Carolyn Hax Live: Goats. Trust me. (Dec. 18)

Dec 18, 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.

Carolyn's recent columns

Want answers now? Search past Carolyn Hax live chats and find answers to your questions even if she is offline by clicking here.

Hey everybody.

Thanks a lot, after last week, I've been listening to the singing goats non-stop. Screaming livestock is more relaxing and festive than my crazy co-workers and family members.

Screaming livestock is what my life was missing, and I hadn't even known it. ICYMI link.

I'm lacking the courage to break up with someone right before the holidays. I've been in a bi-coastal long distance relationship with a sweet, kind man I met online in July. He has visited me twice for a total of 15 days. I had mixed feelings after our second visit but felt that I needed to give the relationship more time. In October, I bought a plane ticket to visit him for eight days over the Christmas holidays. I'm now regretting my decision and feel strongly that I should not go. Over the course of getting to know him through our previous visits and daily Skype conversations, it's become crystal clear to me that we are not a good fit and I can't imagine a future with him. My heart's simply not in it. He is very excited for my visit and has high hopes for a life together. I feel like a horrible person for wanting to abruptly back out of our plans and end the relationship. But the alternative - flying out for a visit - seems worse. What to do?

Back out. There's no way not to break his heart, right? So break his heart as kindly as you can, which includes doing so promptly, because every day you postpone the breakup, you also postpone his recovery from it. 

I know you're not asking me advice on this part, but next time you have misgivings about someone who lives far enough away to involve overnight stays, please act on your misgivings the first time you have them. If it were a matter of saying yes to a few more dinner dates, then, okay, check to see if you're sure--but the level of investment involved in keeping this connection going is too much for "I want to be sure I don't like him" exploration.

As you've probably figured out for yourself, of course. I'm just crossing the T on the way distance comes to bear on a decision like this.

 

I've been dating my bf for 11 months. This has been the best relationship I have ever been in and I love him. Last weekend he found out about a social media account I had that I didn't tell him about and he got very upset. He found out when I showed him a post of a cute kitten on the site. I showed it to him, so it wasn't so much as secret as an omission. He says that since I kept this from him, it has made him reconsider our whole relationship and he doesn't feel like he knows me at all anymore. He says he is totally transparent (really? is anybody?) and I am withholding. I am an introvert and usually very private, but I have really opened up to him and even brought him home to meet my family for Thanksgiving, which was a first for me. He swears that his reaction isn't caused by not trusting me, its about the principle of not keeping secrets. I say that principles don't function well in the real world and that the nature of the secret was so unimportant that his reaction is ridiculous. (I was not doing anything offensive on the site) I told my Mom about this and she says he is controlling and gas-lighting me. I'm not sure, but something does feel wrong. He sees the world in more black and white, right and wrong. And I see more gray. I don't know what to think anymore. Is his reaction over the top?

I can't answer that confidently or fairly without knowing the exact nature of what you hid/failed to disclose/forgot to mention--so many possible nuances here--but this, I am comfortable saying:

You have to be yourself, and he has to know what that means so he decide if he's comfortable enough with that to keep dating you.

Specifically: You believe you had every right to handle this as you did, apparently even after giving it some thought. So say so: "I've heard you out on this, and thought about it, and I don't believe that I've done anything wrong. [Statement of your principle here, such as, 'I am comfortable with some things being private about each of us--not hiding, just not spelled out for the sake of spelling it out.'] That's my way. I realize and respect that it's not your way."

That puts you both at the important crossroads: Can you accept this difference in each other, and of so, how do you plan to do it? Will it nag at one or both of you, will one or both of you keep trying to change the other's mind, will you always wonder whether you're one incident away from breaking up? Or will you have this in mind about each other and make, ungrudgingly, whatever minor adjustments you you need to make to get past this? Such as your making an effort to mention things you otherwise might not have, and his recognizing that "not mentioning" does not always equal "actively keeping a secret."

If it's going to remain an open issue, where one of you keeps wanting the other to come around to your way of seeing things, then you two aren't going to work. 

My in-laws (grandparents and spouse's siblings) are great about sending gifts to my kiddos for holidays, etc. (Kids are 7.) Sometimes, in the chaos of the holiday gift-opening, tantrum-managing, event-attending, etc., several days will go by between the arrival of the gift in the mail and our contacting the family to say thanks. (Actual thank-you notes can take longer, but we're pretty good about either having the kids write a note, or, if the kids are anti-writing that week, they film a thank-you video that we send.) But, I think the in-laws want a more immediate response. Like, they want to be on FaceTime when we open the gift, or get a phone call THAT NIGHT gushing about it. And sometimes (most times), we just can't make it happen. Gifts are often given at the end of a long day of school and work, between dinner and bathtime, and emotions are high and it's just not a great chance to get the kids on the phone. (They love the in-laws, but conversations are often stilted and not fun for the kids.) I feel badly that we're not being as immediately enthusiastic, but I also want them to give us a few days before starting the texts "Did our gifts arrive?". I think they don't know (for the siblings) or remember (for the parents) that sometimes it's hard to get us all through the day with our sanity intact. The rest becomes...if not extraneous, then certainly delayed.

As long as you're sending the thank you notes/videos, you owe nothing more to gift-givers and you have no cause to feel bad or guilty. (Writing thank-yous within a few days is best, within a month is fine.) That they pressure you for prompter responses within days of giving a gift is actually rude. 

I'm saying this in part because it's my opinion, and in part because your pancake-stack of justifications for not responding ASAP is exhausting to read. Stop. You're not responding immediately because it's not your priority to. Please just admit that out loud to yourself, you'll feel much better.

As for the prodding by the in-laws, you can either respond, "Got them, notes are on the way ..." or preempt them: "kids loved the gifts, thanks!," which  of course will be followed up by the kids' thank-yous, or you can ignore them and let the arrival of the notes answer their queries for you. It's okay to go path-of-least-resistance on this part. 

"I'm not sure, but something does feel wrong." LISTEN TO YOURSELF! It doesn't matter if it is abuse, or not, or if your mom is right, or not. Something feels wrong to you. Do not rationalize that away. Our instincts can be a gift.

It may not be abuse now, but his reaction to this sends up so many red flags. The fact that he found out about this because you showed him a link from the site would tell any reasonable person you were not hiding it from him. That he's reacting this way, plus the "black and white" way you describe him, tell me he has great potential for being a controlling partner. I am guessing this dynamic will get worse, too, as time wears on.

Thank you for underscoring the black-and-white thinking part. Rigidity of beliefs + a sense of entitlement to hold others to them is a greased slide to controlling behavior.

After many years of suspected (vehemently denied) psychological issues and drug use, and after burning bridges with an entire extended family, my 32 year old niece died yesterday. I'm overcome with, i don't know what, sorrow, guilt, relief, anger, ambivalence. I had enough stress and complication already in my life that I didn't want anything to do with her in recent years. Her mom, my sister, went in endless cycles of writing her off, eventually sending more money, and then long tearful phone calls to me that were the same over and over. Relief is that this agony is over, guilt is that we all felt we had to turn away from her, anger is that her need to get high was more important than everyone who loved her. I wish this could be a reason some other kid gets off drugs, but it won't be, they think they're invincible, this'll never happen to them. A long way of asking, but what can i do to help my sister, and myself, and my own kids, cope with this awful thing that has happened?

I'm so sorry for your loss. It's awful to witness a slow-motion tragedy.

I suggest you help your sister, and yourself, cope with the loss by sticking to the most basic truth here--that a life precious to all of you is over. The how and the why, and the anguish of these, are really secondary, and no one is under any obligation to make sense of a senseless death. Feel what you feel on your time and be present for your sister as you can. You might find "ring theory" useful here (LINK), not the least for its simplicity: comfort in, dump out.

Take care.

I have not - have any of us?? - been the perfect mother. I can think of a long list of things I would do differently now that I have the wisdom of hindsight. Nonetheless, I have loved my child more than I could ever put into words and every decision I made from birth was with his best interest foremost in my mind. He was a glorious child but I had a difficult time with him as a teenager. He withdrew from talking to me about everything to being quiet and withdrawn I attributed it to the typical teenage thing. He came home from college at Thanksgiving and it was a nightmare. I heard about grievances he had, both past and present, and he was merciless. He had legitimate problems, but he was also petty. My reaction was to acknowledge his feelings and to give them legitimacy. They were his feelings, after all, and real. I did not want to diminish them. My problem? I now know how he feels and I am not at all looking forward to Christmas. It seems to now be all a charade. I love the holidays, typically made a big deal over them and was looking forward to this year. All of a sudden, I feel the wind has been knocked out of me and I can hardly put one foot in front of another. Please offer me some of your wisdom.

Now, it's an opinion; it's only wisdom if it works.

My opinion here is that your Christmas is not "all a charade," especially since your son has opened up some dark emotional corners to the light. That doesn't mean anyone knows yet what this holiday will turn out to be for you and your family--maybe it'll be another reckoning (or the same one, Part Deux); maybe it will be the awkward period where you all try to figure out what comes next; maybe he'll try to act as if nothing happened; maybe your son will feel unburdened and ready to step into the warmth of home. Any of these is possible, as are all of them at various points--no one promised us consistency. But it'll be real as long as you remain open to the fact of changing dynamics at home. 

Such change is inevitable, by the way; it's just that some have the good fortune of experiencing it gradually.

It sounds as if you did the brave and difficult thing of letting him have his say and validating his feelings. That's a good start. What I suggest now is carrying that resolve over to his return and keeping an open mind. If he's still angry, say you're sorry he feels that way, and that you're willing to talk about if he'd like or give space if he'd prefer. If he's calmer, then be welcoming of a new relationship between you, vs. falling into the trap of expecting the old one to come back.

And if he crosses the line from constructive criticism to ad hominem attacks, then you can stick up for yourself while remaining open to his arguments: "There's plenty to criticize about my choices as a parent, but I'd appreciate your not attacking me personally." If you need a few minutes, then take them: "I'm going to step away for a few minutes to gather my thoughts."

Also, please consider enlisting some help. A skilled family therapist can really help you sort out confused feelings, even just for a session or three.

Daughter, 25, with a Master’s degree and a minor in snark, seems to be dissolving into a life overseas (France) that is centered on guy-security. Her past relationships approximate serial monogamy a la 1 year with Charlie. 2 months off. 6 months with George, one month off. 8 months with Freddie, 1 month off. And the most recent: 10 months with “Andy-but-I-swear-we’re-just-friends-Dad.” She takes small jobs to stay food/rent/beer solvent, and insists she wants to live permanently in Europe. My worry is that she isn’t seeing the long-view, and that each new guy is an emotional crutch, helping her defer a future. Should I bug out? Should I ask her to defend her choices? Confounded Dad

Bug out. She's 25 and hasn't asked your opinion.

And what would you say that wouldn't just be some version of, "You're messing up your life, and I can see that better than you can"?

And what defensive person (see "snark") ever heard the above from a parent and responded with, "You're right, thanks for being smarter about me than I am"?

Furthermore ...

With a little squinting, what I see is a young adult who is navigating foreign countries and living the heck out of her youth. How is that not awesome. Speaking only for me and only for the sake of argument here, I was in a steady job at that age and engaged, and didn't know myself well enough yet to be any darn good at either. Was that apparent then? Maybe. Maybe some people even tried to wake me up. But what was or wasn't apparent is moot because it was my life and it needed to run its course.

So what matters isn't the look of something, or even the current state of something, but where it all takes her. Again--where she is (beer-solvent and knocking around Europe with Charliegeorgefreddieandy) isn't the worst ever, and where she's going is still a wide open question that it's up to her to answer.  She's either going to find her way to the life *she* wants (whether it's the one her father wants for her is immaterial) or she's going to bottom out, and if the latter happens, that's when Dad gets to step in.

Could you send him an e-mail, re-iterate how much you love him, say that you're glad he felt able to open up to you. Tell him you are sorry for your mistakes, you look forward to seeing him at Christmas and hope to build a stronger relationship. The thing is, he's probably feeling a bit lost and wondering how you feel. If you let him know these things I think it will help with the way forward.

There is nothing abusive about that at all. Statements like that undermine true abuse.

True, it is not technically abusive. However, dismissals like yours squelch discussions of the early indications of abuse, which essentially denies people a chance to get out of relationships before they get dangerous or will-depleting.

If abusers took a swing at their partners on first dates, or verbally tore people down when they first started flirting at parties, then the issue of abuse would be a non-issue as all the abusers sat home alone while everyone else happily avoided them. 

Your "true" abuse starts somewhere. That somewhere is predictable and visible to informed eyes, tucked into the romance, love, promise, excitement--all the elements that form the attachment that keep people there when the bad stuff starts. A couple of those key signs were in the question we're discussing.

It's certainly possible this guy just hasn't grown up enough yet for a black-and-white worldview to go gray at the temples, and it's also possible the LW shaded the nature of what was hidden to make it seem more harmless than it was (though breaking up is his move in that case, vs trying to argue LW into someone he can approve of)--but training a person's eye to spot warnings does nothing to "undermine true abuse." On the contrary; it's our soundest way  to prevent it. 

You can't have been all that terrible a mother if he's still planning on coming for the holidays. I think the transition to an adult relationship with your adult children is probably one of the hardest things to do as a parent. I'm constantly amazed at how well my parents did it (and I have no idea how they did). I can say there were some really rocky holidays around the college timeframe. Remember also that Thanksgiving is short, mid semester and a really hard time for college. He might feel all better after finals, it might have had nothing to do with you. Treat this as an issue with an adult friend - not as a full scale rejection of a foundational relationship in your life. Who you were as his mother when he was a child is different from the mother you will be now that he's an adult - start building that new normal.

I love this, thank you. I'd also like to second you on the weirdness of Thanksgiving break freshman year. It's the first time home after arguably the most transformative period in adult life. It makes home into a strangely alien thing, and this to a kid who, until actually crossing the threshold, often was sooo excited to be home. 

Part of the transformative nature of those first school months is livign as an adult, so being someone's child again can seriously chafe (and that's a good thing, since you meant all along to raise an adult). Whatever OP can comfortably do to treat Son as a fellow adult--while also keeping available the kid space if he needs to crawl into it for a bit to regroup--will help OP's case in updating their relationship to reflect where Son is now.

 

Easy peasy.

Ditto on what Carolyn said. She's finding a way to support herself, and she's gotten the education to eventually support herself long term. I assume she's not asking for handouts from you, and as long as she's taking care of herself and safe about it, let her live her life. I would have loved an opportunity to live in Europe when I was that age. Just love and support her, and only offer your opinion/advice when asked.

I agree with your agreement with me, with the caveat that Dad's reach is still limited if she's being unsafe. Self-supporting adults aren't obliged to run their lives in a way that helps their parents sleep at night. It would be thoughtful of them, perhaps, but it's not their job.

Wait, was this his first Thanksgiving home during freshman year of college? This period is notorious for being awful (Google it). The kids expect to be treated like the "independent adults" they've considered themselves for the last two months (except Mom has to do the cooking and laundry of course); parents still expect the same old rules to apply; every single extended relative asks "what's your major" and whether you've met anyone special yet, so you have the same conversation at least 20 times in a single night; and worst of all their high school friends have all changed in subtle or extreme ways. It's completely normal; don't take it personally.

The nutshell. Thanks.

I was a victim of abuse. In my relationship, it started about 9 months in and the LW's description sounds scarily similar to my experience. My therapist explained that abusers often start out very loving because if you began a relationship throwing punches or verbally cutting someone down, why would anyone stay in that? But then the comments or physical signs begin in a way that makes the victim feel responsible for the abuse, and are often as simple as an egregious overreaction and attempt to control to something small, like in the LW's situation.

And if Dad is unable or unwilling to be her safety net if/when Daughter's adventures in Europe come to a close, he should just say so. I see many people trying to control others' behavior because they're afraid of having to pick up the pieces, when really they just need better boundaries to let their adult kids deal with the consequences of their choices. And, daughter has a minor's in snark? Buddy, she was home-schooled in that.

Excellent point on the consequences, thanks. 

Single mom of somewhat difficult 17-year-old here and y'all are scaring the crap out of me today! Puppies and kittens please! Stat!

Goats. Trust me.

Hello. Three weeks ago an unimpeachable source told me that a co-worker has bad-mouthed me to such an extent that me job will be phased out shortly and I should find another. I've been frantically interviewing and have a few prospects but nothing is unfolding quickly. Not the same person has announced she's leaving -- and I've been told I can stay! I'm so offended at the entire mess, it's hard to walk into my office. And though she knows I know of her actions and words, this same back-stabber dropped a Christmas gift on my desk this morning. I'm so furious I could explode. I have to attend the office party tonight and she'll be there. How do I handle this unfair and upsetting situation?

If the backstabber is indeed leaving (having a little pronoun trouble), then why not raise a glass tonight to keeping your job? Ding-dong the problem's dead. 

Raise just one glass, though. You're not in any condition to walk around with your opinions loosened. 

Part 2 of this answer is, if you're too angry and/or feeling too precarious in your job now to just let this go, then treat it as a temporary reprieve and keep looking for new work. Either way, the news you just got is good news. Please embrace it accordingly. 

My daughter very rarely wants to spend any time at all with me, even though she lives fairly close by. I'm not sure, but I think at least part of the reason is that she has been bulimic since high school and on top of that recently lost a lot of weight and looks very, very thin, and has for a while now. I love her so much, a day doesn't go by when I don't think about how much I miss her and love her, and how worried I am about her. I don't really initiate contact except for an occasional short text, not wanting to force a relationship level she doesn't want to be at, but I'm sure she knows I would love to talk, text or be with her more. When we're together, it doesn't seem as though she's mad or upset with me for anything, but half my brain is trying to concentrate on pretending everything is okay and keep things light and happy, while I'm trying not to notice how drawn her face has become and how stick-thin she is. She saw a therapist for part of high school and part of college, but I don't know how much that helped, if at all. I wonder what her boyfriend thinks about her weight, if he's noticed how thin she is, but I'd never go behind her back to inquire. I'm worried that if I say anything at all to her about her weight/bulimia, she'll become absolutely furious with me (like she used to when she was younger) and cut off all contact, and I will have made things worse and never see her. I'd also like to ask if maybe there are other reasons she avoids me--maybe there have been things I've said or done to hurt her that I could apologize for and try to make up to her, but I'm not sure that's the right thing to do either. I'd do anything for her, but I don't know what to do. PS: If there's any identifying info you could leave off, just in case she reads this, I'd sure appreciate it.

Please call the Helpline for the National Eating Disorders Association: 1-800-931-2237. Ask for suggestions on talking to a loved one with an eating disorder, including some local resources for you to get counseling as you need it. Eating disorders are tricky to deal with all around, so specific guidance is particularly important.

 

(I'm sorry, I don't know what you would consider "identifying" here. If you'd like anything edited out, then please email me at haxc@washpost.com and I'll see what I can do.)

That's it for today, and for the next two weeks. Have a great holiday--or, if applicable, have a great holiday, dammit--and I'll type to you here Jan. 8.

In This Chat
Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on washingtonpost.com. She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.

Carolyn's Columns
Past Chats
Way Past ChatsHax Philes Discussions
Recent Chats
  • Next: