Carolyn Hax Live: 'My people!'

Jun 15, 2018

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

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Hi everybody, happy Friday (I hope!)

Dear Carolyn, Two years ago, we were invited to skip our son "Johnny" ahead from first grade to second mid-year. My husband was a bit insufferable about it, bragging to a number of our friends about how well Johnny was doing academically. This really bugged me at first but I ultimately decided I couldn't control another adult's mouth and stopped worrying about it (though I tried to lessen the damage by telling our friends about some of the tougher parts of skipping a kid ahead). Two years later, it's clear that Johnny was socially unready to skip grades (he also has a late birthday and so was a 1.5-2 years younger than most of his classmates). In the fall, he'll be starting third grade for the second time. My husband is, unsurprisingly, mum about this when we talk to our friends about how school is going. Any suggestions about how I can head something like this off next time--i.e., not letting my husband's braggy tendencies set us up for failure?

You use this experience. "When you talk about how well X is going, I cringe. The grade-skipping humbled me, and rightly so--good fortunes can turn pretty quickly."

But, seriously? If he didn't learn this exact lesson himself, then I'm not sure if he's mature enough to.

Assuming it's a trait he's not poised to outgrow, you have a role here, too. When you "talk to our friends about how school is going," *you* be the agent of reality. "Turns out skipping a grade wasn't the right call for Johnny--he was way behind everyone socially. He's back with his age group this fall."

Show him how it's done.

 

Dear Carolyn, My husband is a widower with 3 kids. His youngest daughter, my step-daughter “Danielle” is getting married in the fall. My older two step-sons have been much more gracious and welcoming to me since I entered the family than Danielle has been. I approached this by being loving but non-intrusive to Danielle and hoping she will come around. I never expect to replace her mother, but I do hope we can be friends. At best, she is polite to me. Throughout the entire wedding planning, Danielle hasn’t been any different and I didn’t really expect her to be. Last weekend was her shower and in discussing plans she had some seating charts out. During the ceremony Danielle wants her father in the front row and an empty seat next to him in honor of her mother. I am asked to sit wherever I want on the bride’s side beyond the first row. During the dinner, I am not seated with my husband or the immediate family who are all sitting together. I am seated at a table across the room with some of my husband’s siblings. I am considering asking my husband to ask Danielle to reconsider. I haven’t mentioned any of this to him yet because I wanted to see if I would settle and not care as much. A week later, I still care. What do you think?

It appears as if Danielle is still grieving her mother significantly, and if that's true then life milestones without Mom are going to make her feel only more raw and emotional. I expect it'll be particularly acute if Danielle becomes a mother. 

This doesn't entitle her to treat you poorly, not by any stretch. I just point out her likely emotional state because it's the kind of thing that can blind a person to her own poor choices, and even be used to justify them. Can't punch fate for taking her mother, right? But she can take all kinds of anger out on you. And her grief will tell her, "My mother should be next to my dad at my wedding, the new wife has a lot of nerve thinking she belongs there."

Two questions in and we already have a budding theme, of adults displaying the emotional regulation of 5-year-olds, but, it's not exactly rare.

Your pain upon reading the seating chart is no less valid than hers, so do address it, but don't lose sight of her pain when you do it. It's only the way she's acting on it that's a problem.

Go through your husband, and with compassion blazing:

"I saw the seating chart, and it's a shrine to her mother. I feel for her. I also don't appreciate, though, being banished to the coatroom to make it happen. Maybe it's time for you to step in, and offer to work with her on a good way to honor her mom at the wedding?"

Made me sad for the husband, the wife, the kids and the friend. I think it's important how I am treated and how I treat others, but I'm not perfect especially when I'm angry or frustrated. How do I bring my best self forward even when it's a difficult moment?

The date stamp on your question is today, but do you mean this one from Wednesday?

If so:

I think all of our best selves get elbowed aside sometimes by our worst, and so aiming for perfection is not realistic. But contrition is realistic, and it's essential. If you behave poorly when angry or frustrated, then you admit that *the moment you recognize it,* whether it's while you're still snarking or an hour later or a day later or a year or when a witness asks you, "Are you okay? Your reaction was pretty harsh," and it occurs to you that s/he's right.

This is for the occasional lapse.

If you regularly snap during difficult moments, though, or if more moments are difficult than not, then it's time to upgrade your response, because an apology for snapping is inadequate when it's for the wrong transgression. Once it becomes a pattern, then the apology you owe is for not dealing effectively with what is obviously a larger anger or stress issue.

And the action you owe is both to find and address the source of the stress, and to identify habitual reactions that are unkind and/or counterproductive. A life rut that doesn't suit you can be replaced with a different path; acting out reflexively can, with awareness and effort, be replaced with patience and mindful action. 

Maybe daughter will understand it in terms of how she is treating her dad. He's entitled to bring a plus-one, but she's making his date sit across the room? It just doesn't make sense. She can honor her mom without splitting up married couples.

Kudos to you for being loving, non-intrusive and having reasonable expectations!

Kudos to today's writer in the column for caring at all about recovery and taking it seriously - I would encourage him or her to check out an Al-Anon meeting. It will help the writer (it's not for the alcoholic) and can give them a common language and tools that can be supportive to the friend in recovery. It's not for everyone, but it's free and you'll meet a lot of people who have been where you are. Carolyn, your advice is on point - drinking or not drinking on the camping trip is everyone's individual business.

I have a good friend that I see often because our kids are also good friends. She has a habit that makes me crazy and I’d love some insight about how I can deal with it better. Whatever anyone says, she tries to put a positive spin on it. I realize I sound like a monster for being annoyed by this. But she’ll ask how the weekend was and I’ll say it was good but I was bummed that baseball was rained out, and she’ll say “But I bet you got some great family time!” Or if I say the water in the pool is chilly or the meal I had at whatever restaurant was good but not life-changing (always in response to her questions) she responds that at least we have a pool to go to, or it’s so nice that I got to try that restaurant. I promise I’m not Debbie Downer. I think I have a positive but realistic attitude. I rarely complain. This need of hers to “Stay positive!” at all times is like nails on a chalkboard. So do just respond that the weekend/pool/meal/whatever was amazing and stay silent otherwise? Or is there a better way to deal with this?

"I realize I sound like a monster for being annoyed by this."

No no no. She is negating you. Annoyance is a valid and understandable response to someone grabbing the last word all.the.time--and not even about her own experience, but yours.

Does she mean it this way? Maybe, but probably not. If you like her enough to call her a good friend, then she probably has a lot of good qualities. Plus, it's also not hard to imagine that she has retrained her own thinking toward gratitude in response to her own negative thoughts, and maybe forgot to put up the proper fencing between her own coping strategies and everyone else's.

Either way, given the friendship, it might be interesting at least--and useful, ideally--to ask her about it. "I've noticed you do that a lot--reframe things in terms of gratitude. Is that a tactic you consciously adopted, or a reflex, or ...? I just get the sense there's a story behind it."

If a real conversation (as in, back-and-forth, sans righteous shutdown) does ensue, then you get to say your way of handling someone's invitation to commiserate. 

You can also just come back with your truth when she does this: "Yes, you're right, I'm not ungrateful--just disappointed and looking for a, 'Yeah, that sucks' from my friend."

Dear Carolyn, Rationally, I get how important it is not to rush into a relationship/marriage. But realistically, how do people (women) in their mid-30s, who hope for biological children, date without obsessing over those looming questions about the future? I have seen two relationships crash and burn because my partners rightly suspected I was trying so hard to suss out where things were headed (and being disappointed with how long it was taking). I don't have the money for egg-freezing or anything fancy like that; realistically, if I don't find the father of my children within the next couple of years, I will hit my "expiration date." How do I NOT carry that knowledge into my dates?

I am probably going to take too long with this answer, which formed in my head quickly as I was reading your question but is almost impossible for me to write in a way that doesn't sound heartless or dismissive or smug.

You stop with the "my children." Because that's living almost entirely in a life that you want but that isn't entirely in your power to get. So, you put yourself in the awkward position of living at the mercy of unknowns. 

It is this awkwardness that likely pushed away the people you were dating. There's nothing wrong with you, or with wanting what you want, but you weren't in the present with these partners. You weren't with *them* as people--you were in your vision of what could be and what they could give you. And there is something wrong with that. It's not fair to them. If they had done the same to you--dated you for your money or your looks or for connections that could benefit them professionally--then you would have picked up the scent of that and walked away just as they did.

Or we could frame it this way: If these fathers-to-be you were dating told you they wouldn't or couldn't have kids, would you have considered them as life partners at all? Just for their companionship?

This is a fraught question, obviously, because differing on kids is a common and valid reason a lot of people break up. But I think it's important to be honest with ourselves about what that means: I like you, even love you, but not enough for you alone to be enough.

And it's okay both for someone in your position to deliver that message, and for someone in their position to be annoyed or hurt enough at receiving that message to break up over it.

Since living and dating for kids (and the message that carries) is getting in the way of your happiness, I urge you to decide instead to live fully in the life you have. As it is. You and all your wonderful gifts and traits. And in the pleasure of the company of men you meet, for the company alone. 

Conveniently: No matter the context, embracing what you have and making the best of it has an uncanny way of improving whatever comes next.

Dear Carolyn, I have an 18 month old toddler. My husband died unexpectedly when he was 3 months old. Since then, my in-laws have been clingy towards me and the baby. I understand this, as they are grieving their son and do not want to lose their grandson, who they likely see as what they have left of their son. I think they are afraid I will get remarried and replace them with a different set of grandparents. I’ve tried to be understanding because they are wonderful grandparents and they clearly loved their son and love their grandson very much. However, this summer I am planning to take my son to my family’s summer lake house for the first time. My family will be there as well and I’ve been looking forward to relaxing and my son will love the water and his cousins. My in-laws told me they want to rent a cabin on the same lake during this time. This is horrible but I don’t want them there. My family has a routine and stuff we do and I don’t want to have to worry about if my in-laws are enjoying themselves or not. I don’t want to spend what should be a rejuvenating week for me compromising between two sets of families. My in-laws are also extremely risk averse, again understandable, but I don’t want to spend the week talking them off the ledge everytime my son does anything. I love them and want them to be a part of our lives but I need to recharge in a way I can’t with them around. Is there a way I can say this to them? If no, is there a way I can salvage the vacation?

There is a way you can say no to them--"I know you want to stay close and I love that you are so close, but I am overdue to give my family 100 percent of my attention. Thank you for understanding! I will make it up to you with extra visits this summer."

There is also an argument for just letting them do what they need to do because they're no doubt utterly devastated and trying to function. With this choice, you salvage the vacation by not worrying if they're enjoying themselves and not trying to talk them off ledges. Just do your thing and trust it to work out.

I am not endorsing this choice--just setting it out there. Do whichever you need to do to get through this yourself. My condolences.

Mine is relentlessly negative. And she brings me down I say I had a good day, she launches into the litany of woes. Every day. I try to bright side some of the things, say "I'm sorry" for the others. But it is exhausting. And her complaining -- huge house, husband who is good but not perfect, kid is a challenge -- do seem tone deaf to me (less wealthy, single, in waning years of fertility) sometimes. How do you deal with a relentlessly negative friend without turning into what the earlier chatter complained about? I find myself avoiding texts, etc, which isn't good either.

You could have the bigger conversation, too, and just flip it. Say you notice that she doesn't seem comfortable with where she is, and ask her if you're reading that correctly. 

At least you have friends! 

Touche.

Midwesterner here. I was basically brought up to do that. You could be assigning way more meaning to it by assuming it's some sort of exercise in gratitude.

Maybe. But that was my hopeful interpretation. The nut of it is that it takes someone's experience and rewrites the ending for them whether they want a new one or not. It's fine to do with your own stories--knock yourself out. But in response to something someone is telling you, there are other ways to find the positive, ones that don't involve commandeering someone's story.

Two of my daughters have gotten married since the passing of my second husband, their stepfather, who they loved. At both weddings, there was a seat next to me with a framed picture of my husband and some flowers. My long-term BF was seated on my other side. At the reception, my husband's photo was placed next to the cake, and my BF and I sat next to each other with the bride and groom. It was lovely.

I can understand where the stepmother is coming from and do agree that the stepdaughter is not treating her fairly. But I wonder if the better long-term play here is to abide by the stepdaughter's wishes, congratulate her heartily and lovingly, and continue to be open to her and improving the relationship. What the stepdaughter is asking here requires nothing other than swallowing your pride. It's not fair, but you're dealing with someone you love working through intense ongoing pain. Perhaps this is just a gift you can provide to her.

I could be your friend. I am also relentlessly positive around friends I have who seem relentlessly negative. I'm more than happy to commiserate and listen much of the time, but when even small things are shared in a negative light, it can be emotionally exhausting. Negative things here or there are fine, big negative things that need to be shared and talked about are fine-- but when every detail of someone's life is treated like a bad thing, it can be too much, especially with how our world looks these days.

Agreed. But then it's worth a bigger comment, no? "I've noticed you've been down a lot lately," ideally with examples. You can also redirect without invalidating: "That's a bummer, I'm sorry," followed by, "Any interest in a positive spin, or are you just looking to unload?" A trail of breadcrumbs vs dragging someone there.

I guess my situation is a little different, my parents split up and my mom passed away a few years before my wedding, so it was just my dad at the wedding, no date even. But my mom in law lost her mom young too, and I know she tried (sort of) over the years to not 'overstep' anything, while trying to become closer, etc etc. I just -- cannot -- imagine not seating the couple together. That is just reprehensible. It is ...unbelievable actually. Yes, stepmom should talk with dad and dad should ABSOLUTELY say something. There is no other thing to do. If danielle wants an empty seat for her mom -- I get that -- but then allow stepmom on the other side (my husband had just lost his grandfather, so we actually had an empty seat at our wedding as well). I am just flabbergasted by this.

It shouldn't be on the bride's stepmother to ask to be treated with simple human decency. The bride's father and husband-to-be should have stepped up here. Father: "Honey, I know you must be missing your mom terribly as you plan your wedding. But I think you should take a second look at that seating chart for the reception. Seating your stepmother in Siberia isn't really a way to honor your mom, and I don't think it's something your mother would have done in your place. It's also hurtful to me to not be able to sit with my wife, whom I love very much, on such an important day in my life."

I'm too slow and lazy to go back to the original, but I don't think the father even knows. Stepmother saw the chart at the bridal shower, yes? So father will have to be told what Danielle is planning first. Then, yes, he should step up. I still think it should include, even start with, an overture toward planning an *appropriate* way to honor the mom. 

I am not a parent, but I love being an aunt to my 11-year old niece and 8-year old nephew. My niece seems to be heading into that fairly common stage where nothing her mother says can be right (my sister and I went through that). But she still talks pretty openly to her dad and to me. I'd like to make sure I'm a good listener to an almost-teenager, and be well-informed enough to pick up on any topics my niece should really discuss with her parents. Can you or your chatters recommend any books that could help me along these lines? Thanks!

"How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk," (Faber/Mazlish), or the Teens version, and "Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager," by Anthony E. Wolf.

Maybe it's time to dust off Hax Philes to give others a chance to post their ideas.

Hi Carolyn, I'm finding myself in one of those surreal stories where I invested years (six of them) in a relationship with someone who insisted he did not believe in marriage and finally ended things with me so he didn't deprive me of what I wanted, only to wind up engaged to someone else (seemingly) happily about 10 seconds later. I found out through the grapevine (small town), and he contacted me shortly after that, knowing I would have heard, to ask if I wanted to meet up and talk it (the circumstances behind his engagement) over. Do I? Yes, I am burning with curiosity about how someone who found something negative to say about every marriage on earth is now willingly entering one of his own. But I am also afraid of how it will feel to hear itemized every reason why I don't measure up to Future Mrs. Ex. Do I take him up on this offer, or let it lie?

Let it lie. What he did is terribly painful. It also was very likely unintentional. Unwitting, too.

People who don't want to do something on a gut level, especially when they think they should want to do it, and even wish they wanted to do it, find ways not to do it. So, a person who doesn't want to get married often will rationalize a bunch of reasons that Marriage is wrong for him. It's so much nicer sounding, too, when you;re telling it to someone you love. "Marriage isn't for me," soft, vs. "You aren't for me," ouch. (Yes, he can love you/have loved you and not want to marry you.)

Then, whaddaya know, this person suddenly wants to get married. And that's the first time the person actually sees all the prior reasons as merely conjured up to explain what he couldn't otherwise explain, because he never really understood it himself. 

This is actually pretty common. 

I know this is not going to be persuasive in the least right now, but maybe it'll feel right to you down the road: It's not even about you, really, or weather you "measure up." It's not about worthiness at all. *It's about fit.* And you two, for whatever reason, didn't fit. You don't need to have lunch with him to embrace this as your goodbye truth. 

Also, perhaps, take some time to contemplate the possibility that you will not have biological children, or get married and to try to effect some sort of peace with those possibilities. I know it’s hard, but it is something I think might be helpful - speaking as someone who did not marry or have children, and who, looking back, can see how some of my actions were deadline-driven. Maybe it can only be done after the fact, but I can tell you it was a tremendous relief to reach 40, without having married or having had children, and to realize I was still here, with much to be grateful for, despite having this “worst fear” realized. So, not only try living in the present, as Carolyn advises, but try living in that future you dread, too - and you may find it has much to recommend it as well.

This is very well said, thank you, and it's actually what I was trying to say but clearer. To me the present is no spouse no kids, so living in that present = make peace with a life with neither.

Hi Carolyn, I was cooking and my phone was upstairs charging, and I missed several calls from my boyfriend. He needed my help getting after his car was towed (I don't have a car). I didn't notice the calls, and he got a friend to help. He now says I'm not there for him, cannot be depended on, and that it's a relationship red flag. I'm always present and usually answer his calls immediately -- I'm not sure how to respond, and surprised he's turning this one event into a symptom and symbol of our whole relationship. What to do?

"If innocently missing a call means I'm not dependable, then you're right. My ability to 'be there' for anyone will always be imperfect and subject to random obstacles. I'll miss you but you want something I can't give, so breaking up is for the best."

 

That's it for me. Bye all, thanks for stopping by, thank you to Teddy, and type to you here next week. 

I have bad news for younger readers - this has happened to me increasingly as I get older (50). It is complete negation on my opinion, over and over. Once, when I mentioned I was quite surprised to see two other friends at a bar together (long story why that was odd) my “positive”’friend suggested they were planning a surprise for me. Now, in response to any complaint about anything, my similar thinking friends and I all say “maybe that thunderstorm [that ruined your wedding or whatever] was just planning a surprise party for you!!

My people!

Imagine if, at Prince Harry's wedding, they'd had Charles sit next to an empty seat and made Camilla sit elsewhere. It would have made Camilla the absolute center of attention, for better or for worse. Perhaps the bride can be talked out of this if made to realize how much attention she will be putting on her stepmother for this wedding.

Hi Carolyn, I'd like to offer a different perspective to the OP. I was single until I was 35 and met my now-husband. I wasted years being "cool girl" and not asserting what I wanted early on in relationships for fear of scaring a guy off. Enjoying their company also didn't work for me, because I wanted a family. By the time I met my husband, I was very upfront and unafraid early-on asserting what my future plans were. I was no longer afraid of anyone walking away. Now fastforward, I'm married and pregnant at 39. If OP wants children, spend time with those who want what you want and don't be afraid to be honest about where you're at.

Or go ahead and have your baby. I wrote to CH years ago about picking a sperm donor and am happy to say I have a beautiful baby boy and now I date with a kid. There's less time for it, but I don't have to suss out anyone's intentions - cause the kid's already in the picture. It's the best idea I ever had.

Hi all -- Apologies for the delay.

Here's the link. Thank you for taking the time to share your suggestions. Have a great weekend!

In This Chat
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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