Carolyn Hax Live: He bailed while she raised their son and now he wants forgiveness

Nov 20, 2020

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. Once again my thoughts are with survivors, as we watch the slowly unfolding reminder that abusers are at their most dangerous when broken up with. Keep the faith that you're not alone and there will be an "after."

Dear Carolyn, I'm a late 20-something whose been dating a late 30-something single dad for several years now. It has taken me awhile to get used to the idea that I could be a step mom if our relationship got serious, but over time, I've come to accept and dare I say even cherish that role and my blossoming relationship with the little boy. It hasn't been easy though -- we have been juggling long distance for a couple of years now, so coordinating everyone's busy schedules (including the mom's, who also lives in a different state) has been difficult. Fending off the constant questioning friends and family can be a bit of a drag too. My question is if it has taken me this long to grow into the stepmom role, and given all of the other many challenges, would it be better for everyone if I stepped away? I really don't want to and I'm confident our relationship is worth every challenge, but I also don't want to get in the way of the world's best single dad if in several years I realize I wasn't cut out for the job. Signed, hesitant step mom

I think your experience is more the norm, that it takes time. So, no, its taking a while doesn't mean you should step away.

If you want to step away, though, and are looking for things to justify doing that, then that's different. It is really important that you're all-in. Which is not to be mistaken for "loving every minute!!!!"--it just means being committed to giving it your best and riding out the toughest times.

It sounds like you're not eyeing the door, I'm just trying to cover it all. If the only issue really is that you've had to work at it through multiple challenges, well, that just sounds like the job description to me. Parent or step-parent.

As for the "constant quesitioning": Please say to the culprits, "I know you're showing you care, but I get these questions from multiple people and they're just making my life harder."

Why oh why do we still get crushes into our 40s, especially when we’re contentedly partnered/not even looking? I can’t be the only one. I have out of nowhere developed feelings for a woman I’ve known casually for years. She and I both are in committed relationships (and anyway, pretty sure she’s straight). I feel a bit ridiculous and like I’m 17 again...and I’m kind of laughing at myself here for thinking I’d outgrown this kind of thing. I’d like to just go back to enjoying the activity I know her through (when it’s back on) without feeling so weird around her...but at the same time, at least it’s giving me something to think about besides covid and the sad state of our politics? This isn’t even a question, more of a distraction, I guess I need one!

Don't we all.

Crushes are so weird--I mean, take a second to think back about some crush that has since passed. It's well nigh impossible to recall what the attraction was, isn't it?

That's really the only weapon we have against the weirdness and, of course, the stupidity of acting on any of the impulses: We know it's going to be really intense and then it's going to go away. So, you mantra-fy that, I guess: "It's going to go away. It's going to go away."

If you can get to the point where you can enjoy the rush harmlessly in your own mind, then, mazel tov.

How do I know I'm "ready" for counseling? my relationship with my parent kills me slowly every day. I am happiest when not engaged in the interactions, but that seems the cowardly way out. Various sources including this column suggest counseling as the best way to work though it. I can't bear the though of sharing any sort of emotions or history to a complete stranger who has the moniker of "counselor", especially when I hear of people who have to re-share as they tried two or several counselors in order to find the right one. And how do you know what is right? Counseling seems to be offered as the right choice, but cannot be the only right choice? At the moment, I manage by focusing on everything else that brings happiness. Is it ok to simply NOT have any relationship at all with a parent?

Taking your question backward, sure, it's "ok" not to have any relationship at all with a parent (or anyone) if the harm is significant. But whether that's a healthy step to take is hard to determine if you're not confident in your judgment or ability to assess your own health.

So that brings us to the efficacy of counseling. That extra, disinterested set of eyes can help any of us see things that we're too close to our families to see. So I agree with myself that counseling would be a good place for you to work through your distress with your parent.

I'll go one further and say ... paradoxically? (I'm having a brain cramp on the right word here) that your finding the idea of talking to a therapist unbearable is exactly why I think you need to talk to a therapist. Or two or three, if that's what it takes to find the "right" person, which I'll define in a second. Some discomfort with telling our innermost stories to a stranger is to be expected. The acute discomfort you feel with your family experience, though, is not only outside the range of typical, but also an area of your life where there's potential for you to start to feel better almost immediately. The "total stranger" may seem like the problem, but it's actually the point. This person won't judge you, tell on you, yell at you, or bring preconceived ideas of you to the conversation. It's a secure soundproof box--one that, ahhh, can help you figure out how to feel less stressed or hounded by doubts and how to answer these "Is it okay?"-type questions.

So--the "right" provider is simply one who makes you feel comfortable--or even just less uncomfortable than you had feared--during this unloading process. 

If you absolutely won't even think about making an appointment, then I suggest reading your way to some answers. The self-help shelves can be overwhelming, but the best starter book I've run across is "Lifeskills for Adult Children," by Woititz/Garner. Short and clear. Take care.


When my son was not even 2 yo my ex-husband ran off on us. He told me he didn’t want all of the responsiblity, he’d never asked to be a father and he blamed me for pushing him into it. This was all news to me since he proposd when I got pregnant and made a huge happy fuss when he found out we were having a boy and a big deal of it when our son was born. In the 4 years he was gone I almost never heard from him, we never saw him and I had to chase him down for child support since he moved around a lot. We were lucky if we got half of his payments. This year he showed up and wanted to be a father again. I let him and he slowly paying his back child support. I hate what he did and kind of hate him too. He’s 10 years older than me, has a great job in IT and there’s no excuse for what he did. I can hide how I feel around our son and I never bad-mouth his dad but when my ex asked me straight out if I hate him I said yes. Now he bugs me constantly to forgive him, that he needed that time and space and it made him a better dad now. I don’t think I owe him forgivenss or anything else except to not let our son know who I feel. What do you think?

I agree you owe him nothing beyond the enormous gift you have given him, in non-rancorous access to your son.

But have you thought about what you owe yourself? Is this something you're carrying with you on a day-to-day basis, and, if so, is it heavy, and, if so, is there a way you can release it that satisfies your sense of justice?

It's awful that he put you in this position, and, on top of getting abandoned and having to chase down the support and raising a small child solo, you now have the added to-do list stain of having to sort through any resulting baggage from this experience. While playing nice with someone you "kind of hate." 

But if it is gnawing at you throughout, then the alternative is, again, to keep carrying baggage that wears *you* down, even though you're only carrying it to spite your ex--which you probably don't want to do to yourself.

Of course, if it's not gnawing at you throughout, and if you've found a way not to think of the guy outside of your necessary encounters, then I'll just tip my hat and shup up.


Hi Carolyn, I'm 34 and my husband is 33. Married for four years. When we got together, we both wanted kids, no question. Now, my husband is not sure parenthood is compatible with our lifestyle (demanding jobs we're both devoted to, mostly childless friends, live in a kid-unfriendly area). I still want kids. He had promised me he would commit to a decision by this summer, but he now says that between the pandemic and the election, he hasn't been able to give it the mental energy it deserves. Meanwhile, I'll be 35 in a couple months and am acutely aware of what that means. I would very much regret not having children. I'm also aware that while my time will run out sooner than later, his will not. My sister's husband left her for a younger woman a few years ago and she's hardly the only woman that's ever happened to. He may have forever to decide, but I don't, and so I have been thinking about freezing eggs. My research about it offends him. He thinks that if he decides he wants kids, then we don't need frozen eggs; and if he decides he doesn't, then my freezing eggs is a way of implying we will eventually split up. Financially, I can do it with or without his help, but I don't know how OK it is ethically. I lie awake worrying about this more nights than I don't. What should I do?

Ugh. Another person unwilling to do fertility math homework. (Like this guy here.)


He says: "if I decide I want kids, then we don't need frozen eggs; and if I decide I don't, then your freezing eggs is a way of implying we will eventually split up."

You say: "If you decide you want kids NOW, then we don't need frozen eggs. I'm trying convey the message that time is an issue here. And, WTF about saying that I'm saying we'll split up? I'm 35 and my egg life is limited. Period."

This is a good time to suggest to him that you both say back to each other what you think the other person is saying. Sounds like each of you doesn't feel heard.

Maybe this is a ridiculous question. My friend has two kids in elementary school. Prior to the pandemic, we either talked on the phone at least once or a week or had long text exchanges that were the equivalent of a hearty conversation. Those have gone by the wayside since March or April. Is it unreasonable to ask her to try to make time to phase them back in? I'm sincerely asking. I assume she is as desperate as I am for social interaction, and wondering if my requesting it would give her "permission" to make space for it in her life.

It's not a ridiculous question at all. 

But I do think you might be looking at it from an unhelpful angle.

She could well be as desperate as you are for social interaction, but if she, a co-parent and/or a kid or both kids are now home much more than ever before, and if there's work from home or remote schooling involved, then she might be just peopled and teched out. It's possible for that and missing her friends terribly to coexist. Even if she wants to be a normal friend again, it could be that her down time has been cut to almost nothing and she's using whatever she has left to just be in her own little mentally alone bubble.

So that's how I would approach her. With a, "hey, I've missed our weekly check-ins. If you don't have the bandwidth, then I understand, but if there's some way we can fit it in, I'm willing to get creative." See how she responds.

Isn't it possible, given that he is more likely to question the source of information, rather than offer condolences, that the husband in today's column is a total glassbowl and his family has retreated into their phones? Normally, I'd agree that one should pay more attention to one's in-person company, but I got a very 'controlling' vibe from today's letter and I think wife might have an equally valid argument to make.

I thought a lot about that, because the husband is being obnoxious about it, clearly. And yes, it's possible he's a total glass bowl.

But there were a couple of mitigators in my mind, which I tried to address: 1. This could be the place he arrived at after years of escalation/frustration over his family using their phones at the dinner table and every-GD-where else, led and enabled by his partner and co-parent. Such escalation still wouldn't be healthy, of course, but still would be a little more sympathetic and less likely to mean he's a controller/abuser/glass product by nature; 2. Just because people respond terribly to something doesn't mean the thing they're responding to isn't bad. 

So that's why I took the position I took: Grant him the phone-free zones that civilized people can generally agree on, like mealtimes, and see whether that's enough to de-escalate.  If it's not, then, yeah, bigger problem.

Side note, it hardly takes a bad person in the family to drive people to their phones. It just takes phones.

The first letter on Wednesday really hit home for me. I cannot emphasize enough how amazing it is that the letter writer is willing to do some self reflection after hearing what her daughter said. Like you said in your response, the kid's reaction could be caused from anything - from the benign to the terrible. But being open to hearing it and to change is amazing. My mom had a horrific childhood. She really believes that because she was better than her mom, that she was a good mom. But she wasn't in a lot of fairly emotionally abusive ways. As an adult, I had to step away after a fair amount of therapy and trying to set boundaries that made our relationship work. At one point, my brother asked mom if she'd do family therapy and she refused. Even now, she's not willing to do any self reflection. I think that the letter writer is willing to says so many good things about her as a parent.

Agreed, and agreed we can't emphasize it enough, but this is something. Thanks.

My friends and I have gotten a little creative and it has saved our sanity. My favorites have been meeting for walks and sitting on my porch for catch up chats.

At some point I started looking past the delicious and horrifying sensations of crushes, and started to view crushes as serving a purpose: to guide me towards something that I need more of in my life by focusing on a person who embodies it. Maybe that person allows themselves to really nerd out on a topic in a way that I wish I would let myself, or they are really spontaneous or confident, or...whatever. It doesn't help the whole "I feel like a total doofus around this person" problem, but I found that I both get over crushes sooner and improve the quality my life at the same time.

This is great, thanks.

Seconding that the reluctance to see a counselor probably means you have challenges that need addressing and the counselor can help. Taking a more mundane example in the same vein -- I use yoga to relax and get through life's smaller stresses. And the best way to know when I absolutely need to do yoga is when I really really do not want to do yoga...

Useful way to look at it.

Works in reverse for snack foods, dammit.

I think the OP's ideas about counseling are a little off from reality. I've done therapy, and it's not like, boom, complete intimacy on day 1. It's a relationship that develops. They're a stranger now, they won't be six months from now. Also, fwiw, my experience with my wonderful therapists was that they interacted with me in a way that I did not get from my parents so that it was like getting some additional parenting. A good therapist will let you be in a relationship that is healthy--I used to get mad at my couples counselor fairly regularly and he would do all of the things my parents never did. Listen to me, take what I was saying seriously even when he really didn't mean whatever it was the way I took it, be kind and gentle about it.

You start off with smaller stuff. By the time you get around to talking about the biggest stuff, (fairly early on, think 3rd or 4th session by latest) your therapist should no longer feel like a stranger to you. OR someone whose opinion you don't particularly value. If they do, that's the point at which it's probably time to find someone else because the relationship isn't working out. And it is a relationship - you need to treat it as such and pay attention to how you're feeling about it, and how it makes YOU feel. Sometimes it will be uncomfortable, but is it a helpful kind of uncomfortable or an unhelpful one? Unhelpful is when it's time to move on and look for somebody you can build a relationship of support and problem-solving with.

I enjoyed your answer to today's column about screens and the husband who found a hill to die on, with one caveat - I was married to a serial abuser, and he had a LOT of these hills to die on, and it was completely an issue of power and control. Worth looking at other behaviors - not that they are there, but be vigilant. My ex would often seize on things like this with a weird moral superiority.

Yes, this rounds it out, thanks--if the the household is plaid with someone's lines that can't be crossed, then there's no finding a solution in any single issue.

He's demonstrating the same egocentricity, or childishness, that he showed when he ran off in the first place. It's all about him and his self-image. The son is too young to be involved in all this, according to his dad's way of thinking, so dad is focused on you. Why did he ask if you hated him if he didn't want to know the answer? Because that's what emotionally immature people do. Yes, it might be more mentally healthy to forgive him, it might make things easier if you said you forgave him even without meaning it, just to get him off your back, but asking for forgiveness doesn't mean it has to be granted. I'd reply to his bugging, "Why does it matter to you, and why do you keep on handing me justifications for your behavior?"

Or say, as you so astutely did, that, "You left so it was easier on you, and now you want forgiveness so it's easier on you. I am not hearing your concern for what's better for me and our son."

Well done.

I've enjoyed/endured crushes myself many times and wish there was a word to describe that moment - pop! - when the feeling just disappears. At least, that's how it has been for me.

There must be a German or Scandinavian word for exactly that moment.

I had problems with my family. Too long ago and too far away to recount in detail. The therapists I saw were 100% in favor of my working hard to reconcile with my family. And 100% tone-deaf to my hurt. Be prepared to keep looking for a therapist who will hear *you* and work for *you*, not your family whom they’ve never met.

I'm sorry you had that experience. That sounds like the last thing you needed.

If this really was a long time ago, then I wonder if prevailing values/culture were a factor, and this would be less likely to happen now. 


For the mom with the deadbeat ex turned attentiveish father: I find it helpful to think of forgiveness not as reconciling, but taking my hands off the other person's neck, so to speak. It's relinquishing my right to retribution and allowing whatever comes next to come. In this case, I would also allow myself to dwell on the fact that as his punishment, he missed out on four years of life with his son, years he will never get back and can never make up. Plus, he has to live with being himself. That's punishment enough, in my world. If you think of forgiveness as allowing him to live his own punishment and not seeking to pile it on, it may be easier to achieve if it's a way to lessen your own burden. Release him into his own life and you go live yours. It's worked well for me, anyway.

I really liked how you framed this. It's so important that the self-liberating "forgiveness" doesn't become anything like telling yourself what the person did was okay. This works. It can scale up, too, if that feels better--just handing him off to greater forces or higher powers.

I don't know what is normal anymore or if my behavior is normal. I called my partner while he was on his way to work and he told me i was interrupting his routine because he likes to listen to music. i told him why i called and then said ok i'll let you go listen to music. he then screamed at me for controlling him and said i dont get to tell him when to listen to music... i thought what i said was normal but now i am rethinking what my "normal" is. this might be the last straw i am so sick and tired of being screamed at for things that i don't think are wrong and then being guilted into apologizing. is this what gaslighting is or is it manipulation? or am i just way off base and i really am controlling?

He's screaming at you, so, that's not normal. Right there. Ever.

Gaslighting can be hard to detect, but what you said is just a common way of signing off: "Okay, I'll let you go." Unless said whilst unlocking his cage, it's hardly proof that you demand he get permission from you to return to whatever he was doing. Yet he was accusing you of controlling him, and projection is the thing with this tactic.

Oh--and all he had to do this morning was not pick up your call, if it was so inopportune. (Unless your MO is to flip out when not responded to, so I'll reconsider if there's something there.)

Plus, you're asking whether "my" behavior is normal--not his. Those who have been gaslit are trained to doubt themselves.

So: Please call RAINN (1-800-656-HOPE) or National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) or give yourself a Mosaic threat assessment, and start the process of figuring out your safest next step. 

When my loved one tells me she has been quarantining for days (because she wants to come visit my new-ish baby for the first time), but her active Facebook page reveals that she has actually been to lots of social engagements at varying degrees of social distance, what is the appropriate response? Do I just decline and say generally, "Let's wait until things are safer"? Do I confront her with Facebook evidence? (It's obviously publicly available, but she may not know I have seen it.) And if I do the latter, do I then argue with her about our respective definitions of "social distance"?

Just say you've reconsidered after seeing how badly everything has spiked. No visits indefinitely.

Because that's more than credible, it's necessary.


I have a person of dubious politics in my life and she and I are arguing, again, after reading this, so please, can you just reaffirm my slight grasp of reality, you were talking about Trump in your open, right? Denial is strong, and she is telling me I am reading into that and I've had about enough of this "fake news" crap for a lifetime. Trump is the abuser, and we are all his victim. That's what you meant, right?

Yes. It's textbook.

Tell him freezing your eggs is so you can have his child even if he decides past the point you are able to do it the traditional way. Second while I will not assume that you are not addressing his concerns, just in case you are I would caution you to not overlook his concerns. Do you have a plan for incorporating the kid into your existing life? If so, share it and make sure you are getting his input. Do you intend changes (moving to a more kid friendly place for example)? If so, maybe the bending needs to be on your end (for example figuring out how to raise the kid in the non-friendly place you both already like living in).

But, how do you find a counselor in these times? In my area, we are still primarily at home. Virtual seems so insufficient.

Doing nothing is insufficient. Doing virtual is less than ideal. We do what we can.

To find someone, try your insurance company, workplace (EAP), an online directory (Psychology Today has one), or, with due diligence, a tele-health app or service that offers a gateway to licensed practitioners. 

I think this is the moment to deploy the internal ultimatum--something I picked up from reading this column and use fairly often in my own life. Think about the drop dead last age you are comfortable starting a family. Then hold that age/year in your mind, and, recognizing that you can't just get pregnant at the snap of your fingers, figure out what window of time you would feel comfortable leaving ahead of that deadline to start trying to conceive (6 months? 1 year? 2 years?). That there tells you the deadline by which your husband needs to tell you, unequivocally and enthusiastically that he wants kids. If he hasn't told you by then, you freeze your eggs and also walk away, whether towards solo parenthood or to find a partner whose desires on this align with yours. You don't need to threaten your husband with this deadline now, simply repeat what you want: to start building a family today. But know when you will pick up and leave, and if that time comes don't be afraid to do it. FWIW, it sounds to me like your husband doesn't want kids--while pandemic & election are/were stressors for everyone, it sounds as if his doubts have nothing to do with those conditions, in which case he was using them as an excuse. Maybe he's afraid you'll leave him if he's honest that he doesn't want children, but either way, I would think seriously about if you want to coparent with someone who doesn't seem all-in. I wouldn't.

You gave my advice better than I did. Thanks!

I teach medical school and we were literally talking about age and pregnancy this morning. At 35, fertility is already quite decreased and you are already a higher-risk pregnancy. As a physician, I recommend that if she knows she wants children, she should try now. Not just egg freezing, pregnancy. Egg freezing is absolutely no guarantee. I'm so, so sorry you are going through this. Make an appointment with your doctor today and bring him along. He needs the medical truth. No one talks about this (medicine has a lot of remaining sexism, let me tell you) but he has genetic risks with advancing age, too.

Hi Carolyn, I'm finding myself frustrated that my husband's fun activities tend to take up one full weekend day per week. Golfing, fishing, hunting...all take at least 6 hours and some prep or breakdown time. I don't know why I'm so frustrated, I don't like to golf, hunt, or fish so I don't feel like I'm missing out on the fun. We just celebrated our two-year wedding anniversary and have been together for about seven years, and these aren't brand new activities he's taken up. Maybe it's all the staying at home + election stress + first Thanksgiving we're hosting* that's triggered my frustration...any ideas on how to cope/redirect those feelings would be great. Thanks! (*very small, his parents + us only)

Please, I beg, find something you like to do that can occupy a slab of your weekends. I'm not typically so bean-county, but this is going to gnaw at you unless and until you have something in your life to make you look forward to those 6-plus hours every weekend.

... Unless you start to look forward to them because you're just so glad he's gone--but the whole point of my advice is to avoid getting to that degree of alienation. 

(Hosting stress-prevention tip: 1. Make stuff ahead, because TG food is perfect for that, even though 2. it just doesn't matter anyway. It's the effort that counts.)

I have small kids too, and between work and normal child-raising and quarantine shut-in, I have nothing new to say that would not turn into an avalanche of complaints. Realizing that on a weekly schedule would probably reduce me to tears. If she's as tired as I am, maybe you could suggest a weekly TV/movie watching date, you from your place and she from hers, where you leave the phone on and just make comments about the show that she could either respond to or not. Keep the connection without the pressure.

I spend my day engaged with people, video calls, emails, chatting, as a manager, supporting my team. And I'm cursed w/teens who want to spend time with me - and a husband too (kidding - mostly)... My bicycle commute used to be my break and now I don't have that. I love my friends - but sometimes it feels like one more person I need to engage with when all I want to do is not engage. I am trying to maintain my friendships - but I wish I could pause them for about a year and know they'll be there when my nest is empty...

My best friend and I normally text nearly 24/7 but just recently I only hear from her every few days. She is homeschooling elementary age kids and has a one year old, plus one of the older kids was recently exposed to covid and they're dealing with that. She just has a lot on her plate and your friend probably does too. Just reach out to her; you won't know unless you ask. And she may be grateful for the lifeline.

HI Carolyn, I've enjoyed reading your chats/columns for many years. My question is about a cat; I'm so sad as I'm writing this. Two and a half years ago my kids convinced me to adopt a cat from an animal shelter. We did our homework on cats, the staff at the shelter got to know us through repeat volunteering visits, and when the staff felt that they had the 'right' cat for us, they pinged us. is clear that this now-adult cat is not a family-friendly cat. I'm at my wit's end. We have heaped love, toys, etc, on her, talked with her vet several times, made sure she has the proper food, stimulation, quiet spaces etc....and it's not working. The cat hisses every time anyone tries gets close (except when it is time to eat! then she is the most affectionate thing ever, until the food arrives!), poops on the floor routinely (and yes we have done ALL the vet's suggestions about litterboxing). and in general causes lots of stress to me and my kids. She has attacked all three of us at different times, completely unprovoked. All my cat-loving friends are similarly stumped about her behavior, and I get along great with other cats. My question is this -- is it ever okay to give the cat back to the shelter? I feel that she would be much happier in a different, quieter home, where she could truly be the queen. My kids (12, 10) would be devastated, even though they know that I deal with 99% of the cat issues and will continue to do so long after they've become adults and left home. Thank you.

This sounds like a miserable animal, so, yes, returning her to the shelter to find a more appropriate home for her temperament might be the only humane choice you have. Talk to the shelter staff. If you're feeling ashamed--I've been there on a returned pet, and it was awful, it felt like a failure--then please let yourself off the hook. The home has to be a fit.

My brother married a woman we all knew was wrong for him in every way. My parents and I all separately spoke to him ONCE about her but when he insisted she was “the one’ and he’d finally found love we shut up and wished him well. Well, in three years she bankrupted him, stole from his business and ran off with another man. Now he’s broke and getting divorced. Earlier this year, he had to sell his house and moved back in with my parents and we’ve all been as supportive as possible. We have given him time, money and emotional support. He just goes on and on about how this all came out of nowhere and what a chameleon she was and how blindsided he is. It was okay at first but after seven and a half months we’re sick of hearing it. Would it be okay to just one time remind him that we all tried to warn him?

Not in I-told-you-so form! But certainly you can talk to him about signs he may have missed. He's bringing it up himself, so you have opportunities: 

He: "She never showed me this side of her!"

You: "I've been thinking about this. Remember when she [specific example]? I think you noticed it then but talked yourself out of it. Possible?"

Like that--walk him to the water's edge. Don't waterboard him.

They should all sit down and watch the Social Dilemma together. It's a strange documentary/movie, but very good. The "movie" portion follows a family where the oldest daughter is the one who wants them to put away their phones at dinner time and the rest of the family arguing their not addicted. The documentary portion interviews tech workers explaining how they're designed to keep you engaged. Our family definitely found it eye-opening.

If counseling seems too overwhelming, try Co-dependents Anonymous or at least read some of the literature. One of my close friends went to meetings for a while and it changed her relationship with her overbearing parents enormously.

Interesting, thanks. Support groups where you don't have to talk definitely present the lowest barrier to entry.

I've seen many comments today about not using phones at dinner, how precious family meal time is, etc. And I would just offer my experience as a cautionary tale: By the time we were teens, my siblings and I referred to family dinner as Dinner Control Time. Because our parents (generally great people) were unwilling to compromise on what they saw as this super important bonding time. Occasionally we just wanted to do homework, or eat in front of the TV, or stay late at a friend's house, or just eat quickly in silence. Instead, we had to be at the table at X o'clock every day to have Conversations. And we grew to really resent and dislike family dinner. To this day, I don't like long, conversation-heavy meals.

Good point, but ... slightly off the point?

I think it's the "precious mandatory family meal time" part of the equation that's the problem, not the phone rules--the rigidity of Dinner at the Table With Conversation. Because, yes, flexibility is important on all these things--the occasional bolt-and-run, or TV dinner, or late at a friend's house. As is, still, the fairly regular parentally decided Dinner at the Table With Conversation, so you don't all remain permanently in your separate corners. Plus it was their job to teach you how to conduct yourselves in a civilized manner while wanting to be anywhere else but at that table. Valuable life skill! That they apparently over-taught. 

But you can do all of those things and say no to scrolling at the table, when you're deliberately gathered.


Great parenting lesson either way, thanks.


Oh my goodness, that was my letter. Thank you so much for answering. I hadn't read it until just now when the poster above pointed it out. Reading your response and some of the comments and I'm crying now. If you'd like a follow-up, I have since attended a session by myself with the therapist, as well as a session with my daughter. It helped me to see some things from my daughter's perspective. We both came up with some strategies to have better conversations going forward. I wouldn't say all is resolved, it's not, but we are working on things. I do feel hopefulness and positivity that I did not feel when I wrote that letter. I am taking your advice to heart and will find an individual therapist for myself. Thank you.

You're welcome, and I'm so glad you're feeling better and making progress.

This childrearing stuff is just hard sometimes.

Oh--I grabbed some other follow-ups from last week and almost forgot them:

To answer a few questions/comments We met in person a couple times this summer (we're both hikers), but with local COVID cases soaring, it's been two months since we've met up in person. As for the anxiety, it's definitely not a warning bell (he's nothing but respectful of me and any boundaries I draw). I definitely appreciate and needed your bluntness Carolyn, you are spot on. For years, my mother often took her self-loathing/body image issues out on me and convinced me that no one would want me for me (I'm her carbon copy). A lot of my 20s were spent in relationships (friendly and romantic) that were superficial and I just skated around. These days, I'm in therapy, am estranged from my mother and have a great support system. This relationship is just a big step for me and I was having issues identifying that self-critical voice for what it was, thank you. I'm pretty sure your advice to "otherwise tell it to shut up and have a little faith in you" would make my therapist stand up and applaud or my sister cackle. Nail meet head.

Ugh, that's a lot to carry. I'm glad you've found supportive people.

(This is the original Q and A.)

Hi Carolyn - I'm the lawyer-husband who wrote in some weeks ago about being frustrated that my wife (also a lawyer) wasn't taking better advantage of the extra time we had gained from not commuting and traveling for work to do more productive things, such as intellectual reading and more intensive exercise. We did subsequently attend a few sessions with a marriage counselor which were very helpful. In particular, we identified that a big part of the difference in how we wanted to spend leisure time was a direct result of the specific demands of our (paid) work. Although we are both lawyers, my work at the moment involves working on routine contracts, for the most part, that are not particularly intellectually challenging; on the other hand, hers involves clients who are much more emotionally demanding, plus high-stakes pro bono work with lifesaving implications - so she ends up feeling drained and wanting to take it easy during non-work time. Ultimately, we also figured out that I am just a person who likes to go on all cylinders all the time (which makes my current work all the more frustrating - although I'm glad to have it at a time when a lot of law firms have been doing layoffs), while she prefers cozy quiet time in her personal life. After the counseling sessions, we did decide to separate/divorce due to not really having compatible outlooks and priorities, but are doing so from a much warmer, friendlier place, without resentments and blame. At the core, we are just very different people, something that didn't really come to light while we were so, so busy finishing law school and singularly focused on building our careers, but the close quarters of the pandemic made it obvious that we would be happier going in different directions.

Even an amicable divorce is grueling, so, I'm sorry you're facing that, though it sounds like the right thing for both of you. Thank you for the follow-up.

(The original Q and A.)

What do you expect to get out of saying it? Redemption that you were right and he should acknowledge that you were right? For him to listen to you next time (because you expect there to be a next time)? Or just for him to shaddap and move on with it already because you don't think she's worth grieving like this? Then pull away from what you want to get out of it and think about what he needs and how you can combine that with being able to retain your essential sense of honesty in how you react to him. Perhaps something along the lines of: "I don't agree that it couldn't be seen coming or that she never showed that side of her before, but I am really sorry that you're hurting like this"?

You feel guilty about returning the cat because of your unhappiness. Would you feel better about it if you reframed it as the cat's unhappiness? Because that cat sounds pretty discontent.


Carolyn, I'm a volunteer at an animal shelter here in DC. Returning an animal because of behavioral issues is not unusual, nor is it frowned upon by shelter staff. Some animals belong in a quieter household, some are better off as a community cat. Poster should not feel guilty, nor subject her family and the cat into a situation that benefits neither.

This is terrible advice: At 35, fertility is already quite decreased and you are already a higher-risk pregnancy. As a physician, I recommend that if she knows she wants children, she should try now. Not just egg freezing, pregnancy. You try pregnancy when you are ready to parent a human, and, if you are so inclined, when you have a willing and enthusiastic partner. There is a big difference between having "higher" risk as an older mom, and having "high" risk, and a big difference between having declined fertility and infertility. So often, that message is muddled, so that there is no meaningful discussion of actual relative risks to older moms and their fertility. What is left are comments like that (Get! Pregnant! Now!), which only shame and panic and prioritize getting pregnant over all other considerations.

I have a 6 month old and a 5 year old and when I get a few spare minutes I absolutely don't want to talk to anyone, even my best friends, even my parents whom I adore.... so what the people I love do is leave me voice messages -- on my phone or on whatsapp; long messages updating me on funny things, stories, complaining about politics, etc. I listen to them in the tub or as I fall asleep and it makes me feel connected but it asks zero response/energy from me. I leave them messages too, telling them how much I appreciate it and them. (Also, happy Thanksgiving, Carolyn)

Thank you, happy TG to you, too. 

There is a type of therapy called Family Systems Therapy that has saved my life in dealing with the legacy (and ongoing issues) of an abusive parent and the related family issues. It's a specific training for therapists and imo is terrific for this very specific issue.

You said your bicycle commute was your alone time and mental break - couldn't you take a round-trip ride in the morning and pretend it's a commute? Think of it as taking the long way from your bedroom to your home office.

Anything good from the Before that we can adapt to the Now is probably worth the effort. Thanks.

Can you rap your answers today?

Aw, saw this too late, or I would have for sure.

Actually--someone remind me next time: A reader sent me a "poem" of chat snippets recently, and it's gloriously weird, so I'll ask if I can share it. I'll email them right now but am sure to forget by December. (No chat on Black Friday.) 

In October my mom asked me to stay with my 16 yo sister for two or three weeks, since she wanted to go see her friend in another state and didn’t think it was safe to take my sister. I knew she hadn’t taken any vacation this year, and I wasn’t sure it was safe for her either but she’s a grown woman and deserved a break. That was over 4 weeks ago and she isn’t ready to come back yet. The only response to my texts and phone messages are texts that say she needs a long break and if I’m sick of my sister, I can drop her off at our dad’s house. My dad sees my sister on her birthday and at Christmas and that’s only if my mom nags him into it so there’s no way I’m doing that to her. I don’t know what to tell my sister and I don’t understand how my mom is taking this long a break from her job. I’m scared to call there and ask and I’m embarrassed to try our other relatives. This is not like my mom at all. I tried calling the last number I have for her friend but it’s not her number anymore. I haven’t told my sister yet and when she asks when our mom is coming back, I’ve been lying but she’s really upset that our mom isn’t talking directly to her. I love my sister but the money my mom left to help cover expenses has run out and I’d really like to go back to my own apartment but my roommate wouldn’t like it if I bring my sister along. What should I do?

Oh my. You do need to call your dad--not to have your sister live there, if that's not what you want, but to get him involved in the legal and financial aspects of what's happening, especially if you aren't 21 yourself. There are laws about child abandonment. Call your other relatives, too, or at least any ones you think might be helpful--you have nothing to be embarrassed about. And you need to be honest with your sister. The reality is not something you can keep from her any longer, since she already knows something is up. 

You need to find out what your options are and, more immediately, get some financial help.

If both parents are unresponsive, then you need to call child services. CHILDHELP can guide you if you are afraid to take that step: 1-800-4-A-CHILD. 

This is off the cuff and on the fly and in the 11th hour of the chat, so I hope I haven't missed something. I'll do a quick scan of responses before I go. 

Why is this chat on the old (much preferred system) while Travel, Tom and others are forced onto the new (improved?) system???

Since I hadn't started on it yet, it made more sense to wait till they're through working on it.

I am a WP subscriber and a conservative American. I tell my children they can be a part of the problem or apart of the solution. How does the above comment help anyone?

I hope it will encourage people who don't see it to inform themselves about this type of behavior. It has nothing to do with policy or politics. Abusers have beliefs along the spectrum. I speak as someone who learned about these traits and tactics after not understanding them in a relationship I was in, so I'm extremely sympathetic and know firsthand that it's not something everyone automatically recognizes.

So, even if you resent me for posting what I did, please read "The Gift of Fear" and pass along its lifesaving, mental-health sustaining, vision-sharpening lessons to your children.

Please get your Dad involved, for all the reasons Carolyn said, and also to make sure your mom is OK.

Also, please call your sister's school and talk to her counselor and/or the school social worker (if they have one). They can connect you to resources - but they may also call CPS because they are mandatory reporters. As a teacher, I actually think it would be best to get CPS involved because even if mom comes back soon, she's proven that she's got some stuff going on that's keeping her from parenting well, and it sounds like your fam could use some support. Kudos to you for stepping up but it's too much responsibility for one person alone.

OK this is a rough thing to read in a chat but are you sure it is your mom texting back? I watch a lot of news and have had heard of at least one murdered person continuing to text after their death (obviously not them actually doing the texting). If not, please try to to text something that only she would understand or could respond to and if you get a problematic response then call law enforcement in case your mom has gotten into harm's way. The friend's phone number being wrong, not actual conversations and 'not like her at all" are red flags to me.

I'm 24 so ok there. I guess I have to talk to our dad. I'm dreading it since I don't see him or tlak to him much. It's a long story. I really didn't want his wife finding out about this she's not a nice person but I guess I have no choice. Thanks for answering

You're welcome. If the dad option is truly awful, and if you have a sympathetic other relative, then maybe start there just for the emotional reinforcements.

What your sister needs to know above all is that while you don't know when mom - the stability in her life that she relies on and knows is her primary support - is coming home, SHE, your sister will be okay. You will help her figure out whatever needs to be figured out and if she needs support who is not you, you will help her figure out how to get that too. That's what your sister needs to know right now while everything is in limbo.

It is VERY important that mom makes some sort of legal arrangement in case little-sis has a medical emergency and paperwork needs to be signed. Sounds like dad doesn't have any legal guardianship and he might not be able to do much, even if he's willing.

I think you may want to get your Mom’s family involved, and possibly the police as well - they might be able to do a welfare check on your mom’s friend’s address. She is effectively a missing person at this point.

Contact the police. Your mom is missing. You haven't actually spoken to her in weeks and she has been gone much longer than planned. Really, do it. This is too much for you to navigate. And it's what the police do for a living.

I just want to give you a virtual hug. You're a hero for your sister. I'll be giving thanks that you're there for her.

If you can PLEASE give us an update in the next chat in 2 weeks so we know you all are OK.

Yes, seconded, thank you.

Okay--whew. That's a lot. I'm going to go now, with the sincere hope everyone is okay. All of you. Thank you for stopping by today and for adding so much. Try to breathe, and I'll type to 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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