Baggage Check Live: A red flag in front of a bull

Sep 10, 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.

Waiting for the chat to go live? Read Baggage Check columns.

Follow Dr. Andrea on Facebook here.

Hi, all! How are you today?

In this week's column, we've got a partner who spreads the couple's business much farther and wider than the LW wants. Can they find a middle ground? And in Letter 2, how do you stop a friendship before it goes further — given the deal-breaker between you?

I've got some tea and a happily snoozing Buster at my feet, so I'm ready to go.

What's on your mind?

Hi — love your chats! My bf and I have been together over 2.5 years and the "moving in together" topic has come up a lot lately. It makes sense — he spends at least four nights a week at my place (I live alone; he has a roommate) — but I'm a little bit hesitant for reasons that have nothing to do with him. I was previously married and the lines blurred a little too much in that relationship. Looking back we didn't maintain the "mystery" (for lack of a better word) and were way too familiar with each other's personal habits and spent way too much time together. I'm trying very hard to not repeat the same mistakes because I really love my bf and I do see a future with him, but I'm scared that moving in together will end up the same. I like the space we have — the few nights I spend by myself allow me to decompress and do my thing, which I think makes me a better gf. I'm worried about not having space and to be honest, I think I'm also really worried that living together makes it more difficult to break up — and the last thing I want is to remain in a relationship bc it's easier to stay together than it is to deal with the reality of finding a new place, splitting up possessions, etc. My marriage lasted at least five years longer than it should have because I didn't want to "start over" and really, the only reason it ended is because he cheated on me, so he made the decision for me. I guess my question is: How do I differentiate between "legitimate" concerns and me being scared of making the same mistakes that I'm avoiding something that would be a good, normal, and healthy next step?

It's only good, normal and healthy as a next step if it is good, normal and healthy FOR YOU.

You are allowed to have your own preferences, whether they come from what you consider your own baggage or not. Every couple gets to make the rules for themselves. There are long-distance marriages. There are lots of couples who choose to sleep in separate bedrooms. There are couples who choose to maintain separate residences (I feel like I just saw a piece on this!) even as they have been married for decades.

What matters is what works for YOU.

Of course, your partner is half of this relationship, so your boyfriend's preferences matter too. Does he understand where you are coming from? Have you conveyed your feelings about it? Is he willing to take it slow and — in the future when maybe you do live together — make adjustments and compromise given your concerns?

It might be that someday he needs more time together and physical closeness than you do. And you either decide how to work within that gap and find the sweet spot, or you decide that you're not compatible with each other. But you've got to be honest with yourself — and him — about what feels best to you. Being dragged in to a living situation that you don't want out of pressure from him or from a general notion of what you're supposed to be doing isn't fair — and isn't going to work out well.

Please don't feel bad if there just isn't one this week! But it's 9 p.m. Monday when I'm submitting this, and I don't see a new Baggage Check column for today — maybe it's not appearing correctly? Wanted to alert you in case it's gremlins. 

Ooh, looks like they posted it at 9:33 p.m. It is here.  It is flattering that you were waiting for it (and that you were willing to give me a pass! Since it doesn't come out in print until Tuesday, there's no exact Monday night time when it shows up.)

For what it's worth, I've never missed a column, so if Express  is published that day, so is my column. That sounds like a humble-brag ... but it's probably even more obnoxious and less humble than a humble-brag! I have gotten breaks when Express doesn't print because of holidays. And I've been able to create my own breaks for babies and vacations and other gigs by writing/stockpiling some columns in advance. But I'm on a not-missing-a-deadline streak since 2005 — growing up as a Cal Ripken fan, I suppose I'm pretty proud of my consistency.

 

Some of the discussion last week about the obnoxious co-worker left me wondering if you have ever worked in a large office (like, say, the newsroom of The Washington Post). "Go to HR" is almost always the wrong answer to an minor interpersonal clash. The primary purpose of HR is to protect the employer from being sued. They will (or should) act in matters of sexual harassment, threats of violence and workplace hazards. But HR doesn't care if you're happy, and it generally expects adults to solve their own problems. Going to HR to complain that "Tommy makes fun of my breakfast!" would give them their biggest laugh of the day —at your expense. And when it got back to your supervisor that you had gone over his head, he/she won't be amused.

I'm not sure if you were asking me personally, or the readers who had responded with the advice about going to HR. In case it wasn't clear, going to HR wouldn't be my first choice, either — I wrote that ignoring it and deescalating was the way to go. Of course, if things got to an untenable point, OP would have every right to do that if they wanted to. But I agree it wouldn't be the best approach off the bat.

Nope, I have never worked in a huge office. I've worked for huge universities but always within smaller settings and departments. And whenever I am in the Washington Post newsroom I am a squatter (and a gawker) — I don't have an official office there.

Hi Dr B, hoping you and the chatters have some advice! I'm often looking ahead to try to figure out the ending of things. In academics, this serves me well. Watching movies, I see the twist coming and it's fun. But this trait also seems to come out in a bad way when I'm feeling socially anxious. Someone will be sharing something and my brain is rushing ahead to try to figure out where they're going. It still does this a little with people I'm comfortable around, but because I'm comfortable and enjoying myself and not trying to make anyone like me, my brain can chill and let go of those thoughts of possible points-of-the-story. But if I'm a little uncomfortable, then I'm seeing the end of the story coming and getting antsy, or worst, interjecting. I'm having trouble slowing my brain down in the moment to stop trying to get to the Next Thing and just enjoy the conversation (or suffer through it, depending, but at least without being annoying). It seems like the Detox Your Thoughts strategies could work here, but I haven't succeeded yet. Do you have any suggestions for getting my brain to just chill out in those moments?

This is an interesting spin on the anxious brain! But I do think some of the same general principles apply. You've got to get to the bottom of exactly what is causing you discomfort in those moments, to better target it. It seems you're on to something with connecting it to social anxiety, so the "Let my mind race ahead to what I can contribute next so that they will like me" piece seems pretty significant here. I can't tell if maybe this is a significant issue that could use some deeper exploration with a therapist, or just the classic wanting-to-be-our-best (blurg, "Be Best") that most of us feel when we're around people that we don't know well.

Antsiness, fidgetiness, curiosity, boredom, impatience, trying to think of the next thing for you yourself to say and then coming up with it and being eager to fit it in there ... they're all very common reasons to want to fast-forward in conversation. But I think when it goes into overdrive, it's because your body is conspiring against you in that moment as well. You've got to slow yourself physically down too, to get your mind to follow suit. The more you can relax yourself, extend and deepen your breathing, reduce your muscle tension, the better. It boils down to mindfulness, and your ability to sit with your antsiness and recognize it without giving in to it or interjecting. It sort of reminds me of the concept of urge-surfing (have we talked about that here?) It's used in substance abuse treatment a lot: the idea of riding the wave of your urge, noticing it, being curious about it, but being gentle with yourself in trusting that the wave will crest and pass without your doing anything about it. Not letting it tumble you over.

I know we're not talking about substance abuse here, but we are talking about itches and urges — and a discomfort with the moment unless you're zooming into something else that will take you away from it. So, bottom line, this will take time and lots of practice, but improvement is attainable — especially if you dig a little deeper into the social anxiety.

I'm the LW from 2 weeks ago who asked for help in figuring out how to kindly rebuff a former friend who wanted to reconnect a year after I had told her I needed to end the friendship. Just wanted to let you know that I didn't respond to her texts and calls, more by inertia than choice. I don't think I'm a people-pleaser in general — I usually have no trouble saying "no" to things I don't want to do. But I'm really sensitive to rejecting people who consider me a friend. As a child and teenager I was considered an oddball and was rejected fairly often. As an adult, two friends who were important to me drifted out of my life. So I know it hurts. But I am much happier without this particular person out of my life and I won't be renewing the connection. Just remembering what it's like to spend time with her helps. Plus, I don't think it's kind to spend time with someone who you're just putting up with. So that decision is made.

Glad you feel confident in your decision.

So what happened on her side of the coin when you backed off of the calls and texts?

Hi Dr. Andrea! I am in my early thirties, married with a kiddo just over one years old. I came of age with Facebook becoming "a thing" right as I was entering college. In the past few years, I have cut down on my social media use, mostly because I felt as though it was a time suck. My husband checks his own probably once a week, if that. My issue is that I have extended family members who are pretty active on social media, who are older than me, that use social media in a way that I'm not a fan of. They post lots of pictures of their kids, comment on each other's photos, and use it as a way to keep in touch (the extended family is scattered over a few states). I post some pictures of my kid, but not many. My MIL jokingly whined that she was losing the comment war with her sister, who has a big brood of grandkids all over social media. For privacy reasons, I don't want to do that. I also really don't want others to post pictures of my kid without checking with me. My question is, I don't know how to broach this with family members (both mine and my husband's) without offending them. There are plenty of reasonable people, and plenty who hear everything as a judgment on their own values. I am most worried about offending my husband's cousins, whom I have a good relationship with them, since they post pictures of their kids almost every day. Their kids are all in elementary/middle school FWIW. I'm worried any reasons I give will come off as insulting their own choices.

You are very kind and empathetic to be so concerned with their feelings and the overall message of how it might seem like you are judging them. There needs to be more of that consideration in this world! But the bottom line is, you're a parent and you're raising your child a certain way, which is absolutely your right (and which, in my own opinion, is a really sound strategy.) Other people have different ideas, including family members you love, and that's just part and parcel of the parenting gig.

I think the way to be kindest and the least judgmental about it is to not broach it as some Big Conversation, but rather to take each specific instance as it comes. So, your MIL jokes that she is losing some sort of "comment war." You handle that in the moment —depending on your relationship, this could be anything from a chuckling "Sorry you won't ever be able to win that, with my poor performance on that front!" to just smiling and letting it pass to having a more serious-sounding, "Oh, I hope that doesn't really matter to you — it's not our style to put pictures of Teddy online."

As for other people putting pictures of your kid on there — I'm unclear if this has happened yet, but if it has — same thing. When it happens, it doesn't need to turn into this Big Thing. Just be respectful and chipper about it, and have a private mention about it, rather than calling it out in front of others. You need not get into a dissertation of the dangers of kids' online lives. It can be very simple. "Sarah, it was so sweet that you wanted to share Teddy's picture on your Facebook feed. They had such a blast and it was such a great snapshot. I did want to let you know that John and I try not to post much of him on there, at least for now —you've probably noticed that — so I just wanted to give you the heads-up. We'd just ask if you check in with us first before posting anything of him — that'd be a huge help. Thanks so much!"

Since you seem to not want to live together, may I ask whether the topic comes up because he raises it, or because other people comment on it, or what?

Great question!

How do you help your young adult (far away at school) child with anxiety and keep yourself sane in the process? They're getting treatment, I've done the research, but I still have the feeling of adrenaline racing around in the pit of my stomach more than once a day (and I was never one for roller coasters).

No doubt, it is really, really tough to learn how to manage the helplessness that comes from having a newly independent "child" struggle out there, far from you. But it does get easier with time. It sounds like they and you are doing all that is meant to be doing right now in terms of helping them, so you get to focus on you for a while.

Since it's so physical for you, I think you could really benefit from some relaxation techniques. There is no limit to what you can try — from guided meditations via your phone to diaphragmatic breathing to visualizations to progressive muscle relaxation. Some people find that dabbling into aromatherapy (though there are certainly some scammy corners of that industry as a whole) can be really helpful. Exercise, fresh air and sunlight are key. Stretching poses and yoga moves help a lot. Watch your caffeine intake, and if you are at all a tactile person, think about soothing things you can do with your hands (slime and koosh balls aren't just for kids!) Warm baths, fuzzy blankets — we're getting into cliche touchy-feely territory here but they really do have a calming effect on the central nervous system.

You want to address the cognitive end as well, of course. I'd try to find a mantra that I could gently keep returning to — "They are on their own path and are working on this, and I am sending support and love" when your thoughts start to spiral. Something that reminds you that you are doing everything that you should and can be doing, and that getting through this will bring growth to them — it is not your responsibility to fix it. It IS, however, your responsibility to take care of yourself in the way that you deserve.

Hi Andrea, I just terminated with my therapist of 2 years yesterday. We'd had lots of issues and conflicts over that time (though he helped me in some ways). One ongoing conflict regarded his expressing care. He refused to say "I care about you" because he said that's for personal relationships. He'd be willing to say things like "I care about your well-being" but not "I care about you." As I'm searching for a new therapist, I was wondering about your thoughts on this topic. Should therapists tell their clients "I care about you"? Thanks!

Hoo boy. As you all know I don't ever like to bash other therapists — especially only hearing one side of the story — but the way you describe this, to me he is at best a pedant, and at worst someone who shouldn't be in the field at all.

Do I care about my clients? Absolutely. No asterisks, conditions, or splitting hairs. I can't say I understand why he doesn't see things that way. I totally get that we need to keep certain aspects of the professional/personal relationship clear — that is absolutely in the client's best interest, to not blur boundaries —but we are also human beings who SHOULD have human emotions and connections in the room there. And I can't possibly see how it's in the client's best interest for him to deny them that very classic "unconditional positive regard," as described by the late great Carl Rogers.

Yes, good therapists are focused on their client's well-being as the top priority. But it's not like you can draw a big thick line between the well-being and the person themselves.

So ... that's how I see it, whether I'm getting myself into hot water or not!

I wish you luck in finding another therapist (if that's what you're planning on) that feels like a better fit.

I heard an interview yesterday on NPR about how doctors would use computers to work with patients in remote areas, because there is a serious lack of psychologists, etc., in remote areas. They did have medical personnel with the patients, monitoring their vital signs, etc. Is this the wave of the future?

I've personally seen video-conferencing skyrocket over the past few years among my colleagues doing therapy. And I do some of it myself, though I try to keep it not as a first option. Telehealth is, to me, a really exciting development — but it also has some serious cautions. We need to make sure that we are truly getting a net positive from it (like giving someone access to care they wouldn't have had otherwise) rather than watering down or diminishing the options already out there (like starting to see clients online because it's just slightly easier than them coming into the office, when the online arrangement loses something in the translation.)

I started therapy in the late 80s and was prescribed Prozac for depression by a psychiatrist, which changed my life for the better. Eventually it stopped working for me and after some trials with other drugs, settled on Effexor (Venlafaxine) which I'm still taking. I no longer see a therapist but get refills through my internist. Now I'm seeing articles about patients trying to get off these drugs and how hard that is. I'm doing fine with it but am wondering if there's a reason I should be concerned and stop. My understanding when I started these drugs was that it's like diabetes, a lifelong condition for which I need to keep taking the drug. Is this pharmocological Calvinism again, or are there reasons to stop taking antidepressants? I'm not going to quit, but am wondering. Thanks.

This may come across as a non-answer, but I really think it varies across the board. My gut instinct says, if it works for you, it works for you. Period. There are so many different paths and combinations of root causes that lead to depression — and for some people where the biological predisposition is particularly strong, I think the diabetes analogy makes a lot of sense. For other people, antidepressants run the risk of being a band-aid that doesn't actually get to the root of the problem, if their depression is mostly due to dysfunctional cognitive-behavioral patterns, toxic relationships, or lifestyle habits. In general, the research does suggest that people do better with a combo of therapy and medication than medication alone, and that for mild to moderate depression, therapy alone has longer-lasting effects compared to medication alone. But there are many different individual variables in there.

I do think that anyone choosing to wean off of medication deserves not to be blindsided by the process — so doing it under supervision is always preferable.

Ambiguous pronoun here. "She insists that what he did 'wasn’t so bad'” and she “can handle it." Is it the friend, i.e. daughter, who insists, or the mother who got hit?

In the longer, non-edited version of the letter, I believe it was pretty clear that the potential friend was the one who insists that things weren't so bad and that everyone can handle it.

My relationship with my brother is not as close as it used to be for a lot of reasons. The distance is mostly coming from his side, but I understand and accept why. I'm not asking for advice on how to improve the relationship because, for now, it's not bad it just is what it is; we're not as close. Do you have any tips for handling the disappointment and hurt that comes with that? I'm not disappointed or hurt in him, myself, or us, just that this is how things are and maybe always will be.

I'm sorry.

It's a mourning process, truly. You can't just barrel through it and accept it and be fine with it — you've got to allow yourself to grieve. It's an area of your life that you wish was different, and you "miss" what you've never been able to have — and what you probably hoped or even expected that you would have, someday.

I know I blab on about finding meaning a lot, but maybe you can try to find meaning even in the shortcomings of your relationship. Have his struggles (and I'm reading between the lines that there are struggles on his end) lent you a bigger understanding of certain issues? Are you a more empathetic person because of it? Has the lack of closeness with him made you appreciate more of the closeness you have with others? Or maybe just made you more motivated to seek it? Does it help you not take good relationships for granted?

I'm not trying to be all silver linings here, as if the silver should erase the cloud. I think the cloud can have some beauty in its own right, though. And by allowing yourself to mourn that it's there — and recognize that yes, it does blow, and you have every right to be disappointed — you're at least opening yourself up to the true reality of the situation, rather than masking it. That, in turn, helps acceptance come more quickly.

THANK YOU for your thoughtful, kind, and helpful answer to the parent with a depressed and anxious daughter last week. I am not the OP, but have a similar long-running situation with an adult child, who does get help, but still relies on me more than is healthy for me. And yes, it is exhausting and depleting. I do need help with boundaries! I loved the thoughtful and kind wording you gave as an example for what the OP could say, so much that I copied it in to my notes, and wrote variations on it, so that I can respond to the kinds of panic texts I get sometimes. While I have gotten similar advice, and tried similar strategies, I feel comforted having some responses ready to go for these stressful, hard-to-think-on-my-feet situations. And yes, the self-care stuff is so important for me! Therapy, group support, my own medical care, talking with friends, yoga, meditation, time off, etc. Thanks, both OP for the question and Dr B for the great wording.

And thank you for such a kind note. I am so glad that it resonated with you, and even happier that you have some solid support.

I hear from so many people in this situation. I honestly think that watching your child-- whether they are truly a "child" still or are a full-grown adult-- struggle with mental health issues can be one of the most isolating, frightening, and demoralizing challenges one can face. If only more people could know that they are not alone!

Thank you again.

Guy here. Women complain that men don't "open up" enough. But the reason, or at least one, is that every man has had the experience of his wife/girlfriend broadcasting some intimate detail of their lives — maybe about sex, health, work, money, family etc. — that he thought and expected would remain between them. Women bond by sharing intimacies, which is fine until it hurts other people, and they often don't have much sensitivity about who gets hurt. There's a reason that the town gossip is always depicted as an old woman. (And yes, generalities are wrong, except when they're not.)

I can definitely see this perspective. I do think you get a bit into broad-brush gendered territory here — don't forget the generalities about locker rooms, every bit as enmeshed in our society — but no doubt a lot of couples have been hurt by a breach of privacy and trust about personal details. There's the potential for real harm there, and every couple has to figure out for themselves what works and what doesn't.

Thanks.

Why on earth do you need to hear your therapist say this? This is not a love relationship  — it is a professional relationship. If I were a therapist, I would be very worried about the boundaries of any patient who wanted to hear me say I cared about them. I wonder who else in your life gets asked these kinds of questions and how they respond.

Hmm. I'm guessing you're nowhere near the field!

I also think you'd be very surprised about what brings people into therapy.

It's not unusual at all for people to seek out therapy after a lifetime of not feeling cared for, or being violated by others, or feeling unloved and alone. That's the very stuff they're working on. How could it possibly NOT be a concern of theirs about whether this person in the room to whom they told their deepest, darkest secrets and feelings actually cares about them? In fact, depending on what the person is working on repairing, this could be a fundamental aspect of their healing.

Honestly, as an actual therapist rather than a hypothetical one, I'll tell you straight out that my "very worried" would happen in the opposite way. How odd it would be for a person to have no qualms whatsoever about the idea of their therapist just going through the motions and not giving a &*%$ about them as a human being.

 

I'd like to know which of them raised this. Did the therapist lay out this boundary out of the blue? Or did the OP ask the therapist to say, "I care about you," or what?

I'm curious, too. I envisioned about three yillion different scenarios, with various nuances, but none of them seemed to indicate that splitting hairs in that particular way would be helpful to the client.

My husband is hung up on a mistake I made when we were in college — 30 years ago! We've had many discussions about it, I have apologized multiple times, but he can't let it go. It's not like it comes up all the time, but it has definitely affected our relationship in that he admits that he doesn't respect me because of it. I think he needs to let this go, but he seems unable. Time for therapy?

Your husband "admits he doesn't respect you."

And for something that happened three decades ago! What has your marriage been like all this time?

Um, yes, I do think therapy is warranted. Whether he is willing will be telling!

I am surprised Andrea's response didn't explicitly suggest, "Anyone considering (even hypothetically) reducing or eliminating their prescription medication(s) should discuss the topic with the physician / psychiatrist that is the prescriber."

Here it is, in case it wasn't clear before! I did mention that it is always preferable to do this under supervision. But perhaps I needed a "This Is a Main Point!!!" type of font.

Trying to get someone to say something, whether it's a spouse to say "I love you" or a therapist to say "I care about you," sounds like a not-so-healthy goal.

I disagree, and think we're getting into blame-the-victim territory here.

To me, caring about your clients should be a no-brainer. It shouldn't induce gastrointestinal distress in the therapist, or a whole flurry of conditions and asterisks and anal-sounding semantic arguments.

I fully realize we don't have all sides of the story. I could imagine scenarios where the client is trying to steamroll over boundaries and it goes something like "You didn't return my call right away over the weekend. Don't you care about me?"

And of course that needs to be addressed and handled and the boundary stuck to, but the answer about that isn't "I don't care about you." The answer to that is to use it as a learning experience that caring about someone does not mean that you can't still have healthy boundaries, and that therapy in has certain structures that need to remain in place for everyone's sake.

This is a loaded question. If the therapist thought the client was pushing for a friend and not a therapist, they may have been trying to reestablish professional boundaries. I personally would be creeped out by a therapist that professed to care about me personally and not my mental health.

Who said the therapist said they didn't care about the client's mental health?

Didn't see that anywhere.

But "I care about your well-being" is what a therapist is there to do. I've never thought about how to qualify in such detailed terms any help that a professional is giving me. If a doctor, nurse, or therapist is treating me in an effective and kind manner, what more does anyone need?

Well, it depends on the person! And that specific need may be exactly why they are going to a therapist in the first place rather than, say, a kidney doctor.

The very work that is done in therapy involves relationships and human connection. I don't think that's particularly "detailed terms" to lay out. That's the meat and potatoes of what makes a strong therapeutic alliance.

I had a feeling there'd be some blowback to this, so let me make it clear — we're talking about the word "care" here. Not being friends outside of therapy. Not steamrolling boundaries. Not having the therapist self-disclose all kinds of personal details. Not making out on the therapy couch, for goodness sakes! Would this many people really be a-okay with their therapist taking pains to insist that they really did not actually care about them as a person?

I find that hard to believe!

If you're thinking about moving in together, if you've been together that long — then you should be able to talk to him about these concerns. That's in a kind way, not accusatory but just things on your mind. I get the impression that's hard for you — and that acting rather than reacting might be difficult. Do you feel it's confrontational? You write that your ex-husband "made the decision" for you to split when he had an affair. I might be way off base  — but perhaps these are questions to ask yourself about how you communicate and how you navigate life.

Great points here. I could see a true, honest conversation — where both people are willing to show their cards and be vulnerable — being really helpful here.

Not entirely the same thing, but when my best friend got married, she told her husband everything. Not because he wanted her to. He didn't. That's just what she did all the time so he had no qualms commenting on the details of our private lives. The last straw was when I was on the phone with her in tears and told her not to tell ANYONE what the problem was. When her husband entered the room and asked who she was talking to, not only did she say me, but she literally repeated everything I told her not to. So the rest of us cut her off from hearing sensitive information. We didn't have a problem with him (really!); we had a problem with her not understanding that while she may consider herself one unit with her husband, we did not. Some people blab as a way to build intimacy with other people.

Ah, yes. This is like the flip side of the equation — people spreading their friends' business to their spouses. Certainly has the potential for damage in its own right! I am sorry this happened to you. Glad you found a way to mitigate the damage for the future.

I can relate to the person who wants to fast forward into where the conversation is going so they have a good thing to contribute when the point arrives (or sadly, before the point arrives!) I've found that lessons in "active listening" could provide some helpful tips on how to just listen without thinking about what your response should be the entire time. I'm working on it, too! It's a skill that you have to practice :)

Yes! "Active listening" could be a great phrase for OP to google to get some extra tools and help. Thank you! (And good luck on your own round of working on it!)

Hi there! I need to have a conversation with my parents about their end-of-life plans, wills, trusts, financial stuff....fun, I know!!! I am an only child and feel I need to know what the situation is should one or both become ill or incapacitated.  Recently the death of a family friend and the impact of lack of planning, etc. on the friend's relatives really hit home. But my mother refuses to discuss it "We're not planning on dying anytime soon!!" (Well, most people aren't, right?!) So I guess it's my dad. Any tips on how to not sound like a vulture or too morbid? I just want to know where to find important documents, what their wishes are, etc before it's too late to ask them. I am trying to finally feel like an adult with them which has been a lifelong struggle for me.

This hits home for so many people, so I suspect you will get some great advice from the chatters here.

My two cents: the longer you wait, the harder it becomes. And then you might be put in the position of having to have the conversation in a much sadder, scarier time — when disability or illness or even death really IS a near possibility. So, bring that part up.

"We all do have to talk about this sometime, and the fact that you're nowhere near the stage where this is imminent actually means that it will be a much easier conversation for us to have now. So, can we do that? I'd rather not have to stress about this and end up in a situation where I wish we'd gotten it over with sooner. It's not comfortable to talk about it, but it will only get more uncomfortable over time."

Try to go into the conversation with some specifics about what you need to hear: questions you have, clarity on their wishes, all that stuff. I think there are some pretty good guides for this online, in terms of the nuts and bolts of what you're supposed to really be figuring out and hearing from them.

Chatters?

Do you want to discuss want that could even mean? My feeling is that if someone is making his best efforts to help me and support me — not just in therapy, but anywhere — I presume he cares about me, and if his actions gave me reason to doubt it, just saying "I care about you" wouldn't matter much.

True. My guess is that this relationship dynamic was already a little complicated, given what OP mentioned about past conflicts.

It could have been a very worthwhile discussion, it seems... and I still can't escape the vibe that the therapist shut it down needlessly.

And if I was a therapist and I saw that the issue was that my patient felt personal love from everyone was important, I would want to let them know that it is not. Day in and day out, we interact with people who care about us but not actual for us. Learn to deal. A therapist should not pretend to care about someone intimately to provide advice and listen. And in your last post you say the answer is not that "I don't care about you." The therapist did say they cared about the patient, just not care "for" her. To me those are different requests. I don't think the "victim," a mere person who questions her therapist, is being blamed for anything. A strong theme that most of the replies are against a therapist professing any intimate care to their patient. I think you just got your professional hackles raised by the idea that "you" don't care about your patients. I hope all therapists care "about" their patients, just don't try to pull it into some sort of friendship caring.

Well, yes, that's pretty much the point, right? To have a nuanced discussion about different types of caring, and how not all of them are friendship, and not all of them are "intimacy" in the same ways. I think that's the opportunity that the therapist missed.

And the whole care "for" versus care "about" — seems you misread, because indeed the therapist was refusing to say that they cared about the patient. But honestly, the way you misread would be even worse! If a therapist said they didn't care for a patient, isn't that even more of a problem?

But how did that come about? Through the "issues and conflicts" the OP mentioned, or did the OP ask the therapist to say "I care about you"? That seems significant to me, not victim-blaming. In any case, it's good that the OP is switching therapists.

It's a good point.

But I maintain, if a client is pushing over and over to hear that the therapist cares about them, for instance, then it's that pushing dynamic that needs to be addressed. Yes, there may be many times when being forced to say "I care about you" isn't appropriate. But the antidote to that is not to say that you DON'T care about them.

If you can listen and jot down notes at the same time, you could carry a small pad & pencil with you, so that instead of interrupting, you can jot down a brief reminder, like "maybe my experience would help" — to bring up LATER.

I could imagine in certain settings this might not work, but maybe in others it could. I love the overall point of it, which is "let me put this somewhere where it won't be pressing on me and making me less patient." Thanks!

These are reasons why we need privacy in marriage. It's not about being secretive. It's about being responsible with other people's secrets. There are things I don't tell my husband - either because I've specifically because I've been told not to or because it seems private. Other people's lives should not be open books to our spouse.

For sure.

Friendships have their own intimacies too, that need to be protected in their own ways. Thanks.

Telling people "check with me first" can be a red flag in front of a bull — "You are not the boss of me ... my grandkid ..."  It may be helpful to explain more, like: 

"My fears may be unfounded/I may be overcorrecting but I am uncomfortable posting kid's pics on web.  Let them decide to share/post when they are old enough.  I make limited exceptions at times and even then I worry about it going off the rails. There are other valid, contradictory viewpoints but this is where I am in my imperfect struggle."

I love this wording, and how it opens up the larger discussion in a sensitive, non-condescending way. Thanks!

Thanks for your response! I've been totally honest and communicated everything with my bf, who is super understanding and gets where I'm coming from. I know he would do everything possible to make me comfortable in the situation — he's been nothing short of supportive since we've been together — but also calls me on my BS when I need to be called on it. I think the thing is — he's a GREAT guy, but so was my ex until I caught him cheating on me —literally it blindsided everyone. So I worry that here I am again ... dating another great guy who could end up ten years down the road being just as much of a jerk. But I also know to make this work I need to be all in and not 85% in. It's something I want and something that would feel right, but I guess I'm incredibly scared. Ugh.

Gotcha.

It does seem like the betrayal by your ex looms a bit larger than I initially gave airtime to. Have you ever seen someone to help you work through some of it? (Not saying at all that this is particularly abnormal as a reaction.... I just wonder if a therapist could help you sort out just what level of "once bitten, twice shy" severity is going on here.)

Can you use the example of the family friend's post-mortem mess to convince your dad that this conversation needs to happen?

It'd be great if that worked.

Unfortunately, I am guessing that if death is already a verboten, uncomfortable topic, then it might be even more anxiety-provoking to have a personal example of it. But fingers crossed! Thanks.

I FINALLY got on my parents bank account last year when I was home for a visit ... That took years. I'm not sure what the change was, but it suddenly was a good idea ... My dads in his 80's (and has some health issues), my mom is 75 and still works. I have no idea what their funeral plans are, or what happens to my dad if something happens to my mom first. I can't take care of him where I am. We have too many stairs and he's also lived in the same house for 50 years, so disrupting his life would be detrimental.

Well, it sounds like you had a good first step, at least! And more adjustments and discussions can be had over time.

Can you use the death of the family friend as an opener? Ask your parents how they felt about 'Bob' leaving his family with such a void? It's not just one conversation, but many over time. Try to have a brief talk, drop it and try again after a month. Side note that I know will sound morbid but may be useful. A local funeral home will probably have a planning guide. Get one, keep it aside and bring up topics one by one. I'd put parents having wills and DNRs at top of list.

Very helpful, thanks!

Instead of saying "I wanna talk to you about your imminent demise," maybe the approach should be purely practical: "Where do you keep your papers?" "Do you have a lawyer, and if so who, and if not should you get one?" "Who holds the mortgage?" "Where are your bank accounts?" etc. If you Google "end of life checklist" there are actual publications that suggest the specific information you should assemble. Maybe the approach should be "I wanna make sure that you are protected against anybody who would rip you off."

Yes! Thanks for this.

Is there a chance they themselves haven't planned for their future? Maybe you're asking them about a topic they haven't even broached themselves which would be an entirely different discussion. I might recommend you see a lawyer to learn about what to expect/plan for as your parents get older. If you attend conferences geared towards older adults, they always have elder care attorneys to speak with. Not saying you should hire one, but that's one place I would start to get the basics gist of end of life planning.

Thank you!

Yup, I would bet that the parents have not exactly dived full-force into end-of-life planning themselves.

The Post's own Michelle Singletary wrote a great column about this and recommended  "Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations with Your Parents About Their Finances" by Cameron Huddleston. It can also be a way in to a conversation. 

Wonderful. Thank you!

Maybe one idea to approach the conversation is to do some estate planning yourself too. Then you're not just pushing them to do it because they could die at any minute; you're getting your own self organized as well because it's just a smart thing to do. For example, one really important piece is a list of all your accounts/passwords, life insurance polices, retirement accounts, etc. Make the list and let your executor know where to find it. Ask your parents to do the same and let you know where to find it if you need it. Even if your parents aren't your next of kin, you can say, "Spouse and I talked about our wishes for end of life medical care decisions, and this is what I told Spouse I want. What would you want in that situation?" Etc. Even in the best circumstances, it's not the most comfortable conversation, but maybe this would help. Good luck!

Ooh, great idea! Thanks.

OP here with the "I care about you" question. Thanks for the reply, Andrea — it was quite validating! I'm trying to think of how it originally happened — this was like a year ago, but he brought it up again recently, then it came up again during termination yesterday, regarding what I'm looking for in a therapist. I think he said the "I care about your success" thing, and I asked if that was different from "I care about you." It was right at the end of a session, and I figured he'd just say "Of course I care about you" (as a past therapist has said). But he was like, "Hm, I'm going to need time to think about how to respond to that." So it was discussed next session, and he explained the differences in his mind, that it's professional caring vs. in his personal life, that he wasn't comfortable saying "I care about you." I wasn't trying to get him to do anything to prove he cared or pressuring him particularly. For the record, part of why I'm in therapy is due to issues with insecure attachment to people, worrying they don't like or accept me. And, as Andrea mentioned, I'm sharing very personal and emotional things with him, so I want to feel that a therapist cares beyond my just being a paycheck. Even though I know that's the reality of a relationship. I'm not looking for a friend or romantic partner (I have those) — I understand the realities of the relationship, though it can be quite complicated, in its one-sidedness and emotional intensity.

Thank you for this.

As you saw, this is touchy for a lot of people. And of course there are all different types of therapeutic relationships, therapeutic orientations, and treatments — from four sessions treating a spider phobia to ten years of trying to repair an abusive, loveless childhood.

The fact that part of your work was on attachments and being accepted and liked means that this should have already been in the realm of interpersonal/psychodynamic territory, where that strong alliance — being two human beings in the room together — is key and essential. And I certainly can admire the way that he wanted to be cautious with his wording and respectful of boundaries, but my original stance remains — that the distinction in semantics felt off and prone to doing more harm than good.

In any case, I am really glad that you sound like you're able to think about the nuances of these issues and not have knee-jerk reactions. Here's hoping whatever path you're on next — in therapy or out of it — feels solid and healthy for you!

I once told a therapist (who I stopped seeing soon after) that I wanted to think of her as a good and trusted friend, and her immediate response was "I'm not your friend!" Was I out of line, or was she?

I do think the not-friend distinction should have been made, but in a more nuanced way. That deserved a larger discussion rather than an immediate, invalidating reaction.

It's true that there are important differences between the therapeutic relationship and a friendship, and they shouldn't be confused, and those differences need to be talked about. But not in a negating way that makes the therapeutic relationship seem less human or meaningful.

We can't tell the ages of the LW and the other person, but especially if they're minors, the other one may desperately need friends, and LW and parents have the potential to be a safe harbor for the person someday.

It's a very good point. In the fuller question before editing, it seemed clear that these folks were all adults. It's definitely a different calculation otherwise.

Thanks.

Being an old child with distant aging stubborn parents can be hell. My mother is an only child, and when her widowed mother, living 800 miles away, started to have mini-strokes, it was a nightmare, because Grandma had refused ever to tell Mom anything about her assets, property, wishes (neither she nor Granddad would make a will), so of course Mom had no power of attorney. It became a full-time job to manage Grandma's care and property. For nine years. I don't know how to get through to people that they're doing a terrible thing to their children to refuse to discuss all this. (Mom has gone in the opposite direction; we're all regularly shown where the papers and safe are and her list of medications.)

Ugh, I am so sorry that your mother went through this. But so good of her to learn from it and make sure you don't have to go through the same thing.

So will an Estate Attorney - and you can probably find the main info online. I would probably keep a POA up there. Nothing you can do about it at the moment but I can't tell you how thankful I am that I have one for my mum. She got one for me in 2009. She is now in mid-stage Alzheimer's and has just moved into care home and is thriving there I'm pleased to say. I'm in the process of selling her condo to help fund the care home. Having a ten year old POA is really helpful in this circumstance.

Thanks. I'm so glad that you had this in place. That diagnosis, I know, can be such a blow. Hearing the word "thriving" is so pleasing to me as well!

I have done this twice now (dad just died two weeks ago). Beyond thinking about like trusts and wills, here are some other things that might be critical for you to be proactive about discussing for both death and like long term medical hospitalization type stuff (I have no advice on how to actually have the discussion): • Basic biographical information – full name, birth date, birth location, full names of parents and parent’s birth location • Social security numbers? • Are both parents alive? If so, is everything they own in both of their names so one isn’t left high and dry? • Do you have medical power of attorney so you can make healthcare decisions on their behalf? For the state they live in. Do they have an advanced medical directive? Do you know what their wishes are in terms of keeping them alive? • Do you have financial power of attorney so you can make financial decisions on their behalf? For the state they live in. • Do they have an up to date will? • Do you know their medical info? Who is their healthcare insurance provider? What is the policy number? Are they on any medications? Full names and any amounts. Do you have doctor’s contact info? Do you know their medical history? (major surgeries, diseases, hospitalizations, allergies, etc.) • Do they have any life insurance policies? • What is their house insurance info? • What is their car insurance info? Also, do they own their cars or are they making payments? • What is their bank account information? Are you on the bank accounts? • What is their credit card info? How many credit cards and how much do they owe? • Do they have any retirement accounts? Through whom? Financial planner? Do they get pensions? From whom? • For anything that is done online – do they have accounts set up and what are the passwords (insurance, social security, banking, what is their email account, etc.). • Do they own their house? Are you on their account for property taxes? How is the mortgage paid? • Who does their taxes? Do they do them themselves? Do you know where recent tax returns are so you can easily duplicate/know what info to look for? • What is their info for any services (water/sewer/garbage/power/gas) through the house. Do you know who to contact and what their account info is? • Any other services – cell phone provider and account number, Internet provider and account number, Cable provider and account number, home phone provider and account number • Anything else you would have to cancel like newspaper, lawn service, storage unit (I have a fun story about this one), etc. • What do their funeral plans look like? Do they want to be buried? Do they own a plot somewhere? Do they want to be cremated? Do they want like a full service with everyone attending that they’ve ever known? Do you know who their closest friends and family are that should be notified? • Do you know their employment history? Dates of when they worked where. At least the last decade before retirement.

This is chock full of helpful details. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I knew you chatters would come through!

My mother not only wouldn't discuss it with me (I was her only child), she accused me of wanting to dance on her grave and wanting to get my greedy hands on her and my dad's money.

That's just awful. I am sorry!

This conversation needs to be had. Sometime in my 20s, my mother made sure I knew where all the important papers were - both parents were still in good health. I'm only in my 50s and I've had a couple of conversations with my oldest child about the same thing, *especially* how to find all the passwords (a modern issue). (I'll tell my other kids as they get older.)

Passwords, passwords, passwords! Thanks.

What do you gawk at? I know the newsroom is an open space with several hundred people in plain view. There are few private offices. What do you think it would be like to work there all day, every day?

Why, I look for Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, of course!

I do think it would be quite something to work there every day. Perhaps Rachel can chime in about that another time!

Haha yes, a question for another day! 

Ah... here we are at the end of the hour again! Thanks so much for being here.

I'll look forward to next week already. In the meantime, you can find me on social media or in the comments.

Be well! (I'd say that I care about you all, but I can only imagine the outrage!)

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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