Carolyn Hax Live (October 2)

Oct 02, 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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So, anything new?

I'm just going to start that way every week from now on.

I'm in the early stages of a relationship with "Ben." Ben is great and we have similar goals for the future, including eventually children. But, I have slowly become alarmed by a certain viewpoint he holds, which is that being a good parent (and more specifically, a good *father*) does not require living with or near the kid. He notes that plenty of dads don't have custody but support their kids financially and have great relationships with them (as evidenced by things like gushing Facebook posts). His own dad moved away when he was a young kid and he worships him, which is why I think he feels so strongly. Honestly I suspect one of those situations in which the dad got to be the fun, mysterious parent whose attention was welcome whenever it showed up. To clarify, Ben plans to get married before having kids and does not actively intend to live apart from his future children. Still, it's a weird enough thing (and has come up often enough) that it bothers me. I'm pretty sure that it's at least a double standard. (I am pretty sure he thinks absent moms are a bad thing.) Is it worth challenging him on this?

Of course. 

But instead of "challenging on," I'd see it as "continuing to talk about." Especially since it doesn't have to be so absolute. A somewhat absent parent can be a good parent, but a good parent who is present is better for the kid, no? Except when kids need space to grow a bit, like with sleep-away camps or schools? Or when the parent who is present is not a very good parent, that's not better just because presence is better. 

Anyway, there's a lot of nuance to talk about, so go for it. "I've noticed you bring this up a lot."

If you come to something more solid than "pretty sure" that he thinks a deployed or non-custodial *mom* is automatically a bad parent, then skip the challenge and take a pass on Ben. Because, wow.

I'd also keep an eye out for rigid thinking or a refusal to engage on any possibilities other than the ones he holds dear. On a few key concepts that's reasonable (murder is bad, etc.), but otherwise it's a warning sign.


Dear Carolyn, My girlfriend has been dealing with rather bad depression for several months. SSRIs and working closely with a therapist are helping some. She is leaning heavily on three people: her mother, her best friend since college, and me. This means constant communication between the three of us, texts and emails. Mostly it is just three three of us checking in, sharing reports of how my GF is doing, but 90 percent of the time it results in action items for me, since I live with her. I am beginning to really resent this. I feel like I am answering to two bosses, and sometimes being accused of not doing enough for a person I really care about. But I am not sure how to handle it. I am not capable of being her entire support system. Even if I were, she has been crystal clear that she wants all three of us in her daily life. And honestly, the two of them know sides of her I do not, and probably catch things I do not. Is there a way to distance myself from the "caregiver committee" that doesn't read as turning my back on my GF's depression?

Let them know you are overwhelmed. It's fair, and it's completely normal that you feel this way. Caregiving for depression is really, really hard. Think of a few concrete, specific changes that would help you, and ask for them. Set aside some blocks of time that you are not available except in emergencies, and hold those lines.

Also consider forming a "caregiving committee" for yourself--a few people you can talk to who are outside this circle. Friends are the first resort, typically, but a therapist for you wouldn't be an overreaction. NAMI ( has resources (support groups, e.g.) for caregivers if you don't think the people in your life are available or up for the challenge.

You're doing a generous and compassionate thing here. It is not "turning your back" to take care of yourself--it's a necessary part of being there for her.

Hi Carolyn! I’ve recently started to (safely) attend family functions with my boyfriend. He always says I don’t need to bring anything but I never go anywhere empty-handed. His mom is preparing the entire meal for the next event, including desserts. I’m a baker and usually bring desserts but Boyfriend says mom might be offended if I bring a dessert when she’s already taking care of that. This party is for his sister’s birthday and I don’t know her well enough to choose a gift and he won’t give me any ideas because he insists I don’t need to bring a gift. I asked if I could at least get a card and he said he’ll add my name to his card, but he and his sister have been passing the same card back and forth for 12 years as a joke. This is their thing and I don’t want to impose but he says I don’t need to get a card. But I just can’t fathom going empty-handed. Any ideas as to what I can bring?

Tell BF you'd like to get in touch with his mother directly. 

Also point out to him that his "you don’t need to bring anything" is easy for him to say, and maybe even his version of being generous to you by letting you off the hook, but actually puts you in an awkward position. He is seeing this through the family lens but you are not family and you're newish to everyone, and you don't know how his mom will see things, or his sister. If he wants to set you up to succeed, then he either needs to give you a token way to contribute or he needs to let you get in direct touch to find out for yourself.

I have recently come to realize that my friendship with a longtime friend is toxic and has to end. Our relationship was always mostly one-sided but I let it go because her FOO is abusive and she suffered a lot of trauma from that. She contacts me every time she needs help or feels lost and anxious – and then unloads on me like I'm her therapist. It's all about her, very one-sided. Whenever I've tried bringing up my personal life, she shows no interest and we always end up talking about her or something she cares about instead. When she does pay attention to me, it’s almost always negative. She can be highly critical of my art, something I derive a lot of pleasure, especially lately. I tried to remember one time she paid a compliment to me or my work and came up empty-handed. All during this pandemic she refused to talk about that or anything but herself and her extreme fears. Recently, when my grandfather was hospitalized with COVID, she said that she didn’t have “the emotional band-width” to hear about it. I am now determined to end this so-called friendship but I’m wondering how. I can see two options: Just stop being there for her, be too busy to listen to her problems or help her and let her drop me – which I know she will do. Or decisively end the friendship and tell her why. Considering her mental health issues, which is the better way?

If you're certain she'll dump you at the first sign of your being insufficiently supportive, and you genuinely have no interest anymore in serving in the role of her supportive friend, then there's something to be said for just acting civilly on your true feelings and letting the consequences handle the rest.

But you can also, with just as much integrity, cite her recent response to your grandfather's illness to let her know you're frustrated with this one-sided friendship. She can do with that what she pleases as well.

Since both are honest and civil, I think both satisfy any responsibility you have toward her and her health.

My husband has an ex-GF with whom he has stayed good friends for the 10 years since their breakup. (Important note: while he refers to her as a "good friend," her language is usually along the lines of "like a brother," etc.) She is now a single mom to an 11-month-old, and she doesn't have much of a support system. The baby's father is evidently not local and my husband has chosen not to ask more detailed questions. During the pandemic, my husband has shown his ex a lot of support by doing things like bringing her small meals, sitting outside with the baby monitor for half an hour while the baby naps and his ex takes a jog, and other things that I would imagine she really appreciates as she is teleworking while single parenting. (We do not have kids.) Though I generally trust them, over time I have become uncomfortable with the sheer number of hours he invests into these helpful errands, and I asked him to stop. My thinking was that she has family who can do those things for her if she really needs. He agreed to stop, but he now says that he feels really bad about leaving her in the lurch and suggests that I take over and offer to help her, instead of him. Is this absolutely ridiculous? I get that parents have it hard right now. I think my husband was very generous for six months and I guess I don't feel that that equals a commitment to keep doing the same things until the pandemic ends. But I probably just seem like a jealous grinch.

It sounds as if you have a legitimate concern about the amount of his time and attention he's investing in this friend--any friend, male or female, always-friend or ex-GF. 

But asking him to stop outright is using blunt force where something more surgical seems called for. And I don't like that he just agreed to it when it's not something he wanted to do.

This is the kind of stuff that's helpful to talk about in depth and compromise on, to explore through questions such as, if it were a guy friend would you feel as threatened? Is it the number of hours, or the intimacy of the help? Is it that you're (apparently) not also her friend? Is it making your life harder that he's less available? Are you picking up on a growing attachment or intensifying feelings that concern you now where you were never bothered before?

Dear Carolyn, When are you supposed to know if you would like to marry your partner? We are both in our early 30's, have been dating a year, have met each other's family, and are surviving quarantine. He makes me happy, he understands me, he supports me, he's kind, he's smart, the physical chemistry is amazing, we share the same values, and we have similar goals in life. We're not perfect, for sure, but we do our best to work through problems or miscommunications in a healthy way, and apologize when we don't. But the question everyone wants to know is "Is he the one?" Even though I don't believe in the concept of "the one," I would like to marry a partner and do our best to choose each other every day and share a happy life together. My partner is confident that I am it for him, and tells me so, though not in a way to pressure me. I... just don't know. I'm not having misgivings, but I'm also not flooded with feelings of "I've found my soulmate." It could be the rest of my life is a very big commitment, or maybe I am supposed to be overcome with "he is my perfect half" feelings that I just don't have.

"Supposed to" is such a cruel standard.

Some people just know, some people figure it out pretty quickly, some people fall into things slowly but surely--and a significant number of all of them find out later they were wrong. There's just no answer for any individual in these collective results. 

What you can do is trust that time will have its say one way or the other. You'll either become certain (enough) after a while, become no more certain over time, or outlast his patience and make it a moot point. If he's willing to give you time and space to figure this out, then enjoy that time and space.

(Or don't, and recognize that as your answer.)

How do you talk to your parents about their retirement and finances? I had a conversation with my mom where I know she is financially fine (my dad has shown me their financial information, their accounts, etc. because he wants someone to know in case he dies and my mom needs help) but she is genuinely worried and doesn't want to do anything because she thinks she's going to be destitute. The most troubling part of this conversation is that she said even if she were destitute and desperately needed money, she'd never tell me. She'd never want to be a burden to her children. I know she wouldn't say anything and I'm really upset that she would rather just suffer on her own than rely on her children. I told her don't think of it as I'm financially supporting you, I'm just repaying my student loan debt to you on a significant delay. I'm really upset though. The whole conversation felt horrible, I don't want my mom to suffer and live miserably for her golden years. I want her to have a wonderful life, go be one of those swinging retirees who's loving life and I hate that she doesn't trust me at all to help her if (and that's a big IF) she needed it.

"even if she were destitute and desperately needed money, she'd never tell me. She'd never want to be a burden to her children":

Please explain to her that while you understand and appreciate where she's coming from, her position has had the opposite effect: It actually created a new burden for you. Where before you could feel comfortable knowing she's either okay or will ask for help, now you harbor that constant worry that she might not be okay and you won't be aware of it until it's too late. 

Accordingly, you can say to her, you'd like her to UN-burden you by promising that if she is ever in trouble, she will give you the gift of allowing you to help.

Might not work, but at least it will make it clear that if she uses the martyr argument, it'll be for her own benefit, not yours, and that's something.

I *think* my GF of several years is on the verge of forgetting about my birthday Saturday. Either she is James Bond with the smokescreen she is putting up to surprise me or she’s making outside plans without me that day. Our relationship is otherwise solid, so there is no angsty punishment going on. For better or worse, she is pretty self-focused, so forgetting my birthday would not be out of character and COVID isolation has been straining on her social relationships, so she’s been wanting to “get out” more, such as she can, so her making plans is also not unusual. These are parts of her personality I’ve accepted. She also is a horrible liar, so the James Bond scenario seems unlikely. So, I’m wondering if at this point, is it better to let things play out on the off chance there is a surprise in the works? The worst case here is that she enjoys the weekend, then feels bad when she realizes her oversight. That feels passive aggressive, but playing out other scenarios in my mind, it seems like the best case. Worst cases are me ruining a surprise, her not enjoying her chance to get out because she feels bad, or both of us not enjoying a hastily pulled together plan that rests on something she feels bad about.


Figure out what you want to do for your birthday, then suggest it.

If you're worried about foiling some plan, then don't be, because 90 percent of them get foiled anyway. But if it makes you feel better, make your suggesiton by text so she has time to cover for anything that needs covering for.

And for the love of all that is holy, uncouple birthday recognition from happiness. Nobody wins with that coupling, not even 7-year-olds.

Birthday acknowledgment is useful only as a window into the workings of a relationship. If they're fine, then missing a birthday is fine--and if they're not, then it's not. Embrace that and feel the weight just float away.

I agree with Carolyn that it would be best if you could call the Mom directly. I also like to take a small gift for the host/hostess at a party, but I would suggest never taking food to a dinner unless you have been asked to (for, say, a pot-luck.) Don't surprise them with a gift that you expect them to serve at that very meal. Many cooks plan their whole meal and take pride in having everything from appetizer to dessert to wine selections. The exception would be if your food or drink gift is actually a gift, for the hosts to consume later, and in that case be sure to tell them that when you give them the gift.

Something about this felt off: you "had a conversation with my mom where I know she is financially fine (my dad has shown me their financial information)" but "she thinks she's going to be destitute." Did you have a conversation with her, or with your dad? Be careful, families where the communication strategy is triangulation often have these giant issues with sorting out what is the truth. Get your parents both in a room together and ask, directly.

Definition, please.

family of origin

I never had the "He's the one!! My soulmate!" feelings for my husband. But I never wanted to ever break up, I wanted to spend every day with him, and could happily picture the rest of my life with him. I've very happy and have no regrets. As an aside, I did have the "he's the one" feeling for someone else years before meeting my husband. We broke up as it took a few years to determine we weren't the best match, so.....

My mother used to say the same things to my sister and me about her health. It took lots of reinforcement that keeping us in the dark made the burden greater for her to begin talking to us. We're both nurses, BTW. We have to reinforce the importance of keeping us in the loop all the time with her, but she has done much better. Keep at it, and have lots of frank conversations.

Why not A) cut the help back and B) help her out together? Sit outside together with the baby monitor, or take the baby on a stroll? Husband's suggestion reads like a bluff to me. But, I also think if I were alone in a pandemic with a newborn I would lose my mind.

Yes to all of this, thanks.

Are you sure the father lives out of town, and not in your house?


Be careful. This "friend" sounds like a narcissist. They. Lie. It was years before I started questioning "facts" my mother had shared with me about other people (and realized she was lying to others about me as well.) If she truly will just let you go if you cease being there for her, count yourself lucky. These people do not like being told they're wrong in any way. If you try to tell her you're leaving her and why, it will not go well.

I told him how I felt about being told I was lying (it's the first time he's ever reacted like that or accused me of that) and he apologized profusely. He said he thinks he must have been confusing sleep and reality and that he was over-tired. Which when I've seen that before would make sense. We've worked out a better way to deal with the issue. I promise he's not a jerk.

Great to hear, thanks. 

His being overtired may be a second symptom of apnea, btw, so please do get a doctor involved if you haven't already. 

Apologies for the advi-splaining, given that I don't even play a doctor on TV.

Are you sure the father lives out of town, and not in your house? A: Carolyn Hax =:-0 Hey Carolyn, so much for assuming the best in people... Didn't you just write about that a few days ago? Don't you think if the GF really believed her BF was the dad of ex's kid, she would say so? Do you really think the BF would suggest the GF help out if it was even a remote possibility that he was the father? How nice of you to suggest this LW's boyfriend is a lying jerk and she's just too stupid to see it. I cannot understand why anyone would write to you given the way you often respond to genuinely suffering people. As you love to say... Wow. OMG. Forehead hitting keyboard... (Am I forgetting any other of your snarky responses to people seeking your help?) I doubt you'll see this message, as your producer likely vets anyone who cuts too close to home.



The column of a few days ago (a minor transaction from years ago) and this are apples and oranges. There are times to assume the best and times to take a hard look at what might be going on. 

Frankly I find hosting people who are compelled to bring something, anything, very tiring. Fine to ask if you can contribute to the meal, for instance, but if the answer is no, then accept that. I am tired of people (with the best of intentions, I'm sure) showing up for every visit with stuff that I either don't want or shouldn't have. If you MUST bring something, I think a bouquet of flowers is always welcome. (But please, no house plants that have to be tended or plants for the yard that must be planted.)

I mostly agree and have said so in the past. When I tell my guests not to being anything, I am sincere and want them to take me at my word. The sense of bring-something obligation often gets shifted to the host, who then has to figure out whether the guest will expect the wine to be served, or how to get cut flowers into a vase while greeting other guests, or what to do with the tchotchke, or who will take the box of chocolates out of reach of midnight bingeing, etc.

In the case of someone new being invited into the fold, though, the standards shift a bit. The OP here is taking the partner's word for it, not the host's, and OP is trying to fit in and be considerate, so the balance of power is more precarious. BF can be more helpful here. That's all.

I actually ask my mom, “do you really feel ok, or are you telling me what you think I want to hear?” She will then admit that something is or isn’t going on, or what her fears are. Sometimes you have to be blunt.

Is there a kind way to deal with an adult who whines in a wheedling, toddler-like way when asked not to do something ("But I want to...")? I want to say, "Use your adult voice, please." or "Deal with it." But it feels condescending to treat an adult like a child. Saying nothing seems to imply that the whining is appropriate. And wow is it annoying.

Maybe the lace on their big-person pants is chafing.

What is your relationship to this adult?


Please recognize that for you this feels like an opportunity to help out your parents, but for your mother it may feel like no longer being able to provide for her own basic needs is a loss of control over her life, a loss of autonomy to make decisions about where to live and what to do day to day. Receiving money from you can result in a big shift in the power dynamics of your relationship, and she may be worried about what may feel like a loss of power or control.

Perfect. Thank you.

Regarding "she’s making outside plans without me that day" - friend, you gotta pipe up. You can say, in a pleasant way, "Hey babe, did you know that Sunday is the 4th, ya know, my birthday? I was hoping to XYZ with you that day." I would be horrified if my GF sat silently by while I was the knucklehead that absentmindedly went about my business on her birthday.

You have to come to terms with their relationship because it's not going away after the pandemic either. He's giving you an opportunity to help her because he doesn't want to lose either of you. It's not ridiculous at all, from his point of view. If you really do trust them, then the only possible answer is you are the source of your own problem.

I remember feeling that way about my husband (married 34 years now). The answer was not obvious when thinking about being with him forever- but it was clear as day when I thought of being without him.

The way you broke down the issues to explore is outstanding and so logical but not something I could myself (meaning the breaking down, not the exploring). Sometimes when I have an issue, I ask myself "What would Carolyn do?" but I don't know how to get there. It feels like some of the questions I should ask myself are swirling around in my head but they never land. Do you have any tips on how to approach an analysis like this?

I do think it's an acquirable skill. You start with the thing that's bothering you--in this example, "husband goes to help ex-GF with baby more than I think is okay."

Then you break it down into pieces. Husband, ex-GF, time, baby.

Then you ask yourself if you would feel different if the parts of it were different, one at a time:

Husband--does it bother you just that he's somewhere else and not with you, and you're tired of that? Would you quesiton it if your one friend were helping another this way?

Ex-GF--is it that she's an ex? That she's female? Or would it bother you if it were anyone else, too?

Time--if you changed the recipient of the generosity and the type of generosity, making it something like volunteering for a charity, and he just took the same amt of time, would that still annoy you?

Baby--if he were there doing ... say, yard work, because she got injured or were getting chemo or something, would you think differently?

Anyway. Spell out the problem, break it apart, turn each piece to see it from different angles. 

Specifically, the goal is to get through the emotional part, which is confusing and sometimes even misleading, and start to understand the mechanics a bit better.

If OP is around, it would be interesting to hear more about her dynamic with the ex-GF. Do they (or have they) all hung out together? Does OP like her? Would OP be willing to go along and hang out with the husband and ex-GF? I would not want to downplay OP's spidey-sense that something could be off (if that is the case), but absent that intuition, the world is a tough place, and maintaining a 10 year friendship with someone is nice. It seems like something that could be valued for all parties?

Great suggestion. Next week?


Because I have to go, unfortunately. Thanks all, have a great weekend, and I'll type to you here next week.

Seriously, use your grown up voice and own your day. Speak up or at least collaborate on fun plans (which can be reciprocated for your SO's next bday). No one needs the pressure of having to read your mind. If your SO is focused, distracted for good reasons, what point are you making to see if he/she forgets your birthday? Seems kinda crappy to do that to a partner.

Please, Please, PLEASE! Tell the other two in your little group that you need support, and let your other friends know, and do consult with a therapist or counselor if you need to. You can’t keep pouring from an empty cup, you need to take care of yourself! You are on the one on the front lines, you are easily in danger of burnout. Stop that from happening. If necessary, bring Girlfriend in on the conversation, as she made it Crystal Clear she wants help from all three of you.

My husband is not the father of the baby. There is a (biological) father, and he does pay some child support. He is just not a big part of the story. The ex-GF was very public a couple years ago about being ready to become a parent and deciding to do it solo. I didn't include this in my original question because I guess I thought it spoke for itself, but it's a fair interpretation. And is a big part of why I want him to rethink the long-term, visible commitment he's making to this other family.

Glad I caught this on my way out--thanks so much for writing back.

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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