Carolyn Hax Live: 'The cat is your guardian angel'

Jan 25, 2019

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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Oh, hi!

My husband is having an affair and plans to leave me for his affair partner. She is a single mother with a child in the same classroom as our son. The kids are not friends but they are friendly and bound to be in classes and activities together again. How do I handle this?

With tremendous self-care to start--since this sounds like slow torture, I'm sorry.

It's possible, though, that the seemingly worst element of the situation, that you have to face everyone constantly through your son, will prove to be the most useful. Anger is a natural and healthy response, but only if you don't allow it to linger. And while you might think the constant exposure to these two will keep stirring up the anger, the opposite can also be true if you let it be: that constant exposure will force you to let go of the anger, get bored with it even, and get used to your new reality.

Having kids involved, meanwhile, will force you to keep choosing your best behavior when you're tempted to give it your worst. Again, if you let it.

So that's how I suggest you handle it--let the whole thing get old and stay civil for the kids. That will allow you to feel good about yourself, which is how you'll find your way to feeling good again in general. 

When you need an extra dose of resilience going into a school situation, I suggest this as your mantra: "You're each other's problem now." Because that's in fact what they are. 

Carolyn, I just wanted to see if your advice to not give a gift to a couple that specified "no gifts" on their wedding invitation stands for other situations - namely, kids birthday parties. Most of my friends have specified this on their invitations for their kids' birthdays and I always abide by it; 1) because why say it if you don't mean it?; and 2) If we throw a party for my baby, I will say "no gifts" and 100% mean it. Yet every time I go to a birthday party where this is specified I'm one of the only people that hasn't brought a gift for the kid and I feel terrible. What are we supposed to do???

Yes, still stands: Don't bring gifts when you're directed not to bring gifts. 

But when *you* have a no-gifts party, you can advance the cause by specifying no gifts--and adding that you'll be collecting X for Y charity if anyone would like to contribute. That way the can't-arrive-empty-handed crowd will have an outlet, people with too much stuff won't be weighed down by more, and people in need will get a break.

I’m a middle-aged woman living with my partner for the past seven years. He moved to my city and built a new business from scratch. In the beginning, I paid the bills while he got established. Now time has passed and I’m wondering why he doesn’t contribute to the utility bills or the mortgage? Should he? What is fair? And how do I bring it up after all this time? We’ve always kept our finances separate. I make a comfortable salary, have a lot of equity in my home and a 401k. He has a fluctuating, smaller income and no real savings for retirement or otherwise. I’m starting to think about retirement goals and how to reach them and feel the need to get everything out on the table. But I don’t know how to start the conversation. I know he is open to talking about it because we’ve talked about talking about it, but I don’t know how to get into the specifics.

You just name the elephant: "It feels weird to bring this up after 7 years, but it won't be any less weird in 8."

Then you get to the biggest issue first, since it is conveniently more of an issue for him than it is for you: "We haven't revisited our financial setup since you moved here, it's not ideal for either of us now, and the biggest concern is that you aren't saving for retirement."

You can talk about contributions to the household in the course of that discussion, since it is a natural part of figuring out a system of regular payments from fluctuating income.

I don't want to sidetrack an already slow answer with specific money-management resources, but if there's interest I can kick it to Philes.



A friend (lives locally; we've visited each other about once or twice a year for the last few years) sent me a solicitation to buy an oversized stuffed animal her niece is selling as a fundraiser so she can go to Paris to watch a soccer game. The niece's family is comfortable--all 5 kids go to private school and seem to travel plenty. I am trying to clear my house of clutter not acquire more. Friend's email says I can have the stuffed animal sent to a children's hospital instead. I'd normally ignore the e-mail but it's sent specifically to me and closes with a few personal sentences. I find this wildly offensive and a reminder of why I avoid people in general. I guess easiest route is to send the money and say, please donate the toy. And I am prone to lapsing into lonely misanthropy in general, so maybe that's what I should do. But I'm also infuriated by the manufacture of junk and by excessive travel given climate change and don't feel like I should encourage such selfishness.

I don't disagree with much of what you've written here, but it sounds easier to me just to delete the email.

My siblings are arguing over my elderly mother's finances. My brother(60+) lives with Mom (80+), but does not pay rent. He pays for some groceries and makes her meals. WHen she is unable to move on her own due to surgery, he has stepped up and assisted her. My sister controls Mom's finances and meds, gives Mom a weekly allowance. She insists that my brother pay rent, but he does not work, just gets Soc Sec. She tried to get Mom into an assisted living facility, but Mom did not want to go. I think it is okay for him to live rent-free because otherwise we would need someone to ensure Mom gets meals and check on her multiple times per day. My sis is trying to update the condo and make sure my brother moves out as soon as my Mom passes. My sis just went into Mom's bathroom and threw out a bunch of makeup and lotions without asking. She is very controlling. I live out of state, but visit 1-3 times per year, and help out when I am there. How do other other families split things concerning aging parents?


Your brother deserves a medal, not this dismissive abuse from your sister.

Does she have any idea how draining it is to be a caregiver? And how hard it is to find a good one, and how expensive it is to pay one, and how nerve-racking it is at first to trust one? Presumably you would have said something if your brother were doing a bad job of caring for your mom. So, assuming his love and competence, you and your sister are getting care for your mother and *copious amounts of peace of mind* basically in exchange for rent--and unless this is one swank condo, he's the one who should be compensated by any new financial arrangements, not your sister.

Again, all things being as you presented them. These situations can be complicated and messy, to put it mildly.

The way "other families" split things is going to be of little use to you here, because some other families absolutely and permanently shatter over this stuff as some members dump all the work on everyone else and others grab all the valuables. The stories would singe your eyebrows--and your sister's behavior might not rank among the worst, but she seems to be using all her runway to get there. Wheeling Mom out of the way to polish up the condo for her estate sale reveals an ambition to reach for the worst.

Other other-families grow closer in these situations, by communicating freely, by assuming as much of the work as they can, by chipping in $ when they're too far away to help directly, and by expressing gratitude for those who are doing the toughest work.

They also take the time to give themselves a freaking clue how this all works, and therefore would recognize your brother's caregiving as a win-win-win scenario.

So if you want to help keep this from becoming a family-ender, I suggest you express to your brother how grateful you are for his stepping in to care for your mom when you all needed it. And then gather pertinent facts on assisted living costs and in-home caregiving costs in your mom's area so you can, deep breath, show your sister how good you both have it with your brother caring for Mom.

If/when ugliness deepens despite your fact-finding, you'll want a geriatric social worker on your team. Start looking for one now: LINK 

I suffer from depression that has been fairly well controlled until recently. The past couple of weeks, I'm having a terrible episode, to where I'm really not sure I want to go on living. I know I need to see a therapist, but I've gone down the list of therapists in my insurance provider's directory and I can't get anyone to return my calls. I've called and left messages for over a dozen so far and I can't get an appointment. I no longer live in the state where my original doctor was years ago, so I can't see her anymore. I can't afford to pay out of pocket. I don't have any friends or family who can or are willing to help me make calls and find someone. It was so hard to get motivated to do this to begin with, and I'm at the verge of just giving up entirely. Is there anything else I can do?

I'm so sorry you're in the midst of a bad episode. 

You can text NAMI to 741741--that's the crisis line for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Please do it right away. (Here's a LINK to NAMI for more information.)

If you have suicidal thoughts, then please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. Keep the number handy. (More information at this LINK.)

Don't wait for a therapist, either. Your internist/general practitioner can get treatment started, and you won't have to wait nearly as long for an appointment--sick appointments are often same-day, so call right now. Don't even wait for Monday. A GP can also likely get past barriers to your seeing a therapist. I've experienced it myself: I call a specialist, and they're scheduling six months out; my doctor's office calls the specialist, and I'm in next week. It's not true every time, but enough to make it well worth a try.

And, one more possibility: If you haven't called your out-of-state original doctor, then do so. Some practitioners will do video consultations with prior patients. 

If this is all too daunting--it's not you! everyone struggles with these logistics, and depression triples the degree of difficulty--is there a friend or relative who can make calls for you? It's okay to hand the legwork over to someone better equipped at the moment to do it. Not just okay--it's a gift to them. Let the people who love you help keep you around.

Finally, so important, don't let yourself forget that depression responds to treatment and you have managed yours successfully in the past. Do not treat as permanent a crisis that is temporary: It is a symptom of depression to believe it won't go away.

Take care, and trust yourself to get through this.




My husband's ex-wife attends the same church as us. This is perfectly fine; she's a very nice person and they were married when they were 20 and divorced at 22 and didn't have kids and we're now in our 40s, so this is all ancient history. I look forward to seeing her and love it when she tells funny stories about what my husband was like when he was a teenager. My problem is that there's one person at our church in particular who will see us talking and walk over and say things like, "Wife 1 and Wife 2! Awkward!" We have both explained to this woman that neither of us feels awkward around the other, but the comments persist. I would like to just shrug it off but I have to admit, it gets under my skin. I'm tempted to bring a large sock to church and shove it in this woman's mouth next time she makes this comment, but I think that would be frowned upon at our church. Can you think of a better solution?

I'm sorry for your lout.

I've got about 15 ideas, all snark of the "Not till you got here" variety. 

If anyone either feels up to writing the adult answer or has some higher-grade snark to offer, be my guest.


So, my wife reads your column too! Who knew? So, yeah, she recognized me even though I changed some details (like the kids ages) and she was mad at first but we eventually talked it all out. I know I wrote mainly about how this transition is affecting me but I do want to point out that the children's father has been part of their lives for the past two years - taking them to the doctor, occasionally out for lunch, and even showing up at school events so it wasn't like I was wanting to toss them back into the complete unknown. I understand much more now since my wife finally talked out loud about her fears regarding the kids. Her mom had made the home unsafe for them and she's worried that they will have problems living there again, even though they haven't said that, and even though their mom will be out of the picture for a long time. It's really hard for her to talk about her mom's problems so she was keeping this all bottled up inside. So it's more about how wil the children feel about going back to that house to live rather than trusting them with their dad, who is a very good guy.

Glad to hear it, and thanks for the update. And, yay, you're talking! 

I hope if the bottling up is more the rule, and her recent unburdening is the exception, that you will talk to your wife--kindly, at a relatively low-stress time--about the possible merits of counseling with a good family therapist. I'm a week removed from a lot of the details, but it seems fair to say there was chaos in her family of origin, and that can carve unhealthy emotional pathways that aren't always visible even years later. Understandably so, because it's what passed for normal when she was growing up.

Anyway, I offer this as something you do with her, at least to start, so it doesn't come across as your saying, "You're the problem." Going together is a way of saying, "This was a breakthrough and it was really helpful--let's see if there's anything we can do to build on it."

She might not be ready for that, which is okay. Her history, her pace.

What's a good strategy for, when facing a layoff from work, not being a complete and total grouch at home with the family? I'm conscious of it and trying my best to keep work and personal life separate, but the stress of the uncertainty on the job front is eating me up.

If it's the stress of wondering whether you'll be laid off, then 1. expect you will be and plan accordingly. 2. Develop a job-search strategy, and even start some of the steps, if that's practical. Also 3. prepare a schedule for yourself to organize the days when you don't go to work any more. It's a recurring theme with people who find themselves abruptly without the anchor in their lives (feds and contractors, haven't forgotten you for a moment) that a structured day is a productive one and a hedge against depression. 4. Reduce expenses where you can. Now, not if/when it happens.

If you know the layoff is coming and the uncertainty is about how you will manage, then, same list, just start at 2.

The preparation will help alleviate stress because that's what preparation does; the diligence required to prepare will also help, because it will preoccupy you and leave less room for you to be grouchy. 

Where possible, too, introduce stress-relievers. I used to eye-roll yoga and now I count on it. Available free on YouTube.

Hope things are back to normal for you soon.


How about, “Are we that obvious? Please don’t tell Joe we’ve been seeing each other.”

Pretend this is the emoji with the heart eyes.

At the ripe old age of 45, through DNA testing, I am both excited and happy to have found my biological father even though he abandoned my mother and me shortly after I was born so I have no illusions about the past. But I want to get to know him and my half-sister. He has shared his medical history with me, which I really appreciate. Other than my mother, everyone in my family, even my adoptive father, is extremely supportive of me establishing a relationship with him and even my mom says she doesn’t want to stand in my way. My bio-father and I email daily and share stories of our lives. He is apologetic about what he did, reassuring that he is happy I found him, etc. My only concern is that he refuses to tell his wife about my existence. They are both in their mid-sixties and in good health and could live many more years – long enough to see my children have children. I don't expect to be immediately (or ever) invited into the fold of their family. I don't want or need money from them. I would like to eventually meet my bio-father and he says he wants that too but I refuse to be a dirty little secret. The response from him about his wife and daughter is always that he doesn't want to bother them with "this stuff". That feels like a dismissal, like I’m not good enough to be shared. Or maybe I just need to be patient? We’ve only been corresponding for a few weeks. Am I pushing for too much too soon?

I balk at the idea that wanting not to be kept secret is "pushing."

But, you're right, this is new,  and it's a little early for "always."

Stick with the emailing for now, keep getting and giving information. Drop the issue of meeting him of being introduced to anyone.

When you get to the point where there's nothing left in it for you, when you've exhausted the utility of email: State your preference for coming out into the open, one more time. Feel free to point out that someone else's DNA test could out you anyway, so if he wants to be the one to tell his wife, then he probably best not drag his feet. If he says no again, then stop the correspondence until you have something else you want to say. 

It's not cutting him off, it's just reaching the point where there's no place left for you to go. If and when you have something to say again, then email him.

This way you give him time to get used to the idea and avoid driving yourself nuts.

Feel free also to check in at some interval, say hi, and ask if he's changed his mind. Repeat as long as you still care to--or have to.

My girlfriend has a horrible cat. Most of this is her fault because she's never tried to train him out of attacking people, attacking people over food, stealing food, and screaming continually in the night because he used to be an outdoor cat (her parents live out in the country and keep chickens and things, he was basically a farm cat my gf brought with her to the city). She's not even had him fixed. That sounds very judgemental, but he's a cat. You can't blame him for this stuff, it's not like he knows better. I don't want to live with this cat. My girlfriend says that my refusal to move in until the cat has gone (I don't think she should put him down or anything, but he is 18 years old so i can just wait out nature) is a 'me or the cat' ultimatum. I don't think that's entirely fair. I did suggest she could rehome the cat back with her parents, who he used to live with, but that was the only 'give up the cat' suggestion I made. We are fighting about this a lot. It seems ridiculous to break up over a cat when we both love cats--I mean, I don't like this one but I'd certainly never want to see it harmed or unhappy. However, she doesn't want to start waiting for her beloved cat to die and I will not move in with this animal. So maybe ridiculous is all that's left? *I am also allergic, My girlfriend doesn't believe me because I had cats of my own as a kid, but it's usually mild enough to medicate away. However this cat is, possibly from sheer force of will, more allergy inducing than most. Not enough to endanger my life, but not pleasant to live with.

"I am also allergic, My girlfriend doesn't believe me."

Is it possible the cat is your guardian angel, entertainingly packaged as a feline hellbeast?

I'd move in with this cat before I'd move in with someone who dismissed my health issues as a ploy to get my way. Allergy-deniers have featured in some of the most horrifying stories ever published in this space. It's sociopathic.

And she's calling you a liar.

See? No more "ridiculous reason to break up" problem, and no cats had to die in the making of this answer.

I am LW1 from Tuesday with the melting down 6 year old. We were already doing most of the suggested “fixes” (limited choices, plenty of freedom, age appropriate tasks...). It turned out that my husband and I were viewing her behavior differently so we disagreed on how to react. He thought she was acting out. I thought she was trying to express herself (and failing). There were several life changes at the time, which could have caused the shift in her moods, but my sense was that she was trying to find her voice and be more assertive. She was very quiet and easygoing up to that point. Immediately punishing her for using the wrong words and/or the wrong tone was not helping. I also didn’t want to send the message that she was being “bad” when she tried to speak up. (Yes, I believe in consequences but it didn’t seem to fit (or work) here, when she was unable to find the right words for her feelings.) I chose to model how she could say what she wants to say without being rude or whiny (and yes, we also showed her that you don’t always get what you want even when you say it politely). Things are much calmer now. She is more confident saying how she feels and what she wants, we still practice what to do when she gets overly frustrated, and she has otherwise resumed her cheerful resting state. My spouse and I are much closer to a united front, too. Thanks for listening and offering up some good suggestions.

Happy to, and I'm glad to hear it wasn't a bigger health or family problem. 

There are really useful child development pamphlets that I've gotten at my kids' ... school? pediatrician? that hit all the major transition points kids tend to reach at a certain age. The covers show the grade, vs. age, and inside are bullet points. I tried a quick Google to find them but got conflicting results, so if anyone knows what I mean, pls shout it out. I think they're sold to institutions, not individuals, if that helps.

Anyway--purpose of this info being that it can help a lot to read these ahead of time so you're primed for a change. If you know in advance that, say, X-year-olds get moody and are often terrified of Y, then you'll be more likely to recognize it when it happens and respond to it appropriately. 

It sounds like you were way ahead of this one without help, but the prep work could help both of you in the future, especially as things get really interesting in middle school.

I feel for the person struggling to find help for depression because I've been there. Depression has a way of making even the most basic tasks insurmountable. Frustrating tasks like finding a therapist are even worse. I don't have any silver bullet, or even any actionable advice. I just want them to know they are not alone. That there are people who understand what you are going through. And I hope they can see that every time they make a call is a triumph over the illness. Some days, that's all you can handle, or you might not be able to handle even that much, and that's ok, too. Some days you have more spoons than others.

Still here, just checking something ...

Carolyn, you are absolutely correct. The brother deserves a medal. The letter writers needs to have a direct and stern conversation with her controlling sister. Family members who live with my elderly mother get free room AND board AND a generous salary. We pay them the same amount that we would pay a stranger--but with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that our mom is well-loved and cared for physically, emotionally, and financially. The controlling sister is an idiot, and her other sister is too if she doesn't step in and rectify the situation.

Thanks! But next time, don't hold back.

Thanks for reassuring me I'm not the only one, for better or worse.

Oh no,  you're in good company. Just never in the same room, if you can avoid it.

She should talk to a family law lawyer in her state to make sure any arrangement with her partner will protect her assets (i.e. she might learn it's better if the partner doesn't contribute to mortgage payments). The last thing she'll want to deal with if they breakup is him claiming they were in a common law marriage, and that he's entitled to half of her stuff.

Well, that takes me back to when my mother was still alive and I had to contend (long distance for me) with a sibling and his then-wife, both of whom are/were nutz and controlling. I call it my "lost decade". But I would like to provide more (in my case unsolicited) advice in addition to CH's that in addition to a geriatric social worker, get an attorney. I hope your mother has a Will and a Durable Power of Attorney -- especially if she is now showing signs of dementia. This is enormously important for everyone involved. It may also help to put a lasso on your sister's grabbing for now. Good luck.

OK. "Excessive" travel?! Huh? So instead of learning more about other places and cultures by going there, evidently we should all not travel and just stay home and fume about climate change.

Well, it's not quite that simple. Travel puts enormous pressure on the environment. Just Google "travel carbon footprint" and you'll see the reputable reporting on it is everywhere. Plus, too many fragile treasures, natural and man-made, are getting trampled by crowds. 

So if you're going to travel, then, yes, use it to learn more about other places and cultures by going there. And find other ways to offset the effects. And skip some places that are already overrun by tourists.

But so much travel is not about cultural understanding, and it's reasonable to start thinking of ways to opt out or look for alternatives closer to home. 

It is important to note that the OP stated clearly that they do not have friends or family to help.

You're right, thank you for flagging this, and my apologies. 

Given that, I suggest talking to the GP and asking if the office has a patient-care coordinator who could do the search.

Or, talk to a real person at the insurance company. See if there's a care coordinator.

A good local urgent care center is an option. 

I also apologize for the list of options, which can seem daunting in itself. But I'm hoping this way there's a better chance for a "Yes, this is the easiest option for me" connection with a variety of choices.

Thanks again.

My husband left me for the neighbor down the street when I had 3 kids under 5, after an affair that included leaving me and the newborn in the hospital to be with her (not that I knew it at the time, of course). He married her, eventually cheated on her, too (surprise!). The anger and rage lasted a long time and I am sure I was not always my best mom. I was so terrified of what would become of us and how would I survive. I got counseling and eventually moved on, much thanks to wonderful supportive family and friends. I still hate him for the betrayal and for putting our children through that, but now we have a grandchild in common and I am civil (more than civil, actually) for her sake. My advice would be right along with Carolyn's: they deserve each other. Also: karma. Good luck!

Oh man. You win. Thanks for the last word on this thread.

The cat lady is faring about as well here as that ex-husband:

This may sound a bit “out there”, but given that she will not or cannot commit to training a cat, what will her parenting style be like and will you be able to live/work with that?

At first I thought "You would rather this cat be happy than me, your boyfriend, be happy." Then I thought "You would rather keep this cat in an apartment where he's clearly not happy, screaming through the night because he wants to be outside, than admit you're wrong and bring him back to the farm where he can be happy." Added benefit of making your boyfriend happy.

I'm allergic but live with two of my own because there is most definitely a BIG difference in how each particular cat affects you. And people's allergic responses, both the degree and symptoms, varies tremendously, like even cats who do react to are only from touching them, and it's the same with grass. No sneezing or watery eyes but lots of itching from contact. Oh, and you really need to dump her.

Your girlfriend doesn't love cats. She keeps a cat without doing the bare minimum necessary to assure that the cat is happy & healthy. An un-neutered tom cat who grew up in a barn being kept in an apartment? That poor animal, it is not wonder it acts the way it does. She likes the idea of a cat, without having to do any of the work of being a responsible owner.

You're in a relationship with a woman who won't train her cat, doesn't care what the cat's behavior does to other people, doesn't want to find a solution that will be good for all three of you, and thinks you're lying about a health issue to get your way. Don't move in with her even if the cat happens to die today. She's not live-with material, as CH suggested.

I love cats and have lived with/rescued them most of my life, and here's the thing: If she hasn't bothered to have her male cat fixed, SHE is responsible for a lot of his behavior, especially the constant screaming. That is a hallmark of unneutered male cats, who are also very territorial and tend to be more aggressive, especially to strangers. I'm with Caroline: Thank the cat and ditch the girlfriend!

Exactly. And Caroline and I rarely agree on anything. 

Okay, okay, enough. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend and type to you here next week.

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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