Carolyn Hax Live: Empathy

May 29, 2020

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. What a day. Week. Year.

This past week my stepmom ended up in the hospital because my dad hurt her so bad. I talked to her and a lot of truth came out, especially after she said that my mom warned her about my dad and she should have listened. All these years she and my dad have been lying to me about the divorce, lying about my mom, and I believed it all. Because of that I’ve been sort of distant from my mom since my dad remarried, 5 years ago. After I got off the phone with my stepmom, I talked to my brother who always tried to tell me they were liars and he stuck by my mom. He told me I should remember the fights when we were little and my dad screaming and throwing things but honesty in my memory none of that was that bad. I’m so ashamed. I don’t even know how to make it up to with my mom who through all of this always told me she still loved me, even with all the hard words I threw at her. I’m beating myself up now wondering why I chose to believe my dad when there was so many signs that I was wrong. I called and had a crying talk with her but I can’t even go see her and hug her. Also I'm avoiding my dad's calls since I don't what to even say to him. What do I do now?

Oh my goodness.

I am so sorry.

It sounds as if you have been the target of heavy manipulation, not just "all these years" of your dad and stepmom's relationship, but for most if not all of your life. If this is true, then the fault lies with the person manipulating you. 

Please make it the next thing you do to start looking for a therapist. Place a call to your regular doctor to request some names, and/or call your insurance company, or check to see what your employer or school offers. Don't drag your feet--get started today.

You are off to a good start in apologizing to your mom, keeping your dad away, and reconstructing your past in the light of this new information.

Again--going on what you describe here, you didn't do this, your manipulator(s) did. Your responsibility from here is to pursue the truth without flinching, now that you know one is out there to be found.


My mom has verbally and emotionally abused me since childhood. She has been in and out of mental health treatment, but never sticks around long when therapists or doctors start saying things - aka the truth - that she doesn't want to hear. I have worked hard to be financially independent, live far away, and set boundaries that I can live with (thanks in part to great advice from you, Carolyn) so that I can still have a relationship with my dad who I am very close to.

Long story short, last year I got engaged, my mom fought my fiance and me every step of planning our dream, out of state wedding (no bridal shower - gasp! no registry - how could you?! only 20 people - unacceptable!!, etc.) then the pandemic happened, we scrapped all those plans, and in less than a month are throwing together an even more intimate gathering to be held in my parents' backyard so we can keep our original wedding date.

That's not even the crazy part. This weekend I told my family that I plan to have only my dad walk me down the aisle, rather than both parents as they did at my sisters' weddings. In a response that was not entirely surprising but rather drastic just the same, my mom threatened to sabotage our entire wedding, end her own marriage to my father if he goes along with it, and through my sister (who we've taken to calling the hostage negotiator) issued a set of demands that must be met in order for her to consider discussing alternatives. Chief among those demands is for us to acknowledge that my mother feels "totally unloved, disrespected, unimportant, and unaccepted" and that we should supply options for how to make her feel special and my wedding.

Any suggestions for handling that kind of crazy? We'd cancel the whole thing if it wasn't so important to have my dad there. Also open to fun wedding/pandemic-themed drinking game suggestions to help us through? Mostly though I'm here to commiserate with my fellow pandemic brides and remind them that whatever the situation, it could always be worse - my mother could be coming.  Wedding is three weeks away, wish me luck!

I'm so glad you're not canceling the whole thing.

The way to handle "this kind of crazy" is to ignore it. Calmly and utterly. And to continue with your plans as if you have not been asked to make unreasonable accommodations.

Your dad walks you down the aisle as planned. If your mom makes a scene, then have a designated person or two on standby to usher her out. If your sister presses you beforehand for a response to your mother's demands, then thank her for letting you know of your mother's wishes, but you're proceeding as planned. Whatever hell your mom unleashes on her for your decisions is for her to manage, since she assumed that risk when she agreed to serve as mom's messenger--a role she could have turned down.

I am sorry for both you and your mom that she hasn't followed through with adequate treatment for her heath problems. This sentiment can coexist with the sentiment that you can and should have your own wedding in your own terms. 

Congratulations to you and your fiance.

The "second banana" question from last week really made me think, because with a few tweak it could have been my sister. I have 2 kids and my parents were very involved/supportive throughout both pregnancies. Now my sister is pregnant and she keeps asking me things like "Did Mom seem excited when you told her you were pregnant?" I'm struggling with how to answer. I'm pretty sure I know what's going on, which is my sister is planning to move overseas 3 months after the baby is born, and with this pandemic who knows when Mom and Dad will get to see grandbaby #3. So my sense is they are preemptively distancing themselves... which of course is self-fulfilling prophecy because my sister will distance herself. So what is my role in all this? Should I talk with my mom about what my sister has told me? Should I tell my sister my theory about our parents, which might be totally baseless? Do I butt out entirely?

You can, when complained to by one party or the other, encourage each party to talk to the other directly. I hope you do.

Dear Carolyn, My friend "Maria" was married to "James" for about a decade, ending in 2017. James and I became friends during that marriage and have now begun to realize we both have feelings for each other. I haven't shared this with Maria yet, but other friends have noticed and I have been told that this would really hurt Maria and probably destroy our friendship. Maria and I are in our early 50s, and James is 60. Maria was devastated by their divorce, but seems to be doing much better now. When I was 25, I would have considered it a cardinal sin to date a friend's serious ex. But at 50-something, I have experienced a shrinking dating pool and a growing feeling that life is too short to bypass possible companionship. However, I can't discount the importance of close friendship (like the one I have with Maria) as I continue to age, either. Are the rules different at this stage of life, or am I just kidding myself so that I can pursue something I really want?

You're kidding yourself that any kind of "rule" would matter more than the feelings of the actual people involved. 

If you're confident Maria would take it badly, then you need to approach your decision as one between preserving your friendship with Maria or starting a relationship with James. 

It's actually the oldest rule there is: Actions have consequences.

By the way, if other friends know, then Maria will know soon if she doesn't already, so your opportunity window to bank goodwill through transparency and respect is closing.


Hi, update about living with my girlfriend's parents. Looking back, I wrote that letter at a low point and things came to head shortly after. I walked into our office to find that my gf's mom had cleaned my desk after I specifically asked her not to, which she somehow heard as she cleaned it wrong the last time. We had a household talk all 4 of us and came to a better understanding. More recently her parents had to accept that they're not getting back to Europe anytime soon and moved to a short-term rental. I'm so relieved.

Good stuff, thanks for checking back in. The desk story should ripen into a good anecdote in a few years, if that's any consolation. 

Delayed thought about my first answer: The domestic violence hotlines would be a good resource for local counseling options. 1-800-799-SAFE and/or 1-800-656-HOPE (for National Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN, respectively).

Hi Carolyn - We have two jobs, two small kids and a house, but spend every other weekend visiting grandparents a few hours away. They’re lobbying to restart now that the SAH orders are lifting...but the forced break has really made clear how much stress these trips add to our life. One visit a month, at our house, would be a much better fit. We’ve shared this with the grandparents (all healthy young retirees), and I’m really frustrated by their responses. They don’t want the hassle of driving that far, being without their things, not having time “to get ready for the week” (the rage at that one!!!!). I get that cutting visits in half would stink for them, but we’ve said we’re open to suggestions. What we’re getting is a barrage of calls and texts telling us how cruel we are/that their friends’ children do x/for their parents they... This is also kicking up a lot of anger for me as they talked about moving nearby to help with the kids (as their parents did for them...) but then didn’t want to uproot their lives. DH thinks we should continue the visits until they have a chance to warm up to the idea. I think we offer them a date to visit us, and they can take or leave it. WWCD?

They don’t want the hassle of driving that far


Ugh. I'm sorry. 

I am 100 percent in Camp Here's the Date Everybody, Show Up If You Suddenly Develop Any Sense of Irony.

I realize this is not the recipe for cuddly-closeness, but in my/our defense, neither is complaining without irony to parents of small children who have been on the road to see you every two weeks since whenever about the hassle of driving "that far."

Good luck.


My husband and I each contracted "the virus" last month and we're doing better, thank goodness. A friend from out of state has taken it upon herself to send emails, sort of newsy notes, every few days, and cards in the mail, to cheer us up. But we're each only at about half speed still, and I can't keep up with her! I've sent a thank you note in the mail. If I write back, it invites more. If I don't write, she writes to say she is worried about us. Her feelings get easily hurt; my thoughts on how deal with this have flown out the window.

"Thanks so much for looking out for us. We're doing so much better. It's tiring to communicate, though, so I will respond only once a week*--letting you know upfront so you don't worry. Thank you for understanding." Then hold to it.

*your choice of frequency here.

Sorry you've been through the wringer & glad you're feeling better.

Hope the Police are called -- if not, her hospitalization warrants his arrest. I was / am in a similar position. My son believed my ex -- every word. The revelation about his Father's abuse only recently came to light. I agree with Carolyn -- seek a therapist. And, know that a Mother's love is ever present. <3

My children are a bit younger but we were in a similar situation. I can tell you, having been abused for years, that part of an abuser's framework is to isolate children from the other parent. Make no mistake about it, your dad was manipulating you to keep you away from your mother as part of the abuse. Many abusers use post separation conflict as a way to continue abuse. Therapy has been so helpful for my children, and hopefully helping them have healthy relationships now.

I am so sorry this is happening to your family. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a lot of good information and may also be able to help you find a therapist (or determine whether one is a good fit and knowledgeable about DV issues). They are there for all victims, both the individuals directly abused and those who are impacted by the abuse, like children and family members. Exposure to violence, even violence you don't remember, is a form of trauma in its own right. None of it is your fault.

Where's your dad in all this? I can't imagine how difficult it is to be married to someone with your mom's mental health issues, but.... he's still your father and should, like any parent, be supporting you in your wishes, and making it clear that he won't be emotionally blackmailed by your mom. Maybe some of the detail was left out, but I'm kind of disappointed in your dad, with whom you say you have a close relationship.

If your sister is inserting herself in the middle, you can work with your therapist to choose a stock phrase and refuse to engage her. EG “This is up to mom to handle. Please let it be,” or “Thank you for your opinion (change subject)” or “I’m not discussing this with you (change subject)” And you might explore in therapy why you are so attached to Dad. He may not be as obvious as mom in his unwellness but he picked her and continues to do so. He could come to you for a courthouse wedding. Why is he treated in the letter as a helpless victim instead of long term participant?

I've been with my boyfriend for about a year now, and things are incredible. I have noticed one thing about myself that causes me some concern, though. When he's going through a particularly tough time, I find I have endless compassion for him. When he's going through something more minor, though (think a headache), I'm able to go through the motions of being compassionate but feel mildly annoyed/frustrated/disappointed by the situation on the inside, and lack that real feeling of empathy. Is this...a problem? I want him to feel loved and supported, but sometimes I just can't muster the energy to really feel the nice things I'm saying. This happened pre-pandemic, so I know it's not just a result of being overwhelmed by stress. I'm not sure if I should talk to him about it (which feels counterproductive, since he can't do anything about it and would just feel guilty) or find some way to try to muster up more empathy or just accept it and move on.

Is this something you've felt with others, or just with him?

If it's just with him, then maybe he's asking for sympathy beyond what you have in reserve, and maybe someone more stoic would be a better emotional fit.

If it happens with everyone, then it's not about the boyfriend, it's about the face you think you need to present to the world (and why), vs. the genuine article.

It's not wrong to go through the motions of sympathy sometimes, certainly, since there will be moments you're caught up in your own stuff, and since telling someone you don't give a s*** about their headache isn't exactly the kind of honesty to strive for, except between consenting equals. Still, if you find yourself regularly having to perform, then it's time to take a deeper look at who you are, how you feel and how you appear to others. If the sympathy you express is mostly or even often a performance, then you're not presenting yourself honestly to people--and that can be unfair to someone in your BF's position especially, as you and he figure out whether you've got long-term compatibility.

I've known plenty of lovable people who aren't afraid to say, "Don't interrupt me unless there's blood." If that's who you are, then that's who you need to be.

Hi Carolyn! In stressful times, I have a happy update. A few months ago, I was the woman who didn't want to have a baby shower for a whole host of reasons: We never had one, and I didn't regret it. We decided only to buy the essentials - bassinet, diapers, a few outfits, etc, and friends and family who wanted to support us could reach out directly. I was touched! Because we didn't buy some of the smaller things - like outfits - people could really express their care (and personalities) through the onesies and blankets they sent. Commenters did make a good point - it was our baby, and if my husband wanted a baby shower I should listen to him too. When I asked after the column came out, he said he wasn't bothered either way - but it was still good that I checked. In the end, I want to thank you and the commenters for taking the time to think through the baby shower. People who have baby showers are great, people who choose not to have baby showers are great, and at least during this horrible, tragic pandemic I have been able to spend so much time with my happy, healthy baby boy.

Congratulations! And thank you for the update. 

(Original LINK.)

My heart has been aching so much in witnessing the violence, recently spotlighted in the media, perpetrated against African Americans. Without video recordings these incidents would surely not be in the spotlight, which has me realizing how many other, equally atrocious crimes against African Americans are likely committed covertly. I ran across this list that I'm hoping to share. It's titled "75 Things White People can do for racial justice" and although I wish they'd have just said "people" (all people—time to unite on this) I thought it had some excellent, actionable content. I understand there may be reasons you can't share it, but I'm hoping you can.

I agree with the heartache (and rage) but disagree strongly on whitewashing out the "White People." There's unity, which is great, and there's shifting responsibility, which is not great. The responsibility for fixing racism this is on the people who think it, act on it, benefit from it, and/or perpetuate it through inaction. 

The action list is too long for me to read on the fly, but I'll trust it and post any counterpoints as needed. 

I'm a first banana sister, and sharing in a kind way that I also saw the disparity (and suffered from it) helped her heal the hurt. You can do that and then say, talk to each other.

Carolyn I found your response really helpful. Another point: I relate to the OP very much — I made the mistake when my bf and I both got very strange bad flus a couple weeks before COVID19 guidelines came out. It was hard but I handled my fevers and symptoms with my usual stoicism, while I thought privately that he was being a big baby with “man flu” (even though externally I pampered him). Turns out all that stuff he said about trouble breathing etc was...quite possibly COVID19. We both recovered after almost 2 weeks but I am remembering this next time I feel like he is being dramatic. And also the lesson that while I was also short of breath he may have been experiencing worse symptoms and its better to take it seriously than risk not being there for them/thank god nothing worse happened. I also realize my parents used to minimize my symptoms/pains which I’m glad made me tough but I’m afraid it may also have made me stupid and insensitive - I’m working on it!!

Great point, thanks. We can have biases in all kinds of ways. Any time we can catch them and commit to an open mind and better listening, the better.

I teared up, thinking about how much joy you brought your mom by letting her know you finally know, and believe, the truth. Trust that she meant what she said about always loving you and when you can, go see her for that long-awaited hug. It will likely help heal the guilt you are feeling.

I've had covid for two months, and though I'm "recovered" I'm at about twenty percent of my former self. Meaning, if we were in real life right now I would hardly be able to partake of any of it. I've had this denial about that, made easier by the fact that the whole world is shutdown. But a creeping sadness is coming in as I realize I'm not totally okay. There's nothing more to be done for me, and the doctors assume I'll get better over time. I'm in a new normal of being on blood thinners and beta blockers and steroid inhaler after thinking I was in the best shape of my life a few months ago. I know everyone is grappling with my question to some degree: How do I readjust to the idea that all the plans, all the new dreams, all the ideas I had for this year and for myself are kaput? Or may never be?

Short answer, slowly. Don't look to the rest of your life and tick off all the things you now won't be doing. In fact, don't even look toward next year and start scratching things off all your lists. Instead, think of today, tomorrow, next week at the most ambitious. Greet each day, see where you are, budget your time accordingly. 

Our brains just aren't meant to process huge things all at once. I'm sure you're as familiar as the rest of us with anxiety, depression, denial, with going into shock--these are all indications of a mind that has more than it can process right now, so it's revving up/shutting down/making up a better story. Even when we don't have a clinical version of one of these, we can have lesser versions of them, when we feel overwhelmed or down or distracted.

So keep your hopes and expectations small, small enough to motivate you but not frustrate. And keep looking forward. Your body has work to do, so let it do its work, and in the meantime find pleasures within your reach. You're right that everyone is grappling with this to some degree, or should be--and it's universally applicable. When the big picture is overwhelming, think smaller, today, this afternoon, the next hour--wherever feels manageable. And call your doctor for an emotional evaluation if there's no place that feels okay.

I wrote that in a rush (2 kids, pandemic, 'nuff said) so left out some context. Mom hasn't talked to me about this directly, so no opportunity there to suggest she talk to Sis. I haven't noticed unequal treatment between us siblings before (but maybe I should ask Sis if she has). After thinking about it more, I decided that if Sis asks again I should a) be honest that yes, our parents were more outwardly excited about my kids and b) offer my theory that they are concerned about being cut out of the baby's life so soon. Sis might be able to address that by talking to them.

Sounds good. But yes to putting that question on the agenda, too: "Have you ever felt before that we weren't treated equally?" And really give her room to respond. To a person, kids in favoritism situations have said the most healing thing has been the acknowledgement and support of the favored child toward the unfavored. I hope for both your sakes it's just situational and not systemic. 

I have a Latino parent who is racist towards black people, and this is not unusual. While it's primarily a white person problem in the USA, white people are not the only racists, and not the only ones who can or should do something about it.

Of course white people aren't the only racists. Of course other people can do something. But the ownership of this problem in America is white, historically; plus, too many people use the "all ___" construct to wriggle off various responsibility hooks. 

Short version, I'm totally in favor of anyone doing whatever one can and needs to do toward arc-bending. But that will go a lot better when white ownership of responsibility gets closer to reflecting reality.

I am trying to see a down side to this, and not succeeding.

When I was growing up, we had family friends who had switched partners! They got divorced and married each other's ex-spouses. It was the Seventies ... . They then stayed married perhaps because it turned into the eighties?

As a witness to both decades, I'd call that as good a theory as any.

Thanks for sharing that Medium article. And I agree with Carolyn - not all people, all white people need to work on our understanding of historical and current systemic racism. It's like working on another consciousness. I'm probably butchering the saying, but one fish says to another, "How's the water?" And the second fish says "What's water?" It's hard to perceive and understand what you are habituated to. POC have known this reality forever - white people are just figuring it out (some of us, anyway). And it's white people who have been setting up these systems forever - the burden is on us. BTW, Finding Your Roots by Skip Gates is an amazing way to explore current and past systemic racism in this country, and how it continues to impact families today.

I found this really helpful - when we as white women comment, our first step is to not make it all about us.

Also more than I could read on the fly, so, I'm not vetting it--but it looks thought-provoking, thanks.

Have a BIL who had a traumatic bike accident years ago but was also in the best shape of his life at the time. Not immediately but over time he astounded doctors with his recovery. They attributed it to have been in such good shape. Being in the best shape of your life prior to covid may be why you're here after covid. I know it's hard now but you will get better. Please dont be too discouraged and know that there are people everywhere who are hoping for the best recovery for you!

The wedding OP is getting hammered on her father, her relationship with her father, all aspects of the sister's involvement, and her parents' marriage. I don't see a lot of respect here for the OP's establishment of boundaries in her own life, and I don't see the second-guessing by chatters as anything that will encourage this OP to return or future potential OPs to submit.

Fair point, thanks. I should have been more careful in choosing comments to post.

In solidarity, I will say that I stick by my original advice--with the one qualification that neutralizing the mom's (potential) antics will be harder on her own property, but not impossible.

I also had a very strained (now non existent) relationship with my mom. For years my brother played hostage negotiator - or at least tried (I refuse to negotiate with terrorists, so it was mostly his bringing me requests from mom). Finally, he started telling mom that he wasn't going to be in the middle of it - and stuck his ground. His and my relationship got so much better without the albatross of my mom in the middle. I hadn't even realized the role he was playing was harming the relationship. All this to say - give your sister the freedom to disengage. Tell her you appreciate that she's trying to help, buy your relationsip with mom is between the two of you and she's free to not try to be the go between. IT might do wonders for your relationship with sis, even if you dont think anything is wrong.

I hope that tips things toward the helpful.

Thanks for taking my question, Carolyn! I guess your response has me thinking about something bigger--what if I *want* to be the kind of person who is a sympathetic shoulder to cry on? Is that still not presenting myself honestly? If I'm thinking about it, there are plenty of situations where a friend calls me about a problem they're having and, while I'm happy to talk it out or to listen, I don't feel their pain. I feel bad that they feel bad, but sometimes my mind wanders or I wish I were doing something else or I selfishly wish Bad Thing weren't happening to them in part because it affects me or plans we had. But it's important to me to be there for them--it's not that being asked to be sympathetic bothers me, just that I feel like I'm not deeply feeling their pain, if that makes sense. I'm perfectly happy giving friends and BF all the sympathy they need, but I guess I don't know if it's abnormal or bad to not feel like I'm giving my all to that/wishing I could be browsing Twitter instead and whether it's something I should spend time exploring further.

This is probably a subject for deeper analysis, but I'm not sure you need empathy to be a good provider of sympathy. In fact, there's a case to be made that your ability to listen patiently and provide a shoulder is enhanced by the fact that you aren't going through the emotions yourself. Some of the best caregivers are the ones who maintain enough detachment to keep their heads and keep going under what would be, for others, an exhausting level of duress. 

Where I would be careful is, again, in over-promising. If you envision eventually giving in to your preference to browse Twitter, then maybe presenting yourself as the a sympathy warehouse isn't fair to you or your friends. You wouldn't be the best fit for each other in the end. Also, a sneaky cause of emotional ailments like anxiety and depression is a gap between how we feel and how we act. 

It might be worth talking to a therapist about, even for just a session or two, since "am I abnormal" questions are welcome there. 

Just whining that several people have shared links to thoughtful articles. They don’t come through on my tablet as links. Can they be made live after the chat? Thanks either way.

Will do, sorry about that.

Hi Carolyn, I just wanted to share this positive development from 11 weeks in quarantine. I went from being disgusted by my face sans make-up to tolerant around week 6 to the new realization that I look perfectly fine in my bare facial state. After 4 decades of trying to adjust my face with shades and blushes and powders and concealers, this feels lovely.

This -is- lovely, thank you.

Thank you for your answer; it's really true that the best days are when I just feel good (though sick) about being here, listening to something, reading. And thank you so much to the poster who made the point about being in good shape. Other people died from the symptoms I had; I cry as I write that, and realize that part of my sadness/shock is that I could have, I didn't, others did... Thank you both so much.

You're welcome, and that makes sense--the sadness/shock. Glad you're still here <3

Carolyn is on to something here. When a friend's mom died, he tried to talk to me about it, and I wound up crying so hard he had to comfort me, and I had never even met his mom. Too empathetic for my own good. I think you're holding yourself to a too-high standard.

That's it for today. Thanks everybody for stopping by, and I hope you have a good weekend. I'll see 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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