Carolyn Hax Live: 'That bullet whistled by my left ear'

Apr 12, 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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Hi everybody, happy Friday.

Today's column is a perfect example of why being the trailing spouse doesn't work unless you're truly committed to it. My MIL devoted herself to being a wife and mother. She had no other priorities in life. She never worked. My husband moved at least eight times as a kid. My MIL was able to easily adjust to that reality because what she cared about always came with her. I refuse to do that (career), but it's an admirable quality such that only a few people can really do it.

This is a lovely tribute to your MIL, and I agree that being fully committed to it is key to being a "trailing spouse" successfully--but is that really a quality? It's not that you can't do it, necessarily, but that you choose not to. Which is just as valid.

I don't know. There are no doubt some for whom such domestic priorities are against their natures, but I feel funny about the implication that for a "no" to be seen as valid, it has to be an "I can't" or "I'm not meant to"--as opposed to a flat, "I don't want to."

I have chronic back pain from a car accident 5 years ago. My pain has always been managed with opioids, but ever since this opioid crisis hit the news, my doctor is now refusing to prescribe me meds and sent me to a "pain doctor" who won't even prescribe pain medication. My daughter is a doctor, so naturally I thought she would be happy to help me with my situation, but instead of compassion, understanding, and empathy, she hollered at me about losing her license and me being irresponsible. Carolyn, I put her through college and helped her with her medical school expenses. I even drove her cross-country to her med school interviews, and she won't even deign to lift a finger to help me! I'm so angry and hurt that she's treating me this way. I am not a drug addict, I'm just in pain. Please help.

I am so sorry you're caught up in this. 

Your daughter, though, has done nothing wrong--with the possible exception of the hollering-at. From my understanding, at least, she is absolutely not in a position to help you without putting her license at risk. That of course would imperil all of your sacrifices for her college, med school, interviews, all of it, in a pen stroke. She now has a legitimate complaint, too, that you're resorting to guilt as leverage to get what you want.

So your anger and hurt feelings are obviously real, but also seriously misplaced. 

Please be persistent with your doctor and the pain specialist--which I realize is the hardest thing to do when you feel terrible. Or go back to your doc, say the pain specialist is not treating you effectively, and ask for a new referral. Or enlist the help of someone you trust to help you navigate your treatment. But please leave your daughter, and your relationship with your daughter, out of it.


Dear Carolyn, My parents were both married to other people when they got together, a fact they have always been open about with me. (They had no choice, I suppose, since I have a half-sibling who is less than a year older than me.) Their message has always been that true love is worth fighting for, which I definitely agree with. And yet, I am nervous to the point of paralysis about introducing them to my boyfriend, who happens to be married with a small child. He and his wife will probably divorce soon (there are financial and legal complications), and our commitment to each other is real, and yet it's still a rather embarrassing situation for me to be in. How do you suggest I tackle this with my parents, who are both sensible people with real insight into this sort of thing, but who will probably also have very tough questions for me? (I'm 31 if it matters.)

Introduce them to the boyfriend and answer the tough questions. 

What better way than meeting the family* to spot the difference between what is real, and what we're just telling ourselves is real?


*Or, where family isn't good at or available for this, reasonably objective third parties who love us and know us well.

My husband wanted to stop at one kid, so we did, even though I desperately wanted our son to have a sibling. Now that he is 10 years old and the childbearing days are in our rearview mirror, I feel the lack of the imaginary sibling quite acutely. At the time, I didn't have the energy or the presence of mind to fight my husband on the issue of family size; it's something we really haven't talked about since ~2010. But I find that I'm carrying around all this resentment, almost a decade later, and it feels unhealthy. What should I do or say about it, given that at this stage there is no way we would have another baby (even if he did somehow change his mind)?

Tell him openly that you've been dogged lately by bad feelings about the 2010 decision.

It's normal for old stuff/bad stuff to resurface every once in a while, and it's okay to decide not to air it all on the spot in hopes that it'll just sink back down again. Sometimes ghosts behave themselves and go uneventfully away.

When it's clear they plan to linger, though, then you have two unpleasant options: say nothing, which means you leave your partner in the dark to wonder why you've been chilly lately; or say something, which means you relive something together that likely tore you up the first time.

The argument for Unpleasantness No. 2 is that at least you both have a chance to do something about it, which means there's a better chance you'll get past it.

I don't usually do this, but the way you phrased it--"given that at this stage there is no way we would have another baby"--I do feel compelled to add that having a baby is just one way of many, albeit the most common, to expand a family. And I don't (just) mean adoption, since that's also fairly obvious. But having seen friends open their homes to exchange students, billeted players, foster children, kids less officially in need, etc., I'm happy and humbled to pass along the inspiration they've given me.

I've been a single mom to 4 kids most of my life since my husband died when my older son was 9, my older daughter was 6, and my twins were 2. I've dated over the years but never remarried since it's hard when you’re solely responsible for 4 young lives. My twins are graduating college this May and I couldn't be happier. I'm so relieved that they both have jobs lined up and will be living on their own. Everyone, even the twins, has been commiserating and offering me sympathy for something I'm incredibly happy about. Should I be honest about that to people? The only one I've told so far is my best friend and he says, "don't tell the kids, they think they’re breaking your heart." Also he's saying I should delay my plans to immediately downsize. I was planning to put the family home on the market this spring and move into a condo in the city. Is there any reason to wait? I love my children and am glad I'm their mom but I'm also very glad to be done with rearing children. Does that make me a bad person?

Wait? What? Noooo. Put your house on the market and buy your bad self a condo. Bachelorette pad. No wait--pied a terre. Why merely be free when you can also be pretentious about it.

And maybe I'm evil, but I think there's something quietly hilarious and awesome about just accepting everyone's condolences and then dancing behind the partition a la Laura Linney in the worst story line of the terrible "Love, Actually."


You know, this one.

And no, you're so not a bad person that I almost didn't want to validate your concern by responding to it. Congratulations. 

Dear Carolyn, My ex is getting married this weekend. While I no longer have feelings for him, I've been in a funk for several days and I'm dreading the onslaught of social-media posts from mutual friends who will be at the wedding. Since I am truly over him, I'm not sure what this is about -- feeling like I have "lost" somehow? Ew. Any suggestions for getting through the next few days?

"Lost"? Ew.

Sometimes transitions just suck, even when your part of the transition is only awareness of someone else's transition. 

Stay off social media, do something that you reliably feel good about, be glad it's only a couple of days.

Carolyn, I am young woman who has been fortunate and successful in her career. My yearly compensation is over triple what my husband makes. It is not my dream job, but it is challenging / stimulating / rewarding for me. It is also grueling / non-stop work and something that would be difficult to manage with a family (I don't have kids yet). Any advice for thinking about and planning for a future with a family, while also being an ambitious professional, while also being someone who can see a day where she will want a break?

Maybe it's oversimplification day, but the best advice I have for you is to save money like you'll never earn a cent again. 

Well, maybe not quite. Set aside a little for enjoying the spoils of your youth, wealth and autonomy. 

Then stash away every cent after that.

You are likely to encounter tough choices in your future and thinking about them now can't hurt, but the single factor that gives you the most power over your options and that is most within your control right now is money.

Just don't save so much that you mess up your someday-kids. Kidding-not kidding.

(Health is even more powerful than money, by the way, but less within our control.)


How does a person remain friends with an ex? I dated a friend for a year, we broke up a week ago, mostly amicably. But I'm having a hard time seeing him so frequently and seeing him talk to other women when we are out with friends. The feelings right now are mixed and there is a part of me that sees him differently.

Oh my, it takes most of us a lot more than a week. A little space to heal and establish a new normal--like, months--then an attempt at friendship, with patience and low expectations, and even then, only if you still enjoy this person's company enough to make the hard work of friendship worthwhile. 

If space isn't possible, because your ex is a coworker or you're part of a long-established friend group or such, then you give yourself mental space to recognize that this part of it sucks ("mixed" is actually promising) and you just need to get through it before it feels like something a sane person would actually attempt.

I've noticed people make judgmental and negative comments about babies -- we're talking actual infants in some cases proud grandma holding her granddaughter, commented how "this one" was sweet and nice, but nowhere near as intelligent as older sibling (granddaughter was 6 months old) another new grandma constantly refers to her grandson as "fat" -- his mother "should stop breastfeeding him 'cause he is too fat" "he's so fat!" "I can't believe how fat he is getting!" (this is a newborn -- less than 4 months old) I was SO uncomfortable hearing this -- I even commented to the "fat shaming" grandma, "oh, he is so cute and he is healthy! PLEASE DO NOT CALL HIM FAT!" Why would someone criticize/denigrate a baby? I am flabbergasted that people feel comfortable making horrid remarks and negative comparisons about small children! I know neither of the babies in question could understand what was being said about them but I felt compelled to stick up for them -- am I out of line or making too much of this?

No, neither! Stick up for the babies. "[H]is mother 'should stop breastfeeding him 'cause he is too fat'" is so wretchedly wretched that letting it pass by unchallenged is a disservice to any grandchildren this person may have. Babies don't get it but then they become children old enough to understand what "fat" or "smart" means, and any bystander who can get started now on the work of protecting them from this toxic BS now needs to do so. Please. 

Not mentioned, but since we're here ... it's also worth retiring the expression "good baby"--i.e., sleeps well and doesn't cry a lot--because that implies the ones who agitate (for no reason they can possibly control, because, babiezzz) are bad, and what they're called is not conveniently separated from how they're viewed and treated. 

[drags soapbox back to closet]

Spouse went out with friends Saturday afternoon, did not communicate plans, did not come home until 4am, and then yelled at me for being upset. That's enough, isn't it?

Sounds that way.

It's certainly enough for this, now that things have cooled off (yes?):

"You went out, didn't say where or with whom, came home crazy late, and yelled at me for caring. Facts not open to debate. So now I'm wondering: What is the bigger thing going on that this incident represents? Because it's such a departure that I'm worried about that, not about any of the specific details of it."

Your most important contribution to honesty here is to remain calm and unflinching in your expectation that you be given the truth. Make it as easy as possible for your spouse to tell it, even a terrible one.

I hope your spouse has enough respect for you and self to be honest about the bigger thing. Good luck. 

My husband recently made a big confession to me: he thinks I'm annoying and arrogant. This came up when we were talking about our personal flaws. For example, when I meet someone new or we are out with his friends, I try to connect by sharing information on the subject matter we're discussing. My husband interprets that as trying to show off how smart I am. I told him that's not my intention, but he insists that it is. What I thought was regular back and forth with the other person, he says the other person finds annoying and would never tell me that. He went on to say that my storytelling is erratic and leaves out details, and that he knows our friends find me annoying because of it, but they'll never tell me. But when I was trying to tell my husband something about work later on, he got frustrated and pointed this out as example of me leaving out context and details except...I had told him that stuff. I don't think he was listening. Anyway, I've dialed my conversations with him way back at home, and I try to keep my thoughts to myself. I don't know what to do about socializing with his friends and family. I'd really rather bow out, but my husband is not okay with that because he wants me to get better, not give up. Except every time I open my mouth now, I have to stop myself and take a few seconds to calculate everything. I try to keep my responses to one word answers even when asked about something I'm working on. The most frustrating thing of all is being around people who claim to like me and ask me about my life but find me annoying behind my back. It's so fake. I don't know why I have to keep socializing under those circumstances. Another double date is coming up. Do I have a right to get out of this? I'm crying as I type this.

Oh no! Wait--who says your husband is representing fairly what your friends think of you? You say The most frustrating thing of all is being around people who claim to like me and ask me about my life but find me annoying behind my back ... as if it's a proven fact that everyone finds you annoying. It sounds entirely possible to me, just given what you wrote here, that your husband is gaslighting you. You're certainly responding in a textbook way: doubting yourself, clamming up, taking his word as gospel. That's what gaslighting is about. It introduces enough doubt for the gaslight-ee to stop trusting him- or herself, enough that the gaslight-ee comes to depend on the gaslighter as the one source of truth. You've described that exactly.

A couple of things I urge you to do at this point, and soon. 1. Counseling SOLO, if it's doable for you (i.e., providers are available and affordable; ask your primary care doc). If not, then hotline--1-800-799-SAFE. 2. Talk to your people, one on one. Siblings, close friends, people you can trust. Say what's going on and ask for perspective. 3. Stand up to your husband. "Correcting one little thing I do socially? Sure--we can all get better at something. Maybe it would be better if I asked new people about themselves instead of offering what I know. But telling me I'm 'annoying and arrogant' and a bad storyteller is just cruel. I wouldn't treat you that way. Plus, I am your equal, not your student."

Skip 3 if you must, but not 1 or 2. Outside perspectives are your lifeline, no exaggeration. Don't let shame shut you down.



Dear Carolyn, My sister and I are open with each other. This year we got a frightening tax bill and I vented to her. She listened and was sympathetic but didn’t commiserate. I found this a little strange given what I know about her finances. It bugged me enough to ask her how much she owes, and when I asked her she said she was getting a refund but wouldn’t say how much. I was floored. I asked her for more details, including who she used for tax prep and she refused to divulge them. I am jealous she is paying a lot less and also concerned if what she’s doing is even legal. Can I bring this up to her again? And how do I do that?

Getting a refund doesn't mean she's "paying a lot less," it just means she had the right amount withheld/paid the right estimated amounts.

And no, you can't bring this up to her again, not without stirring a pot you have no business stirring and that doesn't need stirring by anyone. 

I am sorry about your frightening tax bill. Lots of changes this year affecting a lot of people who kept their withholding the same as in past years, which = a lot of people surprised.

Hi Carolyn, Is it your sense that people have started to use the term "extrovert" in a derogatory sense? In other words, is there something insulting about describing a person as someone who thrives on social contact? I have always used the term where appropriate to mean exactly that. I am an introvert through and through; I like to spend my free time reading and pursuing solitary hobbies. My mom and my husband are extroverts, as are some of my closest friends. I love them all. But my friend "Lily" recently took me to task for using this term, saying that she feels it's a thinly veiled insult and that I am actually implying that she is needy and lightweight. (Not true! She is one of the smartest people I know. I understand that not everyone thinks reading a novel is a great way to spend a Friday night.) She says that "everyone knows" introverts believe they are intellectually superior. What do you think? Has the use of this word veered into a territory I wasn't aware of?

"Extrovert" is now forbidden, yes, because the new word is "extravert," which is also forbidden, which is sad, because now the only words we have left to use safely are "and," "the," and "popcorn."

I should not have used "safely," because that is now political, as is "political."

In related news, the new buzz-phrase in childrearing is now "Don't use your words." I would tweet this out if I weren't boycotting Twitter. And "boycott."

Please assure Lily this is the one needy and lightweight thing you have ever heard her say.

If that answer wasn't a "time to quit" bell, I don't know what is.

Bye all, thanks for stopping by, have a great weekend and I'll type to you here next week. Early notice, there won't be a chat 4/26 because it's parent conference time, yayyy.

My ex just got remarried about two weeks ago, and I found out when a girlfriend texted me she'd just come from "the wedding." While I've been divorced/single for nearly ten years, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I'm still single, but living the life I wanted. Yes I, too, felt like a loser. A best girlfriend called me (not the one who went to the wedding) after I texted her my feelings, and reminded me of ALL the reasons why he was a lousy husband.That helped - but what REALLY helped was when I DID see the wedding on social media, and I was terrified to look, but was cured. I could see he'd grown into exactly the type of man I was afraid he would, and living his life exactly the way I was afraid we would if I'd stayed. I immediately saw I was having a MUCH more fabulous life than he could ever want for me, and it took a huge weight off my shoulders.

Stop! I'm a doctor daughter from a generation older than even your own. Even back in the 1970's and 1980's, we knew it was a bad idea to treat family members, and it was a quick way to lose your license to prescribe narcotics for them. My dad's expectations that I would give him medical advice, when I had no access to his records, no way of ordering tests, and no way to do a real physical exam created constant stress. (It didn't help that he also exaggerated the importance of my rank and accomplishments to everyone.) Let your daughter do her job and keep your own medical care separate if you value your relationship.

The OP also refers to hanging out with *his* friends with no mention of hers. "I don't know what to do about socializing with his friends and family." That makes all of this even scarier.

They're open with each other, but the LW's immediate response is jealousy and suspicion? The LW ought to try to approach her sister with a little more charity. (Which might even be deductible.)

I see what you did there.

Let's say your husband it correct and you are a bad story teller. I have a friend who always has a long, rambling, barely relevant story. Honestly, it can be annoying. But she's a fun, sweet person and we all like her. Everyone has flaws. Some people are always 20 minutes late, some people are too committed to natural deodorant, and some people are annoying story tellers. Your friends like you. If the couple agreed to the double date, they like you!

"too committed to natural deodorant" brings me unreasonable joy.

You have described precisely what not being loved looks like. Contempt is the death of love and this hypercritical contemptuous stance if what that looks like. Please get therapy so you can figure out what is best for you which is almost certainly not this marriage. This is horrendous behavior even if you did have some social issues -- it is not approached with love i.e. a real desire to help you but to bolster his own ego and put you down. This is what not love looks like.

You and your sister may be open with each other but she is drawing a boundary here. Respect it.

A former boyfriend did that to me when he wanted to break up with me but didn't have the balls. Your husband sounds like a real jerk. Talk to people you can trust. Internet hugs for you if you would like them.

I am not quite at the same place as the OP, but I get what she’s saying. My boys are 15 and 17 , and I’m already starting to think about my next life. My only suggestion would be to go a little slower- maybe rent out your house and rent the condo for a while. You have spent the last20 years being everything to everyone, it might take a while to find the right path for your next steps. Buying and selling can be very expensive and hard to change if you decide to go in another direction.

If you can afford it or can find someone through Legal Services (if that still exists), please, please, please set up an appointment with an attorney -- at the very least to control your finances without ceding that to your husband. Carolyn is correct -- this is gaslighting in a profoundly obvious way. Protect yourself.

Also, if you haven't seen it, the 1944 film Gaslight is a terrific mystery/thriller. It holds up really well. (And it's one inspiration for the modern expression "gaslighting")

I thought it was THE inspiration for.

For the writer who's resentful (and possibly sad) about stopping at one kid: Carolyn, I always remember something that I think I got from you, although I can't remember an exact quote. But the idea is that we long for this imaginary alternative past where we focus on the happy details -- so it feeds the notion that we missed out on something But in reality, anything could have happened. Who knows what would have been if you'd had that second kid/moved abroad/taken that job? It could have been great; it could have been terrible. Maybe that's too simplistic, but it's worked for me many times.

If it worked, then you definitely got it from me.

LW should look at the extensive literature on culture shock (LW mentioned moving to another continent). It might help in learning about coping/adjustment strategies.

Congratulations on launching four humans! You should be proud of yourself. While I like Carolyn's idea of secretly dancing, I think that you can also model healthy life transitions for your kids by telling them that you are thrilled and proud of them, and also looking forward to this next chapter in YOUR life. It sounds like they've fallen into the trap of seeing you only as a mom, defined by her children, and not a fully formed woman with hopes, dreams and plans of your own. Ditch that family house and get your pied a terre on!

As a faithful consumer of your column, book, recommendations, etc., from the very, very, very beginning, I could not let this chat end without my shock at your diss of my Love Actually. WHAT? I love that LL scene, along with all the rest, by the way. Come on, you know that movie is a fan favorite!

Oh I watch it compulsively. And it's beyond redemption. Utter toxic waste.

Just wanted to flag that. Does the husband know you DESPERATELY wanted another baby, because you used that exact word? My kids are so far apart that they'll each get close to a decade of experience being an only child, because I suddenly "desperately" wanted another one in the twilight of my egg laying career. But I didn't soft-pedal my feelings, so my better half knew how intensely I was feeling. I know too many women who phrased that last minute desperation as "I know this is crazy/doesn't make sense, but I would really like another baby." Can't speak for all men, but the men I know hear that and they translate the statement as akin to the occasional urge to quit one's job, sell the car, and live in a tent on the beach. Crazy, doesn't make sense...and never gonna happen.

Most of the time when folks are making negative comments like this, they're really just talking about themselves and trying to be sure you understand how "right thinking" they are for recognizing the issue. It's pathetically revealing, and most of us are guilty.

That bullet whistled by my left ear. 


Wait, there's blood ...

Every baby is the goodest baby ever born.



And out. 

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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