You have your mother's temper

I hated my mother for not controlling her rages, and now I find myself turning into her.

Published May 24, 2000 1:00PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue,

My mother had a horrible temper. Whenever she was stressed, which was most of the time -- she would just slap the nearest child. I hated her during childhood, and we've never been close, but I try to be nice to my mother, because I know she regrets her mistakes. I always knew I had inherited her bad temper, and in my mid-30s, when I married a wonderful man, we had a beautiful baby. It's a good marriage, but as time passes I realize that, in spite of the stack of parenting manuals I've read, I am slowly turning into my mother. Every now and then, I get mad at my sweet innocent baby and feel the urge to slap. Most of the time I just grind my teeth and clench my fists until it goes away, but I have lost control a few times and tugged at the baby's ear or pulled her hair until she started to cry.

This child is the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I feel lost and worthless. I can't imagine how I can overcome this problem. Would my husband and child be better off without me? Is no mother better than a hurtful mother?


Dear Anxious,

Temper is, in part, hereditary: Some people are placid, others are volcanic. But it can be controlled, and you can learn to do it. Make this a project. First, make sure you're well-rested and getting the right nutrition. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can make you edgier. Second, alert your husband to the problem and ask him to tell you when he notices testiness. This will give you an early warning that it's time to back off. Third, see a psychologist, preferably one who is familiar with this problem.

Most parents have encountered this problem: monumental frustration, followed by the unspeakable urge to shake or slap a child. It's everyone's shameful secret. But the urge must be controlled. And it helps to make some changes to keep one's self away from the edge.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I met this young man online who changed my life. I was bored, stuck in a boring relationship; he dared me to do new things. I broke up the relationship. Now (this is the problem) he is completely in love with me. I have no idea why -- I am much older. I love him as a person, as a brilliant, sweet, kind man, but not romantically. I am not at all attracted to him physically. He is good for me in so many respects, except the romantic. But I have trouble drawing a clear line in the sand, simply because I don't want to hurt his feelings. He is the most persistent, loyal, dedicated person I know. What should I do?

Confused in Seattle

Dear Confused,

You're not attracted to him romantically and this is a definitive feeling, not to be ignored, not to be set aside. You don't owe him anything except honesty. So be honest. Refuse to be romantic, and if he persists, then put the friendship on ice for a while.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 24-year-old graduate student living in Midwestern USA. I have known "John" for almost two years, and we've been living together for one of them. He has two kids and a wife, who he has failed to divorce, even though a reconciliation is out of the question for them. He says it's too emotionally draining to do the paperwork. Meanwhile, his wife continues to call constantly and ask him for advice and for help with everyday problems. I love "John" very much but this is getting to be very hard on me. I feel so hurt and angry that he insists on keeping her in his life this way. If he doesn't want to reconcile, then why won't he move on? The path I once saw with this man is no longer in sight. Am I being naive about the situation and their relationship, or am I right to move out and move on until their divorce is settled?


Dear Naive,

You're not, not really, no more than any of the rest of us. You love a man, you trust him and you go the extra mile. But you've gone five miles and he hasn't moved. Don't say another word to him about the divorce or about your anger and hurt. He is in a state of confusion and your moving out will help him resolve his situation. Do it firmly, kindly, quickly.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Hi. I'm a 29-year-old guy, and I met a 24-year-old grad student a few months ago, and we hit it off really well. We've seen each other about a dozen times over the last three months. The trouble is, she wants me to attend her graduation ceremony next month, and I don't want to -- I play on a softball team that has a game that morning. I know it sounds silly, but it means a lot to me to get out there and play every week. She says I can just miss this game and come to her graduation because it will make her happy and this will be a chance to meet her family. But I like playing ball, and I don't like graduation ceremonies. I like this woman, I really do, but this relationship is just starting, and doesn't she end up just as graduated whether I attend the ceremony or not? I was stunned at how important this seems to her -- she cried, a lot, when I told her I didn't want to go. What do you think I should do, Mr. Blue?

Softball Guy

Dear Softball,

Tell the woman to jump in the lake and go play your game. And find a girlfriend who takes softball more seriously. Good grief. The nerve.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a married woman, 40, with two fabulous kids, 13 and 11. I have been married for 17 years to a man who is a good provider. As our marriage has progressed he has become increasingly hostile. I have put up with this for the sake of the children. Recently, I met a man online and have started an affair. He is kind, gentle, understanding. Everything my husband isn't. While I realize there is no future with this man, it has opened up something inside of me. This man has woken up a part of me I thought was dead. I can no longer bear the thought of living the rest of my life without feeling these things, caught in a dead relationship. If I left my husband, my children would suffer terribly, their lifestyle compromised greatly. I have not worked in over 15 years. I am at a loss as to what to do.

Totally Confused

Dear Totally,

The hostility in your marriage is more than likely the work of both your husband and yourself, and at this point, you really should try to learn more about what happened between you and what your role was. Self-knowledge may come in handy someday. And the best way to obtain it right now is through marriage counseling with your husband. Surely the situation deserves at least your cursory attention: to sit down, with a professional, and try to listen to your partner of 17 years, the father of your children, tell what has happened between the two of you. If the marriage must end now, at least let it be amicable on your part. Practice some kindness and understanding at home. You're right that the financial consequences can be rough for a woman and the kids, but save that worry for later. Right now, take a close look at the marriage. Don't throw 17 years out the window without at least paying your respects.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 25 and very interested in a 30-year-old man. We've gone out on a handful of dates, all of which went swimmingly. We had fun talking and laughing, but there's been no hand-holding or kissing yet. He is a recovering alcoholic (sober for four years) and has two children who he sees every week, and he works long hours. So he's got a busy, complicated life. Most of the times that we've seen each other, I've initiated the idea, and he has agreed happily, but he's never called me up, totally unprompted, and said, "Hey, let's get together." Part of me thinks that if he were interested, he'd show more initiative. But other parts of me think, variously, that he might be open to a relationship but doesn't have the time to actively pursue, or that he's got some baggage, or he's enjoying being chased. Should I continue to pursue him? At what point do I say, "OK, it's his turn, he's gotta start chasing back."

Eager Beaver

Dear Eager,

It sounds as if you've come to that point. You're feeling some uncertainty and wondering if you're getting ahead of yourself, so now is the time to stop picking up that phone and dialing that number. Let him dial your number. He's a grown-up guy and capable of making these little social arrangements. If you should get into a relationship in which you are always the instigator and arranger and prompter, you'll regret it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've always been bad at breakups, and now is no exception. I'm in a relationship with a wonderful man. He showers me with flowers, tickets to the symphony and his undivided attention. The problem is, although he is dear to me and I appreciate his warmth and generosity, I don't feel strongly about him and am certain I never will. However, when I attempt to communicate this to him, I cannot get the words out. The thought of hurting him makes me feel sad and guilty. Mr. Blue, how do I let him know my feelings in a loving way that will minimize the hurt?

Avoiding Heartbreaks

Dear Avoiding,

I'm not sure there's a shortcut here. Somehow the gentleman has conceived the existence of a relationship between the two of you, and he is throwing himself at your feet. Are you worried about hurting him? Or are you reluctant to lose the flowers and symphony tickets and the attention? Tell him that you have no romantic feelings for him. Don't apologize for the fact, don't try to explain it, don't waffle, don't weasel. Just tell him the truth.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Is there something wrong with me? I haven't dated for two years. Before that, I had a boyfriend, which was wonderful, and then he moved far away and, frankly, I felt great by myself. For the first time, I felt I was really OK with who I was. And I don't feel like I'm missing anything. But I'm not getting any younger. I do have the desire to settle down and start a family. It's just that, well, I don't really have any desire to date. Is there something seriously wrong with me?


Dear J.,

Doesn't sound all that bad to me, feeling great and accepting yourself for who you are. Of course, if you want to have a family, you'll probably want to have it with someone else, and you'll probably meet that someone by dating, unless your family can arrange a marriage for you, but it's perfectly reasonable to not want to do it right now. Maybe you're a true romantic and you dislike the marketing/shopping aspect of dating. Maybe you just need the time off. Enjoy it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Recently, I broke up with someone I didn't feel I was in love with -- he felt like a friend I was having sex with. We live down the street from each other and share a dog. Since the breakup we've decided to maintain joint ownership of our pooch and to still hang out as friends. However, the hanging out hasn't been going well, now that he is branching out socially. I feel horrible. I miss him, and the drop-off and pickup of the dog can be extremely painful. Is this a normal feeling after a breakup? It's been over a month. We are both 30 years old and, as with everyone in this world, we are still trying to figure our lives out.


Dear Dog-tied,

Sounds quite normal to me, and of course the proximity makes it tougher. And the dog isn't helping either. One of these days, the dog will smell faintly of strange perfume and will look up at you with guilt in his big brown eyes and you'll know he's been putting his head into someone else's lap. He's been sniffing the underwear she drops on the bathroom floor. He's been observing them kiss. A dog is going to take sides in a situation like this. Breaking up is never easy, but I hope that when three months have passed, it's easier than it is now.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 31-year-old graduate student, married to a pretty, intelligent research scientist, and we now have a gorgeous 3-month-old daughter. Shortly after we got married, a side of my wife started showing that I hadn't seen before. She gets intensely frustrated. If something sets her off, she goes around the house slamming doors, throwing things and complaining to herself about how fat and ugly she is, and how she knows I'm going to leave her and take the kid. This is happening several times a week, and can last most of the day. She has started talking sarcastically to our daughter as well if she spits up or has a dirty diaper. I don't want to be divorced, but life is pretty bad right now. Any thoughts?


Dear Melancholy,

Don't let this verbal abuse go any further. Speak to your scientist, when she is pretty and charming, and ask her how she feels about her spells of temper (using her own name for them if she has one). Listen to what she says. And then at an appropriate time, ask if she would like to work on this problem of explosiveness. Probably your wife was an abused child herself: Help her find a counselor with experience in child abuse. If a gentle and patient approach triggers an outburst, take the baby and run.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am happily married to a caring, honest woman who understands and accepts me as well as anyone ever has. I want kids. She says she does too, but almost three years have passed since we first started talking about them and she seems no closer to seriously thinking about it. We are both professionals, both making in the $40s, both 29, and our parents aren't getting any younger. I am afraid that pushing the issue will only prove my worst suspicions to be true: that my wife may not want kids, now or ever. I'll be darned if I know what to do.


Dear Childless,

She says she wants kids. Believe her. Part of her concern is when. You are in a hurry; she is not. When you have a child, she will be the mother, right? Being a mother is a bigger deal than being a father, beginning with pregnancy, and continuing through labor and delivery, and not ending, ever. To properly raise a child is an enormous commitment of time and self, and she has about nine years to gird herself for the project. Wait for her; it's OK to ask her how she will know when the time is right, but listen to her, and don't press.

Dear Mr. Blue,

At 37, my career is great, I have a nicely feathered nest, good friends, but I'm at a crossroads with my boyfriend. He makes me laugh, he's the handsomest man I have ever seen. But he was recently unemployed for a couple months, and in that time, he got into heavy drinking. He had no savings, he had trouble paying his rent, he wouldn't find a part-time job to pay the bills. He finally took a job he knew he'd be miserable in. I am scared about his ability to handle life's problems, other than by drinking and feeling like a victim. He has tried several therapists, and has attended a few AA meetings, but he eventually loses interest. I'm tired of being the supporter. I love him, he loves me, but I'm not sure if that's enough. I have told him "enough is enough," and then I feel guilty so I don't leave. Should I?


Dear Pragmatic,

You're tired, love isn't enough, you're ready to leave and so you should. And don't look back. He's an alcoholic and you can't fix this; you can only get run over. He needs help, but a marriage is not therapy, and you won't change him except by leaving him. Do it now, or he will destroy you along with himself. This situation is only going to get worse.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 26 and an attorney with a disability since birth. I use a wheelchair and require assistance with most tasks of daily living. I am grateful for what I have accomplished in my life, but I'm lonely. I have never had a significant relationship with a woman and none has expressed any degree of romantic interest in me, just a couple dates, nothing significant. I don't hold out much hope. I feel like ever having a girlfriend is about as likely as my leaping from this chair to tango.

I can distract myself from loneliness by reading, writing, going to a movie, etc. I don't ask friends to introduce me to anyone because that seems awkward and I don't go to any singles function because I don't want to be the token freak. I also don't talk about this much because I have a Midwestern aversion to self-pity. I think I'm a decent guy who is articulate and thoughtful; if nothing else, I'd make an interesting date for an evening. I know my experience is typical for many people with disabilities, but that doesn't make things any easier. How do I keep myself from becoming a cynical, sexually frustrated bachelor with no company except books and the television? I know my happiness doesn't hinge on romance, but I would someday like to experience the realm of love and sex and just feel a little more like I'm part of the world.

A Hopeless Romantic

Dear Hopeless,

You are an intelligent, disciplined man who has a crippling physical disability. You are not a freak. You are not an alcoholic, a con artist, or a leech. Go make friends with women. The narcissistic ones who can't see you for who you are will not make good partners anyway. The mature, sensitive ones who are interested in what's inside a person will be able to appreciate you, no matter what. The only way to handle this is to completely ignore your wheelchair, rise above it and crash through barriers. Show curiosity about other people, especially interesting women, and let friendship do its work.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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