Carolyn Hax Live: 'He has to see that, or, seeya.'

Nov 30, 2018

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax will be online to take your comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Hi everybody, happy Friday. Remember we have the Hoot next week: LINK. Post early! It helps.

If someone chooses to change their own name to Abcde as an adult, at least they probably knew what they were getting into. But to do that to your own child is a really bad thing to do. Can we agree on that just a little?

Nope. Parents need to think carefully before naming their children, yes, but the only relevant responsibility in this story is for bystanders to think before shooting off their mouth cannons. 

This is especially true because naming children Jennifer and Michael is not coming back, and the sooner we use this as an opportunity to unburden ourselves of our "there's one right way to do things and I'm the one who knows it" arrogance, the better I feel about this mom and others who name as they damn well please.

My kid's on a competitive tech-oriented team. The coach is a dad. I had a couple of classes in the topic when I was in college, so I sometimes help out. I have even sped things up when it looked like the the dad-coach was going to spend a bunch of time letting the kids discover some basic principles by trial-and-error instead of just telling them. Last week I was explaining something to the kids when his wife came in for a minute and I saw a funny look on her face. So I googled him. And it turns out he is one of the top ten researchers in this field. In the world. Turns out you can't actually die from cringing but I came close. What do I do now?

Accept my eternal gratitude for letting us cringe right alongside you. This is so great.

Also, let yourself a wee bit off the hook, because being among the top ten researchers in any field doesn't automatically bestow on anyone the ability to explain this field to children.

So maybe being a dilettante *is* your expertise!!

(How'd I do? Working on my rationalization skills.)

Anyway, I suppose your best option is to do nothing besides bring a little extra humility to these meetings. But you could also say to him that you've kind of seen your role so far as being fluent in layman's terms, but you wanted to make sure that was actually helpful instead of just assuming. 

Get video if you can.


Hi Carolyn, My boyfriend used to be married to "Mandy," with whom he has two children. Toward the end of their marriage, he began a serious affair with "Jennifer" and left Mandy to be with her. This became public knowledge to their mutual friends and to Mandy's family, who rallied around Mandy of course, and for a long time my boyfriend was a pariah among his in-laws. Ultimately the relationship with Jennifer didn't work out. A few months after he broke up with that Jennifer, he and I got together -- and I am also named "Jennifer." As a result, it is clear to me that many of the people I am introduced to as his girlfriend think that I am *that* Jennifer. It is stressful and exhausting and leads to constant uncomfortable situations. People are frosty or outright nasty to me. His former in-laws fall into the latter category. I met some of them at Thanksgiving at the kid handoff. My boyfriend asked that I not go into self-justification mode and not bring up the fact that I am "not that Jennifer" as he would rather end all discussion of that affair altogether. He and I are together legitimately, no one is cheating on anyone, and yet I seem to be doomed to keep feeling like a dirty mistress, over and over. Any suggestions? Anything I can do, or ask him to do?

You can say you understand why he would rather "end all discussion of that affair altogether," as you probably would yourself if you were in his position--but you would also like him to understand that his preference comes at a distinct emotional cost to you. Explain that it is painful for you to be subjected constantly to "frosty or outright nasty" behavior from people on an ongoing basis.

I can't see going forward with a relationship with anyone who couldn't at least recognize that point as valid.

Assuming he does, then ask him if he has any ideas for setting the record straight or some other way to spare you this pain, if not with everyone, then with the people you're going to see again and again, like these former in-laws.

Such as: He eats dirt one more time with each party: "This is not *that* Jennifer, but someone I met later with an unlucky name. Please reserve your anger for me alone, because she's innocent. Thank you." 

Or he at least gives you his blessing to say, not every time and not in passing, but only when you're subject to particular cruelty: "I understand your fury, but I'm a different Jennifer." I mean, come on--you have to be able to speak freely in a tense situation.

Anything you decide on will go better as a team decision.

I offer these even though I'm generally more in the less-explaining-the-better camp. You're not going to win these people over, you're not seeing them every day, and you're not "a dirty mistress" no matter how openly anyone treats you as one. It's not a storm you have to live in daily or with any risk of any serious consequences--meaning, you can just ignore it and ride it out on the few occasions it hits you. (Again, with license to speak up when it gets particularly bad.)

My point is more that you need to be 1. understood and 2. given a vote on any approach you take as a couple. Your BF doesn't get to dictate this for both of you--part of his consequences, of course, but also because you're equals here. So, what you "can do, or ask him to do" is discuss this and hold firm on having equal say in how you handle this from now on. 

What's wrong with letting the kids figure it out themselves through trial and error? That is literally the scientific process. They're learning!

That, too.

Carolyn, I’m tired of feeling caught between my husband and my parents. They decided they didn’t like him while we were dating and made no secret of it (when he asked for their blessing (not permission) before proposing, they outright told him they thought marrying him right now wasn’t the best path for me). Friction is increased by the fact that I moved 2 hours away to his hometown and am the first of my sisters to marry and leave the area. I recognize that my family of origin’s relationship is not the most functional. They are temperamental, judgmental, and resort to emotional manipulation. Growing up, I just went with it and did things their way (I’m a pleaser, I recognize this). However, husband doesn’t like to see me get hurt so he tries to argue about what horrible things they might do/say (plausibly, based on past behavior) as a way to head off a proposed visit, for example. But I think disappointing my parents by visiting them less is more painful than opening myself up to being burned again by them. I don't think they're toxic enough to warrant cutting out of our lives! Part of his opposition is just principle against giving into what they want, I think. And what is best for me isn’t the only factor- they are actively not nice to him (sometimes, when there is friction), so I have to balance how much I’m torturing him by pushing for visits. The latest example was they were upset they aren’t invited to our house (it’s been unmanageably cluttered to preclude hosting for most of a year) so I caved and invited them anyway after they went on about how hurt they were. Husband was paranoid that my mother would insist on coming to visit again to ‘help’ us get organized. Which is actually plausible- she pushes my dad about getting rid of stuff frequently- but I argue that its less likely. Just because I caved on this doesn’t mean I’ll cave on that!

"I think disappointing my parents by visiting them less is more painful than opening myself up to being burned again by them."

Translation: Your decision is not about what you actually want and would gain from, but how you can minimize your pain.

"Part of his opposition is just principle against giving in to what they want, I think."

Translation: Stubbornness is a quality your husband and parents have in common. If so, this is not unusual--it's familiar to you, an emotional comfort zone. Your husband is perhaps just doing a better of job of making it about your interests than your parents are ... but still, it's pressure, and when you're inclined to respond to pressure by attempting to please, it's essentially the same problem in a new form.

"they were upset they aren’t invited to our house (it’s been unmanageably cluttered to preclude hosting for most of a year) so I caved and invited them anyway"

Translation: This is the microcosm of your world. You swerve toward inviting your parents because they're "hurt"; you swerve away from inviting over "clutter" (has clutter ever once prevented a visit by someone you want to spend time with?) ... and there's no *you.* There's no sign of what you actually want. Do you want your parents to visit? Yes/No. That's the baseline of any decision. The rest is pleasery stuff.

With the exception of your husband's torment, of course--that's a baseline for him. Inviting people to your shared home who are hostile to him (quite possibly because they see his strength and recognize him as a threat) is not cool. So you and he need to figure out together--operating from your baselines vs. what you're pressured to do or supposed to do--what you want and what is fair.

Disabling this decision-making ability is what domineering people do. First, they impose their will on other people. All other people. Some people are strong-willed enough to resist that, and some aren't. Then, when they find someone who struggles to resist them, domineering people move in and take over, and push the selfhood of the people they commandeer into a corner somewhere. 

It's not gone, it's just overwhelmed. And it's not your fault. It's the fault of the people who fail to respect you as a fully autonomous human being.

It's not a good feeling to be overwhelmed, either, so when the overwhelmed person sees an escape opportunity in the form of a romantic partner who is strong enough to carry you both out of there, the overwhelmed person often grabs on for dear life.

It sounds as if that's where you are right now. But this, even if your partner exercises a more benevolent kind of force, is only going to give you various forms of the same kind of discomfort as being parentally dominated. And having your parents still on the scene means you add (to your already overwhelmed feeling) the tug-of-war you're talking about between dominant loved ones you feel compelled to try to please.

(more --sorry, should have broken this answer up sooner)

So what I urge you to do is treat all of this as symptomatic of the larger problem of your needing to find that self that has been shoved in a corner for so long. It's a big thing to tackle, I won't pretend otherwise, but please know you've already done a lot of the hard work just by recognizing how stressed you are by being pulled in these different directions. And you recognize that you *are* being pulled, and who has done the pulling, and that your role has been to please. 

You can get to the next steps fastest with the guidance of a really good family therapist. But you can use this as a guide as well, decision by decision: "What do *I* want?" Just make sure you don't lapse into seeing it as a decision between which party to please when you can't please all of them at once. A lot of the process of living by your own judgment involves recognizing what the consequences are and why, and whether they're worth taking on, and whether they're your responsibility. In this case, your not inviting your parents had the consequence of their feeling hurt. Okay. So, is that your fault for not inviting them, or is that their fault for being so hostile to your husband?

And is it your job to tend to their hurt feelings--or is it your job just to take their feelings into account when you make your choices, and accept that sometimes your choices won't make everyone happy, because that's just necessary sometimes? Trace these possibilities to their logical ends, every time you have to make a choice, and base your decisions on the results. It'll feel cumbersome at first but you'll get better at it with practice--and it will make even the most agonizing choices into decisions you can live with. 


What bothers me most is that his priority here is himself, not an innocent bystander, especially when making the correction may actually cost him nothing ( since he may already be subject to frosty behavior, except from those people who only want to blame the third party). I’d look to see if that carries over into other aspects of the relationship.

Right. His preference costs her. He has to see that, or, seeya.

I am a brown-skinned first generation American married to a Caucasian Southerner. Thanks to his Facebook feed, I am aware of my father-in-law's political views, which are generally hostile to immigrants, but he has always been polite and friendly to me in person, and we've never broached the topic of his personal political views, to which he has a right, ugly as I find them. However, a few days ago, he included me on a group text with a picture and message mocking immigrants, specifically a different immigrant group than my own, but nonetheless, I found it hurtful. I was too riled up at the time to give a level-headed response, so I held my tongue, and now I feel a loss of self-respect for having stayed silent. Is it too late to say something, and what can I say? I can't help but suspect my father-in-law sent me that text because of frustrated inner hatred towards me that he normally can't express in the course of polite conversation. Even if it was somehow innocently sent to me, I don't want my silence to enable racism...

There's no "innocent" way to send that, though I do know what you mean.

Will you be seeing your FIL in person any time soon? It would be a difficult conversation, but also possibly a transcendent one. "That text you sent the other day--it occurred to me you probably don't realize, that was basically me/my parents in that picture. Brown skin, new to this country in my/their generation. You've always been friendly to me, so I figured it doesn't reflect how you really feel, and you'd want to know that it sends a very different message."

You could also ask kindly what he meant by it, because he has always been friendly to you, so you were confused by it. 

In other words, you approach his possible closed-mindedness with open-mindedness. You approach his possible hostility in peace. You approach his possible insularity with inclusion.

You cannot lose that way, even if he thinks he wins.

You could do this in writing or by phone, but in person brings out way, way better behavior, and more sympathetic, because you can make clear with your tone that you're approaching in peace--and your humanity is right in his field of vision, not abstract.

I realize this is an in-law, so it would be fair to your husband to bring him in on your thinking before you take this step. As with the Jennifers, discussing your way to an answer will be better for the marriage. But, the person being attacked gets to speak up.

I remember being flummoxed in therapy when asked two questions - one was, what did I want, the other was how did that make me feel. The latter is a cliche/tag line now, but only because it’s so universal a problem, hence its ubiquity. For those of us who grow up trying to please, both questions can be very hard to answer - but practice helps, not only in answering the questions, but in finding your own place to stand.

It seems possible the boyfriend's in-laws know EXACTLY which Jennifer broke up their daughter's marriage. Doesn't really change your answer, of course, beyond the fact that it might be helpful to assume you're going to experience some spillover resentment when you associate with people who have wounded someone so badly.

True, thanks.

News at 10: man selfish enough to start affairs instead of facing problems in marriage also plenty selfish enough to ignore new girlfriends discomfort. Now over to the weather.

What Carolyn said - and also, next step - start digging into how to set boundaries! When you start doing what you want, those around you will be surprised that you're not caving again and you'll have to stay firm for a while before they learn that you're not going to cave.

Right--for which I recommend my usual, "Lifeskills for Adult Children" (Woititz/Garner).  Thanks!

I'm a single woman living in a cozy condo. I've hosted my family's Thanksgiving celebration for the past four years, not because I'm a particularly great cook or homemaker but because I LIKE cooking and hosting. I always do very simple dishes and cram 12-15 people into a space that's clearly built for one person. Sometimes I invite a few friends who aren't otherwise occupied. This year, as my relatives were leaving, I overheard a cranky aunt say that she doesn't understand why they keep letting me host..."it's always terrible." Worse, the person she shared this with (my brother's wife) sort of tacitly agreed with her by shrugging it off. It's been over a week and I'm still not sure how to address this. I don't THINK everyone feels this way, but it's certainly possible that others do, that they feel that they're humoring me because it's all I have or something. (I'm the only single, childless adult in my generation.) Do I bring it up with this aunt, or with my sister-in-law? Do I just stop hosting and turn it over to someone with a beautiful house and who can afford to cater? Do I pare down the list to only those people who I feel really appreciate my version of a fancy dinner? Suggestions welcome.

I'm sorry! That's terrible. Cranky Aunt should send regrets, not accept your hospitality and then stab you in the back.

And I really hope they haven't just been humoring you, because that would be an even bigger faux pas. Being single is not grounds for pity, for fox's sake.


If I were you, I'd just tell my emotionally-closest relative what I overheard and ask him or her to tell me the truth. 

Carolyn, I am an adoptive parent, and we strive to use healthy language when referring to adoption related things (e.g., not "giving up a child" but "placing a child for adoption." Today, our society has grown accustomed to talking about all kinds of things being adopted (animals from a shelter, child/family around the holidays for financial/gift support). It has gotten to where it drives me bonkers. Right now, there are signs all over my office about the families my company has "adopted" for the holidays. I am contemplating approaching HR and/or the organizer about how misguided this use of terminology is. What do you think?

Please don't, because the terminology isn't wrong, and arguably isn't even harmful to the usage you want to protect.

It's correct usage to adopt a language, adopt a dog, adopt a style, adopt a habit.

And adopt a child. It's a busy word. And not because society has grown accustomed to it"today," but because it has many legitimate meanings and uses.

The precision of language that you cite is really important in framing the adoption of a child as an act of love, not rejection. And yay for that insightful distinction. But please don't follow that excellent logic down an emotional path the facts don't support. To adopt a family at Christmastime is to embrace them or take them on as a cause, which is not only dictionary-appropriate, it's an act of humanity and love.

Tiny little quandary here, and mostly an etiquette question, I guess, but I would love feedback from you, Carolyn, and the nuts, about what any of you would do in this particular situation. I received an invitation to my nephew's wedding yesterday. The verse from Ecclesiastes 4, "... a cord of three strands is not easily broken..." was printed on the back of it, but cord was misspelled (for this context) "chord". It's too late to correct that, of course. I am an English major, but I do not correct anyone's spelling and grammar unless my work requires it, or someone asks me to proofread something they wrote. I'm not in the habit of correcting spelling and grammar on social media, and I'm certainly not going to be fault-finding auntie and point out the error with my note to R.S.V.P. *However*, I did wonder if the same verse will be printed on the bulletins on the day of the wedding, and, if so, if it would be a courtesy to let my nephew and his fiance know now in order to save them some minor public embarrassment later. It seems like it's equivalent to advising someone they have something between their teeth or their zipper is unzipped: useful to have it brought to one's attention if it's easily fixed or avoided. I was thinking about giving the information through his older sister, who I am closest to, because they might receive the correction more easily from her than from me. Does this seem reasonable, or would it still be a jerk move? (Also keeping in mind that someone may have already pointed this out to them, but just in case...)

"It seems like it's equivalent to advising someone they have something between their teeth or their zipper is unzipped"

Technically, it's equivalent to advising someone that they may get spinach in their teeth if they decide to each spinach in six months 

Say nothing. Sorry.

Is it possible Cranky Aunt is always complaining, and SIL has found the only way to stop her rants is to nod & not disagree? Not saying that's correct or polite, just that it might be the situation here.

We have a tiny kitchen and for Thanksgiving hosted one guest. Happy to hold said spot for OP if she would like a non-family holiday in 2019. Just sayin'!

Have to go--thanks all, have a great weekend, and see you next Friday for the great unraveling. 

I would like to post more on the name thing, and parents' responsibility, but since I can't: The Abcde issue is not one of naming (ir)responsibility. It just isn't. It's about the arrogance of bystanders.

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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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