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‘It’s never a good idea to generalize’ is always good advice

Carolyn Hax
| Sunday, December 30, 2018 1:36 a.m
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D ear Carolyn:

Is it advisable for a never-married man with no kids to get involved with a single mother? I know it’s never a good idea to generalize, but the answer I hear most often is an emphatic no, for many reasons. The main one is the man will always be a lower priority than the woman’s children, and there’s also potential drama with the woman’s ex. There is also the asymmetry in life experiences of a single mother and a never-married man with no kids.

— Dating

I advise your own advice: “It’s never a good idea to generalize.”

(1) Millions of children live with their biological mother and a stepfather. Do you really think they’re an “emphatic” 0-for-millions on happiness ever after?

(2) Couples who have children, however they get there, always accept some responsibility for making that child a higher priority — than themselves, much less a partner. A minor child’s last line of defense in the world is the adult guardian. Sometimes the circumstances and the child’s needs dictate that Mom overrules Dad, Dad overrules Mom, spouse overrules spouse, or one or both parents overrule their own needs.

If your goal is to be somebody’s undisputed No. 1, then that’s valid — but then, don’t be a parent, step- or otherwise.

(3) “Amicable” and “split” do sometimes agree to be seen together in the same sentence. Some exes also are mature enough or drama-averse enough to be co-parents without dysfunction.

(4) Asymmetry happens. Do you love the mom? Do you want to be a parent to her kids? Are you humble enough to admit what you don’t know (and cough give up certainties and generalizations), invested enough to learn and flexible enough to withstand jagged ups and downs without losing your nerve? Mind? OK then.

Please know, I have zero interest in talking anyone into being a parent or stepparent. It has to be what you want, fully and freely.

•••

Dear Carolyn:

Whenever I am quiet or thinking or distracted or frustrated, my wife asks if I’m mad at her. If I say no — well, I’m not — it might become, “Why are you mad?” or “I feel like you’re mad at me.”

I feel trapped in a no-win situation. Yes, I’ve told her that. She says she knows I’m not mad, but it’s almost reflexive. Her first husband was angry all the time and quite controlling.

— Don’t Know How
to Respond

I hope she will consider therapy to retrain those reflexes. She escaped the controlling marriage, yay for her, but some ghosts came with her. Good cognitive behavioral therapy might help her spot them sooner and shoo them away.

Do recommend it to her, but choose a moment with some pleasant distance from your last, “Why are you mad?”/“I’m not mad” dance. Then say you feel bad that she has these reflexive doubts and encourage her to dismantle them.

In the meantime, or if she refuses, upgrade your communication. Instead of, “I’m not mad” — which verges on gas-lighting if she’s right that you’re out of sorts, and only wrong about the reason — give her validation and an explanation. First, generally: “It’s not you.” And then, specifics: “I am quiet because/thinking about/distracted by/frustrated over (true reason here).”

Then, where practical, recruit her as an ally: Ask her to join you for a coffee break, or read something aloud to see what she thinks, or describe your obstacle and ask for her ideas, etc. Inclusion is worth a thousand words.

•••

Dear Carolyn:

As a little girl, I asked my mother if Santa is real or fantasy, and she chose to say he really exists. A few hours later, I found out he is fantasy. I felt betrayed and never trusted my mother ever again. It did permanent harm.

When I had sons, I told them from the beginning that Santa is make-believe, and it’s nice to pretend he really exists. I think it is plain stupid to let children believe in something that is not true.

— B.

Fair enough. I was uncomfortable with it as a mom myself. But humor me: How (emotionally) smart is it to hold a lifelong grudge against someone for, at worst, a clumsy attempt to extend your childhood innocence a little bit longer? She didn’t make it all up herself just to mess with your head.

Maybe in the spirit of also-made-up Baby New Year, embrace rebirth and forgive her. In your heart if not out loud.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, 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.

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