Nuisance Traits: Carolyn Hax Live (Friday, July 11)

Jul 11, 2014

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.

In your July 6 column, you said something that really struck a chord with me: "Comfort with basic assertiveness is a threshold worth forcing yourself to meet before getting involved with someone else. It can inoculate you against so many other problems." I would LOVE to be comfortable with basic assertiveness. How do I achieve that? I am a pushover, for lack of better term. Attempts at being assertive almost immediately make me cry--bad enough in a romantic relationship but humiliating at work. So I avoid speaking up about my feelings or point of view. In the case of things that bother me in a relationship (platonic, familial, or romantic), this can lead to bottled up frustration that eventually boils over. Any suggestions on how to practice basic assertiveness would be appreciated. Thank you!

The two hardest situations for asserting yourself are romantic relationships and workplaces. Because of that, I suggest you start assuming more control of your life in baby steps and in less charged situations. Interactions in, say, a checkout line are going to be over soon and you're unlikely to deal with the same people again (unless you're in a small town), so they present good opportunities. Friendships are where most people practice standing up for themselves, because saying, "Actually, Sarah, I'd rather not go to X Cafe again, I'd like to try something different," feels like less of a scary leap than telling your boss you have a medical appointment and you're not rescheduling it this time.

If even baby steps feel too terrifying--or even if you do manage it but you're tired of facing this steep hill alone--then I suggest working with a good therapist to help you get at the origin of your fears.

Hi, Carolyn. Some time ago, I found myself withdrawing from my husband physically because he was distant from me, to the point that the only time he engaged me was when he was angry. I tried talking about it with him, therapy, etc. About a month ago, he expressed frustration that we weren't at least cuddling. I told him, again, that for me, desire and affection required a willingness on his part to talk at least occasionally when he wasn't angry. He has since withdrawn completely, sleeping separately, and now all of his interactions with me are angry. Does this mean we're done? Is there any way to turn something like this around (assuming I even want to)? Thanks for any insight.

I'm sorry. There's no way to turn something like this around without both of you agreeing to try. 

The one thing I can suggest that you haven't tried is a -reputable- relationship workshop where the two of you are immersed in a program meant to get you talking again. The environment can sometimes force couples out of their entrenched positions. You have a therapist, so that's who I suggest you ask about such programs.

I added emphasis already to the "reputable," but now I'm going to underscore, too, because this is fertile soil for cultish or snake-oily enterprises.

Dear Carolyn, I realize you get a lot of "If X is going, I'm not going" questions, but for this situation, I really don't know what to do. One of my friends invited me to her wedding. She is also friends with a man I was in an abusive relationship with, and who assaulted me after we broke up. This all happened years ago. I don't know if he's invited to the wedding or if he's coming. If he is coming, I won't come-- if I just didn't like him, of course I'd suck it up and go and be polite, but this is a potential threat to my safety. How do I handle this with the friend? The wedding is six months out and in my city, so there isn't an easy or graceful way to bow out of it.

Yes, there is--or, I guess I should say, you have a pass on the matter of grace. This is your friend, which means presumably you like and care about each other. If someone I liked and cared about were in your position, I would want him or her to say to me directly that X person assaulted him/her in the context of a past relationship, and that it's very important to know whether he is invited to the wedding. Say you are sorry to have to do this, but the alternative is to decline the invitation preemptively and you don't want to do that, you want to celebrate with her.

If you feel you aren't close enough to the friend to have this conversation, then you decline the invitation preemptively.

Need some thoughts on what is perhaps the most stressful part of my life right now. My tween kid, my husband, and the almost nightly battles over getting to bed on time, which I always get sucked into. I'm winding down myself and just want to have some calm at exactly the time of night my husband decides to start yelling at the kid for not yet being in bed. Yelling. From the couch. Not checking up on, not gently reminding, not doing any of these things before it is an issue, but a nightly freak-out at loud volume at the last minute. This is not my battle, as I think at this age the kid has a reasonable bed time, has agreed to it, and needs to manage herself. It ends up being my battle when I just can't stand them yelling at each other anymore. Need some ideas.

Will he agree to read a book on this? "Parenting With Love & Logic" by Foster Kline and Jim Fay will  explain to your husband everything that is wrong with the sit-and-yell model of child-rearing, and, bonus, it won't be coming from you and it won't be about your spoiled calm time.

About which I sympathize, don't get me wrong, but it's a secondary concern. The primary concern is that the sit-and-yell is no way to raise a child to (a) be self-disciplined, and (b) feel warmly toward her dad, both of which presumably are among the highest long-range priorities your family has.

My wife smokes a few cigarettes per day, usually at work. Our daughter has smelled smoke on her and asked if she smokes, but my wife lies and says that it came from other people. Now our daughter has learned about second-hand smoke, and laws that restrict it. She told her mother to make the smokers smoke outside. My wife told her that she doesn't want to cause trouble at work. I told my wife that she should either quit, or tell our daughter the truth. She said that smoking is an integral part of her routine, but knowing the truth would make our daughter too upset. I think our daughter may already suspect the truth, so we might as well be honest with her. Should I tell her myself if this comes up again?

You can't sell out your daughter's mother, no, but you are right about the fact that your wife has only two choices of integrity: Quit or tell the truth. 

Your wife's dodge that it "would make our daughter too upset" needs to be called out as the BS it is. The upsetting act is the smoking, i.e., the fact that her mother is compromising her own (and possibly others') health; who knows about it is in such a distant second place that all the spectators have gone home before it has even seen the finish line.  

So it's back to your wife with this issue, as follows: "I can't bear to have you lie to our daughter like this. It is going to damage her trust in you so badly when she finds out the truth that I don't see any choice for you but to change that truth by quitting. It is your decision whether to smoke, I get it, but how we talk to our daughter is both of our decision, and I will not keep enabling your lie. I will long enough for you to quit, yes, if you choose that, or long enough for you to find a way to tell her the truth if that's how you would rather handle it--but I will not stay quiet indefinitely."

By the way, her bringing the smoke home on her clothes--"third-hand smoke"--might be harming you and your daughter. This is getting researchers' attention right now. 

I can relate to the LW. I used to hate being assertive. Particularly because I would work so hard to make myself speak up, and then often the other person would not respond positively to what I told them. One thing I learned that changed this for me, is you can't expect that just because you are assertive, others will change their behavior or agree with you. I used to feel like if I spoke up, and the other person disagreed or got angry with my request that meant I had failed at being assertive. Once I realized that being assertive is the end in itself, it helped me feel much less anxious about being assertive. All I can do is speak up. But, others get to choose how they respond, and then I get to choose how I respond to their response. And that's it. Somehow this was very freeing for me.

I can see that, thank you.

A good first step for practicing assertiveness is in situations where you genuinely don't care if the answer is no, for example if you'd prefer a substitution in your restaurant meal, but wouldn't object to eating the meal described on the menu if a substitution isn't possible.

Great idea, thank you. It's a micro, clearer version of what I was trying to say with the baby steps: Take them when the stakes feel low. Thanks muchly.

I may be looking for a marriage counselor. Both husband and I are on board. What do you mean by snake-oily or cultish? What are the red flags? Where do I find a good one?

I wasn't saying marriage counselors were that way (though some are, or are just bad, or a bad fit for you, etc., which I'll get to in a second). I was referring to the type of program or seminar that I was advising the OP to try. I'll use an example from a prior Q and A--I mentioned the "Love & Logic" book to the frustrated parent. "Love & Logic" is also a program, with anything from books and webinars to speakers you can hire for a live seminar to help parents.

These programs also exist to help couples with their marriages, and they're often different from marriage counseling in their intensity. Couples might see a therapist once a week for weeks on end, whereas a seminar could be something they drive to at a hotel and immerse themselves in for three days. 

As I said, the quality of the program is important to establish before you buy in, since some of these are going to have an agenda besides just to get these couples talking--but there are good ones out there, too, that can, as I said, force people out of entrenched positions.

Of course, as I type this, all I can think about is the program in "The Big C" and how that story line turned out, but I won't bore you with my personal problems.

Anyway, for your purposes, the best way to find a reputable marriage counselor is to ask your family doctor for names, and also look for reputable organizations. By that I mean, someone affiliated with a practice you already know and trust is a good place to start, or a hospital with a sterling reputation, etc. Once you have some names, the next step is to interview a few to see whether the person seems competent and whether there's a good fit in your personalities and styles. That part can take some patience, as can getting used to the idea of saying things you're not typically comfortable saying.

I know this is going to sound circular, but the good way to find bona fide programs is to ask a reputable therapist. 


A few more assertiveness responses, sans comment (thanks everybody for weighing in):

You can also take classes in assertiveness training. I did many years ago through NVCC. It's a weekend or two class, and everything I learned I still remember & use every day. Very good for understanding where boundaries are between you and others, and what is appropriate reinforcement of those boundaries.

May or may not be of any interest for this poster, but I used to be the same way. What worked for me was practicing online- I play an online game where I have a character who is involved in all sorts of politics and other groups, and as I found myself taking on responsibilities in the game and having to be assertive there, I found it spilling over to my real life.

I'm still not awesome at it, but I will stand up for myself when necessary. To get more comfortable with it, I worked with a therapist for a few sessions. He gave me "homework assignments" like the ones Carolyn mentioned. We thought of 10 situations where assertiveness might be helpful, and ranked them 1-10 in terms of discomfort level. I started with some of the smaller ones and worked my way up. The more you do it, the more you realize that either a) most people don't care much, especially if you're polite about it or b) if they do care, you can still arrive at a compromise that's better for you. Also, strong and healthy relationships can handle respectful conflict.

Since we're talking about practicing assertiveness with service personnel, it seems worth a reminder that assertive means asking clearly for what you want/need and is not inconsistent with being polite and reasonable. I have a not-very-assertive parent who has discovered the joy of being "assertive" with customer service staff via email, and the level of preemptive anger/nastiness in the emails makes me cringe. I think sometimes the combination of the adrenaline needed to overcome natural non-assertiveness and the target being a stranger leads to aggressiveness, rather than assertiveness.

Excellent and important point, thank you. There's a huge difference between standing up for yourself and lording it over people who are under orders not to fight back or are too financially vulnerable to. I mean simply being the customer who holds out for what he or she paid for, as in, "This burger is undercooked," or, "I thought these were on sale--would you please check?"

BTW, back to the idea of learning assertiveness: Parents can do their kids a huge favor by gradually insisting they speak for themselves. Order for your toddler at a restaurant, yes, but a 7-year-old can handle that solo. Answer the doctor's questions as your children learn to speak, but as they gain command of their words, have them answer a doctor's questions on the first pass and step in only to elaborate when it's important to or add something they missed. Etc. So much easier to wade in over a decade or two than to hit 18 and have to jump in cold.

I'm not great at assertiveness either, but I'm not sure about the baby steps. Mostly because so many of the little things don't seem worth it. Someone bumps ahead of my in line - oh well, clearly it's wrong, but rarely worth making a stink. Where's the line between wanting to live my life without conflict and being a pushover?

Your emotions tell you where the line is. If you're standing there fuming in silence as the person gets served before you, then that's your message that it -was- worth it, to you, to make a stink--and you either speak up then or (since it's often too late at this point) make a mental note to speak up next time.

This can get a little confusing, since sometimes you'll be angrier at the line-jumper when you're already angry at a loved one for taking advantage of you. But if you: see it all holistically; decide that you're going to read your own feelings more carefully and speak up when you feel others are imposing on you unfairly; evaluate after the fact whether you feel better or worse for speaking up and why; and learn from these experiences to read both yourself and these situations better, then you'll develop more confidence in your ability to make out these lines--if not on the fly then after the fact, which usually comes first.

You also start to read people better, and whether they are truly able to take others' needs into account or they're just self-centered. The former are much less likely to greet assertiveness with conflict. Instead they will indicate that they're glad to know where you stand so they can take that into account from now on.

Should a 14-year-old teenager be allowed to refuse visitation with his recently divorced father? The young man in question is angry with his dad for initiating the divorce both parents wanted and refuses to accept phone calls or visits with his dad, or to engage in counseling with him. The boys three siblings have a close relationship with their dad and visit and speak with him often; the dad has always been an involved and supportive parent. The mother has decided that the boy should make his own decisions about this, but lack of contact is deeply distressing to the father. I am an aunt on the mother's side and worry that the rift could become permanent as the boy cements his antagonistic feelings and the dad gives up trying to have a relationship. I fully understand that adolescent children should have a say in custodial arrangements, but this extend to visitation as well?

The mother needs to make it crystal clear to the son that she wanted the divorce, too; that she herself doesn't blame the father for initiating the divorce; and that she will not countenance his being assigned this blame unless there's more to the story than has been aired at this point.

Once the mom has backed the dad on this solidly and without -any- room for interpretation, then I think it's okay for the 14-year-old to be allowed to postpone visitation while he cools off--and goes to counseling on his own. That should be a stipulation both to help in cool off (vs cement antagonism) and to give him a safe place to talk just in case there is in fact more to this.

Again, with the clearly stated limitation that this is just a cool-off period and not a pass on dealing with his feelings toward his father. 

And some stories of consequences:

Your daughter almost certainly knows that your wife is smoking. My father has been an off-and-on secret smoker for the last 15 years. I was about 13 when I started suspecting and eventually it was confirmed and he quit. More recently, he started secret smoking and ALL of us kids knew that he was doing it and eventually confronted him. He was completely shocked that we had any idea and even then tried to cover it up, until we showed him proof that we knew (the packet of cigarettes hidden in the garage). It was a situation that would have been very easy for him to just say, "I'm sorry but I have been smoking." But by not admitting it, that trust in him not to hide things from us, trivial or very important, was lost.

I'm in my 50s and am still frightened of my father, who was a yeller when I was growing up. And when I became an adult. I spend as little time with him as possible. We only have a relationship because my mother is still living. Please stop this behavior now.

Carolyn— A long standing couple friend of mine just went through a break up this week. One half of the couple reached out to me—she’s the “half” that I have become friends with due to her ex-spouse being a college friend of mine. She reached out to me with an absolutely heart breaking email basically say she knows no one here and she’s grasping at straws and would I mind going for a walk this weekend, and of course I can say no if it’s awkward. After vetting it with College Friend I of course said yes. Do you have any sound words for me on how to help her on Sunday, knowing that in fact I am unwilling to get in the middle of this? I really like her and we’ve hung out 1:1 before but I’ve never had a more intimate conversation with her and I don’t really want to hear details about how my college friend left her. BUT she’s right—I am one of the few people she knows here and I want to be kind and genuine. Should I just listen and not add an opinion?

Add opinions where you feel comfortable doing so, and where you don't--or when you're hearing something you don't want to hear, then say, "I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable with the turn this conversation has taken," or, "I'm feeling on the spot here," and then ask to back it up a bit, or suggest a different topic, or ask a question and allow the answer to take you somewhere else.

It's also okay to say, plainly, "I care about you both and won't take sides," and also to acknowledge her feelings without assigning blame. E.g.: "That must have been really painful, I'm sorry." 

Over time you might find yourself growing more sympathetic to one of them over the other. That's not getting "in the middle," per se; that's just having judgment and using it. Getting in the middle would involve having one outcome you prefer over others, and taking steps to achieve that--say, trying to negotiate with one or the other, or carrying messages between them, etc. That stuff is actually easier to avoid than it appears, as long as you're able to spot when you're investing yourself in an outcome--and aware of how important it is not to get so invested.

Every time my girlfriend meets my friends, and often when we go to events of my choosing, I'm treated to a litany of all the reasons the friends/events were terrible immediately afterward. I'm not insisting that she come, and I don't want to hear it. She says "So you're asking me to lie to you?" (Nope! Just shut up.) and "I feel like you don't want me to express my emotions." (Correct! But that's apparently not allowed.) and "It's not a judgement on you if I don't like the same things as you." (I maintain that it's reasonable to be offended if someone doesn't like the majority of your friends.) It's normal to not want someone to tell you how much the things and people you love suck, right? Is there anything I can say? We've been on the verge of breaking up, and I'm tempted to let this be the last straw.

Some temptations are good.

It is normal not to want someone to tell you how much the things and people you love suck, yes, but there are higher levels of normalcy available to you. Namely, it's normal to hold out for someone who actually loves the same people and things you do. It's unrealistic to expect someone to love all of them, but you certainly can find a better match than someone who feels displeasure "every time" and "often" in response to things you hold dear.

For what it's worth, she has a point when she says it's not about you when she doesn't like the same things--but she needs to adhere to that logic herself and not make a big deal by itemizing all that she found terrible about any given person or event.

Your heading is "GF believes in too much honesty," but if it were up to me, I'd write, "Two people who don't seem to like each other a whole lot try to make relationship work." Better to stop trying now, when you're just dating, than when your lives are more deeply entangled.

Carolyn, I'm surprised you did not mention boundaries to the aunt who submitted this question. I do not believe that the aunt has no right to share her opinion and offer guidance, but she needs to be careful. The question was not from the mother asking what to do and there is nothing in the question to suggest that the mother has asked the aunt what to do. But your answer focused completely on how the mother should handle the son. It sounds like the aunt is present in the family, which suggests that she and the mother are close, but there is no guarantee. The mother just went through a divorce and is struggling with her son - she may be very open to help from the aunt, but the aunt should be very careful not to cross any boundaries.

Yes, true, thanks. I do believe (and have said this repeatedly over the years) that someone in the inner circle does get to speak up once, especially on something so consequential, but I was wrong not to spell that out.

I like these responses about assertiveness. Can this be continued in the Hax Philes?

You can't be 14 and totally clueless that both parents wanted a divorce - he's choosing mom's side for some reason, and the key is understanding what that reason is. He may not be ready to tell you yet, and the reason may not be entirely adult-rational since he's 14 and teenaged brains are weird, but he has a reason he has opted not to share or acknowledge yet. Give him some time, respect his decisions and autonomy. He may or may not come around on his dad anytime soon, but he'll probably get better at articulating his reasons as he gets older, if the questions are posed in non-judgmental ways.

Good stuff, though I do think people of any age can get the completely wrong read on a situation. I learned after my mother died, for example, that traits I had thought were hers were actually my father's, and vice-versa. I built my images of them as individuals based on how they behaved as a couple, and it was a real education at age, what, 35, to see I had misattributed some things.

Sounds like she is lonely and is looking for a hang, not necessarily a conversation about the breakup. Doubtless it'll come up, but why not just treat the walk as an outing with someone you like to spend time with, not an ad hoc therapy session that she didn't technically ask for?

I think it's fine to treat it as a walk, thanks, but also smart to have a response ready should her motive be the ad hoc therapy.

As we discuss assertiveness, just some props to the acquaintance who sought out a friend-of-a-friend for a post-breakup walk. That took real bravery.

Agreed, thx

Years ago, a homeless person took up camp in our preschool's playground during spring break. When the kids came back on Monday, there was a person living in their plastic play house. And she was smoking! The police came and gently escorted her out (no charges filed), but my son was in tears after school. "They're gonna execute her!" he screamed at me. "They're gonna execute her because she was smoking! I don't want her executed!" Perhaps our anti-smoking message was a bit over-the-top.

Ha. Yes. Another argument for the smoker to have copped to the smoking upfront instead of shifting the blame the the fictional baddies at work.

In general, the answer to having both frailties and children isn't to whitewash the former to protect the latter. Since frailties are unavoidable, teaching kids to deal with them is essential, and that starts with owning them. What would you like your kid to do when s/he makes a bad choice or adopts a vice--feel ashamed and hide it from you? Feel defensive and lash out at you for your failings? Feel disappointed in herself and privately resolve to do better? Feel disappointed and seek support from others to help her do better? Feel comfortable with some naughty things in moderation, as long as it's an informed choice? 

There's no one way to handle the low end of our humanity, but there are healthy and unhealthy ones, and a parent, when busted, would be well served to already have in mind what lesson is going out to the kids.


The short story is that my wife and I decided we both needed to lose weight. We went on diet recommended by our doctors and were exercising almost every day. Initially things were great. She lost about 15 pounds and I dropped 35. I've reached my goal; however, she not only gained the 15 pounds back, she added another 10. She's angry because her diet failed and mine succeeded. She's been extremely negative since then. We split cooking duties. When I cook, it's something healthy. She won't eat it. When she cooks, she always cooks something incredibly fattening (e.g., fried chicken, fatty cuts of beef with loads of butter on it). I'll eat a small portion of what we cooks so that she doesn't blow up at me and then I'll grab a salad later in the evening. She told me that I will never keep the weight off, so she's not going to the extra trouble of cooking healthy meals. I've kept the weight off for 9 months now and no longer have cravings. She's intent on making sure I regain the weight. How do I talk to her?

With a referee, because this is not about food or diet or weight. It's about her behavior and its incredible, palpable hostility (just wrote a bit recently about how weight issues are really about love and behavior, link).

In the meantime, suggest to her that you stop the cooking system, because it's the point of highest friction between you. Say that you care more about supporting each other than you do about who's night it is to cook. Even take over cooking every night, temporarily, if that helps. Say you miss the way things used to be between you. Ask her how she would like this to go--big picture. Do a lot of listening. 

As with a previous question today, there's not much you can do when a spouse refuses to budge on something, but you can at least keep your attention on the big picture of the fried chicken (i.e., the hostility and passive aggression), and not litigate this meal after meal after meal.

I really agree with your advice to "Treat any real concern as legitimate, even those you aren't proud of." It got me thinking. My former fiancee and I broke up this past March, and I've been slowly starting to feel better, but I realized I don't know how far I should go in overlooking the differences between me and a partner. I'm pretty good at compromising on most things, but I'm not sure if that's necessarily a good thing for me to do - at least not without a lot of thinking/consideration on my part. I keep thinking that since we love each other, these things will work themselves out or at least be tolerable. And we -were- able to make things work for over five years - until we weren't. How do you know which things are OK and which things are not? Do other people struggle with this, or do they somehow manage to find a partner who matches up with them pretty well? If so, how do they do that? So for example, I tend to be defensive. I'm working on it, and it's getting better. My former partner and I were in couples counseling, and that was one of the things we worked on - how she could be aware of things she said that provoked me and how I could be less defensive even when provoked. The counseling was very helpful, but I'm still wondering if it's possible to find someone whose personality would be a better fit with mine from the start. I hope this makes sense, and I'd like to know your thoughts. Thank you!

First, I suggest individual counseling for the defensiveness. Sometimes defensiveness can be a side effect of a bad relationship, where over time you feel the core of you challenged and attacked to extensively over time by someone that you get conditioned to react protectively of yourself. More commonly, though, it's something in you that sees an attack in even neutral things--say, you and a friend have different political views, but you can't talk about them without feeling your ego is at stake. Or when someone breaks up with you, you have to vilify the person just to be okay with the rejection; you can't just accept that you won't be a good fit with everyone. Or if someone corrects some work you do, you frame the person who corrected you as a jerk--or you need to point out you usually don't make that mistake, honest!!!--instead of being grateful for catching your error or providing you an opportunity to learn. This kind of self-protective reacting tends to come when we're not sure of ourselves and our worth. If you know you're good at something, for example, and/or if your whole image if yourself isn't resting on appearing good at something, then you can handle a little negative feedback, and keep it in its proper perspective. (more)

A couple of things when it comes to how far one should go in overlooking differences:

-The best thing you can do, always, is not "need" the relationship to work out. This comes naturally to some people, but for the rest of us it's really hard. Status quos are appealing and change is hard, plus breaking up just sucks. It's really really hard in particular, though, for people who have that core self-doubt, who have a need for people to like them. You don't want to get dumped by someone nor do you want to be the bad guy who does the dumping. Having such a strong, core incentive to keep a relationship going, though, clouds a person's judgment on what is and isn't working in a relationship, by disposing him or her to minimize or wish things away. Which brings us to:

-"I keep thinking that since we love each other, these things will work themselves out or at least be tolerable." Many loves do deepen over time, but at the same time, in general, irritants only get more irritating with time, and nuisances get more annoying, and burdens get heavier, and divergences grow wider. Anytime you're assessing whether something that bothers you is a real problem, think of now--i.e., when you're fairly newly in love with someone--as the time when this thing will be at its most tolerable. Very few things grow more appealing with time.

-Yes, it is possible to find someone whose personality just fits you well. There will always be things that (to your mind) aren't perfect about someone, but when you take great and simple pleasure in each other, and when you communicate, and when you both handle your differences in a way that makes sense to you, then those differences will be less likely to expand into relationship ending Issues.

It's almost impossible for someone to define a good personality fit for anyone else, but this much I believe is true: You can accurately determine a good fit for you by paying attention to how hard you have to work to keep the peace. If you constantly have your guard up with someone, then you're going to wear out any love you feel for the person, and likely descend into silence or recurrent fighting. If instead the way you make things work is one that comfortable or natural for you, then there's a good chance the relationship will last a long time.



For example, let's take today's couple, with the one who doesn't like the other's friends and events and complains about them at length. They could actually be a happy couple if, for example, the OP liked having friends and interests of his own, separate from his relationship, and -genuinely- didn't need his GF to enjoy these friends or events. Or, if GF could go along cheerfully, finding something to like about these events and people, because it makes him happy and satisfies her sense of adventure. 

But in reality OP's default was to want a partner enjoy said people and events, and her default was to be unhappy and express that unhappiness openly. Reconciling their differences required more work than either was comfortable sustaining, so, it makes sense for them to break up.



If it helps, think of one person's nuisance trait, to you, as something someone else would seek out in a partner. Sally's introversion annoys Ned and he constantly wants her to rally for his family gatherings--but if Sally were dating Ted instead, the two of them might appreciate their mutual need to set a limit on these big family gatherings, and Ted might be grateful that Sally gets his need to have 15 minutes of silence in the car on the way home, just to counteract sensory overload. Maybe she doesnt need it herself, but it's something that's no trouble for her to provide. 

So, don't think just in terms of what you have in common with someone, but also in terms of how tiring it is for you, emotionally and physically, to reconcile what you -don't- have in common. You want to be heavy on the first and light on the second.

I am so grateful for the failings I saw in my father--had I not seen them, I might have spent my life feeling inadequate as a father, unable to live up to his perfect example.

Yes, there's that too--you want kids to feel bad about their mistakes, but not like they're bad people for making them. So important. Thanks.

I'm not sure this (I assume) husband is taking any time to understand what his wife is feeling, either. It's hard for anyone, but particularly women, to lose weight. She feels like a failure, and she may feel like he is rubbing her face in it. Cooking unhealthy things and sabotaging his weight loss is a defense mechanism. I think he may need to be more empathetic to her situation.

Fair enough, but boy does she need to grow up. This is not a mature, kind or productive way to handle a sense of failure, no matter how lacking in empathy he may (or may not) be.

Having been a parent who had to deal with parental alienation, my first thought on the original letter was "thank GOODNESS this kid has an aunt paying attention." I get the concern about boundaries, but having someone check in to see that there isn't something else going on is so important!

Thanks--it's a tough balance to strike.

My husband and I are having similiar disagreements about the same issue. I like the advice, but I know that my husband would see my suggesting that he read a book about parenting as " you suck as a parent, please read this manual to improve your skills" . I am planning on approaching him by saying " I would like it if we both read this book together and discuss some of the material. I know that parenting is hard for both of us sometimes and I want a loving and supporting environment for our kids to want to come home to. " I hope it works.

Good point thanks. You can even read a couple of chapters and say (assuming it's true) "This is really helping me--please have a look, because I'd like to talk about it." That shifts it even farther away from your correcting him or even your correcting "us." Instead it's, "I'm correcting myself, and I think you'll appreciate it too."

This question brought back flashbacks from my childhood. My mother would never have said that she didn't want me to have a relationship with my father, but I learned that her complex feelings about him made her uncomfortable having him mentioned or around after the divorce so me being estranged from him wasn't unwelcome. I am not saying that the mom in this scenario is this way (esp. since the other brothers talk to Dad) but kids discover all kinds of ways to survive with custodial parents dealing with big emotions. If the aunt really wants to be helpful, she should make an effort to spend time with her nephews and give them space to deal with their emotions in a way that their own parents could be too raw to do.


Okay, that multi-part answer blew up my whole plan to end at 3. I think i've posted all the responses to OPs that I was hoping to share, thanks everyone, and we've kicked the assertiveness issue to Philes (thanks Jess): link.

So ... bye! Thanks for stopping by, have a great weekend and see you here next week, I hope.

"Of course, as I type this, all I can think about is the program in "The Big C" and how that story line turned out, but I won't bore you with my personal problems." Is everything OK?

Oh gosh yes--I just meant my brain and its tendency to run all over the place instead of staying on topic.

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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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