Cheerful, Immovable Objects: Carolyn Hax Live (Friday, December 20)

Dec 20, 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.

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Hi everybody. I always have a bit of a post-Hoot hangover. As in, what else is there to say?

Dear Carolyn, I am female, unmarried, and in my late 30s (I know, kiss of death). From the ages of 32-36, I was never once asked on a date, presumably because I am overweight and not conventionally attractive. What little dating I did, I initiated myself, and not many second or third dates happened. I joined an online dating site last year and have started having more luck. The man I am seeing currently seems to be interested in a relationship, which ultimately is what I am looking for. As far as having feelings for him, I am at about a 65%, which sounds somewhat low, I know. He is very kind and we share interests-that's about it. I don't find him stunningly attractive, but I enjoy his companionship and can feel my fondness for him growing. Is this enough? I have talked this over extensively with a few friends, who view what I'm doing as settling. 'There is someone better out there' seems to be the mantra. What they don't seem to appreciate is that I went literally half a decade without any meaningful attention from the opposite sex, and I have no reason to think things would be different if I put myself back on the market. I promise I'm not being down on myself, just trying to be accurate and give all relevant information. Do I stay in a relationship with this person knowing he doesn't (and may never) make me swoon, or do I go back to my single, lonely life?

"He is very kind and we share interests-that's about it."

You say that as if it's faint praise, but many a lifetime friendship is fueled by that very combination. It's a combination I've always wanted to find myself--in a partner when I was single and in friends when I wasn't. 

You don't say how long you've been seeing this man, and that does have some bearing on whether it's a good idea to keep seeing him, but in general I believe that when your appreciation for someone is growing vs. diminishing, the time with that person is worthwhile. Why dwell on the details if you don't have to.

I feel I have to say something on the "kiss of death" parenthetical, too, but all I can come up with is, since when is that age and status the kiss of death? A good life is a good life in any form and at any time. Even if you meant it only as an ironic reflection of a popular misconception, I still think repeating it renews its lease on life when it's long overdue to expire.

Dear Carolyn, A few days ago, I had this nagging feeling that something was up with my boyfriend of 2 years. I asked him what was up and he said he had been wanting to break up, but was planning to wait till the holidays were over. He had already bought me a gift and everything, was going to travel to my hometown with me, and all that stuff. I feel really foolish, plus a bit traumatized by the idea that my relationship could be over without my realizing it. Any advice?

But you did realize it, so don't beat  yourself up over something that didn't happen.

I'm really sorry, too, for what did happen. I hope traveling to your hometown is generally a good thing, because a trip home just as you get this news could be just what you need to get your bearings.

If going home was going to be challenging anyway, then I urge you to watch "Home for the Holidays" and remind yourself that even a trip through the wringer can be restorative. 

General advice: Take good care of yourself, keep your to-do lists short and ride this out. 

I'm the eldest of four children. This means I was my family's "guinea pig." Despite that, I did very well, my parents were very supportive, and I have generally loved being an eldest sister. However, Brother is now 13 and applying to high schools. He's deciding between the co-ed high school I went to and an all-boy's school. He and my parents feel the all-boy's school has a better atmosphere and is more competitive than my high school, and although they express the fact that they are proud of me for the high school I went to, I can't help but feel a little slighted. It also seems like my parents are putting more time into my brother than they did into me. They keep track of his homework, his grades, help him study for the standardized test coming up, and so on. Dad has also decided to teach Brother coding and robotics. I missed out on this, though he intends to teach me over break. Part of me is really proud to see Brother being so successful (he recently won a robotics competition), and part of me is jealous that I didn't get this kind of attention and treatment. How do I get over these feelings so I don't end up resentful?

It's not uncommon to hear parents talk about how each of their kids needs different things from them. What you don't hear as often is that different kids in the same family often get different parents. People change over the years, through experience and happenstance and just general erosion. You can't get mad at your parents for learning a bit about being parents--well, you can, but it seems to be about as productive as getting mad at the sun for rising. This is just how things work. 

Consider this, too: You, as the oldest, got your novice parents' full attention when you were a baby. The youngest probably did some hard playpen or baby-swing time. That's just how big families make it all work. Then, as the older kids are successively catapulted out of the house, the youngest remains to soak up more and more attention of now veteran parents.

I can't tell you how to feel, but I can speak for myself: I try to save my jealousy and resentment for responses to the -deliberate- behavior of others, instead of wasting it on things that just shake out better for someone else than they did for me. 

(Then of course I try not to feel jealous or resentful at all, because that just takes crappy circumstances and adds a crappy feelings to them, and who wants that.)

So, I urge you to take advantage of the coding and robotics lessons you're about to get instead of cursing the fact that you're getting them now instead of then. In general, too, keep in mind the advice I've since returned to from a recent reader-advice column: Run your own race. 

Dear Carolyn, Is it wrong to want my spouse to pay a bit more attention to clothes and grooming? S/he is very attractive, but always seems to wear the wrong thing for the occasion and wears almost nothing but sweatpants at home. Perhaps I'm being unfair since this didn't bother me before, but I think now that we're in our late 30s and pretty well off, it's our responsibility and privilege to clean up a bit and look like tidy professionals, especially since it might further help both our careers. My efforts to talk about this with him/her have always led to nightmarish fights.

So, if I say you're not wrong to want this, then that will magically render him/her open to your suggestions?

"Nightmarish fights" is your cue to recognize that, even if you're right about every perceived benefit to your feelings for him/her, your careers and your societal standing, you're wrong to hang onto this as a goal. Sartorially, at least, your spouse is an as-is deal. Love it or leave it. 

Hey Carolyn, A friend pointed me to your column a few weeks ago since she was certain the letter was written by my well-meaning but over-bearing older brother. I'm almost positive she's right. Not only does my name rhyme with Ted but I *did* tell my family at Thanksgiving that my wife and I will not longer be present dispensing machines for the kids/grandkids. (That wasn't my wording of course but you get the idea.) To set the record straight: We are not broken-hearted, bitter infertiles (we're happily child-free) and we do think this is a matter of fairness. We like exchanging presents and we do so with Lisa's goddaughters family - and we will give to kids in need - which hardly characterizes our nieces and nephews who are also recipients of an annual "waterfall" of presents. What we will no longer do is just give, give, give and sit there for *hours* like little kids pressed with our noses up against the glass. It is absolutely true that we don't need anything (though who can't "use" a good bottle of wine at any time??) But neither do they. I think skipping the gimme train and showing up at my parents' place for dinner in the evening is the perfect solution - if this makes us "Scrooge" - so be it. "Ted"

Hi, Fred. Pleasure to meet you.

This may be a new-ish relationship and if nothing else, it sounds like he could be a wonderful long-term friend. Are you settling? That depends; are you giving up something just to avoid being alone? If you are sacrificing something that would otherwise be important in a relationship just for companionship, then it's settling and it's probably a bad idea. I say this from my own painfully-earned experience.

... but if you're sacrificing a rigid and outdated idea of what a relationship is supposed to be like, then trust yourself and see where your interest in this person takes you. 



If you aren't 100% attracted physically to a person (let's say the attraction is between 50-65%) but you do think the other person is very kind and you share important beliefs, is that enough? Do you have to want to "jump someone's bones" at the beginning for it to work? What if you don't care that much about sex? Or, maybe you care about sex but can do without?

Or maybe those feelings will kick in as you grow more attracted to the person inside. This is not a mere two-path flow chart.

Take the gift, leave the ex-boyfriend home. Enjoy the holidays with family and love.

Leave the gift and the ex-boyfriend, unless you think there's someone who'd appreciate the regift (and maybe even the story behind it). 

I say that not because there's any obligation to leave the gift, but instead because, who wants it? 

Hi Carolyn, An update from a chat last month, where I was debating telling my husband in marital counseling that I may have fallen out of love with him. I ended up telling him the next week in counseling (after talking to the counselor about it briefly beforehand). It was tough--he seemed both shocked and not surprised at the same time. He wanted to work on things, wanted to know what I wanted to do, and I said I needed some time. The following week in counseling he said he felt like he was waiting for another shoe to drop, and I fessed up that I had feelings for a grad school classmate but that nothing had happened. (Note that these were recent feelings, and I felt like I'd lost the love like a year ago.) Somehow, my confession of this broke down the walls between us. My husband ended up joking about this guy, I was joking about it, and we realized that what had been missing from our relationship was the joking-around, goofy stuff that had gotten us together in the first place. Over the past month, things have been getting more comfortable between my husband and I, there's not all the tension that had been there before, we're communicating much better, having more fun together, etc. The counselor, who we're still seeing, has noticed this change as well. Granted, we still have work to do, but the love seems to be on its way back. Not sure I'd recommend this complete honesty for everyone, but it seems to be working for us! So thanks again for the advice.

Hot damn. It's like a shiny new bike under the Christmas tree. Thank YOU.

I think it bears mentioning again (as CH has said this many times) there is no "formula" or "timeline" for relationships to follow. The "kiss of death" and "mantra" and rating by percentage of your feelings for the relationship (!) seem to indicate that relationships and their worthiness can somehow be reduced and quantified for decisionmaking. Life is more fluid than that.


Hi Carolyn, I enjoy your chats and columns and appreciate the insight you give your readers. I am desperate for some insight right now. A relative is hosting a surprise event, just announced, the weekend after Christmas. My sister lives out of state but is going to drive here for the party. Of the family members in town, I have, no question, the best accommodations. If she stays elsewhere, she sleeps on a couch. When she comes to visit, she always stays with me. I go absolutely nuts. She drives me crazy. She's extremely opinionated, domineering, over-my-shoulder oppressive. My husband and the rest of my family tell me to just deal with it. I have tried, but nothing has worked. A few years ago one of my brothers told me to confront her. I did, and she got so angry she cut me off for four blissful months. Then she forgave me. Rats. She has not asked yet to stay with me, but I see the tell-tale signs, innocent emails asking how I'm doing. After her last visit where I feel like I got sideswiped into hosting her, I vowed not to answer her emails, which so far I'm holding to. At some point she will call. Not answering the phone is my new strategy, but she is capable of doing an end run via another sister. I want to tell her that I don't operate a hotel. I cannot deal with another weekend with her, let alone a couple of hours with her at this event, which I actually have to attend. (I can't cut off all my family members and get away with it, I don't think.) I'm asking for your permission to close the hotel doors. I'm ok with being the bad guy. Staying in a hotel would never occur to this sister, never. "We're family!" is her mantra. Can you toss some insight my way? Please and thank you.

You can say no to her staying with you. Ideally you'll say it straight out--"Remember what happened last time? In the interest of peace on earth, I'm asking you to stay with another sister"--but you can also ignore her disingenuous communications till she sends you a carrier pigeon, or invite an out-of-town friend to come stay in your guest room that weekend. 

But, I think you're to the point of needing a longer-term solution. WHY does this sister get so far under your skin? Even if she is the soul of obnoxious, there's still an element you can control, and that's the access you give her to all of your sensitivities. Given that your family seems to be in regular touch and that you're severely bugged by this, this is going to be your dilemma in perpetuity unless you develop a thicker skin.

Dear Carolyn, My only son is 8 and is all boy--he's into loud noises, sports, and being outdoors, and has no interest in unnecessary chitchat. I'm absolutely obsessed with him and wouldn't trade him for the world, but sometimes I can't believe he came from me: talker, analyzer, world-class shopper, and above all an indoor girl. I'm looking for suggestions about how to stay connected with him as he gets older. He plays on sports teams and I go to his games, but that's more of a thing he shares with his dad and I feel a bit like an outsider there. I know he loves me, but sometimes I feel more like a coatrack than a role model/playmate (again, these honors are those held by his dad). Asking questions about things he's interested in has limited mileage because he's simply not that talkative--he's more of a doer. How do I stay relevant to a kid who's the opposite of me?

So, you and his dad are together? If so, what binds you two together beyond the physical, since you're the indoorsy type and he's apparently comfortable on your son's sporty-outdoorsy turf?

Short answer, many parents and kids with mismatched interests are tightly bonded through caregiving and, as that need diminishes, presence---in which case your being at his games is no small thing. Plus, there are so many things two people can share without deep analysis. Music comes immediately to mind, but the only limit is on the number of conceivable hobbies, topics, media, etc., on earth. But I'd be interested in what the dynamic between you and your son's dad adds to this equation.  

What do you do when everyone is afraid of your mother? She's not violent, and is typically a sweet, if uptight person. But there's no dealing with anything with her - she just ignores and ignores till she can't and then blammo: big fat fiasco. The last time was in front of my spouse. There's always been eggshell walking, and now spouse is included, although they claim that by not walking on eggshells, the situation might actually improve. Mom was much worse growing up, and although I love her, I prefer to do so from a distance. There's no option for therapy (for her, at least), and recent serious medical issues have only added to the mix of potential volatility. The fear comes from the fact that she is incredibly forceful - when she's right, she's right, and that's it. If you express your dissatisfaction, you're an enemy, or she decides she's done for good. We've managed to talk her back from these type of brinks before, but the tension in the family is palpable and universal. There's also not telling what might set her off. I especially feel bad for my spouse, who didn't sign up for this, and shouldn't have to bear our family's burden of not having found a reasonable solution to mom's temper. But spouse has been incredibly understanding both of me and of mom's issues, and despite the stress, insists that this is something I need to tackle in therapy, while allowing my mother whatever time I am willing to give as she ages. I haven't gone to therapy, but I wonder what good it would do, knowing that mom's not likely to ever change?

I think when a spouse "has been incredibly understanding" and is asking you to get some therapy, you honor that spouse by making calls, today, to find names of good family therapists. All the rest is just throat-clearing and stalling, and not relevant.

1. Tell Sis that, as an extra-special holiday present, you have made reservations for her at Hotel X, which you hear is fantastic. 2. Invite some nice friends to stay with you during that time, so you don't have the space. 3. Buy a nice rollaway bed and give it to another sister. 4. Easy to say, but stand up for yourself and say, "Sorry, but I can't host you here." And don't let yourself get pressured into providing an explanation. IMO not answering calls and emails is silly and gets you sucked into passive-aggressive crap that leaves you open to reasonable criticism. I don't have a perfect family, but this sort of thing does make me grateful for mine. Good luck.

Not good luck, good plan. Thanks.

Carolyn, can you elaborate on what you mean by controlling "the access you give [someone] to all your sensitivities"? I have people like this in my life, and I don't "give" them access to my sensitivities, they just know exactly what they are and exactly how to use them to hurt me because we spent so many years living in such close quarters. Even if I put on a show like it doesn't hurt, it still hurts.

And that's -exactly- where you need to focus your attention: Why does it "still" hurt? I use a couple of things as points of reference here, including my experience in reading hostile email for 16 years, and also in some volatile, now-ex friendships. In both cases there were times that I really, really hurt in response to things people said. Now, those same things barely register. Nothing about the other parties changed--they still say the things they've always said about my columns, and the ex-friends still have the traits that drove us apart to begin with. What has changed is inside me, including the value I place on their (or anyone's) opinions, the degree to which I care about my own shortcomings (a k a, vulnerabilities), and the outlets I can turn to when I am upset. With those in place, I am just not as, for a lack of a better word, hurtable as I used to be. 

This is the state I'm advising people to strive for. It's not some far-off cloud, it's just a worldview-tweak away, one that mostly involves the letting go of [stuff] that just doesn't matter. Truly. It doesn't render obnoxious people into delightful companions, but it pretty well neutralizes them into something not worth all the dread. 

" My only son is 8 and is all boy" Read to him. I was surprised how much my "all-boy" appreciated the time we spent reading the Narnia and His Dark Materials series. He never let on at the time. He's all grown now and was reminiscing recently. (He's not a talker either so that was a surprise, too.

Great idea, thanks.

This isn't that hard to figure out - think of all the sports-obsessed dads who find a way to be close to their girly-girls. Find an indoor activity that you can share if you don't want to be outdoors: electronic monopoly is fun, letting him decorate cookies shaped like various balls (or whatever floats your boat), reading (together) books about sports figures - and that's just off the top of my head. I will say, as a parent of a sports-obsessed boy, that it has helped that I have totally thrown myself into learning about (and liking!) our local teams, in addition to caring about his teams (and I go and often talk to the other parents, so it's a win-win!).

More good stuff, thanks. 

Also, this mom of sports-obsessed boys has found they are receptive to many more things, especially one on one, especially if the things aren't pushed on them but instead just left out there to be noticed and joined. One helped me decorate our tree and asked me to teach him how to knit; another likes to cook and has a freakish sense of taste and smell, to the point of identifying obscure spices in things upon walking into the home where the food was cooked; another is really attuned to nature and science, which opens all kinds of opportunities for connecting. And on those constant drives to practices and games, we all listen to books on CD. Their books, but, YA lit is fun. 

I was going to copy-and-paste this for my daughter, who complained recently that her younger brother got more from me than she did. But as the middle child, she never got the advantage of being the initial sole focus, either. I'm trying to think how to frame this for her. Did she get the best of both worlds, or the worst? Probably somewhere inbetween (as usual...).

Right--just as being oldest or youngest has good and bad elements, being the middle is a mix. Middles often enjoy an opportunity to be out of the glare of their parents' attention, allowing more room to try different things. They get parents that aren't as green as the ones the olders had, but not as burned out as the youngers. 

Mad generalizing, but, it leads to an even more useful generalization: It's not what you get so much as what you do with it that counts. 

I have a very similar mom, and a less understanding husband, and I can tell you that the therapy isn't about making your mom change (won't happen), but changing the way you react to her, which is the key. It can be incredibly stressful to balance a spouse with a difficult parent, a therapist can help you find the tools.

Yep, can't be repeated too often, thanks. A therapist can also help us recognize our own contributions to the stress, which we're usually the last to see--especially when we're justifiably used to seeing ourselves as someone else's victim--and which, as you said, is within our power to change.  

I think the problem is that for a lot of people (myself included), there are just certain sensitivities we have that we just can't change. I'm incredibly sensitive to groups of people (especially younger people) laughing around me. Now, logically, I know that A.) they probably don't even notice me and they're laughing about something else, B.) it's narcissism on my part to think that they are noticing me and laughing at me and C.) even if they are laughing at me, they're not important to me so why does it matter? But even though I know that logically, it is still something I'm extremely sensitive to and will immediately feel bad about myself upon hearing the laughter. No amount of logical thinking will ever change my reaction. I imagine other people have similar sensitivities.

You can't change the reaction sometimes, yes, but you can train yourself to jump in with mitigating strategies immediately when you have that reaction. Maybe you remind yourself it's not a rational response, maybe you see how fun/funny they look and you laugh too, maybe you get up and stretch your legs, maybe you picture a happy place--whatever. Yes, you still feel bad about yourself for that moment, but you have enough awareness and control to contain it just to a moment and not let it become an otherwise lovely evening that's broken beyond repair.

Funny you should ask--we've been married for 10 years, together for 15, and while being opposites about lots of things initially gave us both pause, eventually it's what made us irresistible to each other. He taught me the rules of each major sport (enough to make casual conversation) and I taught him about little niceties like household decorations and sending birthday cards. We are (hopefully this isn't pukeworthy) your pretty typical girly-girl and manly-man, and it works for us both. But that seems to have more significance in a romantic relationship, no? What I mean is, while I love how we complement each other, I usually go to friends for deep analysis, and he takes plenty of solo trips to sports bars. My son is an extreme version of him right now. His absolute favorite thing to do is wrestle, which apparently my husband was into at the same age (but he had brothers to do it with).

Maybe it has more significance in a romantic relationship, but the foundation can be the same--you appreciate each other for your differences (which your son can do with you, certainly) and you find areas where you share interests, either naturally or through a little extra effort, and you have the presence of mind not to expect to get everything you need from one person.

As a mom, you also benefit from the fact that your son is in just one of what will end up being many different phases. When he (presumably, eventually) starts to care about relationships, he'll know where to go for expert analysis. 

What if it's an iPad though? Or a camera! I would definitely still take it and leave the ex behind.

Leave the ex, take the cannolis.

Carolyn My husband and I just found out today that I had a miscarriage at 15 weeks (twins). We are beside ourselves. I'm struggling emotionally as is he (rightfully so) but we're trying to be strong for each other. I don't know HOW we're going to get through Christmas with everyone asking how the pregnancy is coming along, how I'm feeling, cravings, sickness etc. Our families know as do our friends know of the upcoming bundles of joy. If I could cancel Christmas all together I would but it's clearly NOT possible. To make matters worse my cousin just gave birth 2 weeks ago and wants to give me all of her maternity clothing. My in laws have hinted they've purchased nursery furniture for a Christmas gift, etc. How can my husband and I hold it together and try to put on a somewhat happy face when we're clearly not. Our families live 10 minutes apart from each other (we live 1500 miles away). We always stay with my in laws since they have the extra space and if we say we're staying in a hotel that won't go over well. My husband wants to tell our families what happened so they don't ask but I think that's going to make things even more awkward and like there's an elephant in the room and I don't want people asking how I'm doing. What would you do in this suitation? Canceling our travel plans, postponing them and/or not going "home" for Christmas is not an option.

I am so, so sorry.

If I'm reading correctly, you haven't notified either family of your miscarriage. I would do so--have your husband do it if that's easier on you--and let them all process it before you get there. he can tell them all that you don't want people asking how you are, and whatever else you want them to know that you don't want to have to say in front of everyone. 

What's the alternative--pretending nothing happened? I don't even see that as possible. 

You can also stay home. Yes, you can. You say it's not an option but not why, and so I'm going to hope it's just an "I'm not letting myself think it's possible" issue instead of an actual ban on blowing off Christmas, enforceable I-don't-know-how. You have just suffered an emotional and physical trauma--please be assured that very few people would expect you to carry on with your plans as usual, and the ones who do see it that way are exactly the ones you -don't- want surrounding you when you're grieving.

If instead you families are a comfort to you, then let them be. Prep them a few days in advance, so they're able to be strong for you, then fall into their arms.

Radiating off your letter is just so much self-applied pressure to rally, when if ever there were a time to rip off your "somewhat happy face" and let yourself cry, this is it. If trying to "be strong" is helpful to you, then okay, but otherwise please give yourself a  break.

Dear Carolyn, I got married and bought a house last year, my career is in good shape, I have great friends and family and I am 22 weeks pregnant with my first baby and in good health. As of last week, I literally thought my life could not get any better. I then found out (by checking into a tip sent to me by a friend) that my husband has been having an affair with a coworker for several months. He came clean when confronted--the affair was emotional at first (they work closely together every single day, they're both attractive and in their 30s, she's single, feelings developed--God I'm sick just writing this), but now they have had sex a few times as well (safely, he tells me, though I will still get checked out). I feel like the world just turned upside down. He offered to go to therapy with me and I will probably take him up on that, but in the meantime my life suddenly feels like it makes no sense anymore. The person I thought I trusted most has been lying to me for months. I was in such a daze that this morning, instead of driving to work (where I was expected to be at 8:30 am) I came to a coffee shop and have been sitting here ever since. My husband and I have slept in the same bed in total silence, 2 nights in a row. He has sent me a series of pleading emails (we're both somewhat awkward, and most of our serious discussions take place in writing) and I have yet to respond to any of them. I don't know what to do, what to say, whom to tell, or where to go in an immediate or long-term sense (do I go home again this afternoon?). I'm a longtime reader and I guess I'm just asking you to take a first crack at helping me organize my thoughts, till I can get to counseling and muster up the strength to start the really hard work.

Again, I'm wishing there were a way to shape electrons into a hug. Or a punch in your husband's nose.

Here's my "first crack": We're on the brink of a weekend, mercifully. Is there a place you can go, a person you can visit, within range of an impromptu road trip? Someone who has known you well and/or forever, who restores you, and who won't judge you when it comes time for you to stay in or leave your marriage? Is there someone local who fits that description and who can come with you or just offer you a guest room? 

Really I'm after two things here: a change of scenery and an emotional touchstone. Either one can bring clarity, but combining the two is powerful. Take care.

It seems you usually field this question from the other direction - children asking how to break free of holidays with their parents. Well, I'm the parent, and I am feeling DONE. My kids are 23 and 20. The older one is in a committed relationship. Their father and I are divorced. Every year, I make it clear that I will be fine if they won't be with me for Christmas Day, I just want to know so that I can make other plans. They announce plans, change them, change them again... It is obvious that despite my efforts, they assume I will happily work around them. So this year, they announced plans - Dad's on Christmas Day. Great! We always do our gifts Christmas Eve. But when I told them I was leaving town Christmas Day for two days, they were furious. How long am I "responsible" for their holidays? They like having the days together, but don't like doing anything to pull them off. Oh, and I'm still recovering from brutal chemo and radiation, can't even return to work yet, and I am emotionally and physically exhausted.

"Furious," eh?

You: "So sorry to hear that. See you Christmas eve!"

They: %^&($@

You: "I don't know what to say--you told me your plans so I made mine. If you'd like to take over the planning next year, then I think that's a great idea. So, what should we have for Christmas eve dinner?" 

Cheerful, immovable objects are good things to be in an irrational storm.

PTI: As you may have noticed, the Forum is no more, and Philes is moving to a new home (link to the announcement).

Since we're still getting a lot of responses today to the question of how a girly-girl mom relates to her all-boy 8-year-old, we're kicking that question to the new Philes. You can find it here (link to Philes page), where there's also an open forum for you to post questions, or here (link to Hax profile page).

Questions, comments, complaints? 

"We always stay with my in laws since they have the extra space and if we say we're staying in a hotel that won't go over well." If there is ever a time to use the me me me card this is it. If you want to go home for the holidays but want to stay in a hotel, do it. DO IT. Say you need the space. Everybody will understand and anybody who doesnt sucks so who cares.

Yes, this too, thank you.

I was just informed that the spouse's family event will now be a pay-to-eat occasion. Clarification? Our invitation to host was turned into a "we are more conveniently located for the extended family" event for which we now are footing the bill ($35/head including kiddies).... Got to attend but need help having a good attitude. These are not poor people and we are talking grocery store catering. Merry Christmas!

Tell people you expect to receive gifts that cover the cost per plate. 

Which reminds me, I just got a serious question about that ... so I will ruin everything by pointing out that I am kidding. Feh.

Merry Christmas back atcha.

Dear CH, My husband and I have been married 5 years ago. When we were dating, he knew that he did not want children and that was conflicted on the issue. He finally told me that he could not marry me if children were in the future and that he understood if that meant breaking up. I spent about two weeks thinking it over by myself, talking it over with loved ones, etc, and ultimately decided that if being with the love of my life meant no kids, I could own that decision. We got married and for the past 5 years I have made a point of avoiding thoughts that would lead to regret. Within the past year, as certain things in our lives have changed, my husband has started musing about what it would be like to have kids. For instance, we'll see a friend's child and on the way home he'll say, "Do you ever wonder what our kid would look like?" Of course I have wondered that, frequently in fact. Or when we visited our elderly parents at Thanksgiving, "Who do you think will come to visit us when we're old and gray?" etc. The problem is that we're older now (I'm almost 40 and he's mid-40s) and if we were ever going to have kids, we probably should have done so already. Hearing him say things like this drives me batty because it was HIS conviction that caused us to choose not to have them in the first place. I really would like to say to him, "If you're going to start regretting not having kids, please wait till the window of opportunity is completely closed so I don't have to agonize over it as a possibility." Is this fair to say, or does my obligation as a spouse mean I have to hear out his feelings, even if they poke at my existing regret and pain?

If you have an obligation as a spouse to hear out his feelings, doesn't he have the same obligation to hear out yours? Youse two need to talk. Really talk.

Hi Carolyn - I am struggling with this - if a person claims to be happy with his/her life (which seems to be a good life) is it also possible to be an alcoholic? I mean an average of 5 to 6 strong drinks every night. Would a happy person still need to drink so much, or does something not add up here?

My first thought is, does it matter? Someone who has 5 to 6 strong drinks a night is courting liver damage if nothing else, and so it's not a choice that's healthy for him/her, and therefore for his or her loved ones, since they'll have to deal with the person's serious illness or premature death. And that's just the stuff that's out there for anyone to see. Whatever emotional issues are or aren't lurking are another matter, as are the possible repercussions if the person is often drunk or hung over. And that much alcohol isn't cheap. Someone can not be an alcoholic and still be a problem drinker.

Basically, that much drinking is a burden this person carries. Is the person 1. willing to admit that, 2. willing to do anything about it, 3. worth having in your life, as-is, in light of these these potential problems? Are you game for a trip to an Al-anon meeting to get another perspective on this?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (link) is also good source of information as you have this stuff knocking around in your mind.

Yes, I have a support system here, but I have this nagging feeling that I might regret it if I spill the whole story to someone close to my husband and me. Even the friend who alerted me to the cheating does not know its extent. But it's probably worth taking that risk to have a place to go. My husband leaned in to rub my belly before he left for work this morning and my instinct was to burst into tears, which means staying at home in silence is not a good long-term solution. Thanks for your kind words.

You're welcome--I wish there were more I could do. 

There are people who are able to support one friend without further complicating the larger relationship with the couple. The question is whether you have one of them in your circle of friends. You can usually spot these people by their ability to roll with things, especially when the going gets gray. Don't lean on a friend who tends to escalate situations, or to see things as either Her Way or Wrong, because then you'll just have one other thing to manage. You also want someone who won't broadcast everything you say.

Your husband is lucky his hand is still attached to his body.


Two violent images for one situation ... perhaps I need an emergency recaffeinating.

My brother is an alcoholic. Highly functioning but still an alcoholic. He has/had a fabulous life. Successful business, wonderful children. He is still an alcoholic. Fighting his demons. Why? Don't know. But probably not because, from outward appearances, his life sucked.

True, demons don't discriminate. Thanks.

I'm so, so sorry. I lost a pregnancy (my first) after the "safe" period as well. Tell your family now, as Carolyn said, so that people can process. Designate someone else to spread the news among family. Make sure everyone who needs to knows if you're going to go. Try to create a bubble around yourself of people who know so that you don't suffer more than you need to right now. You will get through this. It's horrible and no one should have to, but you will. It won't be better right away though, and you can't expect yourself to get over it quickly. If you need to cry, you cry, and don't worry about who sees you.

Not only good ideas, but also a nice reminder that people do get it, at least some of them, and I'd venture most do. Thank you.

Here's my question: is "better than being alone" being honest about her feelings with her partner? I mean, isn't it a two way street here, where he has just as much of a right to both know where she stands as well as that he's not her perfect guy? Would it be fair to say that he may be perfectly content knowing how he stands with her and all will be well - but if he's not, he also has the right to think about if that combination is what he truly wants in a partner?

At some point he deserves to know how she feels, but I think people have a grace period as they figure out what those feelings are. New relationships bring flux, not certainty, and updates during this time can be misleading, mixed, and quickly proven wrong. 

Have you ASKED them to step up and be more adult? They (especially the younger, who is what, two years out of high school) are still at kind of an in between age, and they are juggling two or more families. They really may not know what you expect of them as adults.

Good point, thanks. Even an, "I've asked you for your plans, and here's why: I'd like to X, Y and Z, and that takes planning, but I want to see you, so I don't want to make plans that conflict with yours. I'll need to know by [specific date]. Thanks."

Based on what the OP wrote, it sounds like she's not stating what she wants very clearly. Saying "I'm okay with you not being with me on Christmas day" is very different than, "I'm planning leaving for a few days while you're home for the holidays." Why doesn't she just say? "Hey kids, I want to get out of town a couple days around Christmas. Can you try to figure out your schedule by X so I can make my plans?"

Or this, thanks.

Can you tell him to stop with the pleading e-mails and give you space, lots of space, to process this? It is not his place to pressure you in any way. He can show his contrition by accepting that this is HUGE for you and if he is to have any credibility, he needs to show that by backing the hell off.

And oh yes this. Thanks.

Exactly 12 years ago today I lost my twin boys, Peter James and Paul Edward, on the day they were born. It also happens to be my husbands birthday so he has always had this day as a reminder that our sons did not live but for a moment. And of course it is only 5 days away form Christmas. What a terrible thing to happen to any one. I can say I know whereof your feelings come from. This is a terrible loss. YES!!! You can cancel the holidays if you wish. Or you can go forward with celebrating, but what you shouldn't do is not tell anyone. They are hurting for you too. It is ok to grieve privately, I did this in my own way, but everyone knew and my hubby and I kindly asked people to just take their cues from us. If I was quite, leave me alone, if I was chatty chat with me. You get the drift. I kept a brave face for the holiday and I am glad I celebrated, but I also didn't pretend nothing happened. Most people, unless you have complete narcissists in your midst, will follow your lead. Feel better soon and make sure you get rest. I took a nap at a certain point in the festivities, which I'm sure meant they all chatted about it while I was gone, but the nap was my cue to just go on having fun without me and I will s\poke my head out when I am able. It turned out ok. And you will too. I will be sending you a silent prayer on the 25th just so you know your not alone in your grief.

Thank you for your courage and compassion. 

Hi Carolyn, I'm a grad student who's perilously close to finishing my degree. I'm at an insanely stressful period in my life and at this point I am so effing sick of talking about anything related to grad school. Problem is, this is how my family relates to me and it's pretty much all my parents ask about when we talk on the phone. I know I'm going to get all kinds of questions about it when I go to visit family next week ("How's your dissertation going? Where are you applying for jobs? Have you gotten interviews yet? When are you going to a conference next? How's teaching? What other research projects are you working on?"), and I'm already dreading having to discuss the answers to these questions over and over. How do I make it clear that this subject is off limits, politely shut down the conversation if it goes in that direction, and retrain family members to talk to me about non-school things?

"You're kind to ask, and here's my answer: I'm at a point where I need to talk about anything BUT grad school. Tell me about you. Tell me a bad joke. Tell me dirt on people I don't even know." 

By the end of your visit, you'll have it down to three words and a  hand signal. Good luck.

This is partly a holiday question, and partly a year-round question. My husband has a number of elderly relatives. None has email (or a computer, for that matter). He and everyone in his family expect me to correspond with all of them. Xmas cards, birthday greetings, etc. Handwritten, and with pictures of the children. My husband doesn't even have addresses, so I have to keep track of addresses. I really wouldn't mid if I could email people, but I can't. I email my sisters (my husband has never written them, nor has he talked on the phone to them in the last 20 years). I understand, Uncle Don who is in a nursing home enjoys the letters and pictures, so why can't my husband help? His aunt told me I am selfish for not keeping up the correspondence. Is there any reasonable compromise?

A compromise isn't reasonable because these are your husband's relatives AND his expectations. The only reasonable course is for him to handle this his own darn self.

That is, unless you and he have a division of labor in which he covers things for you that otherwise would be entirely your responsibility.

Decide what you're willing to do, exactly, tell your husband that, and say the rest is up to him or else it won't happen. That's how to draw a reasonable line. The question is, whether any possible consequences would be worth it to you. 

That's it for today. Thanks everybody, and a happy New Year to all--I'm on vacation next week, so there won't be a chat till Jan. 3. Stay warm or stay cool, whichever you need. 

I can all but guarantee if you sit down with any family member who is employed in any manner and say "Least favorite coworker and why: go" you will easily fill all available time and give the family members in question the gift of a very Christmassy vented spleen. Deck the halls!


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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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