Tell Me About It

With Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 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.


Wednesdays???: Carolyn,
Are Wednesday columns officially a thing of the past or is that a maternity leave compromise? Love your advice!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks! Wednesday columns are on leave, and they'll be back the week of Labor Day. I should have mentioned before, I'm "back" only online right now. The reduced column schedule will last for its planned four months.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Carolyn,

I'm in the uncomfortable position of likely having to decline a friend's wedding invitation for reasons of cost -- the wedding is halfway across the country -- and timing -- the invitation arrived barely a month before the ceremony and I wasn't expecting the expenditure of travel costs, etc, since the friend in question hadn't talked to me since the engagement last winter (in fact, I'd just figured I wasn't invited). Is there a more tactful way to decline than to say "I'm in grad school and on a pretty tight budget and you invited me too late to be able to afford to attend?"

Carolyn Hax: Lose the blame ("you invited me too late ...") and you're fine. Just say you're sorry but you can't afford to come.


Washington, D.C.: I am a single guy in late 30s who is looking to meet women but it seems very difficult to even meet them. For example, when I am at a party or a public place like a gym, I never notice women even looking at me. I am about a average looking guy. I thought a women in this age would at least make eye contact with a guy whom they may be interested in.

My question is how can I tell if a women may be interested in talking to me even if she is not making eye contact with me? Or will I be wasting my time (other than possibly harrasing them and/or approaching someone who may not be interested/available) by approaching someone who is not making eye contact?

Carolyn Hax: Here's a trick: Treat women as people, like any other people, and you'll have traveled 9/10ths of the journey. They are not some freaky alien species. Except on the subject of shoes.


New York, N.Y.: How important do you think it is for a couple to agree on money management? I'm in a relationship right now where I'm a saver, he's a spender, and it definitely creates moments of tension. I'll feel like he's spending irresponsibly (he has bad credit resulting from a divorce that he's working to straighten out and pay off); he'll feel like I'm monitoring and "mom-ing" him. I've always heard that money is one of those critical issues that a marriage-bound couple should agree on. But then I've talked to several married friends who say they commonly argue about money and still maintain a great relationship overall. What do you think?

Carolyn Hax: I think you should heed your own judgment and stop listening to other people. Except maybe to me. If you can't trust your BF to conduct himself responsibly, you have problems.

Meanwhile, it's not your place to look over his shoulder and pick-pick-pick at his spending decisions. Bleagh. It's his life, his money, his financial hole either to fill or deepen.

Yes, his decisions may ultimately affect you, but micromanaging those decisions is not the way to keep them from hurting you. Say you do interfere successfully enough to get him to spend less. (Ba ha.) If you haven't changed his underlying character (see above parenthetical), then he'll only just revert to his bad ways down the road when he's sick of humoring you.

Leaving him alone to handle his money and then judging what those results will mean for your future--and then deciding whether to have a future with him or not, based on this information--is the only recourse you have. BAck off.


State, PENN: Hi Carolyn! I have a social courtesy question for you. I have a friend who just found out she'll be away from home for five months and she asked me to help out around her house. Clip the roses, feed the plants and house pets, trim the hedges, fold the napkins, prepare holiday feasts, etc. Normally, I would have no problem helping out but I just KNOW she has the cash to hire someone and I feel a little taken advantage of. How can I respond without hurting her feelings. Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Prepare holiday feasts? For whom, the armchairs?

"I'm sorry, I don't have time to handle that much responsibility. But I'd be willing to do X, if that helps." Call me a goofy optimist, but I'm hoping X will be to take her pets into your home. The thought of their being alone in a house for five months makes me want to cry. Unless they're goldfish.


Carolyn Hax: Or cats.


Carolyn Hax: KIDDING, sheesh.


Vienna, Va.: Am I being selfish for not wanting to go on a "family vacation" (I'm 25). Their idea of a vacation is going to a tropical paradise and sitting on the beach 10 hours a day and doing nothing else. My idea of a vacation is going places and doing activities one cannot do at or near home (i.e. anything besides sitting on your butt all day long worshipping the sun goddess). My friends think I am crazy to complain about an all-expenses paid trip. The other side of the story is that although I love my family dearly, 10 days with them will make me want to gouge my eyes out by day five.

Carolyn Hax: Then go for four days.

Or don't go. Or go and do your own thing during the day. "I'm taking a bus tour to X, anybody in? Okay, bye." Or indulge in any of the other privileges of being 25 that work for you, including weighing the interests of all the various parties against your priorities and making a decision accordingly. You can do it, GO GO GO.


Cats alone!; I'm appalled: Carolyn,

I love your chat. Love your advice. But saying it's okay to leave cats alone FOR FIVE MONTHS!;? That's heartless.

Carolyn Hax: See "sheesh," above.


Lurker in New Orleans, La.: Love having you back!
I have a friend who keeps saying rude things to me. Our whole company shut down almost a year ago, throwing about 100 of us out of work. This friend of mine ran back to her prior employer and got a job within three months. Last night she says P (the super-human math machine with few people skills), M (the weirdo) and me were the only three not to find jobs! I know this isn't true, as our mutual friend also hasn't found a job (but hasn't been looking hard). I cut the conversation short then and there, but still feel betrayed. I mean, this was one of my best work buddies!

And then, there's a weight issue. We both lost some and we both gained some back. We were recently videotaped and all she could say to me was, "don't feel bad, the camera adds 10 pounds." My husband said (without hearing her comment) that SHE was the one who was looking dumpy.

When I tell her things like that hurt my feelings, she tells me I'm too sensitive. Am I?

Oh, should I mention she finds YOU condescending??

Carolyn Hax: Well then, obviously she isn't worth the electrons we've spend typing about her.

You're feeling vulnerable right now--you're not working, you're self-conscious about your weight, you think everybody's pointing at you and laughing. And, unfortunately, you have a friend who's a bit of an insensitive clod, so she keeps saying things that hit you directly in the sore spots--even, possibly, things she means as kidnesses.

She never should have pointed the finger back at you when you told her she was hurting your feelings (see "insensitive clod," above), but I would suggest you take a deep breath and remind yourself that you're in a low spot and, until you're out of it (as you will be, sooner or later), you're going to take clodular utterings harder than usual. And try not to let her get to you.

And, when you are out of the low spot, also try to remember how this person made you feel and use that experience to help make you great at reassuring other people who are in their low spots.


Richmond, Va.: I believe the person asking about the five month house sitting is referring to Martha Stewart's recent sentence to five months in prison. Fear not, friend of Martha, she's free pending appeal... you've got plenty of time to think of an excuse.

Carolyn Hax: Ah, yanked again. Makes me feel so special. Thanks, Richmond.


Falls Church, Va.: Hey Carolyn,

Welcome back!

Here's my question: My boyfriend and I have been together almost four years, and he has yet to tell me he loves me. I've gotten used to saying it to him without any "I love you" return. He says he "feels that way about me" but that "people misuse the word so much it doesn't mean anything" and that he won't use the word until he is ready to get married. Well, neither of us wants to get married any time soon (I truly don't -- I'm not just saying that because he doesn't), so I guess I may never hear it. Obviously, it bothers me, and I've told him so many times. It's starting to really tear me up inside, and I'm thinking it may be a "deal-breaker." Do you think I'm overreacting?

Carolyn Hax: Control freak with a capital eek. People who love you won't hide the candy and make you beg for it. When you leave, I predict gushers of relief.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn: So I've been with boyfriend for six months. We're cute and cuddly and passionate and I'm feeling that underneath it all things aren't as peachy as we are making them seem. I can't figure out what is wrong -- he'd be totally willing to "talk things out" if I expressed concern over something specific but when I think about it nothing in particular, as you would put it, a "dealbraker." Is it just that he isn't living up to an unreasonable ideal of a knight in shining armor? How do I bring up this general sense of malaise?

Carolyn Hax: Don't, until you've made one more pass at trying to figure out what you're feeling. Drawing from the end of last week's chat--do you feel like your "cute and cuddly and passionate" is from some societally absorbed relationship script? I think it's pretty common for people to have the trappings of intimacy without the intimacy, and to be left with a hard-to-pin-down empty feeling as a result. Just a theory.

If I'm way off but you're still not sure why you feel weird, then just go for it and say you feel weird.


Washington, D.C.: Last year I lost one of my closest friends (a guy) because his wife was jealous of his friendship with me and asked him to not speak with me anymore, which he did. I was devastated by it. I have another close male friend and it scares me to think he'll get in a serious relationship and possibly ditch me as well. I totally understand that when a guy gets married he has to make his wife his closest friend, but at the same time it doesn't seem fair to me that I get disqualified from being his friend just because I'm a female. In the case of my male friend who got married, his wife let him keep his best male pals.

Carolyn Hax: He may get in a serious relationship and possibly ditch you as well. There's nothing you can do to prevent this, other than perhaps to say to the guy, please do me a favor and don't fall for some chick who's threatened by me. Actually, he'd be doing himself a favor too, assuming your friendship isn't competitive and doesn't cross any lines. Jealousy is exhausting.

Anyway, somebody last week reminded me of some past advice on a similar subject, so it's still on my mind and it applies here pretty well: You can't trust people not to hurt you, you can only trust yourself to handle it if it happens. Sucks to lose a friend, but it's not personal here--and even if it were, all you can do is keep doin'.


Charlottesville, Va.: Uh Carolyn, why does refusing to say "I love you" make the guy a control freak? Sounds more like he's just being honest.

Carolyn Hax: He feels it but won't say it till he's ready to get married? Holy barf. I emphatically agree with myself here. Sorry.


Arlington, Va.: An update:

Four months ago I wrote in lamenting how the fourth girl in a row had stopped talking to me rather than fess up the truth. Well, about two months ago, the fourth girl and I started talking again. She flat out told me that she's seeing someone else (which I suspected). With that out of the way, she and I have become friends again.

Anyways, I guess what I'm trying to convey here is that being honest and open with people is far preferrable to silence. Sure, hearing her news hurt, but in a "hit your thumb with a hammer" way (intense pain that dies off pretty quickly), not the constant agony that accompanies the purgatory of the silent treatment.

Ladies, please, there's no need for such utter mind games -- guys are simple creatures. Speak your mind honestly and respectfully, and the dating scene would be so much easier for us all.

And thank you, Carolyn, for your words of support when I was a royal mess emotionally.

Carolyn Hax: Yer welcome. And I support your words here, except I think in this respect girls are simple creatures, too, who are just as plagued by misguided I-don't-want-to-hurt-you-itis in dating as men are. Silent treatment is an equal-opportunity purgatory.


Little polis: I think I've always had a glass is half empty outlook on life which has recently morphed into some people are lucky to have a spouse to rely on, but ultimately you've just got yourself. I've just started to feel so alone lately as I don't have any close friendships or people I see on regular basis. My family is super busy and centered on their own lives. And my fiancee and I are either 800 miles apart or broke. Sometimes both. I'm in conseling for anxiety but I also need to figure out how to not feel so desperate. Sure, one might have to depend mostly on oneself, but that's not entirely bad right?

Carolyn Hax: I hope it's not bad because it's true. Sure, we all depend on people, but we can't be so oblivious as to depend on those people to be there tomorrow. Life is fickle; that isn't open to debate. What is debatable is whether this fickleness is bad (what makes us anxious) or good (what makes life and its gifts precious. Momma, pass the corn ...). I think the definition of well-adjusted is when you see it as both good and bad and you're okay with that.

Two questions for you: Do you have time to circulate more, just to ensure regular human contact, and are you also being treated for depression?


Am I wrong?: Everyone around me seems to think my boyfriend (who I live with and talk about marriage with) is not for me. My best friend, mother, aunt, people I work with. Sometimes I see their points, but other times I feel that I am happy. Could they all be right and I am just in a cloud? And how do you deal with the constant negativity I have to hear about him from these people? Thanks and welcome back.

Carolyn Hax: No one should have to deal with constant negativity. Ask these everyones please to figure out specifically what their objections are, weed out shallow stuff (eg, he's ugly) until they're left with only objections of substance (eg, he's too critical of you) that they can support with examples or facts (eg, he harps on your weight), present these factually supported objections, and then respect your autonomy enough to drop it.

For your part, you need to listen to what they say. When one person harps, it's one person. When everyone harps, it's cause for serious thought. Do their objections have substance? What do you mean when you say you "feel that I am happy"? What's your definition? Do you trust your judgment on this, or do you have incentive to rationalize?


Somewhere, USA: Why do people put off important life changing attitudes and habits like finding a new job, losing weight, finally writing that first draft or getting rid of the rotten friend?

Carolyn Hax: If I had to guess, I'd say because those attitudes and habits are in place for a good reason. Eg, not writing that first draft--maybe the person doesn't want to write it so much as s/he wants to have written it. Huge difference, one that merely telling yourself "I'm going to start tomorrow!" isn't going to bridge. Any successful effort to change, IMHO, is one that works with one's inherent flaws, not one that presumes they can fully be conquered.


Rockville, Md.: So how do you decide if you are ready for another kid? Intellectually, I am. I love being a mother. My marriage works. My son is doing well. I would like to have another child. We have money and jobs and stability. But I remember the sleepless nights and marathon work routines and constant crying, and I chicken out. The first year was rough. How do I get the nerve to do it again?

Carolyn Hax: DON'T DO IT.


Carolyn Hax: Kidding again, I swear.

No really.

You get into the mind set by looking at the kid you have and deciding that the early days were hell but it's a hell you're eager to take on again because the payoff is worth it to you.

Or, you look at what made that first year so hellish and figure out if there's anything you can do differently this time.

Or, you admit that you're not up to taking it on again, and resist the urge to feel guilty for that. Think about it: If a person with, um, say, three kids says to herself, "That's it, I'm done," most onlookers would nod sympathetically. Right? So why is it someone with one kid can't say the same thing? The logic is the same. Hitting your limit is hitting your limit, and it's nobody's business but yours and your spouse's what that limit is.


re: Am I wrong?: Carolyn --

It's so great to have you back, by the way.

I think that men and women who wonder why all their friends and family are negative about their significant other should take a good hard look at themselves and how they talk about the relationship.

I had a friend who was constantly complaining about her boyfriend. So everyone thought he was wrong for her, and she knew it. But then she complained that everyone didn't like her boyfriend.

How you portray the relationship to friends and family has an ENORMOUS impact on how they perceive it.

Just my two cents.

Carolyn Hax: So simple, so hard to see. Thanks.

Potential larger application: Constant complaints do not make good conversation. Unless you're really funny.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn-

How long is too long to wait to get married? My boyfriend and I have been living together for six years. He keeps on reassuring me that we are getting married. So, am I kidding myself?

Not-a-Bride to Be

Carolyn Hax: Why is it up to him to reassure you? How do you think your life will be different if you get married? What is it you don't have now? Are you being realistic in expecting something important to change?

You're sitting around waiting for your life to start when it's already well underway. Look at this life in progress, honestly, and decide if it's the one you want to be living. Then ACT accordingly.


Re: DON'T DO IT: Are you saying you feel a tad weary, my dear?

Carolyn Hax: Hey, I'm typing as fast as I can. (Better than last week, right?)


Re: am I wrong?: I have to respond to this one. I'm wondering if my own sister worte it. Carolyn, you are aboslutely right is advising that when one person has an objection, it's one person, but when everyone is chirping in, it's time to listen.

Every person who loves my sister has tried to advise her gently (she's gotten increasinly volitile) that this is a bad situation. She has asked us repeatedly why we don't like him, we all tell her the same thing, everytime, with copious examples. She refuses to listen, she only wants to deny it and defend him.

"Am I wrong", ask, listen, REALLY listen, try to supress the urge to defend and just listen. These people love you and are all seeing something you're refusing to see yourself.

Carolyn Hax: I think everyone has at least one ongoing heartbreak like this. I wish I could believe posting your plea would help, but if anything would help, we wouldn't all be so heartbroken. Some things, only forcible denial can cure. "It is my sister's life and I will not dwell on it. it is my sister's life and I will not dwell on it ...".


Springfield, Va.: Why shouldn't Rockville have another kid?

Carolyn Hax: Who said she shouldn't?


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn--
I have to respectfully disagree with your advice to the woman to back off her spendy husband! His poor habits will affect her! I have a friend whose husband had severe issues with spending, and they are in 6-figure debt with no hope of ever buying a house. Some people need counselling, if the spending is an addition. By backing off, she may be vulnerable to bigger problems later on.

Carolyn Hax: She isn't married to the guy--she's just in a relationship with him. Her place now is merely to observe and then weigh what she sees.


Need a pep talk, please!: Carolyn! Congratulations on your new bundle! We're so glad you're back.

I hope you can help me. I've resolved to talk with my husband, who I love very much and am worried about, about his drinking habits. I don't think that he is an alcoholic yet, but I think he's heading down a road that could get him there if no one intervenes.

He can be defensive at times, especially when facing what he perceives as criticism, and I was hoping you might know of some good phrasing I could use to get the ball rolling that might help to keep him from shutting down as soon as I start? Also, is there a good method we can use for goal-setting in this regard? Can people ever "cut down" or does one have to go cold turkey on this kind of thing? I could really use your help. We're in our late 20s, if that affects what you'll tell me. Thanks so much.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, glad to be back (and to be newly bundled).

This isn't an issue of phrasing, because you can't separate the defensiveness from the problem drinking; it's not just a matter of 1 drink good, 10 drinks bad. Remember, everybody who drinks too much knows this already and drinks too much anyway. You have to deal with this as an all-inclusive Emotional Issue.

And so I would suggest you get professional advice to help you both see the whole prblem for what it is, and to go about addressing it properly. Al-Anon, again, can help here, as can individual counseling for you from a therapist trained to handle substance abuse. If there's an Employee Assistance Program available through your job, that's another good place to start.

If you'd rather deal with this on your own, the approach most pros recommend is not to say, "You do X, and X is bad," but instead say, "When you do X, I feel Y." Less accusatory.


Re: Living together six years: You usually make room for people's value systems in your responses, but your answer to the poster living with her boyfriend for six years without marriage seemed to say marriage wasn't important. Maybe to her it is. (I know, I know, then why live together? Maybe she thought it was an interim arrangement.) Yes, she could do the asking and, if he says no, she'll have a tough decision to make, but marriage is a value to some people.

Carolyn Hax: No slant intended. The questions were framed to get her thinking about what she wanted and why, so she could go about pursuing or asking for them, or giving up on them (and therefore turning her passive limbo into a set of conscious choices). At least I had hoped they were framed that way.


Washington, D.C.: My friend is moving in with her boyfriend. When I asked her if this meant they were on the road to marriage, she got offended that I would assume that. She said she's moving in with him because he offered and it'll be nice to have him around all the time. They have no plans to get engaged. I told her I was worried about her reasons for moving in with him because if it doesn't work out, she'll be the one to get more hurt because it's already his house and she'll be the one to have to move out. She thinks it's fine for a couple to live together if they don't plan to get married. What do you say?

Carolyn Hax: Her life. Butt outward until asked. And if she crashes and burns, the only acceptable "I told you so" is the one you regret even thinking.


Hanover, Va.: Is it okay to wear bacon pants before Labor Day?

Carolyn Hax: Just stay out of the sun.


Arlington, Va.: Maybe becasue it's Friday, people are having a hard time reading the questions before the write an angry response to you.

Anyway, lets talk about something important. I am going to dinner tonight with my husband, what shoes should I wear?

Carolyn Hax: Ones that remind him why he married you?

And that's okay re criticism, I didn't get half of my own jokes and just cursed myself out for no reason. We all get tired sometimes.


Carolyn Hax: And hungry. Sorry, guys, I was trying to find a good Q to end on but now I'm starting to see spots. So, till next week--thanks for stopping in and happy weekend.


30-something?: Just out of curiosity, why does the blurb at the top of this page refer to you as 30-something? Are you one of those people that'll never admit their real age? I mean, you're a newspaper colunist for the love of god. Not some rock/movie star that needs to appear to be perpetually young.

Carolyn Hax: So you ask me if I'm one of those, and then treat me like one before I even respond? Gee thanks.

I'm 37. I care not who knows this. The site people merely got tired of updating my age on every page it appears.

Sorry, this just caught my eye as I was leaving.



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