Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems (Friday, April 05)

Apr 05, 2013

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, April 05, 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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Hi everybody, happy Friday.

BFF has been dating boy for four years. BFF wants marriage and babies but according to her not with current boyfriend. She is 36 and realizes time is ticking but for unknown reasons won't/ can't break up with boyfriend. She's in counseling. My problem: Boyfriend has shared that he's picked a date and is going to propose. Do I warn her or keep my mouth shut?

I understand your impulse to try to protect these two, but you can't, nor is it your place to--after all, you don't really know what your friend wants, needs, or will say in response to a proposal. Stay out of it and let them figure it out.

Carolyn, I was hoping you'd print an opposing viewpoint from the guest advice from 4/3, about showing your feelings as a loved one is dying. My father died of cancer in his mid-fifties, and I never felt more alone and unsupported than when people told me to pretend I wasn't upset. It's especially cold coming from someone who hasn't been doing first-hand care for the dying person, when you have. It's an understandable impulse: watching someone cry is uncomfortable, and reminds people of their own grief. But no nurses, hospice workers, counselors or clergy ever told me to buck up (as if crying is really a matter of choice anyway). My father's last words to me were "you don't have to smile." He always said that the terminally ill shouldn't be expected to play the hero, and in the end he seemed to be telling me that he didn't expect me to "be strong" in a false way for him either. If I broke down then, I like to think that he took it as just one more sign of how much I loved him, and how sad I was to say goodbye.

Thanks for your viewpoint. None of these comments from readers is intended to be the last word on anything. As I go through my mail throughout the year, I set aside things that interest me or that offer a perspective not commonly seen; it's from these that I assemble seven vacation columns four times a year.

My husband's brother has 4 kids under 10. Our visits are strained and I need to know if it's my place to say anything about the way he and his wife interact with their kids. They are all sweet kids, really. But they don't listen, they talk back, don't take no for an answer, and seek out trouble for attention. My husband or I have decided that it's OK to just handle it without their parents if bad behavior is directed toward us. We say no or put them in time out if necessary. But, most of our visits are taken up with their parents saying "no" over and over, repeating instructions, negotiating, yelling, making idle threats like "you'll go sit in the car" or "you won't get to open your presents at all!" Conversations are interrupted, and we spend a good portion of the visit listening to this nonsense. We've started seeing less of them because their family dynamics are unpleasant. The next time this happens, should we say something (which will probably be taken badly because we don't have any kids ourselves)?

What would be your intention in saying something--to let them know why you're pulling away? To wake them up to their failure to be consistent in attaching consequences to their kids' bad behavior? To generally make them better parents? To register your disapproval?

I won't defend them, since their household sounds more chaotic than necessary, and I also won't bother trying to figure out where the lines go with regard to how much chaos is unavoidable with 4 under 10, and how much of your opinion is affected by your not having kids of your own. They're topics too explosive to breeze through and too dependent on details for me to call accurately from my distance.

Fortunately, I don't need to get into this stuff, because to my mind the conversation stops at the "What do you hope to accomplish?" stage. I just don't see any benefit to your saying something to these parents--none for them, none for you, none for the relationship between the two couples. Best just to hang on till the kids age to the point where their behavior isn't your problem.  


My wife is sick. Thankfully, she has many friends and family who want to visit. But is there a nice way for me to ask them to curtail their visits? Sometimes we need alone time and the visits can be too much, and my wife doesn't really have it in her to ask people to leave, so if it's going to happen it's going to need to be me who speaks up. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

I'm sorry. 

You absolutely need to speak up, and your doing so in the interests of your wife's health means you have less of a burden of courtesy here. Not that you don't need to be polite, just that you don't need to think you're doing something mean or rude. Your wife's visitors are trying to help. You would merely be giving them guidance on how to be helpful.

How you do this depends on how you and your wife are keeping in touch with these friends. If they call first, for example, then you need to tell each one that your wife appreciates the visits but they are tiring her, so you ask that people limit their visits to [day of the week, window of time]  and stay no longer than [no. of minutes]. Then see if they'd like to pick a time now or check their schedule and call back. If they follow your wife's progress through a Web service like CaringBridge, then post a message to everyone with the new parameters--along with, of course, an expression of gratitude for the loyalty and support of these good friends. Same goes if you're all using email.

To be a firm, responsive, non-tyrannical gatekeeper for your wife is one of the most valuable things you can give her right now. Don't be afraid to step into the role. Good luck to you both.


My family (parents & siblings) recently told me that they consider me a personal & professional failure (yes,this is what passes for "real talk" in family). In my eyes I am doing great! I am happily married and have a challenging but fulfilling job working with at risk youth. My response to all this was "if you cant accept my choices then at least don't try to compromise my happiness." Radio silence for a few weeks and then a message from my mom saying I am alienating everyone and assuring me that although they are "disappointed" with me they are willing to overlook it because they love me and they want things to go back they way there were when we were all close. I feel like this offer is less than what I am willing to settle for. I am proud of myself and my accomplishments and think that I should be treated with love and respect not pity. However, I am struggling to deal with the practical aspects of living by these words. Does this mean refusing kind overtures until I feel like they come with an acknowledgment of respect? Does it mean going back to pleasantries and steering conversations away from whats going on in my life? Am I driving myself nuts trying to change people who have already made up their minds?

This is not a dukes-up or rhetorical question, it's a sinceere one: Why do you want your parents and siblings in your life? We can all see what they take away, but what do they add?

I'll have more of an answer when I see yours, but I will say that it's clear why you've found such fulfillment in working with at-risk youth. You've been one yourself, whether you recognized it or not, and found your way to the other side.

How did they tell you this, by the way--family picnic with remarks from everyone between "Would you please pass me the potato salad"? "Reply all" e-mail? One person presumed to speak for everyone? Intervention? (I picture the one for Christopher in "The Sopranos.")  

You might want to start off by asking them some questions. Starting with whether they're always this chaotic and hyped up, or is it a function of having things going on that's outside their normal schedule (well-known phenomenon). Ask them if they consider the kids' behavior an issue, what they've done to try to address, etc. You might find out a whole lot by asking them their view of what's going on, rather than trying to tell them your view. It also gives you about the only avenue to say "one thing I notice is that you make a lot of idle threats, and it looks to me like the kids know they don't have to take you seriously because of that."

This might seem liek a sensitive approach that makes sense on paper, but having been in situations with my kids acting like maniacs, and knowing part of it was due to the off-their-schedule excitement and some due to my own failings as a parent, and knowing that there's is often value in the perspective of an outside observer, I can say with confidence that if someone--even/especially someone I loved--started asking me the questions you're proposing here, it would take all my earthly strength not to tell the person where to shove it.

I stand by my advice to leave it alone. The LW and spouse are absolutely entitled to set boundaries with these kids themselves when they're the presiding adults on the scene, but beyond that it's none of their business how the kids are being raised, short of abuse or neglect.


Please do not say anything. You don't know what's going on in her mind. I had friends who appeared to be on the verge of a break up, spouting vitriol about each other and everything. They eloped and are still married 30 years later.

Thanks--this is what I was thinking, but a real example always says it better.

(Of course, I've seen 30-year marriages that are nothing to throw confetti about, but let's deal with one complexity at a time.)

I posted a short message about hours to visit as a voicemail answer on the fone I gave family & friends. (No medical deets, per privacy issues.) I stated when ppl could drop by and noted that Sunday & Wedns. we 'closed.' Saved me from answering the fone all day. Also, used a traffic cone in driveway to discourage the "I'll just be a minute" types.

Simple genius, thanks. I might steal the cone idea for my bathroom. 

From experience, you also may have to act super excited when she accepts, be a great bridesmaid, and then be there if it doesn't work out. 4 years is a lot of time invested (especially in your thirties) and many women I know have had a change of heart when they see the ring and realize they can have kids and a wedding. Smiling and being supportive goes a long way, especially if they divorce down the road.

I agree with all of this except for two things--that the change of heart is limited to women, and the "act super excited." Given that they'll both have the ".. but not with him" in the front of their minds, and both expect the other to be thinking it, it's better to acknowledge it in a warm and forgiving way. Maybe: "Okay, you faked me out, but I think [guy] is great and I'm really happy for you." Whatever the words, I think they'll be received better if they're both warm and authentic.

I'm not the OP, but I sympathize. My husband's siblings are spread out, as are their children, so for the 20 years I've been in the family, the gatherings have been pretty well dominated by the chaos that the OP describes. We pretty much took the tack you suggested, but it's been frustrating. It's almost impossible in these settings to have a real conversation or a moment of relative quiet. We've really curtailed the time we spend at family events because of this and his family now thinks we're standoffish. Is there a middle way?

Sure--scheduling some just-adults time, in whatever way is realistic given the way your family gathers. For example, we used to stay up late to play cards after the kids were all asleep. During the day, the ones without kids would often find day trips to take.

If you have kids yourself, you can also say, "We don't mean to be standoffish, we're just starved for adult time. Any chance we can see just you/just grownups sometime?"

Even if you don't have kids, you have leverage if you have a history of being involved and patient with the kids. Then you have credibility when you say, "I love the nieces and nephews to pieces and they're great kids, but sometimes I'm just not up to the chaos." Better if your husband says it, of course, unless you are particularly close to one of his sibs.

If any of them is inclined to be touchy about it, though, it's best to stick just to riding it out. Being seen as standoffish is better than being tagged as the cause of an all-out war.

When I was in the hospital as a teen, my mom and I set up a discreet signal for me to use if I was getting tired and wanted guests to leave. I don't recall having to use it, but it was a big relief to know it was there if I needed it. And you can use almost any polite excuse to walk people out- medication time, nap time, symptoms (headache, nausea, general weariness).

I like this too, thanks.

Dear Carolyn, My husband and I have been married a little over 1.5 years and are still adjusting to living together I guess. In particular we have been struggling with different ideas about dinner time. Several months ago I suggested that we each take two weekday nights and that person would be responsible for planning & cooking the meal on those days. I was getting resentful that I seemed to be the one cooking more and didn't like the feeling of being always responsible for dinner. We both like to cook but my husband views cooking more as a hobby and his wanting to cook is very mood-based (which doesn't lend itself to weekly meal planning). He is frustrated by the schedule because it turns cooking into a chore and some days he would be happy eating cereal for dinner. I'm more practical about meals (yes, dinner is a chore but we still have to eat!) and cooking for my partner motivates me to make something healthy. I wouldn't go to the trouble if I was the only person eating. Anyway, now I feel like I'm forcing this schedule on him, making him unhappy and ruining his love of cooking. But I also can't help feeling resentful that it is usually on his nights to cook that he feels like cereal and no one cooks a "real" meal for me. Is eating together 4 nights a week too much for a couple? Should we just do our own thing at dinner time? I'll cook when I feel like it and he'll do the same, even if that means it only happens twice a month? I know that bean-counting is dangerous to a relationship and I don't want to do it but I can't push away this creeping resentment.

Just to get it out of the way, I'm going to indulge in an eye-roll over the idea that cooking for you two nights a week is too much of a buzzkill for him to bear. Poor Poor Poohpie!

okay. Enough of that, because if you go too far down that road you're done. 

And, too, there is a way to look at this that allows him to preserve his joy of cooking without making him a net drag on the system of household chores.

While "I cook for you and you serve me corn flakes" may be technically accurate, it's a micro look at what might be better served by a  macro approach. There's no shortage of jobs required to keep a household running, and there's also a wide range of normal for what a functional household looks like.

Since you have a pretty fixed idea of how dinner should be, it might make sense to keep that as your domain--and have your husband assume a different burden of similar weight. For example, you have to plan and cook the meals if they're ever going to be served--but he can certainly shop for the groceries and do all the dishes (assuming he didn't have a special nostalgia for non-coerced dishwasher loading).

Even that is almost too micro, since it all revolves around food. Broaden the discussion to everything that must be done to keep your lives running--dining, cleaning, laundry, errands, pet care, home maintenance, car maintenance, yard work, account-watching and bill-paying, financial planning, health insurance forms, medical appointments, taxes, extended-family contact (calls, cards, gifts, thank yous), vacation planning--and you'll be onto a division of labor that's truly equitable, as long as you both sincerely want that result.

Hi Carolyn, Love the chats, and thank you for taking my question! My fiance and I have been planning our wedding for next year and would like to move in together this fall when his current lease is up so that we can start establishing our home. The problem is that his parents are quite religious, and when his father heard of our plans, he was furious and threatened to cut off all financial help he gives my fiance (which isn't needed, but is appreciated as a gift). He also offered fiance a boatload of money to not live with me so that affordability of the new place wouldn't be an issue. I'm flabbergasted because I'm not sure exactly what he thinks he's preventing. His father says that he loves me and is helping pay for our wedding, but I feel so uncomfortable that he's trying to literally pay his 27 year-old son to not have sex. How can we handle this situtation with maturity and grace? My fiance and I agree that we don't want to set the precedent that our minds can be changed if the price is right.

The only way to handle this situation with maturity and grace is for Son to tell Father that he respects Father's right to his views, and to apply his money accordingly, but that Son will do only as Son sees fit. 

Then, you and he live your lives as you see fit. Live just fine without the money and the strings attached to it.

What the father proposed is flabbergasting, I agree, but I think that's actually a distraction. There may come a time when you and and your fiance agree it's necessary to distance yourselves from his father, but right now you have an incredibly powerful way to express yourselves by just being, vs. shouting. 

If for your own reasons you and your fiance end up not moving in together, it goes without saying that accepting the father's money is not an option--not for a home, not for the wedding, not for new napkin rings. 



Hi Carol, Our friend's wife lost her job several years ago and they have had a tough time since then. Because my husband and I are in a fortunate position, we buy them grocery gift cards periodically. We recently found out that our friend's wife has turned down several jobs because "they don't feed my soul." We are aghast and do not want to continue to help them. However, they literally do not have food on their table some weeks. Should we say something or just stop helping them? Thanks!

Stop helping, say nothing. 

I'm not sure whether typing that fed my soul or snatched its plate away, but the answer makes sense to me regardless.

Here is what I want to say to an old friend: Quit whining about money. You live beyond your means. Stop shopping. Stop thinking you and your kids need to keep up with the Jones. Please don't tell me how poor you are and then in the next breath tell me about your spring break trip to Florida. Here's the thing, I dearly love this friend, but I cannot listen to one more whine about her poverty--particularly when she is anything but poor. Am I out of line to say what I think, or should I just keep biting my tongue and trying to change the subject?

The first things you say cross the line into things that aren't your business--living beyond means, keeping up with Joneses--but you are certainly within your rights to say, "Please don't tell me how poor you are and then in the next breath tell me about your spring break trip to Florida." That's based strictly on facts in evidence. Besides, somebody's gotta.

One night after a party, I was with my friend's cousin. The cousin later said that he thought that I had feelings for the friend. The friend and I are just platonic. Ever since then, my friend has been commenting to my posts on Facebook. I haven't messaged him to ask him why the sudden attention. He currently lives with his girlfriend of about 5 years. I just don't want to cause any drama with the two of them, so I haven't said anything to him. Should I?

No, your instincts were right--the less you feed this the better.

So, I am the Godparent for a 1 year old, whose parents a few times a year want to take week long vacations or long weekend type vacations. To that end, they ask around to a few trusted friends to watch the baby while they are away. BTW, no grandparents/aunts/ uncles are alive to pitch in. I never offer for a few reasons: 1) i don't feel like I can handle adding another item (not even the God son) to my already hectic daily routine of long work hours, doggie day care drop offs/pick ups, and exercise routine. Plus, I am going through a divorce which has me emotionally spent. I have not communicated this because I have never been asked directly. I just never offer when they are droping hints. I kinda feel guilty for not doing more in this regard, but I feel like right now, with my lifestyle and circumstances that I have nothing to give in the area of baby watching. How do I tame my guilty feelings? Is baby sitting a typical godparent role? I know my parents never went on vacation without my siblings and me (we had only family vacations), never left us with godparents for anything, left us with grandparents for a day or two at most, and same for aunts and uncles a day or two at most ( and said aunts and uncles had children, too. I don't have children). I guess their request just seems odd to me. Is this a sign of the times? Should I speak up and let my feelings be known?

This question actually has a lot in common with the father who wants to pay his son not to have sex. (Seriously.)

I could zoom in closer on elements of the question--why so many vacations from Baby, why are you so defensive about saying no to babysitting, are you really asking because you feel odd saying no, or because you feel odd being asked?--but this question is better answered by allowing everyone to make the choices everyone is entitled to, and leaving it at that. If you don't want to babysit, say no. If you do, say yes. If you agree that young parents need to get away and those without family are lucky to have friends to step in with child care, then say yes. If you think it's odd that they travel so much sans baby, then say no. All necessary sorting-out is accomplished with nary a finger pointed nor a feeling expressed. 


My wife and I were in a similar position to "Dinner Time." I love to cook, but slowly, on Fridays and the weekend. I hate the rushed feeling of weeknight cooking. My wife, too, resented my lack of interest in cooking on Monday-Thursday. So now, I cook two fabulous meals over the weekend that freeze/reheat. On "my nights" to cook during the week, she puts my weekend's work food in the microwave or on the burner. Please see the Food Chats on Wednesday for further advice!

I second the fabulous, thanks.

My husband and I had the same "adjustment" about dinner time. I expected full meals eaten together, he was happy with a sandwich or cornflakes. Not saying this would work for you, but I've pretty much given up on the expectation that a hot meal needs to be prepared every night during the week. It's easy and somewhat liberating to know that I can just throw together some pasta or eat a salad. And if I want a hot meal or feel like cooking, I make a lot and eat leftovers for a few nights.


hey everybody, I'm going to have to pull the plug early this week. I've been fighting off a stomach bug the past couple of days, with diminishing success.

I did promise in my last chat to post the question that sent me to Weingarten. Here it is:


"Parenting Teenagers

"I'm in the midst of a lively discussion with Facebook friends about how we should all promise our teens that, should they find themselves in a situation where they've been partying and can't drive, they should always feel free to call us for a ride, without fear of repercussions. My kid knows that we or his friends' parents will be there for him. But, as much as I know that I would rather they do that than put themselves and others at risk, I still can't help but feel it's almost "implied consent" to party. Who cares? Mom will come for me! and that isn't the message I want him to get. Thoughts / suggestions on this conundrum?"


... and the reason I wanted to get in touch with Gene was something he said years ago about the deal he had with his then-teenage daughter. I wanted to make sure I didn't misquote him, so here is what he sent me:

"The deal with Molly was, never lie to us, never ask us to lie for you, keep your grades up, and you will be amazed at what we will trust you with. It's hard on US, actually, but it worked well with her."

This was actually how I had remembered it, which is good, because I plan to use this approach with my kids and wouldn't it have been funny if the years had warped my memory of this philosophy I swore by.

Anyway, I'm going to go curl up into a ball now. Sorry for the early exit, thanks for stopping by and hope to see you here again next week.



Btw, I haven't seen a response from the OP who was a disappointment to family; I will keep looking and, if I get the added information, post a fuller answer next week. 

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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 New England with her husband and their three boys.

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