Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 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.


Update from the Midwest: Carolyn --

I wrote in back in December asking your advice about handling people's reactions to my choosing to have my baby after I'd been raped, and I just wanted to give you a quick update.

Eliza Grace was born Jan. 2nd, and my family has been very supportive since then. A few "friends" continue to make their opinions known and I'm sure this is something Eliza and I will both deal with for the rest of our lives, but I've accepted a position at a hospital about 250 miles away in Chicago, so I'm getting another chance to make a fresh start.

The encouragement I received from you and the peanuts was enough to get me through the last few weeks until my daughter was born, and I just wanted to say thank you. I'm sure there are many others out there who are just as grateful for your guidance and encouragement. Thank you again.

Carolyn Hax: You're welcome. And speaking of others, I'm sure there are many who've been thinking of you and wondering how things turned out. Thanks for the great (and inspiring) news.


Kid-centric culture: Your column today about the woman whose friends bring their kids everywhere reminds me of my own situation. One of my friends had a baby last year and since then she can't talk about anything else. My complaints about this have been met with the typical response - "you don't have kids so you don't understand what it's like."

So, what, does this mean that when I have kids I'll forget the previous 30 years of my life which included college, friends, jobs, movies, concerts, and only be able to talk about my kids?

Carolyn Hax: That "typical" response so offensive to me that I've found I can't help but hold it against the people who use it--and not just the you-don't-have-kids version, but all versions, since they're really just rephrasings of, "I'm not wrong, you're ignorant." Which, really, broken down that way, is pretty hard to defend.

So I think this means your "friend" is less of one than you thought. There were many other responsed that wouldn't have sucked, such as, "I'm sorry"; "Occupational hazard, I don't have much else in my life at the moment, but you shouldn't be the one to have to suffer for that"; "It's not personal, and I'm losing my mind so if you could be patient with me for a while, I'll return the favor someday"; "You're probably right, let's talk about all the concerts I've been to lately hah ah aha ahha ha. Ha."


Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Do you think it's ok for a guy in a relationship to hang out with other women alone? Is this wrong or is it OK to do so as long as you don't have an ulterior motive.

Carolyn Hax: Depends on the intentions and trustworthiness/track record of the guy, the intentions, etc., of the women, the circumstances of the hanging out, the history between the two, and, in case I missed anything specific, a general respect for any disaster potential. Considering your motives alone isn't enough (though if I were to draw a pie chart, they would get the majority slice).


Chantilly, Va.: My girlfriend and I are getting tons of crap from people we know, even parents, about choosing not to get married. This has gotten even worse since we became pregnant. Nowadays, I just claim we're married to people I meet just to avoid criticism. We simply do not want to participate in an institution we find to be flawed and unjust. Are we wrong? Should we just give in?

Carolyn Hax: Ha. A little close to home here, since--seems only appropriate to disclose--you're talking to someone who felt no need to get married but who got a fair amount of crap for it, especially after we were expecting. (No crap, however, from family; wanted to take care to point that out since they were so cool.)

I think you'd be wrong to choose against your principles. However, we found that we had principles not only on the marriage issue (that a relationship is for life or it isn't, you're committed or you aren't, vows or no vows), but also on the nosy-strangers issue (we weren't going to alter our lives to please anyone), and on the kids issue (they shouldn't have to take crap just because we don't want to compromise on something that ultimately isn't really that important to us).

So, three somewhat conflicting principles, but one trump, the kids. So we gave in. Not saying you should, just that I'd advise a similar consideration of all sides before you choose take a stand or cave.


Guy Hangin with Women: The answer is no.

Watch When Harry Met Sally.

Carolyn Hax: Oh please. That's about as useful as, "Once a cheater, always a cheater" or "You don't have kids so you can't understand." If Sally weren't pretty, or if Harry ... if they had gone out and all flames had long since burned and died, whatever. It's not a recipe for an inevitability by any means. And, there's also that whole it's-fiction thing. Categorizing people into assumptions is a great way to accomplish very little, except to deny yourself the company of half the planet.


Washington, D.C.: How do married people stop themselves from second-guessing that there is someone better out there for them than their spouse?

I have a feeling the fear of this happening to me is keeping me single.

Carolyn Hax: Then you should stay single. Self-resolving problem, my favorite kind.

At the risk of becoming one of those someday-you'll-just-know people, eventually you're going to find ... not so much that you've met The One and So There Can't Possibly Be Someone Good Enough Out There Even to Turn Your Head Ever Again, but that you've met enough people to persuade you that you have very little to gain by churning through another decade's (or whatever's) worth of, "So, ..."

Caveat. Marrying someone you enjoy talking to and also find hot is an important contributor to this. Exhaustion alone won't support it.


Not marrying but expecting: ... notwithstanding the rather important tax protection and other legal issues surrounding children. If you don't want to do the dog and pony show, why not just go to the courthouse and get a legal marriage done by a justice of the peace? Someday it will come in handy, especially when children are involved....

Carolyn Hax: Agh, right, the fourth element that we weighed and that I completely forgot. It being such a minor thing and all ... right. Thanks for the catch.


If Sally weren't pretty: So the rule as you've written it here is that a guy can hang out alone with a girl as long as she is ugly?

Carolyn Hax: Right, that's exactly what I wanted you to take away from it.


Carolyn Hax: Snottiness there meant for the idea of the rule, but on second thought there's a good point I dont' want to blow past. I said it because it was a movie with actors and they're always purty (guess you missed my little jab at poor Billy Crystal) and they always get together in the end. But I actually don't want anyone thinking someone "ugly" (by whose definition is that determined, I don't know) is therefore "safe." The beauty of "When Harry Met Sally ..." is that they fell for each other after they got past all the surface stuff and -really- got to know each other. That's why, as fiction, it managed to say something memorable and meaningful about real life.

So, the "rule" I meant to put forth, other than the rule that there is no such thing as a rule, is that sometimes a man and woman can be great friends and not find each other attractive. Ever. At all. Even when one or both are pretty. Sometimes the cause for that is physical but don't read my quickie example as an argument that it's all about the physical.



But people who don't have kids really DON'T understand: I remember when I was pregnant, how I looked forward to maternity leave. I thought I would get to stay home and relax for four months. Sure, I would take care of the baby, but how hard could that be? How much work could an itty bitty wittle baby really be? Boy was I in for a rude awakening. But since I did not have kids, I did not yet understand. Why is that so offensive to some people?

Carolyn Hax: Dukes down, everybody, please. (Not just you, a lot of Q-tips flying.) This is not kids vs. no kids. First of all, anyone who's close to someone who has had a baby, or who has babysat a little guy, knows pretty well how exhausting it is. That's why the you-don't-have-kids-you-don't-get-it line is so far off. Some people get it, some don't, but assuming a person will or won't get it based on whether s/he has kids or not is a prejudice like any other. (I do pity the first in a group to have kids, but still no cause for dukes there, either.)

And, the aggravation from the post that started it all stemmed from a friend who ceased to talk about anything but baby stuff, and who snapped when called on it. Both of which are thoughtless no matter how many hours you spend going BAH BAH BAH and mopping up drool--and no matter what else it is you're doing that killed your ability to converse, since it's not just babies that do that.


Thousand Oaks, Calif.: I don't expect to see an answer to this, since the questions are vetted. If a father decided to stop working and stay home with kids without his wife's agreement, how would you respond? How is that different from a woman deciding she doesn't feel like returning to work after maternity leave?

Carolyn Hax: Doesn't "feel" like returning to work? How judgmental.

Sorry to ruin your gotcha, but I have a long history of support for parents who want to put careers on hold or on simmer to spend time with their kids. That, and a husband who has stopped working to be home with our kids.

You know, since it's all about me today.

Another thing you can check out in the archives, I don't think it's practical to hold people to agreements when there have been circumstances since then that would reasonably give rise to a change of heart. A recent example would be my supporting the guy who came to see that he couldn't, in fact, live with his girlfriend's mess, even though he promised before they moved in together that it wouldn't bother him. What's he supposed to do, be miserable because he "promised"? Accept, adjust, deal.


The piece of paper makes a HUGE difference: And if you don't believe that, then go talk to someone who wasn't able to make medical decisions on behalf of his partner because they weren't married. Some family member had to be dredged up, regardless of how long it had been since the family member had been seen.

The legal issues are HUGE. The hell with the societal issues -- those are the least of your problems!;

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for the underscore.


Arlandria, Va.: Why should a man in a relationship need to hang out alone with other women? Even my boyfriend admits it, men are pigs, and things rarely stay platonic. It's a recipe for disaster.

Carolyn Hax: AGH. There should be a fine for this use of "need."

Help me, nuts, do I dignify this with an explanation, or would I be preaching to the Skippy jar?


Living together before marriage: My boyfriend and I are in our mid/late 20s, have been together for three years, and are considering living together after we get engaged. The concern is my father, who is conservative and will most likely refuse to pay for the wedding if we do. I feel like we're old enough, mature enough to make this decision and wouldn't mind paying for the wedding ourselves (although it would probably end up just being a trip to the courthouse) and our lives shouldn't be dictated by my father's values at this point. Then again, it would just be a year of living apart, and I would feel bad if my dad dissaproved of my lifestyle... what do you think?

Carolyn Hax: Figure out what matters to you, why, and therefore what your integrity demands that you do. If you don't have clear answers here yet, it's probably not a good idea to make any big commitments, including moving in together. Comfort with yourself and your values is the foundation on which you build comfort with your choice of mate.


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn,

I'm a married guy with several female friends I hang out with without my wife (she actually calls them my little girlfriends), and she has a number of guy friends that she hangs out with. What's the big deal? Either you trust your partner or you don't, so I'm thinking the previous poster needs to take a closer look at her relationship. Just my 2 cents!

Carolyn Hax: I'll take them, thanks.

I'm itching to take on the "need" thing, though. Can't help myself. If you're a guy who loves dogs and your girlfriend isn't as into them, you ahve to ... lurk silently around the dog park until another guy shows up?

And that's only one of the smaller absurdities that gets to me, about this. The biggest one is the belief that all straight people are going to find any member of the opposite sex attractive. I mean, look around you. Cheez.


Skippy: Ignore it. My husband and I go to company functions solo all the time and "hang out" with members of the opposite sex. Theres a difference between that and say, him hanging out with another woman, alone, in a ski condo in Vermont.

Carolyn Hax: I bit! I couldn't help it.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

I'm in a great relationship with a wonderful man whom I've been dating for about eight months. A few days ago, I got a very unexpected e-mail from my college-era ex-boyfriend, that basically said, "I was a jerk, I know you knew that, but I needed to tell you that I'm sorry." I'm not really sure how to respond to this. I don't get the impression he's trying to get me back, and it sounds like he'd had a hard time recently so I don't really want to ignore it and let him think that I hate him -- I forgave him ages ago, and I appreciate that he apologized. But I also don't want him to think that I'm inviting him back into my life -- I wish him well, but really don't have any interest in becoming friends with him now.

I'm also not sure if I should tell my boyfriend. I sorta feel like I should, especially if I respond to the e-mail. I value his trust, and not saying anything would feel a bit like hiding it -- but at the same time, we've never really felt the need to talk about our past relationships, so it would be a little wierd. I also don't want to worry him over nothing. Any thoughts? Thanks! Love the column!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks!

To old boyfriend: E-mail back, "I forgave you ages ago, and I appreciate that you apologized."

To new boyfriend, say either nothing, if the whole episode drops out of your mind in the next day or so, or, if it lingers, say: "I just answered a very unexpected e-mail from my college-era ex-boyfriend, that basically said, 'I was a jerk, I know you knew that, but I needed to tell you that I'm sorry.' Weird. Ever get one of those?"

I.e., you've said all the right things here yourself. Just need to share them with the right people.


Hico, W. Va.: I've been in an almost constant breaking up/getting back together cycle with my girlfriend of 1.5 years. Our relationship will be great for a couple of months until problems with her job, ex-husband, or kids cause her to "panic" (her words) and say she can't handle a relationship. Then the stress eases and we try again. I know logically that we need to end this, but the good times cycle always makes us feel as if there is a chance for the relationship to succeed. I've had experience with ending relationships when the love is gone, but I'm having a VERY hard and painful time ending this one where the love is very strong but its the situation that's the problem.

Carolyn Hax: Will it help if I point out that the love is only half strong? You're in love with one part of her. You're not in love with the part of her that can't handle stress. Change the situation, and she'll only come across new stresses and panic over them instead.


More Skippy: And perhaps if your boyfriend only thinks highly of you when he is not allowed to associate with any other female on the planet (or at least not without supervision), he doesn't actually think so highly of you.

Carolyn Hax: You're making me hungry.


Burke, Va.: Carolyn, Do you ever get tired of people? I'm getting close to burn-out on society and while it may be because I'm liberal and Bush is president, it seems like more than that. Everyone seems to be complaining about everything lately. Gay vs not, media vs bloggers, U.S. vs the world, parents vs non-parents, Christians vs non-Christians, etc. And no one seems to want to discuss any differences rationally or calmly. Should I just stop reading the news and watching TV? What do you do when everything seems so dark?

Carolyn Hax: Bring light to people. Little can buoy you faster than doing something nice without expectations of anything in return. And, best part, it's entirely up to you--no waiting for anybody to change. (Or 2008.) And, yeah, stop watching tv.

Did I spell "buoy" right? Should be "booie" anyway. Much more fun.


Hungry: Are you really always so hungry at the end of the chat that you have to go? It's okay if you just say, "Time's up!;" We can take it. We'll come back next week.

Carolyn Hax: I get the shakes. Really. Not every time, but often.


Boston, Mass.: I've been dating my boyfriend for 6 years, unhappy for the last four, living together for the last two. We're both 30. We broke up once before but I was so guilt-ridden -- and it was such a grueling thing (him yelling and crying) -- that I agreed to try again. I just don't have the slightest idea how to leave, and I'll feel awful knowing that I've made him miserable if I do (he's wanted to get married for a few years now). Is this worth couples therapy, or is it time to go? any advice on how to do it?

Carolyn Hax: Read ... was it today's column? The therapy I'd recommend is for you, so you can understand the source of this crushing, debilitating guilt and learn to make better decisions for yourself. Moving in with someone who has already made you unhappy for two years is not a good decision. He is preying on your guilt. Do not let him. Talk to a trusted doctor or friend to see if you can get names of therapists, or call a hotline to get the number for local counseling centers--800-799-SAFE or RAINN, 800-656-4673. Tell them you're in a relationship that might be emotionally abusive, and that you'd like to get counseling on how to extract yourself from it.


California: So how do you go about changing your attitudes toward life? My friends think of me as grumpy and crabby (their words) -- which is not exactly the best image, and I hate to think what people who aren't my friends think about my attitude. I would like to have a more positive outlook and I would certainly like to lose the reputation for being a grumpy person, but I have no idea how to do that. Help.

Carolyn Hax: Deceptively simple question. You probably want to go at it several ways at once. First, practically--try to figure out if any elements of your life don't fit as well as you like. Job, living conditions, eating and exercise habits, stuff like that.

Second (but hand-in-hand with the first), figure out what it is about you that's never going to change--both the stuff you like about yourself, and what you don't. E.g., everything from your natural sleep and work habits (early riser or nocturnal, plodder or procrastinator?) to the way you interact socially, to the way you most want to use your free time.

Third, think small. Do nice things (see above), stick up for someone when there's nothing in it for you, treat yourself occasionally, stop putting yourself in positions that you know will be stressful (e.g., leave 15 min early if traffic spikes your BP).

Fourth, get some exercise. Stretch, or take a walk.

That should do it for this week. heh heh. Seriously, though, try some of these and check back in.


Embarrassed: Please help!;!;!;!;

I just randomly fell into the street just now and I feel so embarrassed!;!;!;

What can I do??

Carolyn Hax: Get out of the street!


re: panicking girlfriend: say she knows she handles stress poorly (because of her upbringing), and she's in therapy working on it...should he still give up on her?

Carolyn Hax: If he's unhappy enough to keep breaking up with her when things get bad, then, yes. And the alternative isn't too pretty, either--he sticks around to see how the therapy's going, and if it doesn't accomplish enough, then he leaves?

He's made it clear that he can't abide her panics. I'd argue that she owes it to herself not to be with this guy. Otherwise, even if she does get better, she'll always have to worry that he'll leave at the first sign of relapse. There's wisdom in the better-or-worse thing, no so much as and after-the-fact obligation--if you're abused, to give an extreme example, that's a worse no one should ever put up with--but as a before-the-fact test. She's showing the better and worse that come as a package with her, and therapy's hardly a guarantee the worse will end or abate.

There will always be things we dislike about people, obviously. But the love has to incorporate those dislikes, not be in spite of them.


Break my fingers, PLS: Help -- I drunk dialed an ex. How do I save some face?

Carolyn Hax: I think this is one of those cases where the harder you try to scrub the stain, the more it spreads into the fabric. Unless you happen to see him or her and you also happen to be quick on your feet, in which case you can say you hear s/he got a crank call from Jack Daniels the other night, or something or other. You know, laugh at yourself.


Carolyn Hax: Time's up. Seeya, thanks even to the cranks, and have a great weekend.


re: panicing girlfriend: Ummm, isn't panic-girl the one doing the breaking-up?

Carolyn Hax: Is she? I can't remember--should have looked back at the original post, sorry.


Carolyn Hax: Okay, it says she can't handle the relationship. But I reread both answers and I think, if you take off my mistake about his breaking up with her, the rest more or less holds. Even with therapy in progress, it's not a good idea to make decisions about someone based on the expectation or even the possibility that someone will change. This is who she is. If he wants to break up with her based on the panics, then he should (and if she knows he's considering ending things because of them, then she will have that hanging-over-her-head problem, whether she gets better or not).


Carolyn Hax: Now I'm hungry. Bye.


© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive