Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 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.


To gift or not to gift: I have a friend who's very interested in me (as in, wants to marry me someday) and is taking me out for Valentine's Day. I told him that the holiday was not that important to me and that we could get together anytime but he insists on doing something special. I like him well enough but haven't decided whether I'd like to actually date him. I feel like I should give something in return for valentine's day as well, since he's going through so much effort.

So should a girl give something to guy who's interested in her but for whom she still has cooler affections and, if so, what is appropriate?

Carolyn Hax: I'm not sure you should even have accepted. Seems like there's a very high risk here of having this guy take any small signal of interest from you as permission to go picket-fence shopping.

So, I'd say no gift. Maybe even offer to pay ... but I'll hear arguments to the contrary.


Washington, D.C.: Regarding today's column: "Shouldn't he allay those fears?" The big question is -- does he know that she is inhibited and fearful? If he is ring shopping, it sounds like she isn't communicating to him and they are living two different relationships under the same roof. How can he be expected to allay fears he doesn't even know exist? Sure, if she communicates her fears, he is expected to help her feel comfortable to be honest and to be herself. But a relationship which features fear sounds like one that should end.

Carolyn Hax: I agree for the most part. When I suggested he should allay her fears, I didn't necessarily mean he should be conscious of them and actively working to make her comfortable. He should allay them just by being there, being himself, being trustworthy, whatever--by being the right guy for her. If he's the right guy, she'll feel comfortable around him, and the inhibitions and fears will resolve themselves.

Of course, it could be that no guy could make her comfortable because she's got too much internal work to do, in which case she shouldn't be in a relationship right now. But my hunch is that if she met someone with whom she clicked as easily as she did with the ex, then she wouldn't be inhibited and we wouldn't be having this conversation.


Re: to gift or not: I say go dutch. You can still hang out, but if you pay your own way it will be more of a friend thing instead of a date thing. But he might, as Carolyn said, still take it as a sign of your affection.

Carolyn Hax: My worry with her offering to pay is that he will be offended, in the I-went-to-all-this-trouble- to-set-up-a- romantic-dinner-and- you-thank-me-by- emasculating-me sense.

Of course, there's the analogous worry on the other end of the scale, that by not offering to pay she gives the impression that she sat back and let him spend money to romance her when she had no intention of romancing him back.

Since the first is a sin of bluntness and the second is a sin of deception, I suggested the first and still prefer it. But it's touchy, so she needs to be kind and warm and firm in her deflection of romantic advances. Either that, or she calls it off. Which is starting to sound better the more I think about it.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Gift-

Don't give him a gift out of guilt because he is giving you one. Just accept the gift say thanks and move on. If he takes it as a sign well then you will have to set him straight when he makes clear what his expectations are.

Carolyn Hax: Well put, thanks.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: A couple weeks ago I came home to find a "call me" message on my answering machine from an old boyfriend I have not heard from in nearly 10 years. History: we have had an on-again off-again relationship where we remained friends since middle school. I did not call him but sent him a neutral card with some catch up info. But now I am dying of curiousity. What should I do? He is in another city, and I would guess he has a significant other. I have a boyfriend I care about but he also lives over 500 miles away, and would encourage me to see him.

Carolyn Hax: If you're ready to take on whatever mess you create, then call back. If you're living a life you wouldn't want to see disrupted, then don't call back. Not all curiosity has to be satisfied.

By the way, you're already in the early stages of rationalization. What does "he also lives over 500 miles away" have to do with anything? Either your commitment's there, or it's shaky.

... and if it's shaky, okay, so be it. Just admit it to yourself before you go dredging childhood ponds.


RE: gift: Similar lines... What is appropriate to do for someone if you aren't dating and you are really interested, yet you can't read the signals coming back to you from the woman? Would sending flowers be overboard?

Carolyn Hax: It's perfect if she likes you, overboard if she doesn't. There's really no way to win here. I guess all you can do is figure out what your rejection-pain threshold is, and also try to gauge what might make her feel uncomfortable, and then keep your gesture safely behind those lines.

I'd throw some suggestions out there, but the discomfort thing has so much to do with circumstances--e.g., if she's a co-worker who has to see you every day or if you live in her building, the awkwardness potential spikes.

Reality 1, Grand Romantic Gestures 0.

I know. Ask her to dinner. Assuming you haven't already done so fruitlessly 87 times and/or you aren't co-workers in the same chain of command, of course.


Washington, D.C.: My husband and I are in the process of getting a divorce after he cheated on me. He is now living with the "other woman" and is job hunting. A high-profile prospective employer has asked him, as part of the hiring process, to go out for drinks, and would like me to go as well. Should I accept?

Carolyn Hax: Ick. No. Your husband should cover for you. This being the least he can do for you at this point, wouldn't you say?

I can see the argument for taking one for the team, no hard feelings, better alimony ... oops! bad typo, sorry ... but it's hard to see how this kind of groveling sham serves anyone.

Wait, this feels like one of those fake Qs from the news ...


Washington, D.C.: I am getting married in June to the most handsome, fabulous man ever. We have both noticed that since getting engaged, we get hit on MUCH more than we ever did before. We figure it is because of our increased confidence. However, I've been experiencing more "insistent" men, and I'm not sure what to do. For instance, last night I was in a bar, and when I tried to deflect a guy from hitting on me, I told him I was engaged, and said "Can I talk you out of that?" May I sock him in the nose? What do I do?

Carolyn Hax: Oh, just look disgusted and walk. Unless you happen to have, "Can I puke on your shoes?" handy, but I know I never do when I need it.


Virginia: I have put a lot of effort into preparing for a standardized test I have to take to get into a new career. I really thought I wanted this but the prep work isn't as exciting as I thought and I am losing interest in the field I am taking the test for. Problem is I feel like I owe it to everyone (me, friends, family, God, etc) to go through with this test because I've received so much support. But the closer it gets to the test the less excited I feel about it. What should I do?

Carolyn Hax: You owe it to yourself, friends, family, God, etc., to be happy. If it took your going through this process, and all the consequent support, for you to see that this career isn't the happiest path for you, then the process was a success. Maybe not the success you had in mind initially, but a success nonetheless.

There is something you do owe yourself, though--to be sure the preparation for this test actually resembles the work you'd eventually do in the field.

I could also argue that you owe your supporters something, too, though it's something you also owe parimarily to yourself--and that is to make sure dread of the test itself isn't coloring your opinion.


Better yet...: Those are GREAT shoes!; too bad I'm going to puke on them.

Carolyn Hax: It is better, Thanks. Which means I'd be even less likely to think of it in the heat of the moment.


Chicago, Ill.: Carolyn: I feel awful. I'm caught up in bitterness because I feel like by being a good person I deserve a great boyfriend/husband, kids, etc. and blah, blah, why aren't they here by now. I know! Its awful! Any advice on how to get out of this expectant lifestyle?

Carolyn Hax: I'm not sure, because I thought recognizing it would be enough to snap someone out of it, and apparently it isn't.

So, why isn't your life great as it is? And don't tell me it's because you dont' have a great boyfriend/husband, kids, etc. and blah blah, because I guarantee every single one of us online right now can think of at least five people who have all those things and are chronically unhappy (or just miserable, complaining SOBs).

For life to owe you something, it has to be a pure merit system, which is of course a joke. You do your best and take what comes, and for the rest, there's ice cream.


Washington, D.C.: tell your readers, please that if they submitted their questions (such as your first poster and the one about the "call me message") that if they submitted to Amy or to the other date chat today (which they did, one of them both) that you have more pressing items to handle... they shouldn't be advice shopping... it is tacky (and I probably shouldn't be reading all the dating chats, but that's my side life -- and I welcome advice how to handle).

Carolyn Hax: Eh, don't worry about it--the people who are advice-shopping (or worse, trying to stage their own little advice-off) make your side life seem benign. I mean, as hobbies go, it's easy to defend--free, easily concealed and doesn't clog your arteries. Almost respectable when you look at it that way.


For Standardized Test: Go ahead and take the test!; Taking the test doesn't mean you need to take a job in the field and you've already done all the prep. You might feel different when the test is over.

Carolyn Hax: Of course. I slap my forehead in your honor. Thanks.


Thought Police: Dear Carolyn,

I'm ashamed to admit this, but I completely freaked out when my boyfriend told me he had a dream about sleeping with someone else. I do tend to be a thought police... I hate it when he tells me that he thinks about other girls too. How normal is it to have these thoughts/dreams? He says they mean nothing and gets really mad at me. But I can honestly say I don't have them myself, and I really wonder why he tells me these things at all. Am I crazy to let these things bother me? We've been dating for two years long distance and he's never cheated or given me reason to doubt him.

Carolyn Hax: Except that he's telling you about his sex dreams when he knows it upsets you. I don't think you'd be crazy to let -that- bother you.

Granted, pretending both of you never knew anyone else before and never think of anyone else now is the kind of oh-brother fraud that rewards paranoia and keeps relationships superficial. But unless you're part of a couple that actually enjoys sharing all, you're naturally going to want a little buffer from all that reality. A fig leaf, a don't-ask-don't-tell. I don't think it's wrong for you to ask for that, at least--say you know you're both human and sexual and blah blah, but spare me the morning-after mental video. Surely he can respect that? (Or both of you can date someone more in line with your thinking?)


Newly Engaged: Why can't she just say no? I'm sorry, I'm missing the big deal here.

Carolyn Hax: I believe she said the people were quite pushy in response to "no." I don't see it as a big deal, necessarily, but it can leave the "no"-sayer a bit rattled (and interested in a better reaction than stammering).


Re: advice shopping: I submitted the same question to Weingarten and Paul Farhi on Tuesday. Should I be ashamed? FWIW, Paul answered but Gene gave me the cold shoulder.

Carolyn Hax: Now now, not answering your question is not the same thing as a "cold shoulder." Gene might never have seen it.

And, yes, this is a shameless attempt to get through to the people who post nasty "Thanks for nothing" messages when I don't answer their questions.

And, yes, you should be ashamed, of something or other, I'm sure.


Re: Washington: Sorry, but how does getting engaged increase your confidence? Is landing a spouse like getting a nose job or something?

Carolyn Hax: Really? A nose job would just make me self-conscious.

And while I'm all for taking couplehood down a peg or two from Holy Grail status, I think the chip on your shoulder is showing here. Making a new friend, getting a new job, getting a high grade and getting a parental pat on the back all can increase your confidence, too. It's validation from another human that you have value. Just because independence is also valuable and being single is just fine doesn't mean we have to de-value romance as a sign of outside approval.


Anytown: Drudging up something you said a couple of weeks ago, re: being controlling over your partner to the point of possible abuse. It stuck with me because I'm a very private person, and choose carefully who I confide in, even for smallish things. I just don't see the harm in asking my bf to not share my business with his friends/family, and to not get into details with them about our relationship. What's wrong with not wanting them to know about my finances, or sordid details of our latest fight, or how much I hate my boss, etc, etc? I don't view it as controlling him at all, I view it as controlling private info about me. Thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: You view it as controlling private info about you ... which is controlling, period. What you're controlling--or, I should say, trying to control--is your image. You don't want people hearing any messy facts about you and then drawing conclusions about you from them. Instead, you want them to know about you only what you choose to let them know.

Problem with that is twofold. Or threefold, or squillifold. One, you're clamping down on your boyfriend's ability to seek support, intimacy, familiarity--i.e, converse freely--with his friends and family. No fair. Either you trust him to exercise good judgment and represent you fairly to his friends, or you dump him for someone more discreet.

And, you're efforts to control how you appear are completely futile. People will see what they see, and think what they think, no matter how hard you control the spin. And, for what it's worth, they're going to judge you far more harshly for being controlling than they are for, say, hating your boss. Hello, you are human? People aren't such idiots that they can't figure that out for themselves and cut you a break accordingly--and if you treat them as if they are, you'll only piss them off.

I'd go on, but this answer is already taking forever. Let go. Trust yourself enough to understand that when people see who you are, and then take you or leave you, you'll survive it either way.


Washington, D.C.: I am a recent law school grad, have a good first job but lots of student loans to repay. Every year I buy an entertainment Book, which has lots of half-price offers for restaurants (fast food through top of the line), as well as plays, movies, and other entertainment. Does using these coupons on a date make me look cheap? I don't think so, and no date has ever said so. Sometimes I use one when I have a non-date lunch or dinner with a woman friend, and they have always been delighted (or so they say). But some guy friends have advised against it. Your thoughts?

There is a program that if you charge meals at certain restaurants to a specified credit card, it automatically takes a percentage off your bill. I think the Post sponsors such a program. But the Entertainment Book is, overall, a much better deal.

Carolyn Hax: It wouldn't bother me, but you're not going out with me, so that doesn't mean much. What does mean something is your getting through law school and being responsible aboutyour debt. Yay for you. If it would bother you to be with someone who's bothered by it, then you could keep using them on the theory that they're a good jerk filter. And if you're just worried that you might look cheap to a date, then use them only on non-dates.

Other possible scenario to consider: I used one once and the waiter huffed, "Oh please, not a coupon," which at the time made me feel like a complete doink. Eventually the sting wore off and I was left only with the urge not to go to that restaurant again, but I wouldn't have wanted that sting on a date. (Another one of those moments where I wished I had had more, Idunno, panache.)


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn,

I am in love with a married man. So far we have been "just friends." Last week after I saw him he sent me an e-mail saying, among other things, that every time we say goodbye he has to resist the urge to kiss me. I responded by saying that we must keep our friendship strictly platonic, a pledge I plan to keep as long as he is married. But, I now want to tell him how I feel about him -- I think he is my soulmate and I want him to leave his wife. This is a bad idea, right? Normally I am very clear-headed but not right now. I am in my 30's and he is in his 40's, if it matters. Online, please.

Carolyn Hax: Stay away. Don't even respond to the e-mails. There's nothing but anguish unless his marriage ends, and it's not going to end unless he ends it on his own for his own reasons.

And, in other pratical news, unless you've spent large quantities of time in each other's constant company, you could merely be infatuated and mistaking that for love, and I have a hard time imagining how much it would suck to break up a family (assuming you even could) only to find that your soul-mate bonfire died out.


Washington, D.C.: In the past two years, the majority of my friends have become engaged, married or mothers.

I am thrilled for them and love celebrating their new lives and choices.

I am single and have no prospects for marriage or children -- which is absolutely fine with me (no where near ready for such things). But my question is -- I am beginning to feel a bit on the outside of our group since all the things we had in common socially no longer exist. How do I continue to fit in with my friends and their new lives?

Carolyn Hax: Hard spot to be in, I sympathize. But I think you can take a cue from siblings, though, who "break up" or drift apart over this stuff far less often than friends do--usually by making the effort to stay involved, by getting to knwo the new spouse, by embracing the uncle or auntie role. You may not be that into it, which is fair, but if you do have the interest, you can be involved enough to take a nearly equal part in all the new conversation topics.

It also wouldn't hurt to widen your friend base, but, then, it rarely does.


Houston, Tex: You don't think that might have been a planted advertisement for the Entertainment Book, do you? Lots of detail about what it covers and addressing what may be some hip young peoples' concerns about using coupons....

Carolyn Hax: Bleah, you're probably right. Between that and the stupid-fake-news questions and the comparison shopping, I'm starting to get annoyed. This forum works best when I leave my skepticism on low and when you guys, in return, have the courtesy not to take advantage of that.


Re: Soulmate Bonfire: I had a helpless crush on my long term boyfriend's good friend. Luckily, I realized it was a ridiculous crush, and stayed with my boyfriend, who I loved and with whom I had built a deep relationship.

Finally, I spent enough time with the friend to realize that we weren't meant for each other. It was one of those things where I woke up one day and realized that I hadn't had a crush on him for a long time.

I'm now married to the boyfriend, and we're still friends with the other guy.

Just pitching in my two cents that you can have a raring crush on someone without really knowing them, and throwing away something that you have worked hard on and built a stable and loving relationship with would be a horrible idea.

Carolyn Hax: Good stuff, thanks.


Re: Holy grail status: While we're talking about this, could somebody explain to me why couples (especially newly engaged ones) think they are some type of royalty and that their single friends are reduced to peons? It makes us single people feel much worse about being single, when really, singlehood is not so bad.

Carolyn Hax: Of course it isn't. But not all couples (not even all newly engaged ones) think they are some type of royalty. People of character don't use their happiness as permission to diminish others'.


Madison, Wis.: My (ex)boyfriend of 6 months and I decided to take a break about two weeks ago because of escalating and confusing bickering. I then hooked up with my housemate. Until it happened, I didn't understand that a lot of the tension in my relationship was stemming from suppressed but strong feelings for my housemate. I'm now filled with all the right kinds of butterflies for my housemate, and things seem to be mutual. We have a great friendship and have lived together almost seamlessly for a year now. I do really care about my (ex)boyfriend, though, and am really unsure how to explain to him why our break will be turning into a break up, since its going to hurt him, no matter what I say. The reason my feelings for my housemate were suppressed is because we also work together. On the one hand, I'm totally giddy that I can spend so much time with one person and still enjoy hanging out with him and vice versa. On the other hand, getting involved with him to boot is somewhat scary and I value our friendship so much I'm scared to mess it up. I've also always been ambivalent about living together before engagement, and now I find myself in this situation... Any pointers on how to work through this gracefully?

Carolyn Hax: Ooh, mess. The only graceful way out of one is to consider the feelings of the person you're about to (actually, have already) hurt, be honest where necessary (e.g., tell BF it's over and that you have feelings for housemate), discreet where possible (no gory details, either of the new fling or of the things you dislike about BF), and judicious from now on (e.g., take the new thing VERY slowly). Good luck!


Newly engaged: And then there are the single friends who can't accept their newly engaged friends' happiness because they're jealous. Sorry to say it, but you know they're out there!;

Carolyn Hax: And I'm grateful for them, because without the bitter and self-absorbed, we'd have to find something else to do for lunch every Friday.

Speaking of--getting hungry, so, seeya. Thanks and type to you next Friday.


skepticism: wow and i read the paper everyday.
what real news story is the fake-news-question hinting at? I re-read it twice and couldn't think of whom it might be about.

Carolyn Hax: I'm not even sure it was one--it just had that feel to it. (And since I'm both behind on the news lately and bombarded with joke questions every week, I'm leery.)


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