Carolyn Hax Live (August 11)

Aug 11, 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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Hello everybody, happy Friday. Sorry about last week. I am unpuffed now and ready to go.

Hi Carolyn. I'm hoping you can give me some advice on this. Whenever my mother gives me/my family member a gift, she ends up asking about it several times afterwards. She'll come over to our house and ask where it is, if we are using it, if the person likes it. This happens several times with each gift. Does not matter if it was $5 or expensive. We always thank her for gifts, and these comments feel like she's asking for thank yous over and over again. Right now I answer on behalf of my daughter ("yes, Brittany loves the stuffed animal"), but soon she'll be of an age where she'll be expected to answer. Asking her about it would not be productive, so any words of wisdom would be appreciated.

The easiest answer is the nuisance Mulligan: Assume everyone has at least one obnoxious but otherwise harmless trait or habit, and resolve just to cheerful about it.

The more involved answer is to use your response to shift the dynamic more to your favor. You can, for example, respond to her questions with a non-answer in the form of a question--"Oh, did you not get our thank-you note/message?" By doing that, you're essentially saying, "We already thanked you for this, remember?" without actually saying it. And when she (presumably) responds by taking your question literally, then you can non-answer again: "Oh good, I was afraid it got lost." The trick of this (and any other application of it with other inappropriate queries) is to remain polite and cheerful but also not engage even a little bit in the inappropriate line of questioning. Keep answering the question that is appropriate as if that's the one she actually asked. [more]

Is there a way to tactfully encourage one's spouse & siblings-in-law to start looking at moving their parents into assisted living? Both parents are late 80s/early 90s and have had multiple falls already, with associated broken bones. Both have other health problems (heart, diabetes, etc.) and neither should be driving (but they do). Their house requires several steep steps to get into and out of, although the building itself is a single story. The upkeep on their home is getting to be beyond them, but neither parent wants to admit they are unable to do what they used to. If we lived nearer, I'd certainly move them in with us if they were willing, but we're hundreds of miles away from them. Do I just bite my tongue? Do I suggest things to spouse? Do I just hope they don't have any more accidents?

Why can't you just say these things to your spouse? State the facts: "Because of [this], [this] and [this], I think it's time for you and your sibs to consider that your parents aren't able to live on their own anymore." Offering to help is a nice follow-up to such truth-telling.

Depending on their financial ability and insurance coverage, finding a caregiver to live with them might be an alternative to assisted living that's worth exploring.


Our wedding is falling apart and I need your help. My fiancé and I were set up by our friend Julia. Julia can be a bit of a firecracker and holds a grudge worse than anyone I know, but she's a loyal wonderful friend. My fiancé and I are also close friends with a woman named Sara who is also a great person, but Sara and Julia have had a feud since the early days of college, years before I knew either of them. Like I said, Julia holds a grudge and Sara won't talk about Julia at all. Several months ago, Julia asked that Sara not be invited to our wedding. It wasn't an easy choice, but we agreed to it because I guess we still feel we owe her for setting us up. We also figured since it's our wedding we could invite whoever we chose. The wedding is falling apart because a huge number of our friends are all now refusing to come because of our exclusion of Sara. (They've said this explicitly.) We're obviously rethinking our choice because on the one hand, they're right, Sara is one of our close friends and would for sure be invited if it weren't for Julia demanding that she not be, but inviting Sara would be a friendship-ending move to Julia. Sara is so much more understanding than Julia and doesn't hold our not inviting her against us. She has nothing to do with the "boycott" and has told the friends refusing to attend that it isn't necessary. What do you think we should do?

Time travel back to when you thought excluding one guest to please another was a good idea, and undo it?

I know, I hate "You should have ..." answers, because they're obviously not practical. But I think it's worth saying here because situations like this are so common. They tend to involve feuding exes more than feuding friends, but the upshot is the same: Indulging someone's insistence on a boycott is tantamount to giving a toddler what she wants to end her tantrum. It causes more and longer-term problems than the one you were hoping the indulgence would make go away.

Unless there is abuse or otherwise clear mistreatment, you invite both feuding parties and let them sort it out. It's fair and it works.

The unraveling of your guest list makes this point for me. You essentially sided with Julia and yet Sara is the only one among you acting like a true friend. You guys included, and Julia, and Sara's well-meaning but misguided allies.

There's no expiration date on doing the right thing, though, so, yes: Tell Julia that you and your fiance don't think Sara's friends have chosen the most productive way to protest, but they have awakened you to the fact that excluding Sara was a poor choice on your part. Say it was important to you to show how grateful you were to her, how indebted, for setting you two up, but that excluding someone is not the way you want to get this part of your life started. Say you're extending an invitation and an apology to Sara, and tell Julia she means the world to you and you hope she will still consider coming. 

It's going to be messy, no doubt, but a mess as a consequence of courage, inclusion and the retraction of a mistake is better than the mess you get--got--from caving. 

If Julia walks on you because of this--and, again, if whatever Sara did to alienate Julia wasn't anything you know to be abusive or unforgivably cruel--then that's not your harming Julia, that's Julia harming herself.

I've been dating my girlfriend for about a year, and she's everything I could have ever asked for - brilliant, kind, sexy, fun, my best friend, and just an incredible human being. What's the problem? The problem is I still want to get to flirt and date and have sex with a bunch of people. I've been really attracted to other women lately, probably in part because I know my girlfriend is ready to move towards marriage and I'm realizing I may never get to have sex with anyone else again. I don't want to hurt her, and I do like the idea of being married to her someday. How do I decide whether to break up with her over this? Both late 20's; she's pretty straight-laced and doesn't know how much I struggle with this.

No, the problem is that you have no business being in an exclusive relationship with anyone. And that you're lying by omission to your GF. And that your truth-telling won't be what hurts her, because you're hurting her already, now, by harboring doubts she knows nothing about.

Tell her exactly "how much I struggle with this." Now, like, today. You don't get to hold her under false pretenses of monogamous intent just because you think you're going to want her later when you feel good and darn ready.  

The only act of love here is honesty. Anything short of it is just a way for you to achieve your selfish, have-and-eat-cakish ends.

What is a good birthday present for a wife turning 70?

Something she wants.

Presumably you know her well?

I just noticed the whole last part of my answer on gift-interrogations disappeared. I'm going to take a moment to try to reconstruct it. 

Here's the [more] (again) to the "Gifts and Thank Yous" question:


The answer with serious investment is to rethink the assumption that "asking her about it would not be productive." Your people, your judgment prevails, but: I've found over and over again that the one path we rule out is the one path to a resolution, particularly with recurring problems.

I'm not suggesting you call her on her interrogation habit directly, which can put people on the defensive. Instead, use questions yourself: "Are you worried I/we/she didn't like it?" Or, use deliberately general assurances: "Mom, you always get us lovely gifts," or, "We always appreciate what you give us." It's either a preemptive balm for her concerns, or (if you've guessed wrong on what concerns her) a nudge for her to articulate what her concerns really are. There's something to this, obviously, or else she wouldn't do it; getting at it with love and tact might be best for you both.


When should I send in my story?

Now, here: LINK

I am a grandmother and when I give something to the gkids or do things with them I like to hear about it. I ask my kids if the grandchildren talked about "whatever" they did at my house of if they really liked something. I might even ask another time if they hung the picture they drew, or something similar. We elderly need to hear that what we do is appreciated and liked. Sometimes we like to hear it over and over again to bring a smile to our faces. I don't think it is a negative that needs to be dealt with.

Well, if your intentions aren't clear to the people you're asking, and if they take your inquiries as pressure or repeated solicitations for thank-yous, then it is a negative that needs to be dealt with.

Communication would do it, though. At some near-future opportunity, tell your kids that you ask these follow-up questions because it makes you so happy to bring the grandkids happiness. Say that's all you mean by it and hope it doesn't come across as pressure in any way.

Of course I'm an outside and maybe the way mom phrases her questions makes a difference, but to me it sounds like she is very anxious about whether or not her gifts are actually appreciated. That's different than wanting to be thanked, it's more about whether is she is picking the right gift or just giving you something you politely say "thank you" for while actually hating it.

Again, better communication would be ... better.

"It's so important to me to give the kids gifts they'll enjoy. Please tell me what they like and dislike so I'm not just forcing them into the polite-thank-you corner."

I've had a very good friend for several years who recently ended up in a prestigious and well-paying job. He describes himself as having more money than he knows what to do with, and loves to travel; meanwhile, I make a modest but comfortable living and don't get out of town much these days. Or at least I didn't – in the past year, said friend and I have travelled cross-continent and have an overseas trip coming up, on all his dime. He says he's just happy to have a travel companion, and we have a lot of fun on our trips, since we have very compatible travel styles. I'm obviously very grateful and do what I can to "repay" his kindness with thoughtful gifts and by using my organizational skills to make our trips as stress-free as possible. However, some people really don't get this arrangement – my family keeps encouraging me to marry him, and other people have made comments questioning whether I'm "sure" he doesn't expect anything romantic or sexual in exchange. How do I respond to raised eyebrows, comments, questions or statements that imply or outright state that I owe my friend sex or a relationship in exchange for his generosity?

The only people who need to "get" this arrangement are you and your friend.

So, answer nosy people's questions accordingly: "Thanks for your concern." Even from your family. The effect of repeating this, verbatim, can be powerful.

If you'd prefer to mix it up: "I've got this"; "Interesting, thanks"; "I'll keep that in mind"; "You do realize, I hope, that my standing here and nodding means only that I'm humoring you." 

As Bugs would say, bon voyagee.

Hi Carolyn, Long time reader, first time question submitter. I love reading your work! I got married two years ago. Neither of us changed our last name. Now I would like to change my last name to my spouse's last name. I'd like to tell my family before I do this. My family hasn't been supportive of our relationship until very recently. The lack of support was because we're a lady couple and the rents had big problems adjusting to that. I don't talk to them often. Any advice on how to tell them that I'm changing my last name? Part of the reason I am changing it is because I am more connected to my spouse's family. I guess I'm worried that they will take this personally and it will be seen as me disconnecting from my family at a time when we are working on being more connected. Thoughts?

It is personal, though, so they would be right to take it personally. Right?

You have every right to take your spouse's last name, of course, with or without justification. It's just that actions always have consequences and there appear to be some foreseeable consequences to what you plan to do. Are you ready for them? If your family does take it as a move to distance yourself from them, and they respond by undoing some of the progress you've made with them, will you regret having changed your name--or at least having chosen this as the time to do it?

If you're prepared for this to set you back and you're ready to proceed, then I suggest just telling your family in a declarative way. "I've decided to take Spousie's name. I just wanted to let you all know before I started the process." 

The way you phrased your question suggests you want to change your name and preempt consequences, and the answer to that is always that you have to weight the act against the potential fallout before you choose to act.

Six years ago my teenage niece, “Tara” became pregnant and my wife and I adopted the baby, our son, “Jake.” We’ve always been open with Jake that he is adopted. When he was old enough, we showed him a picture of Tara holding him when was born, and let him know he could learn more about his birth parents any time he wanted. He never expressed any interest so we didn’t press. Our daughter is also an open adoptee and three years ago when her birth mom visited us, Jake was concerned that “that lady” would take his little sister away. We tried to explain away his fears but since then he has been very resistant to hearing anything about his birth parents. Since we live halfway across the country from my family, Jake has only seen Tara a handful of times and has never connected her with the picture of his birth mom. In fact she usually avoids us when we’re visiting which we were always respectful of. Our annual visit is scheduled for next month and Tara has suddenly asked us to tell Jake the truth so they can interact in a “more authentic way.” My wife is adamant that we follow the advice we were given years ago to never give Jake more information than he wants. My parents and the rest of my family are saying it’s high time we get it all out in the open since it’s bound to come out sooner rather than later. I’m torn between the two perspectives and could really use an outside opinion. What do you say, Carolyn?

I have a lot I'd like to say but I'm going to stick to this:

One of you is looking out for Jake. 

One of you is on the fence.

The rest of you are looking out for Tara.

Jake is 6, yes or 5? Jake needs both parents on Team Jake.

The intricacies of open adoption have sprouted an industry of counsel around them. Please use your contacts to find a good therapist who works with families on these issues. Develop a strategy for bringing Jake into the full truth that minimizes the potential for (further) bad associations. 

Doing this would ultimately be a gift to Tara, too. If a healthy birth-parent relationship is what she wants, then develop and present to her your plan for giving her that.

Hey Carolyn - I'm in my mid-thirties and in a relatively new, but so far amazing, relationship. In both a slightly sad and incredibly happy way, I realize that none of my past relationships radiated this type positive energy. I'm trying not to get ahead of myself, but I really can see myself with this person long term. My question is when to discuss issues of mental health. I've been in a couple abusive relationships before that have taken their emotional toll (occasional nightmares or a random trigger). I also suffer from seasonal depression that can get pretty sticky. I've worked really hard not to feel like these things make me less deserving of a warm, loving relationship. Though those thoughts creep in occasionally. My question is when to tell this guy that I might feel unglued once in a while. How long is acceptable to hide it? Right now I go home, or take a night off from him if I feel like it's going to be rough mood-wise. But I sense that someone must have an answer on how to be transparent about mental health without having it ruin a relationship.

If having very (very!) normal needs and frailties is a relationship killer for this guy, then it will be whether you say so now or two years from now. And better to find that out now, no?

Please treat your needs as matter-of-fact: Say when you need a night off for mood management. Say why. Mention the seasonal depression. When old relationships come up, say that you've had some bad enough that you still get nightmares sometimes. Having various health problems is common; the ability to anticipate trouble and head it off is not common, and in fact it speaks well of you.

You need, as a partner, someone who can see that--another argument for finding out.

Of course, you don't necessarily want to unspool all of this on a first date; there is a pace of disclosure that makes sense. But it's not about some perceived line before which you hold it all in and past which you dump it all out. It's about trust and investment.

When you first meet someone, unless you're train-strangers having a mutual no-strings-attached catharsis moment, it's reasonable to believe the other person cares only so much about your every life detail--and will be only so responsible about respecting your privacy. So you share to a degree, roughly, that reflects what you want to know about him and what you want known about you. And you give-and-take accordingly as you get to know each other. One little nudge closer at a time, as you feel safe to share about you and curious to know about him.

If you're not sure where you are in this progression, I think a reasonable guideline is that when not telling feels like "hiding," then it's time to tell. 

I want to address the idea that you "owe" Julia for setting you up. She may have introduced you to each other, yes. But you and your fiance are the ones who dedicated yourselves to keeping the relationship going. Julia (presumably) was not intimately involved in your relationship beyond the introduction. Does her level of involvement in the success of your relationship really feel like it merits determining the guest list? Would you feel like you owed Julia if she set you up with someone and it didn't work out with that person? Even allowing one's own parents veto power over the guest list is considered bad form, and they're the ones that raised you! Please focus on this statement: "since it's our wedding we could invite whoever we chose" and realize that so far, you've been inviting who Julia wanted - not who you wanted.

No argument here. Thanks.

To the person who wrote "Sad thing is I'm 57":

I'm keeping your note confidential, but I wanted to thank you for sharing it. I also want to say there's nothing "sad" about thinking and feeling the way you do at your/any age. There's no timeline for any of us to understand who we are, what we need and what does and doesn't work. There is only the relief of reaching that point. I hope that's the feeling you bring with you from now on: "Ah, I get it--so much better this way." 

Take care, and thanks again.

That's it for today. Thanks Teddy, thanks to all who stopped by, have a great weekend and type to you here next week.

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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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