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Carolyn Hax Live: 'Putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound'

Aug 09, 2019

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax took your comments about her current advice column and questions about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Hi everybody. I'm getting a head start since I have to quit at 1 today.

In your July 31st column, you wrote that "secrecy and privacy are not the same thing." Can you articulate the difference? My husband is a very private person. I think it veers into secrecy but he disagrees. Like the LWs, this is mainly an issue of what he tells or doesn't tell his family (and the subsequent conversational minefields I have to navigate). Having gotten to know his family, I understand why he does it, but on occasion, I'm thunderstruck at the lack of openness with the people he's supposedly closest to.

I see privacy as not sharing information that isn't anyone else's business.

I see secrecy as not sharing things with other people that are their business. 

I also think it's possible for something to fall under the definition of privacy and still be unhealthy--meaning, you share so little of yourself that you can't form meaningful connections or you starve the ones you actually have.

And I think you have a valid point, if I take your meaning correctly: If his habit of keeping things from his family means you have to be on guard all the time about what you say, then that's an unfair burden on you.

My husband, “Bill” heads a research lab at an academic institution. We met when I was working there my first year out of college. He stayed in academia and I moved on to the bio-pharmaceutical industry; I'm now head of manufacturing at a small company. My in-laws believe that Bill’s PhD means his job is much more important and lucrative than mine when actually I make quite a bit more than he does. We never felt the need to correct them but my MiL has been a royal pain about me working ever since I had my daughter, “Sara” two years ago. I do ask my MiL for occasional help when our daycare arrangements fall through – like when my daughter was sick earlier this week. When I went to pick Sara up, I got an earful about how I’m neglecting my daughter, how I don’t need to work with Bill’s salary and so on. I usually let this go since I’d work whether we needed the money or not but I had a miserable stressful couple of weeks and I snapped and told her to talk to her son since I’m the main breadwinner and he should be the one to stay home. Of course she doesn’t believe I make more money since I “only” have my MS and she told Bill I was telling lies about him. Bill is now ticked off at me because he says his dad would be “devastated” to know that I out-earn him. Should I go along with my husband wants and tell my MiL I made a mistake and of course Bill makes more money than me? If I do this Bill has promised to get her to lay off me but I hate lying about this.

No, "the truth" did not cause all this trouble. Bill's family's--and now Bill's--twisted value system did.

"Bill is now ticked off at me because he says his dad would be “devastated” to know that I out-earn him."

No. Just, no. He is angry at exactly the wrong party.

You can certainly apologize for losing your composure, and using the truth as a weapon. 

But the solution is not to lie the truth back into a box in the closet. The truth is out, so, *own it.* Live it. Tell Bill you're not going to be part of a lie anymore. You'll love him, encourage him, support him emotionally as he stands up to his parents and takes a universe of flak for it, but you will not lie for him to appease anyone--especially not people who are so eager to diminish your value just to reinforce their own ignorance and self-satisfaction. Enough.

If Bill is ready to die on this false hill, then, probably time for a marriage counselor. (Suitably credentialed to garner his respect!)

Could today's LW pick up a hobby like cross-stitch or crochet that she can do while at the family events? She's there, doesn't have to participate in the staring contest, and feels like she's "productive"?

Lots of suggestions along these lines, thanks. (I'll post others if I see some that advance the discussion.) And you all do have a point, that there are ways to make this emotional investment in her marriage at least feel somewhat productive.

My problem with it is: How much of our lives is it okay to burn on this altar? I mean, yes, a life partnership is going to involve some amount of time toward your partner's interests that you wouldn't otherwise spend that way. Part of the deal, and it's not even a sacrifice sometimes, but instead a gift lovingly given.

But I  put myself in this position, and I think, okay, I have X years of life left. When I divide up X into sleeping hours, working hours, drudgery hours (cleaning, grooming, bill-paying and other hoop-jumping), and leisure hours, and then watch a too-big chunk of that too-small last category get consumed by excruciating small talk oh and another nice handmade afghan every few months, just because my spouse feels passionately about his emotional needs and utterly unmoved by mine, then I want to run into a busy street.

Plus, not to be too didactic and heteronormative--how many needlework suggestions would I have gotten if the letter had opened, "My wife's family is fanatical about spending time together"?

So ... if a person enjoys a portable craft, then that is definitely a possibility, *in combination with* an X-on-Y-off visit plan, and a firm insistence on equal regard for emotional needs in this marriage. 

Otherwise, I'm not seeing it. But that's just me.

Carolyn, my romantic life has been pretty much a mess for the last ten years. I got married in 2009 (in my late 20s) after being mostly single up to that point. We got divorced a few years later for a variety of reasons, including that we were in a no-intimacy marriage (not cool for me!!) where I felt more like his mother than his wife, plus there were some addiction issues. I met another guy shortly after who, it turns out, pretty much cheated on me the entire time we were together (6 years). It all came out last year when I got pregnant (unplanned) and subsequently found out my child was not the only child of his born last year. I am now a single mom, loving every second of it, and trying hard to co-parent. The issue is that people keep telling me I need to start dating, get back out there, etc or I will be lonely and end up being a helicopter parent with nothing in life but my child. Honestly, that is the last thing on my mind. I am a single mom to an under 1 year old, and that takes up tons of (amazing wonderful!) time. And right now my heart is so beat up I just don't want to. I want to focus on my baby and heal my heart. Plus figure out how to forgive. So what do I say to these people? or are they right and I am setting myself up for failure??

No, they're idiots.

Excuse me--they're *acting like* idiots.

Seriously people.

A person--and this includes you, OP--can have an absolutely glorious, rewarding, fascinating, purposeful, fulfilling life (all that prior-answer hoop-jumping notwithstanding) *uncoupled.* You do not need a co-parent to be a good parent. 

I find it stunning that people can live amid so much human variety, so great a range of experience, and still come out of it thinking there's only one right way to do something. 

And holy freaking hovercraft, what are they talking about with the helicopter thing. They're the ones all up in someone else's life instead of just living their own, not you.

"Whenever you feel like butting out, let me know, and we'll have an actual conversation." 

Hugs to you and your kid. 

One more piece of advice: Stop using your in-laws as the stopgap babysitters. Find a network of other childcare providers, babysitters, friends, whoever, in your area. Your husband's parents have rotten values and you don't want to rely on such people to care for your children.

Yes. Thank you.

Along with making clear to Bill that you're not going to lie to his mother, it might be worth going to the MIL and saying, "I'm sorry I snapped at you, and I shouldn't have used Bill's and my private business that way." If she presses for an admission that you lied, you can say, "I understand that you're upset, but this is all I have to say about the matter." Any further cleanup comes from Bill.

Um, this is more than a throwaway line, "Should I go along with my husband wants and tell my MiL I made a mistake and of course Bill makes more money than me? If I do this Bill has promised to get her to lay off me but I hate lying about this." Bill should promise to get his mother to lay off of me REGARDLESS of what else happens! That is not something that should be a bargaining chip!



This is putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. It still eats up huge amounts of her time that she'd rather be using differently.

But it was more fun when I needed 100000 more words to try to say the same thing. :-/

Dear Carolyn, At a happy hour last week, I met someone who has my dream job and seems to have lucked into it relatively easily. I am pretty unhappy in my non-dream job and have been directing a lot of energy toward changing it. I reached out to her the day after the happy hour to ask more questions about the job, she gave me some more information, and then I reached out again to see if she'd be willing to meet for coffee and so that I can ask about possible inroads to being seriously considered for a role in the same organization. She deflected that invitation and instead sent me a list of resources to look into (really generic ones, like from the organization's website, which I had already found on my own). Did I come on too strong? She said she's tied up next week...would it be totally inappropriate for me to try one more time (the week after) to get together with her? We are both female and partnered, if that matters.

You've gotten as much from her as she is willing to give. Please take that for an answer. I'm sorry it wasn't a more productive encounter.

My ex is getting married in September and wants our 4-year-old daughter to be a flower girl in the wedding. That's very nice. He wants me to attend the wedding to help dress and groom her and get her where she belongs at the right times. That's...not so nice. Why can't one of his relatives (our daughter's grands and aunt/uncle) do it? Because they will be "too busy taking pictures and things like that." Being asked to do this makes me feel upset in lots of ways. For one thing, I am sure that he would never ever be willing to dedicate an entire day to MY hypothetical wedding. I feel that it reduces me to being a supporting player in his life, in a way, and also the fact that his fiancée is okay with this (I actually think it was her idea) sends a weird message that I am soooo not a threat. In fact I believe that she sees me as an older, frumpier, non-threat, and that she herself will look even more beautiful by comparison. I imagine her imagining her guests thinking, "Wow, [groom] really traded up!" On the other hand, maybe I should just do it to support my daughter, and to make sure she receives adequate attention and care all day. What do you think?

It's your prerogative to say no, if you're not interested in doing this.

But I hope you'll reread your question to see how much projecting you've done, and how harshly you're judging yourself. "I am soooo not a threat"? "older, frumpier" and there only for "comparison"? Why do this to yourself, when you could also take it as proof of mature coexistence and cooperation in your daughter's life?

Again--no reason you have to do this. Say yes if you're willing, and say no if you're not willing. But please, be kinder to your beautiful self. And if you do say yes, then work with a stylist (store provided, or online) to find something to wear in your price range that helps you feel great.

Plus, you don't have to stay--ceremony, an appearance at the reception, then out, since that's about all a 4-y-o can manage anyway.

Not at all. But next time (with someone else) don't ask for how to get hired at their company. Ask if you can have 15 minutes of their time to find out more about the work they are doing or what changes they see coming in that career. Asking them to help you get hired, which is likely how your question felt, feels like a burden most people want to avoid. You may ask as that meeting is drawing to a close if there are other people they know that you might contact. And don't overstay your welcome.

I'm thinking your in-laws didn't assume Bill made more money than you. He TOLD them so. That's why he wants you to salvage his lie for him.


Nearly 2 years ago I took the dream job that I’d been trying to get for years. Turns out I’ve been pretty unhappy. People are nice to some degree, but the expectation is basically perfection all the time. It’s a D.C. job, our work is sensitive and the attitude is basically that one public mistake would be the end of the world, and if you do something less than perfect internally (think put the wrong date on an agenda for a meeting with your immediate peers) you might make a public mistake that will bring the world crashing down. (Important to note that this is not a national security or related job that could potentially bring the world crashing down.) I’m exhausted and want to leave. But I don’t know what to do next and I also don’t want to leave this job just because I’m sensitive and internalize criticism too much. I can’t figure out if I need to toughen up because criticism is inevitable at any job or if I just am not going to be able to hack it here. Recommendations on how to figure this out?

A therapist or career coach could really help you figure this out. 

In the meantime, I strongly recommend excising the "just not able to hack it" attitude. You obviously can, since you've been in the job for two years; the issue is whether you want to. And deciding you don't want to (if that's what you ultimately discern) doesn't make you a lesser person than those who do want to. Worry about matching your career to your temperament, not about judging yourself. 

I’ve run into something similar because of a tendency of my in-laws to talk about past events and people with whom I have no connections. So I use my tablet to read a book, play games, and surf the Internet. I can keep an ear on the conversation and chip in occasionally. In most contexts this would be a bit rude, but it is rude for them to have these extended conversations about people/events that have no relevance to me. While I try to avoid being a tat-for-tit person in general, no one has criticized my behavior. So I persist.

I’m male. I used to do needlepoint when bored at family gatherings and pulling out a book wouldn't do

Was it, like, violent explosions and flames, though? 

(Which I'd actually like to see.)

There is one branch of my husband’s family whom I will not visit without a needlework project in hand. It gives me something to do with my hands & gives me a sense of not wasting the time. The only hazard is when the conversation becomes so inane I get the urge to stab myself in the eye with the crochet hook.

Today, while at a neighborhood pool, I started looking around, realizing there was no way to exit the pool area in the event of a mass shooter. I started to panic, and managed to calm myself down, but I find myself doing this over and over (and I know I can't be the only one) in random stores and locations. I remember feeling like this after 9/11 but this seems worse because the the shootings are happening everywhere. It feels helpless. I also feel helpless because our govt won't do anything to even remotely help stop these events from happening. It's exhausting, scary, and so much anxiety that I don't normally have.. How do we get through this?

We work extra hard to remain mindful of what the risks are, how to keep them in perspective, and how to take meaningful action to improve our social environment.

The shootings are horrific, unacceptable, and like all terrorism, they are primarily agents of fear. Your risk of dying in one of these shootings is still, like it is for everyone else, negligible. As one of, what, 330,000,000 million Americans? the vast likelihood is that you do not need to case the pool grounds for an exit plan (though if it helps ease your mind to, then do it). This sounds heartless to say but it's true; grieve these deaths, and deplore them, and work with all the fury you can muster to stop them, but it is not emotionally or politically effective to fear them. 

When you think "our govt won't do anything to even remotely help stop these events from happening," your job is to work toward replacing the part of the government you vote for--which includes making sure your vote counts, since enfranchisement is as salient an issue as any in a discussion of political leadership.

That's how we get through this.

I hope "am I a creep" is still reading! What you think is your dream job may not actually be your dream job.

Yes! I thought the same thing, and somehow managed to forget it by the time I started my answer. Thanks for the backstop.

Also, this is a big day in your daughter's life - fancy dress, big party, new stepmom. Yes, someone else could do the jobs they want you to do, but is there any way you could reframe it to feel lucky that you get to be there for your daughter, and that you're in the best position to put HER, rather than the bride and the groom, at the center of the day?

Your ex wants his daughter to participate in his wedding, so that's his right, and there may be a lot of reasons for wanting this, some more laudable than others. But, your daughter will feel overwhelmed, especially if she is not completely comfortable with the idea of her dad marrying someone else, no matter how nicely the new wife treats your daughter. Dad must have some sense of this b/c why else is he wanting you there to spend the day stabilizing her daughter's reactions. Perhaps she does the "show part" which is the ceremony, the photos, and then you take her home. By that time, she'd be fried anyway.

This four year old is HIS daughter and should be a very very high priority for him, his wedding day notwithstanding. HE needs to figure out a solution -- and for cry-eye, taking pictures is not more important than his little girl. Plus every single relative will be busy taking pictures all the time???? Tell him to pay for a babysitter or find a cousin who could be her buddy for the day. It is really too much to insist that the only person who could take on this role is his ex-wife. There's such a controll-y vibe that comes from this, but maybe that is just my read.

Only one more contact allowed. A thank you note for the help she gave you, by snail or e-mail. Ask for nothing more, just say thank you.

Yes, the thank-you is mandatory. 

Not really, and this day isn't about you. It does affirm the primary role you have in your daughter's life. If I were a guest, I would not be comparing you to the bride. It wouldn't even cross my mind. Instead, I'd be thinking how cool it was of you, that you were willing to be there to help out.

My "perfect" brother is having an affair and ending his 30 year marriage. He says it is not because of the other woman, whom he has only met a handful of times, but it is pretty clear that is why. His adult kids are devastated, my SIL is grieving and angry, my mother is horrified and can't talk about it. The girlfriend is still married and has younger kids. I am reaching out to both my brother and SIL with love and compassion. How does one manage to maintain bonds? I can rationalize, but it is hard. I want to shake him - and I am not eager to meet his girlfriend, if it ever comes to that. Any advice?

"Perfect" is BS. It's corrosive if he was labeled as such and was expected to live accordingly, and it's corrosive if he labeled himself as such and expected to maintain that as his facade. It's corrosive even if it was just a vibe he always kinda gave off and others just took for granted.

So it's entirely possible, albeit still not excusable, that he on some not-even-conscious level just dynamited the foundation of all of it.

It's a theory. 

It sounds as if you're managing this well already, with the love and compassion and frank reckoning with your own conflicted feelings. You're probably in the worst of it now, or at least the most emotionally volatile, so if you can stay calm and open and put your emphasis on listening, then you're probably going to emerge in a good position to maintain most if not all of these valuable relationships. 

As as it all cools, your feelings about it all might change, too, so don't worry about what you'll do in X scenario until you have to.

One of my kids has a best friend who lives in another country. They met when we lived there for awhile for my husband's job and just instantly bonded. We visit about once a year and the friend comes to visit us once a year. The friend is great and just slots in with the rest of our kids so it is really easy to have him stay with us. The problem is that his parents don't have much money. Our family makes more in a month than they make in a year. We are completely fine paying for everything when we go out, but when we are in their country, they always want to pay. We have no problem accepting invitations to their house to eat and trying to mostly do cheap things, like taking the kids to the park or to swim in a lake, but sometimes money will be spent. We will watch them count out their change and offer to buy one ice cream for the 4 boys to split. Or tell the hungry kids that they can eat in 2 hours after we make it back to their house. When we offer to pay or just go buy food/drinks/tickets, they are hurt. The parents are lovely people and it is so sweet that they want to treat us to everything. They are spending much more of their money on us than we are on them (relatively speaking). On the one hand I feel overwhelmed by their generosity. On the other hand, and I know I'm going to sound like a glassbowl, but it would be so much easier for us to just pay. Sometimes we want to see a popular tourist attraction and they can't afford it. They don't want us to pay for them OR ourselves. I have to plan our day carefully and get food/drinks to bring and carry them around with me because at some point the kids will actually be hungry and instead of stopping to buy food, I have to already have it. I mean, it's good for the kids to know we can walk an hour and a half to save ourselves $1 in bus fare, but I would so much rather just take the bus. I would be fine if just the kids went off together (all but one is a teenager so it is completely reasonable) then I could just give them money, but the parents always want to come and want us to come. Is there anything I can do or say to make them not feel bad with us paying? Or is there another way to handle the situation?

Once a year, live their way, on their turf.

Isn't that the best thing any of us can get out of a close relationship with people who live in a very different way from us? What a profound education. Please don't grit your teeth through it.

That's it for today. Thank you everybody, have a great weekend, and type to you here next week. 

Oh--how does Aug. 23 sound for a wedding Hoot?

Maybe for white Christians, but it's a lot more perilous for the rest of us.

Your risk is decidedly bigger, yes, infuriatingly so, but still not statistically big.

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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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