Carolyn Hax Live: "If you mean business, then speak business" (July 1)

Jul 01, 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. Anybody? Usually I scrap the pre-Fourth chat because it's so slow, and it's apparently when people would rather think about long weekends than their own problems. (There's an answer to something in that, probably.) But I knew I'd be working today so I kept it on the schedule.  So, what you got?

I am the parent of a baby who is just starting solid foods and has multiple food allergies. He will likely outgrow them and has never had a serious reaction because he has only been breastfed until this point and I eliminated all of the foods that he is allergic to from my diet. My problem is my in-laws-- we have several food-focused social events with them over the next two months and they don't see his allergies as a real thing because he "just gets diarrhea". It comes up every time we see them. I've tried explaining to them that it is filled with blood and that is with my body filtering out most of the allergen and he absolutely cannot have foods that contain the allergens. I am bringing our own food to each social event and not letting them hold the baby when they are eating/food is in grasp, but do you have any suggestions for making these social events tolerable? I want my kid to enjoy time with his grandparents and cousins, but don't want to end up in the hospital and I don't really want to be discussing his stools as people are eating.

Another easy answer would be if people stopped being complete idiots.

Either your in-laws respect your approach to your baby's health issues, or you skip these events. Let your husband deliver the news--they're his idiots after all.

Here I'm all in long-weekend mode and you have to remind me that some people out there are cool with the idea of making an infant sick. On purpose. 

Please stop trying to explain things to people,* and just ask if they're going to respect his doctor's orders or not--simple yes or no, with no as your cue not to be with this person. 




*If they show a genuine interest in what's going on, for the purposes of understanding and not causing your baby harm, explain away. 

I was once in a situation similar to LW's. I pondered contacting an old love that I had down on the internet. I stopped dead in my tracks when it dawned on me how much it would hurt my husband's feelings if he knew what I was doing. I never googled my old love again. LW, you say your marriage is great: Keep it that way and consider how your wife might feel if she knew.

Amen, thanks.

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I are in our late 60's and retired. I will soon be having surgery (hip replacement). Our oldest child is in her late 30's. She is a very successful businesswoman who lives across the country from us. She recently told me that she is coming to stay with us after my surgery. Both my husband and I would prefer that she not come. We don't need help and we would prefer to do things the way we want to do things. We have tried to tell her ("we'd love you to come a few weeks late, when we can really enjoy your visit") but she has steamrolled right over us. How can we convince her that we mean business? Thanks.

If you mean business, then speak business: "I don't want you to come after the surgery. I know you mean well and I love you, but this is stressful for me and what I want most is the least possible change to my daily environment. It's not personal."

What you've "tried" is a dodge. Stop dodging. 

That is, unless your daughter's feelings are a higher priority than your post-op care arrangements. If that's the case, then that's a valid choice--but it doesn't seem to be what you want so I'm giving you the alternative.

What's important here is that your words reflect your priorities. Right now all they reflect is that you're trying to have it both ways, to keep your daughter from coming and to protect her feelings. Her "steamroll[ing]" that means you have to make your priority clear.

Hi Carolyn, I'm in my early 30s, and though this isn't the biggest of problems, it's one that bothers me on an ongoing basis: I haven't lived near my parents for the past 5 years, and we have weekly phone calls to stay in touch. For a long time now, they've felt like a status report from me on how things are going, specifically (annoyingly), to do with work. I've just been laid off from my job, and don't want to get into a weekly update call of how my new job search is going (I've been through that before). Even before this, I didn't love my job and hated trying to find something new each week to say in response to "how's the job going?" I know that these are normal conversation points, especially when work takes up so much of our lives, but is there some way out of this that I'm missing? For the time being I just haven't called in a couple weeks, and I'm not looking forward to the next call. I'm very independent, so this isn't really about being worried about their approval, it's more that asking about people's work is so normal that I feel like requesting not to be asked about it is a weird request. Thank you!

Just make the weird request: "I know you care and it's a normal question, but work/looking for work is my least favorite topic." Then introduce something else to talk about. If they slip after this and ask you anyway, just say, "It's going fine, thanks. How's [query into a completely different topic]?"

Even an abrupt change of subject or a peevish-sounding, "I hate talking about work," is better than going silent on them. The weekly call keeps you in each other's lives, so do what you must to make it work.

Dear Carolyn, I'm struggling with something that I'm ashamed of. I have a group of girlfriends from college and we've remained close into our 30's. About three years ago, I got pregnant with my boyfriend at the time, who immediately bailed on me and the baby and moved to another state. I never named him on the birth certificate or went after him for support, emotional or financial. About 18 months ago, a woman in my friend group's husband died when she was 4 months pregnant. Of course we were all there for her, as I'm sure that was incredibly painful for her. But what is starting to become frustrating to me is that she is still getting a lot of sympathy. Our friends will pretty much drop anything to help her if she needs it, and just yesterday she put on her Facebook that she took a mental health day at work and her mother-in-law was watching the baby. I'm glad she has this network, but I can't help but notice that I do not have nearly the same level of support among our friends that she does. Occasionally when we are in a group and she talks about single parenting the immediate response is sympathy. I will try to give practical advice, things that worked for me, and the group always gets kind of awkward. It's not that I think my friend shouldn't be supported. It's just that I am going through something very similar, and the difference between how she is treated and how I am treated is very hurtful. I don't know how I should raise this without sounding really petty, or like I don't think my friend should get support. I do think she should get support. I just think I should, too.

The sudden death of a (young, right?) partner while expecting a child is so universally understood as awful that I don't think anyone with any other weight to carry is going to get to same kind of sympathy--except perhaps people who lose a child. I'm not even going to try to judge this either way; it just is.

But if you're ever finding yourself in the position of comparing situations and sympathies, I think you're going down a dangerous and unproductive road. It's not even just about sympathy; any emotional state that launches from "I want what she has" is an unhappy one, because it's not about what you have or create for yourself, it's about an absence in what you're receiving from others. As in, the thing over which you have minimal control.

So my advice is to concentrate on what you have, whether that's enough, and, if not, how you can change or supplement that so that you're satisfied.

This can take the form of changing the way you interact with these friends or of seeking other friends whose company is more gratifying for you. For the latter, one obvious start would be to hook up with a single parents' group. Go to the source.

For the former--if you decide to take it on--choose one member of this group to whom you're particularly close, and ask her to do a lens-check for you. Say you're ashamed even to think this way, but that you're getting this impression from the group--that when widowed mom says X, she gets sympathy, but when you say X, you get awkwardness. Then say you realize you could be reading things into these situations that aren't there, but you also keep thinking this way and feel bad about doing so, so you're trying to kill the line of thinking altogether by looking for her perspective.

This is tricky, obviously, because it takes a good friend to roll with it when we reveal what we know is ugly about ourselves. But I've suggested the phrasing because I think that's actually the definition of a good friend: It's the person to whom you can reveal an admittedly ugly side of you, and who will not only not judge you, but also be grateful you trusted her enough to seek her counsel.

Not only might this yield a different view of these exchanges, as you're requesting, but you also might get the added benefit of this friend's awareness going into future gatherings with this group. Just one person saying one small thing--"X is going through this, too"--and turning to you, could make a significant difference.



It could be that, as you think this through and decide whether to approach one of your friends at all, you decide you really don't need to after all. As with almost every hard-feelings situation, it starts and ends inside you. Maybe you haven't made peace with your own circumstances, for whatever reason--you're still angry at your ex, you're still feeling vulnerable at being on your own, or any number of other, reasonable possibilities. In that case, a good therapist might be the better person to talk to, if only for a session or two. One side benefit of that would be your having an established place to go for a sounding board as other things come up, which they inevitably do.

I recently had a baby who was allergic to the "mattress" in an antique crib at great grandma's house. I had to sit myself down and remind myself that while I might not advocate for my own needs strongly with family in order to keep the peace, that is not an option for my baby. I have to be his voice because otherwise he doesn't have one. I practiced in the mirror and then went to great grandma and said "no, he isn't sleeping on that." No discussion, no excuses, no explanation - I'm his mother and the answer is no. Then went to the consignment shop, bought a porta crib and all was well. It was harder in my imagination than in reality and I think this skill will serve me well in the future. Good Luck.

I love this, thank you. Right on point.

Wow, it is slow today!

No, I got mired in a bigger question than I realized going in. But I'm back.

My father occasionally give us money to put in our children's college funds. My husband and I are very grateful, especially since we aren't quite done paying off his student loans and aren't able to save much for the children ourselves. We always thank him. The issue I have is, I always get a lot of questions about where we have it invested, how much interest is it earning, stocks, bonds, is it getting a good return, etc etc etc. Usually the same questions over and over, followed a statement of some kind of how he is glad they can contribute to this glad they can help the children and us. It feels invasive, like he doesn't trust us to make wise decisions with the money and that we should always remember be grateful. Which we are, but this seems overboard. It almost makes me want to start refusing the money. Am I overreacting? Should I just answer the questions gratefully? Anything else I should say?

Don't refuse the money. 

If you're comfortable with this, you can suggest to your father that he open a 529 account of his own in each of the kids' names. That way he can control the way it's invested and your kids still get the tuition help.

It may be that he doesn't want to take it on, in which case I suggest you give him the name of the plan you're using (not account numbers, just available funds) and tell him he's welcome to look at the options and suggest a strategy for you. You don't have to act on the information ever, but you're allowing him to feel included, and you might even benefit from having someone on your side with the time and inclination to do some research for you. 

I got married, the second time for each of us, a few months ago. It was low key: a minister, two attendents, and us on a beach. We told family and friends afterwards. It wasn't an elopement per se; we just wanted to do this our way, without familial interference. The families love both of us, so disapproval wasn't an issue. What was was our wedding attire. It was non-traditional, to say the least, and would have confused family. Oddly, a tv show made me think we made a mistake. The Big Bang Theory had an elopement and one of the parents considered it an insult that she wasn't invited nor told about it in advance. Carolyn, I hadn't thought about it from that point of view. Now I'm wondering if we owe an apology to family, but that would entail an explanation and that kind of defeats the purpose of the private ceremony in the first place. Do I need to correct an error?

Instead of an apology that might not even be necessary, why not have a low-key party this summer for everyone who would have been invited had you gone that route? 


Congratulations, both on your marriage and on sending me down a thought road of all the possible things you might have worn to your wedding.

What to do when you severely dislike your best friend's boyfriend, enough to invite her for visits strategically when you know he can't make it, or give fake reasons why they can't stay with you? I have only met him once, but it was for a whole week, and between that and what she tells me herself, I cannot reconcile why she thinks he is the greatest, and don't feel like I can just say "he can't stay with us because he takes pleasure in frightening and messing with our puppy, and makes misogynistic comments, and is all-around douchey", again due to her believing he is the greatest. Do I keep lying and avoiding it or try to like him somehow?

Admit you're having trouble reconciling what your friend thinks of him and what you witnessed. Be very specific. "I know how excited you are about him, and I am in your corner no matter what, but when he said, '[specific quote here],' I was really surprised--that not only concerned me, but it also seemed like something that would bother you, too. Did I misunderstand him?"

In the future, if and when you are around him again, I also suggest you calmly and kindly call him out on misogyny or puppy mistreatment or whatever else. A la, "Please don't tease him--that's actually animal cruelty. You're not used to being around dogs, I take it?"

The phrasing I've offered in both cases not only makes it very plain that you won't stand for certain poor behaviors, but also serves as a generous-minded prompt. Let him show who he is, good or bad, for all to see, and let your friend make her case for him. It's not foolproof but it gets things in the open, which is preferable to being busy every single time she wants to bring him along for the rest of these relationships' lives.

About a year ago, my husband told me he was under investigation for a sexual encounter he had with a grad student (who was in her 30s). At the time, I told him I would see him through the crisis, but I could not guarantee I would stay in the marriage. I found a great job and moved to another state. I invited him to come here, but he preferred to get another job in his field, which means he is moving to another state. Although he has agreed to couples counseling, he has taken no action on it. Granted, it's difficult because of the distance, but still. Sounds pretty cut and dried, doesn't it? Yet even though I have what amounts to a "get out of jail free' card, I find myself reluctant to cash it in. I do love him, but our marriage has been shaky for a long time. I don't want to go back to the dynamic we had before. I'm not even sure what I'm asking, but I've reached the point where I just need a new perspective. Got one?

Maybe. How long have you been in the new state/new job? It could be that you're just not feeling steady enough yet to take off the training wheels of your marriage. That's fine, just give yourself more time to settle in.

And if it's not that, if you're feeling established where you are but still don't feel right about ending the marriage, then you can just wait. Or you can start the divorce paperwork without signing anything, so that you start the process of living with the idea (thinking about it and having it on paper are two different realities); you'll know it's there for you to sign or shred when you do feel ready to decide either way.

Point is, you have nothing forcing you to decide anything yet, so use that--ideally until certainty finds you. When people get more frustrated by their indecision than by the situation that prompted it, clarity often follows. 

I'm the perpetually single friend/cousin. There have been boyfriends, but I have had no interest in bringing them around much because it was casual short term. As a result, I rarely ever got a +1 at weddings. It never bothered me, I happily attended weddings and had a blast. Now that I'm in my 30s (and still happily single), I'm tired of never going to weddings solo. I've tried inquiring about bringing a date at various timelines/relationships/ways, but 90% of the time am refused a +1. I won't lie, it stings, especially when I see people show up with their whole family. But I still attended with a smile, just less enthusiastic. This summer (with a barrage of weddings coming) I'm just declining if I can't bring a date. Not angry or bitter, I understand that there is not always room/budget for everyone, and I send a gift. But now I'm getting brides and grooms angry and hurt that I can't suck it up for their special day, esp when I did it for so many years for so many other people. But now, I'm just tired of it. And spending an entire weekend feeling like the odd man out, is not how I want to spend my time. Am I just being sour grapes? Bitter but trying to wrap it up in a nice package? Should I suck it up and go to my cousin's wedding?

Nope. Not unless you want to.

Admittedly I have little patience for people who harrumph over an omitted plus-1, and/or who refuse to rally at all, ever, when invited solo. But neither of these is true of you: You're understanding of space/budget issues and you've done more than your share of rallying.

The answer is the same regardless--the couple is free to set terms, and you are free to accept/decline those terms accordingly period--but it's obvious you feel bad about the reactions you're getting, so I want to back you up, too. You've been a good sport and deserve better than couples who are "angry and hurt."

My husband's wife died 4 years ago. Their two teenage daughters live with us. When she died, the mother had a sizeable life insurance policy which she apparently wanted to be used to fund her daughters' (v expensive) private education. I believe that this money would be better spent buying a larger home in a neighborhood with better schools which could also benefit any future children that we might have. Husband is against this because he is worried daughters will freak out (he tends to be overly permissive). So I suggested to the girls while he was on a business trip my idea to test the waters and they went running to their very well-off grandparents (mother's parents). Since then, I have gotten an email from their mother's brother announcing an unexpected visit, an email to husband and I telling us that grandparents would be happy to pay for granddaughters education, etc. My husband is very angry and blames me despite the fact that I think they are completely overreacting (there are worse things than getting transferred from a fancy private school to a fancy public school). I honestly feel that the mother's family just interferes with my ability to make decisions about how my family will live, etc. How do I make these in-laws less dramatic and regain control?

Holy carp. That's rich: YOU made a total and dramatic power move when you undermined your husband in his absence to get what you wanted--a nice big well-located house for you and your future kids on his dead wife's dime and at their daughters' expense. Wow.

The girls stay in their school because they're happy there and the money has been earmarked for it and they've been through enough, ffs.

If I were in your husband's place I might be talking to a lawyer already. You didn't actually do anything yet, granted, but the plan for which you overreachingly and underhandedly just laid the groundwork is so grasping and self-enriching that I would be in the midst of a big rethink of everything I once thought I knew about you. "(there are worse things than getting transferred from a fancy private school to a fancy public school)"--yes, there are--a stepparent in control but not interested in their best interests.

I'm not even sure what to advise except to look in the mirror. Not because there aren't other things you can do, but because I don't really think you'll do them. You're all about you. You'll have less "interference" from your in-laws if you recognize that, recognize your own ulterior motives, do a soul inventory, then emerge from it with consistent demonstrations that you can place your stepdaughters' interests above your own until they've been equipped to complete college.


My brother dated this amazing girl for a year. The family loves her, but they broke up. I want to include her in family events and though my brother says it doesn't bother him, the situation always gets a little tense because his ex gf and him do not talk... it ended acrimoniously. (He cheated -- which upset me when I found out about it). My boyfriend says I am picking her over my brother but I rarely click with people and so when I met her, we were instant friends. Should I not invite her to our 4th of July cookout?? She doesn't have a lot of family in the U.S. and she calls us her "second family."

There is a lot of room in the calendar between holidays. Invite her to be your friend, independently of family events. Your brother was a doink for cheating but he was awfully decent to give his blessing for your friendship with the ex. Seems to me the least you can do is return that favor by taking his comfort into account for his own family events.

In time you might be able to revisit that and include the ex more, as time wears the acrimony into something more like indifference.

This week's question about the parents that send money to the couple to pay for visits has me wondering, what is the expectation for number of cross country visits per year? My husband and I visit once a year, we are rarely visited (in 10 years- my parents visited 4 times, his parents once), yet without fail someone tells us each visit that we don't come frequently enough. We find it hurtful given no reciprocation, nor acknowledgement of the expense. And the trips are miserable with us running all over town to visit with people.

"You're right! And people don't visit us enough, either." If that, since you don't even need to make that much of a point. Whether these "you don't visit enough" remarks are guilt-trip attempts or just lumpy ways to say they care about you, you don't really need to respond to them as if they're legitimate challenges to your decision-making. You can just say, "Ugh, I know, I wish travel weren't so stressful!" and then carry on as if nothing pointed or critical had been said.

I was in this situation a couple of years ago. I knew I wasn't alone - everyone in the social circle hated this guy and couldn't figure out why our friend was dating him. I planned very obvious girl events - shoe shopping, manicures, etc. and would say, "hey, I'm needing some girl time, let's ...". I eventually told her how I felt about him. From that point on, no excuses needed, she knew he wasn't welcome when we did stuff together. And our friendship has outlasted their relationship.

Good for her--few are so accepting. I should say, good for you both.

Okay, that's it for today. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend and type to you here next Friday (I'll be off July 15, early notice).  

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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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