Category Archives: boundaries

Hello, world!

Hello, world!

….If anyone is still out there.

It’s been a busy, exciting, and sometimes stressful few month behind this blog. I’ve been taking an unintended, but much-needed break, and once I got into the non-momentum of not-posting, no post seemed worthy of being the first post…of the new year. After a 2….3….4….month hiatus. Or what-have-you.

But I miss the blog (I don’t miss the columns, as I never quit them, of course) and the only way to pick up again is to just do it, eh? So here we go–easing back in with some good advice from Carolyn’s chat today. She’s stated this philosophy in various forms many times, and I think it’s important, so for today will just share it with you:

You know, it’s okay to choose not to do something just because you don’t feel like it. I don’t advise making a habit of choosing this option, but if you’ve baked for the last three bake sales, for example, it’s okay to say you’re sorry, this isn’t a good time, and you’ll be happy to make something next time. And your unspoken definition of “isn’t a good time” could really, justifiably, be that you’ve been looking forward all week to sitting on your butt and watching a movie.

I see getting comfortable with the word “no” as a multi-step process, especially if you’re starting from a point where there’s a sense of personal risk attached to every “no”–as if everyone will hate you or think ill of you for letting them down. The first step is paying attention to when your feelings turn resentful–that’s the advice you’re referring to, I assume–and recognizing that’s your body’s way of telling you that you’re giving to the point of giving yourself away. Accordingly, you start to step back gently from there.

Once you get comfortable with that process, I think you’ll start to make out patterns–of things you like to give and don’t, of people you like to give to and don’t, or situations when it’s okay to extend yourself and when it isn’t. The second step is to put those patterns together: You’ll see the beginnings of an outline of who you are. You’ll see which are your healthy relationships, which are your passions, which are your vulnerabilities, and what just drains the life out of you. Seeing these clearly will help you say “yes” and “no” to things based on anticipation of how you’ll feel, instead of just reacting to how you feel in the moment. That means you’ll be able to make plans–and decline them–with a growing sense of confidence.

Sometimes you’ll mess up, sure, and overextend yourself here or blow off a worthy cause there. But even those aren’t the end of the world, they’re just life.  One lazy /selfish/entitled decision does not a lazy /selfish/entitled person make. That’s step three, fine-tuning your ability to recognize when to offer help and when to look at the ceiling and whistle and hope nobody spots you. As long as you’re at peace with the cumulative result, you’re fine.

Vacation Interrogation

Carolyn’s Sunday column (both of her weekend columns come out Friday afternoon) features a letter from a woman who feels that her daughter-in-law is too nosy:

Dear Carolyn:

How do I handle the multitude of questions that come from my daughter-in-law regarding activities or trips I’m taking? To my son I say, “I’m going to the mountains for the weekend.” He responds, “Sounds like fun,” and that is it.

Daughter-in-law says, rapid-fire, “When are you leaving, is X going with you, what will you do there, when will you be back?” I know it is her nature to be a bit nosy and I have nothing to hide, so I find myself pouring everything out like she was a soul-sister.

Unfortunately, she stores the information and later throws little digs my way, like she is keeping a scorecard on where I go and whom I’m with. Her timing with these digs is remarkable, always implying that I don’t spend equal time with her kids. I need help in not buying into her nosiness in the first place.

Snow Bunny

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Kisses and Misses

Every family has different practices for showing affection…some are kissers, some are huggers, some are snugglers, some aren’t.  But what happens when a family that kisses on the lips is blended with a family that doesn’t?  Let’s ask Margo:

Dear Margo: My husband and I married earlier this year, and we have a great relationship. We both came into the marriage with children. The one thing that seems to be driving me crazy is that my husband kisses his 5-year-old daughter on the lips. It’s just a peck, but it aggravates me to no end. I have a daughter, and I always kiss her on the cheek. I even explained that you do not kiss on the lips unless you are married. I have mentioned that I’m totally against the gesture; he said he will do so until the day he dies. Fine, but I feel this is intruding on our relationship, as I see it being a sexual gesture and very inappropriate. I have read articles about this, and it is very controversial. I am not sure that I will be able to handle this much longer. Is it wrong of me to ask him for “only my lips or no lips”?
— Want My Husband’s Lips for Myself

Dear Want: Personally, I agree with you and have always found it kind of creepy. But I have seen many people kiss their children like this, and I don’t think it’s seductive. Gestures mean different things to different people. To your husband, kissing on the lips is his sign of affection. To you, it’s a boundary violation.I would open the discussion with him in a new way. Perhaps the act itself is less meaningful than his resistance to granting your request. Does he resist your suggestions in general? Might he experience you as eager to weaken his relationship with his daughter? Is there guilt about divorcing the child’s mother? Ask yourself why you feel so possessive of his lips and whether it is hard to share his affection. Frankly, I think this issue will subside when his daughter becomes an adolescent and becomes embarrassed by parental affection

— Margo, probingly

Yee–full-disclosure, I come from a family that, historically, kisses on the lips.  Both my mom and dad did this occasionally when I was little, mixed in with a variety of other hugs and kisses, and I have always seen my grandma kiss my mom and aunts this way.  It’s really not different than giving a kiss a half an inch to the side.  And if you think about it–a hug is a reciprocal gesture, while a kiss on the cheek, forehead, or top of the head is very much one-sided.  With a peck on the lips, the gesture goes both ways–and you don’t even have to resort to air-kissing three times.

(all of this, of course, reminds me of that scene in Love Actually after Colin Firth proposes to Aurelia and he’s promptly and soundly smooched by all of her neigbors and relatives, male and female.  Wanted to include a good video clip, but couldn’t find! There are dozens of Love Actually remixes on youtube and they all cut out this part! Sad.)

But anyway–what concerns me here is not whether various family members are comfortable kissing on the lips or not.  If you weren’t raised with it, it probably won’t seem like a natural thing, and that’s totally fine.  No, what worries me in this case is that the way this mom states her discomfort (“my lips or no lips!”) creates a rivalry between her stepdaughter and herself for her husband’s physical affection.  And now I’m uncomfortable.

It’s all well and good for her to have explained to her child that you only kiss on the lips if you’re married (really?), but what does she recommend that he say to his daughter?  Anything I can imagine that he would say, that would satisfy what she is looking for, takes what this daughter sees as perfectly natural and normal, and turns it creepy and weird.

If he says something about only married people kissing on the lips, he’ll have to find a way to justify to his daughter why they’ve done this all along and/or give complicated explanations about their relationships.  If he tries to say something like you’re only allowed to have one person at a time who you kiss on the lips, now she’s been demoted/replaced by stepmom, and her relationship with her father has been identified as interchangeable with his relationship with her stepmom. And even if all of this goes over her little head, at the very least she’ll get that her stepmom has decreed that kisses are no longer allowed.

The most innocuous thing I can think of for this woman to do is…..nothing.  Because there’s nothing really wrong here, and even with her ick factor, she seems to get that.  And because anything she could say or do, or ask her husband to say or do, will only introduce weirdness and resentment between stepdaughter and her.  It sounds to me like she is pretty insecure about her new stepdaughter–but the least she can do is try not to let the insecurity spread to the child, too.

When opportunity knocks…in her nightie

On Wednesday, both Carolyn Hax and Amy Alkon featured letters from spouses deeply and, it seems, irrationally concerned about their partners’ ability to keep their pants on at home and at work:

Dear Carolyn:

My husband of 10 years, who is retired, calls me at work one morning and tells me he had just gotten out of the shower when our female next-door neighbor rang the doorbell in her nightclothes, stating that she got locked out when she took out the trash. My husband then says he invited her in to use the phone and stay until someone came to let her in (about 30-45 minutes).

I ask him, “Why would you invite a half-dressed woman into our home when I am not present?” He could have helped her by offering his cellphone and a robe while she sat on her porch.

I ask him to present this situation to his male friends. He responds, “Yeah, they will say, ‘You are stupid for even sharing that with your wife.’ ” I was very disappointed with how he handled this situation. He says he would do it again exactly the same way, even if it upsets me, and says I am insecure. Any suggestions?

E.

Your husband is retired and home. You are employed and at work. If your husband wanted to cheat on you, he wouldn’t need to wait for opportunity to come knocking in her nightie.

There are a lot of people out there — okay, me, but I can’t be alone in this — who would be horrified if spouse’s response to a nightied neighbor in need were to strand said neighbor on the front porch. Have you ever been caught in public in your skivvies? Offering shelter is the compassionate thing to do.

And her 45 minutes of shelter didn’t cost you anything — not unless it led to a tryst. And if it led to a tryst, then that says your distress over this incident is misplaced: It’s your marriage that needs your full and sustained attention.

In other words, if you trust your husband not to boink the neighbor only if she doesn’t ask to use your phone, then you can’t call that trust. Believing your husband is just one robe away from cheating is, yes, insecurity.

And as with any serious problem, it’s essential to trace insecurity’s source and root it out. Is your marriage shaky/husband out prowling? Then don’t nibble at the edges of the problem by fussing over neighbors. Admit you don’t trust him, lay out the evidence supporting your skepticism, then see where that conversation takes you.

I suspect instead that your husband hasn’t done anything sketchy, and you merely regard infidelity as a real and constant threat. (Yes, that’s the get-counseling light flashing.) If so, you owe it to both of you to admit how corrosive this outlook can be. It motivates you to doubt him no matter how faithful or devoted — or transparent — he is.

Often, too, such fear acts as a negative filter through which you view everything. Your husband helped someone! Told you about it! And you punished him for it! How many times, in how many ways, has that defensive pessimism played out? How many bad things have you exaggerated, how many good things have you questioned?

Unfounded suspicion is about you, founded suspicion is about him, but the approach is the same with both: Lay out the facts for your husband, and see where the discussion goes.

My reading was slightly different than Carolyn’s–I didn’t get the impression that this woman was necessarily worried that her husband actually would cheat on her.  Instead, it seemed she was fretting about something even less important: how the situation looked.  My guess is that there are certain arbitrary principles of marriage that she feels should not be violated–such as being alone in your home with a semi-dressed woman when your spouse isn’t present.  But I couldn’t guess whether she’s worried about how this reflects on her husband, or on her (and to whom?  the neighbor in distress?  Or yet another neighber, peeping through the curtain?).  Or perhaps she just feels there’s a rule that’s been broken–some things should not be done, and he did one of them.

I get the sense it has to do with respect–that is, if her husband respected her and honored their marriage as his most sacred commitment, he wouldn’t have invited an undressed woman into the house.  She could even have extended it to, if her neighbor respected their marriage, she wouldn’t have come knocking in such a state.  That is, instead of thinking “What should Joe have done this  morning when Sarah was locked out?” I suspect she’s thinking, totally abstractly, “Should a married man home alone invite a scantily clad neighbor into the living room?”  She makes her answer (“No!”)  the obvious right one by ignoring the details of reality.

And speaking of the details of reality, Amy Alkon printed this:

My wife’s a hairstylist, and I recently learned that she continues to cut the hair of a guy she had a fling with seven years ago. We’re newlyweds but dated for three years. She’s always been truthful and forthright, so I was dumbfounded that she kept this from me. She claims they’re “just friends,” insists the past is the past, and won’t discuss anything. I had trust issues with my ex-wife and have abandonment issues (thanks, Mom), but had ZERO insecurities about my wife until this. She honored my request and told the guy he needs to get haircuts elsewhere, but I know her other male clients occasionally discuss their sexual escapades. Inappropriate! I think marriage comes with boundaries. I’ve been working hard to rid my mind of visions of her with others before me, but find myself prying into her past for details, which only increases my anxiety. — Love Stinks

Yes, your wife had sex with other men before you — because she was probably raised in some suburb in America, not locked away by her sultan father until you could buy her from him for a Lamborghini and a really nice herd of goats.

Instead of spending your evenings giving your wife something to smile about the next morning at work, you’re giving this seven-year-old fling of hers more late-night reruns than “Godfather II.” Sure, she still sees the guy, but consider the environment. Yes, it’s what I always advise a man who wants to stage a seduction: Put on a big pastel smock, sit between two little old ladies getting smelly perms, and give the woman a bird’s eye view of his bald spot. Before you know it, he’ll be telling her how he likes it, and she’ll be begging, “Lemme take off my top!” — in that secret language all the hussy hairdressers use: “Want me to take a little more off the top?”

You’re right that marriage comes with boundaries — and it’s time you started respecting your wife’s. You’re her husband, not her owner, so you don’t get to give her a list of acceptable topics of conversation: 1. “Nice weather we’re having.” 2. “Still nice weather we’re having.” Since you’re also not her boss, she doesn’t have to ask you if she’s allowed to do her job: “My 2:30 appointment fooled around with me once seven years ago, but he really needs a trim.”

What stinks isn’t love, but being a guy who’s never bothered to put his mommy issues and ex-wife trust issues on a leash and walk them to a therapist’s office.

More arbitrary rules!  More declared boundaries!  More therapy needed!

Carolyn Hax and Amy Alkon are different in all kinds of important ways–perhaps the most relevant example here being that Carolyn bristles at the assumption of any male/female stereotypes (“it’s not guys who do that, it’s people who do that!”), while Amy thrives on them: an inclination toward evolutionary psychology (man must hunt!) is the underpinning of most of her relationship advice.

But interestingly, I think they’d agree that marriage is not a box set of rules, regulations and guaranteed-to-apply statutes.  Instead, each one is a different relationship between different people, rolling along in different circumstances–and random pronouncements like “no pajama’d ladies within 3 yards unless I am present!” and “no exes possibly oversharing like some of your other male clients do!” are more likely to destroy them than prove their strength.

See more like this: One Singular Temptation

On Reading Body Language

A Scotsman asks Margo to help him understand how a flirtation at a party went awry:

Dear Margo: I recently moved here from Scotland. I thought you might have some insight into an experience I had involving an American woman’s image of her body. I met a really attractive and intelligent woman at a party a few weeks ago. It was a public event at an art gallery. She was a high-school teacher in her early 30s. We had been talking for a good half-hour and really seemed to be hitting it off. We’d even made plans to meet for coffee sometime. Then, things suddenly went downhill.

I commented that she had a “really nice hourglass figure.” I thought she would be complimented, but instead she became deeply offended. I went into damage control mode and tried to clarify my comments, but I think I only exacerbated things when I used the term “healthy.” With a look of complete disgust — WHAP! — she slapped my face and departed. I will never forget those agonizing moments in the immediate aftermath, as I was standing there rubbing my cheek, drawing some judgmental stares from onlookers. Needless to say, it was not my proudest moment, LOL.

She had a classic hourglass figure — large bust, narrow waist, shapely hips and legs. I guess she had interpreted “hourglass” as meaning overweight or full-figured. I just thought it meant shapely. I have her e-mail address. Do you think I should send her an apology? — Kevin

Sigh….

I don’t think she “interpreted ‘hourglass’ as meaning overweight or full-figured.” I think she had a problem with a a guy she doesn’t know saying, “hey, I like your large bust, narrow waist, and shapely hips and legs–let’s get coffee!”

Clearly he enjoyed meeting this woman, talking to her, and looked forward to getting to know her better over coffee.  In addition, he found her physically attractive.  And there’s nothing wrong with that….but he expressed it poorly (not even taking into account, for the moment, his random use of “LOL.”  I’m choosing to assume that it didn’t figure into his conversation with this woman).  It doesn’t sound like he was just leering or trying to get some action, so it’s a little bit too bad that he was lumped together with catcalling construction workers and drunken lurkers, and got the slap this woman had probably been saving up from years of interactions with such types.

But.

But, if you meet a woman you like, and and hope to set up a conversation and caffeine date with her in the future, why, why, why would you attempt to seal the deal by complimenting her boobs?

So, then, the dilemma:  I think it’s rather silly for anyone to pretend they don’t notice or appreciate any aspect of another person’s outward appearance.  If you’ve just met someone, you don’t know him or her well enough to sincerely comment on their intelligence, sense of humor, kindness, or integrity.  You think they’re attractive and friendly.  It should be OK to say so.

But in what way?  Clearly, boobs, bellies, and butts should be way off-limits, even veiled under the euphemism of the “hourglass figure.”  To this list we’d probably also need to add hips, legs, neck,….maybe any body part taken in isolation.   But what about eyes, smile, and hair, which would also fall into this category?  Is smile OK, but lips not?

In the context of conversation with a person that you’re attracted to and would like to date–we’re not talking about shouting from a street corner or car window here, that’s a whole separate issue–what kinds of comments on appearance are welcome, and likely to prolong the conversation, rather than end it with a slap?

Rescue Mission Gets Rear Ended

Dear Amy: In an effort to build team spirit, our office had a group outing. My friend, an administrative assistant in the firm, had a meltdown, cried and panicked about the group activity we were going to do.

Seeming to come to her aid, an elderly male principal in the firm calmed her down and offered to go for a walk in lieu of the outing. He then proceeded to persuade her to be his guest and visit the local women’s art museum.

Rather than view the paintings, he spent the entire time ogling my friend’s behind. Every time she looked at him, his eyes were on her backside. She told me it was creepy and made her feel very uncomfortable.

When they rejoined the group, this man’s face was so full of lust that he was dripping in it. As her friend, I’ve recommended she report this sexual harassment to the human resource office. But she’s afraid this man, given his position in the firm, will retaliate. He is still ogling her behind whenever he thinks no one is looking.

Should I report what I know? How can I help my friend? — Worried in D.C.

Gaaaaaah!  This is exactly why offices should not do these recreational team-building outings!

Ok, OK, I’m not really suggesting that without the opportunity provided by a day of corporate Whirlyball, this guy wouldn’t be a creepy lech.  I’m sure that he still would–in fact, Amy says in her response that he may be a “known ogler,” and I agree that that’s likely.  But the whole situation is just screwed up!

First, if you do your job well–the job for which you were hired–and you’re collegial with your colleagues, you should not be required to also play softball/do a high ropes course/go whitewater rafting/put on a giant padded sumo wrestling suit and attempt to tackle your co-workers.  That’s not what you were hired for.  It has nothing to do with your job.  It’s a waste of company time, talent and treasure (as it were). And it clearly totally failed to build team unity because…..

…an employee flipped out, and she got out of the activity.  OK.  Well, she probably wasn’t the only person who didn’t want to participate.  She’s clearly the only one who had an irrational, visceral reaction  (I actually totally get where she’s coming from.  Softball gives me heart palpitations.)  but there are probably plenty of others who found the activity unpleasant and/or a waste of time–and they still had to go. I think it’s ridiculous to require participation in this kind of thing, but if it is required, it should be for everyone.  If she absolutely could not participate without having a breakdown of some kind, she should quietly seek to be excused.  A company higher up, obviously, should not take her on a private field trip to the local art museum (conveniently getting himself out of the group activity and alone with her).

So she’s doubly at a disadvantage: in addition to being ogled by her superior, she’s going to be resented by her colleagues for  getting out of team building and stepping out with a heavy hitter–they may even question what went on between them when they disappeared all afternoon.  So just as she’s looking for support to report what’s going on, her colleagues are probably looking for an explanation for the special treatment…and it seems unlikely to be a positive one.

So much for team-building!

"The Odd Couple" wouldn’t be funny if Oscar and Felix were girls….

Today’s issue strikes close to home for me, since in some ways I recognize myself in the person the writer is complaining about. I also recognize one of my friend’s crazy roommates…and have to wonder…are we all truly nuts? Or do the people who think we are just not understand us?

Let’s take a look…..

Today’s writer has this to say:

DEAR ABBY: I’m a 25-year-old woman who moved in with a friend, “Natasha,” who is also 25, after her boyfriend of seven years kicked her out three months ago.

One of the conditions of my moving in was that I’d get to use her car for work and errands because I’d be moving out of my mother’s house and had shared Mom’s car.

Well, I accidentally spilled a drink in Natasha’s car while I was using it, and she revoked my privilege to drive it. I’m looking for a car of my own, but I have already spent a great deal of money to move in with Natasha and help her in her time of need.

I understand that the car is Natasha’s property, and she can do with it as she pleases. But I’m concerned that she went back on her word so quickly into our living situation. She has now started leaving me nasty, belittling little notes and is scathing with her choice of words. She refuses to talk to me and will communicate with me now only through writing. I’d like to take the high road, but I’m having a hard time finding it.

Until now, I enjoyed living with her, and I don’t want to end our arrangement. How can I have backbone but still be a good friend and roommate? — STRANDED IN A SMALL TOWN IN ILLINOIS

I’ll be honest, I’d probably be pretty pissed if a roommate was using my car, for free, on a daily basis, and then spilled something in it (esp. in the driver’s seat). And, as Abby wisely suggests, I’d probably stay annoyed unless or until it was cleaned “properly”–no smell, no dampness, no stickiness, and as little stain as possible. I’d probably also expect that the person wouldn’t drink in the car anymore, or at least that she’d make a show of promising not to drink in the car anymore until an appropriate period of mourning for the upholstery had elapsed (it really is the thought that counts) and we’d both sort of forgotten.

I know, this is evidence that I’m a bit obsessively obsessive but, as the writer points out–it’s Natasha’s car. She can set her own expectations and rules, and just because the friend moved in, “in her [natasha’s] time of need,” doesn’t mean use of the car doesn’t come with strings attached. (I wonder how she’s been getting to work since Natasha revoked car privileges….clearly she’s been managing somehow).

Of course, things get more complicated when you move from the personal car to the shared living space, which is now aflutter wtih “scathing” notes. I’m familiar with the scathing note from both sides. My best friend (a proud Oscar in the Odd Couple scenario…) has been on the receiving end of many a note like this from her former roommate–and is usually totally bewildered, hurt, or later, amused, by it.

(This friend, admittedly, loves to push buttons. Almost a month ago she wrapped her gum in a scrap of paper and placed it in my car cupholder, mocking me when I protested. She claims it’s all part of her philanthropic effort to prevent me from turning into her crazy grandma. Of course, I think her crazy grandma, who keeps her linens in labeled ziplock bags containing a matching bottom sheet, top sheet, and pillowcase, is a genius!

Our friendship has thrived only because in 6th grade, with wisdom beyond our years, we realized we could never live together. Or room together on trips.)

In this situation (or in any situation, I guess) these notes do not seem to effectively communicate whatever it is that the roommate wants to get across–just makes her look like a crazy.

And yet, I’m not so blind to my own faults that I don’t recognize my tendency to leave roomie-do notes that are often passive aggressive, and sometimes verge on scathing. And I know it’s not particularly nice or mature, and probably not effective. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that my roommates think I’m crazy at these times–because I only write the notes when I feel like I’m GOING crazy. When last week’s tuna-encrusted-bowl is sitting next to (or worse, IN) the sink instead of easily tossed in the freely available dishwasher….when I return from a weekend away and have to do the dishes from a party I didn’t attend…when the dishwasher is overflowing with stuff but hasn’t been run….then I morph into silent, seething, note-leaving Natasha.

I know it would be better to be light hearted and open and just say, outright, why I’m so cranky….but a big part of why I’m cranky is that it’s not obvious why I’m cranky. To me, it’s second nature that we should all clean up after ourselves ASAP–so part of the frustration is that not everyone in the universe sees things exactly this way.

This is something I’ll have to get used to, and quick: my fiance, who lives in another state, admittedly requires a week to prepare his apartment for my visits. (And really, I’m not white glove testing every surface. My own room would not pass that test. I just can’t stand to use the sink if all his plates are IN it, and can’t put them in the dishwasher, if the dishwasher is half-full of clean stuff from last time it was run…but I digress)

So in short, dear drink spiller, take a good look around your shared apartment. Was the drink you spilled in the car truly a one off (because it honestly can and does happen to everyone) and did you do your best to make amends? Or was it an accident waiting to happen? Does Natasha clean up after you without you realizing it, and become resentful as a result? Do you also resent the fact that Natasha cleans up after you and then gets bitter about it, rather than just leaving your stuff for you to deal with?

Or are you easygoing and cool to live with, and Natasha is truly holding a grudge over something insignificant, and punishing you unfairly?

Both are entirely possible. In fact, both are probably true. It’s most likely that Natasha’s resentment over one thing is seeping over into the rest of her interactions, and that’s not fair to Spillsky McSoda. But Natasha also probably spends a lot of time screaming to herself, “not fair, not fair not fair!” So they (and we) have to meet somewhere in the middle of all this injustice.

The voyage through mysterious roommate crankiness can be a long and treacherous one. You may want to bring a snack. But please, for the love of God….rinse your plate!