To break squabbling cycle, try to extend warmth under duress

2013-05-26T00:00:00Z To break squabbling cycle, try to extend warmth under duressCarolyn Hax Washington Post Writers Group Arizona Daily Star

Dear Carolyn:

My husband and I get in a fight almost every time we try to do something fun together, either alone or with our kids, who are both under 3. I do something dumb (say, forgetting some important item). Husband says something insulting about it. I get defensive and badger him. ("You were supposed to ... .") He gets angry at me for "ruining our day."

How can we break the squabbling cycle and actually enjoy each other's company?

- When Fun Isn't Fun

One of you can realize that actual adults don't actually scold people for "ruining" their "day."

And both of you can isolate your parts of the cycle, then break them.

You can't prevent all mistakes, of course, but you can stop getting defensive. Instead of "Well, you should have (whatever)" when he criticizes you, try: "We have two kids under 3. Maybe we should be more forgiving of each other."

Because you do, and should, and there's no better way to invite warmth than to give it consistently, especially under duress. If his attacks persist, then consider a quiet talk, a couples' or parents' workshop and marriage counseling, respectively, as Plan B.

Dear Carolyn:

Many people have to drive from New Jersey to New York for Mother's Day because my sister-in-law and her husband have a baby (the only grandchild). In from New Jersey come my wife and I, and my brother-in-law's many family members. My sister-in-law always chooses a very upscale Manhattan boutique restaurant, so we have to drive and park in this congested part of the world, and make nice so they don't have to be inconvenienced. My sister-in-law does this to accommodate two sets of parents who demand priority on this day over the other parents.

We did this ritual this year and the next thing I know, my father-in-law calls to say my brother-in-law picked up the bill and I owe him half. (This is for people I have no relationship to - his grandparents, his parents.) I was blindsided.

If I had been informed beforehand I probably would have paid half, but at this late time (and after the highly inappropriate call from my father-in-law), I feel pretty irritated.

What is actually appropriate?

- What Is the Deal?

With this letter, it's easier to start with what's not appropriate.

Saying people "have to" travel for this gathering is not appropriate. Unless you are deposited there at gunpoint - also not appropriate - you are all invited to travel, and choose to.

Harrumphing about having to "make nice" so others aren't "inconvenienced" when you're the one who chose to participate is not appropriate.

Choosing an expensive site unilaterally for a pay-your-own-way gathering is not appropriate.

Hitting people with a bill after the fact is not appropriate.

Sending a third party (father-in-law) to hit someone up is not appropriate. It was your brother-in-law's job to either ask for help or eat the expense.

Showing up at a gathering expecting to be fed when there is no clear host (as with, say, a wedding or graduation party), or not offering to chip in when the check arrives, is not appropriate.

Being otherwise willing to contribute, but deciding not to, solely because you weren't asked the right way, is not appropriate. Get angry? Sure. Act on it? No.

Typing "is not appropriate" so many times about a gathering that was theoretically about celebrating mothers, but seems to have been more about self-aggrandizement and power-grabbing, is not appropriate.

Appropriate: Pay half and be rid of it. Next year, with just your nuclear family, think of something that honors your idea of Mother's Day, plan it, do it, and don't apologize for it, even if it's merely to blow it off entirely as the contrivance it has become.

Dear Carolyn:

I have been dating a great girl for three months now. We are compatible in many ways and I very much want to keep seeing her. The problem is that she has horrible breath. It is so bad that sometimes I can barely be near her. Absent any dramatic change I will have to end it.

Is there any way to delicately bring this up? The only alternative is to break up with her and provide some vague "It's not you it's me" excuse.

- Gagging

Really? Telling the truth sounds so grim that you'd consider both denying yourself great company and giving her the impression you don't like her - all while sending her off cluelessly into the world to flatten tall buildings with a single breath - just to dodge one awkward moment?

Surely you've given this a second moment of thought by now and come to this same conclusion: "There's no nice way to say this, so I'll just say it." And then say it.

By the way - the breath could signal anything from a minor hygiene fail to a major illness, so keep an open and patient mind.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax

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