Carolyn Hax Live: You can be right and still be wrong (Jan. 22)

Jan 22, 2016

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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Hello everybody, hope you have all the bread, wine and TP you need.



Hi Carolyn – I just wanted to pass along my thanks for your answer to my question in last week’s column. It was bizarre to read the first few lines and realize OH MY GOD THAT’S MY QUESTION SHE’S ANSWERING. I really appreciated the reminder to avoid dealing with irritation in the moment and (in public). It made me reevaluate my reaction to this scenario, and gave me the opportunity to check in with my husband to see how he actually felt about this particular agreement. Most importantly, you hit the nail on the head by recommending we look at how we each deal with being “the agent of no.” I think that’s what most motivated me to ask my question. My frustration was only fractionally about ice cream or healthy diets, and more about how often I feel like I’m the bad guy. You were absolutely right that the dynamic bleeds into other parts of our married life, and we’ve agreed to work on finding better balance with who gets to say “yes” and “no”. I’ll say this as a side note, though – it was really frustrating to read comments from the ‘nuts that assuming I was a nagging wife whose husband was forced into a diet. While I am a woman in a hetero marriage, I was careful to avoid gender-specific pronouns in my question because I HATE the idea that voicing these complaints might make seem like a no-fun, nagging shrew. I think that’s why I’m so scared of how it sounds when I say no. The people I picture side-eyeing me in the grocery don’t know that I said “yes” to a pizza party during the previous evening’s date night, and they weren’t there a week prior when my husband was bemoaning his weight gain and asking for help in revamping his diet. I just imagine they see a grumpy wife saying “no” to her poor husband trying to get a little ice cream. That fear is something I know I have to work on myself, but I just hope this reminds folks that interactions between people are rarely as simple as they seem on the surface. Apologies for such a long response, and thanks again for your thoughtful and kind advice. Here’s to saying “yes” more often in the future.

Thanks for the update, and I'm glad you and your husband are talking openly about this stuff.

I saw some people flagged your role as a controlling one, and I disagreed with that take, too. The person who enters such an agreement has agency; if he didn't want you to have any say in what food he bought, then your husband could have declined to be part of this let's-eat-better partnership.




... instead of agreeing and then undermining it in the aisles.

Which brings me to another point: If there is a reason he's saying one thing and impulse-buying another, then getting to the root of that will probably have to come first for his/your efforts to work.

Dear Carolyn, My ex-wife and I divorced shortly after the birth of our son. I got really screwed in the divorce, something I do not hide. My son introduced me to his serious girlfriend over the holidays and, wow, does she ever remind me of my ex. She has similar mannerisms, ideals, and general outlook on life. I advised my son a few weeks ago to tread very carefully with this young woman, and he was very angry with me. He told me that he was tired of hearing me talk about his mother and the divorce, and he wouldn't listen to it anymore. Turns out he won't listen to me at all, because now he isn't returning my calls. I went through the long and expensive divorce, the alimony, the child support. I want to protect him from that, and somehow I'm the bad guy? I don't know what to do from here.

Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where you can be right and still be wrong.

Of course it's possible you're not even right; just because the girlfriend triggered some ex-wife flashbacks doesn't mean your son is going to marry the same mistake you did. But given the way people tend to gravitate to what is emotionally familiar to them, I'm inclined to think you're right that your son has chosen someone emotionally similar to his mother. 

Where the "wrong" comes in is your belief that it's your place or duty to keep him from doing that, and that coming right out and saying it was the wisest approach.

Your ex is your ex but to him she's Mom, and even a highly aware and evolved child is going to feel some protective instincts toward the person who raised him.

Plus, he loves this girlfriend, so hearing negatives about her was a pretty reliable bet to put him on the defensive.

At this point it sounds as if you need to put your energy into rebuilding trust between you and your son: You need to apologize for overstepping and, more important, for drawing conclusions about the GF based on your opinion of someone else entirely. Even if you turn out to have been right, you were jumping to conclusions, and you owed it to your son not to do that just out of respect for his autonomy and for her status as a human being unto herself vs a spirit-extension of your ex.

When (if) you rebuild that trust, then ...




... you can get into the complicated and delicate business of calling his attention to mistreatment by a romantic partner.

That is what we're talking about, after all--it's not so much about what your ex did or who she is or how your relationship with her cost you, but instead about your son's well-being. What you're trying to say to him is that your experience has trained your eye to recognize certain points of emotional conflict between two people, and that *you might be wrong* but you noticed X, Y or Z when the couple came over for dinner the other night. 

That's the humbly detailed version, where you cite a specific concern and its supporting facts--without any mention of his mother's having done the same to you--and defer to his better position to judge this for himself.

There's also the just-the-facts version: "I noticed X did Y--is everything okay?" With this one, you need to be ready with an, "I'm sorry, you're right, I'll butt out" if/when you get called out for overstepping.

There's also the bite-your-tongue version, where you recognize that your rebuilt trust was too hard won to risk and that you'll have to hope your past discussion of it planted a seed in his mind.

Assuming you even get to this point where you and your son are able to talk unguardedly, you're going to have to make an educated guess on how much license you have to weigh in on his personal life.

It's an uneasy and often painful business, watching a child make what you think is an avoidable mistake. But avoidable and mistake are both in the eye of the beholder, and that strictly limits what you can do.


Hi Carolyn, I'm a woman who's newly engaged and having a hard time with others' expectations for what my wedding should be. I think being married will be pretty cool, but actually getting married isn't something important to me-- no poofy white dress dreams. This is my fiancee's second marriage and he doesn't want anything fancy either. However, I have a big family and I'm the oldest grandchild, plus my mom desperately wants to wedding vicariously through me. How do I deal with the pressure? Can we just go to the courthouse without feeling guilty, or is the wedding truly "for the family"? Will my mom ever stop texting me pictures of white dresses from Pinterest?

You need to have a plain and honest conversation with your mother about this. She is not going to get what she "desperately" wants even if you self-sacrifice your way into the full Cinderella--because you won't be reveling in it, you'll be miserable. Plus, it's not her dream or wedding to have, period.

So be utterly and lovingly straight with her that the fairy tale isn't going to happen. No big dress or party favors.

But what can happen is an intimate exchange of vows followed by a warm and loving celebration with your big family, because that doesn't need to have anything fancy about it. Just think party, and, if your mother can let go of the "dream wedding" vision to embrace the "fun party" vision, she can be instrumental in helping you plan it.

But, again, it has to start with the conversation with Mom, which itself starts with your confidence in who you are and what you want this wedding to be. You're the woman she raised, after all, so trust that to be good enough once your mom deals with her initial disappointment. Pressure is just the gap between her expectations and yours, so close it upfront.


LW, I am the "Son's Girlfriend" (now wife). My now-FIL decided to tell my husband how awful I must be, how I'm going to trap him and get pregnant, and how I'm just like his "horrible" mother. FIL begged my husband to break up with me because he'd be throwing his life away with a shrew. 11 years later, we're married and my husband barely has a relationship with his father, in large part due to his overt misogyny and the horrible things he said about me. He meddled in our relationship and the relationship won. Oh, and my "horrible" MIL is a completely lovely and wonderful woman, and I'd be lucky to be half the person she is.

This is valid, of course, and not just because it actually happened; people do bring prejudices to their opinions of people, and refusing to see past them can cost them their relationships with people they love.

But I think fairness and thoroughness demand making a distinction between laughably misogynistic meddling like, "She's going to trap you and get pregnant," and voicing carefully observed and supported concerns such as, "When your girlfriend put you down in front of all of us--'[direct quote here],'--I felt uncomfortable. It might be my issue, but indulge me here--make sure she has your back."

My mother spent almost 40 years commenting about my dad's actions leading up to their divorce. She didn't say much while we were younger, but over the last 25 years any time his name came up, or something about our childhood came up it would result in a 10 minute tirade. We just wanted her to heal and move on. BUT, when it's so much a point of conversation - anything of value in the discussion just becomes so watered down that it's impossible to hear anything more than a rehash of 25 years of conversations.

In addition to everything Carolyn says, I will add: You need to remember that your son is not you. What was a deal-breaker in your marriage may not be for your son. He has his own temperament, wants, likes, needs and preferences. What chafed for you might be a good fit for him. Even more importantly, if everything goes down EXACTLY the way you fear, you want your son to come to you for help so he can have a better outcome, right? Having to face a big fat, "I told you so!" will not encourage that.

So imagine my surprise when I got home to discover that my fiancée had lovingly had my name tattooed in a private area of her body. Now, for me, tattoos represent low-life, trailer trash graffiti of the body. To be fair, I don't recall ever having discussed my views of such with her before she did this, so I tried to feign some enthusiasm: "Wow, honey, I can't believe you did that. I feel so...honored." However, privately, I'm really kind of bummed out about it and the prospect of watching that thing age and stretch over the years is totally turning me off. No, I won't break off the engagement over something like this, but what on earth do I do to not be repulsed by this going forward and how do I make sure it never happens again (if it becomes a habit, I really might not be able to go forward, and I wouldn't want any future kids to think it's ok because mommy has it.)?Part of what also bothers me is the fact that she went ahead and did it without even consulting with me. Yeah, her body is her own, but still, we're going to spend the rest of our lives together and it seems kind of insulting to make such a dramatic decision without even a conversation (although, to be fair, it was meant to surprise me and make me happy). Ugh!

Ooh, you guys have some talking to do.

I'm sure people are going to make an argument for just letting the issue drop, because what's done is done, but your opinion on this isn't just strong--it's throwing off hate sparks. "[L]ow-life, trailer trash graffiti of the body"? Yikes. And the sense that she owed you a consultation you feel insulted not to have gotten ... and that you can't bear the thought that your kids might get tattoos ... maybe I'm projecting my own feelings on this too strongly, but if I were about to marry someone with these opinion in some of those words, I'd want to know about it, even if I had just gotten his name painfully inked on my [redacted].

In hopes that you have more in common philosophically than it sounds, here's a suggested opener: "I know you meant this as about as intimate a gift as you could give, and I want to love it that way. You deserve to know, though, that I have a real problem with tattoos."

Are you in the DMV? This could be an interesting weekend for you.

I also bought the ingredients for more sweets than we need. We live in a condo with snow removal services-- do you think it would be a nice gesture to give the removal guys slices of pound cake, or is it just extra stuff for them to have to fuss with?

Nice gesture! Truly. Fuss isn't an issue because, if they don't want it, they can either refuse it or chuck it. (But I doubt they will.)

It seems all of my friends have started selling for various multi-level marketing companies these days. On facebook and in person I find my self being invited to "parties" that are really just an excuse to market things. I try to politely decline and change the subject in person and just ignore on fb, but some, especially those who have gotten into selling "essential oils" have gotten really aggressive, telling us of all the amazing properties of these oils and how we can lose weight and make our children smarter by rubbing really expensive oil on all our feet. My husband suggests that its just another fad and it will pass, but it is driving me crazy to have every conversation hijack with, "there's an oil for that." Has all the world gone mad? Is there a way to say, "I still want to be your friend, but please stop trying to sell me your crazy products."

Replace "your crazy products" with "things," and I think you have a winner.

But I'll throw it out to the nutterati sales force: Is this what you would like friends to say when they'd rather not get your pitches?

I have been in your shoes-- please don't go to the courthouse. It will cause more grief than it is worth. What my friends who were in your shoes did was let their parents and siblings know that they were getting married in 2 weeks at X location and they'd love for their family to be there. They had a delightful park wedding followed by a dinner at a local restaurant. The weekend before her mom came to Macy's with her to pick out a dress, Whole Foods to pick out flowers, and a local bakery to get a cake. Her mom felt involved and wedding planning literally took two weeks and was the most low-key, intimate wedding I have seen. It was a lot less drama than eloping.

Good ideas here, thanks.

Party rooms in local restaurants are ideal for this--they handle everything, people can mingle, you can plan it in 15 minutes with their events manager, and it feels like a celebration.

I was "the son" once in a red-flag decorated relationship and tuned out a lot of well-intentioned people who didn't like my then girlfiriend because they kept telling me how much they didn't like her. At the time, I didn't understand why that mattered - I find your spouse irritating, I don't tell you to divorce her. After the devastating break-up, my sister said, "I never liked the way she treated you." Oh, that I would have listened to and considered. But she'd never phrased her concerns that way to me before. And if it doesn't work out, just be there without an I told-you-so. Those never helped anyone feel better.

I like and appreciate this insight, thank you. I've advised this to the point of droning: Don't attack the girlfriend/boyfriend--focus on the effect he or she has on your loved one's emotional state.

I do post your comment, though, with a caveat: You *think* you would have listened to what your sister said and considered it, now, with the benefit of hindsight. It is a hallmark of these relationships that the people in them aren't ready for the truth until they're ready for the truth, and not a moment sooner. Maybe you were, and that's why I think it's so important (and also advise to the point of droning) that loved ones speak up once about things they notice and back it up with specific examples--but it could also be that your sister didn't just find the right words post-breakup, but also hit the right opening in your brain for their meaning to be absorbed.

Glad you're out. That's the most important thing.

Totally disagree. Talking it out with the starry-eyed mother is the answer, but going to the courthouse might well be the result. "Causing more grief than it is worth" is what the mother is doing, not the OP.

Can we agree on "CAN cause more grief than it's worth"? It's not just about the starry-eyed-mother, but also the extent to which OP wants to include her and the rest of the big family. There's a lot of room between "nothing fancy" and "courthouse," and there's also a lot of room between poor boundaries and valid disappointment.

Dear Carolyn, My husband agreed to have children even though he didn't really want them. He did not make any conditions, and I would not have granted any. We have two--one more than he agreed to (oops! both our faults) and one less than I want. Now, he thinks that he should get priority in making every other family decision. Where we live. How often we move. How much we spend. Our three-year-old has already lived in three states, but those moves were for our family's economic good. Now he's talking about moving again, just for his own pleasure. What are my options here?

I want to make some useful suggestions, because I want to help and because the stuff outside the scope of the question is often sunnier than people let on. This is dogging me, though: I haven't seen any situation end well where half of a couple feels (or continues to feel) entitled to use leverage against the other half.  

For a life partnership to be fulfilling and for co-parents to be effective, you both need to be invested in the same goals and give them roughly the same priority. He's invested in himself, and you're invested in ... hard to say. The kids, the family, the marriage, yourself--I see a little of all of it here.

If you can cooperate to the extent necessary, then I think counseling with someone skilled and reputable is a pro-marriage next step for both of you.

Unless of course you can say this to him in a way he's willing to hear: Yes, he gave you something monumental when he agreed to have children. However, the monumental thing is not a thing, but two people with needs that trump either of yours. So while you're fine with weighting things toward his preferences for a while, these preferences can't be indefinite, because you're a part of this marriage too, and because they can't be at the kids' expense--which is what the constant moving will become once the kids start putting down their own roots in the form of friendships, teams, neighborhood institutions. Loving each other, and your kids, ought to be about taking care of each other, no? And not an indefinite exercise of personal prerogative?

If anyone will tell me I'm a glassbowl, you will.  When my ex called off our wedding and broke up with me, I took him at his word because those are extremely deliberate actions.  All of this took place in one brief phone conversation, and then we never saw each other again.  I immediately moved on.  I've now learned that he's "never forgiven" me for moving on, and calling off our wedding wasn't "what [he] meant to do."  He knew from the start I wasn't into playing games, and that I never aspired to be a mind reader.  Did I do something wrong?  Could he have a point?  I walked away from that relationship with a clean conscience, and his resentment bugs me because everything that happened occurred because of his initiative.

It doesn't sound as if you did anything wrong besides the unwitting ambush on his pride--he obviously was expecting you to be devastated.

And really, how can unwitting be wrong? 

Although I don't think it affects the answer, I am curious what you mean by "moved on." Does that mean you declined to see him again, or took up with his best friend, or ...? As I said, I don't think what you did would change the answer because, once you broke up, you became free to do with your life as you pleased, but "I immediately moved on" leaves so much room for interpretation.

How bout this: Unless you did something deliberately to hurt him, you could not be a glassbowl in this situation as presented.

Sorry for the blank space there ... I was just about to answer a last question when I realized it makes a good Hax Philes question because it's open to such a wide range of opinions and feelings. Plus, I thought some of you might want something to break up your Netflix marathons. (Jess, I'll email it to you as soon as I sign off.)

... And now I'm signing off. Thanks so much for stopping by. Stay warm and safe, everyone, and I'll type to you here next week.

Here you go: Philes LINK. 



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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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