Tell Me About It

With Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2004 12:00 PM

She's back!

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: 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.


Technical Difficulties, USA: Apologies if I'm the hundreth person to write this, but there is something wrong with the link to the July 2nd discussion. When you click on it, it starts cycling back and forth between that page and another one in an endless loop. Just thought you'd want to know.

Oh, and P.S. -- Welcome back and congrats, Carolyn! You've been missed. Sorry about that. Totally my fault. The page is now readable. -- Liz

Carolyn Hax: Thanks Liz, and everyone who wrote in to call this to our attention. Now, time for me to mess up this week's transcript.


Desperate for an answer (but then, who isn't): Hi Carolyn --

So a milestone anniversary is coming up for my parents this summer, and my siblings and I would like to plan something special. The problem is my parents barely speak to each other and when they do, they fight, which sort of rules out us getting them anything just for themselves. We are even hesitant to draw attention to the special day, since they are clearly not excited about it. Any pointers on what we should do for them that won't rock the boat?


Carolyn Hax: Question: Since their (apparently) hating each other kind of takes the special out of the day, -why- would you like to plan something for it? I'm assuming it's because you love them, and those feelings have nothing to do with the condition of their marriage. Right? So do something that stays as far as possible from involving the condition of their marriage. E.g., big surprise party? Out. (Way.) Fam-only gathering for cake? Probably out. Cards that say Happy XXieth? Out. Etc. In fact, I could argue that trying to celebrate a clear disaster is not advisable in any form, but if you feel you'd be bad kids to ignore it, stick to stuff that says, "We're glad you had us."


Pennsylvania: Carolyn... without going into all of the nasty grubby details of my life... does one forgive... I mean REALLY forgive, and not just SAY you're forgiving someone and then have it STILL bother you?

Carolyn Hax: 1. Don't say you've forgiven when you haven't. Say you want to forgive but it's still bothering you.

2. Consider what you have to do if you can't forgive--sever the tie--and see if that's not better for everyone than insincere assurances + grudge-holding.

3. If forgiveness is, to your mind, the only option, try to see the transgression from the eyes of the transgressor. Most of the time, people who screw up are just being human in exactly the same ways you are also human. Look for something, anything you can relate to.

4. And if you try and try and still find nothing but a person you don't like doing things you can't abide, see 2.


State of Confusion: First of all -- welcome back. You were missed!

What exactly classifies as a rebound relationship? Not too long ago I got out of a 5+ year relationship. Not soon after, I met a great guy who I like -- a LOT. After being part of a not-so-great relationship, it feels really good to be in something that's fun and easy with a guy who I think is just wonderful. Friends are telling me that I'm rebounding, but disagree. I'm genuinely happy and have real feelings for him that make me think he's what I've been missing. We're both on that the same long-term wavelength and everything is great - except for the skepticism of my friends. So what gives? Am I bound to dump this guy because it's a rebound? I don't know what it means to have a rebound, I guess, so I'm confused.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks! If you let the new thing develop slowly and give it a couple of years before you cement it in any official way, you'll give your judgment a chance to wait out any initial head-rushes and, in doing so, make definitions irrelevant.


Carolyn Hax: FWIW, though, I'd say "rebounding" is about confusion. Post-breakup emotions can be big and intense and it's hard to know what to do with them all, so I think it's normal for people, subconsciously, to channel them all into some big and intense new somebody. Then, they mend from the breakup and wonder what the hell they ever even saw in X, much less felt so passionately about.

Problem with dismissing all relationships like yours as rebounds is that sometimes, there aren't big emotions after a breakup; sometimes you've seen it coming and you're fine with it and you're in as good a position to date someone new as anyone else is. Even better, if the breakup helped you see what you do want.

So tell your friends you'll make a deal: You'll promise to refrain from doing anything rash if they'll promise to put a sock in it.


New York, N.Y.: Re: forgiveness.

On a related note, how do you prove yourself worthy of forgiveness, when you know that you screwed up and accept responsibility for what you did?

Carolyn Hax: Your knowing you screwed up and accepting responsibility is the proof. After that, all you can do is be patient. It's up to the injured parties to decide whether they believe you.


Miami, Fla.: Dear Carolyn-
Good to have you back! I just broke up with my girlfriend and I'm sad, depressed, and confused. I'm wondering if I did the right thing. There were things that were wrong with the relationship, but I keep remembering the good times and wonder if I'll ever be able to have those times with someone else? Perhaps I could've overlooked the bad parts in the relationship... or perhaps they weren't as bad as I may have thought? Anyway, are these feelings normal?

Carolyn Hax: No, you're a complete freak.

Yes they're normal feelings. But think about the most miserable couple you know, and I'll bet everything in my pocket that they're together because they're both secretly thinking, "I just need to overlook the bad parts of this relationship because if I leave I'll never feel X again."

Instead of going back to your girlfriend, start doing whatever it is you have to do to make your own company preferable to the company of someone difficult. Then, you'll never wonder again whether someone is good for you or not. Really.


More on forgiveness: I find that it takes me a while to forgive people for something, even after someone has apologized to me for something.

I find that a lot of people believe that an apology means automatic forgiveness. Is this the right thing to assume?

Carolyn Hax: For some people and for some transgressions, a sincere apology is all that's necessary for everyone to move on (to new transgressions and apologies!). That's how it should be, since all an offender can really do is apologize.

But some hurts do take a little more repair--e.g., the victim needs time to be sure the offender intends to keep certain promises--so there's nothing wrong with a less-than-instant forgiveness. I do think, though, the burden is on you to say explicitly that you need more time. Otherwise, you get into the gray blob of re-punishing someone who has already admitted, regretted, sorried, etc.


Chicago, Ill.: How to handle a father-in-law that makes inappropriate sexual comments, not directed at you, but just in general? How to handle husband who thinks you're overreacting to get offended? Comments really are icky and make me not want any future kids around this guy. Examples: asking my friend if she likes the scene in some movie where the lead actress puts her hand in the lead actor's pants; saying my friend has a "womanly" figure in front of her; talking about women's panties; making off-color sexual jokes that are not funny.

Carolyn Hax: Forget about the icky father-in-law and concentrate on whether the son at least agrees that his father is icky. And if he doesn't agree, recognize that this disagreement has the potential to be much more harmful to future kids than a grandpa who talks about panties.


Definition of Rebound: I think rebounding is when you break up with someone and immediately get into a new relationship indiscriminately because you are afraid of being alone.

(P.S. I married my so-called "rebound" person after we dated for four years.)

Carolyn Hax: I agree, but only to the extent that people act on their fear consciously. As I (think I) said last week, people usually make mistakes when they're thinking, "Hey, this person's great, exactly what I need!"--or, at worst, when they're feeling good enough to justify overlooking a few "minor" problems. Otherwise, they wouldn't forge ahead with the mistake.

So. By your P.S. did you mean that you were a happy ending, or still afraid of being alone four years later?


Re: forgiveness: So if you've apologized, accepted responsibility, etc., and the other person has said "I need more time," are you supposed to return and apologize again? Or wait for them to come inform you when they're ready? It just seems that once you've apologized, the ball should be in their court, even if you were wrong in the first place.

Carolyn Hax: I agree, and thanks for the chance to be clear about it. The victim is still the victim. However, once the offender has apologized SINCERELY, his or her only job is behave well from that point on. It's the victim's job to accept the original apology--or not, and to say so. No good can come of continually demanding fresh apologies.


Washington, D.C.: Online only, please.

I've never submitted a question, but have read the archives voraciously. I hope you know that your advice reaches much farther than those who receive your direct responses. Your perspective has impacted me tremendously, and thanks for that.

My question: I committed what may be a common mistake in that I married someone who I respect and love greatly, but who I am not in love with and probably never have been. We were friends first, and in my frustration with the process of dating the wrong people, getting hurt, etc., I took what I thought was the safer route and began a romantic relationship with a friend who I knew had always been interested in me. We dated for several years, and now have been married for several years. I have always had doubts (which, in retrospect, I should have heeded), but now know for sure that our relationship will not ever be satisfying to me (no intimacy/affection/attraction). I know what I need to do, but have no idea how to bring myself to do it. The prospect of leaving is emotionally and logistically overwhelming to me. When I think of that on top of dealing with the everyday stresses of career, life, etc, I feel paralyzed. I find myself making excuses to delay the inevitable, and I don't feel good about myself for doing so. Any advice or words of wisdom? Thanks in advance.

Carolyn Hax: No, thank you.

Good timing with the whole rebound thread, though I appreciate that being held up as an example is probably not your idea of a lunch break.

Advice: Talk to your husband. Out with it. Force out the first words, and the rest will follow. You will panic, cry, feel overwhelmed, all those things, but you will also feel relief from your burden like only those with a secret can feel. Also know that this unspoken burden of yours is intensifying whatever life or career stresses you feel.

Who knows. Maybe being able to speak of this with your husband will create an intimacy between you that you never thought possible (which could even trigger the affection and attraction). Definitely, though, your -not- speaking of it is alone enough to prevent your ever being able to achieve intimacy with him.

Good luck. Check back in when you do it, if you're up to it.


Needing clarification: Not to beat a dead horse, but can you please clarify some of the statements you've made today about "overlooking the bad?" I think that part of adult relationships is accepting people for who they are -- faults or weaknesses included -- and deciding whether you can live with it. Am I really just fooling myself and "overlooking the bad?"


Carolyn Hax: Depends on what the bad is, and how much it affects your day-to-day quality of life. If "bad" means you fight often and about the same things over and over--to use an example of something waaaay too many people accept as part of a "normal adult relationship"--then you owe it to yourself not to overlook it. If "bad" is that sometimes you'd rather play golf with your buddy than your mate because your mate takes for@#$%$#ever to line up a shot, even though you still love your mate, then that's an adult accepting that even a great mate will have flaws. (Great meaning, too, that you won't get guilt tripped for wanting to golf with your buddy alone sometimes.)


More on Forgiveness: Caroline,

You wrote "...since all an offender can really do is apologize."

Not true. Sometimes an offender can apologize and also make restitution of some sort. If someone has taken something from or somehow messed up someone else's life, the offender can apologize and ask for forgiveness, but the offender should also do whatever might be possible to make things right again. Example: If you steal $50 from someone, it's not enough to apologize and expect forgiveness, you should also make every attempt to repay.

Carolyn Hax: True. I've been thinking only in terms of relationship-type offenses, like cheating or saying something horrible, where undoing isn't an option. But if it's a material issue, then the offender must also repay/replace/restore, or as close as possible to it. Tx.


West Coast: Carolyn,

I wrote to you a while ago about my mom's alcoholism--she and my father live across the country, and neither my brother nor my sister live near either. After several interventions, an inpatient program, an outpatient program, and lots of therapy -- she's still binging regularly, losing days upon days where she won't answer the phone or get out of bed (but yay, still drives, apparently). You had recommended Al-Anon. I went. And hated it.

It works for some people, I'm sure but -- the emphasis on Al-Anon is on not giving advice. And everyone else there lives with their alcoholic family member, or nearby, and I just couldn't relate. And again, I'll say it works for some people but... damn it just all felt so whiny.

I don't know what to do, or how to relate, when I don't actually live with (or even near, geographically) my alcoholic parent. And I really want to hear some "this worked, this doesn't" kind of advice from others in a similar situation, just to give me some ideas of how to hold a phone conversation, much less see her or not see her. Although a step by step manual would be nice, I understand why there isn't one. Just some ideas that I can accept or reject as I deem appropriate in how to deal.

The kicker is we have a big family vacation coming up, where everyone is going to be converging in my hometown this August, and I just feel a knot in the pit of my stomach. Is there any resources out there? Self-help books? Anything?

Lost girl.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sorry Al-Anon didn't do it for you. These programs aren't for everyone, and in fact they are both famously effective for some people and famously annoying to others. There's nothing wrong with ditching them for something that suits you better.

But if you're just shopping for a different answer--different from, "Your mom drinks and there's nothing you can do about it"--then you're going to be disappointed. It may be that you need to accept that about her, and approach all the things you mentioned with that in mind. How, for example, do you hold a phone conversation with her? You call, you find out whether she's able to communicate, and when she isn't, you hang up. "Mom, I won't talk to you when you're like this." Click.

As for seeing her or not seeing her, it's a matter both of what you hope to accomplish--nothing beyond seeing her, I hope, since you can't make her stop drinking--and what you can stand.

If you aren't ready to see her this way, maybe individual counseling is the way to go, with someone experienced at handling children of alcoholics. It is an entire, established field.


Caroline: How do you possibly stand it when people misspell your name when it's WRITTEN ON EVERY RESPONSE YOU GIVE AS WELL AS ALL OVER THE SITE?

Carolyn Hax: First couldn't believe it, then couldn't stand it, now find it mildly amusing when I even notice it, which I often don't nowadays. Except that day when I felt pissy and deliberately misspelled someone's location in my response.


Ooh interesting: Some of the best relationships I've ever known started off as friendships and became something deeper. Not to say that they weren't without problems. But isn't intimacy a two way street? I mean, if you hold yourself back because you don't feel it or believe that you can feel it with a certain person, aren't you the one withholding intimacy? If you don't have the courage to speak up about who you are, aren't you the one with the problem, not the person who for what ever reason blindly goes about not being a heartthrob to you?

I say this having been on both sides of it. I know how scary it is to have to divulge something that may not place you in the best of lights. However, so long as we hold on the illusion of a life I think we are doomed to live shallow unfulfilled lives. I personally believe that is why there are so many break-ups/ divorces etc. All of us are conditioned to want an image of a relationship based on who we are, our families, our cultures etc. Maybe to varying degrees, we are not so capable of freeing ourselves of those illusions. I don't know just a thought.

Carolyn Hax: In the original poster's defense, she knows she's the problem. She admitted her mistake. (Thread convergeance alert.)

But thank you for "illusion of a life." It's something Ive been railing against in this job since I can remember but I feel like, Idunno, a short kid with a pinata. Maybe I just needed the phrase? Anyway. Nice argument for speaking up.


Carolyn Hax: Must go. Thanks all for the great questions, wish I could stay. Till next week.


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