what you'll do with this degree? What made you choose this particular field? You must have had a pretty good reason to uproot your life for it, so dig in a bit to see if the field REALLY is the problem, or if you're just having sabotaging thoughts because it's challenging. I do understand the impulse to burn it all down and start over, because I did it in my late 20s. I quit my corporate tech job and went to massage school... though I did finish the program and worked as a LMT for 5 years, I realized later that I missed my tech job (and the steady paycheck! and the health insurance! and the 401k! *sigh*). I enjoyed it while I was doing it, but eventually realized that making the decision to leave corporate life was a way of avoiding other (harder) decisions. Your mileage may vary, of course, but now is a good time to step back and really look at the crossroad before charging down a different path. Good luck!

Really great thoughts here-- much appreciated!

And I love your little massage detour. And I'd argue that you appreciated your corporate job more than you possibly could have if you hadn't done it.  Sometimes we can keep taking detours that aren't necessarily "right" for us-- but the added insights we can gain from those experiences give us something very beneficial, in my opinion-- so it's not a waste!

It sounds like you and your boyfriend have a fundamental mismatch. If this is even a medium sized problem in your relationship, you just need to realize that you and he do not mesh and let him go. You can love someone but let them go because they are not right for you. Turning yourself into a human pretzel (or thinking that one of you needs to) is just postponing the inevitable.

Very true. I definitely do worry that LW's very being is going to continue to not meet partner's expectations-- and that's no way for either of them to live.

My friend is a working mom of 3 kids, 11-6yo. Married to her HS sweetheart, they are in their mid-30s. In the fall, the husband became obsessed with a dad from their 11yo's baseball team. The dad in question was cheated on and left by his wife. My friend's husband's obsession became that my friend and this guy were having a sexual affair. There is never 0% chance of anything, but the reality of of this possibility is about close to 0%. The husband even admits he knows deep down she wouldn't cheat, but that has not stopped him from being nuts — checking her phone, saying things like "you didn't make eye contact with me when talking to me, I am betting it's cause you feel guilty," "you talked to him at the game, you guys were planning on how to f@#$." He's lost sleep, weight, etc. To me, it's as if he's almost getting a cortisol/adrenaline hit from these crazy ideas. My friend is thinking hubby nuts and is exhausted from the accusations and his constant need to be with her, touching her, etc. He does have a therapy appointment next week and has started an antidepressant. I am just curious about why a person would create this (negative) fantasy in their mind and then act on it, with no evidence, no basis in reality, and with such devastating consequences. ... I admit to being gobsmacked why a person would be so horrible to their spouse with no actual facts to back up their case. Any insight?

Wow. What an awful situation.
I really wonder if there's something organic in the brain going on here-- this really borders on delusional paranoia, and though he's young, it sounds so stark (especially if he never had this behavior in the past) that I would want a full physiological workup-- making sure there are no head injuries, medication side effects, nutritional deficiencies, toxins, or other cognitive issues that would indicate a more wide-ranging problem.

If he has been prone to suspicious, cynical behavior in the past then this can indeed be an anxiety/personality thing —and so the therapy and medication could very well help. But I am guessing they are going to need some marriage counseling as well. Especially because sudden changes in a spouse can be indicative of all kinds of things — from their own infidelity (he wouldn't be the first to grow accusatory of a spouse once he started his OWN affair) to substance abuse to secret stressors (gambling issues, porn addiction, etc.)

And of course, the fact that there's not quite a 0 percent chance that there's something she's not telling you about her own behavior is the final caveat here — perhaps there's been a little smidge of something she's done to spark the anxious flames.

Hi Andrea! My 13-year-old gay son has ALL girl friends. This is great, but he is left out of sleepovers because of what I call "gender stereotypes." His best friend is having a birthday sleepover party Friday, and I've offered to talk to her mom about letting my son participate. I've researched the web for ideas on handling this (double-standards, trust, etc.). How do I approach this with the mom? FWIW, I've met her several times, been to their house, and taken the friend with us on outings. I also know the other friends who will be at the sleepover, and I've met most of their parents.

I am sorry. This is one of those situations where it's just not easy — there's no magic bullet to make everyone comfortable and at ease. But it's good of you to be your son's advocate.

I must say, though, that I haven't heard exactly the circumstances of the best friend's role in this. I'm guessing when you say that you've "offered" to talk to her mom — that was in conversation with the best friend? Because she absolutely wants you to do it? Was there already some level of pushback when she expressed it herself? I need to get a lay of the land about how strongly everyone feels here, because I could imagine anything from Best Friend being the strongest advocate of it to her Mom and her Mom relenting easily, to Best Friend being silent about it to her Mom and her Mom (understandably) not wanting to unilaterally invite your son if she wasn't hearing her daughter push for it. 

Of course, as I see it, the fact that your son is gay makes this so much easier to argue for — but we all know that not everyone may see things that way. Ostensibly, your son is out to his best friend's parents, though, right? That's a bridge that's already been crossed?

If it's a go on all those fronts I mentioned, then I would start somewhere like here: "Hi, Sarah. Lucy wondered if I'd be willing to talk to you about the sleepover this week. She really would like for Jon to be part of it, and I think that would be really great — Jon would love to be part of her birthday as well. But I also understand this isn't the typical situation, and I really don't know what your thoughts are on it. If you were willing to talk about having him be part of her celebration in some form, I'd love to work with you on that. I know it's complicated, but their friendship is so dear to both of them and I think it could be a really good thing for us to figure this out, for this weekend and also for future sleepovers!"

As always, that was probably about nine paragraphs too long, but how would that feel?

Her response will tell you right away how receptive she is. Again, I'm guessing there's a spectrum here — from an all-out "no" to a "Sounds great" to what I view as the solution most likely to keep everyone happy — Jon goes, but gets picked up late at night as people start to head toward sleep.

Chatters?

You're back! I'm doing a happy dance at my desk. Always enjoy this chat.

Thank you!! I am dancing right here with you, even while Buster the dog looks pretty embarrassed for me!

This would annoy me too. it's like he's saying his chilled approach to life and world view is superior to yours. There's nothing wrong with preferring order and expecting people to follow through on plans. You don't have to change your personality to fit what he thinks is the best mindset to go through life.

It does seem that way, doesn't it!

Of course, there's a chance that there is some glossing over things here — and that in reality the "uptightness" is actually being a controlling person — but all I've got to work with is what LW gave me.

Thanks!

And I was remiss — I want to thank wonderful Rachel for being here today as our producer, filling in for Zainab. We all appreciate it so much! 

When is working no longer worth it? I’m over 60, female, with a part-time job in an adult education program. No benefits, no real HR protection, but at an institution with a very high status in my field. The administration is moderately sexist, ageist, and toxic, but there’s a strong history that its established instructors work as long as they’re able and willing. We don’t get paid much, and the boss avoids confrontation, so those things are all in my favor! A younger person wants to be promoted into my spot, and makes energetic efforts to undermine me. Since our supervisor is in fact tacitly grooming them to take over my group when and if I retire, it would be pointless for me to make an issue of this. The twist here is that I kind of enjoy the competition. While it’s dispiriting that management doesn’t support me more after 20+ years of good work, it’s often fun to outwit the ambitious kid. I enjoy the job itself, and I like interacting with the students and keeping my skills sharp. Though the money isn’t great, I recently asked for and got a small raise. My husband of 38 years has retired and would much prefer that I was free of other demands on my time. But our marriage is unstable for reasons too complicated to go into here. We’re in marriage counseling on and off. The offs happen when DH puts our therapy on hold to pursue a new hobby or a course of study that conflicts with the therapist’s availability. Though I don’t say this lightly, a divorce would be okay with me, emotionally, at this point. However, my finances would take such a hit if we split up that I couldn’t afford to live within easy commuting distance of my work, which is based in an urban area. It’s very possible that if I retired to accommodate my spouse I’d find myself eventually without a husband anyway, and without any chance whatever of getting comparable new work. I’ve looked around for positions in my field by volunteering here and there and by letting my trusted contacts know I’m ready for a change. It’s not impossible that I’ll find something suitable, but it’s not terribly likely either. Logic tells me never to quit until I have another job. My gut tells me that I’m heading for a major meltdown either at work or in the marriage within a couple of years. My health is good so far, but I survived a major cancer 10 years ago and I don’t want to end up back there, either. Hoping that some magical external event will suddenly improve things for me is silly, though I do. I’d just like a few happy golden years, please. Am I missing an obvious escape route here, Dr. B? I need some fresh insights from a pro! I’d also appreciate hearing from any chatters who’ve gotten through similar sticky situations.

First, although I can understand your concerns about not wanting to be heading for a meltdown long-term, for now a few things stick out to me: you enjoy your job. It keeps your skills sharp. Besting the whipper-snapper brings you satisfaction. So although it's good that you are looking elsewhere for the future, I don't feel like it makes sense to leave your job in the here and now.

Especially at the behest of your husband. Honestly, even if your marriage was a-okay, I would be veeeeeeery careful about retiring just because the spouse encouraged it. He may have not-compatible-with-therapist's-schedule hobbies galore (what are these? I know we need to keep anonymity, but curious!), but that doesn't mean that you should have to share them or that they would bring you fulfillment. Solid marriages allow for individual fulfillment — whether during an individual day on a cruise ship or over the course of decades of golden years.

So, this marriage. I think you need some serious soul-searching about whether it's really what you want in your retirement — whenever that may happen — and whether it's possible that you can even get "a few happy golden years" given its drawbacks. Have you considered individual therapy? You're on the cusp of some potentially life-altering decisions, and I think it could be really useful as a place to sort things out, gaining insights through learning to listen to yourself (and be heard.) And it could help you cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning that works for you — that makes you feel autonomous and like you are charting your path, not being dragged into decisions by others or pros-cons checklists about what you "should" do, or hoping for some magical lightning bolt to change everything. 

So, my gut is this: keep looking but keep the job for now. If you are in an unfruitful job search for a year or more, then you can reevaluate. But I'm not seeing a compelling reason to start sitting at home potentially twiddling your thumbs or being being dragged along on fly-fishing trips (seriously, I'm so curious about this hobby!)

Chatters — any support?

 

...missed your spirit and compassion and humor dreadfully.

So very kind! Thank you.

I definitely missed being here with all of you.

I'm a little embarrassed to say that as a long-time Washington Post reader and chat reader/participant, I hadn't realized until today that Baggage Check isn't about the navigating the indignities of modern air travel. Looking forward to enjoying future chats with you!

hahaha! No embarrassment needed.

And hey, sometimes the indignities of modern air travel truly are enough to warrant emotional support and advice!

We're thrilled to have you.

I come from a dysfunctional family that constantly feuds and has only ever offered me criticism and drama. No one in my family has any close bonds with anybody else, except with their spouses/partners. Each person in my family has been married multiple times. Growing up without the love and closeness that I witnessed at my friends' houses definitely hurt me. Now, I am 32. I have met the most wonderful man who is my equal partner in every way. He is gentle and patient and kind, and he accepts that I didn't have the happy childhood that he did growing up. I'm not obsessed with the idea of "being married," as some women are; rather, he is someone I think is worthwhile being married to and building a life with together. But I'm afraid to ask him to marry me because I've seen my family members make terrible, selfish choices in their marriages. I don't want to be like them. Should I stay safe and comfortable in our relationship the way it is? Why am I so afraid of being married ... and then failing at it?

Well, it makes sense that you'd be afraid, because marriage is tightly woven with stress and drama and emotional hurt, in your experience.

But that association doesn't have to stick.

For starters, you have insight in to your past about this-- and insight into the destruction of the choices that you've seen people make. So, over time you will learn to separate the institution of marriage into different categories-- and your family's marriages do not have to be in the same category as yours. It's like if marriage were a big ocean. You watched a bunch of people jump in without life vests and without knowing how to swim, in the middle of a big storm. So of course you'd have a fear of the sea-- you're human. And no, it would NOT be a good idea for you to do what they did. But, you can take swim lessons (and may already be, by exploring your past and what you want out of your future.) You can wear a life vest. You can make sure that your co-captain is the person that you trust without fail to be the type of person who knows how to steer a boat and how to make good decisions. And you can watch for storms and navigate accordingly.

I can't pretend that you'll be totally at ease with the idea at first, or that planning a wedding won't make you anxious (hey, it does for virtually everyone-- even if they're just worried about band-versus-DJ, and have no qualms about the institution itself.) But I'm saying that you have every reason to believe that your marriage can take a different path-- because you can choose to do the work to be a different person (and also choosing a different partner) than your predecessors did.

This leap of faith is something that people have in all kinds of ways-- from marriage, of course, to choosing to have children or trying to go to college or any number of things where they weren't given a proper script about how to do it. As long as you continue to keep your eyes open and keep learning and trying and communicating well with your partner, you've got a major leg up.

Good luck.

After years of infertility and miscarriage, I am pregnant as a result of IVF (YAY!) The problem is my religion is against the use of IVF. I wrestled with those teachings a lot before deciding that I would do IVF - between following a moral teaching that I didn't fully agree with and having a chance at a child, I chose the latter. I did several things to modify IVF to bring it more in line with my beliefs. But, I feel guilty about the choice, knowing that I choose to participate in this community where people would disapprove of my actions. I'm worried that this means I have no moral authority to rely on and I'll just rationalize any decision. I'm not sure whether to leave the church, work out my guilt, or what.

I think this can actually be a very positive opportunity — for you to find yourself in all of this. To do some exploration about the ways that you want to live your life, the specific values that you will choose to carry with you (and how they will influence your parenting-- CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!) You are a human being; you are not a set of religious laws or doctrines. You are living and breathing and making your way in the world, with all the challenges that entails. And so I view this not as a setback but as a crucial time for growth. You get to ask yourself the questions and discover in your heart and your mind what your path will be. This is all a long way of saying — you get to call the shots on how you incorporate your faith into your life. Other people's disapproval isn't a valid yardstick against what you establish as your own personal belief system after adequate soul-searching.... we're not talking about you breaking laws or harming others!

So, I can't know whether your church or your faith in general is one that is all-or-none, or is compatible with adjusting certain things. That may actually be where it's helpful to talk to people of your faith and how they do (or don't) reconcile some of their own choices in life. I would explore all that. But I strongly believe that as you bring a child into the world, it is a GOOD thing to be asking questions about what beliefs are yours truly — versus what beliefs where just shoved at you without your buy-in. You'll be a stronger parent when you rely on the former rather than the latter.

Good luck.

So I read with interest your recent remarks comparing therapeutic modality and psychiatry vs. psychology (Dec 4 chat). I have suffered a lot of depression in my life with some very severe episodes. While talk therapy and CBT has been helpful dealing with my depression in the past, to the point that I feel like I know how to work around those depressed times and soldier on through them, there are these other things having to do with my mother and father that I feel like I might benefit to explore. Recently I went to a poetry slam and had a very emotional reaction that took me by surprise in part because of a topic about mothers. First, I realized that I keep my emotions pretty buttoned down these days both because it was disrupting my marriage as it was clear my husband was not the right person to help me deal with emotional things and because I now have kids and ditto for them basically. Furthermore, I noted I have experienced a lot of revelations since becoming a mother eight years ago. My mother wasn't physically abusive but now that I have kids of my own I see clearly now that she did some pretty emotionally harmful things from lashing out inappropriately to ignoring my needs. Like, it felt awful being treated that way as a kid and now that I see how vulnerable my kids are I can't imagine treating them same. Also my father died when I was a teenager and I am beginning to believe there are some emotions from that I never dealt with probably because it was just my mom and I living with him at the time and see previous re: her ignoring and lashing out. Anyway your comments made me wonder if I should start a new round of therapy that delves more into my childhood and how to screen therapists to make sure I am finding the right one for this type of work.

First, kudos on the work you have already done to manage your depression. I know that is not an easy road, and I've got to commend you for it. Especially given what you have gone through in your upbringing.

I would absolutely think that another round of therapy could help here. I'd never argue against CBT, but for some of the stuff that's farther back in your past, you might also include psychodynamic types of therapists in your search (many of us do a combo of both, so you may have to read between the lines.) When you look at potential therapists' profiles and expertise, give priority to the ones who really seem to focus on upbringing and family dynamics. Of course it's important that you still work in the here and now — especially given your history of depression — but there are some really skilled therapists who can deal with childhood stuff quite well, and they might not always be at the top of a CBT-for-depression type of list.

But of course, the personal fit is paramount. So don't be afraid to shop around. Most therapists will give you some sort of consultation first, even if it's just a phone call. Listen to yourself. These are important, vulnerable things-- so your gut instinct about who would feel good to be with in the room is of prime importance.

You've got this. Please keep us posted.

Thank you for posting the article about divorcing your parents – I love your chats and postings! The article resonated with me as one who has divorced one of my parents, or have not been in contact with my mother for over a year. I am pretty sure it is semi-permanent this time (no, not the first time for me) because of the extreme relief and release I feel from not being in contact with her and her ways. The saddest part is that it took me so many decades to figure out she was not normal and that I didn’t have to put up with the manipulation, complaints, bad treatment and narcissism. She continues to attempt to contact me, and I have ignored every attempt, but I imagine there is some point in the future when it will be hard to avoid her. For instance, this week a much beloved aunt has passed away and she will be at the funeral. The cost to travel a long distance and attend the aunt’s funeral are cost prohibitive, so I am not confronted with this issue right now but it will happen again in the future. How have others successfully been estranged from family members but also attended family functions where that parent is in attendance too? How do you maintain that no or extremely low contact distance in this kind of instance? In the article “‘Life Without Her is Such a Joy’: Women Talk about Divorcing Their Mothers” there is a link for support for people in the UK estranged from their family. Do you know of other support in the United States that you could share please? Thank you!

I am sorry. I am glad the article I had posted on Facebook resonated with you. It is here for others interested.

Those decades that it took you to "figure things out" — those are totally normal, and part of the process. Why would you question your mother's having had your best interests at heart, when that was all you ever knew? It was your normal. But all of that gives you strength and motivation to not let her toxicity impact you any longer. It will get easier the longer you go, and the more you build yourself up in your resolve. Therapy can most definitely help. It will also get easier logistically — after you have a few outings under your belt, then you start to develop a script ("best practices," for those corporate folk) of what to do and say in these interactions, how to extract yourself, how to explain things to others, etc.

Someone who writes over at Psychology Today with me but specializes in this is Peg Streep. Definitely look up her stuff — she has books and I believe a Facebook page that is a great community of people going through this, and might be exactly what you are looking for.

Hang in there, and keep us posted.

First of all, don't think you are the only one this has happened to! Lots of us had a restart at some point in our life. Second, if you haven't already, tell your parents. You need their support or (hopefully not) to find out right now their lack of support. Third, maybe there are some job opportunities where you live now. Maybe some in your previous field or something completely different. There are some jobs that I call "I got to eat" jobs. Something to get you by, generate some cash and give you a bit of pride that you are doing something positive in your life. Fourth, if you still have access to the university, time to hit the career advisor again! Fifth, good luck!

Sound advice on all fronts — thank you!

Over the years, I have accumulated a whole host of mental health diagnoses — depression, anxiety, ADHD, (mild) autism spectrum, and a few other things - all of which I have managed at a high-functioning level but that have caused me a good deal of distress. A therapist I started working with a few months ago (after doing a detailed history and meeting with me quite a few times) told me that — actually — I don't have any of these things. Apparently my prior providers had diagnosed me based on pretty superficial reviews of symptoms that had emerged during stressful times in my life. So I suppose it's good that I'm not suffering from mental illness, but ... now what? Without my diagnoses, I am just moody and easily distracted and bad with people, for no reason other than ... a lack of mental discipline, I guess? Any thoughts on how to get back to feeling okay with myself in my newfound neurotypical state?

See, I don't believe there's a big black line between people with psychological disorders and people without. (Hmm.  I'm saying that as someone who literally tests college students on the diagnostic criteria to differentiate those with psych disorders from those without. I might start seeing some interesting things in blue books if they happen to read this chat!)

Seriously, though — so much of human behavior is on a spectrum, and I'm not just talking about the autism spectrum! Depression. Anxiety. ADHD. All three of those things you mention — well, they encompass traits that exist to some extent in all of us, in different forms. There's no magic switch that turns on in people that meet criteria and those that don't — it's doubtful that their brains are extremely different in a qualitative way. So it's possible that the right versus wrong diagnosis here is a murky question mark, and that the truth is somewhere in the middle and depends on the exact day some psychologist is making the assessment of you.

But I'd argue that none of that even matters-- because in your case, it may mean nothing more than semantics!! Maybe you don't suffer from any "mental illness" but you DO get the rights and responsibilities afforded to you as a human being. And yeah, your serotonin and family upbringing and life experiences and norepinephrine matter too, whether you have a label or not.

So, just let yourself do the work to be the person you want to be, to address the issues you want to address, and to realize that none of us really are that easy to put into categories, whether we have a diagnosis or not. Maybe you don't have ADHD officially but you could definitely still use some strategies to help your organization or follow-through (ahem.) Maybe you don't have depression per se but you could use some help finding a sense of meaning and boosting your mood at times. Maybe you don't have an anxiety disorder but you could use some additional coping skills. You deserve to be you, a unique individual — and exploring that individual can be just as helpful whether there is a label or not.

Does your boyfriend mean that you put too much emphasis on making plans, doing things your way, and expecting people to live up to your standards? Because it might be worth while to examine your actions instead of just saying "that's the way I am." If your standards cause conflict, you need to discuss that with your BF or perhaps with a couples counselor so you — and he! can better manage the relationship .

Yeah, it's tough — I think there's a fine line here between things that are just indelible personality traits (and don't deserve to have to be changed) versus actions that will make any relationship difficult, and should be brought into the light and adjusted.

If they are both willing to explore this further and motivated to make their relationship work, that could definitely be helpful.

Thanks.

My husband's aunt lies. Pretty much all the time. Any conversation with her ranges from grossly exaggerated to totally made-up. What the stories all have in common is that they present her as bolder & more outgoing than she is and her life as more dramatic (in both good and bad ways). I assume she has some self-esteem issues, so I try to just be compassionate and quickly change the subject to ask about things I know she's good at. The problem is that she seems to really believe these tales. Example: A couple of years ago, she told a story at a family gathering about how she was seriously injured in a car crash as a small child. There was embarrassed silence until her eldest sibling, Elaine, responded: "Sue, that wasn't you. That was [brother]. You weren't even born when that happened." Sue muttered something about how she must have gotten confused. We figured that was the end of it, but last month she recounted that same story to me, this time prefacing it as: "I don't really remember, because I was so young, but Elaine says that I was in a terrible car accident when I was a baby…" And this sort of thing happens a lot. So… What are we obligated to do? She's in her 60's, lives with one of her other adult siblings, has a decent job, pays her bills, keeps herself and her house clean and overall seems to manage daily life. There are no (other) signs of mental illness, so do we just play along unless some big red flag crops up? I'm not sure it's anyone else's prerogative to force her to confront her delusions, but the lies get bigger each year and it's hard to witness.

Well, are they delusions per se, or are they signs that her cognitive functioning is starting to be at — shall we say — less than supercomputer-Watson-level-strength?

I'm not entirely sure how that would change things, of course —perhaps it'd bring more empathy, or warrant more intervention from a physician. But based on what you've said, I wouldn't be entirely quick to assume that it is her personality or need for drama or narcissism or whatever and that it instead isn't some ... confusion.

Sort of like with Baseballcoachgate from above.

But here — her daily life is stable, at least. She's taking care of herself and also has someone else to be vigilant about her well-being. I can definitely imagine that it's hard to witness, but for now I think your only option is to hang tight and come in with the gentle corrections when necessary. (How she responds to those is telling in and of itself, I believe.)

 

Do not become that intimately involved in your teenagers social life such that you would be intervening to change the parameters of a party (outside of safety concerns, of course). I would have been MORTIFIED if my parents tried something like this. It will get out; he will be humiliated. If it means enough to him, he'll speak up on his own.

Well, my understanding was that both her son and the son's BFF were the ones asking her to do it? That speaking up on their own was not enough?

I'm in a relationship of 6 months. I've recently said the L word, 1 month after he said it first. I've been more open to having conversations related to future thinking. Examples: where do I fit in with you future plans, how would you and your spouse handle finances, how would you and your partner deal with aging parents financially, are your future kids going to be home schooled/private school, etc. My bf is great by all accounts from what I've heard on various podcasts: he is supportive of my career, he communicates with me with his words, I feel loved by him through his affection, he is engaged in conversation and I feel heard by him, he gets along with my family, we learn from one another's different cultures and language. See what I mean — by many accounts he is great and has the qualities I would want in a husband. Except — the sex is just fine. Just fine. It gets the job done. I should mention — he loves it, he thinks its great and he cant get enough. On my end — its just fine. I've had a lot better, but I've had some worse. My question to you, Dr. Bonior, is this a major red flag that I need to further explore and reconsider marrying someone over? Or is this something I should not worry about when it comes to long term relationships and marriage? Will sex in a marriage come and go and therefore I need to focus on the great attributes he does have?

Well, you don't "need" to focus on anything right now — that's for later on in a committed relationship that is going through a rough patch. Right now you need to continue to assess and watch and see what DOES matter to you, what you DO naturally focus on, without forcing yourself to take a certain perspective.

Have you attempted to figure out what could make the sex better for you, and have a conversation about it? Or attempt to gently nudge things in that direction in the moment?

We don't need to lose our PG-13 rating here, but there are most definitely ways that you could spice things up if he was on board and you were able to conceptualize exactly what could be better for you. Of course, it's also possible that this isn't just an issue of things being vanilla but rather that he's just not capable of bringing you a bit more spark.

But you won't know unless you actually attempt to change things.

Only then — in my estimation — will you truly be ready to make the real assessment about whether this is a dealbreaker, or whether this is something that you can learn to happily live with given all the other assets of your relationship. (And that answer will be different for everyone.)

Love your loyalty to podcasts, by the way! Perhaps someday we'll be conversing through that forum ourselves!

The book "Being Mortal: by Atul Gawande is incredibly helpful and thought provoking about talking with parents about the future... from having those first discussions about leaving their home to end-of-life decisions. I read it after we moved my parents into assisted living and could see the mistakes that I made, but it has helped immeasurably as my dad is nearing the end. It's just a wonderful book.

Thanks so much for this rec!

I google my ex periodically to see how many divorces he's been through since me? I confess, each time a marriage of his crashes and burns, I experience schadenfreude. It's been 20 years since I threw him out, if that helps.

As long as "periodically" doesn't mean forty-five times before lunch each workday, I think you're golden.

A little schadenfreude — when enjoyed in private, sparingly —isn't the worse thing in the world!

I have a very good friend, whom I've known for years. Early on, the relationship was mutual. But for the last few years, the balance has steadily changed. She's in an emotionally and intellectually abusive marriage, and there is a child involved. I've tried to be a supportive friend. I think I'm the person that she dumps everything on — "thanks for letting me vent." I think she recognizes that it's an uneven friendship but I feel like she makes token gestures to ask how I am. She even gives me little gifts (things I don't want), I think, to even our relationship out. I want to support her but now believe that she will never take my advice or change. She always wants to get together. Frankly, I find it emotionally exhausting and make as many excuses as I can to avoid getting together. She's not in a good situation; I want to be there for her. But I hate even thinking about getting together. Has our friendship crossed a point of no return?

I think she needs more help than you can offer.

And part of being a friend is telling her that.

Now, I'm not suggesting you dump her by any stretch (hooo boy, I think I'm having a traumatic reaction to a brouhah in a past chat) but I do think that part of our jobs as friends is to acknowledge when the chronic venting is not helping either party.

So, you can still frame this as a concern about her well-being-- and I don't think that's inaccurate, being that she's a good friend and you are presumably a good person-- but you've got to broach this with her. If she runs this friendship into the ground because she wants to only cherry-pick parts of it (chronically wanting to fill you in on complicated, troubling situations but ignoring your advice and attempts to help, for instance) then that is not on you.

So, how about this:

"You might have noticed I've been a bit distant lately. Honestly, I am hurting for you. You've been in this awful situation for a really long time now, and I want to support you during it, but I don't feel like I'm helping. I try to give advice but I can see it's not helpful to you. It makes me feel helpless for you. I really want to see things get better for you, but I feel like you need more than I can give."

And see where that takes you....

My grandmother is likely to pass away any day now from advanced cancer. I'm having a difficult time processing this reality, especially because she was well only a few short months ago. I'm also getting married in a few months, and I'm just devastated that she won't be able to be there with me. I don't know how I will be able to enjoy my wedding, or even plan it, while knowing that my grandmother won't be able to be there. She was so excited and looking forward to it, and now there's a void. I know I should find a grief group, or some kind of counseling, but I don't know where to start.

I am so very sorry.

Yes, grief groups can be really helpful, as can individual therapy. But I think the overarching thing here is to understand that your wedding is not going to be entirely free of missing her or being sad — and that's okay. In fact, that's the way it should be, because to not feel her absence would be to have her not be part of your life, and that wouldn't be right either.

You might find the chat from the 18th helpful — someone else was going through a possible last Christmas with a beloved mother-in-law (are you out there, OP? How did it go?) and was facing some of the same emotions. The main point about the day itself, I truly believe, is to let yourself feel it. If you try to bottle things up, not only does that cut you off from some potential meaning, but it also might make you more prone to suddenly overflow with grief that feels uncontrollable when you least expect it-- and that's probably the exact scenario you are trying to avoid.

Give yourself space and time right now. Be with her in the ways that feel significant in these final days. Unload some of the trivial wedding to-dos on people who are willing to help.

And remember that mixed feelings are okay — and often they show us what's important.

I was the one with the happily married parents, and my now-husband was the one with the tense and unhappy childhood. When we were dating and starting to consider marriage, we decided to do some extended pre-marital counseling with a set curriculum to discuss families of origin, faith and religion, money, etc. (Some churches offer this for groups, but we choose to do private sessions at our own pace with an actual therapist.) It helped both of us enormously — even me, who had a great model of marriage in my parents. Maybe something to consider — it might help you build some skills and feel more confident in your ability to make this kind of commitment. If nothing else, a curriculum specifically for pre-marital counseling gives you a chance to talk through some of the really important assumptions people bring to marriage than can become pain points later on.

Wonderful idea. Thank you.

And I'm so glad to hear that it worked so well in your case.

Hi Dr. Bonoir, I'm the person who wrote in about seriously dreading the giant family holiday cruise. We've returned, and the happy update is that it went pretty well! I think the travel snafus that did happen (flight cancellations, losing rental keys, government shutdown...) actually helped me get closer to other family members when we worked together to address them. It definitely helped to not think of everything as so much of a competition (no need to be the most helpful or most informed family member in every situation), and to breezily say no to activities I wasn't interested in. I enlisted my husband to help beforehand, so he helped me hold boundaries with the rest ("nope, she's not interested in playing the board game, so let's just play with one fewer person"), and he got more involved in the activity planning process. By the end, group tensions did start to rise more as people got tired of each others' quirks, but in a way that was also helpful because I didn't feel like the one black sheep who couldn't fit into the harmonious family! (and it made it easier to come home, since it was clearly time for vacation to end) Thanks again to you and the comments for all the helpful suggestions and reframing methods! P.S. I would probably also recommend all-inclusive options (like cruise buffets) for large groups as a harmony-preserving measure! I would like to think of myself as a good food sharer, but after a few restaurant family-style dining experiences with the big group, I found myself getting stressed by others eating shared dishes quickly before I had a chance to try them, and feeling stingy about whether my husband and I were paying a "fair" amount. On the last night I enlisted my husband's help again to set a boundary of ordering my own, not-shared dish, and it was actually one of the best trip moments to just be able to not have to offer anyone else a taste until I was done!

Woohoo! This is a wonderful update. I can't tell you how glad I am to read it. And here's to a plate of one's own!

Thanks so much for writing back in.

I wish she'd given some more examples because, going on what she's saying it might not be straightforward. There's a big difference between feeling like there's only one way to load the dishwasher and actually making sure you loading the dishwasher when you say you will. Expecting people to live up to what they say they're going to do entirely different from folding the towels the right way. I say this as someone recovering from being critical in this way and relaxing a bit. I'm the type of person who likes takes an interest in doing everything efficiently with the least muss or fuss. My husband ... not so much. I've had to curb being critical about this. The container thing for the cereal was being washed — he took the wax paper containing the cereal itself out of the cardboard box and the took the wax baggy with the cereal - without the cardboard box — and propped it up in a cupboard, asking for it to be knocked over and go everywhere. It would be stable in the box! Who does that! But I didn't say anything — I just shook my head and relaxed — where I might have been critical before. He has many good qualities — I need to relax about that. I suspect you're right that this isn't a good sign — but I wish we had some examples of where she should relax.

You are definitely right — more examples would be helpful. And I agree that there may be more to it than meets the eye. LW, are you out there?

I am glad that on your end, you have learned to adjust in ways that feel right to both of you!

We've been married 33 years about 5 years ago I started drinking. Heavily now. I've worked all these years tirelessly on our home and my job I have 2 children that I let him totally blow off (shame on me) grown adults now. He prides himself on belittling me on a daily basis. I have the job that pays insurance and FMLA. I need help. This guy shames me for throwing out expired food. Along with being a supervisor for 18 women in an entry level position (these people are awesome but needy) I feel so alone. Nobody knows a person till they live with them. I'm tired.

I am really sorry. But you do not have to be alone in this. You need and deserve help, and the drinking is only going to do the opposite. Please, please, please consider some individual counseling, as soon as possible. There are mental health clinics and community mental health centers and graduate training programs and even private therapists that offer low-cost and sliding scale options.

Please keep us posted.

Just checking this tell tales isn't new — as if it is, a full medical work-up is warranted.

Yes. My thoughts as well. Thanks!

I am currently hosting an exchange student. The student is an extremely confident, bright and social individual. I think in most ways the student is a typical teen who knows everything and selectively shares information. There are only a couple weeks left in the exchange but my student seems to have "checked out" already. 4 of the last 5 days they were late to school. This wasn't a problem for the first 4 months. The school calls me 2-3 times a day (recorded msg). This stresses me. Student says sorry and smiles. Says they don't see the problem because they don't think it is important. There have been other instances of student doing whatever they want when they disagree with the rules followed by sorry and typical teenage excuses. The rest of the exchange went very well but I feel it is ending on a bad note. I'm stressed but wonder if I should just ignore any and all negative behavior for the last couple weeks. Thanks.

I'd argue for a middle ground here  a sit-down conversation to attempt to throw student a lifeline of how to not screw up and sow ill will at the very end of an otherwise pleasant stay. And then, if they ignore that, a calendar countdown on your wall until the day they get back on that plane.

Pick a quiet, private, relaxed time. Start with something like "Now that your exchange time is coming to an end, I've been reflecting upon what a great and meaningful thing it's been for me/our family. I will always have all kinds of memories that are so great — X, Y, and Z, and I want you to know I am so glad to have had you. I did want to mention to you, that the school has been concerned with ABC behavior, and it has been stressful for me to field those phone calls. I can understand that as you near the end, you are ready to be done and feel checked out a bit. But I don't think it's fair if I didn't tell you the effect that it is having on the school, and of me. How can we help you have a good final few weeks, so that we can wrap up your experience in a positive way?"

Thanks, Dr. B. You deserve to have your understandable curiosity gratified, but it would be too much of a “tell.” But I think describing one of DH’S studies as parallel to Electrical Repair for Homeowners and another occupation as working for a local volunteer fire department (at a desk job) would give you some idea of what his distractions are like. And yes, neither appeals to me. I’m still feeling torn about whether to spend my limited money on solo therapy or on a mediated divorce, but I get where you’re coming from and am grateful for the input. The good news is that he’s in solo therapy and attends THOSE sessions regularly. Now if I could just get everyone at my job into treatment! :)

Gotcha. Yes, I never want to impede on confidentiality and privacy, but I appreciate your throwing my curious id a bone!

There definitely aren't any easy answers here, but I do solidly believe that if you are motivated, you can take some steps to figure them out. Perhaps some lower-cost therapy options first? Please do keep us posted.

I don't think the details of how you came to be pregnant are anyone's business, and I don't think you owe anyone who expresses concern about this pregnancy in view of your past history anything more than, "We're hoping and praying that everything goes well this time," because that's a truthful answer and all anyone needs to know.

Very true. I'm guessing that its her own internal guilt that is more of an issue, though.

Most people do not follow every single religion perfectly their entire lives. Most people make mistakes, sin, or are otherwise imperfect. Why is this IVF a reason to leave the religion, when any other mistake in the past wasn’t? Does your religion exclude people if they have, for example, had extra- or pre-marital sex once (a conscious decision which is probably also against your religion)?

Very valid points. Thank you!

It's a wonderful book and really gets you thinking about quality of life and how to advocate for it.

So glad to hear. Definitely putting it on my list!

Would it help to have something commemorating your grandmother included in your wedding? My mother and I, as we walked down the aisle, lit a candle to my father — to symbolize his presence there. You could have photos of her, you could mention her in the order or service ... just a few examples. Would that help make her absence feel less or just bring it more to the forefront?

Very, very good point and I'm embarrassed I neglected it. Thank you!

I'm one of the recovering alcoholics that lurk on the chat. Please, please don't use booze as a crutch. It's a b---h! You are an amazing woman — raised kids, have job, kept the house running. YOU ROCK GIRL! Please get to a counselor and set your ducks in a row to leave the guy. You do not deserve to be put down on a daily basis.

I'm clapping here for sure. Many thanks!

My grandmother also has advanced cancer. I'm expecting my first child this summer and there's a real chance she won't be around when this kid is born. So, I feel for you, OP. The only advice I have is from my own wedding; my grandfather (the husband of this grandma) died about a year before my wedding. He sang at his kids' and grandkids' weddings and I wanted that for mine too. It was hard to get through the day, and there were some tears from everyone. Honestly, what helped was letting the tears happen. It's harder to "keep it together" for appearance's sake. Let yourself feel — both the pain and the joy. I'm so sorry.

There's so much to be gained from people who have been there — thanks so much for sharing your experience. There's a lot of wisdom here and it will no doubt be helpful.

I am so sorry for the loss of your grandfather, and for your grandmother's diagnosis as well.

I'm glad the OP is thinking this through. One question though— how would she react if a friend told her they used IVF —supportive or judgmental? I really hope she doesn't have a "Well, in MY case it's OK, but not for you" mindset, a la all the GOP politicians who are anti-abortion until the mistress needs one.

I really hope so, too! Thanks.

Can't tell you how nice it was to be back today (though clearly I've tried!) Thanks so much to all of you who joined us and/or wrote in. Now that we are back in the groove, it will only be a week until we see you here next, same time. 

In the meantime, take good care — and I will look for you in the comments and on Facebook.

Be well!

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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