Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 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: 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.


Washington, D.C. (is devoid of prospects): Dear Carolyn,

Do you think that a location could be responsible for a love-life, or lack thereof? I grew up in D.C. and never had a boyfriend, never went on dates, didn't even have a date to the prom. When I went away to school half a country away, I found that very easily I met guys who I liked, and romantic attachments were not a problem. Since I moved back to D.C. almost two years ago, I have not met anyone appealing. I know some very nice men, but I am simply not interested in pursuing a relationship with any of them.

So, could it possibly be the city is to blame for my lonely nights? Or is there something deeper and more sinister at work here, like a terrible personality flaw that repels men and is only brought out by living in the locale of my unhappy adolescence?

Thanks for your help!

Carolyn Hax: My favorite kind of question--unanswerable. Could be you're unhappy in DC and that manifests itself in the kind of people you meet; could be location has nothing to do with it and it was the college environment that helped you meet so many guys. Could be DC attracts a type of person you don't find attractive (though that explanation always seems suspect to me when it's used to dismiss as huge and varied a place as Washington). Could just be luck. Could be you're going through a kind of internal growth spurt, and so no one will be right for you till it's finished, and so you shouldn't romantically attached right now anyway. Could be you should stop trying to rationalize your unhappiness and just get out of a city you really don't seem to like.


Bad Day Poison: I read last week's discussion too late to post but I wonder if I can respond to the person who wondered if she was venting her bad days too much to her boyfriend.

I always ask my husband about his day and if he's had a rotten one, he'll usually give me a kiss and say "it's better now." It lets me know he's had a rough day without either of us spending time dwelling on it and we can get on with having a pleasant evening.

She doesn't have stick with "it was fine, thanks" in order not to infect him with her bad day poison. Just a simple "It's over, thank God" or "better now" or something like that.

Carolyn Hax: Nice solution, thanks.


Boston, Mass.: Where's the line between being a good friend to someone, and being taken for granted? I feel like lately it's more about what I can do for people that the pleasure of my company. But I feel like if I say that I'm pretty much saying "boo hoo no one's paying attention to me."

How do you make boundaries if you've never had them? I feel like if I say "You know what? I'm not just here to fix you up" or "No, I don't want to drive" or "Sorry, it's not my job to make sure you have a funky good time" to people that I'm just going to come across as angry, especially since I've put up with it so long.

Carolyn Hax: Why not just start saying no, as un-emotionally as you can, and if it comes out angry, so be it. Just make sure you then apologize for snapping, since you are responsible for part of the problem here--people shouldn't be taking advantage of you, but you also shouldn't pretend it's okay while you're quietly getting enraged (as you've figured out).


East Coast: Carolyn,

I'm headed off fairly soon to visit a friend for a weekend. Her boyfriend will be there as well, and they tend to be semi-revolting and gooey around other people. For the record, I like the guy, I just wish they wouldn't be so icky when other people are around. Any tips for mantras I can repeat in my head or a nice way to say "I'm going to yak if you don't stop?"

Carolyn Hax: "I'm going to yak if you don't stop." That's what I hope my friends would say.


Vienna, Va.: Hi Carolyn, hope you are doing great today!

Just a bit of help here; what can I do about my boyfriend's ex who simply won't take no for an answer?

My boyfriend and the ex broke up over three years ago and everything seemed fine until we started to dating about one year ago. Even though the ex says that he is happy about us dating, he seems to go out of his way to make things difficult.

Should I be mad at my boyfriend for allowing this to continue or just ignore it and hope it goes away?

Thanks for any help or advice you can give.

Carolyn Hax: If the boyfriend's doing (or not doing) something that has the net effect of encouraging his ex, then you need to direct your annoyance at your boyfriend. If the ex is doing more or less unstoppable stuff--leaving phone messages, sending emails, spreading rumors, saying snarky things when he sees you two out somewhere--and your boyfriend is doing nothing to encourage or even respond to this, then you both need to keep ignoring the ex, studiously. If he perpetually fails to get your and your boyfriend's attention, he will eventually give up. (Unless it's a stalking issue, which becomes a bigger answer.)


Depression question... or something: Carolyn,

My friend recently ended a longterm relationship which caused him a lot of pain. Then he fell hard and fast for a girl when he was on the rebound and it didn't last long. He tries to cover it up but my guess is that he's really hurt about the way things have been going. Since all this has happened he's become really obsessed with working out. He'll go running or biking for hours. He doesn't need to lose the weight or anything. It might be nothing but I can't help but wondering if all this exercise is the sign of something else besides the desire to get some exercise.

Carolyn Hax: Could very well be an effort to fend off depression, but, as responses to depression go, getting very fit is one of the best. It is effective both at preventing and treating depression, though obviously anyone who is clinically depressed should also be under a doctor's supervision, just in case.


Washington, D.C. (U-Street Neighborhood): I don't get it. Why is it that when someone is happy, the friends just can't seem to stomach it.

I'm a gay man with a lot of friends. My friend have always been the ones who got the dates and good looking boyfriends while I was always the third wheel. I was always happy for my friends and I was also a little envious.

Now the tables have turned. All of my friends are still single or still in the pool of endless dates with morons. I, on the other hand, have a great relationship with a great guy, I have a great job (after 4.5 years of college) and now one of my best friends says he can't stand to do anything with us because it makes him "upset" because he doesn't have what my partner and I have.

I was offended. "We make him upset"... what gives?

Carolyn Hax: Being offended means you took it personally, and that was your mistake. Your friend's getting upset is entirely his problem. His insecurity, his character frailty (I mean, is it sooo hard to override jealousy and be happy for someone, especially someone who stood by you in the past and whom you allegedly like?), his bad judgment. I say bad judgment because now you're not going to view him as much of a friend, right? And you'll invest less in him and, unless he grows up, eventually move on to better friends. Bummer. Congratulations, btw, on your newfound happiness.


Arlingtony: My wife is pregnant with our second child. So we're starting to tell people. I tell my neighbor, nice woman, 50-ish, married, no kids, the good news. She says the perfunctory "congrats" then says "Was it planned?" I was pretty taken-back, "Um, yeah, by God." I didn't know what else to say.

I'm a guy so what do I know, but is this a common thing for people to say?

Carolyn Hax: You know plenty, pat pat.

There is no end to the intrusive, rude or just bizarre questions a pregnancy can inspire. (Or any life event, or any non-life event, as anyone who has been unmarried or childless past age 21 can attest.) Your answer was pretty good off the cuff; the most frustrating thing about these questions is that you usually get the perfect response 15 minutes after the fact. Then again, the perfect answer is probably all over your face. Hard to conceal the I-can't-believe-you-just-asked-me-that face.


Michigan: Hi Carolyn, it's "Someday Bride" from your March 17th column -- With the marriage-phobic boyfriend? I know it's been quite a while, but I just thought I'd let you know that your advice was very helpful -- he was unwilling to discuss any step forward, so I got rid of him.

Now I have a new question, not quite as big a deal, but now that I'm back on the singles market, I find myself dating two or three guys at a time. I think it's natural, I'm rebounding, just want to see what's out there. Nothing serious, no sex. So do I have to tell them about each other? I get different answers from everyone, curious as to your thoughts.

Carolyn Hax: Heyo, glad you're feeling unburdened. Must have been a difficult thing to learn about someone you trusted.

Anyway. Ideally I think the people you're seeing would know you were also dating others, but as long as you're not sleeping with any of them it's not an imperative.

That said, if you're at a point where you feel as if you're lying or hiding something, then your date(s) would probably think so too. It's a weird thing to have to work into a conversation, but even just blurting it could make for a more honest exchange.


Dating Purgatory: Carolyn,

So I guess I'm kinda boring -- or at least on dates. I ask a girl out, she says yes, we go for dinner and chat awhile, until she remembers she left her hair dryer on and runs home.

Clearly I'm doing something wrong (or just dating a string of horribly absentminded women).

Apparently, I am just spark-less.

So, I clearly need a diagnostic of my dating strategies. My friends are all F'd up beyond belief, so their advice is suspect. (Plus I've dated most of my female friends at some point -- making their advice even more suspect). And I'm hardly in the position to hit up some girl who essentially decided she'd rather spend the evening with her stuffed teddy bear than me for dating tips.

Any thoughts? Books to read? People to talk to? Or should I just join a monastery and leave this veil of tears?

Carolyn Hax: Wait a minute--I'd think your former dates/current female friends would be perfect people to ask, since they'll be able to tell you if there's a difference between the way you are with your friends and the way you are on a date (which is usually the problem in these cases. You're funny here, but do you choke in person?).

They'll laugh at you, but it sounds like you can take it. Can't be any worse than being left for a hair dryer.


Pregnancy Nosiness Question: Re the guy whose neighbor asked if the pregnancy was planned... the two times I've been told by someone that they are pregnant, it was by co-workers (two different co-workers) who didn't exactly come off as being thrilled by the news themselves. My first reaction in both cases was, "Wow, that's great." Then I said, "Should I say congratulations?" I only said this because they didn't seem very thrilled, and looked like they needed someone to talk to, even though I wasn't best friends with either. In both cases I was right, and they were pretty relieved. Now, had they come out with the news and seemed happy I would have offered my congratulations no questions asked.

Was I wrong in my response? Should I have congratulated them, no questions asked and let them say more?

Carolyn Hax: I think it's great that you looked to the other person to gauge your response. Even though your follow-up question in both cases could easily have backfired, it was nevertheless the product of thoughtful attention, whereas the inappropriate questions are almost always a product of thoughtlessness. I say keep trusting your instincts.


Newly Single: I am beyond impressed by the woman able to dump her marriage phobic boyfriend. I recently parted ways with mine -- but lets not go down the road of how it happened. Anyway, how in the world does one start dating again? I am re-involving myself with things that I like to do (slowly but getting there), but am honestly and truly pertrified with the idea of dating. Obviously this is showing. Is there a book (semi-serious) on how a girl asks out a guy? Seriously = 27 years old and feel like I am a 14 again. Ugh.

Carolyn Hax: Why rush it? You seem to have the right idea with "slowly but getting there." When you're there, you'll know. Don't put so much pressure on yourself.


Washington, D.C.: How does one deal with an ex, who hurt them very deeply, when they run into them in public? For such a large area, I seem to be running into this ex all the time. The latest event simply had me turning my back to him on the Metro, which seemed really childish? Is there any good way to handle this situation, besides carrying on a conversation I don't want or being childish and refusing to acknowlege them sitting three seats away from me?

Carolyn Hax: Cool civility. "You again, hello"; or, "Hello, you're looking well." Or, "Of all the Metro cars in all the world ...," but only if you look like Humphrey Bogart.


Alexandria, Va.: Carolyn,

I have GOT to stop watching TV! I am addicted to plastic surgery shows (it seems there are at least two on every night now), and I already had a pre-disposition to want all kinds of work done do to all the things I hate about myself, or wish were just a little better.

So here's my question: I've actually started to save up for some kind of surgery -- I don't know which one I want first! Breast enhancements? Chin implant? Nose job? Or what if I get lipo and then gain weight and that helps my chest grow since you can't re-gain weight in the places where you had liposuction? Stop! Stop! Stop! I know I sound ridiculous -- but that doesn't change anything! I feel sooo bad, though, because I should be saving up for a house or retirement, or be working harder to pay off student loans, but all I can think about is a new chin! I just think it would greatly improve my self-confidence, and you risk more and try more when you are self-confident, rigtht?

So what do you think? Am I totally messed up? Am I wrong to want to improve in ways that modern technology has now made available? Am I superficial? Or do I just need to turn off the TV?


Carolyn Hax: Oh my. Cancel your cable and pick up an exercise habit. You'll save a fortune along with what's left of your self-respect.


Re: Dating Purgatory: He doesn't mention whether HE was having any fun before she ran home to wash her socks...

If he wasn't, but was just suffering along in the hopes of not being rejected (again), perhaps he needs to start asking out more interesting women, or at least planning a more active (and therefore ice-breaking) date.

If he was having a grand old time and was shocked when she hopped up to leave, then stop talking about yourself and ask her a QUESTION every now and then. (Bonus points if you don't immediately start talking about yourself again after she answers, but instead ask a follow-up question about her). This has the extra advantage of helping you figure out if you like her, so you know whether to feel disappointed if she runs away.

Carolyn Hax: Glad somebody's thinking around here, thank you.


Western Massachussetts: I'm a sarcastic b-tch. There, I said it. I feel like I'm always on the defensive, I always think I'm right, I try to change people (including my recently ex- boyfriend who finally got tired of being berated). I know these things about myself but yet I keep doing them. Then I feel horrible, worthless, ashamed. It's almost a continuous play of power -- I show my power by hurting people, I turn it on myself and then I'm the victim.

How do I stop, Carolyn? I want intimacy and true friendships and people who aren't afraid to be themselves around me. I've just made an appointment with a counselor but I'm doubtful about the amount a person can change. Can I go from "evil" to "wonderful" from "darkness" to "light?"

Carolyn Hax: Yknow, it's funny--I think there's a symptom of what you've got in the very sentence in which you bring up therapy. You're already doubting it will work ... meaning, the counselor can't bring anything to the party that you haven't already considered ... meaning, you hate to be caught not knowing something. Makes you feel vulnerable, right? Which is your worst nightmare?

I could be guessing wrong, but I don't think you're dark or evil so much as scared to death of getting hurt. So you fortify what you think are all your vulnerable spots--and in effect chase everyone away. Definitely follow through with the appointment, but in the meantime, try some home exercises: Admit when you're wrong, tell a friend when you've done something stupid, listen to someone else's opinion as if there might be something educational in it for you, take a new look at people you've tried to change and see if you don't like them better as-is. Each of these is a step toward your becoming a more likable person--particularly in your own eyes. And when that happens, I think the sarcastic beeyotch will be a person of the past.


From two weeks ago: The very last post from Friday before last upset me for days... the one where the poster's boyfriend was mistreating a dog who was left in their care for two weeks. The poster asked if this is a huge problem and you responded that it definitely is. But, you didn't advise her to find another caretaker for the dog until its owners returned. The poster indicated that the boyfriend was not working and was alone with the dog all day. Granted there are more serious problems in this world than a mistreated animal, but I'm still worried about that defenseless creature. Thanks for listening.

Carolyn Hax: Happy to, and you're right, especially about my failure to suggest foster dog care.

I disagree, though, that there are more serious problems than a mistreated animal. Seems to me every truly serious problem has at its heart the mistreatment of the innocent. Which is why I said this guy's behavior was a huge problem.

Thanks for the post.


For Newly Single: How does a girl ask a guy out:

Hey, (Joe, Sam, Derrick, Tom, Jason) want to go see a movie Friday night ??

Carolyn Hax: But what if his name is Bob?


Gary, Ind.: How do you tell if a hook up with a long-time friend was a random one night thing or the beinning of something? I suspect it involves actually talking to the other person (gasp) but I'm not sure how to begin that conversation. "Hey, are we cool?" sounds so very, very lame.

Carolyn Hax: "So was this a random one night thing or the beginning of something?" If you're feeling really bold, you can start off by admitting what you'd like it to be, instead of lobbing the ball to the other person. "I hope this was the beginning of something, and not a random one night thing"; or, "I hope this was a random one night thing, because I'm not looking for it to be the beginning of something." The former will open you up for rejection and the latter will make you sound like a heel, but both are better for their honesty than any alternatives. Happy trails.


Arlington, Va.: Hey Carolyn -- welcome back! I've started staying in to have lunch w/you again on Fridays -- I'd missed it! Come on, admit it. You''ve missed it too.

Just kidding. At any rate, I have a question that has a really long background that I'll try to cut out. I hope the ! still makes sense. Do you think it's OK for a 43-year-old woman -- my sister, to be specific -- to dress like Britney Spears if she can pull it off (and she can -- she's in fabulous shape). However, she has an 11-year-old son and an almost 14-year-old son, and I'm just appalled that they have to deal with a mom that dresses like that. If she were on her own, I'd say whatever makes you feel good -- but I'm a little concerned for them (this is on top of a recent divorce, and other issues). What should I say, if anything? Am I making too big a deal?

Carolyn Hax: Thanks! I did miss it, I swear.

I actually have a friend who says her (divorced) mom dressed for attention like that when my friend was, coincidentally, about that age, and she's as well-adjusted as they come. In fact, she tells the story with a kind of put-upon nostalgia, if that makes any sense.

So, unfortunately, my is-it-okay answer has to hinge upon the contents of that really long background. If she's a good, warm, loving mom to these kids, like my friend's mom was, their little psyches can afford a mom who thinks she's Britney. If her taste in clothing reflects a broader self-absorption/cluelessness/insensitivity to their feelings, then it's a big deal.

How's that.


Anonymous: I believe one can learn a lot from a person from how he or she treats animals. I once recommended someone who seemed to be a sharp, enthusiastic, dynamic person for a job which he got. I ignored the disturbing fact that he was cruel towards his dog when I visited him at home. It turned out he was devious and mentally cruel in his new position. I will never trust an animal abuser again.

Carolyn Hax: As you shouldn't. I also think the way people treat those in service jobs is telling--waiters, receptionists, anyone who isn't in a position to fight back. That's when the real bullies come out.


Was it planned?: Ugh, bad memory here. A few weeks ago, we attended a family baby shower for my cousin in Pennsylvania. On the way up, I asked my mom if the baby was planned, since my cousin and her husband have had some issues as of late. Note that I asked my mom and NOT my cousin, because it's obviously a nosy question. I just thought she might have heard something through the family grapevine.

So, we're all sitting and having cake at the shower, and my mother turns to me and says (in front of everyone, including cousin), "And yes, the baby was planned -- I went right to the source and asked." I was so embarrassed.

The moral of the story? Don't even think about questions like that, or voice them to my mother, anyway.

Carolyn Hax: I think, the latter.

If it's any consolation, your pain made for a great story.


Catch 22 in Maryland: Dear Carolyn,

Welcome back and congratulations!

Never have I needed your advice like I do now. I have been with my boyfriend for almost eight months, we were friends for over a year before that. We both go to college in Europe and he is currently visiting me here for the summer. The thing is that I have come to realize more and more that we are not right for each other and that I want to break up with him for many reasons. He is a great person, we just do not work well together and I often feel that the relationship brings out the worst in me and that there is a lot that I need to deal with on my own.

My problem is: When do I do the actual breaking up? If I do it right now, then we have one and a half awkward weeks left while we are living in the same house. He has no friends here he can go to, nobody to talk to. I want to stay friends and I want him to continue having a good time here. I am afraid that he will want to stay in a hotel for the remaining time and I don't want him to do that. If I wait until we are both back in Europe, then we have a whole month with him there and me here and us talking on the phone while I am knowing the whole time that I do not want to be with him. Then he might as well go and have his fun alone and enjoy a single summer (school doesn't start till October for us). If I tell him at the very end of his trip here he will feel betrayed. Also, he is the jealous type and I am sure he will accuse me of breaking up with him to go and have some summer flings (NOT TRUE)! I feel like I am in a no-win situation. And I feel even worse for him because he has no idea. Break-ups are bad enough... I just don't know how to do this.

Please, please help me out here Carolyn!

Carolyn Hax: Break up now, yeesh. The mildest consequence of all the ones you listed is his having to adjust his current vacation plans. For any even quasi-competent adult, hardly a big deal. Not to mention that anything else is a lie.


Back on the horse: Encouragement for the newly single. . .

A year ago, I dumped my long-term, marriage-phobic boyfriend. Rebounded with an ill-advised relationship. Took a few months to be alone. Took a trip alone this spring. Decided I really wanted to meet people, so started Internet dating. Had some laughs. Got serious about a guy who stopped calling. Am now licking wounds and contemplating getting navel pierced so I have something pretty to stare at.

My points: It's all survivable. Taking charge of yourself is the hard part. Don't push yourself into something you're not ready for. When you're too tired for another lap, just lie back and float for a bit.

Carolyn Hax: Sounds like a plan, thanks.


Sad and lonely: You know, I periodically send in questions/comments, but they never turn up! Should I take it personally?

Carolyn Hax: YES. It's you.

I see only a small fraction of each week's questions and comments.


Re: Dating Purgatory: It sounds to me like this guy is not being selective enough in who he asks out. We don't hit it off, or even like for that matter, every person we meet.

Carolyn Hax: Do we even like -most- people we meet? Enough to make dinner sound good?


Philadelphia, Pa.: Friends with a guy for a year. He had a girlfriend. Broke up with girlfriend, said he was interested in me. We dated three weeks, then he said she wanted to try again. We didn't speak much for three months. Now he wants to try again; says he's done a lot of thinking things through. I said maybe, but I'll have to see because I don't feel ready to trust him again. Could this work out? I don't trust my gut feelings anymore.

Carolyn Hax: What's not to trust? Sounds like he kept you apprised of his feelings--tho the "SHE wanted to try again" line is bullshneesh. HE wanted to try, too, or he wouldn't have tried.

Anyway, I read it this way: He was interested in you but still had feelings for the ex (both plausible and in fact normal); he chased down the old feelings (his prerogative); he came back to you (a compliment, if nothing else). You certainly are under no obligation to go out with him, but if you like him, why get too hung up on the history? Plus I don't see any violation of trust here, just some messy feelings, which is what feelings generally are. Take it slowly, ask that he please be honest with you about any new relapses and see what happens.


Arlington, Va.: I'd be willing to give the boring dater a try... I promise I won't run home to my hairdryer!

Carolyn Hax: Wait till you meet him before you make a promise like that.


Philly: I'm the one from last week whose mother passed away recently from cancer. I just wanted to thank you for your response and encouraging me to find solace in the mundane routines of the workday. I left work early and spent the rest of the afternoon on the sofa, letting my dog console me. It was nice to be able to let go and cry. By Monday I felt refreshed and ready to go back to work. It was initially hard to focus, but once I did I actually found myself getting back into the swing of things. I already feel 1,000 times better than this time last week. Thank you again for taking the time to respond!

Carolyn Hax: You're welcome, so glad you're feeling better.


Carolyn Hax: Maybe I'll quit while I'm ahead. Thanks everybody and, oh, almost forgot--I'm not going to be here next week, so type to you next-next Friday. Have a great weekend.


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