Carolyn Hax: Give Cookie, NNNOOOWWWWW

Jun 19, 2015

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax chats live every Friday at noon to answer any questions you might have about this strange train we call life.

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Hi everybody. This is the last chat till after the Fourth. I'm taking next week off and going dark before the holiday weekend because it's usually pretty slow then. 

I have to assume this is a real letter because I know of too many instances of a lower-level of this behavior. How do you determine the veracity of letters? Gut feel? Did you ever get an update from this LW? I'd sure love to know what happened with her!

When I first read this letter, I had the is-this-real thought, too--not just because of the situation, but because of the way it was written. Very romance-novel. I even did some Googling around to see if it was a movie plot or urban myth or etc.

I ultimately chose to answer it based on two things: 1. It could be true; I've seen enough true versions of "Tom's" reaction, certainly. 2. I actually get a lot of letters written in that romance-novelly way. It's not something you guys would necessarily see on your end, but if you were to read through a stack of letters that come to me, you'd see that every Nth has that breathless style, often describing a much more mundane set of events.

Just thought I'd clear that up since I noticed the commentariat had batted this question around.

As for updates, no, because this is not an adapted column. I received this letter as recently as last week.

Carolyn, I caught my husband cheating. We've started couples counseling now. The counselor told him he needed to let me ask all my questions about the affair, and we had that conversation at home. I do feel better now and it was a good talk in many regards, but he was evasive on a few of the questions... like "did you tell her you loved her" (he dodged, unconvincingly)... and "who initiated the affair" (he doesn't know I know it was a lie to say she did). How much of a red flag is this? Do I allow him some leeway to fudge some details so he doesn't look like quite the world-class glass bowl he was, or do I take this to mean that his outward remorse and commitment to repairing our relationship is not as real as it mostly feels? Thanks for many years of thoughtful advice, and for (I hope) taking my question.

Thanks for the kind words, and I'm sorry you're in this hell.

Truth is, you won't know whether his commitment to repairing your relationship is real until you watch it play out over time. 

I can make a case, counterintuitively, for mercy on your husband, because he's apparently doing everything you and your counselor have asked him to. Compassion says you don't have to make him cover every last inch of his walk of shame.

However, the best chance your marriage has is for it to become something different from what it was before. Before was something you thought was working and, most likely, largely took for granted. Probably true of both of you. After can be something you're actually glad you have even if you deplore the way you got it. After can be surprising in its intimacy--if, big if, you're both able and willing for it to be raw in its honesty.

And that points to your not dropping these last two truths.

One way to get at them would be to point out that he hedged on these two questions, and to say--calmly, not in a state of agitation, which tends to suppress truth-telling--that his hedging says to you that he did say he loved her and he did initiate the affair. Then you can say you've accepted these things and are ready to (work to) move past them, but it's important to you for him to be completely honest with you. You have to know he can do it.

Then, you see.


Hey everybody--I'm going to take a minute or two to greet my boys, just back from their last day of school.  

When finished with his dinner at home my husband will immediately have dessert. Regardless of whether or not I (or our 2 yr old) is done eating. This has never bothered me until now. Now the 2yr old will stop eating and say he is all done in an attemp to get some sweets. I don't mind him having the sweets, but I'd prefer it be after he finishes his main meal. I also can't stand the whining/potential tears when I say "no". (I'm currently 7+ months pregnant with our second, so my "just put up with it" limit is very low). Husband doesn't seem to care if 2yr old is upset. I finally said to husband last night (when he went for a cookie and 2yr old started to lose it), "It upsets me when you have dessert while ___ is still eating. I can't stand the reaction we are seeing from him right now." Hubby seemed put off. I later apoligized for snapping. He said he isn't wild about having his eating habits dictated by a 2yr old. What do I do/say at this point?

Oh ff*s.

I'm all for making sure the keepers are running the zoo, but a refusal on principle to bend At All to the forces of utter obviousness spells a long next decade for all of you.

If it helps you to make the case for leaving the cookie in the stinkin' jar for an extra five minutes, please say that, okay, a 2-year-old shouldn't dictate his eating habits, but good manners certainly should, and it's bad manners for him to hop to dessert while his fellow diners are still working on their entrees.

Breaking the dessert-after-every-meal routine will be something you're deeply grateful for later, by the way, so flag that as something eventually worth your attention, but one battle at a time.

Unless this is his one area of rigid weirdness, I also suggest you start the process of finding a good parenting class and/or good family therapist to have in your quiver for when tougher problems come along. 





Hello-- I recently got engaged to a wonderful woman, and we're very excited to get married next year. My question involves my work in the period of time leading up to the wedding. I'm not incredibly happy at work-- new things keep popping up that are stressful and make me unhappy (primarily focused around the (mis)management). I've been in this position for 5+ years now, and if I weren't getting married, I'd think it was time for a change. But I'm concerned that starting a new job (or moving to a new office) will make it more difficult as I make this other big change (getting married) at the same time. I know there are tons of variables that go in to this, almost all of which are impossible to list here, but I was wondering if you had any words of wisdom as to how to proceed on the job front, safe or daring, while I prepare for this other big (although wonderful) life change? Thanks very much, In-love-but-not-with-work

Off the cuff, I'd say start the job hunt now, because you don't know how long it's going to take or what it's going to bring. For all you know, you could end up somewhere new by September and be nicely acclimated by the time next year rolls around. Or, you could be still looking come wedding time, in which case you suspect your search sometime before the wedding, and resume it when you're ready.

What you do know is that you're stressed by your current job, and so why not at least try to get yourself into a less stressful place.

Obviously you have to talk about all of this with your fiance first. You're in a partnership now, and that includes her having a voice in your career decisions. You make passing reference to a "new office," so if there's a move involved then you really really need to coordinate your plans.

Hi Carolyn - Thanks for taking my question. We just received a save the date for a wedding for a good friend. Yay! The only potential downside is that the wedding is three weeks after the due date for our first child. There is no question to me that taking a three-week-old to a wedding is probably not possible (and I'm not sure we'd be ready to leave a baby with a sitter at that point), but there is a chance that I'll have to have the baby at about 35 or so weeks, meaning that baby would be about two months old at the time of the wedding. Would you just recommend RSVPing no and getting together with the couple once they return from their honeymoon? We'd love to be able to attend the wedding if baby's old/healthy enough, but don't want to end up as a hoot horror story!

It's labor-intensive (ha-ha), and expensive if you don't have willing helpers, but the approach I recommend for attending things with a newborn is to bring a "holder" who will go to the event with you but not participate. So, you go to the church, and your holder and baby will be (ideally) in a separate room in the church complex, or in a nearby, kid-friendly comfy place (strolling the grounds, in a coffee shop, at the hotel if it's nearby, etc.). Same thing for the reception. That way you can be fully present at the wedding but available to dash out discreetly for baby care.

If this just isn't workable for whatever reason, then you decline the invitation and celebrate with your friend later somehow.

Since you opened with a process question, would you answer another? How heavily edited are the letters you publish (I almost dated myself by writing "print")? It's hard to believe that every correspondent sets out his/her problem in roughly the same space with roughly the same level of literacy and coherence. Do you rewrite to present just the gist of the letter? Or do you pick letters that suit the ideal format? Or what?

I rule out almost immediately the letters that come in longer than an entire column. Some of them come in with extra details flagged "just some background in case you need it," which is nice and sometimes helpful, but when I get a three-pager I just treat it as someone needing to write the thoughts down as a mental/emotional exercise and not a bona fide expectation of appearing in a column. 

Once I have something of usable length and content, I do a very light edit--I want to keep the person's voice and actual phrasing intact as much as possible. The edits are mostly for clarity and to correct obvious errors. I will mostly leave minor errors or what I think is clunky phrasing because I don't want everything to "sound" sanitized.

After that, I might have to do a second edit for space. This is when stuff really might change. I try not to alter the meaning in any way, but I will at this point sometimes tighten wording, remove a sentence that doesn't add much, or even eliminate an entire side point. (For example, if the letter halfway through says, "Another thing that bothers me is ...," then I might take that part out entirely, especially if it would warrant a whole second part to the answer.)

A good way to track my editing process is to compare the adapted columns with the chat transcript I used, especially since I include the links.

How ironic, from an adult male who insists not only that he gets his cookie, but he gets his cookie THE EXACT MINUTE THAT HE WANTS IT AND NOT A MINUTE LATER. Kettle, meet the pot. Carolyn is right - get thee to a family therapist. Parenting takes patience and flexibility, but more than that, reading the post, I get the sense that Dad resents the kid(s), and the changes to his lifestyle. (It is a man defending his turf way too zealously.) If he does feel that way, then that is emotional cancer, for the two of you, and for his relationship with your children. Get to the heart of it and deal with it. Good luck.

Extreme behavior like Tom's usually comes out over the course of a relationship. I wonder if the LW had someone in her life who noticed and raised that flag for her. Besides counseling, she should get a good attorney. Tom sounds like the kind of person who will continue to be a problem as she seeks an annulment.

Actually, that's not always the case. It might come out over the course of a relationship in small signs, and, yes, often someone on the outside notices the signs that the person in the relationship misses. However, it is also quite common for abusers to maintain a wonderful facade right up to the point of locking down a commitment. Given that, having this side of the husband bloom fully for the first time on the honeymoon would be right in keeping with that particular profile. Where the bride got very lucky here is in having a disaster force his hand to go full-bore, because the anger and control could easily have come out in a small way at first, and escalated gradually from there. That's much harder to spot for what it really is. 

If you've ever seen this happen, to you or to someone you love, it's really disturbing. The comparison between courtship behavior and we're-a-couple-now behavior is stark, but the slide between the two is often easy to miss. For a point of reference: Women who do this often wait till they have a child to cement their position, then the really controlling behaviors start.


My mother AND mother-in-law are both awful at gift giving, for myself, my children, my husband. Wrong size (after asking and being told the correct sizes), awful choices on color, style- most of their gifts are promptly donated to charity, after we profuse appreciation and thanks, of course. My MIL has given my college kid a gift certificate for a restaurant - that her college town, where she lives year round, does not have! How can we delicately tell them our preferences (so as not to have them waste their money), or get them to stop giving items - cash, especially for the young adult children, is best! I'd rather NOT receive a gift than go through the fake, "Oh, it's great" dance every Christmas, birthday, etc. HELP!!

I'd love to say there's some perfect wording you can use to correct this and spare everyone this wasteful dance, but your question says it's not going to happen. They ASK you sizes and still buy the wrong ones. How can you possibly fix that? 

It does sound as if your kids aren't little anymore, which might make it easier for you to put the idea to the whole family of just suspending the gift exchanges now that kids are on their own. Some people, though, especially those who express affection through gifts, will either get offended or just ignore you and get gifts anyway.

I think it makes the most sense just to expect this will never be fixed, and do your best with what you receive. E.g., maybe you can take the restaurant card and treat your MIL with it, and give your kid the cash or a more appropriate card for the same amount. Be resigned, be resourceful, and good luck.

Hi Carolyn, I have an amazing husband with whom I am very much in love. The problem is that we are currently living apart for one year due to work. It's difficult but we make it work - most of the time. My issue is that when we visit each other, I start to crave alone time. Last night I stayed up late reading just to be by myself. I feel like a crazy person because I am wasting precious time together, yet at the same time, I feel like I can't be my best self. Is this just a byproduct of trying to cram in our togetherness? Or am I broken in some way?

Visiting puts a lot of pressure on people, especially introverts. Our normal mode is to move independently and share select things with others, but visiting mode is to move with another and spend select moments alone. It's a complete 180 and humans in general aren't so great at managing abrupt changes.

Visits with someone you love have their own pressures, because every minute is supposed to be special but that expectation is inherently contradictory. If it's special, then by definition it can't last; normal sticks around while special only visits (and not when you say it will but usually just when it feels like it).

So please give yourself and your husband a break. Be happy to see him and be happy to steal a moment to yourself, too, without the guilt. He might need a bit of time to recharge as well, so don't be afraid to offer it to him. (If he's an extrovert he might not understand why, but as long as you communicate well you'll get past that.)

Carolyn, thanks for your thoughts. I am still torn and will have to sleep on it more. But I thought of something I wished I'd added when I submitted this morning....does it change anything if I definately know (as much as I can) that their affair is over? They were coworkers, not in the same department but at the same large firm, and he's put in for a transfer, most likely at some cost to his future prospects there. So I feel good, better than I thought I would, about looking forward, it's mostly the looking backwards that's still kind of haunting me.

Thanks for checking back in. I don't think it changes the answer any. The best way to go forward is to make sure there's nothing behind you that feels unresolved. His transferring helps with that a bit, but the real issue to be resolved here is for you to know he is able and willing to said the hardest possible things to say, and to take the hardest responsibility to take. His doing that will come with assurances that you and he can handle whatever else comes up in the future. 

If someone gives you a gift, just say thank you. Now people complain about the gifts that they get and feel entitled to demand that they only get exactly the gifts that they want. Listen, no one is compelled to even give you anything. It's nice of them to give you something and even if you don't like it, just be gracious.

This is a response I get every time the gift issue comes up, and I agree with it as far as it goes. But it's only half of a story that isn't as greedy and entitled as you make it out to be. Seeing someone waste their money is the other half. Often it's money people can't easily spare, blown on things you only give away, and that is hard--harder I'd argue than having to summon thank-yous when your inner voice is screaming, "Save your money!"

Hi Carolyn! Is there a benefit to pre-marital counseling if the fiancee and the fiance have no major problems (or, at least, aren't yet aware of them)? I think I've seen a few times here that some people have recommended it in all instances, but I'm not sure how I would intiate that process (or suggest it to a fiance(e)) when I don't have an issue in mind that I feel we need to discuss with a counselor. Any tips/advice on when such counseling is worth doing, and how we get the ball rolling if it is?

Sometimes couples get along because they're like-minded and communicate really well. Sometimes couples get along because they haven't yet run across a fraction of the things that will matter to them after they're married.

The former couple might benefit from good premarital counseling, but will probably be just fine without it. The latter couple urgently need premarital counseling.

And, fun part, the latter couple probably think they're the former, and will continue to think so right up to the day they experience one of those things they didn't know they needed to talk about.

One way you can figure out whether you're the former without the bother of finding a program is to enlist Dr. Google. Tweak your search as needed, but I had pretty good results with "things couples should talk about before getting engaged." Pull up a listicle or three, plan a leisurely dinner and start talking. Sounds interesting, actually, for anyone looking to pry out some good conversations.

My father was a strongly compassionate and sweet man. He always stood up for others, but not for himself. As a kid (and even adult) I wanted desperately to rescue him from the constant ridicule/and/or ignoring of my mother. Of course she turned on me and encouraged my two sisters to do so, as well as to mock my dad. What I didn't understand until a few years ago was that my mother has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I think the only thing that kept me sane was my father because he was extraordinarily kind and it was good to see that up close. My father died a few years ago, and my mother and sisters continue to badmouth me. I've learned to be less defensive though that's still a work in progress. Now I get together with them for the sake of my child, so that she can spend time with her cousins and grandparent/aunts a few times a year. The problem is this--everyone outside of the family sees my mother and sisters as wonderful, thoughtful people. I'm ok with looking like the ungrateful daughter who doesn't come by that much. 'I see your sisters, but I never see you at your mom's.' But I've gotten blame put on me for so much of my sisters' behavior--my one sister told a mutual friend that I'd done something that she'd done, for example, so that she didn't have to deal with it. More recently, my mother announced that 'your sisters told me how awful you were to them growing up--like that time you hit X so hard that you left a handprint.' Carolyn, the same sister did that to the other and I remember thinking at the time, 'Thank God I won't get blamed this time.' It was never ok to be physical and that was the only time I remember anyone striking anyone else. All I had to do was walk into a room and I was somehow doing it wrong. I wasn't a bad kid--just a very lonely one who thought I didn't have much value. And mostly my dad and I didn't get spoken to, or if we tried to talk, we were constantly interrupted and then the others would leave the room. As an adult, it continued. At the preparations for my baby shower, the same sister announced to the women there that it was pathetic that I was in counseling; after all, didn't most people talk to their friends and not have to pay someone? Whenever I've tried to discuss these issues I've been told--'why are you so difficult?'….or when I wrote a letter…'we'll talk about it another time'….and then…'that happened so long ago, why are you bringing that up now?' So here's the question, finally: I've taught myself to walk away the minute any nastiness starts, with very little response besides, 'Well; I think we'll be needing to go now. It was good to hear about ____ (some inane topic of conversation).' But does it make sense to say---"Hey; I'd like us to all go see a counselor and address some stuff so that we can have better connections." My feeling is that if there's a refusal, that that would free me from having to do these get-togethers. But I also feel that maybe that's not right for my daughter. On the other hand, just letting her go by herself to be with them I don't trust. This is painful because it seems unlikely in terms of odds--why would 3 people not know better than one? Surely I must be the one who's lost it. But I see it in group dynamics sometimes, with bystanders allowing one person to be targeted and isolated. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

I'm wondering why you still see them.

They will reject the let's-all-go-to-counseling suggestion, right? So why not just cut to the part where you free yourself from these get-togethers? 

Kids do benefit from knowing their extended family, yes, but only when that extended family doesn't come with hostility that negates any benefit and then some.

Hi Carolyn, I told a few close girlfriends that I was pregnant when I was about 8 weeks along. I'd been drinking water at several happy hours, and I assumed they knew something was up anyway-- but more importantly, I was excited, and I knew I'd want their support if something went wrong. I made it very clear that they shouldn't tell anyone else (except their husbands.) Well, one of the husbands, "John" still managed to tell at least one other mutual friend the very next day. A few weeks later, when I was ready to share the news with her, she told me she already knew. "John" told her that my announcement had inspired some serious conversations between him and his wife (my very close friend). I'm trying to be sensitive to the fact that these announcements can affect people in different and very personal ways, but I still can't get over the fact that my pregnancy (and the request that it be kept a secret) was taken so lightly by a couple that I am very close to. I get that people tend to filter news like that through their own "stuff," but I'm still hurt and irritated. I'm wondering if it's worth it to say something to "John." Not a "I'm-so-mad-at-you" kind of comment, but a "Hey, that really wasn't cool," kind of comment. It won't make a difference now, but I want him to know that I know-- and that it really upset me.

I'll admit upfront that I come to this with a strong bias: When you share news, you lose control of it. Period. No matter how strongly worded your request that others don't tell.

I can see getting upset when someone close-close to you betrays a confidence that comes back to harm you. That definitely warrants a talk, and even a reevaluation of the friendship, depending on how the friend responds. 

Using that as the worst-case scenario, I draw rings out from there in decreasing severity. When a close friend betrays a confidence that's bad but doesn't harm you, for one. When a not-so-close friend blabs something bad. When a not-so-close person blabs something neutral. Etc.

When I put your situation into this framework, I see good news, and I see your close friend doing with it only what you asked--sharing only with her spouse. The spouse, not as close to you apparently, blabbed, with apparently no harm done.

I see this as annoying but well within the margin of error you can expect when you let news out to the larger world. You might not agree with that, but I hope you'll think about adopting that view anyway just because it's easier on your psyche in the end. Letting go of the things you can't control is one of the surer ways to reduce the amount of your life you spend "really upset."

If after pondering that idea you think, okay, but I still think this guy should know that what he did wasn't cool--because, you're right, it wasn't--then go for it. "Next time you find out someone's pregnant, please realize it's not your news to share."

In order to get married at the church of my husband's choosing (family went there, they're all Catholic, I'm nothing anymore but was baptized as Lutheran), we had to do premartial counseling with a couple (his aunt and uncle were our counselors) and with the father there. I wasn't looking forward to it and figured it was all a way to tell me I had to convert to Catholicism, or tell me that I wasn't living right because I wasn't guided by the Bible or the Pope...but you know what? It ended up being really good and quite beneficial for us. I was actually surprised, while we were doing it, that I was happy we had done it, even though we didn't have any red flags to make me think it was needed.

I cheated (primarily emotionally but once physically); my husband found out. I owned up. I answered all questions honestly and did everything I was asked to do. We worked on things with a counselor. Months later, our marriage fell apart anyway - not because of the cheating but because the intimacy/honesty between us collapsed again. I actually left him, not for my former lover but because I couldn't handle the widening gap in our relationship - the very thing that drove me to cheat in the first place. Cheating is a symptom, not a disease. Treat the disease.

You are not broken. I too am a person in a long loving relationship (which included a period of long distance) that also needs periodic alone time. Talk to your husband. Explain how you feel. Say that it is not a reflection on him or your relationship, but simply the way that your mind and body sometimes need to recharge in order to return and be the best partner and person you can be. Then be aware of how much time you take. Set aside the time you need during the visit, but don't let it take over the visit. And good luck to you both!

Great answer, but I'd like to make one comment based on what we went through with our now teenage son several years ago. Please don't rely on what the teacher says about what is going on between the daughter and the mean girls. Their behavior in the classroom may be very different from what happens in the lunchroom, library, gym or playground when the teacher is not around. My son was bullied in first grade on the playground and in the lunchroom by two boys who acted like his best friends - acolytes, even - in the classroom. The teacher was shocked to hear what was going on outside the classroom. We had to put a stop to it ourselves by reading books to him about bullies, roleplaying his options when the boys started mistreating him, and telling him stories about bullies in our lives and how we addressed the bullying ourselves. It took some time, but when new bullying started in fourth grade (ironically, around the No Child Left Behind state tests), he was prepared. The teachers can do only so much, unfortunately.

Thanks for this. I published that column knowing it was really a 2.0 for helping a child who struggles with peers. (Regulars might recall my 1.0, which is for parents to invite a problematic kid over for a visit so they can observe the dynamic up close. Obviously that's both for younger kids and/or for early glimmers of a problem, vs. something you know is persistent and severe.)

You're talking about the 3.0, which is appropriate, because the answer does have to have steps that reflect the degrees of the problem. Sometimes teachers do miss things, because kids are clever. They often know who is looking and when and they pick their moments accordingly. If your kid is coming home saying X, consistently, and the teacher is saying Y, then the next step is either to find a way for you to come in and observe or, even better, to have a neutral 3rd party observe. Not just for an hour either, but for long enough for the kids to forget the observer is there.

If this produces evidence of a problem the school has missed, then the school is on the hook to address it immediately and decisively. Teachers and administrators -can- do so much, but they have to want to, see the need to and have the expertise and authority to.

Schools that fail that test aren't safe for your kid, and that's when it's time to take a real look at placing your child in a different school.  

than being told a secret, or anything that comes with strings attached. The minute someone says, "please don't tell anyone I told you" I say, "don't make me keep secrets that you are not keeping."

Yes, so import to disclose upfront what your tolerance is for secrets, thanks.

I was in your shoes until about six years ago, when I finally broke off contact with my narcissistic mother. It was the best thing I have ever done for my mental health. Having her out of my life has finally given me the space to learn how I want to be in the world, instead of spending all of my energy trying to manage her behavior and its effect on me. I hope you are at least considering this option, for your own sake, and for your child's.

It can be really fun when you get to re-purpose those weird gifts. My husband and I received a large gift card to a grocery store who's closest store was 3 hours away from where we lived. Guess who had a road trip to buy cases and cases of wine?

Haha, well played.

For several years now, spouse has had a job that is a "dream" job by any standards - interesting work, good manager, good pay with raises every year, good hours, and short commute. However, spouse has complained to me anywhere from daily to once a week about a certain co-worker who has the same title and pay but is a slacker and does not contribute anything to their joint projects. It's a small office so Spouse has no ability to get away from this co-worker. The two have the same manager, who is happy with the status quo and is unlikely to promote either of them. I find myself tired about hearing about this person every day, but any suggestions I provide are met with reasons why that won't work or matter. Basically, until the co-worker quits, it's just going to be like this, but co-worker has no reason to quit and Spouse also does not want to quit. Do I need to be sympathetic and listen to the same complaints day in and day out? I don't think it's healthy for anyone to focus on the negatives all the time and more than anything, it's kind of wearing on me as the same old story. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal and not get super-annoyed that this same person keeps dominating our day to day conversations? Online only please.

At a time when you're both relaxed and not upset about the co-worker/hearing about the co-worker, you guys should talk about the talking about the co-worker. As long as you cover the following points, it is a fair, productive and loving conversation to have:

-I understand why this person torments you;

-I understand why you want to talk about it when you get home;

-It has become, though, one of the things we talk about every day, and that seems like more than this person deserves;

-I'm also not sure how to respond, because when I make suggestions, you shoot them down;

-I could just listen, but then we're back to how much of our lives together we spend with this person as Topic A;

-And this person apparently has no incentive to quit, while your pay, hours, commute and supervisor say you'd be nuts to leave, too (though there is a point where the co-worker crazy wins out).

Then you say: Is there a way you'd like to handle it, or something you'd like me to do, to help reduce the amount of time an energy we spend on this, without your feeling like you've been silenced?

Then you work from there, as long as your husband is open to talking about talking about it. If he isn't, then that's its own problem--let me know.

Dear Carolyn, My 10-year marriage ended largely because my ex-husband is and always was a mama's boy. He was living with his mother when I met him and she was a large presence in our courtship, one the two of us always deferred to. Their emotional and financial entanglements bothered me while we were dating, and later devastated our marriage as I was unable to ever feel like his number one. Some five years after our divorce, he is, you guessed it, living back with her, and I am not exaggerating when I say she could barely contain her triumph at having him back. So now, I am a single mother to our 14-year-old son (he is with me full-time, which has always been his preference). Now that he is not a baby anymore, I am experiencing firsthand how tempting it is to let him be the primary relationship in my life, and I am terrified. He and I are such good friends, and I know this will change eventually (maybe when he goes to college, maybe sooner). But what if it doesn't? What if he moves back home after school, as many kids now do, and what if I am so lucky as to continue having a strong relationship with him? How does a doting mother keep from doting TOO much on her only son?

My goodness, you have an instruction manual for what not to do right in front of you in the form of your ex and his mom. 

Don't monopolize your son's time; don't impose your will on the decisions he makes with his friends or partners; don't use emotional blackmail (i.e., tears and other distress whenever he chooses to go his own way) to keep him close to you out of fear you'll be alone; choose not to depend on him to be your primary relationship by making the effort to create and nurture your own network of friends; while you wait for those efforts to bear fruit, make sure you're busy outside the home using whatever avenues are available to you--fitness, volunteering, crafts, classes, part-time job, whatever it takes. Give your boy room to be himself, to make his own plans, to find his own way, to disagree with you. If you do these things, then he can move home and you still won't get sucked into micromanaging him, because you'll have too much else going on.

Thank you for your column. I appreciate the compassion and candor that you demonstrate to readers while helping them add new resources to their emotional toolbelt. I discovered your column quite recently and eagerly continued through archives, enjoying the feeling of a mental desk-decluttering. After continuing through 640 posts (yes, I counted) over a period of less than 48 hours, I reached somewhat of a lightbulb moment during your response on how to recognize whether someone with fidelity issues might be ready to be a healthy partner: their ability to handle impulse control. This term resonates with me so much more than simply "self discipline" does. Although I've never had any problem with infidelity or classical addictions such as alcohol or narcotics, I've struggled with procrastination, tardiness, perfectionism, and being overweight. I've often felt a vague affinity with the term "addictive personality", as that is how I feel when immersed in a good book, TV series (Netflix is a binge-enabler!), interesting website or blog (ahem!) or meal. The enjoyment of the moment--one more page/episode/article/bite--turns into 10 or 20 or more because the next is so tantalizingly available. If I (or a loved one) can interrupt me with a reminder of the regret I will feel later if I continue (i.e., disrespect to the person waiting for me, feeling bloated or mildly ill after overeating), I can shake myself loose. But if the only consequence is my short-term enjoyment subsuming a longer-term "good for me" goal like general health or career advancement, the odds are not in my future-favor. Am I just failing to set compelling goals? For someone who doesn't demonstrate good impulse control, do you have advice (or a resource recommendation) on how to exercise that mental muscle?

I would think binge-Haxing would take care of the problem for you, a la the aversion therapy in "A Clockwork Orange."

I don't think exercising a muscle is the most productive way to view a challenge with impulse control, because I don't think we necessarily get stronger willpower with practice. Instead, I think it's a matter of getting better at knowing, anticipating and working around your vulnerabilities. For example, if having one cracker means you hose the whole box, then you stop bringing the whole box with you and instead put 10 crackers in a bowl, then hit the couch. Basically you shift your decision to before you're in the thick of temptation. If you Cookie Monster yourself through the 10 crackers and go back for the box, then you stop buying those crackers--i.e., you push the decision back to the store aisle, when you have more control over yourself.

It's harder with things streamed into your home like blogs and Netflix, but you can tell yourself before you even turn on the computer, "Just 2 episodes" or, "Just 1 hour," and then make yourself do it. Set a timer that you have to get off your chair to turn off. Once you've broken the connection it's easier to say no. 


In fact, I was reading somewhere that casinos have curved aisles instead of walkways at right angles, because angles force the brain to intervene with a decision on which way to turn--and just that little mental activity can break the spell that makes you keep feeding money into a slot machine. So, before you get hooked on something you already know you get hooked on, build in the right or left turn to help your brain reassert control.

On a larger scale, also think about underlying reasons you get sucked into things that amuse and engage you short-term at the expense of longer-term gratifications like doing your work or exercising or etc. Sometimes it can mean the work you do isn't a good fit for you (and so isn't compelling enough to draw you away); sometimes it's neurological, like ADHD, where you are drawn to quick-feedback stimuli; sometimes you've got stuff you know you're not dealing with and this is just mental self-medication. At least give it a think, in case there's a longer term solution available to you than tricking yourself out of a binge-watch.

The passport arrived at my parents’ house in the mail in an envelope from our wedding night hotel on the same day I wrote you. I made a reservation on a flight that left that night, because I resolved that I wasn’t going to lose him. Two more hours of subway and train travel followed the flight, and when I got to the hotel, my name was still on the reservation, so I got a room key and took what felt like the longest walk of my life. When I got to the room, Tom was staring out at the mountains and the lake from the living room. He looked terrible. I don’t think he had bathed since he arrived. When he saw me come in, he very angrily reminded me that he didn’t want me to follow him. I asked him why he mailed the passport then, and he was honest: he didn’t think I had the nerve to make the trip on my own, and he thought he might be committing a federal crime by keeping it. He hadn’t shaved, his eyes were bloodshot and his face was tear-stained. My face had pretty much looked the same over the last few days. He started to have a breakdown, telling me how much he had been wounded by my slip-up, but also pouring out his feelings for me like he hadn’t before, which is what made him hurt even more. I was shaking by this point, because I didn’t know if explaining my side would make things better or worse. So, I resolved to tell him about my relationship with Rick and how it caused me to change a lot of things about myself when I got involved with him (Tom). I approached him very cautiously, sat next to him, and put my arm around him, asking him to forgive me and assuring him that Rick is not nor ever will be a part of my life again. When he asked how he could ever forget what I said, I told him that I wanted to spend the rest of our lives together trying. He collapsed into me and we both cried on each other. I got him cleaned up, and then we made up for lost time. He’s not the jerk some of your readers have made him out to be. I wouldn’t have invested all that time and money to catch up to him if he was. We have discussed his temper and ways to work on it. The story has a happy ending, and we’re committed to keep it that way.

This story has a rocky beginning and an interim calm, but to think of this as a happy ending just strikes me as wildly premature--and as a sign that you're thinking more fairy tale than reality of how someone just handled a stressful situation. That temper belongs in counseling. I also don't know what time and money have to do with the validity of your chasing him down.

I do appreciate the update, and the chance to urge you to proceed with eyes open. Shaming and restricting movement are impulses that do not get hugged away. Take care.

That's it for today. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend, and I'll type to you July 10. If you'd like to continue the discussion, please go to my Facebook page (LINK) or pose the topic as a question I can send to Philes. Send it to my Post email LINK, since I don't know that I'll be checking column mail this weekend. 

Also, don't forget to suggest transcript headlines to Gene (Jess is away today). 

I used to be like that husband. Eventually I got into an even busier position of more responsibility, there was too much to complain about and I stopped cold turkey. It did wonders not just for my spouse's, but for my own sanity. I realized that ruminating on my work took me away from enjoying my time with family, giving work trolls power that they didn't deserve. It really is healthier to leave work at work.

... just saw this, good stuff, thanks.

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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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