Baggage Check Live: A roller coaster ride of mistreatment

Jul 16, 2019

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior will be 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.

She’ll discuss her recent columns and answer any questions you may have about relationships, work, family, mental health and more.

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I fully understand where today's LW is coming from —financial insecurity is deeply stressful and the lasting effects are real. But I do wonder how they're framing it and what signs they're looking for. I assume LW is thinking about more than just how much someone brings in, but how they spend v. debts v. saving v. investing? There's a lot more to pulling financial weight then income, which I think LW is looking for but it wasn't clear from the letter. Also, how are you ferreting this info out? Even if someone has a high-income job, they can easily hide irresponsible spending from you, especially when you don't have access to their information. What if you became committed partners and they were still secretive with their financial info? Are you looking at how they approach life in general for indications of how they treat money? Or are you asking them point-blank on the second date, which could be really off-putting and still not give you what you need? The stuff with your ex wasn't just about money; how we approach money can also intertwine with character and trust  — and you won't learn that in two dates. It might just be that the LW didn't have a lot of space and info got left on the cutting room floor. But I feel like there's so much more to this question than was really presented.

These are all such excellent questions.

LW, are you out there?

Yeah, this letter was one of those times where I really wished I had more space in the print column! (Though I guess that's been pretty much weekly since 2005.)

Only if you are trying to find out what is in it for you. If all you want to know is whether he is self supporting, then no.

Sounds good, for sure. Though I suspect it's a little hard to draw that line clearly, for anybody. Like with types of vacations. There's a slippery slope between "I want a partner who can carry their weight and pay their half of the trips I want to take" and "Wow, this person actually stays in the types of hotels where there is a bowl of apples waiting for you when you check in! Get me in on that!"

I am guessing a more elegant way of expressing this is you value those who are financially responsible, rather than I want a guy with money. Someone with money doesn’t guarantee they’re responsible with said money. Just a thought.

Bingo.

Hi, Do you have any advice about how I can navigate respecting boundaries with a friend and still convey care and support? Friend is admittedly a "highly sensitive person," and she's made comments indictaing possible mental health diagnoses, but I'm not sure. She goes through periods of not wanting to talk at all, shutting down caring, gentle disagreement (Ex: "Can you tell me about X? It seems out of character for you?" and then blocking texts and then "vaguebooking" about setting boundaries, and people "coming into her space and messaging her" and if you disagree, don't be friends with her. Which, fine, I guess. But she, like all of us, is more than her worst moments and worst attributes, and there are other good reasons why I value her friendship. I also worry that these outbursts are perhaps attributable to mental health issues, and I don't want to drop her if the better choice would be to maintain some level of support and care. Like, I wouldn't drop a friend with cancer who became uncommunicative while undergoing chemo. I'm just not sure the best path here. Should I sent a text (if it's not currently blocked?) or email saying, "I care about you and our relationship. (Insert a few examples here.) It seems like me texting you felt like an act of aggression. I'm sorry. That was never my intent. I care about you, and I don't believe in writing people off because of small disagreements. If you want to talk, I'm here." And then just agreeing to disagree about topic X and moving on. Or is that stomping on reasonable boundaries? In the past, I've sort of ignored these instances, and she moves on and is communicative again, but it doesn't totally sit well with me because I never know whether I should inititate communication, or if it will be misinterpreted. Thank you.

You sound like a very empathetic and supportive person, and I generally want to encourage as much empathy and support as possible within the world.

But.

It's also not your responsibility to be along for a roller coaster ride of mistreatment. And I'll be the first person to admit that "mental health issues" are of course a spectrum and sometimes even if the person is not responsible for the fact that they ARE a certain way, they are still responsible for doing what they can to mitigate the damage that that does to others.

For instance — personality disorders. A controversial diagnosis no doubt, but some of them — I'm not in the mood to mince words here — can make people behave like raging arseholes, day in and day out. How much leeway do you give? How much mistreatment do you take?

Here's what I'm wondering: what is your friend doing to work on the challenges she faces? Is there a movement towards things getting better? Toward her developing insight? Toward her being motivated to try to improve her reactions and relationships and dysfunctional patterns?

You have every realistic right to want to see that in order to agree to be on the roller coaster. Otherwise, she is just slapping a label on something that, at the end of the day, is just the acceptance of the fact that she treats you badly.

I like your wording. But (or is AND the better word?) I want to make sure you aren't exhausting yourself unduly here.

In response to last week's chat. I wish people would lay off the "How you treat your aging parents is how your kids'll treat you" or "You're modeling for your kids how to treat elderly parents." I have a conflicted relationship with my dad. My kids are fond of him, but he's said some awful stuff to me and raged at us growing up. My kids know this. I have intentionally cultivated a different, loving relationship with my kids and so far they seem to return my affections. So if I'm not calling my dad regularly or gleefully going to visit him, why should that necessarily mean that that's how my kids'll treat me when I get old?

It shouldn't.

My DC-in-July-melted brain isn't recalling exactly where that vibe may have come up last week within the discussion of taking care of aging parent — but you are absolutely right in that every generational relationship is its own thing and should be treated as such, and the more communication is involved, the less blindly people will follow supposed precedents that shouldn't apply. 

I’m grateful for your chat today because I think my four year old (5 in the Fall) is in a mental health crisis and I am terrified. I’m submitting early since I’ll be in meetings during your chat, but I really hope you can give me some guidance. My daughter is very energetic, artistic and highly verbal. She struggled with temper tantrums a lot during her 2s and 3s, but in the past six months things started becoming much easier and I thought they were on their way out. However, in the past week she began having very different, explosive tantrums. They involve her going from happy and fine to full blown rage in a split second when something doesn’t go her way and destroying her things and trashing our home. It’s like a switch goes off and she’s totally different and impossible to talk to or contain. Last night, we reached a new level of awful. Her toddler brother destroyed one of her smooshy toys when my attention was elsewhere for a few minutes. It really set her off and she rage-exploded instantly. I tried to console her and comfort her, but it wasn’t helping anything so I thought maybe she should just rage and get it all out. It was about 20 minutes of pure hysteria, crying, trying to rip her clothes, pulling out her dresser drawers, knocking things over, and breaking her things. It did not let up for a while. Then she lay on the floor screaming “I want to die” over and over for a long time. Finally finally she calmed down. We talked and hugged a lot and started to clean up. Then when she was super calm and things seemed to be getting towards ok she asked me: “Mommy, how do I make me die?” I’m sure I said the wrong thing, but I really didn’t know what to say. I told her: “You’re 4, you’re not going to die.” I feel like I handled the whole incorrectly, but I have no idea what I should have done differently. Anyway, I am shaken to the core and upset by her suicidal thoughts. I’d like to get her into some kind of counseling asap, but I really don’t know where to start. I’ve reached out to our pediatrician, but I’d love some advice on kinds of therapy that might be helpful and on how I go about navigating this. I feel devastated as well. There’s a history of mental illness in my family and I’m very scared for her and for her future. Also, as her mom, what should I be doing now to help her and also what should I do when her rages hit?

First, I hope you will take a moment to give yourself some compassion, and take a breath. It actually sounds like you handled this just fine. Your love for your daughter is so evident in this letter, and that will take you far.

And please know that you are far from alone in this. Being concerned about your child's mental health can be one of the scariest and most helpless and alienating feelings, but what you describe is not all that uncommon. And I also truly do not believe that it automatically indicates a significant mental health issue. She is verbal, she is artistic, and she has mad amounts of passion and energy. So her mind is moving quickly and she is feeling deeply, and so it is not at all shocking that she would come across some ideas that are extreme.

That said, I don't want to dismiss it either. It is true that some children do start harming themselves from an early age, and (though much rarer) even do attempt or even complete suicide, so I don't want to err too far on the side of dismissing this (as people saw last week, I never want to do that when it comes to suicidal talk, adults neither.) Perhaps biggest of all, though, is the fact that she is desperate for additional tools to help her through these huge feelings. Her current coping mechanisms and reactions aren't working well, even by 5 year-old standards. I think seeking out a therapist for her at this stage is absolutely the best option, because if you are being over-alarmist, then worst case you and she get some extra support out of it.

I would look for someone with extensive experience specifically in children and rage. It is possible that the idea of DMDD (Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder) will be thrown around, and while I am absolutely not saying she has it just from what you described alone, it might benefit you to see someone who has solid experience with kids with that diagnosis, both in assessing them and treating them. What she needs are specific tools in the moment that will help her not only understand the intensity of her body's reactions and big feelings, but choose better ways to handle them and manage them. Ideally, someone with experience in mindfulness tools for kids can help her manage this better and help break the short-circuit taking her from intense feeling to destructive behavior. 

Finally, try to look for patterns that may clue you in to contributing factors. Potential food intolerances that make her feel yucky and on edge? Sleep problems that deplete her patience and don't let her think clearly? Patterns of interactions that make her feel particularly left out or resentful or jealous?

Her therapist will of course give you strategies as well, but for now, when she gets in these modes, do what you can to model calm behavior, empathize with the intensity of her feelings, but establish a boundary ("We don't break things, because then we can't play with them anymore later") and an alternative behavior ("Sometimes when I'm mad I go like this and pat my chest like a gorilla.") Emphasize how much you love her and always will, and how feelings can be huge and even feel scary, but they pass in time, and you want to help her to learn how to make it feel better when they are passing through.

Please keep us posted.

I have a child with anxiety issues. She's a teen and can't seem to handle things. When she gets scared or there's pressure, when it comes to flight or fight, she nearly always flees. The stress of this ... the rollercoaster is really affecting my family. We're always on egg shells it seems. We can't seem to get my child to go consistently to therapy. There's always an excuse. But she clearly needs it. What can we do?

So, why do the excuses fly, when you are the adult and she is the child?

I can totally empathize here, and I know you don't want to go "against" her and be bad cop, and I know that at some point forcing therapy can backfire. But I also think your hands are more tied than they need to be. She has issues for which there is treatment available, and the treatment needs to be sought and engaged with. If she needed certain shots or to avoid certain foods or to get a certain surgery, you likely wouldn't let her excuses get in the way. So, do what you need to do to get her into the therapy, period. If she stonewalls and sits there without saying a word, then that is an issue beyond anxiety (and one that you can further trouble-shoot with the therapist.) She needs solid cognitive-behavioral coping strategies for her anxiety in the moment, along with an overall plan of taking care of herself in such a way that maximizes her well-being (sleeping, eating, exercise, social life, etc.)

It is also possible that her physiological reactions are so extreme that medication is warranted, or even key here. I would get a full medical workup as well, to rule out other things that can mimic or accentuate anxiety (thyroid issues, heartbeat irregularities, hormonal imbalances, etc.)

Good luck, and please do keep us posted.

In a discussion with my sister this morning, we laughed about how we have certain friends that no matter what we're wearing will tell us how great or cute we look every time we see them. Others will find something to compliment every time. "cute earrings, cute purse". We both weren't socialized to do that. We do give our friends compliments if they look very nice or are wearing something particularly flattering, but not every single time we see them. I sometimes wish my friends would stop this, as there are certain people I wouldn't believe if they told me I looked nice because they do it every time.

Yes, it's so fascinating how compliments can say just as much about the giver as the receiver. Like the question "How are you?" Some people want an answer, some people don't, and it also depends on the context of the interaction. (Seems lately like adding the word "doing" at the end of "How are you" is more of an invitation to say something real.)

The good news is, I hear enough about chronically critical people (wait, that is not good news in and of itself, but I promise I'm going somewhere with this) that a friend who is too automated and habitual with their compliments is probably not among the worst of quirks to have to tolerate. I think you can just take this all within the context, and come to say a brief, respectful thank-you, and know that that serves as conversational glue or warm-up or whatever it may be. And make a mental note that if you want a REAL opinion on that haircut, you should probably ask someone else entirely.

I hope this week's first letter writer joins the chat to clarify who is calling her a gold digger, because although my sense is she is not one, as you said in your published answer the letter is unclear about that, and it's a bit hard to respond without knowing. But if I may bring up another point for her to consider: what if she finds a responsible and self-sufficient partner, forms a serious attachment, and then in two years' time some unexpected misfortune ends his career through no fault of his own? Would that be the end of the relationship, or would she support him on the basis that he doesn't have the same selfish and irresponsible attitude as her ex?

It's a great question. I'm betting that it wasn't just that Ex didn't bring in money. It was that he didn't bring in money due to what seems like a lack of motivation to take care of himself and find stability, AND he also would spend spend spend spend the money that LW would bring in. My guess is that it would be a whole different ballgame, though you raise an excellent point that no one's financial situation is guaranteed. When you have faith that your partner is on the same page as you in their motivation and goals, though, then it can help immensely in handling unexpected setbacks.

Thanks.

I definitely think she is not a golddigger. These are normal things to want in a partner. But maybe the framing could use work. You're not necessarily looking for a partner that has tons of money and can support you, but one that has similar values and goals to you around work and financial stability.

Yes. The nuance here is important.

I think it may be worth asking yourself what, exactly, is your bar for the people you date. Personally I have always valued someone who can live within their budget, and I ended up married to someone who did so — but also who made much less money than I do (but also spends much less, in general). If you're asking for someone with a 'big income' that's not a guarantee of solvency or responsible spending. Maybe if you have a dating profile, you can add a line about 'financial stability' being important (or whatever is important to you), and then bring it up organically when talking about work or something once you know dates 1-3 went well.

Really good points here, and you raise what I see as an important distinction that the idea of "providing" can sometimes mask: there is a huge difference between expecting someone to bring in boku bucks so that you can develop an intimate relationship with The Four Seasons, versus expecting someone to bring in enough money and live WITHIN that money to the point where it is not stressful each month where the rent funds will come from. And the people spending it all at the Four Seasons can be a hairsbreadth away from insolvency, depending. It's the stability and responsibility piece that seems most important, as you said. Well put.

Hi Andrea, I'm catching up on a few weeks of chats, and just saw the letter from the mom of the 1 year old who was angry with her husband's college buddies for not staying active in their lives and coming to their 1 year old's birthday party. I also caught a huge whiff of sexism in that "her" friends (all female, I noted) were hugely supportive, calling themselves honorary "aunties," etc. whereas his were deadbeats. I'm sorry, but I'm a woman married without kids (by choice) and I've been invited to several b-day parties for infants/toddlers, and I don't go to those because they're loud and awful. And sorry #2, my life just doesn't revolve around my friends' kids. I suspect this is the same for the college buddies. Honestly, it's been frustrating to have any relationship with my friends now because THEIR lives now revolve around their kids, so I've just had to accept that the relationship has changed, at least for the next probably 10-13 years or so, until the kids are old enough to have their own friends and/or stay home alone. That said, I don't RSVP and not show — that's just rude full stop. So, a lot of our relationship has been calls and texts now, because babysitters don't ever seem to be an option (for many, many reasons it seems) and I can't stand having to compete with screaming kids for an hour of adult conversation with my friends. I still love them to pieces, but they learned pretty quickly that "Auntie Sarah" is not really too engaged. Maybe the LW should try seeing things from the friends' perspective. She sounded to me like she felt the world should revolve around her daughter, and it just doesn't. Her expectations and reactions were really unreasonable.

I hear this, but it seems you agree with me that RSVP-ing and not showing is rude, period. So I think it gives me pause before declaring her unreasonable. It seems so many people are so quick to get into the weeds about kids or no kids that they are forgetting this unequivocally hurtful action that probably was the main trigger of her writing in the first place.

The sexism piece is tricky, too-- as husband's friend group included women-- but there may be something to the idea that people treat mothers versus fathers differently in terms of offering support.

But I don't think that showing up at a  first birthday party for a first child of a close friend (often the 1st party is for friends and family, and subsequent parties are just for other little hell-raisers) means that your life revolves around that kid. We're not talking about weekly zoo trips or endless rounds of "The Wheels on The Bus." If I go to a friend's art show, does my life revolve around their art? If I go see their opening night of their theater performance or a super-important concert gig or cheer them on in their first marathon, does my life revolve around their theater career or their band or their athletic endeavors? Do I have to be a fan of those things to support my friend? Of course not. And if I said I was going to show up to this thing and it was super important to my friend, but then I ghosted, then the whole "But I don't like concerts! They're looooud!" excuse would be pretty lame, no?

No doubt, friendships can change IMMENSELY when someone has kids and it is an incredible challenge, and the parent has the responsibility to not make it all about themselves and their kids and to be empathetic to the other person. I know this can be a huge problem, and I feel for people in your situation--- and it sounds like you are doing a good job of balancing your friendships and still staying supportive while not getting too sucked in to the kid shenanigans. But I also think that at some point, the whole "kids" issue becomes a polarizing distractor, with a lot of straw man arguments, and people can justify some pretty bad friendship behavior with the excuse that they aren't into kids. Close, supportive friendships should have room for different lifestyles as long as everyone is respectful.

I was just reading your description from last week about the book and thinking that it's a lot like Harry Potter's boggart — saying something like "Ridikulus" and turning it into something that's not so scary. I always remember seeing Snape in Neville's grandmother's clothes and it still gives me a giggle. :)

Ooh — this is a fabulous potential connection! It's the Hubster that was the designated Harry Potter reader (and read along-er) in our house so I'll have to check in with him more about this, but I am intrigued!

How do you know when a child's picky eating is severe enough to warrant having them assessed for eating disorders? Both of my kids (8&10) are picky, often refusing foods they have eaten before. We regularly have challenges packing lunches because there are so few things my kids will eat. They often refuse protein sources. One of mine refuses nearly all fruits and the majority of vegetables and largely subsists on things like popcorn and various forms of bread. This same child will flip out if someone is so much as eating yogurt in their presence. I've tried including my kids in meal planning and cooking but it doesn't seem to make a huge difference. Even as I write all of this, I know I was an incredibly picky child often eating the same dinner for months at a time but I got over it as I got older. How do I know what's OK here vs. what needs treatment?

There really is no hard and fast line, but the general rule with this (and most other questions of whether to seek treatment) is to what extent it is getting in the way of daily life. How stressful is it to the family? To their social lives? How much is it affecting your relationship? Are they feeding off each other negatively? (No pun intended.) To what extent may it be negatively affecting their overall health?

I've heard of a lot of kid with texture issues — where there is a legit physiological gag reflex with certain foods — and other kids who will simply use any excuse under the sun not to touch the cauliflower. And of course, there is everything in between, and food and hunger have strong behavioral conditioning components, so even if something started out as physiological it could grow to become psychologically perpetuated over time (ask me why I didn't drink root beer for 15 years.)

I would begin with a detailed and honest discussion with your kids' pediatrician, outside of the kids' presence if possible. No two practitioners will have the exact same threshold for alarm bells, but if you like your doctor, then that is the best place to start.

Have other chatters had hope with this?

Hi, I missed the last chat but wanted to respond that I think you and the chatters interpreted my initial question in a way I did not intend. It's not that I feel "too busy" for my friends — I'm the planner in most of my friendships and am often reaching out to schedule dates and phone calls, because I value time spent together. I fully agree that it's important to maintain friendships beyond my marriage etc! The part that stresses me out is the use of texting+email and the expectation of constant/continuous availability and quick responses to all things — I just can't figure out how to incorporate instant communication with many people into my day-to-day, and then I find this stressing me out so much that I just avoid reading/responding altogether! Which is not how I want to be! So was asking for advice either in alternatives, or at least how to better balance the requirements of my Texting Generation. Thank you for listening :)

Thanks for this update! I didn't think that you were too busy for your friends. But you are saying that you would prioritize doing other things over responding to their texts in the moment and being constantly available to them (a totally understandable and legitimate stance, of course), so that does in essence mean that yes, you have other things that you'd choose before texting them back about random stuff. So that's pretty much the po-TAH-to to the potato of being too busy for that type of communication with them. As you say now, you can't figure out how to fit it in. (And I'm not sure you want to, which, again, is completely your right.)

There's no magic time-space continuum bending trick or texting fairy that will respond in the moment to these texts that are stressing you out. So my original outlook stands — be communicative about what you can and cannot respond to, say, on a weeknight. Don't just disappear. That's how you balance the "requirements" — by understanding that in any given relationship, BOTH people's requirements matter, and if your requirement is to not be expected to be at the ready with a text response 24/7, then that's just fine as long as you communicate with them about it and give both of you a chance to adjust together.

OP, you sound like an awesome parent. Go you.

Yes, yes, yes. Often it's the good parents who doubt themselves the most in these scary situations. But asking the questions and being willing to open your eyes and examine your own behavior and try to do what needs to be done is part of what makes a good parent in the first place!

Colleagues from work periodically invite my spouse and I over for dinner or parties. But I have worked with these colleagues for several decades, so after this much time together, 40 hours a week is already plenty of time to spend with them. I imagine that they think we are rude for never reciprocating the invitation. If there is actually a polite way of saying that I only want to see them at work, I haven't found it. Any advice?

Hmm .... I had a whole answer typed up just now and then I reread your question and something stuck out at me.

Are you declining the invitations?

Or are you accepting them, and then not reciprocating?

I am hitting a big fat "delete" on my previous answer (it even had an orangutan reference — too bad!) until I know more.

It sounds like there were deeper issues that manifested themselves as money problems in the marriage. For instance, if your husband knew how much this stress was impacting you and was unwilling to do anything about it, it's a respect/trust issue. If you weren't able to communicate about your needs to your husband it's a communication problem. I'd say it's fine that the LW is looking for someone with financial stability, but it might be worth their time to think about the character traits and/or relational patterns underlying that dynamic to avoid a repeat in the future just in a different version of the problem. (E.g., next time it might be a household chores issue rather than a money problem, or a how-we-spend-our-free-time problem rather than a money problem - but if you don't fix the underlying dynamic by choosing different types of partners/learning new relationship skills/seeking new self-insight, it will pop up again in new ways!)

So true. Money is probably the way that some of these personality things manifested themselves, more so than being the originating problem. (I am still on Team OP, so I'm going to guess it was more so on the husband's end rather than a general relationship dynamic, but that is an excellent point.)

If you meet and like and start dating a guy who doesn't make much money but loves what he does and is happy being self-supporting but not necessarily that well off, will that affect your feelings about the possibility of a relationship? Just something to ask yourself.

Yup. Though I am betting that as long as he is stable and self-supporting and not spending all the money that OP is bringing in, then OP will be just fine with it.

OP didn't say she wanted a partner to support her financially, just that she wanted a partner with a sensible attitude toward financial stability. At least I think that's what I'm getting from her letter and that would probably be a better way for her to phrase what she says to people about her requirements for a life partner. I mean, don't most people want a partner with a sensible attitude toward financial stability?

Yup, absolutely. I am hoping that OP chimes in so we can hear more about where these "gold-digger" comments are coming from, because it could be that she is articulating things kind of badly, or else she has some VERY judgmental people in her life....

Sweating.

Yes!!

If you're in DC, I suggest you don't check out this weekend's forecast yet. I do really consider it a mental health issue.

Hi Andrea, My 14yo nephew came to stay with me for a week while attending a leadership camp in DC. He lives in Oregon and my brother and I aren't super close, so I haven't had much of a relationship with the kids. I own this entirely, and so went out of my way to make the most of his visit, acting on tips my brother gave me of activities he would likely enjoy, but asking my nephew if he'd be interested in XYZ before making plans. Kiddo, however, was a pill, to put it bluntly. Said yes to all suggested activities, but then stayed in his room or bathroom literally every second we were at home outside of meals, hardly said a word during said meals, in the car or on the metro, and then I heard him complaining to his parents on the phone (in his room, but kinda loudly) how boring Aunt and Uncle were and that we didn't take him anywhere, despite having visited Mt. Vernon the day before, and doing a Hop on-Hop off bus all day just that day. Now my brother is angry at me that we didn't treat his son well, even implying I really don't want a relationship with his family. Nephew left Sunday and barely returned my hug at the airport. No thanks or anything. Should I just chalk this up to moody teenager syndrome ( I do remember those days), tell my brother his son's a stinker, or just let it go and let my brother think I'm a jerk aunt?

Ooh — now THIS is some inconsiderate parental behavior — and no birthday parties involved!

The crux of this situation is your brother's anger at you and his hand grenade that you don't want a relationship with your family. That's patently unfair, and I bet that stings. So, yes, I think you can chalk up your nephew's behavior to moody teenager syndrome (the official clinical term, prevalence nearly 100 percent of all teenagers at some point!) but your brother doesn't get such a pass. 

For whatever reason, a letter or email comes to mind as the best way to do this. "John, I'm hurt that you are insinuating that I don't want a relationship with you guys, or even that I didn't try my hardest to help Nephew have an enjoyable visit. The opposite is true. I know I haven't been close to him in the past, and I take full responsibility for that. But I really viewed this as an opportunity. I wanted nothing more than for him to have a good stay with us. I prepped in advance, got your advice, and acted on that advice, taking him to a variety of places. I know that he might not have had the time of his life — teenagers are tricky — but I tried so hard, and am hurt that you would jump to the conclusion that I just don't care or that I didn't put forth the effort. I had really wanted to do better than I did in the past, and I still do. But I also need to let you in to the reality of the situation."

Please do keep us posted. (And am I the only one here that thinks that a kid who is worthy of being flown across the country for a leadership camp should do a MUCH better job at the whole being-a-human-being part of being a houseguest, teenager or not?)

Hi Andrea, My MIL and I are very close and she is dying. She's asked me to help her plan her funeral arrangements and her sons, including my husband, are upset with her and me about this, though I've been their SIL for nearly 20 years. She, surprisingly, doesn't want a traditional funeral, despite being a lifelong churchgoer, but the sons (especially her oldest) are insisting they have a full mass and that each one gets to speak. I think she asked me because she knew I could stand up to them, but I don't want them to be bitter and angry at me the rest of their lives over their grief once she's gone. They say funerals are for the living, so should I just let them do what they want, or honor her wishes and insist?

Oh, I am just so sorry about this whole situation. Being put in this position makes a heartbreaking time even worse, I imagine.

I think you have to weigh some things here. How important is it to your MIL that her wishes are carried out? Yes, funerals are for the living, but you also don't want to be put in the position where you are promising someone something that they really wanted in terms of their legacy and then not be able to make it happen.

You also have to weigh what's happening within your marriage here. Handling the brothers-in-law is one thing, but overruling your husband about how his own mother's memorial service should go gets into far dicier territory.

OP here. We accept the invitations but never reciprocate. I can't find a polite way to say, "No, not tonight. Not next week either. Just no."

Got it.

I think that accepting the invitations and then never ever reciprocating over decades leads you into hotter water than just declining the invitations. So if you are worried about them thinking that you are rude, then continuing to accept is the ruder path.

It is definitely trickier to stop accepting the invitations after you've already been doing so, because it makes it more likely that they will assume that they have done something "wrong." The best-case scenario here as I see it (though I hoping other chatters will chime in!) would be to decline a few with a basic, polite "no" (I'm sorry, we can't make it") and then the third or fourth time say "You've probably noticed we haven't said yes in a while. Hubs and I are turning more into homebodies these days, and are preferring quieter evenings and weekends than we used to. I do appreciate the invitation, but I don't want you to feel like you always need to count us in anymore."

Hi Dr. Bonior - I wrote in a few weeks ago, and you answered my question, regarding my struggles with sex addiction. I wanted to clarify that in my extremely conservative family background, women were considered to suffer from this addiction if they engaged in any sexual behavior at all outside of marriage — to include flirting, reading romance novels, even wearing eye-catching clothing (doesn't necessarily need to be revealing or clingy, just anything that might make a man take notice). I am currently celibate and not dating but still struggle with some of these behaviors, even though I know engaging in them is going to make me feel extremely guilty and ashamed. How can I stop? I have tried both therapy and 12-step meetings and can't seem to put more than a few weeks of sexual sobriety together.

I think you and I are seeing this as two different problems.

If I am understanding right, you are seeing this as a question of how not to engage in these behaviors.

Whereas I see this as a problem of how to get rid of the guilt and shame, and actually LET yourself engage in some of these behaviors.

In other words, it seems like you're asking me how to string together a longer period of "sexual sobriety" (as defined in such a strict way.)

Whereas I would in turn ask you, are you ready to explore the idea that "sexual sobriety" (defined in that way) is neither a good fit for you nor a realistic way for ANYONE to live their life?

I resent these invitations because it always means the kid has to get a gift from everyone invited, and this (for us at least) has always meant that it's going to be an annual thing, for a kid I'm not related to or really that interested in. Such parties are not a way of sustaining an adult relationship,the way (to use your example) going to a friend's art show is, since it's impossible to socialize with your friend when they're herding a bunch of small children.

I hear this, but a gift for a one-year-old ... let's be honest here. It could be wrapping paper SANS an actual gift and that would be just fine!

I also simply haven't heard of the situations of adult kidless friends being invited to subsequent birthday parties once the birthday parties have actual kid guests. I mean, sure, a "kids' birthday party" that is really a beer-fueled barbecue, maybe. Or an adult that is actively involved in the kids' life or will, say, get custody of that kid should the kids' parents get hit by a bus. But in my experience, 1st birthday parties are sort of ceremonial for the adults, but rarely are the ones after. The idea of a 1st birthday party meaning that such an invite will "always" be an annual thing is foreign to me.

(Also, have you ever been to a friend's art show? In my experience they are far too busy having to schmooze with whom they need to schmooze with, that as a friend you may be lucky to get a wave from across the room! Much better conversational odds at the birthday party, even with a plethora of diaper-changes involved!)

Why didn't you drink root beer??

Ah, that's right, I did officially invite this!

I was about 9 years old, and it was a hot, carsickness-induced moment in a green Chevy Malibu station wagon on the Indiana Toll Road! Things got messy.

The association was strong for years and years afterward.

Just like I can't lick envelopes anymore, due to having one too many bad experiences with them during the throes of three rounds of "morning" sickness. (And that's practically begging for a Seinfeld reference.)

Have no idea if that's a symptom, but just throwing it out there in case the OP's reading. She might want to ask the therapist.

This is a sad but important consideration. I didn't get the feeling that the behavior ever came on suddenly, but whenever there is behavior on the more extreme side of emotionality in kids, it's worth asking the difficult questions. Thanks.

Even if the invitations are never accepted, it will seem that the OP is, well, perhaps not "impolite," but at least well on the way to becoming the office curmudgeon. OP doesn't have to go to every EC activity, but they should make time for one or two, and perhaps have one party a year to reciprocate. I would always have something like a Holiday Cookie Exchange. I'd hold it in the afternoon on a weekend, so people wouldn't be tempted to stick around and drink. The time is also limited by the activity; once the votes for "best cookie" are cast and counted, and everyone has filled up their trays, the party's over. You're seen as the "fun" host for minimal cost and effort.

Thank you for this! Helpful insights here.

Traditional workplace environments are not my jam, so I always welcome the back-up!

Can you and your spouse just throw a big party where you basically invite everyone you know? That way, you don't need to hang out with the co-workers but you have made a contribution. Or ask them to have lunch with you at the office. Maybe you could get some work done.

Other ideas!

Though "throw a big party and invite everyone you know" — while actually something I get a kick out of — is enough to bring on indigestion to most folks, I think.

Actually, how about being both polite and truthful instead of dodging. "I am sorry we can't. Since do not reciprocate, and because I cannot do that, I just don't feel comfortable accepting any more invitations."

Could work. Though I could see a more social-type host saying something like "Oh, we don't care if you never reciprocate. I'm happy to plan. We just want your company!"

Seriously? So why not just tell their still-living mom they plan to disregard her wishes for her final act on earth? Because it doesn't provide them enough time in the spotlight? They sound like a swell bunch, husband included.

Ahh. You know, I meant to elaborate further on my answer and got sidetracked.

I agree that in the ideal situation here, Husband and his brothers find a way to come to terms with their mother's wishes, difficult as it may be. There could even be a compromise of sorts. They could hold an additional gathering where they each get to speak, etc. There is no easy answer here, but I think it also depends on whose opinions are most resistant to nudging.

Well, if there's anything I dislike more than someone who RSVPs and then doesn't show up to my child's first b-day party is someone who references an orangutan reference and then leaves everyone hanging. :) Can't you just slip it into another answer??

Haha! Sorry about that. But it's one of those situations where the reference now doesn't fit.

I promise more orangutan action in the near future, though. (Ew. That sounds wrong.) In the meantime, consider this your random, out-of-nowhere orangutan reference: "Every Which Way But Loose!"

I'm really distressed seeing normal, healthy human behaviors being characterized as "sex addiction". I hope OP gets to a good therapist (NOT a sex therapist and NOT someone within the same conservative circle) ASAP

Yes.

I hope you're really hearing this, OP. We're worried about you. Wrapping yourself in guilt and shame for being a human being with human feelings is fundamentally unfair. You deserve better.

Maybe, as you deploy the "husband and I are turning into homebodies" explanation, sweeten that with, "you've also done all the hosting over the years, and I feel badly about that. Can we please treat you to dinner before we begin our lives as hermits?" It might smooth things over; this is a relationship she wants to keep at work, right?

Ooh I like that! I was looking for some sort of segue for them to do one actual reciprocation before officially taking their leave from the social circuit, and this sounds like a great one!

If your colleagues have not been deterred by your diplomatic dodges, you must be doing a fantastic job of it. Keep doing what you are doing. The problem will solve itself in a few years - you must be pretty close to retirement now.  And once you retire, I wish you'd take a part-time job to teach me those skills

Hahah! Yup, clearly OP is not nearly obnoxious enough!

Dr B., you're right about this being a heartbreaking situation, and that we shouldn't fear the foster care system. I hope the OP can find the resources to help resolve this. What about fostering to adopt? Or even private adoption? The neglectful grandparents should give up custody — for Lisa's sake. (Isn't there a social worker overseeing this arrangement, by the way?) OP, I'm very sorry about everything your family has been through. Please don't give up on finding a solution. I really hope Lisa can have a happy life with people who love her, and who are able to care for her full-time.

I am just seeing this now, but I love the hope and help in this. And I hope OP sees it. Thank you.

My first instinct with this LW is that it may be *how* she's gathering the information on the dates' financials, rather than the interest itself. In my current relationship our attitudes about money/work ethics came up very naturally and quickly. I'm pretty sure we literally talked about me looking to buy a house on our first date, and he offered the name of his realtor. Dating is about getting to know someone before making a decision to be in a relationship, so you may have to be around someone a bit to learn what they're like

Yes. There are all kinds of ways of sussing out someone's job/stability/financial habits. Some downright intrusive and ridiculous, others totally natural. Thanks.

For me it was an entire quart of grape soda, ca. age 5. Very colorful.

Oh my goodness!!! Yup, some things put on a show when they come back up.

I have, on occasion, frankly told my friends I’m not looking for someone to be poor with. I really don’t understand why it’s okay for a person to look for someone willing to cook dinner, but wanting someone with a 401k is a character flaw.

You raise a good point. Money can get people pretty agitated and it can be hard to talk about it objectively.

Grandpa-in-law left explicit notarized directions for his funeral, yet following his death the wife of one of his sons bullied her husband mercilessly to make a stand for a proper Christian funeral. Fortunately, enough of the rest of the family stood up to her, but it left a lifetime of bitterness in the family.

Oh, boy, that's awful. I am sorry. In that case it was so much more clear-cut that his daughter-in-law had no business demanding to overrule anyone.

Can you have a pretty candid talk with your MIL, outlining what is discussed in your question: you will go to bat for her if she wants, but there will be consequences for the living and see what she says. Maybe you can work something out together. I'm sorry for this situation.

I like this. Thanks.

This is so weird — you would think he's being moody at home, so Brother's immediate attack is odd. I would be kind but clear that it was sad he didn't have a good time, but that was not for want of trying on your part — and you'd have appreciated him asking about what he was hearing from Nephew so they could work it out.

Thanks. I like this.

Yeah, I am guessing maybe Brother KNOWS he is moody, and is therefore defensive about it. Looking for someone to scapegoat rather than facing the embarrassing fact that his little leader-in-training is not exactly the most polite of houseguests.

(Speaking as a millennial) I feel like many of us millennials have a lot of child-free adult years to build up friendships that then massively shift when our social circle starts having kids. Those years can be filled with long boozy brunches, late nights together and a lot of personal time to talk, which then get "lost" when people start having kids. I also understand that a kids are exhausting. They're disruptive, sticky, don't understand personal space, and are attention-needing (or seeking) and may require an immediate exit or cancellation of plans. However, I feel like sometimes there's so much vitriol from the child-free (ugh, why would I want to spend time with your loud, sticky kid, if I don't even get 30 minutes to talk to you). Just a reminder that you were a terrible kid too, may adults grew up much more surrounded by kids that we are today, and that if you can treasure the 30 seconds of friendship during toddler years, you can make a lasting impression.

It's true. I think the child issue can get overly black-and-white at times, and it makes me sad. Thanks.

The clock has turned on us again. Boo!

Hope you have a marvelous week, and thanks as always for being here and for chiming in. I'll look forward to seeing you next week, and in the comments and on Instagram and Facebook and whatever other social media shenanigans I am half-neglecting, in the meantime!

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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