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Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2005; 12:00 PM

Carolyn takes your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

Appearing every Wednesday and Friday in The Washington Post Style section and in Sunday Source, Tell Me About It ® offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there -- really recently. Carolyn Hax is a 30-something repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Carolyn Hax (For The Washington Post)

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Harry met Sally last week: It seemed like your answers to the question of whether a woman who is in a relationship should see alone a man (who is also in a relationship) kept bringing up the point that maybe they don't find each other attractive. But what if they do find each other attractive, physically, emotionally, etc.? Does your answer change?

Carolyn Hax: Definitely. Then you need to make a decision--are you committed to your relationship, or are you shopping? if you're shopping, then you need to figure out what's going on with the relationship and deal with it accordingly. And if you decide you're committed, then you need to keep the attractive person at arm's length. That's the Reader's Digest version at least.


Chantilly, Va.: So my girlfriend's mother is all kinds of nasty. Her current ploy is to guilt my girl because she didn't send out "pregnancy announcements" or call every member of her family to tell them that we're pregnant. We thought that since we informed our parents, word would get around and anyone who wanted to offer congratulations could call us. To me, an announcement is a plea for gifts and I don't feel comfortable with that. Who's right here? My side of the family has taken no offense.

Carolyn Hax: Pregnancy announcements? Please be kidding. You should have told other close family members yourselves instead of leaving it all to the grapevine, but then anyone you "grapevined" should also have the grace not to get all pissy about it. If it's happy news and you're all happy people and you mean well there's absolutely no call for keeping score.

Which brings us to Mumsy. If she is not happy and if she doesn't mean well, then your girlfriend's in for a lot of mom-baggage-hauling if she doesn't learn to see through mom's guilt trips. (I'm taking you at your word that this is the mother's MO.) She needs to learn to see that the guilt-tripping is just her mother's way of unloading her own issues on her daughter, and that it's not the daughter's fault.

If she never gets to that point, you're going to need to do some adjusting for her by not letting yourself get sucked into each of these little battles. Instead, assume a we're-all-fine-here stance--e.g., just say to your girlfriend something along the lines of, "Don't worry about it, you're fine, your mom's just being your mom."


Chantilly, Va.: re: Harry and Sally: I don't get it. If you're truly committed to your relationship, it's too risky/tempting to be alone with a pretty person? Seems backwards to me.

Carolyn Hax: This wasn't about a "pretty person," it was about someone you're attracted to "emotionally and physically," I believe was the question.

Not allowing any friends of the opposite sex is backward. I think a progressive approach to gender, friendship and freedom, however, does allow some room for sanity.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Carolyn. I am feeling guilty and hope you can help me with this. My husband and I are expecting our first baby this summer. My best friend in my home town (600 miles away) wants to throw us a baby shower. As grateful as I am for her kindness, I just don't want to have a shower for several reasons: as much as I have enjoyed baby showers for my friends (and will all due respect to mothers-to-be everywhere on earth), I feel funny having a party the purpose of which is for people to buy me things. Call me weird. Also this has been a really expensive time for me and my husband as we bought a house last fall, furnished it, and now are working on a basement renovation we hope will be finished by the time the baby arrives in June. So my thought is that with the money we would spend to fly home, board the pets for a weekend, and ship any gifts back here, we could furnish our baby's nursery! Is it wrong to feel this way? Am I tacky or rude to say no thank you to my friend? She really wants to do this for us, and she thinks I'm being stubborn and weird. It is not important to me at all to have a shower, but when we discuss she acts as though I've grown horns. Please tell me what you think, and thanks so much. Have a nice weekend.

Carolyn Hax: If you were local, I'd say to suggest to your friend a specific kind of shower that either tones down or eliminates the gift expense--say, have guests fill the new parents' freezer, or bring their favorite book from when they were kids, or even just bring a recipe. But you don't even need that. All you have to do is thank your friend and say this is a terrible time for you to pay all that money to travel.


Arlington, Va.: What are some good questions to ask yourself when you're not sure if you are being paranoid about a boyfriend cheating or if an instinct should be explored? And I don't mean questions about the guy specifically, but more to learn about myself and to see if there's something I need to change about myself.

Carolyn Hax: Do you have any real cause to distrust the person? It's really just the one question.

I know it's pretty wide open depending on the way you define "real," but if you've watched your boyfriend in action and you've seen him treat people with decency and respect, and if you've never really seen him lie--not just to you, but in general, like to his boss or his mom or the IRS--and if he's not behaving strangely at the moment, then you probably dont' have any real cause and you should try to look at yourself more closely.

And if you do have real cause, then, new question--why is cheating even an issue when you shouldn't even be with the guy?


re: baby shower: Many people choose not to have baby showers because of superstition, too. We didn't, because I'm simply too superstitious to celebrate something like that publicly before the baby is born. Maybe you could try that approach?

Carolyn Hax: It makes perfect sense and I'm sympathetic to that mind-set, but I don't think it's fair of her to use it unless that's how she really feels.


I-hate-showers: Just had a baby, and I hate showers, too.

For those local people, I suggested a gift in our baby's name to the local women's shelter, which always is in dire need of diapers, formula, etc. We called our baby the kid with a cause. It was hugely popular. Those who wanted to give to us we asked for their favorite children's book.

And for those who say "but we need stuff," this is from a student father and a postdoc mother, and we managed to have a healthy baby without a baby wipe warmer.

Kudos for not wanting a shower!

Carolyn Hax: Shelters will be grateful, thanks.


Warrenton, Va.: Hey Carolyn. I am dealing with a very nasty mother in law situation. My husband's parents have never been too happy that he moved from his hometown several states away to Virginia. I am from the area and I think they are getting the message that we are here to stay. She is starting to very blatantly take it out on me. Personal attacks and all (but only communicated to my husband, never to me.) What to do?

Carolyn Hax: Why is he sharing them all with you? I might have a different answer after I stew about it a while, but reflexively I'm thinking the best thing you can do about it is ask your husband please to insulate you from her attacks--sticking up for you as well, of course--and in return you'll be able to be all fresh and civil whenever you're forced to deal with her in person.


Ashburn, Va.: Regarding today's column, I had a boyfriend in college whom I told that I had been raped. Years later he told his new girlfriend. When I explained to him that it wasn't his information to tell, he really understood. It's like he thought, because he had dated me, that it was his story, too. He didn't do it to be mean, he just felt he owned it. Anyway, it's not always malicious; sometimes gossip is someone appropriating your life stories.

My two cents.

Carolyn Hax: A hard-earned two cents, but right on point, thank you.


Germany: Thanks for great advice!;
It seems to me the question is whether you are hoping to make out with the cute friend or not. Wanting so is good justification for arms-length behavior and re-evaluating original relationship. Not wanting to do so is fine justification for the friends that you like and find attractive.

Carolyn Hax: Good way to condense it, thanks.


Re: Pregnancy: Can we stop with the "we're pregnant." Last time I checked, only woman can be pregnant... a couple can both be expecting, but not pregnant. I'm all for including the expectant father, but lets not change biology to do it. When I was pregnant my husband could not have been happier or more excited, but nevertheless, I was the only one throwing up for three months because I was actually pregnant and he wasn't.

Carolyn Hax: You're right, but is it really that important? Involved fathers, yay. (People who get cutsey about it and talk about nothing else, okay, I'm barfing along with you--but while all people who get cutesy seem to say "We're pregnant," not all peoplw who say "We're pregnant" get cutesy.)


For Arlington, Va.: Have she explained all of this to the shower-happy friend? Sometimes people have a much easier time telling an advice columnist they are broke but don't want to tell their friends the same thing. If she is a halfway decent friend, she should understand that it is an expense and hassle you would rather not have.

Carolyn Hax: Good point, people should trust their friends more with the truth. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn, I'm posting early because I'll be away from my computer during your chat. Sad, no? I hope you can answer. This question has me stumped.

I'm proposing to my girlfriend in two weeks, and I'd like to ask someone for her hand in marriage. Problem is, I don't know who that person would be, as my girlfriend's family situation is a bit complicated. Her mother was an alcoholic for most of my gf's life and her father has been out of the picture for years. That leaves the family that she lived with from the age of 14 through college (she's 24 now). They've been wonderful to her and will likely always be "parents" to her, and to myself as well. Would it be appropriate to ask them for her hand in marriage, or maybe I should ask them instead for their support and blessing? I also want them to know that they're welcome in my family and that we're excited about that. Thoughts? This only happens once, and I don't want to neglect anything I'll regret later on.


Carolyn Hax: I appreciate that you really want to go all out, it's very sweet, but there's a point where trying to do everything Perfectly According to Tradition descends into self-parody. Ask your girlfriend. Then, if she accepts, go to the people she loves and ask for their blessing.


Medford, Mass.: What do you think of a significant other telling his/her mate that they need more "witty repartee." As in, I like you hon, want to keep dating you, but work on your delivery.

Carolyn Hax: Rent him/her a copy of "The Philadelphia Story" and then go out with your friends.


Washington, D.C.: why is today all about babies?!

Carolyn Hax: When one thread is about babies, why is the day all about babies?


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

After five years of friendship, it's been determined that one of the friends in my group lies about nearly everything. She claims to be at the top of her class in grad school. We called, she's not enrolled. She claims to have a boyfriend, that her parents have amazing jobs and other smaller details, all of which have been disproven.

So, the group of friends that has figured it out is PO-ed that we believed everything she told us for years, but, no one wants to be the person to confront her.

Could any good from a confrontation? Or should we simply demote her from confidant to drinking buddy?

Carolyn Hax: Isn't anyone worried about her?


McLean, Va.: I saw my girlfriend in the arms of another man. I have always had my suspicions during our relationship of two years that she was hooking up. A month of not talking she's made a huge effort to come back, but can't let it go. I dont know anyone who would take someone back if they got busted cheating. What do you suggest? What questions would you ask her?

Carolyn Hax: It's not what you ask her, it's what you ask yourself. What is it she offers you, that you're so sure you couldn't get from any of the other 3 billion women on earth, that makes you even consider taking her back? Sounds like you were miserable with her even before you walked in on the truth.


Re: Mom's guilt tripping: Maybe mumsy is behaving the way she is because she has issues with her daughter not being married to the boyfriend.

It might be worthwhile to sit down with the momster and have it out with her about what her issues are. Pregnancy announcements an issue? Please.

If the momster is fighting a guerrilla action to try to get the couple to make their union legal, she'll only shift tactics unless they address the real cause of hostilities.

Carolyn Hax: Then she should say to them, "I know your lives are your business, but it does bother me that you've chosen not to get married."

I second your suggestion for sitting down with the momster to TRY to flush out any underlying core issue, but only with the caveat that someone who would stoop to guerrilla action is not likely to bust out with, "Yes, you're right, I should be forthright with you, so here's why I'm being a jerk." You go into it with minimal expectations, such as, "I'll approach Mom so I can feel satisfied that I tried my best to make peace before I instituted my, 'Yeah Mom, whatever, thanks,' bird-flipping policy."


D.C. friend: Of course we're worried. But, with the scope of the lies what do we do? Say, I think you're full of poop, please call a therapist? Oh. I'll bet that sounds really reasonable to an outsider. It's been quite the drama within the group.

Carolyn Hax: No doubt--those are some pretty wild lies. But the person who is closest to the liar, or the one with the backbone, really need only say, "I know these things you claim aren't really true, and I'm worried about you."

Each of you probably could argue that you don't care enough about this friend to want to take on that kind of responsibility--that kinda seems like what you're already saying without really saying it--but then you need to admit to yourselves she isn't a five-year confidant whom you're considering demoting to drinking buddy, she's just a drinking buddy. (As you all might be to each other.)


Carolyn Hax: I'm still here, just reading through questions.


All over the place: Hi Carolyn and charming producer,
Love the chats, long time Hax fan. My question: Friend A has put a kibosh on me even mentioning a certain subject because she does not want to hear about it and does not like it. It's not REALLY drinking, but for example, it is as if she is a complete teetotaler and does not want me to even mention that I met an old friend for Cosmos or that I'm going to buy wine for a party I'm having. I used to think that having prohibited conversation items such as this was the mark of a weakening friendship. I mean, isn't it a little sad/frustrating/not good to not be able to talk about anything with your closest friends? On the other hand, I relatively recently broke up with someone and I find it painful to hear my friends gush about their boyfriends/fiancees/etc and I wish I could ask them not to talk about that with me. On the first hand, however, I dont think my friend finds it painful when I discuss any sort of the subject she doesn't like. I am almost completely positive she just doesn't want to hear it, but it wouldn't make her cry if I discussed it the way it sometimes makes me when my friends start gushing about their SOs. So my question is, where is the line drawn between having an open friendship and establishing "conversation subject embargos"?
Thanks so much!; Keep up the good work with the column and chats!;

Carolyn Hax: Just because your relationship fell apart and made you sad doesn't mean other people have to pretend they don't have happiness or relationships or, perish the thought, both. And that's where the line is: None of us has the right to impose our experience on other people, whether it be in the form of moronic conversation embargoes or just of endless monologues about our pain and sadness.

What we do have a right to expect of people around us is sensitivity. You hope that people who care about you would know that you just got your heart broken and therefore might not be too thrilled to hear them gush about their romantic weekends. Even then, though, they might nevertheless slip, and either forget for a moment that you're in pain or not be sure what to say around you. That's why, if you're about to start sobbing or something, you should also feel free to speak up, with, e.g., "I don't want to sound bitter, b/c I'm happy for you, but it's hard for me to hear this right now so I'd love to talk about something else."

Short version: Based on what you gave me, Friend A is out there.


Mclean, Va.: My mother-in-law was babysitting our children one evening last week and she came across some condoms my husband keeps in his dresser drawer. She had the nerve to tell me that I better be using some sort of birth control myself because she feels most men are unwilling to use condoms on a regular basis. My husband told her to mind her own business, however; I for one am still peeved by her comment. Just for the record I am on the pill and the condoms are there just in case I run out of pills. The thing that bothers me the most is the fact that she went snooping around our house. She has opened our mail in the past, too. I really want to ask my husband to have a talk with her and mention that she is way too nosey. I am worried to say something because I think it might open a can of worms.

Carolyn Hax: Ask your husband to have a talk with her because she's waaay to nosy.

But, speaking of having really low expectations--someone who's idea of boundaries extends to your birth-control drawer isn't going to get it, and isn't going to change. Holy findanewbabysitter.


Baltimore, Md.: Speaking of demoting people from friend to drinking buddy, how does one best handle the situation when it's clear that she/he has been demoted to from friend to mere social acquaintance, particularly when there's been no overt falling out, major issues/crises, etc. I speak as the demotee, who used to have a couple of friends with whom I went to movies, had dinners -- hell we even vacationed together. Now, one of them has moved on to a new set of bestest friends and can't be bothered with me. The other has disappeared and doesn't speak to me unless I literally corner her. Neither scenario is much fun, and I do have to see these people with some regularity (work in the same building). Advice for handling adults who seem to take an 8th grade approach to their friendships?

Carolyn Hax: Not to be snarky, because I do feel for you (and would feel just as hurt in the same situation), but what did these friends do that was 8th grade? Maybe the disappearing act was uncool, but moving on to other friends does happen, as does outgrowing friends, and deciding you don't enjoy a friend as much as you once thought. Not that any of these is pretty, but all you can do when it happens is demote as kindly as possible when you're the exiting party, and be as civil (and non-self-flagellating) a demotee as possible when you're the party left behind. So, smile, nod and move on. I'm sorry.


re: taboo issue that's not drinking: I think she should have had to tell us what the issue is to get her question answered. -- shamelessly curious peanut

Carolyn Hax: You're right, I blew it. Sorry.


Virginia: What advice do you have for a teenage (19) girl who has broken up with her first love? She thinks her breakup is totally different than anybody else's. I just want to know if there is a common response to broken teenage hearts.

Carolyn Hax: Treat it like it's totally different from everybody else's, and let her explain to you why it is.


Baltimore, Md.: Hi Carolyn! Love the chats!

I have a question about communication. I can't seem to get through to my husband that having his obtrusive family around non-stop makes me uneasy and I desparately need space. I've tried to talk to him -- saying things like "they make me uncomfortable and I desparately need my space" things of that nature but he blows me off. We've given his family a lot and they've reciprocated -- it's not about that just that I like having the place to US and not to the entire brood. Can you help me out on this one?

Carolyn Hax: Your question is pretty general, but it sounds like your conversations have also been pretty general. (That should have been enough to get him to listen, but "should have" doesn't solve many problems.) So, try specifics. X number of days for visits, okay; X plus 1, not okay. X visits a month, okay; X plus 1, please ask them to stay somewhere else. You'll go to X events a quarter, but for any more you'd appreciate it if he'd pass along your regrets. Stuff like that. And if drawing a clue map still doesn't help him find a clue, then give a thought to marriage counseling.


Rules for Secret Keeping: First, love the column, love the chat!;

Your column today leads me to ask: What are the rules of secret keeping?

A long time ago, a good friend confided in me. I kept her secret and told no one. Then I learned she was telling this secret to many different people (probably because she had finally come to terms with it) and when a mutual friend asked me about it, I told her the deal. Since then I've told people that she never would meet only because it's one of those juicey stories that usually sound like a college-age urban legend. "That actually happened to a friend of mine...."

Maybe I've answered my own question by feeling a little guilty about using her story as conversation fodder. And I've never confessed to her that I told anyone about it.

So do you have any standard rules on secret keeping (e.g., experiation dates, outsider conversations, casual mention without names, etc.)? Thanks!;

Carolyn Hax: Thanks!

No, no rules, just good taste and discretion, which you observed nicely when you took your cue from her behavior when you were deciding how you should handle her secret. Plus, you stripped the names and added distance when you turned the secret into cocktail party fodder.

Okay, enough sucking up. What's the secret?


Obtrusive Family: I have had to adopt a (to me) rude bluntness with my husband's family to get my time. Hints don't work with some people. Can I come over? No. Can I come in? Not right now, please call next time, shut door. Oddly, they seem to still talk to me - and I like them better when I have time for them. Sometimes people just need to be told.

Carolyn Hax: And they like to be liked, and it's much easier to like them when you're seeing them within your madness limits. This goes back to the comment about saying to people what you're thinking and trusting them to be able to handle it.

Within reason, obviously, since, "You're a drawer-rummaging, condom-pillaging, privacy-violating, control-addled beast and I want you out of my house" rarely goes over well.


Nineteen Year Old Breakups: Just wanted to say I liked your response, and it brought to mind my problem with the whole Harry Met Sally debate - because it is different than everyone else's, in a way. We're always trying (or so it seems to me) to draw all sorts of general principles or rules to live by, but we're dealing with the specifics of people's lives - which are different. And which is why I liked your first answer to the 'hanging out' question last week the best - i.e., it depends. Apart from really general rules, like the Golden one, for example, it seems to me we can do ourselves and others a disservice by generalizing too broadly, and making inflexible general rules based on our own limited experience.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, interesting thought. I also wonder if even the Golden Rule has a loophole, in that sometimes it's better to treat someone the way -they- want to be treated, and not necessarily the way you'd want to be treated. (Of course, then you could just adapt the GR to suit, since you'd want to be treated with sensitivity to your own neeeds and tastes, and thus you should do the same for others. Aaanyway ...)

You'd be surprised at how many people MISread situations like the ones in this chat or in the columns through the prism of their own experience. They'll write in to disagree and spell out their own version of the "same" story, and there will be huge differences that would have elicited an entirely different answer. It has actually been educational for me, professionally and personally, and helped me see when to ease up on the judgments of other people's lives and choices. (And you all thought it was motherhood making me soft.)


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn, please answer if you still have time...

Any words of advice for an aspiring writer? I currently write for a non-profit where I get to tackle all styles, but my passion lies in the news. I don't have a degree in journalism, but I've considered going for it in a masters. Is it necessary if I already write well? If not, where should I look when I start looking for my next job in a couple of years? If you can, please take the time to answer.

Carolyn Hax: Try to break into a small publication. Local paper, trade mag, anything where your non-news clips will be enough for an entry-level news job. (Mine was Army Times.) But don't take this from me; see if you can't get an informational interview or two or three from people responsible for hiring at the type of pubs that are at the end of your rainbow, and ask them what they look for on a resume. Good luck.


Re: condoms in the drawer: If it were me, the next time I asked them to babysit, I'd leave a packet of dye powder sprinkled on the condoms. Then, I'd ask quite innocently "why are your fingers blue?"

But then, I have an evil streak.

Carolyn Hax: And, I hope, extra condoms stashed somewhere else.


High Five: I'm dressed up and going to a party straight from work. Happy Friday everyone!;

Carolyn Hax: I'm wearing slippers and hoping to take a shower eventually. Happy work-at-home Friday everyone!

I know, time to go. Thanks all and type to you next week.


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