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Carolyn Hax: Approach wife about self-injury with concern, compassion

By Carolyn Hax Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: Is there anything I can do to get my wife to suspend a habit for a few months? A family wedding is coming up, and she has the full outfit, will be getting her hair done, all the details. The crowning touch for me would be if she could stop picking at her fingers long enough for them to heal – they are often bloody as the result of this compulsive behavior.

This has been a longtime issue for me, and my attempts at expressing concern have never been well-received. Basically I’ve been told, angrily, to “butt out.” Is there a way I can approach this?

– Frustrated and Concerned

You know there isn’t, right? Not for “a few months” and certainly not because you’re embarrassed about her appearing picked and bloodied at a family wedding.

Any concern you express has to be for her well-being, or else that concern will sound self-motivated and disingenuous.

And it has to be for her enduring emotional good, not for temporary cosmetic convenience.

I will assume the best, that you’ve made it a question about her appearance because you’ve tried everything else and your frustration is just leaking through. The compulsion you describe certainly is disturbing, and your wife’s defensiveness inappropriate for an intimate relationship.

But if your approach all along has been from the angle of appearances, then her defensiveness – while still hostile and of no practical use – makes a bit more sense. Picking to the point of self-injury is a diagnosable mental-health issue, not her choice to make herself (or you) look bad. To focus on how this behavior of hers looks to others only shames her where she most needs your support.

If you haven’t made the mental-health concern, plus a liberal helping of compassion, the foundation of your appeal for her to get help, then please do so. Her regular doctor can steer her to appropriate care.

If you’ve tried this to no avail, if you’ve encouraged her steadily toward simple steps to ease her own suffering, then what’s left now is just to love her, frailties and all – for the duration and for special events (where the only one likely to sweat her manicure is you). Stress fires up compulsions like this, where acceptance calms them down.

Dear Carolyn: My husband thinks it’s rude when I tell my parents I don’t want to do something they suggest. Naturally I dislike his approach, which is to dance around the idea without committing (“We’ll have to see what our schedule is”). My mom won’t stop making suggestions unless I give her a definite no and the hardest no I can give her is to tell her something doesn’t interest me.

I assume we’re both a little wrong here, but any other thoughts that will help us figure out how to best respect the other person?

– A Hard vs. a Soft No

Sometimes the best way for two people to respect each other is to recognize not that you’re both a little wrong, but that you’re both a little right.

While we’ll-have-to-see-ism makes me cringe, he could be right about some roughness toward your mom that you don’t notice. Maybe there’s an edge to your voice, maybe you’re a beat too quick to shoot her ideas down. It can’t hurt to rethink what you currently do.

And you could be right that your mom responds better to a definite no. The “dance” is by no means universally kind.

It’s your mother, so it’s your view that takes precedence; another element of mutual respect is for both of you to recognize who gets the last word in any given situation, and to concede it to that person accordingly. But that doesn’t mean you can’t soften your delivery while using your exact same words to say no.

Hello, Carolyn: My boyfriend/partner of three years has narrow interests and isn’t very adventurous. I’m the kind of person who thrives on doing, trying and learning new things; I’m always “game.” Is there a way to encourage him to step out of his comfort zone without expecting him to change who he is fundamentally and causing resentment? He has become more rigid, not less so, since we got together. I don’t know if he is just less eager to please now that the giddy phase has passed or if he is reacting to my enthusiasm by digging in his heels.

– Game

If it’s the latter, then you can add childishness to the “cons” column, no?

Adventure-readiness, apparently, is key to how you define yourself. In that case, the next question isn’t, “How can I try to change him while kidding myself that I’m not trying to change him,” but instead, “Why choose him as my partner?”

I foresee two possible answers: that you aren’t sure anymore, or that you value him in ways that make adventure secondary. Either one serves to answer your question for you, if you treat it as your guide to what you do next.

Email Carolyn at, follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at

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