Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 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.


About today's column...: Did you mean the risk of losing each other is inevitable or losing each other is inevitable? I read the passage several times and was not sure. Tell Me About It, (Post, Oct. 8)

Carolyn Hax: Losing each other is inevitable--except in rare cases when something claims you both, like a crash.


Carolyn Hax: Well we're off to a cheery start. Hi everybody! Miss me?


Washington, D.C.: Help! Mom and I want to name the new baby "Lance," the wife refuses saying that is a porno star name. How can I refuse Mother, she gave me life! Help!
Marrried to the unreasonable.

Carolyn Hax: Then divorce her and marry your mother.


Divorce Ponderings: I keep reading over and over again how after their divorce so many people lose weight, pay more attention to their personal appearance, get therapy for their baggage, get educated, good jobs, self respect, more independence etc.

My question is, why wait? What is about being married that makes so many people put their feet up and stop working on their selves, and taking responsibility for their lives and happiness? It seems to me that an unhappy relationship or a divorce is the natural outcome of this.

On a sort of related note, why does it seem that the person who finally gets up the courage to leave a bad relationship is often demonized?

Carolyn Hax: I have a quibble with your cause-and-effect. I don't think it's marriage making people put up their feet and get fat, nor divorce pushing them to the gym. I think it's baggage pushing people into bad marriages, in which they then languish, until the collapse of the marriage forces them to face their baggage. And by baggage I mean the whole spectrum--immaturity, insecurity, arrogance of youth, timidity of youth, desperation, anything that can draw people to mates who aren't good for them.


St. Louis, Mo.: Hi Carolyn,
Love your chats. I'm starting a new job in two weeks. While I'm excited about the new job, I'm feeling a little blue. I know it's probably just being anxious combined with the fear factor of change. I feel like some of my friends (where I work now) resent me for leaving and can't be happy for me. One has gone out of her way to tell me how it will suck as much as this job. I'm not really sure what my question is, just wondering if my feelings will pass. Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Even better, you'll soon be out of the orbit of people who say idiotic things like, "Your new job will suck as much as this one." I wouldn't worry about it.


Washington, D.C.: I am a working mom, by choice. I hate (HATE) my job (lawyer), but I firmly believe that my daughter should grow up knowing that women can and do have professional careers. Before the stay-at-home-moms jump all over me, let me say that I firmly believe in parents having a CHOICE to work outside the home -- without attaching negative or positive connotations to said choice. The problem is, I'm not sure that I'm a really good role model since... I HATE my job. I also know that I'm not a good candidate for staying at home. Any suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: Stop trying to make your decision into a Lesson and do what makes you all happiest. I would think that's the better lesson anyway.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think about suggesting to a guy you're dating that he might want to dress better? It seems to be one of the small annoyances I can never completely get over.

Carolyn Hax: "You're great, but we need to do something about the shoes." I'd say just take him as he is, but since it's important to you, you might as well give it a shot. In the end, it's all just another compatibility test anyway, and that's not a bad thing.

Of course he'll probably go along with it and you'll dress him up your way and like him better till your feelings fade gradually over time and you break up and fall instead for someone you're absolutely nuts about and you won't give an eesh how he dresses. But that's a bit down the road.


Colchester, U.K.: When my dad was born, his parents had agreed to name him Richard. When grandma woke up from the general anesthesia that was routinely used during childbirth in those days, grandpa had already filled out the birth certificate naming him James. Nobody ever found out why.

Carolyn Hax: Cherche la mother-in-law. Thanks!


Head-case Hotties: I'm in one of those types of relationships -- when everything is good, it's heaven on earth. When it's not, I feel incredibly depressed. And in between, I'm not sure that when he wakes up tomorrow, he'll still like me. My friends and family rolls their eyes. Is it just a question of willpower to turn down those doughnuts, or worse, a character flaw?

Carolyn Hax: Idea: Get out of the relationship and think about it. If you feel insecure with someone, it ain't working.


To St. Louis, Mo.: When I left my last job they had a going away party for me. CEO came and everything. Everyone is giving my nice toasts and my boss (a Senior VP) stands up to toast me with this: "I hope you fall flat on face and have to crawl back begging for your job." The room fell silent. It just reinforced why I was SO glad to leave!

Carolyn Hax: Because none of them has a sense of humor? I thought that toast was brilliant.


Dresser: Carolyn, why so harsh? What if this is an absolute love of this woman's life, but he happens to wear jeans to every restaurant? Does her desire to have him put on a pair of slacks once in a while mean that they are doomed? Perhaps we should ease up a bit, no?

Carolyn Hax: No, because I wasn't being harsh, just loopy. Fraid you misread me.

And if he wears jeans to restaurants where it's not appropriate to wear jeans, she should definitely point out that it's a dressier kind of place they're going to tonight. That's actually a public service.


Anonymous: My husband and I have been trying to start a family for some time now without results. We haven't told our families. My younger brother called last night to announce the happy news that his wife is expecting and left a phone message gleefully announcing "We beat you!;" Granted I'm a little sensitive about the topic but I spent the rest of the night in tears. Now I'm beating myself up over the fact that I'm not nearly as happy for my brother and sister-in-law as I should be. Is this just one of those situations where I feign excitment and try to keep the lump in my throat under control? How do I stop being so self-absorbed that it's hard to be happy for my brother?

Carolyn Hax: First of all, I'm really sorry you're having trouble. That's painful even without the family backdrop.

Second, please stop beating yourself. You're having an understandably tough time with some understandably complicated feelings.

Third, recognize that your feelings are understandable and let your family understand and help you with them. If nothing else, you have to tip your brother off that you may appear less happy for him than you really are. Two reasons I urge you to do this: 1. there's no way he's not going to notice your long face, and it's really not fair to leave him to figure out why you're being chilly to him at such a happy time; 2. he's going to keep gushing as if nothing's wrong and unwittingly keep upsetting you, which isn't fair to either of you. Tell him you're over the moon for him and his wife but, though you will try, you won't always be good at separating that from your own worries. Which is, again, understandable--you are human.


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn,

Online only please.

I met a great guy who treats me well and we have been seeing each other. On our last date he mentioned that he doesn't want to see other people but didn't want to force me into that until I was ready. This is what I have wanted -- a great guy who wants to be exclusive with me. But now I am being cautious, like I don't believe it is for real. I have dated lots of guys before who never mentioned having any exclusivity with me even though I wanted it with them. Now that I have that, I am scared. What do I do about this?

Carolyn Hax: Nothing. You're scared, so be scared, and give the reason time to announce itself to you. In the meantime, proceed as slowly with the great guy as your fear dictates. Could be you have legitimate reservations about your feelings for him--just because he's great and likes you doesn't mean he's what you want--and could be you're developing the kind of strong feelings for him that make you want to proceed with care. There are a million other could-be's, too, all of which would be best served by your heeding your instinct to move slowly.


Out There: How does anyone ever gather up to courage to get divorced? My on-and-off miserable, never better than low OK marriage has gone on now for 24 years. The kids are grown, I can support myself, the perfect break-up moment arrived -- and instead of divorcing him I moved to Europe with him. I take anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, I saw a counselor for months (he won't go)... Is it because I love him (I guess I do) or am I just a wormy and sniveling person who deserves to live like this because this is how cowards live?

Carolyn Hax: Did you work with the counselor on the marriage issue, or your low sense of self-worth? If only the former, I think you might want to find someone now to help you with the latter. Unfortunately I have little to go on--whether you have a diagnosed condition, whether there's abuse in the mariage, etc--so I can only suggest you turn your attention away from your marriage (for now) and instead direct it to taking better care of yourself.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Carolyn. I lost my mom in September to cancer. Currently, I'm a grad student. My friends have all duly called to say that they are sorry, but have not called beyond that once. I guess I wanted them to call and check on me, ask me to go out, etc. Is this immature of me? My husband has been a terrific support for me during all this. But, still, it makes me wonder. Do my friends and I have a disconnect as to what I need during this time?

Carolyn Hax: Possibly. Or they're awkward at handling death (almost everyone is), or they're so caught up in being themselves day-to-day that they don't even realize they need to work a little harder right now at being friends. Or you're the kind of friend who's never really needed something from them and they're not used to thinking in terms of helping you. Or they're jerks, always a possibility.

A handful of possible explanations, none of which puts your friends on the phone asking how you are, much less brings your mom back (such a tough loss, I'm sorry; she was probably one of the people you'd lean on at a time like this). But maybe it can help you forgive them for their absence, enough to get on the phone yourself to say, "Hey, I need you." Sometimes people require that their clues be addressed to them in clear block lettering. Hang in there.


Potomac Falls, Va.: I have coworker who insists on calling me baby, honey, sweetie, or some other term of endearment. I've repeatedly asked her to call me by first name. She apologizes and says she will, but never does. This absolutely grates on my nerves. On one hand, she's trying to be nice, but I feel as if it's rather presumptuous of her to use terms of endeanment when aren't friends out side of work. Should I keep asking her to stop or should I just ignore it?

Carolyn Hax: Ignore, please. She may not be "trying" to be anything, it could just be an ancient habit.

That said--if it's not harmless motherly patter but in fact a put-down or come-on, then you need more formal recourse. Just promise me you'll make a level-headed judgment call on whether it's damaging vs. merely annoying.


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn,

This week you responded to a question from someone whose boyfriend was excluding her from lunch dates with a woman friend who seemed to need lots of help. You said "Ick" in your response (more than once!)

Why ick? What's wrong with a guy who wants to be a good friend to a woman who needs help?

Carolyn Hax: If it's a longtime, ongoing, one-way helping transaction, that's not a "friendship," that's a codependency. (Apologies for the therapese--just can't think of a more conversational word for it.) Certainly people can be mentors for others, in which case he should be able to say he's been a mentor to this woman and it would be silly to stop just because he has a girlfriend now--and the girlfriend would be even sillier to object, on those terms. But it was represented as a friendship, which makes it sound, like I think I said in the column, so neeeeedy. Think about it if you were in the woman's place--wouldn't you want to say, "Hey, be my friend, not my effing life coach"? And if you were he: "Hello, I'm your friend, not your effing life coach"?


Arlington, Va.: You advocate therapy a lot. Do you think everyone can benefit from it? I don't think all people can, but I'm curious what you think.

Carolyn Hax: A lot? Really? Maybe online I do ... anyway, no, I don't think all people can. I do think people who are already searching for explanations for their unhappy habits/patterns/ruts, and who have run out of simpler solutions to try, can really benefit from a -competent- third-party opinion. People who think they're fine and everyone else is screwed up aren't good candidates, nor are those who just need to grow up/try harder/excercise/admit they're dating a jerk. Nor are people who use neverending self-scrutiny as a means of avoiding actual change.

And since the mere act of asking me a question often means a person wants to change but isn't sure how and has tried everything else, therapy is a natural option. Again, from a competent source. Not all sources are.


Re: Calling people "sweetie": I'm a 30-year-old with braces. The office manager at my orthodontist insists on doing this, even though I've asked her not to. I am not one of their nine-year-old patients. What to do?

Carolyn Hax: Enjoy it! Call her Toots. Imagine life without people's bizarre quirks.


Today's Column: I have a similar problem as Today's Column and Headcase Hotties, I go for guys who I think will let me play my, "I want to please you," thing. I'm in a relationship now with a good guy, I'm trying not to play the game, but I keep falling back into it. How do I know if this is real or I'm just making the same mistakes with a new guy who just looks a bit better than the others on paper?

Carolyn Hax: Until you figure out why you're this way and fix it, there is no "real" or "just another ..."

Why do you feel the need to please? (Because you think this is what will make people like you.)

Why do you think you need to work so hard to make people like you? (Because you don't think your personality alone is enough to keep someone interested.)

Why don't you think your personality is enough to keep someone interested? (I don't know you well enough to say, but it usually means you were raised in an environment where affection was doled out on a merit system. Some parents do this well-meaningly, some abusively, so there's much room for variation at this point.)

Sometimes, once you've identified what's going on, it can be as simple as forcing yourself to -be- yourself, which attracts people who like you as-is, which makes it easier for you to hang around them without feeling you have to wait on them. Unless you're in the mood to, which is fine, as long as it's not something you feel you ALWAYS have to do.


Followup to a thepapy source question: Carolyn,

Given your response about the need to have a competent therapist, how do you know what the competent sources are? This is what I am struggling with right now. I had to change therapists due to a move, and the new therapist is different, and I don't know if I am expecting too much or truly not getting my needs met.

Carolyn Hax: Finding competent help has two steps, one easier than the other. First is the referral process, meaning you get names from trusted sources, even if it's the imprimatur of an EAP or of a respected hospital or university (sometimes the only recourse for new-in-towners like you). Part 2 is where you are, figuring out if you're being well served. Obviously that's much harder to tell, but there are a few things you can look for--that you feel like you're being heard and understood, for example, and that you're being led to talk about potentially useful, insight-rich things instead of just droning over old stuff. If that's the case, you should speak up--part of effective care will always be your willingness to ask for something.


Bethesda, Md.: I work in a building that has a receptionist who greets everyone as they enter. She has been there forever and learns everyone's name when they are new. She has the same greeting each morning to each person: "Hello there Carolyn. How are you this morning?" (Fine, thanks. How are you?) "I'm doing very well. Very well. You have a nice day now!" (Thanks. You too.)

I have now done this exchange every morning for 10 years. I try to vary it, but she always comes back to the same thing. When I sneak by her (if she is on the phone or busy) she will literally yell down the hall to me to make sure she gets the greeting in.

My question is this: Do you know which level of Hell I will be going to for hating this woman and her stupid greetings so much? I just want to know what to pack. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Whatever you're wearing, since you're already there?


Hey, hon: It's all in the context, isn't it? I'm a woman, and I think it's endearing when another woman calls me sweetie or darling. But if a man were to do it, I would not be so inclined to smile.

Carolyn Hax: But even then, depends on the man, no? Jazz musicians can call anyone sweetie.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

I understand what the person who lost his/her mother to Cancer and is dealing with friend difficulties is talking about. A little over a year ago, I went through the same and found that a couple of (what I thought were) life-long friends all seemed to just disappear. They claimed that "They didn't seem to know what to do to help, or to support me, so they let other people who were in [my] life, continue doing that." This meant no contact for at least six months.

Now they're coming back into the fold and claiming to want things to go back to normal, but I'm just starting to come out of the worst time of my life, and they weren't there for me. How can I tell if they're just going to ditch me for months on end at the low points again if I let them back in?

Carolyn Hax: Well, you can tell right now that they're going to leave the difficult things to someone else, because they did. Doesn't mean you necessarily have to drop them as friends (though that's certainly your prerogative), but it does mean you should align your expectations with their limitations.


Please help!: To make a long story short - my boyfriend and I have spent the last two weeks deciding if we think we should break up. We've been together two-and-a-half years and live together, but don't know if we can make each other happy. At this point, the talking is getting nowhere and the distance between us is awkward and hurting the relationship even more. But we are so confused at this point, it's hard to know where to go from here. Advice?

Thanks so much!

Carolyn Hax: "If you have to ask, then it's time to break up" is the tempting shortcut. But will do better.

Figure out if whatever's dragging you down can or will ever change. Example, rotten unsatisfying time-sucking job--can change. Inability to be civil to partner while struggling with rotten unsatisfying time-sucking job--not going to change.

Then, add up your not-changes and decide if this is the way you want to live your life. Yes-stay, no-leave, being very conservative on what you expect to change, since little ever really does.

Meaning ,if you have to ask, then it's probably time to break up.


Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: I'm 25 and really scared of getting pregnant. As a result, I've always taken birth control pills AND used condoms. I've been with my boyfriend, 27, now for about four years. We both think it could last for the long term, but he has also declared that he "will NOT live the rest of [his] life using condoms." I really don't want to stop using them. He says that I need to check in with reality, because NO ONE in a long-term relationship has to use condoms. Is this true? Am I being unreasonable? This is my first long-term relationship, so I don't know what else is happening in the long-term bedrooms of America.

Carolyn Hax: Most people secure in their relationships and sexual health and birth-control method do chuck condoms eventually, yes--but what I say is for information only and not to be used as the basis for ANY decisions by ANYone. This is the kind of question you should always, always, always answer with the help of your doctor. This is what they are for.


Arlington, Va.: Real quick, before you go! What if a person breaks up with another because they basically can't deal with the other person's "baggage"-- does that mean the person isn't right for you, or that if you'd work on that "baggage", then the person could be right for you? thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Quick! You're funny.

It means the person wasn't right for you. Whether removing the baggage would matter doesn't matter (and even if it did, I would have no idea, your being complete strangers to me and all). The person with the baggage has to deal with the baggage to his or her own satisfaction, for his or her own reasons, as if the other person no longer exists. Otherwise there will always be the possibility of dealing just be to get the other person back, and that corrupts the whole process.


Go HOME, Carolyn!;: Or since I think you're already home, put down the keyboard and back away from the computer.

It's 2:15. Your duty to us crazies is fulfilled.

Carolyn Hax: Really? Thank you.

Bye everyone, thank you, and type to you next weekend.


Duck, NC: Is it just me or does the tone of "Georgetown's" boyfriend freak you out too? "NO ONE in long term committed relationships uses both methods" and "I REFUSE" to continue using both. Maybe I'm biased because I'm in a long term relationship and use both methods but I would think if my boyfriend wanted to discuss dropping one method, he wouldn't start off with "I refuse" and "Nobody else is doing it..."

Carolyn Hax: If that's how he started off, then I'd be freaked, too. But it's also possible this is the end result of mounting frustration (er ...) with someone who has a fear that may have crossed over the bounds of rational. Granted, his treatment of it should ideally remain sensitive, but why is she digging in, vs. just calling her OB-GYN?


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