Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 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.


Fairfax, Va.: Carolyn, my boyfriend and I have been together for 10 months and other than political disagreements which are never too heated, we have never fought. Is that healthy or a sign that our relationship is very deep? He's really laid back and I am, too, though less than he is. I realize of course that he's not perfect and generally have no problem telling him if he's annoying me, but beyond that we have never had a conflict. What do you think?

Carolyn Hax: You mean isn't, right? Isn't very deep? Not that it matters--you can fight all the time and still have a shallow relationship.

And you can be profoundly connected (like, totally) and rarely disagree. Key is whether you're willing to lose each other if the disagreements ever get big. Meaning, you're honest with each other, consequences be damned, and not holding back in order to please each other/hold the relationship together. That's what keeps things shallow.


Dallas, Tex.: My husband died 4 months ago after a brief and horrible illness, leaving me with 3 small children. Aside from all the usual aftermath, I am also having to deal with my in-laws, who have come out of the woodwork.

For the 16 years of our marriage, they ignored me and belittled him. Our kids meant nothing to them, compared to the children of his 2 sisters who are darling little angels. Now my brother- and sister-in-law have decided to become the loving uncle and aunt -- bringing toys and junk food that they know I don't buy. My husband's parents have become saccharine sweet, honey this and sweetheart that. And they sit around raving about what a great man my husband was.

Well, where the hell were they when he was alive? Why did he never hear words of praise from them? Only what he did wrong, only what they disapproved of?

I know that I have to tolerate these people for the sake of my kids, but I really want to scream at them for the years of neglecting my kids and abusing my husband. How do I do this?

Carolyn Hax: Believe me, their consciences are screaming at them, louder and more effectively than you ever could. That's why they're leaving all these offerings at your doorstep, just to try to quiet things down in their own heads.

If it will help you (and only if it will help you): You are entitled to say to your in-laws, after a particularly lavish bit of praise for your husband, that you're sure he would have loved to hear that from them himself. Maybe only you will understand the subtext, but I kind of doubt it, and it's a way of saying your piece that won't get you into big trouble because it leaves open the possibility that you're just saying something innocuous. You want that out, not only for your kids' sake, but also because you don't need a war on top of everything else. You've been through enough. More than.

And that's the reason for my next suggestion: After you've said your little bit (assuming you choose to), give yourself permission to not to dwell on these people anymore. Again--you have enough to worry about. Either use whatever they give you, if it's helpful, or ask specifically for things that would be more helpful, or, if they really are an unbearable weight, just start saying no. You can do that, you know.


Fairfax, Va.: I bought the bridesmaids dresses so they'd be sure to come out of the same dye lot. (I know, I know, matchy bad, but it's not like they're teal, they're nice informal summer dresses in chocolate brown.) I meant one of them to be a gift, since the 'maid has no money. The other maid is rolling in dough, and I did NOT mean it to be a gift. But the two are good friends, and the one with less cash told the other about me being nice, and now the wealthy lass is assuming I'm just a peach of a chick.

Any graceful way to express that I am not at all peachy?

Carolyn Hax: Congratulations! You just bought two dresses you'll never wear. I'm sorry.


Collegeburg, Va.: Hey Carolyn! What's the deal with not being able to date the friend of someone who previously liked you. For example, two years ago there was a guy who had a crush on me. I didn't reciprocate, nothing happened (he also never said anything about it to me), and now we're just good friends. I have a small crush on a friend of his, but people are telling me I can't ever go out with the guy I like because of the crush my friend used to have on me. What gives? Does the same hold true for exes?

Carolyn Hax: The same doesn't even hold true here. People don't own each other. Just behave with compassion, sensitivity and good taste and you've fulfilled your only obligation to the rest of the world.


Atlanta, Ga.: Carolyn, Is there any acceptable way of asking a guy who you just began dating why his teeth are grotesquely discolored? Worse than Austin Powers'. I met him at an outdoor party at night, we hit it off and have been exchanging e-mail. When we met for dinner, noticing his teeth made me lose my appetite. He's an awesome guy, and we have a lot in common on so many levels, but it is hard to get past the teeth. He wants to go out again for dinner and a movie next time. I'm not sure if it would be better to politely decline or to say something about the teeth.

Carolyn Hax: Sounds like you can't win either way ... or, actually, it sounds like he loses both ways--you either insult him or disappear without a trace, for a reason that has nothing to do with who he is as a person. Except possibly that he's someone who chooses not to do anything about his grotesquely discolored teeth ...

However, as someone who has had grotesquely discolored teeth fixed (I know, these nuggets about me are the real reason you all keep coming back), I can attest to the fact that it is grotesquely expensive. So it could be that you'd be ditching him for socioeconomic reasons (is there such a thing as physioeconomic?) beyond his control, a whole other kind of bummer.

Bet you though this was a quick-answer kind of question.

What you could do, maybe, is ask the guy if he had tetracyclene (an antibiotic) as a baby. It's (1) a real possibility, since that's what happened to me, and a lot of people my vintage also have discolored teeth for that same reason; (2) a nice way of finding out if this is something you should judge the guy for (ie, a hygiene thing) or not; and a (3) a conversation starter, since it is after all an early date, where those always come in handy.

BTW, Austin Powers, nice touch.


Anonymous: I'll be meeting my boyfriend's son soon (the son is 5 years old). Any tips from you or the peanuts on how to handle it? (And yes, my boyfriend and I will talk about it and and I'll take my cues from him) I was just wondering if others who have been in my shoes had any good advice.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sure others will add to this, but my one thought is, don't try to make him love you. Be yourself, listen to who he is, see what happens from there.


Washinton, D.C.: Oh man, Carolyn, way to make us all feel that our concerns are small and petty... Dallas' letter got me all choked up. Please either save the letters from brave, righteously angered women who put us all to shame until the end of the chat, or have her send me some in-laws to punch.

Carolyn Hax: Careful, or you'll have people delivering in-laws like in the Santa-mail scene at the end of "Miracle on 34th Street."

And careful too about falling into the whose-problem-is-bigger hole. Dallas is going through hell, but does her concern become "petty" when you hold it up next to all those kids being held hostage in Russia? Not even remotely. And discolored-teeth man's pain is real, too, albeit only projected at this point. Perspective is vital, absolutely--but it's important to save the judgments and name-calling for people who are being self-absorbed twits.


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn,

I'm down today - job uncertainty. Is there anything I can do tonight besides cheese fries and beer to lift me up? I'm thinking crashing my diet would make me feel even worse in the long run. No close friends in the area, either.

Carolyn Hax: Hot bath; favorite dinner that doesn't have 10,000 calories or fat grams; great movie/book/ballgame. (In fact, if you do this, I'll be jealous.) I wish I had a great movie/book at my fingertips to recommend, but I've been fiction starved lately.

If your comforts tend more to the social, then try calling one of those far-away friends.

And finally, hang in there, bummers like this always pass.


So, did you take tetracycline as a baby?: If a guy asked you about a woman's crooked nose, would you have told him to ask her, "So, were you dropped on your face as a baby?"

Carolyn Hax: Teeth-noses=apples-oranges. No one has a bad nose from bad hygiene or health. I should say, "bad." I don't think anyone has a bad nose. Big/bent/Bozo noses are cool; I wish so many people wouldn't rush to get theirs "fixed."

More responses to my response:


Wash, DC: Carolyn, good answer re teeth and tetracyclene. I, too, had horribly discolored teeth until a girlfriend said to me, "did you know a dentist can fix that?" (Believe it or not, I didn't.) She set me up with her dentist. I will forever be grateful.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Another:


Re: Teeth: No Carolyn!; She can't ask him if he took tetracycline. If he has bad teeth, i'm sure he knows it and is likely self-conscious about it so why bring it up? Does it matter? If it's a hygene problem, she would know it by his breath. Leave it alone. By the way, my husband has very discolored - and crooked- teeth. was initially a turn off but i got over it. i love him. he's beautiful.

Carolyn Hax: Good point, but: Sometimes pretending there's nothing wrong when there's obviously something wrong can make a person more self-conscious. Since I made it about me, here's an example about me. If someone I barely knew asked me about my teeth, I got self-conscious, especially if there was no sensitivity or humor in the question ("Ew, what happened to your teeth?"). But if someone I was close to asked, it was often a relief--I knew they looked bad, I knew this person close to me knew they looked bad and was probably wondering why, so it felt easier just to have it out there. The relief was even greater when someone said, "You had tetracyclene as a kid?" That meant they got it and weren't judging me. Yay.


For DC: Take a walk or bike ride outside. The weather's fantastic!;

Carolyn Hax: Good call, thanks.


For Anonymous: I was a single mom with a 6-year-old. Take your cues from the child. He may be totally uninterested in you -- let him.

Carolyn Hax: Funny, and makes sense, thanks.


Alexandria: An etiquette question: Is it OK to send an invite that says, "Hey, my wife's out of town for the weekend, there's tons of beer left from last week's party, I have a grill, come on over and bring something to cook on it"? I ask because things are end-of-summer tight and can't afford to provide food for everyone (or, really, anyone but me, at the moment...)

Carolyn Hax: In the spirit that you present it, it sounds like fun, not a faux pas. Just don't make it an engraved invitation. BYO Meat.


re: Teeth: You shouldn't mention someone's teeth to them! I have very discolored teeth left over from a bout with bulimia, and am saving up to have them fixed.

In the meantime, since most of my friends don't know I suffered from an eating disorder, having my teeth mentioned just brings up a whole slew of bad feelings.

Carolyn Hax: I see your point, and respect your right to keep your private business private. But I also can't shake the sense that you're letting those bad feelings have a little more power than they deserve. A bout with bulimia isn't good, but it isn't shameful, either--and beating it is something to be really, really proud of. Plus, it is what it is, and it happened, and it will never un-happen. Hiding it has to feel like work for you, like you're lugging around a big secret, fearful of discovery till you can save up enough to cover up any lingering clues. Ugh. It might surprise you to find that sharing what you've been through with your friends, on your terms and at your pace, will not only come as a relief but make some of those friendships closer.

I know, you didn't ask. I'm just sayin'.


Missoula, Mont.: Hi Caorlyn,
When I was 11 my girlfriend said she loved me, I ran all the way home and never kissed here again. I'm 36 now and still have the same reaction. I've become a serial monogamist. As soon as a woman starts talking love and marriage, I get jack rabbit in my blood and bolt. It's starting to worry me. I lost my father when I was five and I think I may have commitment/fear-of-loss issues. I like to think I'm a romantic, waiting for some "perfect" love, but I'm beginning to doubt whether I even know what love is. Am I doomed?

Carolyn Hax: Why not bolt toward a therapists office? Sounds like you have a pretty good idea what's going on, and could use some time- and experience-tested ideas about how to fix it.


Tons of Beer Left: Why does the fact that his wife's out of town have to be mentioned at all? That's the part that makes the whole question seem weird.

Carolyn Hax: Eh. "I'm all alone, come keep me company" doesn't have to have a sinister ring to it.


Also Alexandria: If Alexandria's friends are anything like mine, an invitation reading "My wife's out of town...bring your own meat" would get all sorts of off-colored jokes.

Carolyn Hax: And when etiquette has already put on bacon pants and waded into a shark tank, it's beyond saving. Which is why it sounds like a great party.


Burke, Va.: Carolyn, at what point do you consider someone has crossed over from "choosing your battles" to "holding back in order to please each other/hold the relationship together?"

Carolyn Hax: Do you have so many battles that you really need to choose? Or do you just mean that some things are so minor they're not worth mentioning.

I guess the distinction I'd make is in how comfortable you are just being yourself around someone. If you feel you're always on guard/walking on eggshells/monitoring your behavior or comments so as not to provoke, then you've crossed over.


Does Size Matter, Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,
I once had a woman tell me that the size of the engagement ring DOES matter because the amount of money the man spends on the ring shows how much is invested in the relationship and how committed he is While I think this is absolutely absurd, I do feel a twinge that maybe she has a point?

Carolyn Hax: Back to front:

Down payment on the house, easy.

If I were counting carats to determine whether the guy was invested in the relationship, I'd be marrying the wrong guy. That twinge you felt was from standing too close to someone with toxic priorities.


Kensington, Md.: Dear Carolyn,
My problem, stated simply: I am profoundly unattracted to my wife.

We're both 27, have been married two years, but have been together a total of six.

On an intellectual level, I am an ardent feminist. I will happily argue with less liberal colleagues and friends about the social construction of gender, the destructive messages our culture and media send about women's bodies, their perceived relative value as objects versus human beings, etc. But none of this translates into my own sexual response to the woman I love. Her triple chin, ample rear end and general shape simply turn me off. I have good reason to be sure the problem isn't physiological, and can rule out other usual suspects: My internal response to other women makes clear that I am definitely straight and that my libido is quite healthy in general.

The two of us have talked about this a great deal, but don't know what to do. We just keep returning to the basic fact above, which frustrates me and saddens and upsets her. I have a pretty good idea what your esteemed colleague in Seattle would say, but don't consider the What Would Savage Do solution morally defensible. I love my wife very much, and take the committment I have made to our marriage seriously. We want to have kids (in a few years), and see a future of challenges and joys with each other as partners for life.

Carolyn Hax: I hope someone in one of these intellectual conversations pointed out to you that intellectualizing the physical is a great way to find yourself married to someone you don't find attractive.

You have a BODY, and well as a mind. Both deserve your respect.

If you and she are both game to be partners for life knowing (openly, not tacitly) that it means platonic-buddies for life, then you're doing the right thing by staying faithfully married. Some marriages like this are happy ones, as long as both parties are satisfied.

But if you want to touch and be touched--and, in all feminist fairness, if she wants to touch and be touched, by someone who finds her physique glorious--you are doing each other no favors by staying married, even if it means you'd be dishonoring your commitment.


Love friday Sammiches...: Would you consider appropriate for guys at the gym to ask girls out? More than likely, most of these girls we would never see outside the gym, so it is our only chance to break the ice and get their phone numbers -- as sweaty and stinky as we may be.

Carolyn Hax: If you can't meet people at work, the gym or in line at the supermarket, where's it supposed to happen? Go for it, good luck, wear a clean shirt.


Washington, D.C.: How do I get over the envy/jealousy twinge? I'm an attractive young lady, but I don't meet many guys, but I have a friend who can step out of her house in rags and men throw themselves at her feet and, of course, she never likes any of them. I mean, I don't want men throwing themselves at me (OK, once or twice would be nice), but sometimes I get annoyed at how much attention she gets from the opposite sex.

Carolyn Hax: She probably wishes she could walk down the street without having to step over men. Someone else always has something we want. Get used to that idea, as well as its corollary, that you have something other people want, and you'll start to see how futile it is to be jealous.


Other side of Arlington, Va.: Hi Carolyn,

I was reading a trascript from the other week, and saw myself in one question -- I am a 28-year-old girl, have never even been on a date before, never mind committed relationships. There are reasons - abusive father in the past, major intimacy hangups now. I am working at it in therapy, but after two years I am still not ready, and by now I feel like I may never be ready. Or people will look at me and major red flags will go up. I'd admit they have reasons, my past history has a whole load of crap -- but is there hope for me, really? To come back from it and back to normal, that late?

Carolyn Hax: Define normal. Your history is a whole load of crap, which you've identified and are now fighting your way through. Yay. Once you get to a point where you feel you've achieved some sort of mastery over the crap--when you're choosing to act vs. largely reacting to past hurts--I'd rather have you as a friend than someone for whom life has been one long, unexamined series of perfectly nice boyfriends.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.


Gym girls: To the person that wants to ask out a woman at the gym -- I'm now married to a guy I met at the gym! However, when he first asked me out he was very polite and aware of the fact that I was at the gym to workout and not just to flirt. Many of the men that had approached me prior to that would interrupt me in the middle of lifting or cardio, forcing me to either pant through a conversation or stop completely. Very frustrating!

If you don't treat the women there like you're at happy hour or a night club and you'll do fine!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks!


Re: walking down the street, stepping over men: Yes, I'm friends with that girl, too. It all seemed so unfair until I realized how badly all of her relationships went. They wanted her because she looks like a goddess, but once they got to know the real her, with all her human foibles, they lost interest.

Now, her invisible friend has finally met the man of her dreams (who just so happens to see right through the Goddess's looks), and she's headed down the road to Happily Ever After.

Drop Dead Gorgeous really is more of a curse than you'd think.

Carolyn Hax: I tried to describe this dynamic once, to a reader who felt eclipsed by her pretty friend, but I don't think I came close to saying it so well. You nailed it. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: I am about to bring a great guy home and introduce him to my family. The problem? He has two kids from a previous marriage. I expect that to concern a few family members (i.e., how do you know if he really loves you given that blah blah blah.) The concerns will probably be legitimate because I know my family well. I also know the guy very well (from long-term friendship). How do I defend my relationship without appearing to be defensive or rejecting their concerns?

Carolyn Hax: Waidaminnit. What does knowing your family well have to do with the legitimacy of their concerns? And what does his having two kids from a previous marriage have to do with his really loving you?

Please do not bring this guy to meet your family until you get your head/values/prespective straight on this stuff. He is either a good guy or he isn't. He either cares for you genuinely or he doesn't. You're either good for each other or you aren't.

And, your family's concerns will either be ligitimate or they won't (if they even happen--this is all just pointless fretting on your part). If they're legit, you be mature enough to address them accordingly. If they're not legit, you be mature enough to ignore them accordingly--and trust your relationship to speak for itself.


Washington, D.C.: Please post this PSA:

There are millions of people in the DC Metro area. There are only so many situations. Do not assume that your friend was the person who posted something.

Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: Now I want to know what inspired you to post this.


Carolyn Hax: Assuming it's really you who posted it.


Embarrassed Fairfax: I left my desk for a meeting and came back to see my stupid dress question right under the widow with three little ones.


-scurries back under a rock-

Carolyn Hax: But now you'll joyously buy your rich friend a new dress, whereas before you would have given it grudgingly! I'd call it a happy ending.


Re: Legitimate Concerns: I think the poster meant HER concerns were legitimate about her family voicing concerns.

Carolyn Hax: You're probaby right, because it makes more sense, but I just checked the transcript and it was worded the way I interpreted it. Either way, I think the advice still owrks. Thanks.


Carolyn Hax: Hey. I was looking for a quick-exit question but ran out of time before I found one. Oh well. Off I go. Thanks all, happy long weekend and type to you next Friday.


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