Cruise controlling: Carolyn Hax Live (Friday, July 18)

Jul 18, 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. Happy 11:30 on Friday.

In the past 12 months I have noticed that a relative has explosive verbal reactions to unwarranted situations. A stranger threw a ball on the picnic mat? FURY. Someone suggested we order appetizer X for the table? VERBAL tsunami. He has even gotten into a verbal dispute with close relative "Ben". "Ben" told me "I was scared he was going to punch me in the face". We are talking about grown, tall, large and strong men. I have never seen him get into a physical fight but it always feels like it's *this* close from happening. For the past 12 months I have noticed myself walking on eggshells, choosing my words so carefully that is difficult to even speak my mind about anything. I admit I am scared, what do i do know? How do I bring it up? Do I bring it up with his spouse? Thank you for your (and your audience) kind words.

Yes, start with the spouse. Presumably this is a change in behavior over the past year? If that's the case, then express your concern to Spouse and urge him or her to steer your relative to a full medical workup. When there's a dramatic change in behavior, ruling out illness is step 1. 

Hi, I was hoping you or one of the 'nuts would have a recommendation for a resource the lays out appropriate behavior for children by age. My father (and to a lesser extent, my spouse) expect more out of my children (3 and 1 years old) than I think is reasonable for their ages. At the same time, I'd like to make sure that I'm not coddling my children or allowing them to behave badly when they have the capability for more. And yes, I do realize that every child is different and hits different stages at different times, but it would be nice to have general guidelines. Thanks!

The best approach at this stage, since you're not sure and since disagreement between you and your spouse could lead to marital problems, is attend a reputable parenting program. Your pediatrician is the place to start in finding such a program, though schools and child care centers can help with that, too. If you're in an area served by PEP, no search is necessary, just go.

For your dad (and for all of you, as a reference), there is an excellent series of brochures that my kids' former school used and the name escapes me, ergh, but I'm hoping someone out there can help me. It's a color-coded tri-fold that has the age on the front, followed by bullet lists of social, emotional and physical benchmarks.

If the nutterati can connect the dots here or offer other suggestions, I'll post them. Thanks.

My ex is marrying the woman he cheated on me with, and I'm happy for them. Hindsight has helped me understand that Ex and I were totally wrong for each other and everything worked out for the best. Then, yesterday, I got an invitation to their wedding. To say I was surprised is an understatement. I'm free to RSVP "not attending" and forget about this, right?

Yep, check the "no, thanks" box. Congratulations on your equanimity and insight. Your work is done here.

My family is forcing me to choose between them and my boyfriend, and I feel torn. I am 24 and the first of three sisters to leave the nest; boyfriend and I have been together a little over a year but are very close and plan to get engaged next year. From occasional visits, my family is not crazy about him, mostly due to personality clashes. My parents want to not invite him on some family trips/events, and feel that it is natural to exclude him since we aren’t married so he isn’t family yet. My natural inclination is to cave in order to keep the peace, but Boyfriend is not one to cave. His parents were always accepting of his siblings’ SO’s so he sees my parents’ exclusion as hurtful, arbitrary, and controlling. He has told me I can go without him on my family’s cruise this summer (that he was not invited to) if I want, but I think he would feel hurt and betrayed if I did, and he expressed concerns that it would put strain on our relationship. He does not seem reassured that my parents will not exclude him after we are married (and that even if they did, I certainly wouldn’t stand for it then). He seems to want proof before we are married that I will fight for us. I admit that if I were similarly excluded, I would be sad and would be heartened when he demonstrated his commitment to us by fighting for me (I know he would), so it seems hypocritical to ask him to accept me caving in order to keep the peace. I declined to go on the cruise, trying to explain our feelings, and they canceled the trip. They did not understand our position, and were very hurt and also suspicious of him, blaming him for causing the problem and for changing me. I don’t know what to do. -Torn daughter

"My natural inclination is to cave in order to keep the peace."

This is a very precarious position from which to make a decision on a life partner. He can be wonderful, and your family can be wonderful, and still you can find yourself pledging allegiance to the wrong side or cause--not because one or the other is bad, but because you don't know yourself well enough yet to know which side or cause fits best with who you are.

Getting stuck between two wonderful but incompatible sides is hard enough. But there's a whiff in the air that one or both parties in your tug-of-war have controlling tendencies, and that makes you all the more vulnerable to losing a bit of yourself to this battle of overpowering forces. I'm not just saying this because your boyfriend has accused your parents of being controlling and because he himself is "not one to cave." There's also history here, clearing its throat and asking to be acknowledged.

The child of parents with controlling tendencies is particularly vulnerable to pairing off with someone controlling. It's a matter of emotional comfort zones. What's familiar to you is pleasing a dominant party. What's familiar to a controlling person is having someone scramble to please him or her. You could easily be trading one set of family members for another while not so much as tweaking your role in that group.


Your boyfriend is seeking "proof" that you'll stand up for him. Fair enough. Likewise, you should be seeking "proof" that your boyfriend, the man you're weighing as your potential life partner, will have as much respect for your own needs as he does for his. For an intimate relationship to remain in balance amid all the strains that life presents, you both need to be able to treat your own needs and each other's as of equal value. 

Right now, you seem to be all about your family's needs and your boyfriend's, and that's telling. It also explains why you're so stuck: You're used to doing what will please the dominant emotional force in your life. Now you have two dominant forces, so whom do you appease? 

The answer is, of course, neither. Instead, see this as a sign that your respect for your own needs is the area of your life that needs the most attention. Until you are attuned to what you value, what you want, what you need, and what brings you peace, people aren't going to step up to give you any of these things. Instead, they're going to see you as an opportunity to get what they need, and they're going to keep taking until you're depleted. Not because they're bad people, but because they're human and what human doesn't overdo it at a buffet.


Please see this cruise episode as a warning flare to figure out where you leave off and where other people begin. Those lines are blurred now--hardly uncommon for people relatively new to adulthood, but "common" is not the same thing as "perfectly fine." It's not that strong, healthy people are never torn, they certainly are, because both desires and duties are often in conflict--but they're rarely torn between which party to -accommodate.- 

The letter in today's paper from Non-Game-Player really resonated with me. I too am not interested in, and don't enjoy, playing games. My wife comes from a family of game players. When I once mentioned in conversation that I did not enjoy playing games, I was met with looks of total incomprehension (as if they were say/thinking "How could you not like to play games.") It took years of saying a polite "No thank you," delivered with a smile, before they finally got the message. Non-Game-Player's husband may come from a similar family where they really don't understand/can't believe that you do not enjoy me be such an alien attitude to them that it just may not make sense to them...

Fair enough, though, "Really? Not everyone loves Jarts?!!" strikes me as pretty high on the myopia scale.


Sounds like my wife telling me the exact same thing...well that I expect more out of the three year old than reasonable. Could be partly new dad (he's my step son), could be the way i was raised....but even my formerly superstrict father (who has mellowed over the years) tells me I'm too strict. It's a learning process...

Okay. And great that you can admit it. But learn fast, deal?

Carolyn, I wanted to respond to the letter in today's column about the friend reluctant to attend their friend's ordination because of their views on religion. It resonated with me to a great degree. My spouse is an ordained clergyperson and I'm finally comfortable acknowledging to myself that I'm agnostic. And that's ok: my spouse's beliefs and job are theirs, and mine are mine. It also doesn't mean that I neglect the nurturing of our relationship through support and presence just because I feel differently than they do. It doesn't cost me much more than a few hours to sit in the pews when my spouse is preaching, or to attend church functions with our children. No one knows how I feel (aside from my spouse), and I know my spouse is appreciative of my willingness to be a support to them even though I'm not a believer. Assuming the friend is not setting the LW up for proselytization or saving---and LW wants to maintain their friendship--LW may want to consider just taking one for the relationship and attending. If LW's friend ever tries to push the issue of religion afterwards, that may be the ideal time to address their differences. Chances are, if their ordination is like the many I've been to, LW's friend will be up for a short hug and thank you and not much more, and they will appreciate the effort LW made to attend.

I do think we all have to decide for ourselves where to draw lines like this, but a clear explanation like yours can really help others with the process. Thanks muchly.

Thanks for starting early so you could devote so much time to that Q! I have been in that position myself - eg spending an evening with boyfriend and best friend and realizing they were in a battle of wills over whose trivial preference I would yield to. Do you find that as one grows and strengthens, is it possible to redefine the terms of the original relationships? In my experience, I wound up gradually drifting from my original friendships and making new ones on more-equal footing. But it's remained a struggle to resist bringing my caving habits into the new relationships.

I think these things are case-by-case. Sometimes people warm to the new dynamic you create when you start standing up for yourself more (certainly they'll get a better look at who you are), and sometimes people get very upset that their doormat isn't there for them anymore. All you can do is remain true to yourself--which will inevitably involve some backsliding--and pay close attention to the way you feel in this or that person's company. You'll start to see that some people lift you up, some drag you down, and some aren't important enough to you to be either but are entertaining in small doses. 

Yardsticks by Chip Wood is a great resource on child development. Responsive Classroom also prints some brochures on typical developmental patterns that my old school distributed.

Responsive Classroom! That's it! Thank you.

Other suggestions are coming in, which I'll post sans comment.

This doesn't exactly answer ther person's question about appropriate behavior for children at specific ages, but this Montessori chart went viral this year and gives some good ideas on appropriate chores/tasks at specific ages:

I found the "What to Expect" books to be readable and give good basic guidelines about what my kids should be expected to do, as well as limitiations.

They put out brochures on developmental milestones:

These are probably not the brochures Carolyn mentioned, but I'm a fan of the PBS Child Development site: This covers birth through age 8 in different areas (academic, social, physical). The OP might also look into the "Your X-Year-Old" books by Ames & Ilg.

My husband will put up with almost anything to avoid conflict. Recently, our adult son has begun cursing at me when he's angry with me. My brother in law, similarly, called me an extremely offensive name in my husbands presence. Both times, I reacted. Husband acted as though nothing occurred. I'm so hurt and angry I'm considering moving out for awhile, though I love my husband dearly. Counseling in past hasn't helped with his passivity. Any ideas?

You are hurt, which suggests you take it personally that your husband didn't stand up for you--but you also seem to recognize that it's not about you at all, it's about him. He is passive. He will put up with almost anything to avoid conflict. There's no, "How dare you say that about my wife!" clause in his emotional makeup.

So, can you live with that? Can you stay with him because you love him, knowing full well that you're on your own when things get heated? How else does such passivity affect you, and are there brights sides (or other problems) in these side effects?

That's a puzzle I suggest you take up in counseling of your own. Not marriage counseling, but individual, where you can wrestle out loud not only with the question of how much spousal frailty is too much, but also with the question of how you handle your family dynamics from now on, since these verbal attacks are sending you the message that there's more to this than your husband.


Hi Carolyn! We just found out that our nine month old twins will be getting a little sibling when they're just sixteen months old! Ah! It was quite a shock (we needed IVF to have the twins so this wasn't just unplanned, it was un-possible), but we're excited - always wanted three kids, never wanted a big gap, not sorry to get to skip the fertility clinic this time. I know your kids are similarly spaced - do you have any tips, or any things we can do to prepare? Any words of wisdom/hope, other than the fact that obviously you survived? Thanks!

That survival is still pending.

First, congratulations.

Second,  BWA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. Heh heh. Heh. Hmph.

So here's what you do, in a nutshell.

-Childproof everything. We didn't even have table lamps until the youngest was 3 or so. You'll have more kids than you have the capacity to supervise. Just accept that and hope they aren't climbers, socket-testers or mouthers. (Mine: 3 climbers, 3 socket-testers, 2 mouthers.)

-Identify your helpers, and let them help. To the extent you can afford, pay for help, too. There are about a half-dozen young adults out there in the world who saved us by showing up for their shifts with fresh legs and real affection for our kids. Becky, Courtney, Trista, Matt, Jennie, Cooper, Ella, Zach, Courtney 2 ... and various other beloved relief pitchers and pinch-hitters, including about 1/3 of an actual baseball team once ... occupy a huge place in our hearts, and in our kids'.

-You probably already know this, but crying is not the end of the world. You want your kids to be safe, be clean/warm/fed, and to feel loved, but an extra few minutes of crying does not negate these. Sometimes everyone erupts at once and you just work through it till everyone's calm. Then you go cry somewhere.

-People will stare and judge and ask you things like, "You figured out how this is happening, right?" (True story. We laughed. Whatever.) You do what you have to do--the rest is just noise. The ones who don't judge you are your best friends, btw.

And here's what makes it all worth it:



They all play together. (And fight, but so do unbunched kids.) You'll be potty training everyone at once, because, why not ... we just bought 20-30 pairs of shorts at a consignment shop and lived the dream.

And, when you want to go on vacation (after you stop paying Courtneys), all of your kids will be at the same developmental spot. Not one craving Disney and the other hiking the Sierras and another stil using a binky. Yay you.

And, finally, since I;m taking a huge amount of time on an answer that applies to only about 12 crazy people, give serious consideration, if you have the $ and energy and the lifestyle to handle it, to a fourth child someday. Once they're older and you get past the stage of meeting immediate needs, there's a good chance your main job will be helping them all resist the natural pull toward a 2 vs 1 dynamic. It's real and heartbreaking and hard.

Good luck and enjoy the ride. Once it got fun (i won;t lie, it took a while), it got -fun.-

I recently gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. I feel that my husband and I have the right to call him our baby. We made him, he's ours. Before he was born, my MIL would go on and on about her baby, meaning, her grandchild, and it irritated the crap out of me. I'm currently avoiding my MIL's phone calls because after the birth of my baby she hasn't gone one day without calling him "her baby". When she visited after the birth she said it two or three times a day and I had to fight the urge to punch her then. Now I hear her FaceTiming my husband calling my son her baby every day. It's been two months and I still feel stabby, hence, the phone call avoidance. How do I get her to stop, or get over this? My husband thinks I'm being petty.

Well, that certainly doesn't help. You might be overreacting, but it's to something real, and sorting it out would go a lot better if your husband had your back. 

You and he need to talk about this, starting with your saying (calmly, I hope) that you're willing to concede that you've overreacted, but you'd like some acknowledgement from him that you're having a legitimate instinctive reaction to his mother's over-the-line/top possessiveness.

This conversation can't be about getting his mom to stop using "my baby." You can't win that. It can and should be about cementing the primacy of your family, and your allegiances to each other. You're obviously vulnerable on this point, and having your husband align with his mom was exactly what you (and therefore he, and your baby, and etc) didn't need. It's that vulnerability of yours that you want to address here. "It seems petty to you, but I'm asking you to consider that I'm a new mom, that my defenses have been triggered and that reassurance from you would go a long way right now." Spelling out is often a gift to a partner. Doing so to your satisfaction will, I expect, cut your MIL's gushing down to its proper size in your eyes. 

This is not about the LW's family. It is about she and her bf as a team. They plan to marry so this situation is good practice for working together. If the reaction is this strong over a cruise, then I think it is a huge red flag. There is no mention of her bf acknowledging how torn and upset this makes her. She can have loyalty to both him and them, they aren't mutually exclusive. If he is establishing his dominance over her by making ultimatums (he will be upset if she goes) before they are even engaged then what will happen when a real issue comes up like kids or moving for a job, etc.? Her family will always be around and is important to her so her relationship with them should be important to him. Rambling because I've been in this scenario and didn't realize, but hope I got the point across!

Some great points in here, thanks, though I do think it's about her family to some degree; just as he needs to consider her feelings, they need to consider what precedent they're setting by barring the door to someone she clearly cares about. And, the blueprint they create with her in their immediate family is the one she will use in creating her adult relationships--whether to follow it exactly, even unwittingly; to follow it with carefully considered adjustments to suit her needs and nature; or to crumple it up in an effort to build a home life that bears zero resemblance to the one she grew up in.

One more thing: You're correct that "I will be upset if you go" is an emotional ultimatum. It's important to elaborate a bit, though, since he is entitled to be upset when he's upset, and that such exclusion is of course upsetting.

What pushes healthy feelings into an ultimatum is the failure to include her feelings as an equal player in any decision they make as a couple. "This is your family," for example, "and I'm just as upset for you as I am about myself." And/or, "You need to do what you think is right, and I'll do the same, and we'll work from there." And/or, "What helps us more in the long run--your going, or refusing to go? How are we going to handle this in the future?"

That's an intimate discussion between equal partners vs. a line in the sand. The latter being, yes, a huge red flag. 

I feel you. I remember when our twins were born, my mom (my own mother!) told me that she knew she appreciated this event more than my husband and I did, because she knew what it was like to actually raise children whereas our entire future with our kids was, at that point, theoretical for us. She was otherwise totally awesome and helpful and is the best grandmother ever, but I will never forget her saying that. (I believe my response was a great big WTF look.) Sometimes relatives lose their minds when a newborn enters the room. Good luck with your husband.

Like to see a photo of that look. Thanks.

I get it. I'd be annoyed too. But you might put yourself in your MIL's shoes for a second, not to empathize with her, but to understand why she does it. Is their a cultural/family thing where everybody calls the youngest child in the family "my baby"? Or their favorite child (which I find even more icky). Figure out why your MIL is saying this. She might just be acting out of habit, she might be clueless, she might be lonely, or she might be a whacko. Knowing why she does it will help you deal with it.

Also helpful, thanks.

I have a last comment to post on this, but as I was writing an answer my wifi dropped me. I'll post as soon as I can recover my work.

I have learned recently that my mom was not fond of a boyfriend I had about ten years ago. She brings him up once in a while, randomly, just to mention that she thought he was ugly and she couldn't believe I was with him. He never treated me poorly, and we broke up because we were young and got bored. I never had any major issues with him, and when we were dating, my mom never mentioned her distaste. I'm not sure how to deal with her need to provide this information now. On one hand, I really don't care about how she felt toward someone whose last name I don't even remember, but on the other hand, it's oddly insulting to me that she brings him up just to trash his appearance. She does this with one of my sibling's exes in particular too, so I feel like I should have just a quick way of getting the subject to change, since hating her kids' exes is apparently one of her quirks. Any suggestions?

"Mom, any reason you keep bringing up this ex? At this point the only impression I have is that you're overly concerned with appearances, so if there's more to it, then you probably want to say so now." 

Or is that too fish-in-a-barrel.

Friends lost a young child to a terminal illness, and one half of the couple has recently divulged publicly a list of things people said to them that they "shouldn't" have. Among what not to say were things that seem to me to be authentic sentiments, like, "I haven't said anything because I don't know what to say," "I can't imagine what you're going through," "You're so strong," or even calling your own living children certain nicknames that have special meaning to parents of deceased children. Learning that my (and others') efforts of verbal support may have had unintended consequences rubs me the wrong way. Where is the border between having on blinders due to grief and not realizing that people are just trying their best vs unreasonable expectations for others to say exactly what you want to hear? Are these statements that you're really not supposed to say to people dealing with such tragedy?

It has been well established in this forum and others that well-meaning words at times of grief can easily be, or just be perceived as, insensitive. And, what is the perfect thing to say to one grieving person is a slap in the face to another.

Because these friends just lost a child, I think the best way to approach it is with a free pass. They're devastated. Their pain is spilling over the loss itself and onto everything related to the loss. You, as the not- (or less-) devastated party, are the one who is able to absorb this, so just absorb it. 

and I call my nephews "MY BOYS" all the time. I love them fiercely and they are my boys. Their mom is happy they have more love and support in their lives. Love is not limited and fighting over who loves a child more is a love-killer. New mom is risking losing a lot. Give the child a great gramma!

Yes to all, but the foundation needs to be fixed as well. Maybe the new mom came to this family already insecure, in which case it's on her to fix, but the configuration here--MIL showing possessiveness, husband defending her and dismissing wife's feelings--hints at an imbalance within the marriage.


That said, making an extra effort with the MIL could help that cause, too, in the end. thanks. 



(this was the lost last post.)

I don't have kids. This sounds .... odd.

Socket testers. As in, kids who see an electrical fixture and must explore it hands-first.

Because that is super passive aggressive and would be the end of it for me. It's always eldest children who have to break that family only vacation plan, and even in my mid 30s I still have trouble getting to my mother to understand why my vacation plans start with what works for my spouse, child, and myself and doesn't necessarily include going on a big family trip with parents and (unpartnered) siblings. She has before said that maybe they won't go since my family can't come, making me feel guilty for my sibs losing out, but I'm not going to be manipulated into doing something that we're not on board with. It really had to come to a head with them announcing they were all taking us on a trip two summers ago for their anniversary when spouse and I had already started making plans for that summer and they knew about it. We went on that trip, but have made it clear that in the future spouse and I will discuss what we want to do for vacation, and if there isn't something preempting, a trip we might join them, but to please not make set in stone plans until we've had time to think about things.

You're right about this, thanks, but again it's just one part of the picture--telling, yes, but not necessarily -more- telling.

Regardless of which party is pulling harder in this tug-of-war for the OP's guilt, it's the OP's strength, or lack of it, that decides whether it ends well or ends ugly. Knowing ourselves, knowing who we are and what we need, knowing where we come from and what we were taught was healthy (vs what actually is healthy), knowing what our triggers are for bad habits and behaviors--that constitutes the foundation of our best decisions. Perfect decisions, no, but decisions that give us something to work with that makes sense, vs. digging us to the bottom of a very deep hole.

My son came on a family vacation alone and confided to his parents, siblings and friends that he was unhappy in his 4 year relationship. He is 34 and she is 31. They never talk, she is very needy, she does not like his family or friends and she discourages him from seeing or calling us. (we live a few hours away). He said she wants all his time and all his attention. She thinks they should “be enough” for each other not to need others. I think that’s a hallmark of an abusive relationship. He decided to ask her to move out (she can’t afford to live on her own and does not want to move in with her parents, with whom she has a bad relationship). The day after he got home he called and said they are trying to work things out. But his family and friends can see the relationship has taken all the joy out of him. How do I support him when I think the relationship is toxic?

And, wait for it ...

Wow, just read the letter from the 24 yo whose family hater her boyfriend. Gave me someperspective. Guess I need to dial it back and not become like her family.

Yes, you do. But: You're right about the abuse hallmarks. Certainly there is unhealthy manipulation.

And so just dropping back in an effort not to appear controlling is not a complete answer.

Your son came on that trip to breathe and, I strongly suspect, to try to remember who he was before she started controlling him. That's a role you can continue to play in his life without using the "T" word or siding against the GF. Just be present in his life, to the extent she permits, and keep being a reminder of a place where he can be himself and be loved as-is. The people who accept him without forcing him to defend or explain his GF are the ones he'll seek when he's ready to break free for good.

When I say "wait for it," I mean it.

All things aside, I think it's bizarre that a boyfriend of one year would expect to be invited on family vacations, particularly a big expensive trip like a cruise. Sure, it would be nice of them to do so but for a relatively new boyfriend to make these demands - essentially that she never see her family without him - seems way more problematic than her her family's behavior. Remember, this is their first new person being brought into the family. It's fair to expect a little adjustment period here.

... and that should cover it, or most of it.


Early start means on-time exit: I'm outter here. Thanks everyone, and don't forget to pitch chat names to Jess. Oh, and a candidate for Philes, since there isn't one that jumped out at me today. Seeya.

Here's the Philes, from a question that was submitted but not answered in the chat:

It's about defining the boundaries of appropriate phone use. When does it cross from okay into rude?

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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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