DEAR CAROLYN: I’m single, educated, retired, own a beautiful home in a unique location, am involved in creative pursuits, and travel quite a lot. What I don’t have is a spouse or children. I am estranged from my siblings because they are mentally ill — the mean variety who purposely inflict damage to property. I am alone.
I’ve just experienced another friend expressing their jealousy in critical ways — sucking in their breath, mean laughing — over my ability to travel. I don’t brag, or go on and on about experiences. These friends are surrounded by family and love. I’m sure none of them would trade places with me. What can I say to defend/protect myself?
DEAR ALONE: I understand your impulse to “defend/protect.” That’s the effect snark tends to have.
But if you acknowledge your friends’ envy as a defense mechanism of its own — and it is — then suddenly what you have is a group of people rushing to defend themselves against each other.
This is such a missed opportunity — to listen, to learn, to understand, to support, to appreciate. Especially so since you’re all supposed to be friends.
I hope you’ll push past this urge to defend yourself and instead, counterintuitively, make yourself more vulnerable: “You’re just joking, I’m sure, but it stings. There are parts of your life/lives I’d kill for.” Or: “I love that I can travel, but that doesn’t mean the reasons I’m free to travel aren’t painful.”
Often the purpose of a response is to shut down further discussion of a topic that’s too painful or overworked — understandably, and the ability to do that is an important skill to have. But it’s not the only response, and it’s not always the necessary one for the moment.
In cases like these, where you’re among friends and where more understanding might actually help — unless you just need nicer friends — please at least try to find a response that prompts further discussion. Think empathy. Think, “Do we always want the one thing we don’t have, or is that just our mind’s way of trying on alternate lives to remind us why we chose our own?”
Think of it as an experiment, too, if that helps you approach it with a level of detachment, which is an alternate, less distancing form of protection. It’ll still help you find out whether your friends are serious about what it means to be friends — or if they’re just looking for foils.
DEAR CAROLYN: My husband recently took a new job in a very demanding industry. His previous job required him to work 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. most days, also some time on the weekends and some very late nights — like, 5 a.m. late.
I have gotten quite good at accommodating his schedule, but he frequently complains that he doesn’t have enough time for his friends, and he gets frustrated that I’ve put many possible life changes (well, kids primarily) in a “no-go” column until he has a much different schedule.
I see this job change as an opportunity for him to set some realistic boundaries at his new job, since it’s a bigger company and he has more employees on his team. I don’t think this is unreasonable. However, he seems content just to see how things play out.
Am I being unfair to expect him to set some boundaries with work? Especially before committing to major life changes, like kids? Are there any suggestions you could offer him on setting those boundaries?
DEAR FRUSTRATED: Reality thinks fairness is hilarious. Expectations, too. And it thinks reasonableness is so cute it could pinch its little cheeks.
If your husband won’t change, then he’s not changing.
No matter how solid the ground you’re on to request changes and set limits until he does.
And if he’s not changing, then you need to accept that as the baseline, then decide from there what you want your life to look like. Sure, you can start by asking him one more time, explicitly, for what you want (no threats, though; coerced change tends not to stick): “I would like you to cut back your work hours, and I would like to have children.”
But if his response to that is something other than either an actual reduction of hours, or a credible, evidence-backed explanation for why it can’t happen now but will happen in X months — which then comes true in X months — then you need to scratch “husband as available parent” off your list of possibilities.
That’s because the only choices you have, ever, are the ones you actually have — and unless something changes, you have an absentee spouse. So your choices are: marriage to absentee spouse, without children; marriage to absentee spouse, with children; ex-marriage to absentee spouse, new life with or without children.
That’s it. And the more you work with the real, the more your expectations make sense.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.