Murphy’s Love: Advice on Intimacy and Relationships

March 8, 2011

Hi Stacy,
I was in a very intense relationship on and off for nearly eight years with a woman who I cared for very deeply. We had a child when we were very young and obviously that made it seem like staying together was more of a necessity than a choice. During the last couple years together, we had periods of “opening” the relationship and seeing other people. It became apparent that her other interest was something more serious than perhaps either of us were prepared to admit initially. On a couple occasions, I became physically abusive, which was frightening for everyone and unprecedented. One thing led to another, and they now live together in a house with our son, and I live in a community house with roommates.

Now, I’ve suddenly become very lonely, and while I appreciate many things about my new life (no fights or drama, no crippling feelings of obligation), I realized that my relationship with my son has been destroyed. I am definitely running from the pain of being replaced, the idea that this other man can come along and succeed in all the places where I failed miserably. This makes me want to avoid the whole situation, not to mention the fact that I am scared of my own anger and never know when it might flare up. My counselor definitely thinks I should stay away from my ex, and so far I have.

So what’s appropriate? To stay away from this new family completely and let them live their life? Or to try to be a part of my son’s life in a more substantial way than just through the pocketbook?
-Lonely and Confused

Dear L&C:
I can only imagine how painful this letter was to write – your concern for your son and grief over the loss of that relationship is clearly heartfelt, and your frustration about only serving as a financier in his life is truly relatable. It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to give you son the “gift” of your distance after making an honest self-assessment about your anger. Further, your willingness to see a counselor and consider your feelings about this – rather than simply ignoring them for years on end – is evidence of the hope you have for the future, even if it’s currently buried under some other fiery emotions.

I do respect your counselor’s recommendation of staying away from the family for now. It sounds like you are tackling some big-ticket issues in therapy, like anger management and grief work, and those things take time. Perhaps the end result may be finding yourself in family therapy or relational counseling with your ex, simply for the purpose of working on your relationship with your son. If and when you feel comfortable, and your ex is willing, the guidance of a neutral third party (I would not recommend that you and your ex see your counselor; she is your support system and should not be compromised) could help you both find the non-combative communication skills to make it possible for you to be in your son’s life again.

Dear Stacy:
How do you know when a relationship is worth saving? I’m just so tired of the fighting. The spastic moves between the highs and lows in our relationship are giving me whiplash.
-Back-and-Forth in Burleith

Dear Back-and-Forth:
You didn’t give me much to go on here, but the short and sweet answer is no, unfortunately, there is no universal standard for determining whether a relationship is “worth saving.” It often comes down to measuring the couple’s emotional input versus output.

Are you putting in more than you are getting out? Is that something you can adjust? It sounds like maybe you have tried so much – fought so much – you just don’t have the fuel to keep going. Are you facing a particularly rocky road due to external factors right now, or does this relationship seem drawn to the rough terrain? I will quit with the driving metaphors, but not before suggesting that you consider some roadside assistance in the form of therapy, a couples retreat, pastoral counseling with a clergyperson, etc. An impartial third-party perspective (NOT your friends and family) might help you both figure out why your relationship has taken this turn.

But first, please reflect on your gut reaction to my proposal that you get help. In my work with couples I’ve seen a pattern in which the two people are so accustomed to the whiplash between good days and bad, that they no longer believe a happy medium is even possible. As such, they don’t do the things that can support that middle space. You were drawn to one another for a reason. In my experience, that reason is often to help one another heal something from your past relationships. We have to break the addiction to harming ourselves just so we can feel connected when the good days come around. Outside help can provide that calm space for healing and if you are resisting the idea out of hand, perhaps you might take the time to question whether the idea of true healing feels threatening and why.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. Her website is This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to

The Romance and Wonder of Keswick Hall

February 23, 2011

Coming up the winding driveway, just across the railroad track and beyond a horse pasture, I was greeted by a small vineyard and a grand, three-story resort house. The sun was setting just over the Spanish tile roof and the Southwest Mountains lay stoically in the distance along an endless, green golf course. I walked into the front doors of Keswick Hall and was greeted by the hum of intimate conversations, the crackling of a wood fire and the clinking of glasses in a wide, open parlor. The parlor was warmly lit, elegant and modest, with a tin of warm cider sitting on heated bricks by the entrance. In front of the fire, couples were reading, talking, playing chess, enjoying drinks. It was just before dinnertime. This was the definition of a romantic retreat.

Sitting on 600 acres, this sprawling country estate in the lush foothills of Keswick, Virginia is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets on the East Coast. With the very best of comfort and accommodations, couples spa treatments, exceptional wines both local and international, and world-class cuisine, Keswick Hall brings together all the luxuries of the world’s finest resorts with the distinct character of the Virginia region. Thomas Jefferson called this area of country the “Eden of the United States,” and Keswick Hall holds true to this claim, offering the most sinfully delicious experiences you and your better half will have this side of the Atlantic.

The accommodations are worth the trip itself. The rooms are bright and thoughtfully furnished, the wide, soft beds entice even the well rested, and a pouch of aromatic bath salts sit by the tub. The windows open to pastoral vistas on all sides. A plate of gourmet cheeses and a bottle of house wine await new visitors with a personal note from the staff. These are perhaps small details, but the intricate cares taken by the resort add up. It is this very attention to detail, this individualizing of each guest that makes Keswick stand out. You are not just another guest at Keswick, but a valued member of the family for the duration of your stay.

“There’s a very comfortable beauty about Keswick,” says Patricia Castelli, Keswick Hall’s resident historian. “There’s an incredible sense of elegance, and it’s also so comfortable. It strikes the right balance, which is what makes people so astounded by it.” And Keswick has surely astounded plenty of guests— Condé Nast deemed them the number one small resort in the country in 2010.

Keswick feels so intimate because it’s a very real part of its surrounding community. “The estate has been here for 100 years,” says Castelli, “and its history ads weight to its authenticity. You’re discovering an area rather than just coming to a hotel—and it’s such an outstanding place to discover. A lot of people don’t know we exist, and after they visit they wonder why they didn’t know about us before.”

The grounds offer a wide range of activities, from exploring the vineyards to fishing, to even archery. But the highlight is the Arnold Palmer Signature 18-hole golf course, which compliments the landscape as if it is a natural part of the mountain range.

The course is an Autobon certified sanctuary, maintaining strict standards of resources and limiting pesticides. Keswick wants the course and the estate to be as agreeable to wildlife as possible, and they go well out of their way to make the range as environmentally friendly as it is beautiful.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen of Keswick’s Fossett’s Restaurant, Executive Chef Dean Maupin brings together the bounty of the local farmland with effusive vision and international inspiration to create frighteningly delicious cuisine. The food is delicate and elegant without being fussy. During the harvest months, most of the produce comes from the estate’s garden, run by the Chef himself.

The menu is seasonal and changes frequently, but during the winter months you can expect such offerings as smoked trout with avocado and apple, beet salad with citrus vinaigrette and olives, pear and pecorino ravioli, pappardelle with braised lamb shoulder and tapenade, duck breast with truffle risotto and Madeira jus, or parsnip quiche with sage, fontina and thick, fresh bacon. The food is, quite simply, as good as food gets. Each ingredient is played to its absolute perfection, each dish is perfectly balanced, and the kitchen keeps in touch with its environment, seasonally and locally.

While Keswick certainly offers the best of all general amenities—a fitness center, indoor and outdoor pools, billiards, a library, golf, tennis, horseback riding, personal and couples massage sessions, a world class wine cellar—this is all only the surface of Keswick’s allure.

Keswick Hall shines not because it allows you to escape from the surrounding area, but because it engrosses you in it, reminding you of the beauty and richness of the Virginia homeland. It invites guests to fall in love with its character, through the landscape, the food, the activities, and the memories you will surely create. There is a gentle, serene beauty about the Virginia countryside, one that is perfectly tailored for a couple looking for a quiet and intimate experience. Keswick Hall is a quiet pinnacle of romance and relaxation, and now is the perfect time of year to fall into its warm, generous arms.

For more information, visit [gallery ids="99595,105014,105021,105018" nav="thumbs"]

Revolutionary Eating

February 10, 2011

We have all heard the cautions to avoid processed foods—those grocery items with long, incomprehensible ingredient lists. However, the industrial processing of otherwise healthy foods can be just as harmful; for instance, when sugar is added to bread, or when whole wheat flour is refined to white flour and loses most of its fiber, calcium, and more.

Even if we have not read the nutritional tales of Michael Pollan or John Robbins, we intuitively sense that most real food can be found in the peripheral aisles of our grocery store: the produce, seafood, dairy and meat sections. We further know (especially if we HAVE read Pollan and Robbins) to stay alert even when we shop these outside aisles.

What we don’t really understand is how much of our “food” is not really food at all.

Unfortunately, many of the food-like substances and chemical additives approved by the FDA are only meant to be consumed in VERY limited quantities. But we consume them rampantly. Many Americans take in more calories than are healthy, and a significant percentage of them are in processed foods. Each of these additives now appear in thousands of products!

As the Center for Science in the Public Interest puts it: “Shopping was easy when food came from farms. Now, factory-made foods have made chemical additives a significant part of our diet.” Those inside aisles are fairly new in the history of man. They present a dizzying array of choices. But if you take the time to read the label of an item before you put it in your cart, you’ll see that many of the choices are not our choice.

All along the inside aisles, our food now contains a number of FDA-approved emulsifiers, deemed “necessary” to prevent our industrial food from separating: ingredients like soy lecithin, mono-glycerides, polysorbates, and sorbitan monostearates.

We have a choice of pH-controlling agents (lactic acid, citric acid, ammonium hydroxide, or sodium carbonate), leavening agents (monocalcium phosphate or calcium carbonate), and anti-caking agents (calcium silicate or silicon dioxide) in our food. Likewise, the market provides us with over a dozen preservatives (including BHA and BHT), a dozen sweeteners (among them, the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup), ten fat replacers (e.g., olestra), and a handful of firming agents and humectants.

We are fed flavor enhancers (monosodium glutamate, hydrolized soy protein, disodium guanylate) and stabilizers (gelatin, pectin, guar gum, carrageenan and zanthan gum) to give us that familiar “mouth-feel” and remind us that we are eating food.

And last but not least are the color additives, including lovely Blue No. 2. As the FDA’s own website says: “Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat…without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown.” Sound good?

Even if we spend all of our time in the outside aisles, we should be paying close attention. The World Cancer Study, the Nurses’ Study and Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future all caution that animal-based diets are high in saturated fat and are correlated with chronic degenerative diseases including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes and some cancers. Conversely, vegetarian diets are associated with reduced risks for these diseases.

Now, I’m not preaching that we should all put away the steak knives and chew on lettuce for the rest of our lives. But we will live longer, healthier and more vital lives if we eat more vegetables, fruits and plants.

When we do visit the meat section, we can slash our saturated fats by 85% by selecting free-range, grass-fed, or organic beef and poultry. Conventional animals eat corn and soy (look out for deceiving descriptions like “vegetarian fed” and “100% angus” and “100% natural chicken”).

Even though there is a legion of books and articles exhorting us to eat our vegetables, and to eat more plants, Americans take only around 5% of their caloric intake in the form of fruits and vegetables. We should all spend more time in the produce aisle. Know, however, that produce that is not certified organic can contain one or more of hundreds of pesticides that have been approved for use by the EPA.

In order to ensure that the produce you buy does not contain pesticides, you should purchase certified organic produce from your grocer, from a farmer in your area, or at a CSA pick-up near you. Or you can buy uncertified produce from a farmer you know whose production methods you trust.

Cleo braver is the owner and operator of Cottingham Farm in Easton, Maryland, a certified organic grower of heirloom vegetables and herbs. In a former life she practiced envimronmental law, and she is now devoted to highlighting the nexus between protection of the land, the Chesapeake Bay, human health, and economic resources.

Murphy’s Love

February 9, 2011

Dear Stacy,

I have been married six years and have two kids: a daughter who is four and a son who will be three soon. On the whole, I am happy with the way my husband and I are co-parenting. He is really involved in the day-to-day around the house, even though we made the decision that I would stop working until the kids get to kindergarten. My issue is that he parents our kids very differently, and not just because of the age difference.

I see him being much more affectionate and careful with our daughter, and treating our son like he’s much older than he is. For example, he expects our 2-year-old son to use a fork without making a mess, but caters to our daughter’s every whim, never making her clean up her own toys or messes she makes, not even in an age-appropriate way. He is much gentler to our daughter but doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for our son when he has a boo-boo or needs comforting. I am playing armchair psychologist, but I think this has something to do with the way his parents treated him (very strict) and his two brothers growing up. Anytime I bring this up he takes it as criticism and refuses to talk about it, let alone change his behavior. I’m afraid we’re raising a bratty girl and a lonely boy, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

-Fearing a gender-biased household

Dear Fearing,

First, I want to commend you for paying attention to this dynamic. With the associated chaos of a young family-of-four, many of us might avoid such careful observation in favor of getting more sleep or just zoning out in front of the TV. That being said, the hyperparenting phenomenon that is overtaking our playgrounds and schools has its benefits and its costs. Your kids have two functioning role models in their lives and are not being abused – this really is a plus no matter how you look at it.

You are connecting Husband’s behavior to his family of origin, and as a mental health practitioner, I’m also curious about how his childhood experience impacts his parenting decisions. Still, without assigning blame to the In-Laws, there is a lot of confusion about the role of the father in the modern family, and about what it even means to be a man in this culture. Does Husband have male friends who are also fathers of young children? Are they able to talk about the challenges and struggles, the mixed messages, what it means to be a man today, and about how to raise young men?

Now, on to the more important issue: the communication between you and Husband. It sounds like he feels a little anxious when you bring up this topic. The sad truth is that no matter how gently you put it, messages from women about male behavior are often read as criticism. I’d recommend you read Love and Stosny’s “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.” I think it might help chart a course for better connection, which can lead you to getting what you both want and need. After that, perhaps Husband might be willing to join a men’s parenting or processing group (for no other reason than an evening outside of the house…) where he can talk about his goals and expectations, and receive feedback from someone who doesn’t share living space.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. Her website is This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to

Murphy’s Love

January 12, 2011

Dear Stacy:

I have been dating the same woman for two years. We’re both about to turn 30 and it seems that everyone expects me to propose to her in the New Year. I do care about her. I even love many of the qualities she has. But I’m not sexually attracted to her at all. I know how horrible that sounds, but it’s true. She’s just not my type. Before we dated I had many failed relationships with women I found more beautiful. When we started dating I knew I didn’t find her physically attractive. I just knew that she was kind and generous, and that I wanted to see if the other stuff was less important as long as we had a deeper emotional connection. Now we’re two years in and, though I feel strongly for her as a best friend, I’m still not interested in being with her physically. I feel like telling her the truth is the best answer, but I also don’t want to be labeled a jerk. I just don’t know if I can stick it out for a lifetime.

-Label-Resistant in DC

Dear Label-Resistant:

Your sentiment is admirable – you don’t want to saddle her with the memory that your relationship ended because of something she really cannot control. But at the same time, you are letting this drag out in a way that will inevitably cause her to think it was her hair/eyes/dress-size that led you to break it off, regardless of the reason you give for ending the relationship.

This is not to say that you should stay in a relationship when you don’t feel sexually attracted to the person. That essential piece of couple-hood is hard to overlook. Yes, the fierce magnetism found during those early relationship stages does fade over time, but visual stimuli is central to our biological method of connecting with others. That doesn’t change as we age, and you would be doing her a disservice by forcing yourself to just “stick it out for a lifetime.” To go for the sexist cliché, women are intuitive, and it’s quite likely she already knows you aren’t super-excited by her. There is someone out there, I swear, who does find her attractive. She has the right to find her match, and so do you.

So if you are hemming and hawing about the “right” thing to say when you are breaking up, my advice is to say as little as possible, unless she asks. Then offer her as much information as she requests (NOTE: This is different from telling her “as much as you think she should know…” Please let her regulate the amount of detail), steering clear of anything crass, reactive or outright hurtful. Then give her the space to process it, and don’t expect her to be your movie buddy or part of your emotional support network anytime soon. Distance is painful but necessary, and much kinder than prolonging a false relationship.

Dear Stacy:

It’s the time of year to be thinking about New Year’s resolutions, something I’ve never been successful at maintaining. All my coworkers want us to post our resolutions on the kitchen bulletin board and then help each other along – a pretty good idea, but is it worth it for me to say “I’m going to finally find a boyfriend this year,” and then fail in front of everyone? I don’t get the point.

-Office Naysayer

Dear Naysayer:

I agree with you that New Year’s resolutions often launch with a lot of promise, only to fizzle before the snow melts in March. For some it can be a motivating push to do something healthier, but for others it becomes an annual tradition of punishing, self-fulfilling prophesy.

Which is why I suggest you be gentler to yourself and choose something you’ve already started doing (just resolve to do more of it) in the New Year. Big-ticket items like massive weight loss, cold-turkey smoking cessation, and boyfriend-collection are tough to achieve when you’re being watched (or monitored, competitively, via the lunchroom bulletin board).

Why swear off sugar entirely, when you have a niece who sells you Girl Scout cookies every February? Why throw out your cigarettes January 1 if you tried doing it that way last March 3, August 21 and September 20, only to relapse the next week? Or why promise your officemates that you will find a boyfriend, if you have been trolling eHarmony and for the last year without luck?

There is definitely something to be said for public accountability when making big life changes – if that’s your reason for joining the office pastime, then go forth. But inviting all eyes on you as you put yourself out there in one of the most vulnerable ways possible – dating in Washington, DC – is a sure-fire way to tank your self-esteem and start 2011 with a whimper. Be better to yourself than that. Maybe make self-care your resolution. I promise you will feel better about this New Year come next December if you do.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. Her website is This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to

Murphy’s Love

December 8, 2010

Dear Stacy:

I’m a 56-year-old divorcee dating an about-to-be 66-year-old widower. We have been dating for nearly a year and spend most of our free time together. I attend his work functions, and we have mutual friends in common. My companion’s birthday is around New Year’s, and he is planning to retire from a high-profile law
practice soon thereafter. There will be a major celebration in his honor, and he has asked me for my opinions about venues and entertainment (I’m an event planner.). But I will not be invited to the party because his three
grown children will be there, and he has not introduced us yet. Although he told me they knew he was dating, it has come to light recently that they do not know he’s been in an exclusive relationship with me since January.

He has no plans to tell them and shuts down the conversation every time I bring this up. I know he’s not ashamed of me; his friends and coworkers all know my name. I think he’s just not willing to upset the kids’ memories of their mother, who died 10 years ago. I’m trying not to feel embarrassed by the situation, but I really don’t like the way this makes me feel about the children, his deceased spouse, or him quite
frankly. Any advice?

-Feeling Backburnered in Burleith

Dear Burleith:

I understand where you’re coming from. He’s only willing to bring you into his life to a certain point, and that is painful and somewhat embarrassing now that there’s a very public event about to showcase those boundaries. Of course you are struggling with your feelings about his wife and their children, but, if you’ve been reading my columns at all, you know where this is going; I think we need to focus more on your feelings about him and vice versa. You say that he shuts down communication each time you try to broach this subject.
First, I’d suggest that you decide whether this relationship is important enough for you to work through, and if it is hightail it to a couples counselor ASAP. People only “shut down communication” when they are feeling
threatened by another person’s demands, so take the time to learn how to have this conversation sans the fight and flight. If that doesn’t work, we have to start looking at your motivation for staying in a yearlong
relationship with someone who lied about whether his kids knew you existed, who asks for your event planning work product without payment or invitation to said event, and who responds to your emotional needs
by cutting off communication. If those red flags aren’t enough to get you to slow down, then I’d recommend spending some time with your own relationship needs and expectations. Is this what love has always looked like to you? Is that still good enough? I’m rooting for you to say “no more” to being taken advantage of in this
way, but this kind of realization is a process. Finding someone to talk it through is always a
great start.

Dear Stacy:

I’m in love with my married boss. He knows it and flirts with me incessantly. I used to think this was his way of moving toward a relationship or an affair, but it’s pretty obvious he just enjoys playing this game. While I truly hate that part of him, I’m still in love with him, and this saga continues. Please don’t tell me to quit my job; I love what I do, and I’m very good at it. Plus, the economy makes it hard to find something comparable. I’m just miserable each day and want some ideas for how to make life more bearable.

-In Love with the Boss

Dear In Love:

To summarize: You say you are in love with him, he’s an incredible jerk, and you do not want to quit your job. Well, there’s a very simple fix: Just fall out of love with him. It’s not going to be easy. You have maintained your affection for this person, despite his obvious disregard for your feelings, so I’d conclude that willpower is your strong suit. But if you refuse to take yourself out of the same situation that generated these feelings, you are going to have to redirect that determination toward keeping safe from harm. I’d start with blinders and
earplugs at the office. If those efforts don’t appeal to you, please consider finding someone to talk to about why you fell in love with him in the first place. What does the unavailable, manipulative boss-figure represent to you? Is your unrequited fantasy powerful enough to override all your natural, self-care impulses? You are reaching out in an advice column, which shows some sense of self-advocacy, but I know you can be more effective. A friend, a family member, a therapist; just make sure the person is able to hold the mirror tightly so you can truly see the impact of your decisions.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to

Murphy’s Love

November 17, 2010

Dear Stacy:
My girlfriend is pressuring me to get married, and I don’t know what to do. We’re both 28 and have been dating exclusively for five years. She is the love of my life, but I just don’t see the need to get married,
at least not yet. Both her parents and mine are divorced—less than amiably—and I always promised myself I wouldn’t get into that situation. My girlfriend and I each have our own places but spend most nights together. I think moving between houses is kind of fun, but she hates it. We have all the commitments of a married couple—holidays, vacations, friends in common—but without the messy issues of combining households and finances (which she’s not so good at, by the way). I don’t want to ruin a good thing by forcing myself down the aisle. How can I explain this without sounding like a commitment-phobic jerk? So far, I’ve avoided the issue as much as I can.

– Anonymous

Dear Anonymous:
I’m curious why you find nightly sleepovers to be so fun. Are you a camping nut, or is it just easier to commit on a part-time basis? If you’ve both been together for five years and this drop-in arrangement hasn’t started to wear thin, I’d guess that more is going on here than you’re letting on, maybe even to yourself.

You offer a few clues: two children of divorce, lingering conflicts between both sets of parents, concerns about Girlfriend’s financial savvy. At the same time, thinking that you are fulfilling the most important commitments of a married couple, yet not living together, suggests that your expectations about marriage are off. If you didn’t have a great model for marriage growing up, that certainly might help explain
things. But if you want a healthy marriage—whether in name or in spirit—it means agreeing to a life that embraces it all: moving under one roof, communicating even when you don’t want to, making money decisions together and helping each other with common goals.

This kind of commitment comes with big risks but promises big rewards as well. You might feel uncertain whether you’re ready to invest the kind of emotional capital it takes to build a healthy marriage, but it sounds like Girlfriend wants to try. Admitting that you’re worried is admirable, but protecting yourself by avoiding the issue is downright cruel. Talking with your partner is the next step you need to take — to share your worries over sharing the same fridge, your fear of repeating your parents’ divorce, and the anxiety you feel about her shopping sprees. Whatever you do, you need to stop playing possum. It’s disrespectful to you both and prevents you from hearing her vision of a happy marriage. You might be surprised to find out that it’s not far from your own.

Dear Stacy:
I’m a newlywed. My husband and I dated for three years before we were married last spring, and I get along great with his family. His sister is several years younger than we are and lives in the area. Up until
the wedding, she and I had no issues, but ever since my bachelorette party, I haven’t been able to shake her. She has friended all of my bridesmaids on Facebook and has insinuated herself into my circle of girlfriends. She shows up for our ladies’ nights and is constantly asking questions about how my marriage is going. She’s really a nice person, just so much younger and clueless about what’s appropriate and what is not. I want my friends to be my friends and my family to be my family. How do I disinvite her without
being disowned?

–Crowded in Clarendon

Dear Crowded:
Defriending a family member sounds like a topic for Oprah to address. But I sympathize with your situation. Breaking up with a friend can be treacherous; breaking up with family can require a lawyer. Hopefully we can come up with something a little less dramatic.

It sounds like Sister-in-Law (SIL) looks up to you and your friends, admires your marriage, and generally wants to be close to you. This is not unusual Little Sis behavior when you’re in grade school, so I’m going to prescribe a grade school-type intervention: boundary-setting. Kids need limits so they know what to expect and won’t launch into worry-based over-functioning. It sounds like SIL may be a little anxious and trying to figure out what’s appropriate SIL behavior. Tell her. Show her. Help her. I don’t mean that you block her from your life. Just be gentle and firm about who is invited to ladies’ night and who is not.

Also, show an interest in how she’s relating to people her own age. She may really be after your wisdom and advice but just doesn’t know how to ask for it and has opted to try osmosis instead. With some sisterly guidance and some time, you may not need to delete your Facebook account entirely.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist, practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. Her website is This column is meant for entertainment only and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to

Murphy’s Love

October 20, 2010

Dear Stacy:
I am about to tell my parents about my new boyfriend, “Tom,” and I could really use your help. I’ll cut to the chase: I’m 26 and he’s 48. We met online, and he lives in southern Maryland. We were just friends at first, but then things turned romantic and we have spent hours talking on the phone and IMing about the challenges that lay before us. He was in a long-term relationship when we first met, so our in-person meetings were more like once a month. But now he’s single and we are ready to tell our friends and family about our relationship.

My parents are kind of conservative. They live in Ohio and visit quite often. It’s been tough to hide my relationship from them, but now that Tom is free and I am planning to move closer to be near him, it’s time for them to know. My dad has never liked my boyfriends – no one’s good enough for his “little girl.” Can you help me formulate a plan? What’s the best way to give this kind of info – write a letter or just introduce him at dinner? I know if they were patient, they would like him. Tom and my dad even went to the same university, so they have that in common. I’d like to ease them into this – any ideas?

-Star-crossed in the Palisades

Dear Palisades:
You admit you have been hiding this relationship, so I’m going to skip over the obvious questions
about your emotional maturity in choosing a cyber-based coupling with someone so much older and inaccessible. While the truth probably lies somewhere between you having daddy issues and him being your cosmic soul mate, I’m not going to judge and am sure you already have your defenses about those issues well-established. So let’s spend our time with the hiding question instead. Unless you are completely upfront about the reasons you kept the Parents in the dark, this will continue to be a dramatic interpretation of a relationship, and never the real thing.

We hide things from our families when we aren’t comfortable with the consequences of others’
knowing. We also hide things when we are ashamed of what we’re doing. Where does this relationship fall on that continuum? It sounds like your parents visit often because they love and care about you (unless you aren’t mentioning their habit of regularly rebuking their child in a booth at Clyde’s because they just can’t get crab cakes in Ohio). Have you been embarrassed by the choices you’ve made in your relationship? Then owning up to those feelings might be the best place to start the conversation.

I am talking about agreeing to some level of vulnerability here. Open self-assessment can feel like a relief when we’ve been under so much pressure (you know, like hiding a nearly six-month relationship
and a covert plan to move to another city), but it also has the benefit of disarming your “opponent.”
If you and Tom want to take this pairing public, it’s better to start from a place of openness, or at least make that the norm from now on.

At the same time, online relationships don’t always have the best track record for translating into face-to-face romances, so please be sure before you bring your parents into the equation – and definitely before you break a local lease and hire Mayflower. Has Tom met your friends? What are your expectations in moving closer to him? Have you found a job there? Maybe take some time to make this a more reality-based relationship before you invite the whole family (and their opinions) to the party.

Dear Stacy:
I am a person who has a very hard time making decisions. I ask a lot of people for advice, hoping something will resonate, but then end up even more confused than I was in the first place. I wish this was limited to big issues, like dating and career, but sometimes I can’t even make a choice about a restaurant or whether to buy a pair of shoes. I just keep thinking about what might come along instead, and how my life could be impacted if I make the wrong choice. It’s starting to drive me crazy, not to mention the friends and family I’m constantly bombarding with questions. I need someone to set me straight.

-Compass-less in Kalorama

Dear Kalorama:
So you want to work on your over-questioning nature, by asking another person a question.

While I hate to play into this regularly scheduled drama, this is an advice column, so I suppose questions are the starting point. What do you get when you ask others for their opinions? Do you get the counsel you say you need, or do you get something more basic, like the opportunity to finally
have someone else’s full attention? I’d guess that you are not too comfortable asking for what you need from others, and that playing 20 Questions has been the quickest route to some coveted one-on-one time.

Please don’t be embarrassed. Many of us have come to believe we don’t deserve to be the center of someone else’s attention unless we’re in a crisis. Who can blame you for creating that crisis every now and then? But shoes are not a crisis. Chipotle v. Pizzeria Paradiso is not a crisis. And you aren’t going to lose everything by making a single choice. I’d imagine that you have built up a tolerance for your own gut instinct, to the point that you may not even notice when it’s giving you direction anymore. It’s time to learn to start trusting yourself again.

This is not to suggest that you should go it alone on everything. A personal “panel of experts”
is an important tool – I usually run this column by my own consortium including The Sister, The College Roommate, and The Trusted Colleague. But the truth of adulthood is that every other person in the world is less qualified than YOU are to make a decision for YOU.

Start small: plan a date with your significant other, take charge of the Thanksgiving Day festivities
– but make sure to build in the opportunity to pause and review your choices, noting the less-than-catastrophic outcomes. Make a list of your successes and check it often. Retraining your brain to appreciate your own sense of direction is going to be a process, but it’s going to be worth it, especially when someone – gasp! – asks you for some advice.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship
therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. Her website is This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to

My life on horseback

October 8, 2010

Sir Winston Churchill once said, “A polo handicap is a passport to the world.” In my opinion, it is a passport to life.
I was born in Stratford upon Avon, which is in the Warwickshire countryside. I sat on my first horse at 18 months old and took my first riding lesson at the age of six. Little did my parents suspect that buying me my first pony at age eight would lead me to what I am now — a polo player.

My pony and I learned to compete together in gymkhana, jumping, and cross country. I even tried a little dressage. But the day I went to watch a polo match with a friend I knew I had to play.

I took one lesson, and I was hooked.

Polo is like life — although it’s a team sport, it’s ultimately down to you. You get up. You compete. You miss shots. You hit great ones. You sometimes fall off, but you rise and go on.

At that time, I was working for a U.K. company as a sales and marketing executive. They wanted me to open their Washington DC office. I first asked if there was a polo club before I said yes. I met my husband playing arena polo on a freezing January night. I knew he was my type of man — a polo addict.

My husband and I now live on a horse farm with our polo ponies, in Virginia. Our team, Los Tigres, plays in local leagues during the summer. In the winter we travel to play polo in places like Zambia, England, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Dubai, and Jamaica. [gallery ids="99200,103424" nav="thumbs"]

How Can You Tell if it’s Time to See a Therapist?

September 22, 2010


-Life is messy and often confusing. Sometimes you’re up, and then you’re down. You have a plan, and life throws you a curve. Life can feel like it’s just too much, and it can make you question, “Is this all there is?” No one is happy all the time. No one’s life is perfect.

So how can you decide that your particular situation is one that might be helped by psychotherapy?

You might be lucky enough to have a close friend or family member who has had a positive experience with therapy and is comfortable enough with it – and with you – to make the suggestion. Other people can often see your distress more clearly than you can yourself, so consider their recommendation seriously.

But even if no one has said anything to you here are some signs that it’s time to see a therapist:
• When the same kinds of problems recur in your life. You may have conflicts at work or repeated “misunderstandings” with your friends. You may have disappointing romantic relationships or frequently feel that you don’t fit in. Or you might notice that people become annoyed with you, and you don’t really understand why. The key here is that when a problematic situation becomes familiar and you recognize that you’ve been in the same spot before, that’s when it’s time to see a therapist.
• You’re having trouble sleeping.
• You notice a change in your usual sleeping, eating or drinking habits.
• You’re having trouble concentrating or motivating
yourself to do things.
• You’re irritable or anxious and searching for something to blame it on.
• You feel physically unwell, but your doctor says you’re okay.
• The things you used to enjoy are not much fun anymore, and nothing else positive has taken their place.
• You’re trying to figure something out or to move forward with a work or family issue, and you’re stuck.

The list is by no means exhaustive; rather, it is meant to be suggestive. Besides paying attention
to the way you are feeling and thinking, it is important to recognize that certain life situations,
while normal and even desirable, can be so stressful that they put you at risk.

It’s easy to understand that a death in the family or the breakup of a relationship makes you emotionally vulnerable, but it is also the case that life transitions, such as leaving school and starting work or moving to a new city, are challenges that shake up your life and make new demands at the same time as they remove you from your old friends and other supports. These transitions can often be navigated more smoothly with the help of a therapist.