Carolyn Hax Live: "A blaze of hyperbole"

Dec 15, 2017

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax chats live every Friday at noon to answer any questions you might have about this strange train we call life.

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Hi everybody. This is my last chat till the new year, so if you have a question or anticipate having one between now and Jan. 5, now's the time to ask it.

My parents live fairly close, but my brother and family are a plane ride away. They will be up at my parents house in few days for the holidays. My husband has limits to how much time he can spend with my family (really with anyone as he is very introverted) and I respect that by not 'forcing' to join in anything or spend more time at my parents house that he is comfortable. Because we are about an hours drive away, I maintain I can spend the time I need to with my family during the holidays and he can join when he is comfortable. However, he has taken to declaring that I will only go at certain times because he should be my priority and spending time together should be whats more important to me. Because he is spending time with my family for an night/day, this is what he is owed in return. I want to slam my car door and get the hell out of there when he talks like this. But he is so convincing about prioritizing "our" family (currently just the two of us) that I have myself second guessing. Is this what compromise looks like?

No. I was about to type out what I think compromise does look like, but that's actually beside the point. A healthy relationship just doesn't have the kind of anger, declarations, or coercion you're describing here. The whole thing has an awkward and disturbing feel to it.

Two people who function well together certainly can be at odds in circumstances like the ones you describe here--wanting different things out of your holidays, having different tolerance levels for socializing and/or each other's families, even having a different idea of what "our" family means (though that issue more than the rest lives right at the border between differences and incompatibilities).

But what each half of such a couple needs to make it work is a deep investment in each other's happiness and a strong boundary around your own needs.

So, if one of you has to resist or deny the other something (seen as) essential just to get a little of what you need, then you're in trouble. (more)

The way it applies here is pretty basic, I think: For this to work, he needs to see your family time as something you value and encourage you to take it.

You, in turn, need to see that when you do as he's encouraging and take this time with your family, that time will come out of his version of a happy holiday--one on one time with you. 

So, short version, this works if he wants you to see your family and you want to set limits on that family time for his sake. 

What you have going on now is the reverse--you're pushing him to get your family time and he's pushing you to curtail that time. That's the unhealthy dynamic. And the unnerving part is that as part of this dynamic, your husband--by your description at least--is using manipulation tactics to get more of his needs met.

If this is anything but an odd exception at holiday time (doubtful, but I've seen weirder), then I suggest you run this by a good marriage family therapist. Solo. Or get a head start by reading "Lifeskills for Adult Children," which is, as I've said so many times, Boundaries 101, and where there's manipulation, there's need for exactly that.

Your posts are all labeled "Hax Admin" rather than "Carolyn Hax." [Peers at monitor suspiciously.] Are you an imposter? You are, aren't you? What have you done with the real Carolyn?

It wasn't me, it was the Boss of Me. It's complicated. But I should be back now. I think.

 

Dear Carolyn, I’ve submitted a few questions over the past few months but have yet to see any of them answered, so I’m hopeful you’ll take this one! Last night, I received my umpteenth call from my sobbing, devastated sister (mid-20’s) over a yet another semi-hookup-flirty-thing guy that didn’t work out (he is moving across the country and leaving the company they both work at. She found out via the announcement, not from him.) This is a years-long pattern. She falls for jerks (ie, consistently bailing on plans, girlfriends still in the picture, or those who conveniently call only on weekends) then is utterly devastated when it doesn’t work. She’s convinced the problem is her and that she is “unlovable,” “boring,” and “ugly.” She truly believes this even though she is beautiful, smart, funny, successful, athletic, kind, and thoughtful person. She says things like “I can’t do this anymore” and “I don’t want to do life if this is how it’s going to be.” I’ve tried tough love but she is so fragile over these jerks that she falls apart all over again; I’ve tried comforting her and telling her what she wants to hear, but I think that reinforces the problem. Do I keep on with tough love or continue to be her shoulder? This is breaking my heart and I am so worried for her. Tough Love or Shoulder?

What form of "tough love"?

That might make a difference. 

But, without it, I can say this much.

1. There is rarely anything a bystander can do about this. It's an incredibly common problem, painful to watch and stubborn as hell.

2. Telling people what they want to hear is never the answer unless you've got a gun to your head or they're on their deathbed. (Okay, maybe there are a couple of other exceptions, but I'm about to start a vacation and I want to go out in a blaze of hyperbole. Plus, even if there are other exceptions, there aren't many.) Telling people what they want to hear is at its core an act of disrespect. It's "You can't handle the truth!"

3. The truth, when there's a pattern like this, isn't about any particular guy, ever--so if you're talking about one particular guy or another, you've already lost the battle and are working on losing the war. The truth is that your sister is the problem.

4. The problem isn't that your sister is  “unlovable,” “boring,” and “ugly,” though. It's that her picker is broken, and her picker is broken because what she finds attractive in other people is out of alignment with what is healthy for her to have in her life.

5. That problem arises from an underlying problem that I'm in no position to identify , but that she is--if she has the courage. But that's a big if. The one thing I know for sure is that what feels comfortable and familiar to her emotionally is what she seeks (because that's pretty much what we all do) even though it is not a happy place for her. 

6. A good therapist could help her identify what feelings are familiar, what part of that familiarity backfires on her, and why. 

So--what does this mean for you? Not a whole lot that's going to feel productive or satisfying, alas, but it's worth a try: Condense some of this into a form of support and call her back. "You're not unlovable, boring or ugly, as you know. But I think you also know on some level that you're choosing people who--for whatever reason--aren't good for you. They aren't a happy place. Have you thought about talking to someone about figuring out a pattern?"

I just found out my son and his wife are going to be parents. I'm very excited and somewhat confused and a little hurt. Herein lies the rub... She's 7 months along. I don't know why the long wait to tell me. They live in another state, and I haven't seen them in about a year. I don't interfere in their lives. I send a text now and then, saying" Hope you have a good day, love you both". I never get a reply. I have tried email a few times, still no response. Frankly I don't know if my son has a stick up his butt or if he's completely clueless. I don't get texts or calls on my birthday, holidays or Mother's Day. Feeling sad I won't get to know my new grandchild. Signed, weepy grannie

I'm sorry. The pregnancy announcement is merely confirming what has been true for a long time, that you and your son are all but estranged. It sounds as if you don't have much of an idea why--though maybe that's only because you haven't thought of it this way yet. Please do, and at least try to reconstruct the timeline of his withdrawal from your life. 

You may come up with no useful information but it is worth a try, because any factual trail will help you when it's time to try to establish a stronger connection. Apologies where needed, for example , are huge--and it's also important to understand where the sensitivities are. If the wife, say, is at the beginning of the estrangement timeline, then it's important to recognize that antagonizing her is about the last thing you want to do. And etc.

I should say--antagonizing anyone is a bad idea in general, and especially so when you're trying to thaw out an icy relationship. The best case you can make for his letting you back in is for your presence to be a net plus: Be warm, be flexible, be respectful, don't blame, don't impose. A good starter along those lines: "I miss you. I've been mindful of interfering but I think I've kind of disappeared myself. Maybe we could find a good time to talk?" Start really small. Good luck.

Dear Carolyn, In three years my husband and I will be empty-nesters. At that time, we plan to move back to our home state, where we've already invested in a house to retire to. We spend time there in the summer with family and I get to know people in town. This all sounds great but I truly love our current town of fifteen years in which I've made many good friends and acquaintances. How do I overcome my feelings of grief at leaving my current location? How do I stop feeling angst about something good we've planned for many years? (we planned the other location because it's on a lake which we anticipate will draw our kids to visit). I know having my kids leave the nest is an inevitable transition, but the added change of location has got my feathers ruffled. Fretting the future

Is fretting your only option? Can you get creative instead? Just one of many possible examples: Can you rent out the lake house for break-even or profit, use it yourselves only for summers/holidays (i.e. when family would normally gather), and keep living in a smaller/less expensive place in your current town?

Of course, it's possible this is just typical transition anxiety, and you'll be fine once you're resettled--leaving anywhere you've found happiness is going to be painful. But if you're not as excited about the plan as you once were, then it's okay to remind yourself that the plan isn't in charge, you and your husband are, and reopen the discussion accordingly. 

Yes re: therapist and one of the things she needs to explore is why she thinks a semi-flirty-hookup thing is the equivalent of a relationship. Maybe she didn't find out this guy was moving in person because her behavior is so casual/undefined that the guy has no idea what she thinks it is and/or he thinks it's nothing. My completely guessing opinion is that her lack of clarity with these guys is based in her certainty that they'd reject her, and then she's so unclear that they don't even realize that she's someone to reject (e.g. that she's not just offering casual hookups, but has an unspoken expectation that they'll lead to more - even though she never communicates that). She may not be picking all that badly, but she may be communicating - through words and deeds - in ways that are really undermining her objectives.

Hi Carolyn: My son is 7 and still believes in Santa, that Santa makes toys in his workshop, all of it. He asked Santa for a hoverboard, an iPhone, and a $200 robot. I simply cannot afford these things (and he wouldn't be getting a phone at his age anyway). He'll be getting plenty of other gifts from Santa, myself and our relatives but I'm already heartbroken at the thought of his disappointment on Christmas morning when he sees that he didn't get what he asked for. Is there a way to handle this without ruining the Santa fantasy?

Seems to me the Santa fantasy has ruined the Santa fantasy, and so it's hard to see a good reason to keep it going.

Maybe it's too late to solve this particular problem, but you can start preempting future disappointments by being a little less awesome at maintaining the facade. Use the same wrapping paper and handwriting, for example, for your gifts from "Santa" and gifts from you. Letting him piece it together himself is so much better than what would effectively be a "Psych! We were just yanking your chain." You can ease any hard feelings he might have by bringing him in on it--reminding him that not everyone is as grown up as he is now (see?) and so he needs to be careful what he says around other kids.

That is the biggest of the Santa bummers, that it's so easy to create this myth for kids but few people warn you to think of the endgame first.

As for the immediate problem of this year, you have a couple of options: Explain that Santa does what he can, and it's not always what we want (so much truth to that); or get creative (no $200 robot, but is there a less expensive kit to build one himself?); or pool your buying power with these other relatives to buy one of his wish-list items; or say you heard from Santa that he can't bring these and is there something else he'd like?; or _____. (Open to suggestions from the nutterati.)

But I say all this when the truth is there's no such thing as a gift-giving holiday without an element of disappointment, at least until the recipient has come to the point of maturity where the gifts themselves don't matter--and your son is years away from that. He asked for real things (or things realistic maybe for other kids), yes, but it could just as well have been a unicorn on his wish list. There's no fixing that except by having Santa be the agent of no, and it happens eventually to every kid. With the possible exception of kids whose asks are reasonable (unicorns themselves, perhaps) or whose extravagant wishes are all met--and that's even worse for them in the long run than Santa's kick to the shins.

Hi Carolyn, I’m currently in the middle of a silly dispute and would greatly appreciate your advice. I have a group of close girlfriends that I’ve known since college. We’re all very close and have supported each other through many milestones. A few months ago, “Jane”announced that she was pregnant. Obviously we were all very excited and immediately offered to plan her baby shower. Jane suggested that we ask her sister “Joan” to help with the planning and offset some of the cost. Joan is a nice girl and we all know and like her. She contacted us and said she was excited to help with the planning. Here is the problem: Jane and Joan are from a fairly wealthy family, and they both have high paying jobs. In the past, we have set the same budget for all baby showers within our group to ensure fairness. Joan, however, wants to go all out and throw an extremely extravagant party for her sister. She offered to cover the full cost of the party in order to make this happen. While I am all for it, some of the girls are quite upset. They don’t feel it’s fair for Jane to have a much nicer baby shower than everyone else. We did pretty well with the other showers, but Joan wants to hire a professional event planner and cater a meal vs our baked goods + low key decorations. Now the girls don’t want to be involved in the planning and are thinking about skipping it altogether in protest. Joan thinks they’re being petty and said her family is really excited for the first grandchild. I’m conflicted because I do understand both sides. I do think hiring an event planner for a baby shower is kind of pointless, but it’s her money and I know she can afford it. If I’m being honest, it would be great to save the money I would be spending on the baby shower. As far as I know, Joan hasn’t said anything to her sister yet. I worry that Jane will be upset and it will lead to a fight within the group when she hears about it. Any advice on how to proceed?

Oh for fox's sake. Let Joan hijack the party already and be done with it. Go and smile and eat good food. 

For the record: Is Joan being tone deaf and self-centered here? Yes. She is. This isn't all about her.

But it isn't about "the girls [who] are thinking about skipping it altogether in protest," either. It's about Jane. If I could tell them to just get over themselves and go to the stupid party, I would, but since you wrote then I'll have to pass that baton on to you. Enjoy.

I was your sister 8 years ago. What helped me was a friend pointing out that I always had fun boyfriends, but if I was looking for a husband to look at the boring guys who'd make great dads. She encouraged me to have fun and get my dating craziness out of my system, but when I wanted a serious relationship to start picking guys I would want to raise my kids with and to value stability. That really helped shape my perspective and I realized that I would never want to raise kids with most of the guys I dated. I ended up falling in love with a guy who had a boring, 40 hour a week job that allows him to pick up our kids and make dinner every night. Maybe that will help your sister as well.

I like aspects of this, but some of it I just think, ooh, no--namely the idea that "boring" is good. 

I see what you're saying, that the whole danger element has to go eventually if you want a relationship to be steady. But so many people take the "boring" thing not as a rhetorical flourish but instead literally, and use it to justify "settling" for someone they don't deeply love.

So, yeah, promote the "steady" part, but don't skip past the fact that you "ended up falling in love." The upfront choices change--the pool of people you're willing to consider--but holding out for someone you're nuts about is the part to leave as-is.

After going through a similar pattern, I realized that no one is going to ever respect me and treat me well if I don't do that for myself first. I remember being on a second date, and the guy was texting for the zillionth time that night. Without thinking, I grabbed my jacket, got up, and left. He didn't even notice I'd gone. I didn't return his calls later. The next time it happened, the guy stood me up. I didn't respond to him either. (His excuse was that he forgot.) It's that first step to taking back power, and then after that, leaving bad behavior becomes automatic that you don't even have to think about it. But getting there is hard.

For the Lake house owner: Empty lake houses far away from family and friends, where working-age kids visit for a few times a year, can be very lonely places. I found this out in my 30s when I moved to a picturesque isolation cell in a rural area, and I was working. Trust those second thoughts.

Hi, Carolyn, and happy everything. One of the nuts here. This past week, on 3 occasions I have been awoken (twice at night, once in a.m.) by next door family in duplex screaming. Specifically mom yelling at child. First time, just massive screaming between mom and kid. Second, mother screaming at child (think s/he was not doing homework) and sounds of running and hitting (I think). Third time, heard clearly, child did not want to go to school, mother was screaming that the kid had to go to school, then chasing, sound of hitting (with hairbrush, at least in my head), and mother calling kid "a stupid, ugly brat." Since then, about 3 days ago, nothing. I am a single mom, and I think she is, and I know it is frustrating, but this is very upsetting to me. I know there are at least 2 girls of about high school age in the home, and I have heard what sounds like a younger boy (very thin walls, it turns out). What do I do the next time I hear this? Complications: Have met mom and one daughter, they seem nice and normal, but hardly see in person. Don't know their first or last names. This family is lower-income (we all are) and a minority that traditionally (and legitimately) fears police. Thought of sending a note to the school that says something like, "Check on well-being of kids at XXX address." They would speak to kids, right? I think you may have posted phone numbers in the past of places that could be of service to someone who wants to help, not hurt. If you have any numbers or advice, can you please let me know? FWIW, the name-calling element made me cringe. I don't want anyone to be hurt, that is so bad. But that is more speculation on my part. The name-calling, I wanted to cry. If you have any idea, please share. If this happens again, I need to do something. I was so relieved when it was brief last time. Thank you.

1-800-4-A-CHILD. It's the hot line for a nonprofit called Childhelp. The staff can hear your concerns in detail and help you decide what intervention is appropriate--calling the school and/or CPS, most likely. You could just call the school or CPS directly, based on what you've written here, but I've found that people balk at this huge step and so the Childhelp staff can assure you if and when it's appropriate to make the call.

Just call from someplace other than your apartment. Walls are thin both ways.

Hi Carolyn - Let me start off by saying that my family loves your column, and your column about parenting without losing sleep makes us laugh on a near-daily basis (so my very sleep-deprived self says thank you!). We had a new baby a few months ago, and my toddler has had a major daddy preference since a little before the baby was born. When my husband isn't around, he's very content to play with me, but if my husband's around he wants to be with him. While I love that they have a great relationship, I do find myself a little jealous, and I worry that the situation could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy in which he cries for daddy, daddy comforts him, he gets closer to daddy, and the cycle begins anew. What should I do?

Give yourself permission not to worry about it. These cycles of extra attachment are normal. Just make sure--not just now, but always, as you can--you remain mindful of having one-on-one time with each of your kids. Nurture each bond.

 

And, thanks!

Since the radar shows snow, may I go home now?

Of course. It's a public service.

It probably too late for the OP to apply this tactic, but it seemed germane to her problem. A friend of mine once told me that any big ticket item was a gift from the parents and some of the less expensive items were gifts from Santa. The reason they did this was because their kids had less fortunate friends, and its difficult to explain to an 8 year old why Santa only gave him an action figure but he gave the kid down the street an Xbox. Also, they thought it was better to show their kids that they shouldn't expect expensive gifts from some mythical gift giver with deep pockets, while still keeping the magic of Santa alive.

Glad I saw this in time. Good stuff, thanks.

My friend and I were both single and hung out a lot, and now my friend is dating someone and we don't hang out at all. I know this is normal, and I understand that our time hanging out naturally has to decrease. My friend was in a terrible relationship before, and I'm genuinely happy she's found someone who is good to her (she deserves it!) But I'm hurt about being ditched, and I don't know if I should address it. I feel kinda used- like I was my friend's safe, platonic person to do stuff with until she was ready to date, and now she no longer needs that so I'm out. Do I just have sour grapes? Is it unreasonable to expect a newly in love person to still make time for friends? This friend definitely has a pattern of wanting to hang out more when she is having a hard time, and I find myself feeling resentful- if this relationship doesn't work out, she would want to resume how things were, but I want more of a balance. I don't want to only be friends when she is sad and anxious. But I also don't want to piss on her infatuation or make things about me!

Just say, "listen, I'm happy for you and the last thing I want to do is piss on your infatuation and make this about me. But I'm bummed we don't do stuff any more."

See what she does with that.

Yikes, I have to go. Thank you Teddy, thanks everyone for stopping by today, have a great couple of weeks, and may peace await you out in the open holding a box of bonbons instead of hiding under 20 layers of effort and patience. 

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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.
Carolyn Hax
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