Carolyn Hax Live: 'Blowback is not an invoice you have to pay'

Oct 12, 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. Thanks for rolling with the time change. 

I'll stay on as long as I can until teacher conferences.

After months of being in this limbo status where my BF hadn't filed for divorce or told his kid yet, he finally did tell his son this past weekend and filed on Monday. I'm assuming the collective exasperation of you and the 'nuts finally got through to him on some karmic level :) Thanks for your advice. Not everything is solved, as the vacationing with the ex issue is now tabled, but these were big steps that reassure me that he's emotionally separating as well as physically separated.

Ooh--what else can we do with this collective exasperation? Imagine the possibilities.

My longtime girlfriend is a single mom. I have always had a very good relationship with her son, but there is one issue that has come up a number of times: She spanks him, and I don't believe in spanking. I talked to her about it a lot, we argued some, and then finally several months ago she told me she was going to stop spanking him. As far as I knew, she did. But then last week her son told me he wished I lived with them. I asked him why and she said, "Because my mom doesn't spank me when you're around." I asked her about it and she admitted that she hasn't stopped spanking him, she's just stopped doing it in my presence. She then proceeded to tell me I had no right to talk to her son about her behind her back, and later that day she spanked him in front of me over something very minor, which I think was her way of telling both him and me that she's the boss. I'm very upset about this, upset enough that I'm thinking about breaking up with her, but I worry about the effect that would have on her son. Do you have any guidance for how I should proceed? Should I talk to an expert or something?

Your girlfriend is abusing her son, so, yes, you need to talk to an expert. 

Please call Childhelp, 1-800-4-A-CHILD. It's a nonprofit for the prevention of child abuse and that's the hot line. 

Always when I post this number, I have some people say no, the correct call is to Child Protective Services, so I'll respond here preemptively: Often CPS is the correct place to call, yes. However, Childhelp is not a call to place *instead* of CPS; it's a call to place *before* CPS, to help people understand what their options are, to see whether CPS is the best of those options, and to address any fears they might have that would prevent them from making a call. 

So, you know the concept of a gateway drug? This is a gateway intervention, because a lot of people balk at jumping to the more serious step right away.


Hello Carolyn, Our family recently lost my youngest brother in a traumatic way. My mother had 5 adult children; all of us are in the midst of our own difficult financial times. We had a small ceremony to remember my brother which was completely funded by the grace of others although the location restricted the attendance of much of his friends and extended family. We would like to host a second memorial near them after the holidays however our funds are running low. Is it inappropriate to host the gathering as a potluck?

I think what you do as an act of love errs on the side of appropriateness, on that basis alone. 

Presumably you are closer to some in the ranks of his friends and extended family. If so, then you can also float this idea to them directly to gauge how well it will be received.

I'm so sorry for your loss.

I agreed when my husband "Steve" asked if his niece "Samantha" could stay with us over the summer. Samantha is a recent college graduate, and she's stayed with us before for 1-2 weeks during school breaks. We have 2 kids in HS and MS, it's October now and school is back in the swing of things. Samantha has a low-paying part-time job and is looking for full time job, while also eyeing to apply for graduate schools. Samantha now wants to stay "until she gets on her own two feet". Her parents don't live in the US but she could easily rent a room with her peers, or find other options. The problem is that my husband, "Steve" and Samantha's dad are really close and Steve has a hard time saying no. We are a busy family, the kids have multiple sports and activities during the week. It's been over three months and I feel like we're been more than gracious hosting her, cooking, taking her on a trip and providing for her needs without expecting anything in return. We both work full time, and this is now causing tension in the family, because my husband doesn't want to disappoint his side of the family, and I'm ready end Samantha's "summer vacation" It's not the money or the space so much as it's that don't want to be responsible for a young adults, it opens up a different set of challenges and issues. How do I set boundaries and put a deadline on this without being rude, and without damaging our marriage?

A deadline isn't rude. It's your home, and you can simply say no to her request to extend her stay.

The nice way to do it is to say something that is both kind and honest, and then be direct. Maybe: "We have really enjoyed getting to know you over these past three months, so this isn't a reflection on you: We need to get our household back to its routine. We're saying no to your staying here indefinitely. We will be happy to help you find another place, though."

This might be a nonstarter because of the "responsible for a young adult" issue, but as I read your question, all I could think was, you both work full-time, your kids have multiple sports and activities ... so why isn't Samantha driving and cooking for you? As part of the terms of her living in your home?

I realize I'm biased. But as someone in your position almost exactly, the idea of a third adult--family no less!--to help run the family machinery just sounds like bliss.

Online only please. If I'm to set off the falling dominoes of family drama, I would rather do it purposefully. Next week is the two year anniversary of my mother's death. It's a day I try hard not to focus on. Cancer was not kind and her death was not pleasant and I prefer to remember her the way she was. My aunt, however, likes to dig in and celebrate such anniversaries with a morbid relish. Last year, she called me in the middle of the work day to ask me how I was doing and also for Mom's iPhone. She has conspiracy theories about her death FROM CANCER and wanted to know if she had really needed to go into hospice. Recently, she commented on a picture of my cats on Facebook with a paragraph about was I blocking her because I didn't like her prayer request. I DMed her rather than respond, and got a looooong message about the end of days. I could go on with a lifetime of examples, but I think you get the point. As things stand, I don't see how I can avoid her next week. My brother has entirely gotten away with not communicating with her. But no one really expects much from him in the way of emotional labor, because he's a boy. It's not his fault, but I'm jealous. I want to ghost my aunt. My mom would be horrified. I could have a boundaries talk with her but a) she wouldn't understand what I was talking about and b) I'm exhausted just thinking about it. I generally agree with your view of ghosting - cruel and cowardly. How do I have this conversation with her? I honestly don't care if I ever talk to her again. I'm usually a decisive person, but this just wears me out. Thank you, How to UnNiece

The options aren't limited to "have this conversation" or "ghost." You can also say--or write--in response to her next conspiracy theory or whatever: "I will no longer discuss my mother's death with you." Not a conversation, a statement.

Then, you don't discuss it with her. She either talks about something else or you leave the conversation/room; she either posts about something else or you ignore/hide/block her on social media. It's not ghosting if you've stated your intentions upfront.

My dad and I haven't spoken in 5 months. For the umpteenth time, we were going back and forth because we were unable to commit to visiting several months in advance. He lives several states away and he has many parameters around when and how we can visit him with our two kids, making it very stressful for us. Until recently, I was a teacher and I had a very flexible schedule in the summer and around the holidays. So, we would just suffer through the uncomfortable planning stage because once we arrive for the visit, he and his wife genuinely try to provide a fun visit for our family. The same was true when they came to visit us. I now work 12 months a year and my dad is retired. Unfortunately, he is having a hard time being flexible and returning the favor. In the middle of this painful, several month planning process with my dad, I realized that our conversations had become unhealthy and were causing me a great deal of stress. So, as kindly as I could, I told him that we were not going to visit at this time and that I needed a break from talking to him. Typically, by now, we would be in the middle of stressful negotiations over how to spend the holidays. In all honesty, it has been nice not having to deal with the emotional distress that comes with every conversation I have with him. However, I know that the longer we do not talk, the harder it will be to start again. I'm also not sure that I can handle trying to plan a holiday visit. Any advice on what to say during that first conversation to start things off on the right foot while also making it clear that the process of planning a visit is having negative effects on my emotional well-being?

Right foot: "Hi! How've you been?" If you can say something nice, then do that, too.

Making it clear: Don't. At least, don't get all explainy about negative effects and emotional well-beings. Instead, restructure your approach to your dad in a way that eliminates the negotiations.

There's the home-game strategy, in which you invite your dad and his wife to visit you and provide possible dates, and there's the away-game strategy, where you say you're happy to travel to see them and you're available to do so on X or Y dates. Then you let him accept your terms or not.

If he tries to change your suggested terms (which you can pretty much count on, right, since he has an anxiety/control thing going?), then stick to your terms cheerfully but firmly. "Hmm, that won't work for us. If you can't make [the dates/terms you originally suggested], then I totally understand. We'll just get together some other time."

If (not "when," I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt) he pushes back, then you circle right back to your original proposal. "Well, I'd love to see you, too. We can come to you on X or you can come here for Y. Let me know if you can make one of those work."

Here's why this is your silver bullet: It's how most people operate naturally, without any difficult people to force them into it. People have lives and have jobs and have schedules and have limits and so it happens all the time that one of them will say, "I can come for Christmas, but I'll have to leave Christmas Day." Or, "I can't make family Christmas this year--but you're all welcome to come here." Or, etc. These typically are facts, not opening positions in a negotiation. So, make some facts and stick to them.

Hi Carolyn, As a 30-year old, I live at home with my disabled mother and grandmother, and my younger sister and her 2 sons moved in with us last year. I love my nephews (3 and 1 yr-olds) to death, but for the past year I've felt like a second parent, or at worst an unpaid nanny. Sister doesn't work, but she's taking online classes - I work fulltime and do as much housework as I can. But from the minute I get home, I'm on Kid Duty - my sister will disappear upstairs or be in the room physically but trust me to make sure 1 year-old doesn't choke on a crayon or 3 year-old eats his dinner. I put the 3 year-old to bed every night, and clean up after them once both are in bed. If I go to my room before Kid Bedtime, I have maybe half an hour to myself before Sister is texting me to ask if I can help her. She's going through a bad divorce, and I know she had post-partum depression after her second child. I feel like a jerk telling her I need time for myself, and when I do bring it up she points out that she has no time for herself, either. My go-to argument is that these aren't actually MY kids, but saying that makes me feel like even more of a jerk. Am I being unreasonable in wanting less responsibility for my nephews? Their father is in another state and has always been verbally abusive to my sister and our family, and I do love the kids so I don't want to step away completely - I just feel like I'm being taken advantage of, and I don't know how to fix things. It causes a lot of strain in the house, and I'm scared the kids will pick up on it.

First of all, you're a mensch. 

Not a jerk, at. all.

And you're under no obligation to watch your sister's kids for her.

You can, of course, help her out immensely by doing so, and provide the world/these boys with some sorely needed compassion, and even enrich your own life by building a bond with these kids. All good stuff, if not great, assuming you're up to it.

Where the two can overlap sanely is very similar to the prior answer: Pick a schedule and stick to it. Figure out how many evenings you're willing to help and for how long, then give your sis a schedule. Tell her you know she needs help, tell her you're happy to help and you love your nephews as well, and explain you need your down time too or else the whole thing craters. 

If/when she comes back with the fact that she doesn't get any down time herself, then you can point out without being a jerk that it's not a fair comparison because she's a mother and you're not--and, too, *you* are giving her down time. You're just saying you won't provide that down time every night on demand. 

But you will give her, should she decide to accept it, a reliable source of relief, one she can plan around, look forward to, and count on to be there when you say it will. The boundary can calm her and, maybe more important, help you squeeze more relaxation out of your down time because you won't constantly wonder when you'll get the cry for help. 

So as part of this plan, your down time is yours, period--help her arrange for someone else she can text if she must (assuming your mom/grandmother aren't physically up to the task?). You have standing of course to turn off your phone and let her manage it, but in extreme cases, depressed/abused/overwhelmed parents of little kids can harm their kids. Helping her line up another emergency outlet will give you all some valuable peace of mind.

Did you mean to suggest that chatter should unilaterally set a deadline for kicking the niece out - without getting husband's buy-in first? Because that would seem pretty damaging to the marriage, which is what chatter wants to avoid. Not that having niece overstay like this isn't also damaging. But husband and wife need to work this out together.

No, that's not what I was suggesting. They present a united front. Chatter can, however, offer to be the bearer of bad news if that's what it takes to get him to agree to it.

Wow. That story really scares me. I generally have a little sympathy for people who adopted spanking without knowing better, because a lot of us were raised that way and it can be instinctual to try it, but there's no evidence it works at all (if anything, the opposite), and it can so easily slide into harmful/hurtful behavior - so why even go there? This case scared me because (a) she was hiding it and (b) when found out she did it in front of him. What kind of partner listens to her partner say that something makes HIM deeply uncomfortable and then ignores him and carries on anyway (even if it was something as simple as using a particular room freshener in the house)? Either she can't stop or she just won't stop - neither of which were good signs. Then, you add in the direct challenge to him by way of using her child as a tool to punish her boyfriend when she assaulted her child in front of him. Yikes. The OP really should all Child Help because even though this could be rationalized if she seemed like she was in control of her behavior, this is a person who obviously is not and not only that, has some serious authority/control issues of her own to deal with. The last thing she should be playing around with is physical punishment of a child. I really hope that child's okay.

Yes, yes--she was willing to hurt her child to score points against her partner. Horrifying.

"But no one really expects much from him in the way of emotional labor, because he's a boy" Brother just gets off because he's a boy? Ridiculous. Demand that Brother take on a portion of Auntie's verbal diarrhea to help give Sister some relief.

I didn't read it has her being okay with this system, just that she's acknowledging the facts of the system: He gets away with it without pushback and she gets long agonized messages just for saying no to something. Hard to imagine any adult hasn't witnessed some version of this, where, say, a daughter-in-law is blamed when the thank-you notes aren't written but the son isn't, or the women all get up from the table at clearing time as the men all stay seated, or the car salesman talks only to the husband and the teacher contacts only the wife.

It's awful and wrong and every generation of new parents needs to socialize children without these mindless roles and gendered expectations, but that doesn't change the facts on hand for this problem.

As for "demand[ing] that Brother take on a portion of Auntie's verbal diarrhea"? Nice idea, but he can just laugh and say, "Sorry, sucker." I sure would. And I'm a she-person.

She fixes this through adjusting her choices, not trying to commandeer his.

Tell her you are concerned about her delusions and suggest she get therapy. I bet she'll stop contacting you.

Where's my heart-eyes emoji when I need it most.

Yes - talk to some people. But also - people want to have a time to reminisce. The catering is incidental. You can have cake / chips / soda / carafes of water - whatever cheap and cheerful refreshments suit the time of day. Make it, an um 'cake and non-punch' memorial get-together. Tell people they'll be very light refreshments. No-one will care they're coming to remember you brother. Condolences - I'm so sorry for your tragic loss.

As someone who is in year 4 of a divorce from a verbally and physically abusive narcissist (who's parenting time was just suspended) I want to say thanks. You have no idea. I work full time in a demanding job, and my family has stepped up and helped in so many ways with my two kids. This is especially helpful as the court case continues and I am constantly evaluated. I also have a problem trusting people with my kids. People like you are saving kids lives, sometimes literally. The hell I went through was terrible.

Thank you, so much, for stepping out of it for a second to toss a little grace out to someone who surely needs it. I hope you feel relief soon from the pressure you've been under.

My sibling and I were adopted by a family member after our parents died. This family member spanked us often as well as emotionally and verbally abusing us. She was also a single parent and as an adult I see the stress she was under, but it is still no excuse. We told other extended family members and no one did anything. I think my grandfather said something to her, but it didn’t stop her. As adults my sibling and I talk about how we wish someone did something to help us. Spanking is abuse and it has life long impacts that are both seen and unseen. Please call the number Carolyn mentioned. Also, don’t give up on this child even if you break up with your girlfriend. This child needs you.

In some states (such as mine), spanking is not legally considered child abuse (I don't agree with this in the least, but it is what it is). I agree you should take the steps Carolyn suggested, but don't be too surprised if it turns out there's nothing that can really be done.

Spanking a child to prove to your BF and your son that you’re the boss sounds like abuse to me.

I am a 45-year-old man. In my early 20s I had a wife and son who were killed in a car accident. My second wife and I have now been married for 15 years and we both agree we do not want children. Many of my wife's relatives don't know I was previously married with a child and a lot of my current friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. don't either. My question is how to deal with comments about my child-free status. Sometimes these comments are positive like, "You're lucky not to have kids so you can travel when you want." Other times they're more negative, as when I recently told someone I hadn't been sleeping well and she replied, "You don't have kids. You have no idea what sleep deprivation really is." I'm never sure how to respond to such things. I'm happy with my life now, but I certainly don't consider myself "lucky" that my son died, and I actually do know what it's like to care for a baby who cries all night. Should I just inform everyone I know about my past? It just seems like it would be such an awkward conversation to have with every single person I come into contact with, but I can't think of any other way to ensure people will stop making comments to me that assume I don't have children. Those comments are painful to hear, so I'd rather stop hearing them if there's any way to make them stop.

Oh my goodness, I am so sorry.

Your wife is best positioned to spread the word discreetly among her relatives that your history is not as it appears. She can, in this process, ask them not to say anything to you about it--just to be mindful that seemingly harmless assumptions are in fact acutely painful for you.

You can also choose to say something on a case-by-case basis: "I actually do know what it's like"; or, "No, 'lucky' isn't the word I'd choose." Each is enough to tell an alert person to back off this line of reasoning with you, and someone slower on the uptake will have a chance to ask a follow-up, which you can then answer or not, as you wish.

I think you mentioned before an organization that helped people take control of their finances, like when there's too much debt they helped to figure out how to pay it or they contact the credit card company and try to lower the debt. I can't remember the name.

National Foundation for Credit Counseling. 


I have a job that a lot of people find interesting (it involves travel and working with celebrities). My husband, on the other hand, works in a field that's important but highly technical. I've seen people's eyes glaze over when he tries to describe it. Social gatherings have become really stressful. People flock to me, ignore husband, and he ends up resentful and bitter by the end of the night. I get how frustrating this must be for him, and I don't encourage the spotlight ("Work's fine, thanks for asking--hey, has anyone else been watching The Good Place?"). At the same time, I can't force people to be more interested in what he does. Any suggestions?

Grow-up dust?

I mean, I sympathize with his frustration that ... no, actually, I don't. Getting "resentful and bitter" about not getting enough fawning attention, to the point where you're feeling stress splashover as a result of his envy, is just not the emotional output of a mature, well-adjusted adult. 

To wit: describing a highly technical job to the eye-glaze of others. How many times does a person do that before skipping to Plan B? "If I told you I'd have to kill you, and in this case it would be a mercy killing."

Or something, anything. *He* is the one who needs to fix this with, "Hey, has anyone else been watching The Good Place?" So the question you need to answer before I can really help you is, why won't he?

My wife and I are both from NYC area but live in DC with two young children. In the past we've gone up to one grandparents house for Christmas eve eve, Christmas eve and Christmas day, and then to the other family for 3 or so days before returning to DC. This has worked well. However, our oldest is now 3 years old. We feel like we'd like to wake up Christmas morning in our own house, so our kids can open presents. We're getting major blow back for this. We offered to do the 5 hour drive up around 11am on Christmas Day, but in reality we don't want to do that either. We'd prefer to go up on the 26th. My wife and I are both from big, loving, families but we're getting fatigued living out of a suitcase for every major holiday (they refuse to come down to us for holidays because there are too many of them) and would like to start our own traditions. Are we being unreasonable?

No. Blowback is not an invoice you have to pay. Say you're sorry to disappoint them and you look forward to a time they are able to visit. 

Merry Christmas-morning-in-your-house to all, in advance. 


Carolyn, Thank you for your response on this issue. My brother and I lived through years of physical abuse at the hands of my stepmother and no one ever stepped up to the plate. She spanked and hit us all the time. Although my father never struck us, he turned a blind eye to the abuse. Thankfully a couple of the parents of my friends did not ignore what was going on. To this day, I am grateful to them for sticking their necks out and saying something and shunning my stepmother from their social gatherings. Their response had an impact and although it did not fully stop the abusive behavior, they actions helped me to understand that my parents' peers thought what they were doing was wrong. That made all the difference in the world to me. It allowed me to distance myself emotionally from parents that were complicit in hurting us. One of the mothers offered up suggestions on who could help me, if things got bad and these bits of advice helped me get through many difficult times. I would say this... before the boyfriend turns in this mother, he should have a heart-to-heart with the boy. Tell him what she is doing is wrong and give him some tools for coping with it... who to call, who to tell, what to say. The child needs to have perspective. This will help him to survive emotionally.

Thank *you* for your response. Your clear action list is excellent.

Okay, it's time for me to find out how my youngest is doing. Wish him luck!


Thanks all, have a great weekend and I'll type to you in two weeks. (Off next Friday.)

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