Carolyn Hax Live: "Non-nefarious intent! Blimey." (February 3)

Feb 03, 2017

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, happy Friday.

As a micromanager-in-recovery, I can say that one can change. It does take self-awareness and effort and time. Lots of time. But change can happen.

Thanks. To flesh out your good list of prerequisites: It takes awareness that it's not only not a bad thing to let others do things their own way, it is in fact an improvement. It makes life richer and more interesting.

Sometimes it takes formal treatment of underlying anxiety to be able to get to that point though.


Just in case my posting this gives the wrong impression: If the micromanager in today's column doesn't budge, very soon, on defending her controlling behavior, then LW needs to go.

I recognized some of my worst self in today's column. I grew up into an anxious micromanager after being raised in a hyper-controlled environment and enduring absurd scrutiny over tiny missteps. And -- cringe -- I didn't even start dealing with it until I moved in with my now-husband. After a huge fight about laundry being put away haphazardly, I realized that, not only did the laundry not matter, I had a lot of built-in habits and anxiety that I needed to dismantle and understand. Like, immediately. And, kudos to Hax: I vaguely recall a column in which you recommended asking if a thing would matter in five years, and using that as the yardstick for keeping things in perspective. I still have a weird connection between my anxiety and keeping the house in order (as if the ghosts of childhood past will come yell at me for a poorly-folded sheet? ridiculous.), but I go out of my way to keep that in check, and our marriage and my mental health is much better for that extra, conscious step I take.

Thanks so much for this. 

For what it's worth, I don't think it's a binary issue--neatness bad, haphazard laundry management good. There is a connection between environment and stress on both ends, with excessive clutter and excessive attention to detail both holding the power to distract us from our ability to love fully, work productively and relax effectively.

So, what makes sense to me is for each of us to think this through on a few fronts: what constitutes a comfortable environment for us, how much effort we're willing to put into it relative to other priorities, and how well-matched we need our partners' preferences to be to ours.

I'm not saying this to you, ex-micro, since you've found your way to such a nice balance yourself, but to anyone still wrestling with the idea of a healthy balance.

Hello! Thank you so much for taking my question. Just wanted to provide a bit of an update (and some clarification; I wasn't clear at points). We got the house we wanted to get (or will be shortly, assuming everything goes through)!! Husband was MUCH less concerned about his parents' demands than I was; when I brought up that I knew that they would be unhappy, he said that it wasn't their house; they're the ones who moved away, so he doesn't care. I'm still dreading the fall out once they come up to see it and realize that it doesn't meet their specifications. Husband has assured me that he'll deal with it, but I know from previous incidents that they'll wait till he's not around to say something (B/c none of his decisions are ever his fault, they're always mine). I know it's all about me getting more of a backbone than I have, and trust me, I'm working on it. Oh well, I'm in love with the house, husband is in love with the house, and we can afford it, soooooo, I can deal with a fit or two.

Yes, you can: "Huh. Have you said this to [husbandsname]?" when they isolate and corner you, then excuse yourself. All backbone, no confrontation. 

BTW, the reason they corner you isn't because they see everything as your fault. They've simply figured out that they will get zero traction with their son. His, "it wasn't their house; they're the ones who moved away, so he doesn't care," is an impenetrable defense and they know it. So they turn their displeasure on you, where they do get results. Please study how your husband handles them and try, kindly, a few of his tactics yourself.

What are some kind ways to respond to a divorce announcement from (good but not close) friends? For us it was totally a surprise, but it seems rude to point out that it wasn't obvious they were having trouble.

There's no need to respond with your opinion at all. "Thanks for letting me/us know, and I'm sorry--this must be tough on you both." Then listen. If appropriate, point out that it doesn't change how you view your friendship, and say you'll be there if he/she ever needs a sympathetic ear.

I work a 9-to-5-type desk job, and my family member has been a homemaker as long as I can remember. We talk most nights, and we both enjoy it. BUT: Almost every call, when I'm on my way home to my takeout or quick meal, she makes a point of asking me what I'm "making for dinner." I usually just try to avoid the question by turning it around, but it makes me feel horribly judged that I don't have the time/energy/desire to cook a lovely meal for myself after spending a long day/week at work, and I don't know how to get this question to go away forever. Thoughts?

I suppose you could just admit that it's a sore spot for you because you miss cooking but it's not practical with the hours you keep. A nice family member will then drop it, or at least try to break the habit of asking.

But it sounds as if there's more of a contentment payoff for you if you attack it from within, as your own demon. Why do you feel there's more value in making a "lovely meal for myself" than in making a living? All of us assign different values to things, and not all of those values are going to line up with others'. I assume you're comfortable with the larger idea that some people value paid work more and some value domesticity more--right? And that some people have the energy and interest to sustain both? And some are indifferent to both? And all this human variety is a good thing?

So why is it this particular exchange with this particular person over this particular point so abrasive to you? Do you wish you didn't have to work? Do you wish you had energy to cook? Do you have a history of measuring yourself against this one relative, and if you weren't clashing over paid work and dinner, then you'd be competing through books read or vacations taken or names dropped? Are you living a different life from the one you've always had in mind, and instead of owning what is, are you dwelling on what isn't?

And not to undermine my message that getting over her means getting over yourself, but, she could easily feel threatened by your working when she's a homemaker and using a dinner dig to lift herself.

Self-acceptance really is the miracle cure for such irritations. One way to start the process of getting there is to fill in the blank in these sentences: "I would be at peace about where I am in life if I _____________," making sure that ____________ is something fully under your control; and "I am grateful every day for ________." Good luck.


Hi. HS senior here, going off to college this fall. My mother has always secretly framed to be that college is my escape from the dysfunctional family life caused by my short-tempered and generally kind of mean father. When it's good, it's fine but when it's bad, my sister and I are crying and he isn't speaking to us. My mom never interferes. Okay, fine. But I'm really worried about my little sister. She's my only sibling and still a couple years off from college. She's already really anxious about having all my parents' attention on her; we are best friends and allies in the house against their behavior. I'm worried too. How can I support/help her when I'm away (I'll definitely be in a dorm, and at least an hour away, probably more. Won't be home much because of classes/vocational training on the side.) (Also to be clear we're not worried about her physical safety, that's never been an issue ever.) thanks.

Sounds as if both of you could use the guidance of a skilled, compassionate family therapist. You're getting away from the immediate noise of your father's cruelty, good for you, that takes courage--but a volatile parent's voice can stay in your head in surprising places. Plus, his crossing of boundaries--and your mother's failure to protect you from it--is an emotional pattern that a lot of kids find themselves repeating in their own relationships if they're not careful. It can feel comfortable out of familiarity instead of comfortable out of safety.

I don't mean to pile bad news onto your already valid worry about your sister, but I don't think you can focus just on your sister without a cautionary awareness of how far reaching a familial boundary problem can be. Your sister, for example, no doubt needs your support--the way all family members need each other--but she also needs to stand on her own. There is a boundary between the two that your parents, given their emotional incompetence, might not have prepared you to recognize. 

Counseling in secondary schools is hit or miss, unfortunately, but if your school has an approachable counselor, then I suggest you go have a talk. I also strongly recommend the "Life Skills for Adult Children" mini-book that I plug here so often, by Janet Woititz. And, with any luck, you'll have more than one college to choose from--so take a moment before you choose to see what kind of counseling services are available to students and how long the typical wait is for an appointment. Even someone to check in with occasionally, as questions arise with you or with your sister, can be a huge help as you navigate life on your own.

I have a friend whose schedule changes frequently. Recently, she changed our "plans" to get together from Tuesday to Monday to Wednesday. How do I spend time with her without feeling shuffled around?

If you are being shuffled around, then you should feel shuffled around. 

What you do about it is really a matter of personal preference. You can roll with the reshuffling if it isn't a big deal to you; you can tell her how much it bothers you if it is a big deal; or you can be civilly immovable and say, sorry, Tuesday is the only day that works for me. Let me know if you change your mind and want to stick to our original plans.

You don't say why she changes plans, by the way, and to my mind it's important. I'd be much more accommodating to someone with a difficult schedule than I would to someone who just gets lured away by a better offer than hanging out with me.


Actually, that might just be theoretical. I might not care about the why as much as I care about my own interest in seeing the person. Food for thought I guess.

Is it possible that she's simply trying to ask what you're *having* for dinner, but just uses the word "making" because that's how it works in her house? That would be pretty normal -- and non judgmental -- small talk for a call at the end of the day, when you're both probably hungry and thinking about the meal that lies ahead.

Honestly, I wouldn't even say "I'm sorry." Sometimes divorce is a relief. "I hope you're doing ok" is my default. --Divorced person

True, but then the person can also say, "It's okay, it's actually a relief." Or the regrets can be in the past tense: "I'm sorry, that must have been a tough time for you."

Your way works even better--i.e., just asking if the person is okay--and I'm not shooting it down, I'm just concerned about too-narrow parameters for saying the "right" thing in response to someone's news. A lot of support gets withheld out of fear of awkwardness and misspeaking, so bigger targets do help.

Hi Carolyn My father is in the early stages of dementia (doctor said it's basically just him getting older) and as a result his controlling and critical side has turned into him just being mean. If my mother weren't alive I don't know how much of a relationship with him I'd have, but I am committed to staying close to my mother and making sure he's safe and cared for regardless. I see them regularly/talk on the phone. It's getting harder to shrug off his nastiness, especially because it's not directed at me, just the whole universe, and sometimes my mother, who actually deals with it very well. I'm afraid I'm going to burn out and leave my mother (other siblings live far away) alone to deal with a man who's increasingly unpleasant. Any thoughts?

Please get expert help on talking to a loved one with dementia. There is a lot of useful work being done, both by researchers and by front-line caregivers, in understanding and (this is huge) not unwittingly antagonizing people with cognitive issues. 

I don't have the resource at my fingertips (speaking of cognitive issues), but there is helpful literature on "meeting patients where they are," as in, not trying to talk them out of incorrect notions, but instead joining them in the conversation they want to have and, as needed, redirecting it from there. I'm also not even close to being an expert on dementia, so take this as one example of a burnout-prevention tactic vs. the only suggestion out there.

Your dad's doctor can steer you to people to talk to, since you seem to live close, as can a geriatric social worker or local hospice. I also suggest you read "Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande. It's an important work in promoting a shift from care designed to satisfy loved ones to care designed to satisfy patients. A real eye opener.

OH, and his parents aren't contributing, and they won't literally be at closing, I just used that as shorthand for once we have the house.

That's a good thing, thanks. A lot of people suggested you tell the parents that if they want these things, then they can pony up the 100K--but I didn't include that in my answer because they might actually call your bluff. 

That arrangement actually works well for some families, but not the ones where meddling is already an issue.

I was the younger sister in that scenario. I cried every day after school for six months. They let me take the bus to visit my sister at the college for a weekend or two. Basically, my survival was my junior high school friends, and pretty much locking myself in my room a lot. Therapy or counseling would have been unthinkable in those days. After all, it's the father who really needs the therapy.

Yes, he does, but it's not either-or.

Plus, when his going is a 0 percent possibility, then the people in his blast radius have to decide whether they're going to hold on to a purist's notion of who "needs" the therapy, or get going with any work they can do themselves to create a healthier state of mind.

I'm sorry your support was so bad. I'm sorry your home was so bad.

I'm glad, though, that you had your JH friends to get you through, and I'm glad you brought it up because it's one example of something the OP can do for the younger sister without getting over-involved: Encourage her (now and throughout OP's college time) to build and lean on a support network outside the home. The main source will likely be her friends, but the school counseling office can be a part of that, too, as can a trusted teacher or coach, or even a part-time job if she's old enough and has access to transportation. 

Hi Carolyn, I wrote you a couple of years (!) ago regarding my BF who blows up, stomps out, leaves for days on end without telling me where he is, and screams/cusses at me. I wrote you because he did this the night before we were supposed to go to a wedding. Well, I didn't go because it turns out my son had to work and I did not think I should go by myself. I did get in touch with the bride to let her know. In any event, over the past couple of years and months this behavior only escalated. Promises to get anger mgmt help were broken, apologies were empty and frequent, the words got uglier. On a few occasions the verbal berating turned into physical anger. These outbursts happened over the tiniest things - sometimes all I had to do was ask him how his day went - simple things most people talk about when coming back together after a work/school day. AI had to be hospitalized for a week for a serious and sudden illness - he visited me at the hospital every day but even found fault with me there, as I lay in the hospital bed, yelling at me so loudly I'm sure other patients could hear! It finally devolved to the point where I simply didn't speak to him (in a not wanting to set him off sense; NOT in a silent treatment sense) and let him initiate conversations when he wanted to talk. Still this was never 100% effective. He also started criticizing my kids (to me only, not to them thank goodness). Anyway I finally realized that 1) I am wasting precious time with my children. They are now 20 and 17 and they will undoubtedly be off on the road to independence soon. I do not want these last couple of years to be about ranting BF. 2) I have now spent a total of 4 1/2 years with this man. I have tried everything I can imagine to make our relationship work. If it was going to, it needed two people working on it. 3) In my own house, I should not be afraid to speak, period. 4)(and this one is actually really going to sound bad but I looked at ALL angles in making my life-changing choice): I pay the bills and groceries; think how much money I'll save. So, two weeks ago, I told him to move out. No counseling, no therapy, no apologies, no begging to come back. I'm done. I feel - sad - and mad, but mostly, relieved. I can breathe again. Thank you for your advice back then and making me start seeing this as a bigger problem than just that one incident.

Standing and clapping. No matter what else comes, your courage will be your companion for life.

Hi, I am a single woman in my 30s. I'm happy with my life, have a satisfying career, lots of friends, many interests, and am open to relationships should one come my way. Recently I had a pretty negative dating experience but am doing okay with it and moving on. As this experience played out, a close friend of mine who is married made several comments about how glad she was to no longer be in my position (dealing with dating) and it rubbed me the wrong way. I think she has good intentions but it felt patronizing. I don't envy my friend's life in the least and I guess it bothers me that she seems to want me to/thinks I should. She is a good, kind person and a good friend and I want to maintain a friendship with her- how I can respond to these comments kindly and thoughtfully without saying "Thanks, but I don't want what you have?"

"Thanks, but I don't want what you have, either." 

Why not.

Oh goodness, and then the in-laws will think they have a right to tell you how to decorate, what furniture to buy, which room is to be designated as theirs. I know because my in-laws gave us $5,000 towards our first house, and thought it entitled them to all that. They didn't get what they wanted.


People with early dementia know their memory is failing. It's the worst part of the beginning stage. If your dad was never verbally abusive, but now is, it may be frustration and fear talking. Also, dementia is not a normal part of aging. There are so many medications out there that can help, so please get a second opinion. Some docs still assume its a normal part of aging and write the patient off, so advocate for your dad, if you can.

Meanness is a sign/sympton of Alzheimer's, too. They may want to get a second opinion.

My mother used to call most days and ask me the same question and like the OP it annoyed me. Finally I asked "Why do you ask? What do you want me to say?" She responded "Oh, I just get so bored with cooking I'm hoping for ideas."

Non-nefarious intent! Blimey.

It might also be possible that she's simply hoping you'll return the question, because she's devoted several hours to making something she's really proud of and wants to tell a sympathetic/appreciative audience all about it. Tonight's dinner might be the highlight of her own work day and she wants to share that with you.

Such nice bridges being designed here, thanks.

Sorry for being helpy, but if you really miss home-cooked meals have you thought about cooking a lot on the weekends, and then freezing meals you can eat on the weeknights? That way you get a home-cooked meal AND relaxation time. And you can tell the dinner judge "I'm having eggplant parmigiana, and I already made it!"

Why is it this is the first time I'm seeing "helpy"?

What I have learned over time (decades) trying to rein in micromanaging impulses is that I am not the boss of anyone. I am (though not always) the boss of me. I can control my need to control by recognizing how seldom my input results in a life-changing action.

This is (a) awesome and (b) making me want to go to the mirror and say forcefully, "You're not the boss of me!" 


Which means it's probably sign-off time. Thank you everyone, have a great weekend and type to you here next week.



Carolyn, I join you (and probably many others) in standing and clapping for the LW's courage.

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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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