Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; 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.


Philadephia, Pa.: My boyfriend has been separated for years now and we've been going out for about six months. My boyfriend's divorce (OK, sounds strange) is about to be final. How do I help him around this time? While he hasn't seen her in years, I would be shocked if residual feelings/thoughts don't pop up. How do I behave well without being overly or less than sensitive?

Carolyn Hax: I'd be shocked if residual feelings did pop up. Well, not shocked, I guess, but my take on what you described is that this thing has long since gone cold. But since anything's possible, the best way to behave is as if anything's possible. Be your normal self and pay attention to his signals.


Lost in Translation: I am amazed at the differences in interpretation of seemingly innocuous statements by men and women. Here's and example: went out with a guy, got physical. When we parted, he volunteered his entire schedule and let me know that he'd be away for a while (busy with work, etc.) and gave me a specific day when I could expect to hear from him. I took that as a kiss of death. My female friends tend to agree; the male friends, however, say that it's a great sign.
Of course, I will wait until the deadline for an actual verdict, but what do you make of this? Are we really from Mars and Venus?

Carolyn Hax: I agree with your male friends. Guess I'm from Pluto.


Hmmm, Canada: What does a girl do when she's at a bar with friends including boyfriend, and two guys start talking to her, in a friendly way and she doesn't like them or want them, but likes meeting new people. Is that rude to the boyfriend?

Carolyn Hax: No, not unless you flirt.


New York, N.Y.: He says, "I don't want a girlfriend", yet for the past 3-4 months we spend every weekend and 1-2 nights during the week together. What does it mean, if anything?

Carolyn Hax: Free sex.


Alexandria, Va.: What is implied when a heart-broken man gets a guitar?

Carolyn Hax: A few people missed this joke--I guess the cliche about tortured musicians'/artists' attracting predatory women isn't as cliched as I thought. Sorry.


Washington, D.C.: Regarding the boyfriend divorce -- wouldn't a person whose marriage is finally and officially ending feel a little something? Especially some men who aren't quite good at failure?

Carolyn Hax: It's possible, sure, which is why I advised that she pay attention to his mood. But my take is that if you're more than a few months into it and it's been months since you've worked to reconcile (if ever), in most cases the marriage is effectively over--and if you've had years to get used to the idea of its being effectively over, the officially-over moment isn't likely to have a huge impact. Again, this is just what I see as more likely; we don't know anything about the circumstances of the split, like who dumped whom, why, whether either one tried to hang on, etc.

BTW, why the gender assignment on not being good at failure? In my experience it's a trait that doesn't discriminate.


My own little world: Carolyn,

I have always been in the camp of "If I want to call a guy, I call him." I figure he's got just as ways to avoid that call or take it as I do -- and if he avoids me, I usually get the hint. My dear sister thinks that if said guy wanted to talk to me, he'd call me, therefore I am wasting my time, even if this guy talks to me when I call.

Most of me wants to ignore my sister and continue to live my life but there is a little part that wonders -- should I stop calling and wait from them to call me?

Thanks. Happy Friday.

Carolyn Hax: The perfect guy for you is one who thinks it's great that you call. So, keep being yourself and scaring off the guys who hate that you call, since, if you do take your sister's advice and change and attract a guy who prefers women to be a little coy, he's just going to fall for your sister the first time you bring him home. There's a reason we're different. Enjoy.


Oh Canada: It doesn't hurt to include the boyfriend in said conversation.

Carolyn Hax: True, but not if it doesn't go that way naturally. What do you say, "Hold that thought ..." and go get the guy? So I guess I'd rephrase, that it doesn't hurt to be willing to include BF in conversation. Thanks.


Frederick, Md.: My ex and I recently hooked back up (physically) but when the talk about getting back togetether happened, he gave me this whole, "I can't give my all in a relationship right now, but I want to be with you just not till I can give you 100 percent" speech. So thats fine, Except two days later, he met someone, and now they are seeing each other! Whats up with that? Was I played for a fool? Or can things change that quickly?

Carolyn Hax: A) Fool. Sorry. If it makes you feel any better, it's the user who's behaving like a jerk, not the used. Think about it--who'd you rather have as a friend, someone with a trusting nature who gets burned for it sometimes, or someone who burns anyone with a trusting nature? He may be enjoying his new plaything, but he'll pay eventually for the way he treats people.


Boyfriend Divorce: I was in the same situation with my boyfriend a couple of years ago. On the day of the divorce itself, he was a little melancholy. That night, he spent some time with some friends from way back, who knew him and his ex-wife. I just gave him the room, decided if he wanted to talk about it with me, that would be cool, too. Overall, no big deal. I'd advise you to just be there, be you, and he'll show you what he needs.

Carolyn Hax: Well said, thanks.


Arlington, Va.: My fiance has described to me episodes from his childhood (pre-puberty and beyond) which I would consider inappropriate sexual behavior on the part of his stepfather. My fiance doesn't consider it as such and doesn't feel traumatized by it.

Fine. But I'm very worried that because he doesn't see this as inappropriate this might cause problems later on when we have children. I have voiced this concern to him. He says he will have good instincts as a father and that I have to trust him.

We've been through his church's program for engaged couples and I mentioned it during our individual counseling session. At that point, he denied that that it had ever happened and was very upset with me afterwards that I brought the subject up.

I am beginning to have my doubts about him and am losing trust in him. What would you advise as my next step?

Carolyn Hax: What are your instincts saying? Walk away? I hope? If you're not there yet--completely understandable--get thee to a reputable family therapist. Go alone, at least until you and the therapist decide what to do next. Standing O both for you for taking this seriously, and for premarital counseling, for doing exactly what it's supposed to do.


Re: marriage: Carolyn,

I'm curous about your view on the purpose of marriage. Not its original purpose, but more what purpose it serves today outside of the whole children thing. Often when people write with questions about wanting to get married you ask them what that will get from marriage that they don't have in thier relationship as-is. It's an interesting question. As an engaged person I wonder about that, philisophically, from time to time. I'm SO excited for our wedding and all that stuff but my fiance makes the astute point that we are lifelong partners and what will change so much once we are married? So, any thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: That you've got a good fiance there, congratulations. He loves you for you.

At the moment, at least, I don't believe marriage serves any purpose at all except to establish certain important legal rights, and to silence all those with an antiquated worldview who would cluck at your not being married. (Not that you should care who clucks, but if you want to have kids, the kids might not like being clucked at, so marriage painlessly and, admittedly, sweetly inoculates them from rude judgments.) If you're lifelong partners, you're lifelong partners, no matter who reads what from whatever amid expensive floral arrangements.


Huh?-ville: "What are your instincts saying? Walk away? I hope?"

You tell her to follow her instincts and then tell her which decision to make? Why should she walk away? He was the victim. He deals with it in his own way. Why is this even an issue, nevermind enough to dump him over!?

Carolyn Hax: Where do I start. Because he claimed not to be traumatized--and in fact not to see anything inappropriate in the behavior--and yet denied it in premarital counseling. And then, even more alarming, also criticized her for bringing it up. You're absolutely right that I shouldn't have played a shell game with the instinct thing, but that wasn't deliberate--it was more "holy unprintable." I stick emphatically by my reaction, that this is an enormous, trust-your-gut-or-take-it-to-counseling, potentially deal-breaking issue.

AND ... even if I didn't feel so strongly, I'd note how strongly she felt and encourage her to take her faltering trust very, very seriously.


Washington, D.C.: Do you ever find these chats frustrating in that you are expected to produce an immediate sage response, rather than having time to mull over a problem? Do you ever get question online which you prefer to think about and answer in a weekly column? Just curious.

Carolyn Hax: Often. Weekly. Every question. Except when the question is, "Why is this chat so slow?" Those I'd prefer not to think about at all.


Washington, D.C.: I'm having problems trusting my current boyfriend completely. I'm having a hard time just letting go of worries because I am so in love with him and afraid of losing him. Logically, I know I need to trust him, but I need some help taking the last step to 100 percent trust.

Carolyn Hax: Get used to the idea that you will lose him, one way or another, unless you die first. And if you're nagging, investigating or interrogating him, cut it out. This is about you, and developing the maturity to accept that loss is not something you can protect yourself from or avoid. It is, however, something you can handle. You are human; unless you are one of the rare exceptions, you are built to overcome pain.


Marriage and Meaning: Funny, I had a tiny wedding, no trappings, lasted five minutes, kept my own name, and somehow, it changed things. Our love didn't change, but things somehow became... more permanent feeling maybe? I guess there is just something about the legal tie? It is really silly because I am completely the anti-wedding person in terms of the Marital Industrial Complex and what one "should" do at a wedding or even in a marriage, but it meant something for me. Oh, and FYI, no kids and not having any. The whole process made me even more disgusted that people are so bent on denying this ritual to people who happen to be the same sex.

Carolyn Hax: That's what I meant by the "admittedly sweet," but I can't explain it either. But then, why is New Year's a holiday? Why are 40th birthdays bigger than 39ths? We like to declare ourselves officially, cut a cake, say "Yay" when we count to 10. If only on that level it makes sense.

And if anyone's keeping score, this could be seen as a direct contradiction to my opening advice about the boyfriend's finalized divorce.


re: Lost in Translation: As a gay man (would that be from a moon of Mars or Venus, I suppose?), I would agree with your guy friends -- the guy was trying to be polite in letting you know why he may or may not call right away.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.

Can a person be fined for mooning Venus?


Trust: My inability to fully trust isn't based on a fear of losing him, but a fear that he will have another life, other emotions, about which I'm completely unaware.

Carolyn Hax: He will! Get used to that, too. You can only know a person so well.

And FWIW, that is still a fear of loss. Why else would his having other emotions, etc, be scary if it weren't for the possibility that those feelings would lead him away from you? All you can do is be your real self, and love the people you love in the best way you know how.

The best way to trust him is to start by trusting nature, that if you're meant to be together, that real self and that love you show will be what he wants out of life. And if it isn't, good (albeit painful) riddance.


Keeping Score: Carolyn: 20
Caroline: 0

Carolyn Hax: What's that saying about the typing monkeys and Shakespeare? Or maybe the right-twice-a-day-broken-clock thing is more apt. Anyway, there's still time. Thanks for caring.


Wedding Question: Is it tacky, in your opinion, to ask guests informally that you do not want gifts from them?

Carolyn Hax: Supposedly, yes, though certainly spreading the word informally is better than declaring. And since that's the way registry info gets out, I can't see why the much less materialistic, "Please just bring yourself" can't travel by the same couriers.

If you do manage to get the word out, obviously be gracious about receiving gifts from people who refuse to comply, since there will be people who refuse to comply.

Anyone out there have a better solution to this? It's not just weddings; I'm still trying to figure out how to throw a party to break in (not "warm"!) a new house without making people feel obligated to spend.


Trust: The number one way you can lose him is by not respecting the fact that as a human being, he has a right to his own feelings, emotions, and life.

Carolyn Hax: There's that, too. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: What's a girl to think when the guy has more excuses for not getting together (face-to-face) than minutes in the day, but contacts her daily and refuses to let their "relationship" end when she tries?

Carolyn Hax: Do you want it to end? Say so, nicely, and then screen the calls. The phrase "refuses to let" doesn't belong anywhere near a breakup discussion.

Unless it's refusing to let him in when he bangs on the door at 3 a.m. after you told him in no uncertain terms that it was over. Or refusing to let him mess with your head or drain your bank account or wear your stilettos. But you know what I meant.


Divorce?: Do you have any advice for a 20-year-old who has been married for two years and is afraid to end it? Married an illegal immigrant who now has his papers, but the situation's a bit messy.

Does anyone have advice for how to find affordable housing in the D.C. area (not more than $700 per month) in case of separation?

Is it possible that separation without divorce could work in this kind of situation? You might want to take advantage of the resources offered by The Women's Center in Vienna, Va. They offering counseling, lawyer referrals and a range of other information.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, Liz--just the thing.


Re: Lost in Translation: It's a sad, sad day when half of humanity feels the need to look for ulterior motives or a smokescreen, merely because someone is simply honest, open, and factual. Sigh...

Carolyn Hax: It's a sadder day when a few of somebody's female friends are seen as spokeswomen for half of humanity. Cheez.


New York, N.Y.: Following up to "If I want to call, I'll call" -- I used to live by this philosophy, but it seems to ensnare me in relationships with guys who I later discover weren't that into me but were too lazy/bored to say no at the beginning. How do you weed these guys out and avoid being filler on their social calendar until they find someone they like better?

Carolyn Hax: Pair your impulse to call with sensitivity to their reaction when you do call. If people aren't that enthusiastic about you but are too "lazy/bored to say no," it usually shows up on their faces in some form. Pay attention, and be just as open to bad news as you are to good.


Re: Trust: Regarding the person who can't trust, it screams control freak. I was married to one, and she didn't trust me spending time with anyone but her. It could have been co-workers, friends, even family. She didn't want anyone influencing my opinion of her, and oddly enough she even said that (hey, I was young and stupid, now I'm just older). Well, my opinion changed regarding her without anyone else's interference. And it got worse when we divorced. Still, it's something that the person is wondering whether that's healthy behavior.

Carolyn Hax: Ugh, so many classic control things in there. The intolerance of other people's influence is a lulu and doesn't get mentioned enough, I don't think. She freaked out any time you discussed her (or, worse, your relationship with her) with any of your friends, right? It's abuse rooted in insecurity and it shouldn't be tolerated, yet it gets rationalized as her just being "private."

Anyway, thanks for putting it out there as unhealthy.


NO Gifts!;: I don't care what "they" say. "They" are from the 19th Century. The point of etiquette is to make everyone comfortable and understand what is expected. Nothing could be more clear than "No Gifts Please"

The sooner we can kick this pointless etiquette rule out, the happier we will all be.

Carolyn Hax: If I went to your party, I wouldn't bring you a damn thing. And I say this with great affection.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Carolyn-
How do you keep an open mind with dating? When you meet someone nice, and you're not sure which way it might go (dating/friends/neither) how do you not rule anything in or out? I've been told I either say "Nope, it's not going to happen" fairly quickly (to not have to hang in the unknown), or I show interest and then promptly fall on my face when the guy isn't interested.

How do you just spend time with someone you're crazy about, and "wait and see" if they like you back?

Carolyn Hax: If you want to keep seeing the person, keep seeing the person, unless the person doesn't want to keep seeing you.

You know. Exactly what you've been doing. You're probably being told things because dating is a spectator sport, and people need something to say during the pre- and post-game shows.


Fiance and stepfather issue: Carolyn, pedophiles frequently engage in behavior with their victims that effectively "immunizes" the victim from understanding the inappropriateness of what is happening. It's complicated and it's treacherous, and it's one reason why many victims are slow to understand or accept that they have been victimized.

Also, it's generally much harder for males to understand/accept/admit that they have been victimized by a predator, because this runs contrary to the whole male ethos of strength, not admitting to suffering, not talking about feelings.

Carolyn Hax: Sounds like good stuff to know, thank you.


Control Freak Redux: Sometimes the family whose influence the "control freak" SO is trying to undermine needs undermining; families of origin can be "control freaks," too...

It's not "controlling" or "abusive" to not want the whole dang family having a say in your private business as a couple...

Just bears saying.

Carolyn Hax: Bears saying because it's another side of the issue, but I strenuously disagree. (Strenuously!) If the SO's family is out of line, either by saying bad things or by saying too much, the SO needs to explain the situation to the partner, and let the partner decide whom to believe. The SO absolutely should -not- get into the business of censoring either the family or the partner. Controlling with a capital troll. Like McCoy always says, let the jury sort it out.

Next time, I work not two, but THREE separate courtroom dramas into my answer.


Gifts: I understand that obligatory gifts, those given "just for the sake of giving gifts," are a horrible thing.

But. What is so bad about receiving a gift someone brings to a housewarming or birthday or whatever if that person truly wants to give a gift to the recipient? Why is this becoming something to be avoided at all costs?

Carolyn Hax: It's not that, it's the impression that one must bring a gift to attend that I think most poeple are trying to dispel at (almost) all costs.


Alcohol abuse?: I heard a psychiatrist say something on TV recently that I think has to be incorrect. He said that anytime you drink alcohol, it is for a social or emotional reason. But that can't be true because some people drink red wine occasionally because they're told it's good for their hearts. Am I right?

Carolyn Hax: There's also the part about its tasting purty good. Cheers.


San Jose, Calif.: Re: Mooning
I feel compelled to point out that Venus has no moons. (Mars, on the other hand, has two.)

I, myself, am from California, which occassionally feels further "out there" than Mars, Venus and Pluto combined.

Carolyn Hax: But not so out there that it would pretend to moon Green Bay.


"They": are not necessarily from the 19th century. An argument from the other side -- people who were raised to believe that it is imperative to help a couple set up their home as they start their lives together, regardless of their age, will be uncomfortable with a no gifts request (I say this as a 29-year-old). That's why it's considered poor etiquette. There are alternatives -- requesting donations to a charity, perhaps.

Carolyn Hax: It is such a nice argument, I think--but you have to admit it's at least 19.5 century when people are so clearly marrying later, ie, long after establishing households independent of their parents'. Again, not that there's anything wrong with the idea of wanting to set up the household anyway, just that it's a bit much to retain this idea as "imperative" and/or get all in a fluff over the idea that their presence alone will suffice. This is (a rare case) where I think etiquette fails.


Goril, LA: Some university tried the monkey thing...turns out they prefer Moliere.

Okay, but seriously, they actually tested this. Who says science isn't fun?

Carolyn Hax: The people who cleaned up after the monkeys.


The Midwest: My boss (we are closer than acquaintences but not very close friends) suffered a tragedy in her family recently (she lost a pregnancy when she was fullterm) and has been out of the office for a couple weeks. When she returns, I want her to feel welcomed back without drawing a lot of attention to the sad events surrounding her absence. I sent a note offering my condolences. When she comes back, do I just pretend like she hasn't been gone? I don't know -- I know that I like her a lot and want to do the right thing...

Carolyn Hax: It's going to be hell for her to come back to face the pity eyebrows (^) of the entire office, but that's only because she's already going through the kind of hell you only read about. Since the only response worse than, "Good to see you, and I'm so sorry for your loss," is to pretend nothing ever happened, you kind of just have to stumble through it. You care and you like her a lot, that's what matters, because that's what will make your words mean something.


Oh man: I just ate a whole box of Yummy Bunny mac and cheese. The only thing I can think of to follow it with is a nap.

Solve your house party problem by inviting only people you're close enough to that if you received the same invitation from them, you wouldn't feel obligated to buy them something--that if you gave them a gift, it would be because you wanted to give it to them, not because you felt like you had to. I generally find my group of people like this are also the folks to whom I can say "dude, you totally don't have to bring something."

Carolyn Hax: That makes too much sense to actually work. Thanks.

Make sure I've got this right--mac and cheese first, then nap?


Carolyn Hax: Now I'm too hungry to go on. That's it, thanks everybody, have a great weekend and type to you next Friday. Unless I get hit by a bus.


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