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Tell Me About It

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With Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2004; 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.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Paris, Land of Freedom (Fries): Hi Carolyn,

I agreed with the gist of your column answer to the person wondering why a girlfriend won't talk about her sexual past, but your response seemed to stray a bit from your long-standing position that no one should ask anyone else's number of past partners.

In your answer, you proposed general sharing rather than "trotting out every naked detail", but Confused's statement that they should know "everything" about each other's pasts in order to build a future together set off my warning buzzer.

Did you read it differently, or are you re-thinking the "no numbers" rule?

All the best,
One of your Global Fans

Carolyn Hax: Bonjour. Or bon soir by now.

Definitely not rethinking the no-numbers stance. Numbers are awful, which is why I included the every-naked-detail exception. But I am in favor of transparency about the past--which I guess you could call a general everything vs a specific everything.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Better dress length for gorgeous shoes -- tea or ankle?

Carolyn Hax: Depends on how good your legs are, not how good your shoes are.

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No city: Hi Carolyn:

I feel like I should be "above" this, but I'm having big issues with my body image (feeling fat), so much that I feel paralyzed by it. Yet, it's impossible for me to sort out what part is just my own self-criticism and what things actually need changing. Plus, anytime I try to lose weight, I end up telling myself I need to do it because I'm so disgusting and then I get depressed and the cycle continues. Any thoughts, aphorisms, etc. from you or the peanuts?

Carolyn Hax: I don't have any aphorisms handy, but I do have a suggestion: Stop trying to lose weight. Just give the whole idea a swirly. Nothing needs "changing," just some simplifying. All you need to feel better, I swear, is to exercise supermarket self-discipline--buy only what you won't hate yourself for eating--and to exercise. All a body needs is healthy food and motion, and all a bad body image needs* is a healthy body. If you're not sure what foods are okay to buy and what aren't, stick to the perimeter of the store--produce, meats, dairy, grains, or "whole foods" if you're Californish. Also, eat only when you're hungry (vs bored, sad, scared, pissed) and eat slowly enough to know when you're full.

*If this doesn't work and you're still obsessing, consider therapy, though, for 30 min and the price of the shoes, I put my faith in a three-mile run.

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re: telling the number: Now I'm really confused. I thought your column was advocating sharing the past number of partners, or at least a general range (and I was surprised by it). If not that, then what does "general sharing" mean?

Carolyn Hax: I have to admit I'm a little surprised by how closely people are reading this answer. The amount you share should foremost be determined by your personal comfort--both with yourself and with your partner.

The point I was hoping to get across was not so much "Here's the level of detail you owe somebody," but "Here's the level of comfort you owe yourself and your relationship." If your past is too painful to share in your most intimate relationship, your relationship isn't as intimate as it could be, and won't be until you embrace and accept what you did (or had done to you), no matter how bad. Heal, then give yourself to someone. Don't throw on a Band-Aid and fake it.

And if you're okay with your past but are afraid your partner will flee, same goes. At best you will only get so close to the person, and at worst you'll be with someone who's just wrong for you. The truly great bonds are between two people who are open with each other, who would have it no other way, and who, instead of judging, actually love each other more for the imperfections they both expose.

So, for those who would parse, I'll define open: Say you had a wild stretch in college followed by an intense monogamous relationship that you thought would end in marriage but imploded only because one of you cheated. All of that is fair game for sharing. No hiding the wild streak, no hiding or minimizing the intensity of the past love, no glossing over the cheating, -especially- if it was you who strayed. These all lie in the foundation of who you are now.

What crosses over into "every naked detail," to my mind, is the number of sex partners during the wild streak, or how mind blowing the sex was with someone, etc. These contribute nothing to the understanding of who you are now, and instead offer gratuitously bad mental images.

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Choices: We were exclusive for almost a year. She strayed and now wants to explore getting to know another guy. But she loves me, could imagine growing old with me, and wants to keep getting to know me.

Can we move back to a non-exclusive relationship? Or is a choice required between me and this new guy?

Carolyn Hax: Entirely up to you, I'm afraid. Either you're being used, or being tough and mature. Trust your instincts on which.

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Re: Confused: What about for the sake of sexual health? -std's, etc.]

Carolyn Hax: Even though the odds of an STD go up with the number of partners, you can still have sex only once and get one. So, best just to delay sex till you establish trust, use condoms, and get tested for the things you can test for. It's not perfect, but absolutely nothing is except abstinence.

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Kennebunkport, Maine: Yay! We get to leave at 2 p.m. due to "inclement weather." Hopefully the liquor store doesn't do the same...

Anyway, so I seem to have offended this woman at work. She's a big lady, but lately hasn't looked quite so big, so I asked her (in a friendly, positive way) if she was losing weight. She snapped that no, she wasn't, but thanks for pointing out that she needs to.

Huh? Was that rude of me, or is she being overly sensitive? This was Wednesday, and she's been icy ever since.

Carolyn Hax: Both. When someone who needs to lose weight seems to be losing it, say, "Hey, you're looking great," not "Hey, you're a mere shadow of your bovine self." Because if you're right, you're implying the person was fat, and if you're wrong--if in fact the improvement was just a better haircut or a slimming outfit--the byproduct of that misread is the implication that the person is, yup, still fat.

But--any friendly, positive comment should be taken as such, and any insensitivity quickly forgiven. Two days of frostiness is excessive.

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Arlington, Va.: My wife is pregnant and I have some parts of my intimate past that I want to share with her but I'm concerned about affecting her emotional state during pregnancy. Should I deal with this later after the baby is born or what?

Carolyn Hax: Why are you wanting to tell her things now, why didn't you want to share before, and what are the "parts" you're not sharing? I don't want to answer you without knowing how big the bomb is you're planning to drop. We don't know who you are, remember.

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Um -- can you tell me your number? : People should care about the following: diseases, diseases, diseases. We are all adults. We fall in love, we fall out of love. We meet that special someone at 34 or 29 or 42. The one who wrote in is trying to control her. I would toss a guy who would not get off that kick.

Carolyn Hax: I bet you also would toss a guy who refused to share anything. At least I hope you would.

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Washington, D.C.: Ten years ago when I was in college an ex-boyfriend of mine, a student at the same college, died. At the time I didn't get a chance to offer my condolences to his family, but now as the 10-year anniversary rolls around I'd like to send his parents a card saying something like "(He) taught me a lot about treating people with kindness and consideration and about working to make the world a better place. If it weren't for (his) example I wouldn't be as active as I am today in volunteering and contributing to charity, etc." Is this appropriate or will it just be a painful reminder to them? I never met them, but we spoke briefly on the phone a few times. I doubt they will fail to notice the 10-year anniversary of his death, so I'm leaning toward sending the card. Also, I know his father is alive but I'm not sure about his mother. Would it be inappropriate to address the card to "Mr. and Mrs."? I'd like to do the right thing and I would be grateful for your advice.

Carolyn Hax: Send the card, to Mr. and Mrs. There's no way they're not thinking of their son, so the whole painful-reminder thing is a canard. Your memories are warm, so share them. Remind them his life meant something.

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Falls Church, Va.: I have a groomsmen, who has really disengaged from my life. Can I ask what is up or is that rude? I have called several times only to get the bums rush. He has never indicated, that I have done something wrong.

Carolyn Hax: Sure, you can ask. Just make it, "Are you okay," and not, "Why are you being a dink?"

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Washington, D.C.: My mother had a big mental breakdown last year, with police and a locked hospital ward. As it was unfolding I described the ordeal to friends and colleagues I interacted with because it took over my life for a while and was very upsetting. I may have leaned on people too much and told them more than they wanted about a topic that they may not be used to discussing. I don't want to make a test of this or judge hastily, but I can't help being disappointed that people I thought were close to me haven't asked how things are or don't respond when I even refer to my mother. How much judging is appropriate, and is there anything I can do about it now?

Carolyn Hax: There's a lot you can do about it now. First, for the truly close, you can reevaluate the closeness. If someone for whom you always came to the rescue has barely registered your distress, then it would be completely fair and even smart to consider the possibility that this friend isn't really your friend.

Then, for the rest, you can take a way a lesson in what's realistic to expect of people. Even if your entire life is crashing down around your ankles, clearly, for all to see, most people will only be able to offer so much. They have their lives to sustain, their dramas to obsess over, plus the standard human helplessness in the face of someone else's despair. There's just so much they can do, there are just so many times they'll even remember to ask how you're doing.

Maybe now, since you've experienced crisis, you have a new appreciation for people in crisis--but were you always good in the past when an acquaintance, colleague or just-a-buddy was going through hell? Probably not. So understand that the uninitiated will be equipped to do only so much for you and let it go.

So the way I look at it, if you go through hell and one or two people really rally for you, you did great. And those people may not have been your best friends, and may not even remain close after the crisis passes. It's not a predictable thing.

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Controlling?!;: Remember, the guy that wrote in for today's coumn said, "I don't know if I am overreacting" meaning he is willing to accept he might be. He nevr said he wants a number or anything. He just wants some glimpse of her past and wants to know if that is even reasonable. Give the poor guy a break!;

Carolyn Hax: Agreed, thanks. And I hope I did.

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Arlington, Va.: Happy Friday!!!

I have (had?) a friend who falls off the map when he falls in love. I rarely hear from him and when I propose any plans to get together, I get the "I am doing blah blah blah" with SO excuses

This is not the first girlfriend that this has happened with, and his frequency of falling in love is... frequent.

Write him off or roll with it?

Carolyn Hax: Whichever you prefer. This is they way he is, and either his company between off-map-fallings is either worth it or it isn't.

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Heatlhy Body: I totally agree with Carolyn's advice about body obsession -- I've been there. To get healthy (mentally and physically) you've got to take the focus off your appearance -- get rid of your scale, pack up those old clothes that don't fit, focus your ability to obsess on learning something that involves moving your body (but that is fun and won't make you think about your weight).

I consider myself a success story -- I stopped the diet/binge cycle and felt better about myself. Once I had other interests, I ended up losing weight without trying. Being healthy is sorta like falling in love, if you try too hard you may be missing the point.

Carolyn Hax: Well said, thanks.

I'd like to add a possibly strange qualifier to my original answer, even though I totally agree with me, too. I'm just afraid my answer might have been too sunny. I kicked a bad body image myself, exactly as I advised, but for me at least there's always a little residue of it lurking somewhere. Like right now, I'm dreading the battle I'm about to wage to get the baby weight off and I haven't even finished putting it all on yet. And I'm happy and feel great and have no outside pressure (societal excluded, too thorny) and etc. So in addition to supermarket discipline, if you're like me, you'll always need a little mental discipline to beat the demons back. But they are much, much easier to fight if you do all the things mentioned so far--separate appearance from health, emphasize health, chuck the scale, get moving, enjoy your food, avoid the processed crap, etc.

Thanks, I feel better now.

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Weigh, IN: On weight comments.

In college I dated this guy for about 2 weeks. He was nice enoguh, but nothing realy clicked.

I ran into him about 3 years later. He said (an this is a direct quote)
"You look like you lost a TON of weight!;"

I almost shot beer out of my nose. I remembered why things never clicked.

(When I dated him, I weighed about 135. When I saw him again, I weighed abut 125.)

My friends and I still joke about this more than 10 years later.

Carolyn Hax: Can you do the beer-shooting thing on purpose?

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College Town: The life of a friend is falling apart. It's been this way for about a year but she's currently in a particularly bad stretch of the bad stretch She's in couseling five days a week, which is good. I try to keep in touch with her and say hi regularly, but don't know what else I can do. I don't want to be her counselor and don't have time to spend 1-2 hours with her on the phone every day. Any suggestions? Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Do you have time for lunch once a week? Coffee? Even every other would make you a standout friend.

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Surprise Party Etiquette: Hi, Carolyn! The grown children of a friend of mine are throwing her a surprise birthday party for a milestone year. I was looking forward to attending until her husband told me she does not want a surprise party. She's told her kids repeatedly not to plan one. I haven't RSVP'd yet and now want to decline. I feel like my presence would look like implicit approval of something she doesn't want and won't like. I feel her kids have put the guests in a terrible position. What do you think? Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: I think the only thing worse than a surprise party you don't want is a surprise party no one attends. Go, with your apologies.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I'll try to make this not too long: basically, I've been with my girlfriend for about a year and a half. She is my first girlfriend, and really the only girl I've ever dated. I think we have a good relationship. We have a lot of fun and don't have many disagreements. I feel like we're happier than many couples I've seen.

The problem is that I haven't dated anyone else, and I really don't know what it's like to be in a relationship with anyone else. She and I get along great most of the time, but we don't really have many things in common, and I wonder a bit if I might have a more envigorating relationship with someone else. I feel like my girlfriend, as much as I love her, doesn't stimulate me intellectually, and I think that's something I should have. Sometimes we don't have much to talk about.

The problem is, I'm afraid I'd be leaving a good thing and will only realize later what I had. And of course, I don't want to hurt my girlfriend and make her feel like she's "unworthy." She's great -- funny, tough, loyal -- I'm just not sure if we're made for each other. Basically, it's a matter of being happy with the only thing I've had, but wondering if there's things I'll like better out there. Any advice?

Carolyn Hax: Hm. Couple of things.

Be wary of treating this relationship as different from your other relationships. It's your sole romantic one, yes, but you do know what it's like to be in a friendship with someone, to be part of a family, to have classmates or coworkers. All these things can be taken as legitimate points of comparison for your feelings for your girlfriend.

Meaning, if you're bored, trust it. If you're restless, trust it. If you're happy, trust it.

Also, be wary of the whole meant-for-each-other thing (speaking of canards). It puts a lofty label on something that's pretty mundane, when you get down to it. Does this person make you feel good about yourself, at peace, loving and loved, as well as passionate enough often enough to keep your body awake? And do you feel like this not only at the high points but also the low ones--and, most important, at all the ordinary, day-to-day points in between? Then you're on to something.

Last thing. You can't avoid hurting people. You can only avoid hurting them deliberately or gratuitously. Staying with someone you don't love for fear of hurting her qualifies as the latter.

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Nowhere, USA: Help me, Carolyn, please! I'm in a freefall.

My girlfriend of four years just told me she's pregnant... again. This happened two years ago, and she miscarried a week after we found out. I never had the chance to accept it and try to be a supportive partner about it. I hadn't recovered from the shock when she miscarried. We went our seperate ways for a couple of months to deal with it on our own terms, but eventually got back together.

It's been a great two years since then. We're in a long-distance relationship of sorts -- we don't live in the same city but we see each other every week -- and she had plans to move to my area this summer. I planned to marry her... someday. I just don't feel ready at 28. She knew that and was fine with it. (She's 25.)

Last night she told me she's pregnant again (we used two kinds of birth control, I swear) and we're back at square one. I'm going to see her tonight and I don't know what to do or say.

I'm still not ready to get married but I love her so much. I'm also not ready to be a father, but she is set on having this baby. I have told her the decision is up to her.

I feel like I am in freefall. She is not demanding a ring, but I feel like a louse for not wanting to propose yet and for wishing this wasn't happening. It feels like too much committment. Yet we are going to have a baby, and I know that's a lifetime committment. We have been together a long time, we love each other and we both have good careers and I own a home. What's wrong with me?

Please, tell me how not to mess this up. I don't want to hurt this woman again. But I don't want to deceive her either.

Carolyn Hax: Sounds like it's time (well, past time, but whatever) to figure out what exactly is holding you back from committing to her, and, if it's not something irreparable like "I'm not sure I like her that much," fix it. Or just face it, if it's more a fear than a problem. I'm not saying you should marry her with all these doubts, but I am saying you need to deal honestly with your doubts. Fast. And once you've dealt--be brutally honest with yourself as necessary--then act decisively. Not all happy endings get perfect starts.

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Surprise Party: The guest who's just learned that the potential surprisee hates surprise parties and has specifically asked one not be held, could also consider helping out the birthday girl by revealing the plans, perhaps by talking to the husband about her concern.

Personally, I think ignoring someone's wishes in this regard is almost an act of aggression, i.e., I know what you want better than you do.

Carolyn Hax: I agree, with the following caveat, which is why I didn't advise that the friend blab about the party:

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RE: Surprise Party Etiquette: We didn't have a big party for my mother-in-law's 60th after she told us repeatedly that she did not want one. However, she has never been happy since then about the fact that we made so much more of a big deal for her husband's 60th.

I still refuse to put all the effort into planning a party for someone who says they don't want one, just so they won't complain after. However, I can certainly see where the birthday girl's children might be coming from.

Carolyn Hax: Ugh. Reminder No. 4,073 why it would be a much more pleasant world if people just said what they meant. Thanks.

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Guilt tripping out: My mom has asked I throw her and my dad a pricey anniversary party. I am working hard to pay off debt, and just don't want to spend the kind of money she expects. I offered to throw a party in my home, which she said wasn't good enough. She keeps asking, giving me guilt trips, etc. Do I owe them a party I can't really afford?

Carolyn Hax: No. And what's with the guilt trips? You want to kill that trend now. "I'm sorry, Mom, I can't afford the party you want unless you pay for it." Then STICK to it. Let her bitch herself blue.

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Washington D.C.: Hey Carolyn,

I seem to have a pattern of getting into long-term relationships which are generally solid (1-2 years) then grow into a plateau. I'm 26-year-old guy who finds these energetic, independent women with these incredible lives and interests -- and then a year down the road become totally dependant on me. As if they give up their interests, their independence, their enthusiasm. I try to encourage them to find ways to re-inspire them, but it just becomes a plateau.

Along with this comes the flat-lining of the excitement of the relationship. I still have it, but it feels like they find a guy who will be truthful, and treat them nice, and they turn into "secure" mode and just coast along.

Am I unusual for expecting that the "spark" in a relationship keep going? I never seem to lose it... even after 2+ years. But after their enthusiasm dims down, I get frustrated.

Carolyn Hax: Are you sure you're reading these fizzle-outs correctly? They become dependent on you, but they're the ones who lose the spark ... I don't know. Doesn't scan right.

I guess it just sounds possible to me that the women aren't becoming dependent so much as comfortable, happy enough with you to find pleasure in just staying homr. Nothing wrong with that, if that's the case. Some people are naturally more energetic than others and therefore more likely to sustain "incredible lives and interests" throughout old age and old relationships, and maybe you need to seek out one of them--but even with someone like that I think you have to expect some security, some coasting, some let's-pile-on-the-couch-and-watch-a-DVD. Try looking at it from a different perspective before you dismiss it--again, as a sign that you get enough joy/excitement/passion/intellectual stimulation from each other to make staying home sound like a plan.

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For guy with twice pregnant girlfriend: I feel like a jerk pointing this out, but think about a girl who gets pregnant twice despite using two kinds of birth control. The odds are infitissimally small, you might consider she was trying to get pregnant for some reason...

I don't know her, so I don't know, but probability leans towards this being delibrate, especially when you don't see each other too often.

Carolyn Hax: I was thinking it, too, and feeling like a jerk, too, because it's still possible lightning struck twice--and if so, it's seems unfair to add a cloud of suspicion to everything else these two have to deal with. But, you're right. Thanks for saying it out loud.

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Kingstowne, Va.: My brother got engaged last summer after dating a woman for two months. They planned a summer wedding. Our family had a lot of reservations. She's jealous, demands that he spend money he doesn't have, cuts him off from his family/friends. Her family thinks she has a drug habit. We were concerned and talked to him about it, but he was firm in his love and was standing by her.

Last weekend they broke off their engagement. As the big sister, I'm playing the role of confidant. Since it's inappropriate to sing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead", how do you suggest that I tactfully counsel him through this? I'm listening and saying "umm humm" a lot.

Carolyn Hax: Then you're doing great. You already said what you had to say about her. Now just hope they stay broken up.



Side note. Why is it there seems to be a one-size-fits-all description of the Awful Girlfriend? Insecurity, control, jealousy, isolation, massive outlays of nonexistent cash. Like it's one very busy girl.

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Re: ex-boyfriend who died : For the woman whose ex-boyfriend died 10 years ago -- do write. My sister died very unexpectedly 5 years ago, and I know that my mom appreciates every note she gets from people who knew and miss her and want to share their memories and thoughts.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you. The consensus among the saddened is that she should definitely write.

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Anonymous: A good friend of mine started dating a secretary in his office (he's a newly graduated attorney). After one date she said that she loved him, by day six they were engaged by day 10 she moved in with him. He is buying her a new car, and he already bought her a diamond ring. On top of that he explains to us (his friends) that she needs some fixing up, (hair, teeth, and clothes), and that she doesn't like to read because books "frustrate" her. Plus, when we got out and talk politics (which we usually do) he condescendingly tells her "international politics, don't worry." To which she says nothing and stares blankly. He definitely has some confidence issues, and is just holding on for dear life to the first girl who said yes. I met her and can tell you they have very little in common. I have tried to explain to him that he is making the biggest mistake of his life, he is only 24, and if it's the real thing they should wait. He refuses to, or can't see it any other way. We think it must be the sex, as he isn't really experienced in these areas. What gives?

Carolyn Hax: She gives him something he needs. Beyond that, there's no point in dwelling on it. His life, his choice, yours only to stand by and watch.

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"Mental discipline": How exactly can you work toward mental discipline and controlling your eating if you've never been good at discipline? I mean, actual practical things you can do. I've been trying, but find the discipline breaks down after a few days.

Carolyn Hax: Mostly, put yourself in a position to need very little discipline at any given time. If eating is your problem, e.g.:

-Don't keep tempting things in the house, and pick healthy things you actually like.

-Don't force yourself to follow a draconian diet, just set a small, reachable goal.

-Stay busy enough so that you can't break down and drive yourself out to the nearest drive-thru.

-When you do break down and head to the drive-thru, order small, just enough to scratch the itch.

Stuff like that. I used food, but it applies to more--like procrastination on a big project. I think the biggest mistake people make is to set goals that run counter to their nature. If you love fat, eat fat--just lessen the portions, and add a 30-min walk to your day. If you can't concentrate for more than an hour on your dissertation, plan to work in two 1-hour increments a day. Etc.

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Washington, D.C.: 28-year-old male never been in a relationship from last week answering your question. You asked "do I have any female friends." Yes, I have many female friends. I just have a difficult time feeling comfortable enough with a new person to take it to the next level. Like, it seems that if my dates aren't getting immediate "something," they move on. I simply am not able or unaware of what is needed to convey my interest.

Carolyn Hax: Hm. Dates generally don't move on out of impatience.

It's good that you have female friends--shows you can be comfortable around women eventually, something a lot of dateless guys can't. But it sounds like you're treating Date Women and Friend Women differently, not good. Romance is an extension of friendship, friendship with a physical element--and from years of reading this stuff, I've seen pretty consistently that people who treat romance as a separate class of relationship demanding a separate, often dream-type person arent' happy with the results. Or don't have results.

So. Look for in your dates what you look for in friends instead of some idealized other thing, and I think you'll feel a lot more comfortable. At least it's worth a try.

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Carolyn Hax: I hear much screaming, gotta go. Thanks for coming and have a great weekend.

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