Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems (Friday, November 9)

Nov 09, 2012

In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Carolyn was online Friday, November 9, at Noon ET, taking your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

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Hi everybody. What a week. Red Cross, everyone, unless you have a more direct pipeline of your own.

Apparently the chat software is having a nervous breakdown, so if there's a long silence, it's not because I've shuffled off to the kitchen for cookies or run out of synonyms for "relationship." Though I won't rule either of those out.

Off we go.

Thanks for taking my question. A dear friend of mine is pregnant, which is fantastic news. She is also smoking cigarettes. She has cut way down from before she got pregnant, and the harm reduction person in me says - great! She is incredibly sensitive about it. When people ask her about smoking, it makes her extremely anxious and actually seems to make her want to smoke more. She KNOWS she needs to quit, so continually telling her that will not work. What can I do that will encourage her to stop smoking, but not put her on the defense?

She needs to stop smoking, yes. She also knows she needs to stop smoking, she has cut back on her smoking, she presumably has a doctor or midwife who can remind her why it's so important that she stops smoking, and she gets so rattled by people who get on her about her smoking that she possibly reacts by smoking more.

So what's your role here, in "encouraging" her or anything else? I don't see one.

Dear Carolyn, love your columns. Can you recommend a surefire way to find out if a man is interested in you without embarrassing yourself too much? I believe that men don't dally about when they want to be with someone, but I've only known this guy a few months and we're both in a very challenging PhD program that leaves precious little time for romance. For a little while I thought he was interested in another woman so I stopped initiating contact and decided to mentally move on, but he responded by being more engaged and flirty than ever. At my age (30, sigh) I don't want to spend another semester wondering what he really thinks. Any ideas or kicks in the pants? For the record, I've never had success being the initiator which is why I now wait for the guy to come to me. But I feel time's winged chariot hurrying near.

Time's winged chariot? Put the PhD program down ... good ... now back away slowly.

I can't say this is universally applicable because I'm concocting the theory as I type it, but I'm beginning to believe that the answer to any question that takes the form of, "How do I X, without causing Y?" isn't about the X at all. It isn't possible to achieve X to such perfection that Y doesn't happen, or else you would have figured it out already.

Instead, it's about accepting that X and Y aren't sold separately--you get neither or both.

So, you get to decide which is worse: Y or no X? Would you rather make yourself vulnerable in ways you find embarrassing and highly unappealing, or would you rather keep plodding along through your grad program wondering whether all guysreally do act on their interests immediately or whether this one just needs to know you like him?

Morphing into someone you're not is never a plausible answer, but it wouldn't hurt to at least consider your capacity for boldness. A sexually self--possessed, "Hey, you wanna do this?" followed by a shrug and an, "Okay, thought I'd ask" if the answer is no, would be the Band-Aid rip of approaches. 



Unless you're talking about telling her how proud you are of her for what she's done already, acknowledging how incredibly hard it is to get over an addiction, and offer help when she gets the urge by going out for a walk with her, offering other distractions?

Those work for me, but only if they work for the friend. Worth trying, with careful attention to how they go over. Thanks.

Today's column brought up some really good points. The big one being...if you're dissatisfied with a relationship, don't fake it because you don't want to hurt the other person's feelings. I was recently on the receiving end of this, despite my multiple attempts and encouragement at honest conversations -- regardless of what the truth is. Because my ex didn't want to lose a girlfriend (NOTE: not HIS girlfriend), he didn't say anything and enjoyed the perks. When he was done, he then revealed the truth. Trust me...he was a superb actor for years. I had no idea he didn't like me at all. Now that I'm in a new relationship, how do I spot this dishonesty? New guy is great and telling me how happy he is but so did the ex. Any idea on how to spot the difference?

Your ex enjoyed the perks, but did he create any for you to enjoy, besides words?

My marriage is in deep trouble, but my husband doesn't know this. (Yes communication issues are at work.) If I gently try to address issues in the marriage, he blows me off or laughs it off. If I try to get him to listen, if I'm lucky, he'll issue a half-hearted apology and walk away. Usually, the next time I try to bring up said issue, I'm upset when I talk to him, at which point he tells me I'm just hormonal or drunk (if I've had a glass of wine). It all escalates from there, and I'm left apologizing for getting upset in the first place, and nothing is solved. I'm a pretty easygoing and tolerant person, so this stuff doesn't come up a lot, and we get alone fine on a day-to-day basis, so he thinks we've got this great and happy marriage, when in reality, I'm dying inside from the lack of emotional intimacy in the relationship and the fact that there's no path for fixing it. Of course, I wouldn't be able to convince him that we need counseling, because he doesn't think we have any problems, or that any problems we do have are just me being difficult. Any suggestions for getting him to take me seriously?

Nope, because the first thing you need to do is take yourself seriously. What steps are you prepared to take to ensure this isn't the way things are for the rest of your life--steps besides wait for him to change? When you've got those straight in your mind, then any requests you make for changes will have teeth. "Gently try[ing], feeling "lucky" for a half-assed apology and apologizing for your feelings are not teeth.

Do some research on smoking cessation programs geared towards pregnant women in your area and share the results with your friend.

No, don't! Smoking while pregnant is bad for a fetus, but it doesn't render an adult woman incompetent. She can look into smoking cessation programs herself. First rule of help, don't provide any that isn't needed or requested.

Yes, The Fix had to end his chat early -- horror of horrors, after an election, too! -- b/c of chat software. If both of you end up cancelling early, no telling what might happen to me...

You'll take up smoking?

I gave blood on Tuesday, my first time ever. They gave me two stickers. Then I went and voted; they gave me a sticker too. By the time I got home, I was unbearable - I wanted an "I walked the dog!" sticker, and an "I washed the dishes!" sticker. It was *quite* the day.

I want an "I voted, gave blood and donated to the Red Cross and all I got was this lousy sticker" sticker.

My grandfather just passed after a long and difficult illness. I'm obviously sad, but dreading the funeral because the rest of my family is much more religious than me. I'm not an atheist, but I'm definitely not the evangelical that I was raised to be anymore. If it helps my family, that's great. Whatever gives them comfort. I obviously won't be saying that I'm not quite sure I believe in an afterlife, but how do I suck it up through the super-duper evangelical service, complete with altar call?

Keep repeating this in your mind as needed: "Anything that will go away after a couple of hours without my doing anything to fix it is not officially a problem." Works great in traffic, too. Though at least in traffic I can listen to NPR.

Sorry about your granddad.


My husband's family lives about an hour away from us and we see them on a pretty regular basis, usually once a week or so. For the last two weekends, we've gone up to stay with his parents to help them plan and execute a big surprise party for his grandmother's 90th birthday. We attended last weekend and everyone had a wonderful time. The problem is that now we're being asked to come up again this weekend for an immediate-family birthday dinner and we really don't want to go. In addition to the exhaustion of the last few weeks and our need for a break to be by ourselves, we are on a very tight budget, and every trip to see them costs us in both tolls and gas. When we told my MIL this, she said we need to come up and Yiayia would be very offended if we couldn't make it. But we really need some time to ourselves. Is there a way to frame this that isn't lying (e.g., illness) or being really rude? We feel we did right by her when we celebrated at her party, but are we just being too selfish here?

"I'm sorry to hear that" Yiayia will be offended. That's all you need to say about that part. As for why you're staying home: "We're whooped and need this weekend to regroup. Have a great time and send Yiayia our love." that's all you need to say about that part.

The part I can't script for you is the conversation that transpires between you and your husband. Is he as committed to this boundary as you are? If so, then you've got the hard part behind you; the rest is just tuning your ears to filter out guilt frequencies.

Hi, Carolyn. I've been successfully dieting and have lost 12 pounds in six weeks, but I'm at that point where motivation is starting to slip. And of course it coincides neatly with the leftover Halloween candy on the receptionist's desk. Any words, kind or otherwise, to keep me and the peanut butter cups apart would be greatly appreciated.

This usually works for me: Kiddo candy never tastes as good as I think it's going to. If you do cave, then rethink each bite. I often find myself throwing a candy bar away after one bite because the flavor doesn't withstand scrutiny.

If the receptionist puts out 72 percent chocolate, you're on your own.

My good friend can be kind of prickly -- she needs her space, but then sometimes she's upset when someone isn't solicitous in a way she feels is appropriate. She was in an accident yesterday: she is basically okay, but is shaken up and needed a few stitches. I asked, via email, whether I could do anything for her (food, ride, etc.) and received no response so I am inclined to leave it at that. Would a good friend do/say something more? I ask because I like my quiet time and tend to assume, not always correctly, that other people also prefer quiet unless they reach out.

Sounds like she'd be a good candidate for the regrets-only treatment. As in, "I'm coming by tonight with dinner, unless you tell me otherwise."

I have a relative who I think is a narcissist. Every holiday or family gathering she always makes some really rude remarks about other family members, their lifestyles, etc. She goes around like she is better than everyone else, brags about her financial status (she doesn't know that we know the truth) and engages in one-upsmanship constantly. She shows little or no compassion for her mother-in-law who is ailing. She never owns up to her behavior, and when the holidays are over, she always makes it a point to let everybody know how she was mistreated by everybody else. She has been caught in lies so many times, but nobody has confronted her directly. After an incident more than a year ago, I chose to cease communicating with her other than an occasional polite FB posting. Yet she has engaged in going through great lengths to avoid any family gatherings since then. This hurts my husband deeply because he has not seen his brother. And she has made it known that she is purposely avoiding these gatherings, as if to punish us. How do we deal with this?

Unless this incident involved your setting her hair on fire and refusing to apologize for it, you are not responsible for your husband's inability to spend time with his brother. The brother is capable of going around his wife's blockade (right? this is your sister-in-law?) and therefore is choosing not to.

That said, this story has enough red-flaggage to suggest the brother might be the victim of an abusive marriage, and so your husband should do his best to keep the lines open and his attitude supportive.

Hi! love the chats Dilemma: I'm a senior in college. There's a girl who I've known for a while but gotten to know much better recently. She's amazing -- everything I could ask for and has great chemistry with me. Problem: she just started dating someone else in our friends circle. Is it still okay to ask her out? They're a recent couple and things I've heard from friends seem to indicate that she might be a part of it partly because it's her first relationship. Oh, and we're all graduating in May and going our separate ways. Does the time limit change anything here?

Nope. Actually, it does, but not in a good way: Put a ticking clock on any decision and the chances plummet that it'll be a good one. Just, live. Live honestly, that is, even if it means telling this girl that you've really liked getting to know her better and wish you'd done it sooner.

If you can also tweak the "Just, live" formula to remove the vicarious thrill of gathering data from friends on your romantic prospects, that would be good. Not essential, but good, because all of that "my friends say ..." validation-seeking actually feeds images and expectations that take you off the reality path and onto the path where you start to idealize her. That's lousy for both of you in the end. Good luck.

What do you do with a parent who assumes you're much closer than you really are? My mother likes to pretend that we're best buds, when the truth is that I'm not terribly keen to spend much time with her. Sometimes, it's pleasant. Others, it becomes one criticism after another. It's becoming more of an issue, now that I work from home. She lives close by, so keeps pushing for us to lunch once a week. I have no desire to potentially subject myself to her picking at my weak points, so I make excuses. I just can't bring myself to say 'Look, you can be a real [expletive] sometimes, okay?' Is that what I should do?

No, that would be honesty in brick form after a long stretch of no honesty at all. That's not fair.

Her picking at you isn't fair, either, so start saying that in situation-specific ways. "Mom, when you say stuff like that, I feel like getting up and leaving." Or, "That's the third negative thing you've said to me today. I don't think pointing out weaknesses makes for friendly lunch conversation." Or, once the foundation is laid: "That's your third swipe at me since we sat down. I'm going to leave now, and hope you're in better spirits next time." And do leave.

Once you've got the communication level upgraded and the limits in place, then you actually can say, "Look, you can be a real [expletive] sometimes, okay?" because then it'll be in the context of a real and honest relationship, which can make a comment like that loving and funny vs. a brick from the blind side.

Yeah sure he did. The companionship and conversation were big ones. It's just that they all ended up being insincere -- like the entire relationship. They had to be since he said he never loved me. It was an acting gig for him. He was just filling a role he thought he was supposed to complete with gestures. SO yeah that's why I'm curious to know the difference.

Maybe so, but you did say this: "despite my multiple attempts and encouragement at honest conversations." That sounds to me as if you were looking for reassurance that he loved you, and people don't do that unless they sense on some level that the love isn't there.

If there's anything to this, then the first thing you can do is become attuned to your insecurities, to a need for affirmation. When it's there, intimacy usually isn't, because intimacy is its own proof.

For what it's worth, I'm also skeptical of the "he said he never loved me." That may be so--is this time to mention psychopaths, who have no empathy but happily absorb the attention of people they charm into loving them?--but it's also possible that he changed his story for his own reasons. I'm continually amazed at how many people look back on past relationships, marriages even, and refuse to offer up anything nice about the ex or anything positive about their past feelings. There was love once. Or even just a few laughs here and there. But for various reasons (often to help people feel justified in their current dislike, and/or to ease the pain of loss), those are so often cut out, painted over, rationalized away. At least consider the possibility he did this with you.

In today's column, a teen -- one month into in her first relationship -- said her parents are in love with her boyfriend. As a parent, I made that mistake once, about 15 years ago, and I have learned my lesson! Yes, parents should get to know their kids' boyfriends/girlfriends. And it's unavoidable that a parent will have an opinion about their child's choice, and as parents we want to like the partners our kids choose. But go slowly! Our first responsibility is to love our child and support our child's own learning about life, including relationships, so that they can grow into mature, responsible, caring adults. Falling in love with your kid's boyfriend is counter-productive to all these goals. After my mistake, I learned not to "love" my daughters' boyfriends any more than they themselves do. Be friendly, welcome them into your home, treat them with respect and caring. But don't go overboard. And keep good communication with your own child, so that they can talk to you honestly about things, including their relationships.

Yes, thank you, this is huge. You just can't know what goes on in a couple's private moments, so you can't let yourself get lulled into thinking you know who's the right partner for your kid--or your friend, or sibling, or anyone else.

You can get a good idea when someone is wrong, but that's well-stampeded advisory ground.

I'm assuming your grandfather was also a devoted follower? If so, consider the funeral services as a way to honor your grandfather and something he held dear. Your presence and even participation in the funeral rites does not mean you agree or believe in said religion, but that you loved your grandfather. I recently lost my grandmother, and while we had a traditional catholic funeral, relatives of other belief systems (protestant, buddhist) as well as atheists attended and even participated as readers and pall-bearers. It didn't mean we all shared the same faith, just that we shared the same love and sense of loss.

I like this, thanks. It falls apart a bit when the primary survivor is the devoted follower, and entirely when the deceased was an outspoken critic of the faith but the survivors want what they want, but neither changes the fact that you're there to honor and grieve the person you lost.


I couldn't help but think that the girl may just believe her parent's love the boy. My best friend from the age of 12 was always at my house and came on most family vacations. In my early 30s, I found out my parents never really cared for her, but welcomed her as my best friend. I think a teenager is so used to the hot/cold feelings of her friends that a normal welcome attitude may come off as adoration.

There's that, too, thanks.

Hi Carolyn: My husband and I just hired a full-time nanny to help out with our kids, who are 2.5 and 1.5 years old. I am trying really hard not to be a neurotic mom and a Draconian boss, and believe me when I say we vetted this person almost to the point of insanity, but I cannot help finding fault with just about everything she does. At this point I feel like I'm so eager to find things she's doing wrong that I've lost sight of all the reasons I felt okay with hiring her in the first place. Example: She leaves the kids unattended for a few minutes at a time while taking a phone call”in my heart of hearts I know this is fine, but if I happen to witness it, I start lecturing her about active supervision. I know if I keep it up she'll quit, but I don't know how to get on the same page with myself about how much to second-guess her.

Three things you can do: 1. Pay attention to your own behavior. Chances are you don't hold yourself to the same standards you hold the nanny. Yes, it takes only a moment of inattention for something to go wrong with very young children, but no one, no one is 100 percent attentive for indefinite periods of time. It's just not possible.

2. Get real. Even the best of caregivers will make mistakes, that's Reality Part 1, and you're going to have to deal with the possibility that you, your spouse, your nanny, your relative, whoever, will be on duty when something goes wrong. How are you going to handle that? Are you going to lose your mind and come down hard with blame, or are you going to accept that life doesn't come with a warranty--and that the person on duty might come up with so much self-blame that yours won't be necessary?

Reality Part 2 is that worst-case scenarios are the exception in developed countries.

3. If you can't internalize 1 and 2, accept that you don't have the temperament for a nanny/in-home care and choose a high-quality day care.

Bonus pack:

4. It's not good for your kids to see you pick apart the nanny, because it gives a negative charge to their environment. I also challenges their loyalties, since presumably you want them to bond with the person who's caring for them. Either trust your nanny or see 3., above.




My husband just told me he's having an affair on Wednesday night. I feel like I'm wrapped in cotton and can't quite process what I'm feeling let alone what I want to happen as we move forward, together or apart. So you know, we have two kids. What do you recommend as far as wrapping my head around this and making decisions?

I'm sorry. My strongest suggestion is that you treat this as a traumatic loss, akin to the one in Monday's column (link). Don't worry about head-wrapping or making decisions. Just get through the days and tend to a stripped-down list of necessary responsibilities; leave the thinking and deciding for when you've had enough time to adjust to this new reality.

If counseling is accessible to you, a good therapist can serve as the place to start sorting things out--either to help with any confusion or to give you a place away from the kids to express your scarier emotions. 

It feels like it must be so hard to do this well! When I was in high school, my boyfriend's family welcomed me warmly, invited me on all kinds of events, to family parties and holidays, etc. The were (are?) a boisterous, welcoming crowd and I think they were just being themselves. But when I wanted to break up with that boyfriend (it took me a year and graduating high school and moving to college to get up the courage) I was worried about how his tween girl cousins would take it. Literally. I held off on breaking up more than once because his parents had bought a ticket for some event 6 months in the future. Now, perhaps I was flattering myself! In retrospect I am sure all of their lives went on just fine without me. But perhaps there's something to be said for families being a bit more reserved--warm, respectful, but not pretending you are part of the family. This protects both their own child and the bf/gf to let the relationship play out on its own terms.

I'm not sure I agree, even though I do agree with the parent with the don't-go-overboard advice.

The difference between the two is the distance from the person your reserve is supposed to protect. I can absolutely see exercising restraint so that your own child (or other family member) knows you're in his or her corner, vs. the love interest's. Today's writer would have been better off for a clear parental message that, hey, your boyfriend's a great guy but this is your life.

I draw the line, though, at asking a "boisterous, welcoming crowd" to tone it down so that S.O.s from less boisterous families won't get the wrong message. You did get confused, yes, and it took you a long time to pull a trigger you wanted to pull for a  year--but they were just being themselves, and you were just being yourself. Eventually you were able to see that you had a higher stake in your relationship than your tween cousins did, and that was an important thing to learn.

Can I say that it is worthwhile staying and thinking this through if it is the first time. If it's the latest in a series of affairs, or the worst in an escalating series of negative events, getting out and then making decisions works. If you don't get out in the heat of the moment, the longer you stay the harder it gets to get out, particularly with children, and it becomes a deep deep rut. Sorry for your traumatic loss, it is indeed one, been there!

Thanks, this does make sense to me.

I mean literally, right in the middle of the page on top of content! Looks like a good question too, but I can't tell bc I can't read it!

Hi -- Bethonie here.  As Carolyn mentioned we are having major problems with our chat software today. You might try refreshing the page or clicking on the "Background Information" link at the top of the page near the chat header. That seems to stop the page from shaking, which I guess could be causing the ad to display oddly.

I hope that helps!

Dear Carolyn, I've always considered myself a well-liked person, so I was shocked and hurt when I heard another mom from my son's soccer team describe me as "awful" (and the person she was talking to agreed). As soon as she realized I'd heard her, she started apologizing, but I was so upset I just grabbed my son and left. Part of me would love to use this experience to open a dialogue with her --what exactly is so "awful" about me?”but I fear the answer would really hurt, and I'm not sure I can handle it. What would you do in this situation?

Well, it's also pretty awful to talk openly about how awful someone is--so you have their awfulness to console you. (Doing it not-openly won't win anyone any prizes but at least it allows people to save face.)

I realize that's not much comfort; what you just went through, I wouldn't wish on anyone. I've been in a similar place and I just felt physically sick. We all live on a slim cushion of illusion about ourselves--we'd go mad without it--and man it hurts when it slips.

The thing is, though, that even "a well-liked person" is going to be meh, or annoying, or awful to someone.You knew that before this poke in the eye, at least intellectually.

And, you probably also would have said before this that everyone can stand to hear a little constructive criticism, since no one gets everything right.

The trick is now to turn this destructive criticism into the constructive kind. What of your typical behaviors could someone tag as obnoxious? I don't recommend spending a whole lot of time in this mode (see "go mad," above), but a quick run-through can be very instructive. "Maybe when people are complaining they aren't actually asking for my help, so maybe I should hold back on offering it," for example. "Maybe I shouldn't cheer so loudly for my kid." Etc.

After that quick but sincere exercise, spend some time with people you can count on to think you're great company. (As in: the ones who actively seek it out.) Be good to them. It'll help wash the awful away.


What not to do. When I was in my mid-20s, my parents embraced my boyfriend of 3 and a half years like a part of the family. Our last year and a half were rocky, with him repeatedly pulling away and me repeatedly pulling him back (mistake). When I was finally, clearly, unambiguously presented with the fact that it was really, truly over (when I was in his city for a work trip), I called my parents for support. I told them that I was supposed to see a play he was in that night, but that I didn't know whether I could emotionally handle that, or if I should just beg out. Dad's response: "Oh, neat. What play is he in?"


On that note ... I'm going to sign off, because the balky chat wore me out. Thanks for your patience with it, have a great weekend and hope to see you here again next week.



A very, very important caveat (from a parent who learned the very hard way): TRUST YOUR GUT. Are you picking apart the nanny because you can't give up control, or are there real warning bells that you're second guessing? Hard to tell where to draw the line, of course, but as someone who ignored her gut when she shouldn't have, I think that erring on the side of caution is never a bad thing.

Excellent excellent point, thanks. "Protecting the Gift" is good for those who aren't sure. Gavin de Becker.

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Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their three boys.

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