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Carolyn Hax Live (July 8)

Jul 08, 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 Carolyn, thank you for taking my question. My mom died suddenly a year and a half ago at age 58. She was the best, basically; her only fault was her decision to marry and stay married to my dad, who is awful. He cemented his awful status by starting to date one of my brother's former friends a few months after my mom died; the friend became a former friend because she "joked" to my brother maybe two weeks after the funeral that she could finally go after my dad now that he's single. Then she did! They kept it a secret from my brother and I for months. While Mom was alive I only tolerated my dad because it was necessary to have a relationship with her, and since she died I've only continued my relationship with him because it's important to my brother. I live across the country and only have to see him a few times a year anyway, so it's tolerable. But I'm getting married next year. I met my fiance a few months after we lost Mom and he's been an amazing rock. We want our wedding to be a celebration of my mom and how happy she would have been to see me so happy; we're all wearing her favorite color, we're serving her famous pumpkin cake as our wedding cake, etc. I'm fine with having my dad there, but I absolutely do not want my dad's girlfriend there. It's not the fact of him having a girlfriend that bothers me; it's that it's this particular woman who was so disrespectful to my mom and to my brother so soon after she died. I know that I CAN insist on this, but is it the right thing to do? If I have to invite her, can you help me frame this so that it bothers me less? Thank you!

I'm so sorry for your loss, and for the difficult position your father has put you in throughout your life.

Yes, of course, you can strike your father's girlfriend from the guest list.

While the former friend has well earned her status as "former," though, the greater responsibility lies with your father, doesn't it? For a virtual lifetime of awfulness, vs. one (admittedly hideous) remark? Inviting him but excluding his girlfriend has a whiff of punishing her for all of his poor behavior just because it's easier to punish her than it is to punish your father. Costs you less with the people you value, i.e., with your brother.

If you're okay with that then I am, because we all make deals with ourselves when it comes to the difficult people in our lives, but that's also the kind of inconsistency that can dog us later when we have to live with the deals we've made. Given that you associated with your dad to please your mom and then your brother, maybe now is a good time to figure out how do deal with him to satisfy *you.* Half measures like GF-shunning will only get you so far.

Hi Carolyn, It's my birthday today, and my first since my mom passed away earlier this year. I am lucky to have a lot of friends and family, so I've been getting birthday messages all morning, but every time I get one I'm feeling a pang, because I know I won't hear from my mom today. I know you've lost a parent yourself; do you have any tips as to how to keep appreciating those things and people I do have today? I'm afraid that I'm letting the pain outweigh all the good things, and I know she wouldn't want that.

Sometimes the pain outweighs the good things. It's okay. You don't have to remain in balance every minute of every day. Sometimes the balance will tip toward joy and you will feel lighter than you ever thought you could feel again, having felt the weight of loss. Then the loss hits you in the jaw out of nowhere and you can't believe you're on the floor again after you thought you'd finally pulled yourself back up for good. It's just how feelings go.

The time to fight the push-pull of it is when you get stuck on the floor or when you hit such extremes that you're having a difficult time keeping your life on its rails. If today is just a sad-reminder day, then be sad. And grateful, too, for your lovely friends, even though the net effect of the feelings they're stirring up today is sadness.

And, happy birthday!

Pardon the cognitive dissonance.

My MIL has zero respect for boundaries. On a recent visit, she told us we were raising our newborn child incorrectly, criticized our marriage, told my wife that her personality was awful, and brought up things that she was mad about that my wife had done as a child. When we challenge her statements she turns into a guilt martyr and says we don't want a relationship with her and she brings up her own awful childhood. At what point is it appropriate to agree with her and cut ties?

When she says any of these things--that you're raising your kid wrong, that your marriage stinks, that your wife is awful, *anything* along these lines, be completely clear: "I will not tolerate your saying things like that about me/us/my wife. This visit/conversation is over." Then you show her the door/end the call/leave her home. Let her wail till she's blue about her awful childhood. This is all you give her:  "Mom, I'm sorry about your awful childhood. No one deserves to be treated as you were. That's why I'm drawing the line with you now. Unkindness is not welcome." No negotiating. Keep your distance for a period of time (depending on how often you typically see her--think in terms of skipping a couple of regular visits) to let her know you are serious. If/when she humbles herself to approach you, or if you're game to try again, then set up another visit. Repeat steps as needed until she gets the message to leave her hostility home.

... Of course, she might never get the message, in which case the only option might be to cut the tie. An interim step before that is to keep your wife and kids out of her reach and visit her solo. Protecting them, after all, is paramount.

Hi Carolyn, I'm (very) recently married, and we're living with his parents for the summer. My MIL worries as a hobby. I'm getting used to this, but sometimes it takes the form of criticizing my husband/her son to me--i.e. she's worried we're going to end up homeless and/or starving and/or poor because he procrastinates on job applications, or if he works from home and doesn't have a tight schedule he's going to dawdle and not get anything done, etc.. When he was first applying for jobs she tried, with an air of girlish cahoots, to enlist me in haranguing him. I've since refused to enter into such cahoots, and generally say something mild like "Well, I think all people struggle with this." But it does bother me, and this kind of criticism is very demoralizing to my husband. What can I do or say that isn't just trying to tell her how to run her relationship with her son?

In lieu of, "Well, I think all people struggle with this," there's always, "I've found that fretting to him backfires, and demoralizes him more than it motivates." It's nicer than "Back the fox off, Lady," and it's also just stating what you have observed vs. presuming to speak for your husband.

Otherwise, though, I suggest not trying to fix this. For one thing, your husband does need to navigate his own relationship with this mother, as you've suggested. And, it's just the one summer (right?). When it has passed and/or when your husband is no longer in limbo, then the problem will go away--or will reveal itself to be bigger than job-application nagging, at which point you can address it as such. 

I am ending my marriage this summer after confirming my suspicions that my husband has been unfaithful at various points throughout our marriage. We have two small children and this will be hard, perhaps terribly so, but the thought of staying in the marriage for longer (and then perhaps ending it when they're older and more aware) seems like the wrong thing to do. The thing is, I am not depressed or unhappy. I had suspected the infidelity for longer than my husband knows, and feel secure in the parts of my life that will continue to be good after the marriage ends. I am not planning to badmouth him or give anyone more than the need-to-know minimum about why we are splitting up. But from even the two friends I've confided in about my plans, I am getting a whiff of "You just married him to have the two babies, and now you don't want him anymore." They are reading my calm feelings as meaning I won't grieve for our marriage. This is making me dread have to share the news with other, even less charitable people, especially my husband's family (who I want to keep in the kids' lives). I should probably be taking this one step at a time, and worrying mostly about the logistics for now. But this is bothering me a lot. What do you think?

I think your friends aren't your friends. Wow.

I hope you called them on the "whiff" so they could either confirm or correct the record: "I'm hearing that you think I married him to have babies and now don't want him anymore. Is that what you're saying?" This is important for two reasons: 1. If they meant it, and if there's absolutely no truth to what they're saying, and if they are accusing you of this character lapse without any basis in fact, then you want to hear them own it so you know not to count on them as your friends anymore; 2. If you're reading into their words and they absolutely don't think this, then you want to give them a chance to clear up the misunderstanding. 

I hope you're being honest with your closest friends about what really happened; part of being close is letting them know and understand what you're going through. I realize that opens the possibility of a leak, but that's all part of knowing who of your friends is solid. Pick the ones you feel you can trust, and then trust them. That's all you owe your husband as far as confidentiality. In fact, it's generous.

Regarding your footnote, he's writing about his mother-in-law, not his mother, so there is no logic in him visiting her solo. Just write her off, I'd say.

Oh right--sorry about that. The whole answer is for the child of the no-boundaries mom. 

For the spouse of that child, the road is tougher. You can make the suggestions to your wife that I did; you can stand up for your family at every opportunity, though your wife gets the last word on the pack-up-and-leave/kick-her-out decision (sell it well, it's important); you can urge your wife to cut the tie either temporarily or permanently, depending on the damage MIL is doing.

You can also start refusing to be present for these visits, but that's problematic given that your wife is likely Victim Zero of her mom's hostility. To opt out is to stand up for yourself, which is indeed necessary sometimes, but your wife might need you to stand up for her more than you need to protect yourself.

Carolyn: l was really taken aback by your answer this week to the stepdaughter being pressured into a bridal shower. (For the record, I'm a daily and Sunday Post subscriber, the real, live, paper!) Boundaries are something you are always encouraging us to set and yet in this instance, the daughter is being advised to do without and just let the stepmother get her way. What happens when there's a pregnancy? Shower, visiting, hands on role in child's life? "Well you let me do it for your wedding..." Huge red flags that stepmother a) doesn't respect boundaries; b) doesn't respect her husband's daughter; c) has to get her way. Letter writer didn't seem to indicate any closeness with this woman so why? Why should she cave? It wouldn't be a gift. It would be an invitation for stepmother to continue to force herself on the daughter.

I knew I'd hear about this answer.

And I included a lot of explanation accordingly, or so I thought, including the acknowledgement of my stance on boundaries: "boundaries are the cornerstone of happy families ... and I’m going against my entire history of advice."

This is not about a pregnancy or raising a child or anything of such high stakes. Should the stepmother ignore boundaries in those cases--and I expect she will--then absolutely the LW and spouse will need to hold firm. I accounted for that, too: "Caving doesn’t even set a precedent unless you cave again."

So here's why I did it: This shower (or whatever they call it; one of the options I gave is to have it after the wedding so it's clear it's not a gift-grab) is a chance at inclusion and bridge-building with people who are going to be the bride's family. It's also seriously low stakes, per the LW. Her objection was that the shower was an etiquette violation, not that the stepmother is trying to hurt anyone or throw away what the couple is planning because her way is somehow better or whatever else controllers try to control. So why not solve the etiquette and have the party?  What I took from the letter is that the stepmom is desperate to bring the bride to her people, to have a part somewhere in the proceedings.

Or just to get attention, entirely possible.

And while shutting her down is one reasonable response to the desperation and boundary-busting (desperation is indeed the stepmom's problem, not the bride's), I think boundary enforcement and nuance can coexist. In cases like this when the stakes, again, are very low for lowering the boundary once. 

The payoff can be high, too. A willingness to include can make an ally of the stepmother in a way the LW hasn't considered.

If I'm wrong and LW knows it and doesn't want to find a way to include stepmom, then I accounted for that: "If you Just Can’t, then so be it, keep refusing."

If I'm wrong and LW goes ahead with some kind of celebration on LW's terms, as I advised, and stepmom takes that as an invitation to bust boundaries again, then the couple will have ample opportunity to draw and enforce the line for good.

 

I appreciate the chance to explain. As a mouthpiece for the boundary side of the equation, I need to be careful to represent the  nuance side where applicable.

Carolyn: how do we process? How can we make it stop? Why so much violence and ugliness? This is a wonderful country, flawed and messy, but does it have to be so vile at the same time? Not looking for a real answer but just a place for ordinary people to feel safe.

I am so torn up about this. 

Here's what I'm thinking at the moment: We all need to take extra care to avoid taking sides. If you think you're with the angels on an issue, any issue, then you're creating devils in the negative space of your virtue. That is the seed of all extremism.

We're all guilty of this, I think, by nature, but that part of our nature is off its leash right now.

I lost my mom 7 years ago, and someone told me something on the day of her funeral that helped. You will have to find a new normal. It is okay to be sad, and over time the happy times will outweigh the sad ones. Losing someone so close to you is like a wound. It will heal, but every once in a while that wound will be re-opened during certain celebrations/holidays/bug moments in life. I recently got married and during the planning, I would have moments of sadness that she wasn't there helping me, especially picking out my dress. I found ways to honor her at the wedding, and while there were a few tears, it was mostly happy and I knew she was there with me in spirit. I feel like I'm rambling, but I hope what I said helps you get through it.

A friend was in a similar situation and ended up having the girlfriend at the wedding since Dad wouldn't come without. The Bride had an amazing photographer who had been through the same situation and who artfully (thank you digital photography) edited out the girlfriend for the Bride's photos, Dad was none the wiser preventing further arguments. A small silver lining that can be planned for should the girlfriend end up at the wedding.

I consider myself a pragmatist, but this takes it. 

When we can photoshop someone out of an ongoing conversation, then I'll need a new line of work.

Hi Carolyn, Do you have a suggestion for how to handle open-ended invitations from people you don't want to spend time with? Our household is juggling two full time jobs, a toddler and some other family obligations. We have limited down time and limited time to socialize. We try to concentrate socializing to close friends and limit socializing with acquaintances. There are just not enough hours in the day/week/month right now. I have an acquaintance who asked me which dates I am free in July so that she could plan a party. I told her that we were unsure about our July schedule and that she should not plan around me. She planned the party, and then I wrangled a weekend trip so that we would not have to go. Now she is pushing me to attend another party the following weekend "since you can't make it to the other party". I find this infuriating and exhausting and am struggling to navigate the situation. How can I frame this to avoid All The Guilt? Chat only, please.

So is it the busy schedule driving this, or a desire to avoid this one person? You set it up as the former, but "wrangled a weekend trip so that we would not have to go" tells me it's the latter; spending a polite hour at someone's party sounds a heck of a lot easier than dragging a toddler out of town on short notice.

Either way, you need to be more honest: "You're kind to keep trying. We won't make the other party, either; we're really limiting our social lives right now. Thank you for understanding."

In a few weeks, I'll be going to my sister's wedding. I love her dearly, and her fiancé is a very nice guy. However, her fiancé's family is a bit of a different story -- very vocally racist and intolerant, including of my family. In the past, it has been an issue. I'm happy to support my sis and her soon-to-be husband, but I'm worried about to handle the likely racial and offensive commentary that might come up, without causing a scene or upsetting my sister. It's going to be a very small wedding (around 25 people total), so simply avoiding some of her fiancé's more problematic family members will be tricky. Any suggestions on proactive phrases or steps to take to keep the focus on the happy couple and drama-free?

What does your sister do about the fact that her fiance's family is "intolerant ... of [her] family"? What does her fiance do or say, or expect her family to do or say? 

Hi Carolyn, I love your column! I am in my late 30s and have a young child. My family is planning a vacation in a few months. My mother informed me that I "need" to give her our itinerary because she is worried about "everything that's going on". The implication is that she is worried about the global political climate. I do not think it's reasonable to be any more worried about terrorism in our Scandinavian destination versus our daily lives here in a major U.S. city. I have gone on plenty of other international trips to far more questionable locations without providing her with my itinerary. My mom has a history of expecting me to do small things like this to manage her anxiety. I don't hugely care about sharing my itinerary, but she seems to feel entitled to it just because she decided to worry. What are your thoughts on boundaries in a case like this? Should I refuse to indulge her on principle, or should I be "generous" and provide the requested information? Is it a mistake to set the wrong precedent even thought it's a relatively trivial issue? Chat only, please.

I think you have a fair amount of leeway here: You can choose not to indulge her because her having the itinerary will have zero effect on your safety, or you can give it to her because it verges on zero inconvenience to do so--you can always choose next time not to do the next small thing she expects. 

You can agree to the small things in perpetuity because it seems to help her even if it makes no sense whatsoever, or you can note a pattern of increasing asks (or of her taking the small things as invitations to grab more, like calling for you at hotels on your itinerary) and say no upfront.

Or you can say no just because you're tired of being asked to manage her anxiety, even though her requests themselves are trivial.

It really is up to you and your feelings about this history with your mom. 

Hi Carolyn, I have a teenage daughter who lacks self esteem. She's always had difficulty making friends, but over the course of several years, she now has a great group of girls to hang out with. Her problem is that she is afraid of being left out. She says yes to every activity and invite, even if she doesn't want to go. For example, the other day she was hanging out with a few of her friends and they decided to watch a movie. My daughter wasn't interested in the movie they wanted to watch, but she sat through the whole 3 hours! Instead of saying "I'm not really interested in this movie and am heading home -- Text you guys later," she missed dinner, came home upset, started beating up on herself and then the tears came. How can I help her build some confidence?

Please help her just by treating incidents like the movie time-suck as necessary and mercifully low-stakes lessons in managing friends and friendships, and in managing her own sense of self.

She thought at the time that being with her friends was more important than enjoying the movie--then, after it was over, she realized that her time would have been better spent on something that interested her more. Okay! And oh well. Good thing to know for next time. That's how we all figure out whether to say yes or no to invitations (or whatever else), by the exact same process of trial and error.

Even people who have spent decades trial-and-erring these decisions can still pick wrong sometimes, and choose a night in with Netflix when they should have gone to the party, or go to the party when they'd have been happier home on the couch. Efforts to know ourselves are ongoing. Normalize this for her, not to build her up but because it's normal. She's not even late to the party, if you think about it. Teenage years are prime for this kind of self-reckoning. 

Dear Carolyn, can I please just look at pictures of cute kittens today? Maybe a puppy or a sloth or baby gorilla Gus at the Fort Worth Zoo? I just can't take it anymore, and I'm shutting down, and I have nightmares of my 3-year-old being shot, and I think I'm just going to look at baby elephants for awhile. Thanks in advance for giving your permission.

Unneeded blanket permission granted. I'm off to snuggle my dogs.

I'll check the queue for comments to post, but otherwise that's it for today. Thanks everyone, hang on to the good, and I'll type to you here on July 22.

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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 washingtonpost.com. She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.

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