Carolyn Hax Live: 'Speaking of emotional blackmail'

May 17, 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. Pupper and I just got back from the vet so I'm scrambling a bit.

I wanted to provide an update after being surprised to see my question yesterday (when I first started reading it I was like “wow, I do relate to this person!”) My mom is the one in particular who dances around visits to us, my dad generally goes along with whatever she plans so I assumed he didn’t really have an opinion. My mom is also the one who freezes and gets defensive about emotional conversations, my dad and I have hardly have emotional convos I guess because I just generally turn to my mom. My dad visited on his way through town a couple months ago and I broke down and asked him why my mom never wanted to visit - was our guest bed uncomfortable, did she just kind of get her grandkid fill with my sister’s older and closer ones, did she not like my husband etc etc. His answer really surprised me - he said she thought our lives were already so busy and stretched that she didn’t want to add to our stress by coming to stay with us. And the few times she does she works so hard to help and overcompensate for any bother she might be that she stressed herself out and ends up exhausted. I was so surprised by this, I don’t find their visits stressful at all - I plan super easy dinners and the weekly cleaner preps for their visit so there’s really no extra work and I really enjoy the time with them. I think your advice still stands, even after reassuring my mom it’s no bother at all hosting them she stresses herself worrying about it so she still doesn’t come much and I need to accept that about her. But. it’s good to at least know why and know it’s not something wrong with me or my family.

That is good news, thanks, though I am sorry to hear your mother is letting her Stuff stand between her and intimacy with the people she loves.

Read Carolyn's column from earlier this week: The ‘you never call’ shoe is on the other foot

I've been friends with a small group of women (“Kelly, Emily and Dara”) since college, about 6 or 7 years. We have always gone out to bars and clubs and had a lot of fun together, until recently, that is. Lately, through social media, I can see that Emily and Dara and sometimes all three go out without me. In fact, lately the only time we all go out together is when I set it up. Since I’m closer to Kelly I asked her why Emily and Dara were freezing me out. She explained that they're sick and tired of the attention I get from men when we all go out as a group. Kelly doesn't care because she's in a committed relationship. They say they want a chance to meet guys and having me there only makes them feel like “second choice, if the men even notice them at all.” For the past couple of years I’ve really stepped up my fitness routine and as a result I do wear much more close-fit styles, which men do like. My friends wear very casual, comfortable clothing. They have their own style and that's fine; I don't judge them for not doing things the same as I do. But now I feel like I’m losing my friends because of this. Also, we don’t always go out with the intent to meet men so why cut me out? What can I do?

Actually, you're losing your friends because they've chosen a crappy, transactional way to treat other people.

I could argue that Kelly is the worst of them for going along with it even though she "doesn't care," knowing you're being excluded for such a superficial reason.

And I might argue that all day if it means I run out of time and don't have to address your comments on clothing styles, because, ew. I don't know. I'm sure it's all accurate, but "I'm hot and they're not" isn't the kind of accuracy that endears people to their friends.

It all just brings me back around to where I always end up: Fun is fun, but connection is worth whatever effort and patience it takes. 

Dear Carolyn, My mom passed away a couple of months ago. My dad made it clear that he would not be part of the cleaning out process. I live in the same city as my parents while my two sisters live on the other coast. My dad is also planning on selling the house in the near future. I’m overwhelmed. Cleaning out my mom’s closet has been an emotional process and some days I can clean for just 15 minutes then I need a break. Any advice? I’m working against my dad’s timeline of selling the house. I would appreciate any advice. Cleveland Park

I'm so sorry for your loss.

What would happen if you just stopped? It sounds as if you've been emotionally blackmailed into assuming everyone else's share of the work.

I will accept the delay if you post a photo of this pupper.

Speaking of emotional blackmail: LINK

Dear Carolyn, I am a 46-year-old divorced woman (no children) in a new relationship with a 53-year-old divorced man. My marriage ended about 10 years ago because we just weren't a good fit, and my boyfriend's ended much more recently and for a more heartbreaking reason. He and his wife lost a daughter to complications from an eating disorder before her 21st birthday, and their marriage fell apart as a casualty of their grief. My boyfriend seems to have a healthy perspective on what happened and is sharing the details with me in gradual, responsible doses, but I often worry that I'm saying the wrong thing or not saying enough. I also find that I'm self-conscious about asking for certain things in the relationship because he has been through so much. Do you have any suggestions about not letting the specter of this tragedy harm a promising new relationship? Thanks, and your columns are the best!

Thank you for the kind words.

This situation is indeed devastating. I think you're good to be so thoughtful, and it's a promising sign both that he's sharing gradually and that you've chosen to be respectful of his timetable.

I am a little concerned that you might be erring too much on the side of holding back. It's normal to be self-conscious--but so helpful if you can articulate that sometimes: "I find that I'm self-conscious about asking certain things because you have been through so much." Don't bring this up constantly--you don't want to shift the responsibility onto him for your emotional caretaking--but do venture in at key points when you feel yourself holding back and wondering if he'd actually appreciate more openness. This allows him to understand what it means when you don't respond to him right away, for example, or in a way he might not have expected. 

Likewise, if you have the presence of mind in a moment when you're not sure what to say, say that: "I worry that I'll say the wrong thing. Is there something people have said or done for you that helps?"

Again, not every time, but at moments when it feels right. That gives you both a voice in the pace of your emotional discovery.

Newly single/solo parent would love some book recommendations about other moms on this journey. Everything I find seems focused on co-parenting or new relationships which is not my situation.

Anyone? I don't have a reference at my fingertips, though I know it has come up. Teddy, would you pls flag any posts as they come in?

Hi Carolyn, Is there a good way to communicate stuff that falls under the umbrella of "You're not a parent, you don't understand" without using those actual words, which I know people (rightly) find condescending and insulting? I have a small child. My friend "Trixie" doesn't have kids. She's going through a rough time and wants a lot of social support in the form of quality time. Shopping outings, happy hours, and now she's talking about wanting to go away for a weekend (my husband and kid wouldn't be invited). I'm game for some of this, but not all. I work fulltime and cherish the 3-4 hours I have at the end of each day with my son before he goes to bed. Trixie thinks that since my husband is an "involved dad" (barf) and we have relatives in town who can help babysit, I must be thrilled and able to get away as often as she wants me to. I often find myself pushed toward expressing that as a non-parent, she probably doesn't understand that I am not dying to escape my parenting responsibilities every night (as I imagine it must look to her).

There's no good way because you're holding the wrong umbrella.

This isn't about Trixie's not being a mom. It's about her not taking "no" for an answer. You could be uncoupled and unkidded and still not want to drop your 3-4 hours to do _____ at the end of the day. 

That's the problem with the whole "as a non-parent" line of thinking. Your time and your autonomy over your time are not more precious because you're a parent. You're a parent and so that's how you use your time, but non-parents are just as entitled as you are to tell their pushy Trixies to stuff it.

So please go that route: Accept invitations you want to accept, decline invitations you want to decline, and when pushed, explain to her that you won't be going out at that pace.

I did something a couple of years regarding my two stepchildren that I’m not really proud of and now I’m meeting with them to explain myself and I’m not sure I can. I married their mother when my stepdaughter was 10 and my stepson was 8. I didn’t have much experience with children but their father was out of the picture so I did try to step up and fill that role as much as I could. Shortly after our fifth anniversary my wife was diagnosed with lung cancer and she died nine months later. The kids and I struggled along until the school year ended and then my mother-in-law invited them out to stay for the summer. That August I let her know I wasn’t coming to get them and she and my father-in-law would need to take care of them. I just couldn’t cope with the grief of losing my wife and parenting teenagers - I’m not cut out to be a single parent. The text messages I got from my stepchildren were pretty bitter but I didn’t blame them but I also didn’t know what to say so I never answered. Two years later I still miss them and recently started corresponding with my stepdaughter. She is willing to hear me out so now I’m flying out to see her and my stepson next week. I’m both excited and filled with dread. I woke up this morning realizing I have no idea what to say to them. The truth seems too inadequate to explain what they see as a huge betrayal. I don’t want to make excuses but I was in way over my head and saw no other way out. Is that what I tell them?

Oh my. So much sadness here.

I'm not clear what your purpose is for the trip, though. Do you still see yourself as "not cut out to be a single parent"? (Do you know who is? Whoever shows up and does it.) This trip is to apologize, but not to resume your role as their parent? Or is this a step toward your becoming their caregiver again?

I wish this weren't coming up so soon, or I'd advise you to work through your approach with an excellent child psychologist. It might still be the best plan, but that would presumably involve postponing the trip, which would no doubt appear to the kids as another no-show, which I'm not sure your relationship can sustain at this point. So if there's any any any chance you can get an appointment with someone for before you go, please do that. Even 1 hour beats 0 hours.

As for what you say you want to say, I think your instincts are telling you this already: No. This can't be about anything that sounds even remotely like an excuse for what you did. "I just couldn't cope with the grief": excuse. "I was in over my head": excuse. "I saw no other way out": excuse.

I don't doubt you felt these things, even saw them as absolute truths. I'm utterly sure you did.

But they don't want to hear about how you felt. They suffered. They want to hear you acknowledge that. They want to hear you're sorry for that. They want to hear the words that demonstrate to their satisfaction that you understand what you did to hurt them, and understand it well enough that they can trust your word and trust you're not going to do it to them again.

There was an excellent, mind-opening "This American Life" about such apologies--as in, apologies for causing someone significant emotional distress that actually serve to heal. The transgression was by one writer against another, and the episode unfolds into almost a workshopping of an apology, from a totally self-serving rough draft to a finished expression of remorse that makes two people better for being part of it. LINK Maybe it's just emotional nerdery only an advice columnist could love, but I found it riveting.

My son is planning to propose to his girlfriend over Memorial Day weekend, and has asked for the use of a family heirloom to use as the engagement ring. It's not a traditional choice (no diamond, the ring itself is not very valuable) but it has some emotional significance to HIM; however, the girlfriend has made a few heavyhanded comments about hoping for something more traditional. They may have whizzed by my son's head (he can be obtuse about things like this, which I'm sure the girlfriend will have lots of fun with over the years). I'm not sure what to do. I pointed out to my son that the ring is not necessarily his girlfriend's tastes. It doesn't match her overall style and she has actually commented about wanting something different. He has so far told me (nicely) to butt out, but the ring technically belongs to me and I could just say no if I wanted to. Would that be an appropriate way to go about trying to push him to give his girlfriend something she would actually like? Signed, Woman Who Hated Her Own Engagement Ring

Yes! Keep the ring. Tell him you're not parting with an heirloom for someone who doesn't want it. This battlefield is already bloody with minced words, so don't add more.

Because I can't help myself, I will also add that I share your expectation that "the girlfriend will have lots of fun ... over the years" with your son's inability/unwillingness to distinguish his own preferences from other people's. And, I'm not over the moon, either, with her tactic of dropping hints like so many cinder blocks to secure her diamond of choice. If she wants a particular ring, then she should buy herself one.

The whole engagement ring "tradition" doesn't stand up to any serious scrutiny--unless the couple is so "traditional" throughout that equality is off the table. Speaking hetero here, man bestows gem on woman.

I have a hot friend I stopped going certain places with because I could never spend an evening dancing or talking with her. I was always stuck with the wingman or her hanger-ons. I came home every evening feeling like dog poop. Not because I envied her or had any desire to flirt with men at clubs, but because I had spent the whole evening talking to men who made it quite clear talking to me was an unpleasant chore. I still go out drinking and dancing with other equally pretty women all the time. They don't let me get crowded out of their conversations and fun when men notice them.

Anne Lamott: Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year ... ‘Some Assembly Required’, too. And Lamott in general if you dont mind the faith stuff - it's anyway witty and helpful and deep about life in general

Hi Carolyn - I have to tell her no at least 3 times before she backs off. From food to music to travel and beyond. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to her that not everyone has the same tastes she does. Examples: Telling me repeatedly to get sauce on my taco because it’s included in the price, no matter how many times I say the sauce is too spicy for me. Asking me repeatedly to go to a jazz concert after telling her I’m not into jazz. Asking me to travel at least once every time we speak, despite knowing that my mom has 3 surgeries coming up and I can’t travel any time soon. Trying to physically wrap a shawl around my shoulders after I told her 6 times (no exaggeration) that I wasn’t cold. Not to mention hovering while I cook and checking each step of the recipe to make sure I’m doing it right. It’s nearly constant and I feel like a toddler saying, “No, no, no!” because I don’t want to eat the sauce or wear the shawl. She’s also being rude to strangers: walking up to a server and complaining while the server is taking an order at another table. I used to consider her to be the nicest person I’ve ever met but now she’s driving me bonkers. She’s pregnant and under a lot of stress and I wonder if this has something to do with it. Maybe it’s anxiety? This all started before the pregnancy but has definitely been worse lately. It also feels like she just wants to push her tastes on me and doesn’t care what mine are. It’s exhausting and I’m pretty much done with this friendship. Or should I wait and see how things go post-baby? Maybe set limits on how often I see her and avoid eating with her? But then she’ll ask me to dinner 9 times and I’ll have to keep saying no.

If I'm reading this correctly, then you haven't said to her explicitly, in response to the third no-sauce-please or fourth time you've said you aren't cold: "What. is. going. on?" Followed by a kind, gentle, plain accounting of the change you have witnessed in her and your frustration with her pressing you repeatedly on sauces and shawls.

After that, then you can respond once to a first intrusion, and from there say, "I said 'no,'" to a second, and give no response at all to a 3rd/4th/nth. And in time, if you haven't run through a wall a la Wile E. Coyote, you can skip all of these responses and just look at her the first time with eyebrow(s) raised and be done with it.

Meaning, of course, you stop accommodating. Short version.

As for why she's doing this, that's above my credential grade (of zero), but certainly when you have the what's-going-on conversation you can ask if she has considered getting screened for anxiety and/or talking to a pro about the stress she is under.

There is a fine line between showing concern and telling someone they're doing life wrong and need to fix it to your liking (see ^^^; see also, "irony")--but friends are often our best mirrors when we've undergone a concerning personality change. This sounds like one of those cases.


I should also add that if you just want out of the friendship, then that of course is your prerogative--but having had the "Whyyyyyyyy are you telling me 7 times how to order a taco?" conversation will save you a lot of splaining when that day finally comes.

Hi Carolyn, I really need your sage advice. Last night, while disciplining our 5-year-old for a minor infraction (think, not listening to what a parent told him to do), my husband got in our son's face, pointed a finger, screamed at him, then slapped his cheek for emphasis. It happened so fast I wasn't even sure I'd seen it. It didn't leave a mark. But still. I get sick to my stomach just thinking about it. I immediately yelled "that's enough" and told our son to come to me. He was wailing and scared, and asked why Daddy had done that. Husband wheeled around on me and said, "if you're not with me, you're against me. Is that how it's going to be?" For the record, he is dismissive and disrespectful of me (and women) at best, and emotionally abusive at worst. This is not the first time he has screamed in his face (or mine), but it IS the first time he has raised a hand to my child. I have seen him treat his son from his first marriage poorly as well. I am broken hearted and feel ill, and I don't know what to do. I'm a SAHM with an infant daughter and, of course, my preschooler. I can't even look at my husband; I moved into the guest bedroom last night. Where do we go from here?

Please talk to the people who will know exactly what to do: The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE; or RAINN, 1-800-656-HOPE. The former is national, the latter routes your call to local resources, and both are reputable. 

And urgently needed. Please call one of these numbers to protect your children and yourself. I can see how you feel stuck right now, but you're not; you do have possibilities and you have access to people trained to help. Just be mindful that abuse is about control, and getting help/leaving is about taking away that person's control, which often leads an abuser to escalate the abuse. I'm saying this not to discourage you from calling, but instead to urge you to be careful when you do call.

I think we need to set up Trixie from the "Being Understood" letter with the friend in the "Pushy friend driving me bonkers" letter.

Not helpful or the point, but this does remind me of my favorite scene from When Harry Met Sally. I hope everyone who wants to find their good melon does (including me!):

You had me at "Not helpful or the point."

sounds like OCD. sounds like my sister. she would say "Because you're doing it wrong". I think her OCD anxieties punish her if she doesn't try to control me into doing it 'right'.

I think her comments on clothing types are just an attempt to find a tactful way to say she has a body type and style choices that are considered to be conventionally more attractive, while trying not to be negative about those friends actual appearances. While 'comfortable' isn't flattering, you can get what she's trying to say. If she was the excluding them based on appearance, then yes criticism on her superficial comments is certainly warranted. But they are the ones excluding her and claiming its based on appearance and attention.

Lots of pushback to you about MIL getting propositioned by her drunk SIL. While I agree the main issue here is alcohol, I’m concerned by your line of thinking a la victim blaming (she was drunk too, she must have been asking for it, and what was she wearing anyway?). I’ve read you long enough - literally since the beginning - to know that’s not what you were saying but can you walk me thru a little more as to your reasoning WHY the MIL shouldn’t be horrified by her SIL’s comments? Why she shouldn’t tell her daughter? And why the comment isn’t an immediate flag?

"’m concerned by your line of thinking a la victim blaming (she was drunk too"

I don't follow this at all. 


I urge LW to do some soul searching to make certain he’s apologizing for the sake of the children and not to make himself feel better. The children do not need the burden of his guilt, grief or sorrow. Their healing should be the priority, not LW. Using children to address unmet adult emotional needs is unfair and selfish.

Isn't it usually foreboding of a marriage if a couple focuses more on things like rings and wedding receptions than managing a new life together. It does not bode well that the girlfriend is more interested in what the ring is made of than what it represents, nor does it bode well that he doesn’t seem to care what she wants. Not a great start for something that hasn’t even started yet.

Good to see the update from daughter on the situation. I would still add that she might want to examine the subtle messages she is sending her mom. As a 60+ year old, I found LW's attitude (in original letter yesterday) very dismissive and condescending toward her parents' activities and hobbies.

To the step-dad who abandoned two teens: Please DON'T explain. Just listen. They lost their mom, and then the only dad they had chose to abandon them. They must have felt a crushing rejection to be orphaned by your decision. Your grief matters to you, but it doesn't lessen their pain, at all. If you are seeking understanding, please wait until: 1) you have understood them first, and well, and 2) a few years have gone by. You need to be the grown-up until they are actually, you know, grown up.

Why not advise the young man that he and his soon-wife will need to discuss and settle many issues over the years and they can start with the ring, rather than just unilaterally saying keep the ring.

I read it not as dropping hints "to secure her diamond of choice", but rather dropping hints to avoid the awkward situation of being given an engagement ring that she doesn't want to wear. Saying directly "I don't like your emotionally significant family heirloom" is difficult to carry off tactfully, but it's easier to express (and to find an opportunity to express) "I think traditional diamond engagement rings are lovely"

Don't you think it's a little over the top to claim that a couple that uses engagement rings takes equality in their relationship off the table?

I said it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

"The Lunch-Box Chronicles" by Marion Winik. However out of step with your peers you might feel, she is even more so and writes beautifully and wittily about it.

He abandons these children at the lowest point in their lives, can't even respond to their texts, and then has the gall to write that *they* see it as a huge betrayal? I think he is not at all prepared to face the enormity of what he did.

Did all the problems of the word go away or is the system down?

Busy day, slow columnist. I didn't do my pre-reading today.

The reason why a bulk of them fail is because the transgressor doesn't empathize with the victim. There's too much focus on forgiveness and absolution than feelings from the original action. And there are many transgressions where "I'm sorry" doesn't cut it and never will. I have an ex (13 years ago) and a former boss (two years ago) who still pester me for forgiveness. I won't ever do that, not out of spite, but because their actions don't merit forgiveness in my book. But make no mistake: they want my forgiveness for themselves, so they can continue to see themselves as good guys; it has nothing to do with me or being truly sorry.

Eating a grown up lunch by myself on my day off and now trying not to sob I’m this fancy restaurant. How about letting the kids speak, asking them how they felt, and being prepared to sit there and take it, all of it, whatever they say?

Well said.

And, I love the day off and grownup lunch. Go, you.

Either the woman writing in or her dad should go to professionals in handling estate sales. They have no emotional investment and will triage stuff: this for the sale, this to donate if it doesn't sell, this for the dumpster. If dad is moving he should take the stuff he wants and leave everything else for the estate sale people. LW should take any keepsakes she wants and not look back.

Yes. Part of why I'm still on so late is scanning the queue for some explanation of why it HAS to be done by the OP. It just doesn't make sense. Homeowner is the one accountable, and it can be outsourced. Thanks.

But is the pupper okay re: vet visit? Now that you've shared a picture I am emotionally invested.

Pupper is on the mend. He needs snuggles, though, so I should go.


Thanks everybody, have a great day/evening/weekend, sorry Teddy for staying on so long, and see you here next week.


Oh--I also didn't see any explanation for the "victim blaming" suggestion re in the Wednesday column. I genuinely don't see what would lead anyone to draw that conclusion, so feel free to post under chat link on FB if that was your takeaway.

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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