Easier Said than Done: Carolyn Hax Live (Friday, November 15)

Nov 15, 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 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.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

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

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Hi everybody.

You had two letters this week regarding whether one should be truthful about how you feel about someone's so....you provided two very different answers....one for family one for friends....why the difference?

I didn't go to the links to refresh my memory, but I don't think of my answers as different, except maybe as different angles on a similar problem. Would you be willing to write back with what you see as a contradiction?

I do think parents need to approach the issue of a (possibly) bad choice of significant other much more carefully than friends do, since parents need to be more mindful of a grown child's autonomy. A friend approaches as an equal and therefore has more leeway.

Additionally, a parent (and, slighly less so, a sibling) has more of a responsibility to speak up when there appears to be a serious problem. Put those together and it's a harder line for family to walk than it is for a friend.

 I look forward to hearing more on your thinking, if you get the chance to post again. 

Carolyn: I was on the other side of this situation in today's column a few years ago --- once I broke up with my ex-husband, a number of friends came out to say that they had disliked him for years. If you're the friend in this situation, can I suggest that if you were able to keep that quiet for so long during my marriage, you just continue to keep it quiet? I'm sure it would have been hard not to chime in with "Oh yeah, I hated him too, and so did friends X, Y, and Z!" when I was venting. But now I am not in touch with most of those friends, because I know that they can be thinking something negative about me, but not share it. So when I spent time with them after the divorce and the reveal, I was always on edge, wondering what they were really thinking. There is one exception. A friend who never complained to me about my ex when he was my boyfriend and then husband, but who always listened with compassion and leading questions, and who did say to me the day of my wedding, "you know, you don't have to do this". I knew how she felt, without it damaging our friendship, either during my marriage, or after, because she had always been honest about how she felt, without beating me over the head with it.

This is helpful, thanks. It's also an argument for two things we talk about often here:

1. If you're the family member or friend with concerns, then speak up, judiciously, once; after that be a good listener.

2. If you're on the receiving end of such an expression of concern, then force yourself to listen, say "Thanks for your concern," and not lash out at the messenger. Even if the message is wrong, it's more important to remain approachable than it is to prove you're right.


Thanks again.

Good guidelines, but this is just so hard to predict. I've twice expressed pre-marital concerns to close friends in the most gentle way polssible ("I'm a little concerned that he might have control issues/still have feelings for his ex") and each time it put a serious crimp in the friendship. (One couple is still married, theother isn't.) I've reached the point that unless it's an obvous red flag like abuse, excess alcohol or drug use, I pretty much let it go. Sometimes you can ask if whatever it is concerns them, but even this can be tricky.

True, and it's a valid aproach especially when you're dealing with someone who doesn't take bad news well. (That's not as hard to predict as it may seem.)

I do think one of the takeaways here is that if you go your route, then you have to stay on it after any breakup. "Or forever hold your peace" is an easy mantra to remember.

Hi Carolyn, I'm not sure if you remember this, but I wrote in a few years ago as a junior in high school struggling with extreme perfectionism and an eating disorder. I just wanted to share how much things have changed and how much happier I am now. I never asked for help, but several of my friends saw the effects of the eating disorder and were there for me every step of the way. I wouldn't consider myself fully recovered yet, but I'm almost there. I have a boyfriend of about a year who has really brought me out of my shell and taught me how to be myself again. I didn't think it was possible for me to become this outgoing, energetic, and optimistic all the time, but it happened without me even realizing it. I feel like a different person, and I'm kind of shocked to say I actually like the person I am now. Anyway, thanks so much for your advice and support. It helped.

I do remember you, and, just, YAY. That's all I have to say. Yay to your progress, yay to your friends and your willingness to lean on them, yay to your self-assurance in admitting you still have work to do (don't we all) and to letting yourself off the hook for that. Thanks so much for checking back in.


My dad died of cancer a year and two months ago. It's been really hard for my mom, of course, who now lives alone. She does get support from friends, me and my husband (who live nearby), and my brother, and she has a therapist. What I'm concerned about is that she doesn't eat that much. She tells me she often doesn't eat dinner when she's by herself, and she doesn't feel like cooking for herself. Recently she showed me a skirt she'd bought that was too small for her and said jokingly, "I could return it, or just not eat for a week." She does eat with other people. I understand that loss of appetite is common with grief, but I'm worried. She has always been a bit of a control freak and guilty about food/proud of controlling her appetite/always worried about putting on weight, and has always been more inclined to take care of others than herself. I'm having trouble distinguishing between normal grief response and worrying eating issues. Should I be worried, and what do I do? Thanks.

Eating issues are difficult, so please talk to the pros. The National Eating Disorders Association (link) can help you figure out what to worry about and what not to, and what if anything you can do to help your mom. There's a confidential hotline (weekdays): 1-800-931-2237.

Hi Carolyn, When my husband and I made the choice to hyphenate our children's surnames, we did it for both egalitarian and rhythmic reasons. (We each have one-syllable, very Anglo-sounding names, wanted traditional names for the kids, and just thought 'Emily Jones-Smith' sounded more interesting and memorable than Emily Jones or Emily Smith) Well, our little Emily (not her real name) started expressing interest in a name tweak many years ago (we thought nothing of it at the time), and upon turning 25 last week, announced to us that she has had her name legally changed to Emily Smith, dropping my name. Since it was already done, I reacted to the news very neutrally, but my feelings are hurt, much more so than I would have expected. I'm being silly, right?

No, you'd be silly if you made a fuss. There's a big range of normal in how people feel about their names, so your hurt feelings aren't a surprise (except maybe to you).

That range also makes it possible for your daughter's name change to be anything from a not-at-all-about-you bit of pragmatic streamlining to a calculated, public renunciation of you. Surely you know by the context whether this is a tweak or a Statement--and thus already know whether you need to shake it off as a superficial difference in style, or take it as a memo that your relaitonship with your daughter needs work.

If it's the former, then time might be all you need, and if it's the latter, then the first step I advise is to forgive the change, if not outright be grateful for the chance it has given you to see what needs to be done.

Dear Carolyn, When I married my husband 6 years ago, his father had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. We hurried our wedding plans to make sure Dad could participate, which I will never regret. It was great having him there and in decent health. Since then, his condition has remained pretty much the same, yet the entire family revolves 100% around Dad's every wish and whim. We can't eat at this restaurant for dinner, Dad doesn't like it. Sis shouldn't date that guy, it would upset Dad and might make him sicker. The level of deference is way beyond the pale (and as I understand it, departs significantly from how the family operated when Dad was well). My husband and I have long talked about moving away, but the entire family insists it would 'kill' Dad. My husband himself seems to feel very uneasy about leaving his hometown under these conditions. As an in-law, I'm not sure what my most appropriate role is here. Though we all know Dad is very sick, I no longer believe he's imminently dying, and even if he is, I think enough major decisions have been based around his lifespan that it's time to start moving on. But of course, this is too cold to verbalize to my husband or his family. Any thoughts?

It is?

I can see not saying this to his family, but I think that level of honesty within a couple is what makes marriages work. It's time to talk to your husband about the fact that his dad's illness rightly affects some decisions, but you're not comfortable with the fact that it has been a deciding vote in the way you and he run your lives together for six years now. 

This conversation would work best, I think, as a precursor to sitting down to make a plan for this move you and he have been talking about. Independent of his dad's illness, as in, based on your and your husband's needs alone, is now the right time to get going, or six months from now, or a year from now, or five? What preliminary steps are necessary before you can pack up and go?

Once you figure out what you'd need to accomplish before a move and how long that would take, then you can see how much you're both willing to deviate from that to accommodate Dad and the rest of his family. Seeing it on paper, or at least hearing it spoken out loud, can take it out of the emotional swirl of terminal illness while also taking the fact of that illness into account.

Hi Carolyn, My brother is getting married in a few months. He and his fiancé have been having issues with her parents during the wedding planning. Basically the parents want to make sure she has the wedding they want - not caring about the wedding she wants. After a lot of discussion the two of them decided to elope the week before and then put on a second wedding as a way of maintaining the relationship with her parents. I was asked to be a bridesmaid in the wedding before the decided to elope in advance. Honestly I feel a little weird about participating in all the pre-wedding stuff knowing that they will have already been married (bridesmaid dress, matching shoes, bridal shower, bachelorette, etc.). Please help me see participating in the second wedding as the right thing to do. I know this has not gone the way they've wanted and they're trying to do what's best for them. A tiny part of me just feels like they are not owning their decision (putting on a second wedding just to keep her parents happy) and asking others to help cover for them (huge rehearsal dinner, formal reception, big wedding party, etc.). For what's it's worth, I'm pretty annoyed at this tiny part of myself and really want to see this as a way to support both of them! Verbal slap-down, please?

Not feeling slappy over this, I'm sorry.

While I don't love the idea of conscripting others to help the couple lie to her family, and while I too would like this couple's chances in life better if they had the spine to stand up to her family, I have a lot of sympathy for people who get pushed to the brink by outside pressure over wedding plans.

Eloping sounds like an attempt to preserve themselves and their intimacy. Since those are two of the most important things to keep intact in this process, that (to my mind) is enough to hang on to as you smile through the clustercuss of bouquets and buffets and, ouf, matching shoes.

Carolyn, I'm dating two different women. One is here in NOVA and one is on the other coast.. They both know about the other but neither of them like it. NOVA girl wants an exclusive relationship. West Coast girl doesn't seem to care. My problem is that I know deep down that NOVA girl is better for me. She's almost perfect intellectually, spiritually, interest-wise, except I have very little physical attraction to her. On the other hand, the chemistry with West Coast girl is off the charts. I guess my question is ... do I have to choose? As long as they both know about each other is it okay to go on like this for awhile as long as I'm honest with them? I don't want to hurt either one of them but I don't want to choose right now. I hate that society puts such pressure on us to be in monogamous relationships. And not that it matters, but I'm not a 20-something year old guy. I'm an older woman. Does that change the dynamic?

No, because the dynamic is that you're with two wrong people instead of two potentially right ones. 

That means this is not about choosing, though--it's about how long you're willing to get what you want and need from two people instead of one  simply because you haven't found one person who really fits.

You've been honest, so  I can argue that you don't need to rethink this arrangement for their sakes. If you see yourself someday as being in a committed, monogamous relationship, then that's an argument for rethinking it for your own sake.

Plus: NOVA girl is not "better for me," she's a dead-end street because you obviously value chemistry. West Coast girl is not an option unless you value her companionship as much as you do her passion. Either-or is just so needlessly limiting.

I like your response, but the bottom line is that the couple have to live for themselves not Dad, Mom, and Cousin Harriet, right? My children make decisions that I would never approve of, but that is better than having their decisions dependent upon my approval so that if they don't work out, they can blame me (or my illness if I had one.) Sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves of that 1960's mantra, which I throw at my children when appropriate: it's your life, baby, I'm just passin' through.

Yes, that's the distillation, thanks.

Not trying to be snarky, just mystified: how does eloping in advance solve any of the problems?

It makes the whole thing theirs again, in a way the interlopers can't touch. I totally get it.

Carolyn sent you to information about the emotions about eating, but if it's a purely practical problem of "not worth cooking for one," here are a couple of suggestions. You could get together with her on a weekend, cook up a big batch of something, and freeze family-sized portions for you to take home and single-serving portions for her to have available for a quick microwave dinner. Also, remind her that the only choices aren't A Proper Dinner or nothing. After my dad died, my mom would often have a bowl of cereal with milk and a banana for dinner. Easy and reasonably nutritious.

The former idea I really like, because it's also about companionship and a shared purpose.

I balk at the latter, because surely a mature woman knows she can snack without being reminded of that by her children?

Your suggestions to the LW (in particular, saying, "It's not about me" and deflecting barbs with cheery responses) sound nice in principle, but they strike me as a textbook case of "easier said than done." Presumably Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, or the Pope could would be unruffled in the LW's place, but I'd defy most ordinary mortals to be. I speak from experience with toxic people.

Everything, everything, everything I advise is easier said than done. Figuring out how to handle people is hard. Figuring out how much honesty is appropriate is hard. Figuring how much withheld information becomes dishonest is hard. Figuring out whom we can and can't trust is hard. Figuring out how to trust ourselves is hard. Figuring out how much help we need, have a right to ask for and can advisably accept is hard. Finding ways to leave painful things behind us is hard. Finding words at a tense moment that make things better instead of worse is hard. Accepting what we'll never have, whom we'll never be, what we'll never be given, what we can't expect, is hard. Admitting when we're at fault is hard. Accepting when we're not at fault but will suffer anyway is hard. 

It's not about being unruffled. It's about retraining ourselves to use approaches to people that are more productive than the broken, maddening, ineffective, self-destructive old ones. It's about figuring out what the limits are of what we'll take from people, and enforcing them in ways that keep our self-respect and sense of goodwill--and, ideally, our relationships--intact.

It's stuff we can take decades to get right, if then, and bandy about in overlong online sessions every Friday since the Clinton administration, and still not solve or fully agree on. 

Doesn't mean it's not worth trying. 

Nope, a snacking reminder even to a mature woman is a good idea. If dinner to her and her husband had always meant a set table, a protein, a starch, and a veggie, cereal and a banana as a non-breakfast meal may not have occurred to her. Seriously, we went through this with my grandmother and MIL.

Glad to stand corrected, thanks.

I need a PBJ. Back in ... 3. Sorry, forgot to eat. Coincidentally.

Somehow, a gusher of opinions on a wedding caught me by surprise. Here's a sampling, without comment 'cause I've said what I wanted to say:

I'm afraid I don't agree with your reply. If the couple don't want to put up with the parents crap, then don't. They should stand up for their rights and be honest. The parents aren't going to be happy they were lied to about the "real" wedding date. Since there will be a colossal fallout either way, just be honest.

My wife and I actually were married three days before our wedding. In Colorado, you don't need to go before an officiant, you can just sign the license and the county clerk's office and give it right back. We figured that was easier than taking the license to our ceremony, because then we wouldn't be able to file it until after we got back from our honeymoon two weeks later. It never occurred to me that anyone mioght have a problem with attending our wedding because of this.

all valid point you make, although miss manners and the other etiquette ladies would point out the redundancy of a second wedding as impossible- they will already be married, so they cant possibly get married again. the elopement is their wedding ! the second event can be called a party, or a celebration of this fact, but it cant be a wedding, and to pull it off as a wedding under false pretenses, and going through the motions when they will already be married is tacky, not to mention just plain wrong.

Well, could be the second one is religious and the first civil, so that would not be redundant in the minds of all. 

(Back to not commenting ...)

Is the elopement known to everyone including the difficult parents of the bride? If the elopement is a secret elopement and the second wedding a 'sham' wedding meant to fool the in-laws, that doesn't seem to be a good way to start marriage. What will they do when the bride's mom wants to be in the delivery room and they don't want her there? Have the baby first, and a pretend second delivery?

I'd like to see that, actually.

(Now back to not commenting.)

Carolyn, you said you didn't like their chances since there weren't able to stand up to the family. What about the fact that they've quietly found a way to satisfy their own needs without disrupting possibly difficult in-laws. The eloping ahead of time costs them nothing and gives them and the parents the weddings that everyone wants. They shouldn't have shared the plan with others who would need to participate by helping with the "cover-up" but this seems like an easy win to me . . . .

Sometimes the focus gets moved from the marriage to the wedding--this couple is moving it back to them and their marriage. As for the second wedding, there could be a third or a fourth--a wedding is simply a public announcement and acknowledgement of a private agreement: we are a couple, two people who have willingly tied our destinies together in a special way, and we want the world to know it and interact with us on that basis. A couple can say that in public as many times and at as many parties as they wish--why not? Indeed, I am married to a non-American, and in addition to our wedding here and registration of the marriage in the US, we will probably be registering the marriage in her country as well in the near future.

Yes that's true and although I don't think it's the case here, it can meaning putting your mum or dad first. My friend did this. Her mum got early onset dementia and she made a commitment to take care of her mum. This she did until her mum's death three years ago from cancer when my friend was in her mid-forties. Some people were quite insistent that she was ruining her life. Although this certainly circumscribed her life, it was an open-eyed choice that she's never regretted.

Yes, doing what you think is right can take on as many different forms as there are yous. Or youses, if that's how you roll.

Back to the original couple, that's the point of my advice to LW to be honest. The two of them need to be truthful with each other so they can then choose a path, together, that suits them--even if it's to stick around for Dad. Right now their guiding forces are guilt and a fear of speaking up.

Dear Carolyn, I have a related question about compatibility. I'm in my late 30s, single and still looking for a partner. I've noticed a pattern that the people that I feel most alive around and most enjoy are often not available (both in dating and friendships). A few recent examples: one was moving to a new country; one was of the wrong sexual orientation for me; one was way too young; and one was not wanting a serious relationship. On the other hand are the people I meet who are constant and reliable, which I value, but feel less alive around. Is it unrealistic for me to think I can find a partner someday who is constant and available, but that I also feel really alive around? Am I missing something here?

Possibly that you only fully let your guard down around people who aren't available, because you feel "safe" around them--i.e., there's no risk of getting rejected for who you are when they've already said no based on who they are.

So, maybe it's not that these available people are less awesome, it's that you give yourself less permission to take risks around them and therefore a muted, less awesome version of you comes out. 

Dear Carolyn, A guy I dated for about three months ended things a few weeks ago because, in his words, I didn't let him "pursue" me enough (read: I got too invested too quickly, and started contacting him more than he was comfortable with). He said that he cared about me very much, but that he wanted to feel that the person he was with was a bit "hard to get." I was sad, but understanding, and I ended all contact. Right on cue, after about two weeks of no contact from me, he started calling, texting, and emailing again and eventually wanted to meet up for drinks. This seems so on-the-nose (I didn't call, so he suddenly felt ravenous for me again) that it's almost insulting. Then again, I know it's commonly believed that guys(/people) love to pursue, so maybe I did do the wrong thing by denying him that opportunity before. What do you think? Give him a second chance, or let go on GP?

This whole love-to-pursue thing--what do people do with it once they've committed to each other? Do they demand/promote an aura of mystery in their shared home? All body noises and hygiene rituals get rushed discreetly into locked, soundproof bathrooms? All unsightly ailments get immediately quarantined and tended to by hired nurses?

Yes, pursuit is a blast, a rush, a dizzy and exciting time. But it's also a game, an adventure you learn on. 

Life companionship is not a game. It's about finding someone you get along with so well, and find so beautiful inside, that the outside is just a pleasing window to the good stuff. It's about the "what" of wanting to be with someone to the extent that the "how" is beside the point. You will call or text or stop by, s/he will call or text or stop by, whatever, it's a foregone conclusion that you had a really nice time last night and one of you will initiate some sort of communication soon.

This guy you dated might grow up to be a lovely person someday, but unless you too are enjoying a few games of Pheromonal Headrush 3 on your way to something steady, be very skeptical of this renewed interest.

And of people who try to tell you how to behave to get their approval. Barf.


My husband didn't go on the trip after I fully explained my objections to it. But his failure to consider my needs and feelings until I have hit him over the head with them--if then--continues to be a problem. Trying to get him into marriage counseling, because I'm not sure I'm willing to keep living like that, but his initial response was to be insulted, deflect back to me ("We only have problems because you won't let things go"), etc. Will do solo counseling if he doesn't relent.

Yeah, that is the next step. I'm sorry to hear he refuses to treat your needs as equal to his own--though that is the trajectory he was on, since putting himself first even after children arrived on the scene is  pretty telling. 

It might be time for the solo counseling now, even as you continue to try for his cooperation.

Thanks so much for checking in, and, if you think to/want to, let us know sometime how things go.


Hi Carolyn, I am the father of two grown daughters, and while I was always very careful to treat them equally well when they were growing up, I'm finding it a lot harder now they're adults. My oldest daughter and I get along very well and understand each other, while my youngest is constantly trying to pick fights with me and has priorities that are completely alien. Believe me, I've tried just about everything to improve my relationship with youngest daughter, but I'm just at a loss. Is is even remotely OK for me to give up on equal treatment and acknowledge that one daughter is better company than the other?

What form would this acknowledgement take?

Also, in the "tried just about everything" file, is there something to the effect of looking at her priorities from her perspective, as child who doesn't have much in common with her father, instead of just looking at them from your  own perspective and stopping there?

Hi Carolyn. Online only please. This question touches on one of your recent columns about gifts. My mother insists on spending hundreds of dollars each Christmas on gifts that I do not want. If I am honest with her and tell her that I don't want or need a gift on Christmas morning, she spends the rest of the morning sulking. I have alternated between this and lying that I like the gifts, which causes her to question me several times during day whether I really liked the gift. I am now at the point that I don't even like Christmas and I am considering not visiting this year. I have another major crisis going on right now and I don't know if I am up for dealing with the Christmas morning charade or blowout. We got into a huge argument earlier this year where I told her not to buy me any more gifts and she agreed, but we reconciled recently and she has already mentioned two Christmas gifts she has purchased me. I know this seems like a trivial issue, but it actually reflects our mother/daughter dynamic - she does something that she thinks will benefit me even when I tell her that I don't want her to,, and calls me ungrateful when I reject the overture. So, I am not sure what to do here - suck it up or try to put my foot down?

It's not a trivial issue, it's about love--and that you both  love each other but neither of you feels loved. The gifts are just the schematic.

Seems to me you've tried  sucking it up and tried putting your foot down and neither has worked. Is that fair? If so, then it might be time for a little creative enabling. She shows love with her gifts, and she's not budging on that, so try thinking of something you're always happy to get, that works well as a gift and that is immune to differences in taste. Off the top of my head, let's see, food gifts, booze, bulbs, books of a specific genre, supplies for a hobby or craft, something you collect ... I'll kick it to Philes if you all think it would be useful to swap ideas about leading a gift-giver to the right kind of water.

Certainly it's possible that part of this dynamic is that she'll never give you something you want because the thrill for her is in telling you who she wants you to be, in which case the only way you're going to like her gifts is by happy accident (and to her dismay). But, if that's the case, then you're at the point where she's too broken for things to work between you, and all you can hope for is to find a worthy recipient of these gifts you donate every January.

It's also fine to break the expectation that you'll visit every Christmas. Go every other? Travel somewhere new on your off years, or stay home and recharge? Just believe in it, annouce it, do it.

And, for good measure, try to think of ways you can show love for your mom in a form she likes to receive. Take away a little for your sake, and put forth a little for hers.

Dad might be a big hung up on "equally." A better word IMO is "equivalently" in that it acknowledges that different people have different needs and perspectives but can both be loved equally strongly, so long as the expression is individually tailored. A lesson from special ed: treat people fairly,by meeting their needs, not equally. Example: we don't refuse to give CPR to someone having a heart attack in a group setting, because it would not be fair to not offer it to everyone. Treat your children fairly and with love and maybe don't worry so much about the equal part, huh?

Works for me, thanks.

Sure, it's okay if your phone conversations are 25 minutes with one daughter and only 15 with the other -- or if you choose dinner with one daughter and movies with the other, so that you can minimize the talking time when you might grate on each other's nerves. There are lots of "playing favorites" tricks that are innocuous and unnoticeable to anyone involved. It's never okay to say, "By the way, from here out I'm going to stop pretending that I like you as much as your sister." Which I assume you would never do.


Thanks for taking my question. My husband, our 1-year-old son and I are visiting my husbands parents and sister this week. Yesterday, I was putting my son down for a nap in the guest room. Through the magic of their HVAC system, I could hear my MIL and SIL talking in the kitchen very clearly. They were talking about me and tearing me apart -- everything from my shyness (they think I'm cold) to their perception of the value of my work ("I can't believe people get paid for that!"), to my mother's health ("such a f---ing drama-queen hypochondriac." My mother has had cancer. Twice.) to my haircut (I agree on the last point -- new stylist, it didn't work out but I can't control how fast my hair grows). I've always done my best to maintain a good relationship with my in-laws and had a feeling that they'd talk about me behind my back (because they talk about everyone else), but I never thought it would be this hurtful and bad. I haven't talked to my husband about this yet, and last night I feigned a headache to avoid having to put on a good face with them in the evening. I'm not sure what to do. Should I confront them (which, I imagine, would turn me into an eavesdropper in their eyes)? Just let it go? Let my husband confront them? Start repeating their exact words back to them in a seemingly innocent manner? Any advice you or the 'nuts have would be a big help.

This is one of those questions I'd rather sit on a bit before answering, but this is happening in real time (I'm so sorry!) and so I'll give it a shot and then open it to the nutterati.

I have two preliminary thoughts.

1. Talk to your husband. I don't think a confrontation is the way to go, but he should know what you're up against and be an equal partner in the discussion about how you deal with his family from now on. You might decide not to change much (since the nastiness isn't new, it's just confirmation), but it'll still be better for you as a joint decision.

If I were writing this as a movie with a happy ending, he'd be furious at his fam and feel terrible for you and give you license to have nothing to do with his folks; you'd appreciate that but agree to suck it up for some minimum amount of exposure so he and your son wouldn't lose this family entirely; and he would then let his family know that he knows what they've been saying, that's he's embarrassed to be associated with them, and he expects a minimum amount of civility or he's finished with them.

They, chastened and embarrassed, realize they went too far and start making tentative gestures of inclusion toward you. You  briefly weigh flipping them the fattest bird ever, but opt against and return the kindness.

Fast forward 15 years, and you're the one your MIL wants around when her health starts failing.

[rolling credits]

2. They don't hate you this much. Instead, they are using you as a way to tighten their bond. Picking on your haircut, seriously? Equating cancer with hypochondria (assuming there isn't more to that story)? Scapegoating has to be as old as humanity. I'm sorry you're being used that way, but it is surmountable, if you want it to be. Not that anyone would blame you if you didn't want it to be.

Anyone else have a thought to throw in?


My step-father (who raised me from the time he married my mother!) was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2007 and given about 6 - 12 months to live. I took a semester off from college (it took some innovative professors to create independent correspondence courses for me to take, with the understanding all my work would be submitted at the end of the semester, so I wouldn't lose my scholarship) and effectively put my entire life on hold. We grieved. The greatest battle I fought with myself was working through that grief when I didn't want to and taking my life back up. Six and a half years later, Dad is still alive, still terribly sick, and still doomed to die from his disease, whenever that happens. Since then, though, I've learned to deal with my grief in a way that it sounds like LW's family (and mine!) haven't, because they are still living in anticipation of that death rather than making the most of the life still available. I get treated like a pariah because I've dealt with my grief (it doesn't mean I'm not sad about it!) and have moved my life forward, but it's easier to think of my family as still grieving the way I was before, and to treat them gently--but still go about my life.

This is directly on point, thank you, and helpful.

Im a wife but.....man, I would want to know if my husband overheard this. I wouldnt want him to take it without him knowing I have his back. The general rule is if my side is being a pain in the butt to him, I deal with it and vice versa. I dont know how this woman's husband is but wouldnt any husband want to know about their wife's pain?

The basis of my answer, yes, thanks. 

However, if I heard it about my spouse, I would -not- pass that along to said spouse. 

Please elaborate. In my experience, a scapegoat never gets to be anything but. They can be present, or they can be absent, but they're still the goat.

There have been many examples in this chat of families who have overcome this problem. It requires the scapegoat to be quietly, fiercely, kindly insistent on civility and inclusion, as well as generous with these family members despite every impulse to throat-punch them; the scapegoat's people to have his or her back at all times; and the family (or even just one member) to be willing to rethink the hostile behavior and to make peace overtures.

It's, ah, easier said than done.


Crowd answers coming again sans comment:

You have to let them know you heard them, but I would do it as politely as possible. For example, as you put your son down for a nap, you can ask your MIL and SIL to move out of the kitchen "because in this quirky house, you can hear an entire conversation through the HVAC and you wouldn't want Johnny to wake up". They will feel horrible when they realize that you probably heard every word.

My childhood memories are of my mom bitching and gossiping about our entire extended family on the hour long car rides home from visits. I didn't know any better so started doing the same thing with my friends. It took me a while to see how negative I was and that what I thought was normal conversation was actually incredibly hurtful. One person had the guts to confront me and it was like a lighbult going off - I've completely changed my behavior but I cringe when I think back on some of the unnecessary crap I said about people who I really liked and had no negative feelings towards. So there's a chance that what Carolyn wrote about it being their way of bonding is true - but that doesn't make it easier to hear. I really think your husband should let them know what you heard - it really could take just one time of their being "called out" for them to reallize how mean they were. If they feel terrible and apologize profusely, then rest assured it's not really about you. If they get defensive, then it's time to think about distancing yourself.

Ugh, I feel bad for Guestroom. Never underestimate magnanimity, if you get to a point of pulling it off. Instead of hiding or avoiding or what have you, if you can muster the strength, sit them down, let them know what you heard, and say you're sorry they feel that way about you. They can call you an eavesdropper sure, and then you'll have all the information you need. But they may feel deeply ashamed of themselves and reconsider their behavior. In which case you may find the relationship reparable in the long run.

it's the same reason people don't have sleepovers with three little girls -- two will almost always bond by being united against a third. and you're the new girl to this group, still. I'm sorry for you, but I would try not to take it too personally.

yep. But boys do it too.

Oh, I really want her to drop things into the conversation so her MIL and SIL are twisting with anxiety about whether she heard. If nothing else, it might teach them the value of discretion, because I am guessing the LW isn't the only one they trashbond over.

I guess my sister is writing in, since this is obviously our mother! I solved this problem by giving mom an annual Quest. Something to which she needs to devote all of her spare time and sharpest outlet-and-discount-store shopping skills. "I need a leather handbag at least 10"x12"x5" with a zipper closure, interior divided into two separate compartments, with a pocket for my cell phone. Oh, and it has to be black; and have a shoulder strap, not a handle. And a matching wallet would be nice!" Sure, she still manages to find time to buy me a few unwanted items, but far fewer than before.

Yes! This! Exactly! Thanks for saying it better.

Our family makes wishlists. It eliminates the "I don't know what to get Jimmy this year" dilemma and/or "I hope they like it" anxiety and still gives you options. Everybody wins. It may seem silly as we are all over 30, but it works beautifully.

Everybody really really wins if some of them hate gift lists and so can huddle together and "trashbond" (love this) over what everyone else asks for.

A 3 pm thread-tie.

I an adult daughter and my dad does not get me. The best thing that ever happened to us was than he discovered text messaging. He will randomly text me ridiculous stuff ("sure do love a good cuppa coffee"; a picture of his feet apropos of nothing and without comment; etc.). It's his way of staying connected and letting me know he loves me without necessarily having to have deep coversations about life, love and politics.

This is the best thing ever. Thank you.

And, goodbye. Thanks everyone for stopping in, have a smashing weekend and see you 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 washingtonpost.com. She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.

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