Tag Archives: Carolyn Hax

Dear Imprudence: Interfering in My Friend’s Marriage is My DUTY!

In a recent Carolyn Hax column, a reader wrote in with the following:

Dear Carolyn:

A friend of mine is getting married to a woman who has multiple sclerosis. His family is very upset by this fact (along with a few other issues they have with his bride-to-be). Should something like having a chronic illness even be a consideration when choosing the person to spend the rest of your life with? I wonder if my friend is setting himself up for a very difficult road ahead.

D.C.

Ah, yes, the old concern trolling ‘for the friend’s own good,’ turning to an advice columnist for backup; this letter seems to pretty unambiguously suggest that the family is justified in being ‘upset’ by the friend’s choice of life partner. It’s sort of surprising the letter writer is even consulting Hax, since the opinions in this letter feel very clearly formed, unless this is some sort of devious plan involving casually leaving the paper open to this letter and the expected approving response to say ‘see!’ to the friend.

Unfortunately, these kinds of attitudes are distressingly common. People who marry people with disabilities are told that they are ‘brave’ for marrying their partners and staying with them, and they’re provided with plenty of outs for escaping the relationship; when things get tough, they’re encouraged to abandon their partners ‘because no one would blame you,’ and all problems in the relationship get reduced to the disabilities. And, of course, people preparing to marry people with disabilities are told that they should ‘reconsider’ and ‘think seriously about’ the relationship. The spectre of caregiving is raised to terrify people into thinking ‘oh, right, I don’t actually love this person! Thanks for saving me!’

And Hax’ response illustrated why I love Carolyn Hax:

Of course he is.

And of course a chronic illness should be a serious consideration — your friend would be doing this woman no favors if he didn’t take her prognosis heavily into account — but for many people it’s not a make-or-break consideration.

The way you pose your question, I’m not sure whether the “difficult road” you anticipate is the multiple sclerosis or the disapproving family. Either way, you’re right. However, there are plenty of people who think the toughest road would be the one traveled without the person they love.

Now, it’s not as if illness spins jerks into gold; if your friend’s family has legitimate concerns about the fiancee’s character, then I do hope they’ll spell this out for him.

But if your friend feels, eyes open, that his fiancee is the one he wants at his side, and if his family’s objection is to her illness (with the “few other issues” thrown out there as a fig leaf), then all I can say is, shame on them. Even though I utterly loathe that expression.

People are very fond of judging each other’s marriages. It honestly seems to be a bit of a national pasttime, whether people are judging people for the ceremony, or who is getting married, or changing names (or not changing names), or whether there are children involved, or any number of things. It seems to be generally socially acceptable to meddle in someone’s marriage planning and to make pronouncements about how a marriage is ‘doomed from the start.’ And these comments often come from family. When disabilities are involved, those comments tend to ramp up, and there can be an undertone of extreme ugliness that can be very revealing about social attitudes and the beliefs people feel it’s appropriate to air.

Here, the family has decided they don’t like the fiance, maybe because she has MS, maybe because of something else. The point is that the letterwriter seems to think the MS is sufficient reason to call off the marriage; how could the letterwriter’s friend be expected to marry a woman with MS? They’re in for a ‘hard road’! Everyone knows that people with chronic illnesses shouldn’t get married (and of course that they never marry each other).  The letterwriter seems to be hitting Carolyn Hax up to justify ableist beliefs; to me, it seems clear that the ‘hard road’ referenced isn’t dealing with the family, but, rather, being married to a disabled woman, and Hax didn’t let D.C. off the hook.

I know that at least some of our readers (and contributors) are married or in relationships and encounter these kinds of attitudes about their relationships; how do you counter them? Do you counter them?

Dear Imprudence: I Think You Missed One

Carolyn Hax recently got a letter from a pair of concerned grandparents asking about their granddaughter’s sartorial choices:

Dear Carolyn:

My husband and I are concerned about our 15-year-old granddaughter. She is not the slightest bit interested in makeup or the stylish clothes most teens like. She prefers basketball shorts and a T-shirt over her bra, then one or two more logo T-shirts or a football jersey over that. We are also concerned that she acts more like a 10-year-old, watching “SpongeBob,” playing with Legos at the Lego store, wanting to eat from the Teletubbies plate I have for a 2-year-old!

The parents seem oblivious. Her mom has made comments that she can’t get her to pick out cute clothes, but still, they are the ones who buy her the boy clothes. They even bought her men’s moccasins recently. Our 6-year-old grandson commented that she had on shoes like his dad. What do you make of this?

—Concerned Grandparents

She responds:

A 15-year-old! Watching “SpongeBob”! I’d contact the authorities, but they’re all watching “Family Guy.”

The most benign interpretation of your facts says your granddaughter has boyish tastes — and you need a stern lesson in not judging people.

The most alarming (or maybe alarmist?) interpretation is that your granddaughter is resisting maturity, her sexual maturity in particular, possibly in response to trauma — and that you need a stern lesson in recognizing pain instead of tripping over the football jersey chosen to conceal it.

If it’s the latter, that’s a matter for professional guidance.

But both extremes (and everything in between) have the same implications for you: This girl needs grandparents who love, accept and embrace her for who she is vs. worry she’s some kind of freak.

She doesn’t wear pink. Get over it, please, and position yourself to be her advocate no matter what her T-shirts say. Whether she’s a healthy kid with upstream tastes or she’s an unhappy kid screaming for help is something she’ll eventually reveal to the people she trusts. Your responses to her choices will go a long way toward determining whether you’re part of that group or not.

Her response seems pretty solid to me. She stresses that the granddaughter’s preferred mode of dress isn’t really the business of her grandparents and that she could probably benefit from more support and less critical commentary. But Hax missed something. Clothing is very much a part of gender performance and exploration and it seems entirely possible to me that their granddaughter may simply be transgender, or exploring butch and other masculine relationships to gender. For me, playing with clothing was one of the first ways I started exploring my gender identity, because clothing is so gendered. Luckily, I had a supportive father who didn’t fuss about what I did, or didn’t, wear.

Lots of teen girls aren’t interested in makeup or ‘stylish clothes’ for any number of reasons, and a lack of interest in these things doesn’t suggest anything, at all, about a teen’s gender identity, relationship with gender, or sexual orientation, but it is something that crept into my mind while reading this letter. If, and that is a big if, since I don’t know this girl, if she is transgender, that last paragraph becomes especially critical. It’s possible that her immediate family is already supporting her, but no one wants to talk to the grandparents about it because they are so judgy, and as a result, no one really knows what to say to them when they decide to start policing what their granddaughter wears.

As awareness about transgender issues increases, more and more transgender people are being recognised at young ages, which means that there are families all over the place navigating situations like this one. And a lot of those families, I know from personal interactions with transgender teens, really don’t know what to do with judgy family members who don’t understand the situation. The family is more focused on helping the teen explore gender than on making other members of the family feel comfortable, which is entirely appropriate, and that means dodging awkward questions and deflecting conversations that some people aren’t ready to have.

Hax underscored the important thing: No matter what is or isn’t going on with the granddaughter, she needs accepting, loving, caring grandparents, and nothing less. And she needs parents who don’t try to pressure her into buying cute clothes, but who buy her the clothes she feels comfortable in, whatever those might be. She needs a family that supports her and allows her to develop into her own person, whoever that may be.

By the way, I still play with Legos. And I know lots of adults who enjoy Spongebob.

Dear Imprudence: Group Needs Don’t Trump Individual Needs

A somewhat old column from Carloyn Hax brings up a common source of family conflict:

Dear Carolyn:

My conservative, mid-80s grandma literally had a heart attack the day she learned I am gay and marrying my partner. This sounds like sitcom fare, but it isn’t. I know there’s some reason I shouldn’t feel as guilty as everyone is causing me to feel . . . but I figure you’ll be able to articulate it better than I could.

Don’t Laugh

Carloyn’s response is right on the money:

Well, no one is “causing” you to feel guilty, any more than your big fat gay wedding “caused” your grandma to have a heart attack. Your guilt comes from you, and her shock comes from her.

You both have your closely held beliefs. Hers is that couples of the same sex should vanish, not marry. Yours is that good descendants don’t do things they know will displease their elders.

If only because of their negative effects on your and her health, both of these beliefs need to go. In fact, they’re strikingly similar views, at their foundations: You both seem to believe, to different degrees, that group needs trump individual needs. Your grandma believes heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation (at least in public) — and thinks it’s your duty to set your needs aside to reflect that.

And she rubbed off on you a bit, as will happen in families. You feel that responsibility, and feel bad that your choices didn’t reflect it.

But your choice reflects a reasonable calculation, one I believe society makes now with increasing frequency: The benefit to her peace of mind in your staying closeted is minuscule compared with the harm to your peace of mind in staying closeted.

On a typical day, unless she’s in a homosexual relationship herself, she doesn’t have to think about what gay couples are doing with their lives. On a typical day, if you weren’t allowed to share an honest life with the person you love, you’d think almost of nothing else.

So there’s only one tenable solution: You marry, and she deals with it. I’m sorry the latter possibly involves a cardiac event, but her heart and mind are far more responsible for that than yours are.

We’ve singled out Carolyn Hax for praise before, and this response increases my liking for her. She recognises that many people want to respect and honour their elders, but points out that concealing your identity is disrespectful to yourself, and hiding your relationship is far more damaging than offending your family members with your very existence. That ‘calculation’ so many people make to decide that their needs are less important and less valuable is a common one, and a false one. Like Hax says, being closeted is far more difficult than having to deal with the fact that some of your family members may have a sexual orientation that differs from your own.

We are trained to perform for the group, to smooth things over for the comfort of others. Breaking out of that mindset is hard, but important. We do ourselves no services in pretending to be people we’re not simply because other people are uncomfortable with us, and one of the best ways to shift social attitudes is to refuse to hide, for those who are able to expose themselves that way. Allowing your needs to be subsumed by the needs of the group can have far reaching consequences, including in social justice movements, where people are often told to wait their turn or to set their needs aside ‘for the greater good’ by people who refuse to recognise the urgency of their needs.

Don’t Laugh is under no obligation to make his grandmother more comfortable with who he is. If she can’t deal with it, well, so be it. And he’s also, as Hax points out, not responsible for how she reacts to his identity (although for her own health, I hope she doesn’t have future heart incidents). Bigoted family members aren’t owed anything, and he’s not required to treat her with ‘respect’ if she can’t treat him, his partner, and his relationship with respect.

With time, either she will get over it, or she won’t. The letter writer isn’t responsible for either outcome.