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Carolyn Hax Live: With the usual apologies to wolves (Feb. 5)

Feb 05, 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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Hi everybody, happy Friday.

My brother in law is not a very nice person. He's never directed his ire at me but he holds the whole family hostage to his whims, and he has gotten worse over time. For the most part, I just choose not to engage with him. I send appropriate seasonal greetings and gifts for his son. I include him on group texts with the other siblings. But I don't want to directly engage. I don't go to family events where he will be, but I live 5 states away so I don't think it is obvious. I encourage my spouse to see brother as much as spouse likes but I stay out of it. I wouldn't be able to not respond if and when the attitude is directed at me and I think it would make things worse for everyone. I am trying to have healthy boundaries but I'm not sure if it is okay that my boundaries extend to not seeing this person at all?

As long as it's okay in the context of your marriage, then I'm not going to butt in. Minimizing exposure to miserable people is nothing short of a life strategy. If your spouse is fine with your arrangement, then you have not only my blessing (for the $0 that is worth), but also my congratulations on dodging this particular human bullet.

I think that you made an error in advising the LW to speak on her mom’s behalf. It sounds like there’s already a lot of triangulation going on, and especially with her parents separating, LW needs to step out of being one more point in the triangle. To be not choosing sides, but addressing her own relationship with him and what he has or has not done about communicating with *her* directly. Addressing anything on her mom’s behalf – if she wants a relationship with her father that is not tangled up with her mother – has to at best be a sideline that is an opinion given “It doesn’t seem fair to mom not to be more upfront with her about what’s happening.” and let it go. For all LW knows, mom is more aware than she lets on, is so hard to deal with that he’s avoiding torturing himself, or she’s in denial and has been oblivious to what dad has been trying to tell her for a long time. LW needs to be careful not to allow herself to be the passive aggressive way her parents communicate with each other, their tale-bearer, or flying monkey.

The dad's departure to Florida affects her, too, as does his reliance on silence to make statements for him. So, I respectfully submit you made an error in interpreting my advice as a suggestion to speak on her mother's behalf. My advice was for the LW to speak to her father on her own behalf.

The advice also was intended to help the LW learn to communicate in a more direct way, not just for her own good but also for her son's. Two generations (at least) is more than enough time for these unhealthy tactics to remain in use.


Happy Friday, Carolyn: How much feedback did you get from people who work in multi-level marketing, about keeping their friendships intact? This is coming from the other side of the equation, someone who knew two people who went into a nutritional supplement MLM scheme and who disappeared once it became clear I couldn't and wouldn't get involved with the product, I'd just say: Don't monetize actual or potential friendships. If you're not interested in someone for who they are as a person, don't extend someone a potential friendship with an eye on how you could make money on it. (And I'd be interested in hearing if anyone working in MLM had insights on how not to do that.)

Zero. I think it's a first, where I called out for a first-person account and didn't get one. (Maybe one came in after I stopped checking.) I 

The polls are still open, if anyone's just seeing this now for the first time.

I have a really high energy 4 year old and it takes a lot of my energy, both mental and physical, to keep up with her. I'm a single mom. And every time I think about the weekend this week, I just think...I don't wanna. All day long, battles over getting dressed, getting undressed, eating, not eating, sleeping, not sleeping. But it's not that bad, you see, I'm just feeling whiny about it. And if I can't stop feeling so whiny about it, I'm going to be crabby and then we really will have battles over those things because I'm being a jerk about it. Any advice on how to focus myself on the fun parts of being a parent? Because right now I just want be left alone and that's not going to work very well.

This is going to sound a little odd, but it's intended in the most sympathetic way possible: Actually, it *is* that bad.

You're asking yourself to serve in a difficult, draining role and you're not allowing yourself any rest. That's no more appropriate for a parent than it is for, say, a medical resident, an airline pilot, a knowledge-economy desk-sitter. Bodies and minds need breaks or the work suffers, this has been proven and reproven to the point where we don't even need to post links to support it.

There has been, for some reason (or more likely an unfortunate accumulation of reasons) a trend over the past several decades for parents to do the work of parenting in the isolation of their own homes--and not only that, this trend has overlapped with the other trend of much deeper parent involvement in raising kids. That you also represent trend No. 3, more people  raising kids solo, has only exacerbated a close-to-no-win situation.

So here's the prescription: You need breaks.

And before you write this off as impossible, due to the availability of help or money, or to the guilt you'd feel for ducking out on weekends when you're apart most of the week when you're at work (assuming here, since you refer to this only as a weekend problem), please start by forcing yourself to believe this is not only necessary, but possible.

Whether it comes in the form of a formal arrangement, like a parent's-day-out type cooperative day care in your neighborhood, or an informal one with a friend (acquaintance even!) with a child of a similar age, or the drop-in child care at your gym or Ikea, it is doable somehow and doable responsibly. The latter are just an hour, typically, and even that is restorative. So summon the energy to arrange something. (more)

Then pursue a solution on another track as well: If you're in a constant battle with a willful child, then you're in need of some strategies to preempt, bypass, or outright duck at least half of them. It really doesn't have to be this hard (and, of course, being rested makes these strategies easier to find, learn and implement).

Some books that help are: "1-2-3 Magic," "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk," "Parenting With Love & Logic" (just the first one), and the Harvey Karp books. I'll kick this to Philes so you can read a discussion of these to help you choose, since obviously you're not going to feel up to trying them all. 

One shortcut, too, is you give your child a few choices *all of which are okay with you.*  It takes some getting used to, talking in this way, but if you're prepared and can offer three versions of vegetables (figuratively speaking) as a way of approaching a typical tantrum point, then your child will typically say yes to one vegetable and, more important, feel to some degree in control of her world. That usually translates into a more effective-feeling parent and a more satisfied child.



One last thing. For me, at least, the greatest source of frustration was trying to work with a willful child when there was something else I wanted--say, to get the child to go to bed so I could have my own time. Just the promise of the time, and feeling that promise slip away, was enough to introduce a whole other element of stress into the encounter.

If you can find a way to get your expectations out of it--i.e., don't think, now if Child would only nap, then I could get started on the laundry--then you will likely find yourself feeling calmer. As trite as this has become, you'll be better at this the better you get at being in the moment. 

And yes, I want to punch people who say that to me, too.

Is it rude to compliment someone that you haven't seen in a while regarding significant weight loss? Is saying "You look great!" okay without mentioning the weight itself?

There's a Hax-Philes on this (LINK) as well as a recent column (LINK). Short version, different people think very different things, so "You look great" is a safe place to stay unless you're invited to talk about more.

Dear Carolyn, My husband and I have been married for 4 years, together for 7. My husbands sister "Beth" fancies herself a psychic of sorts who can communicate with the beyond. A few months ago, we were eating dinner when she began talking about a spirit with me. I honestly had no idea who she was talking about, and told her that, as I had no deceased relatives or friends who fit her description. Beth became very upset, claiming that she was overwhelmed with what the spirit was trying to tell her. She was so upset she ran from the room to lay in a dark room and compose herself. My in-laws asked me to be gentler with her, since this "gift" is a major part of her identity. I see two paths. I can either lie to Beth and feed her belief that she has this "gift." Or I can tell her she is dead wrong. Which makes me feel like I'm kicking a puppy. My husband and I would ideally like to handle Beth's "gift" in a thoughtful way, but it's hard to see what middle ground we have, especially when she puts you on the spot. How can I thoughtfully respond to Beth in a way that preserves her self worth but also doesn't give in to a delusion?

"Wow, interesting--I'm not sure who it is but I'll try to figure it out."

Even as I'm typing this, I have the phrase "No one's doing Beth any favors here" clanging around in my mind, but that's pretty much why I'm offering up the answer of remaining kindly neutral. It's your place neither to indulge-lie to Beth nor attempt to corral her to conform to your idea of non-delusional.

If nothing else, Beth is a storyteller, and surely we've all been to dinners that could have used one to stir things up. 

If my kids were reading this, they'd write in, "Thanks, but don't call me Shirley."

Single mom of three here (Dad has them every other weekend, which is this weekend, for which I am SO grateful.) Does child have school/daycare friends, preferably with siblings? Send your kid off on a playdate. If you'd ask me, I'd be happy to. The one-on-one is a killer. More kids is, on weekends, EASIER. If your high-energy kids want to play tag and hide and seek for hours in my backyard, awesome. It means I can relax. Please share your kid.

Yes, thank you, this is what I was getting at with the "or an informal one with a friend (acquaintance even!) with a child of a similar age," but I should have spelled out "play date." It's so much more restful to trade 2-3 hours of two or more kids for 2-3 hours of no kids than to be one-on-one for all of it. 

Plus, if you develop these relationships with the parents--and if the kids involved grow comfortable in a different home or two--then you have and can provide emergency backup when needed, which is SO important.

Hi Carolyn! I am a 19 year old college student away from home, and I've recently had reason to believe that my father is smoking weed. I don't disapprove as it's about to become legal anyways and I do it as well, but I am kind of disappointed that he hasn't told me. My parents and I have always had a relatively open relationship about family secrets and I know most of them at this point, and I believe that they trust me about these things. So I'm kind of confused as to why they (or he alone-- I'm not even sure if my mother knows!) haven't told me about this while I've figured it out myself, which leads me to believe they think I'm naiive. I do want my dad to be an adult about this and come forth in his own time, but I'm also concerned that there might be underlying problems if he hasn't told my mom.

Okay, I read this twice. Both times all I could think is, this is your dad's business--and any underlying problems are, for the moment at least, your mom and dad's business. 

There is a difference between your parents' not reporting to you everything they do and keeping secrets from you. This sure sounds like the former.

So here's my advice: Live your own life! 

And here's your brain's advice to you: Go easy on the weed. Its burgeoning legality and growing acceptance notwithstanding, your being only 19 means you're close to, if not within, the highest risk class of users (LINK).  Perhaps your parents know this, too, and are trying not to give you the message that smoking is okay just because Dad does it.




My younger sister won't let me meet her boyfriend of 3 months. I've invited them over for dinner, she's declined. I've asked if I can meet them out, she's declined. She says it's because they aren't serious, and she doesn't think you introduce boyfriends to family unless it's serious. That's her prerogative, I know, but she's got a history of dating dishonest men (all have ended badly, naturally) and so I worry that her hiding him from me is a red flag. What should I do...besides worry?

What has the worrying accomplished so far?

It's one of the tallest orders in emotional life, but it's worth working on, starting now: The healthiest thing you can do in dealing with loved ones with unhealthy habits is stop investing yourself in their choices. 

Use whatever strategies it takes--from deep breathing, to framing it as "This is what she wants and what works for her," to accepting (embracing even) that her life is hers to live as she chooses, to respecting her as capable of running her own life, to reminding yourself that you can't help someone who doesn't accept help and can't change someone who doesn't want to change, to just investing your energy in your own life.

Work on staying close to her, which is, I'd argue, mutually exclusive with trying to fix her.

Good luck.

Hi Carolyn, My parents secretly provide financial support and gifts to my siblings. I typically find out about it later through a slip in conversation or a third party. Maybe it shouldn't, but this is affecting the relationships I have with my parents and my siblings. The secrecy bothers me more than the gifts. Do I tell my parents that I know and that it is affecting my relationships or should I accept that this is happening and come to terms with it?

Again--is this secrecy, or are these just transactions between adults that don't involve you? If my dad gives my sister a few G's to help her out, why am I supposed to know?

If there's more to this, then please send it along and I'll reconsider.

So I am a new college grad just getting into the working world. I landed a great job at a great company. I have a nice cubicle, but it's position on a walkway that is frequently used. The entry of my cubicle also faces several company computer kiosks (we're gov't contractors, so we work on gov't computers), which people frequently use. At least several times a day, someone will stop in front of my cube and chat with someone else, usually right in front of my cube's entry. Obviously, this is disruptive to my work. I have tried to see if I can move cubicles to somewhere quieter, but unfortunately, at this time I cannot. I'm not sure what to do. Is there a nice way to tell people to stop chatting in front of my cube? Do I put a sign up telling people to go talk somewhere else?

Are noise-canceling headphones a possibility? Or more discreetly, earbuds to deliver instrumental music or white noise?

If not, then I'll kick this one to Karla Miller, because she's the workplace person and I haven't been in a workplace since about 2010.

There is one part of this that's in my wheelhouse: the word "obviously." Whenever you go to an assumption like that in describing a problem, in any context, there's a missed opportunity.

Some people can work amid chaos or conversations, and some can't--and while there's no doubt an element of brain wiring to it, there's also the possibility of acquiring skills that improve your focus. Ask anyone who grew up with a million siblings and paper-thin walls. 

I'll kick the practical aspects of it to the nutterati--can anyone recommend a good resource for improving concentration? I could trot out my own methods (from working at home amid chaos and loud conversations), but mine is a trial-and-error assortment.

I think I would stop at "Wow, interesting" unless I really were going to try to figure it out. If Beth continues, depending on what she says, there's also "Hmm, doesn't ring a bell" and "I'll give that some thought" (if Beth says that the spirit is giving advice or a warning) and just "Hmm." There really is a lot of middle ground, most of it consists of neutral responses and looking for opportunities to change the subject.

I believe in Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote: Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. Nevertheless, for some years it seems that everyone I know is only interested in talking about themselves. Every subject I raise winds up as a monologue about them, their family, their life. It is not that I wish to talk about myself. I don't care about impressing others. My life is rich and satisfying- better than most. . But I do enjoy the art of conversation- meaning a subject is raised and there is back on forth on that subject. But it seems that everyone I meet- in various clubs or activities only want to have me listen to them talk about themselves and their lives. If I am in a group each person talks turn talking about themselves. Me- I could not care less and usually drop the group. I happen to be a very interesting person with lots of interesting stories to tell, well travelled, well educated.But no one seems to care and I have no need to impress anyone with my life, my travels, etc so I rarely even bother to enter the conversation, I just nod my head and they seem satisfied. I wonder if it is caused by Facebook- everyone actually thinks that other people care about their lives. But whatever the cause, how can I change the subject? Geting new friends does not seem to be the answer.

You raise an excellent point about the dead-endedness of many (ersatz) conversations, but two things almost obscure the view of it completely: "My life is rich and satisfying- better than most," and, "I happen to be a very interesting person with lots of interesting stories to tell, well travelled, well educated." They suggest a level of self-regard that in itself can kill a conversation, even one among great minds about ideas.

But I really want to talk about the point, so here it goes. When you are stuck in a group of people who merely trade turns at talking about themselves instead of actually conversing, it could be a matter of their not really knowing how to converse as opposed to being too small-minded or excessively Facebooked. If that's the case, then expressing an interest in the ideas of what they're saying can steer things in a better direction, maybe for everyone. 

They: I did X and Y, but then Z happened.

You: I've heard about something similar--why do you think Z happened? Or: I've always wondered about that--what made you decide to handle it that way? 

Another example, try to take whatever surface topic is out there a little deeper. If someone's telling their story of a recent cruise, you can say you've been interested in one but have read about some with terrible working conditions for the crew--is there some way to check on that?

Okay, maybe not the best example, because you sound like Killjoy McGuilttrip, but you get the idea--show an interest by trying to draw out someone's reasoning or opinion or a bigger issue. I won't always work, the subject won't always lend itself to that kind of prodding, but it's worth a try.



Unfortunately, no there isn't. And a sign would just come across as passive aggressive - a reputation that could stick with a new employee for a while. It sounds like the OP will be able to move cubes at some point, if not now. I've worked in more than a few offices in my day - I'd say to just grin and bear it for now and keep lobbying for a move. Better to irk one HR person than all of your co-workers.

This is a time to (unfortunately) learn your place in the hierarchy. You are at the bottom of the food chain as a young government contractor in a government facility. Don't tell your coworkers to be quiet, especially if they are government staff or on a different contract. It'll backfire. What I recommend is learning to deal. It is hard, but you will survive. I do projects that require the most amount of concentration early in the morning (before it gets noisy) or late at night (after people leave). You will learn to tune it out eventually, I promise!

There's someone in a similar position in our office. She posted a sign on the outside of her cube, printed on an 8.5x11 sheet. It simply says, "Please keep the noise down. I'm concentrating." Nobody's offended, but we're all reminded to keep our voices down. But here's another way of looking at it for the new grad. So much important stuff happens during those "water cooler" conversations. If he/she can find a way to deal with the distractions, he/she has a golden opportunity to learn about key projects, major players, and perhaps move up quickly. IOW, it might be a problem, but don't overlook the possibilities your problem presents!

I find it super helpful to stand up and walk to the restroom or go refill my water when someone is unintentionally causing a disruption near me. It gets me away from it for a few minutes but the sheer act of standing up and walking past them also seems to remind the talkers that I'm there trying to work and they'll usually disperse by the time I get back.

I like this--counterintuitive but convincing. And: It's probably good for your body and brain to get moving occasionally. Your lower back, shoulders, and other desk-stressed parts need relief.

Plus, walking away probably allows your brain do its best work. A funny little scrap of evidence to support this: I do crosswords when I have time to kill somewhere, and am 100 percent successful on filling in the spots I get stuck on--after I close up, do something else, and then go back to it. It's almost uncanny and also a great reminder to walk the #%$ away sometimes. 

As someone that's been a member of the cubicle nation for the last 13+ years, there is NOTHING wrong with telling people you can't talk right then. I've even flat out told some co-workers that wouldn't leave to just GO AWAY because of what I was working on. I think that if the LW backs up a go away statement with, "I'm not trying to be rude, but I really need to concentrate because of what I'm working on, so I can't talk," I think it will get him/her further than having to suck up the unwanted conversation.

Is there a flexible space in your office where you can go for work that requires particular concentration? I used to copy edit in a cubicle across from our executive director and her receptionist. On high-traffic days, I'd print out my work and plunk down in an empty office elsewhere.

I bet my siblings would call me the "sensitive" sister.  That label along with the behavior described in the letter are why we're all not close as adults.  I don't know what it is -- the birth order or the gender or both -- that my siblings infantilize me or treat me like I have the brain of a five year old, but somehow my actions have always deserved greater paternalistic, controlling "input" than the children that came before me. And if I defend myself or close myself off or act in a way they don't like, I'm "sensitive." The irony is all of my siblings have made terrible choices too, including wrong SOs, yet they never ever get the scrutiny or condescending "helpful" advice like I do.  Their choices are always "different" or they got to learn from them without anyone else interfering. Whatever it is I don't need "saving" and neither does your sister.  Leave her alone and I'll bet she'll come to you.  You'd also be wise to question the rest of your relationship.

Boom. Thanks.

I think the reason the earlier poster asked about speaking for the Mom was that you said things like "Please have the courage and respect for me and Mom to share with us directly" in your response. Wouldn't it be better to just say "respect for me" instead?

Perhaps. If the LW didn't know for sure the mother wasn't told, then definitely LW should speak only about "respect for me."

But if LW did know the Mom was in the dark (I'm going on memory here), then I think it's okay to speak in the collective in this initial conversation, because, wow, moved without saying anything to family. You aren't speaking for family necessarily by pointing that out, you're pointing out the wow. 


This could have been me, only it was cigarettes and I started putting clues together in high school then was confronted with solid evidence on a trip home from college. It can be harder to just dismiss than Carolyn suggests. It also annoyed me that it was getting to the point where I was almost complicit in the lies too, and I wasn't sure if my mom knew or not which made things even more awkward. Like after dinner when Dad would suddenly need to go run some random errand, are we all just pretending he's not taking a smoke break, or do some of us actually believe it? I felt like we were all just tiptoeing around the big obvious elephant in the room. It also annoyed me that a) my parents thought I was dumb enough not to understand what was going on, and/or b) they felt like they had to maintain this facade for some reason. I tried to call my dad out on it (admittedly passively, by writing him a card when my child was born suggesting that he quit so he could be around for his grandkids) and he never even responded. So we are still just at the place where we all pretend it isn't happening, and I feel like it IS my business because it's right in my face. Not really looking for a solution here, but just suggesting it's not so easy just to "butt out" (pun not intended).

Thanks for this perspective.

When you're staring at bizarre behavior and smells--and with them a sense that you're being asked to pretend there's no elephant--I think it's fine to say, privately, "Dad, can we dispense with the 'going on an errand' dance? You come home smelling like smoke. It's not my business, but being asked to play along does involve me."

Instead of inviting the two of them out, spend time with just your sister. It'll ease your worrying that something is wrong, and if there are warning signs, you'll be that much closer to notice them. Plus, if he is bad for her, getting her away from him to be with other people will be good for her.

So we sometimes have Lord of the Flies days aka pajama days aka I'm too tired to be a fabulous parents, so, like, whatever, don't kill yourself or ruin the furniture. Dressing. Do you have to leave the house? If not, no need to get dressed, so no dressing battles. An occasional boob-tube filled weekend will not rot your child's brain. Believe me, I've tried. Some times you will just have to do Good Enough Parenting. Rarely, you will have to accept Better Than Wolves Parenting is just gonna have to do.

Great note to end on, thanks.

With the usual apologies to wolves.

Thanks everyone, have a great weekend and type to you NOT next week, but the week after--I'm on hockey tournament duty again. I actually have two on back-to-back weekends, but I'm hoping Friday the 19th won't be affected. (If so, I'll try to reschedule so I don't miss two in a row.)

By the way--huge influx of posts to help the overwhelmed mom, but I didn't want to hijack the chat. I'll try to post some to Philes along with the book topic.

LW, some people decide to revisit pot use after the kids finally leave home and they don't have to worry about setting a bad example for them. In fact, they enjoy finally have the privacy to do a lot of things that they weren't free to do when you were there. You don't want to know exactly what they're up to anymore than they want to know exactly what you're doing while you're away at college.

Conversation is a fine art, and it take years for some people to learn how to do it. In the meantime, people do the thing that I call "relating" --- as in, I tell a story about me, and then you jump in with an, "I can totally relate to that because..." Additionally, some people find it rude to ask a lot of personal questions, which is why they tell something personal about themselves, hoping someone can relate and it can grow into a deeper conversation. Granted, it's not exquisite conversation, but it's very common and doesn't mean everyone is self-involved.

That's it--bye for real.

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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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