Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 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.

The transcript follows.

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.


Who Pays?: I'm a girl. If I ask out a guy, should I pay? Do we split the check? Or does he pay?

Carolyn Hax: You pay.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Carolyn. You -- and the 'nuts -- always seem to have good input re: all things wedding, so I'm hoping you can help me out. Planning sister's bridal shower and HAVE to include in the invitation where she is registered (this is not negotiable). What is the appropriate way to do this? Would it be better to say something like, "Jane is registered at X" and leave it at that or would it be more gracious to say something like "While gifts are not necessary, if you would like to bring a gift Jane is registered at X." Thanks for your help!

Carolyn Hax: Unless there is a gun in your face, you do not HAVE to include in the invitation where she is registered. And if there is a gun in your face, perhaps you should suggest to your sister gently that she elope and seek help.

But if you're going to ignore me, please please please do NOT preface the rudeness with an engraved tap dance. Gifts are never necessary, and this is to be treated as such obvious information that no one need point it out. And while I'm begging, please put the "Jane is registered at X" in agate on the back. Thank yew.


Washington, D.C.: Happy Friday, Carolyn:
I have a question for you. It is actually similar to the one asked in today's column. I have an awesome boyfriend, he is my best friend and I believe he's my soul mate as well. However, the sex is not the best. I mean how important is a couple's sex life when it comes to marriage? Let's say on a scale from 1-10. I don't see this as a huge deal, but it does kind of affect me, for example I am not always eager to jump in the sack (but will anyway.)

Carolyn Hax: Put it this way. Only you two can rate the importance of any facet of married life.

But once you figure out a rating, you then need to adjust for reality by adding a point for every, say, 5 years of married life to any number above 3. Example: If sex is a 1 for you, then it'll probably never really matter. But if it's a 4--i.e., it would be nice if you had good sex, but you find you don't miss very often -- then prepare at the 15-year mark for it to feel like a 7 or 8 and for the just-going-along-with-it strategy to feel repugnant (and for the divorced dude who just joined the carpool to start looking reeeeally good).

Short version: You care. So, 10.

The other thing to consider is how your priorities match up with your potential husband's. If it's a 1 to you both, happy reading in bed. But if you're a 2 and he's an 8, it's going to be a huge deal in just a year or two, because it's already a big deal and he's only pretending it isn't.

That help?


Washington, D.C.: I don't know if this will apply to the couple in today's column, but as a veteran of a successful long distance relationship, I'd like to add my two cents. We were living in separate cities for the better part of two years, seeing each other usually every other weekend or every three weeks. Most of our visits were Thursday/Friday - Sunday. After a while, we realized that most of our visits together were tainted by an overwhelming sense of "doing everything we can," whether that be going out to dinner, being with mutual friends, or even sex. We found ourselves getting stressed and upset of changes in plans and things not going "the right way."

Once we realized that we were trying too much during our visits -- and not taking enough time to just enjoy each other's company and presence, no matter what we were doing -- our relationship really became stronger.

I'm not saying that the terms of this LDR contribute to the questioner's problems. But it's worth a thought.

Carolyn Hax: Definitely, thanks.


Bellevue, Wash.: My husband and I have been married for almost six years. For that entire time (and more), my dad has claimed to be highly insulted that my husband refuses to call him "Dad" and my grandparents "Grandma and Grandpa." My husband feels very uncomfortable with these titles, and has insisted that he would be much more comfortable just calling them all by their first names. This all came to a head last week after a huge family fight (long, non-related story) which my husband and I weren't at all a part of. Somehow, the overwhelming sentiment that came out of the family fight is that my husband needs to start calling them "Dad" "Grandma" and "Grandpa".

How do I handle this? And what is up with thiinsistencece? I understand that my husband needs to respect my family's way of doing things, but if it makes him that uncomfortable, is it really necessary? I'm curious what your readers call their in-laws, and if anyone else has faced thiawkwardrd situation.

Thanks for your help!

Carolyn Hax: I think it's time for you to do some insisting of your own. First, explain that there's no insult here, just a man who prefers to save "Dad" and "Grandma/pa" for his own father and grandparents. Then insist that your dad either drop the incredibly superficial (and corrosive)demand of your husband, OR air whatever larger grievance he seems to have against him that he's masking with the whole name issue -- since he's far too reasonable a person (ahem) to make such an issue of something so silly. Enough is enough.

Of course, this doesn't mean he'll come clean or stop holding a grudge against your husband, but what it will do is lay the groundwork for you to refuse any further discussion of the matter. If he wants to fulminate on his own time, it's at the expense of his soul, not yours. What you will lose is some of your relationship with Dad, bunfortunatelytely, your dad is essentially forcing you to choose between him and your husband, and so that leaves you with your husband as your only choice. Easy one, really, albeit painful.


Who pays part two: Does the girl pay each time if she was the initial ask-er? or does the guy pay the next time (assuming there is one), or is it whoever does the asking, next?

Is there a "rule" when one party makes a ton more than the other party (once you start dating, that is)? I know guys always paid in the past -- for quite some time after dating commenced -- but what if the guy is poor and the girl is doing well? What then?

Carolyn Hax: Whoever asks is host, and therefore pays.

But the polite guest will offer to pay nevertheless.

And the host will politely refuse.

Until such a time as the pair become regular dates. Then the host can accept a gift here and there.

Until such a time as the regular dates become an established couple. Then things like who earns more and who last went to the cash machine actually matter, and splitting tabs should become the norm.

Until such a time as the couple becomes a life pair, when his and her money becomes our money and it doesn't matter at all who pays what.


Sacramento, Calif.: Hi Carolyn,
I'm sure you get this question all the time, but how do you deal with a mama's boy? I love my boyfriend more than anything and really like his mom, but she insists on doing everything for him. Most of the time I can overlook it, but it's often things that I would like to do for him and she just takes over -- Like planning his birthday celebrations, buying him clothes, etc. By the way, he's 32. Any suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: Scroll up and look at that scale of how much things matter when you decide to grow old with someone. Though with mama stuff, add a point for every year, not every five.

Talk to him. Tell him you think Mom's presence is a bit much in the life of a 32-year-old guy.

If you've already had this conversation with your boyfriend and he either sees no problem with Mom's planning his parties, or agrees with you but won't deal with his mom on your behalf, then go to the short answer above: 10. Run.


Response to Bellevue: Not exactly the same situation (not in-laws), but similar enough, I guess.

My foster sister had trouble figuring out how to address my parents as well. Dad was easy, since she didn't have a dad of her own (that she acknowledged). But mom was another matter. For years, she prefaced every exchange with my mom with "Hey," so mom started signing her "lunch notes" and cards with "from Daddy Mike and Hey." Finally they agreed that she would be addressed as Momma Rachel. The rest of her foster families are addressed as Mom/Dad --(insert last name here).
In the interests of keeping family ties, something similar might be worked out here.

Just my take. FWIW, I'm inclined to agree with hubby, though!

Carolyn Hax: Enlightened solution, thanks. I also love the way your mom was able to have a sense of humor about it. Lucky you.


The in-laws: For what it's worth, I call mine by their first names, as does my husband and every other married person I've ever met in my entire (40+ years) life.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. The exceptions I've seen are when grandkids arrive and the parents-in-law get reflagged accordingly, especially when there's an ethnic tradition behind it -- e.g., yia-yia for Greek grandmothers, poppy for Italian grandfathers, etc. I imagine that has gotten a lot of awkward daughters -- and sons-in-law out of jams.

Again -- jams that are completely uncalled-for. Such a control thing, to insist on being called something that has emotional weight to it and then to pout when you don't get your way. Caving to that pressure should be a lower-than-last resort.


Points for mama stuff: But if we all added a point a year for mama stuff, wouldn't we all be running? Is a difficult mom really reason to dump a beloved man?

Carolyn Hax: If the beloved man won't intercede on your behalf* to keep Mama in line,** then, yes. That was my point.

* If you're asking Mama to disappear after you've been with the guy a month, then Beloved should be running from you.

** There are a lot of different definitions of "in line," especially from culture to culture, so the important thing is that you and beloved dude agree that, for example, having Mommy do his laundry and pick out his ties and comment on your birth-control methods*** is out of line.

*** For a good time, see last week's transcript.

_______________________ Tell Me About It (Live Online, Feb. 25)


Maryland: Do I have a better chance of getting an answer if I submit to the online chat or to the column?

P.S. ... I think you're fabulous!!

Carolyn Hax: Thank you! Chat. Unless it's complicated, then it has a better shot at the column since I'll need time to think. Either way, though, it's a long shot since even on a slow day online I see maybe 10 percent of my ???s. Helps to be thorough but concise; if your ??? has more words than a column (500-550), then you can probably figure your chances on your own with 100 percent accuracy.


Washington, D.C. -- "hey": My daugher-in-law has not decided how she wants to address me. She uses the "hey" or just starts talking. It does not bug me because I actually would not feel comfortable with her calling me mom.

Carolyn Hax: Then can't you be a good (and merciful) sport and just suggest she call you "Louise"? Especially sporting if your name isn't really Louise.


Chicago, Ill.: re: Importance of sex:

So you are saying, it only gets worse as time goes by? I have a similar issue to this woman. It sounds like you are saying that the importance of each aspect of living thavinger and havng a life together should be the same for each person.

I keep thinking that sex will matter less with age. Not true?

Carolyn Hax: That's a pretty strict reading. What I'm saying is that you and your mate should be of, if not like, then at least similar minds on the things you both deem important.

And that the importance will tend to increase with time, especially if you aren't of like minds. It's easy to think short-term and tell yourself, sure, I can put up with X. (Or, no XXX.) But then you pile on some years and years of putting up with X (or, no XXX) and it starts to get really, really old.

It's not exactly counterintuitive. Put on a 50-lb pack and take a one-mile hike, and you're fine. Make it a 20-mile hike, and that burden is not going to get lighter the farther you go.

Re sex -- sure, your libido may fade with age. But say you're making this choice in your mid-20s. You're looking at 20, 30 more years of a sex drive that's just fine, thanks (obviously this varies by person -- could be 10 or 50 more years). And so iunsatisfyingf an unsatifying sex life, what's your robust yet neglected body going to be telling you? And how exciting does it sound to be having okay-just-do-it-so-I-can-get-back-to-my-book sex for all those years?


Mama's Boy: What if the attachment doesn't really show up until years after you're married? We never had any conflict until our child was born and now the only issue in our marriage is how his mother treats me (since the baby has arrived) and his refusal to do anything about it because he doesn't "see" it or because she's his mom and she's "fragile." She's careful not to do anything in front of him, and addresses her comments and complaints only to me.

Carolyn Hax: Then I guess it's time to develop [parts] of steel. When she treats you badly, you don't budge, either by not letting her get to you -- "Thanks for the suggestion" (followed by your ignoring her suggestion if it's a bad one and using it if it's good)--or by showing zero-tolerance for nastiness -- "We are raising our child the way we believe is best, and we'd appreciate it if you'd respect that."

I also think you need to have a re-education session with your husband: Assuming you've always been reasonable on the subject of his mother,* he needs to trust you enough to believe you when you come to him with an objection to his mom's behavior.

* This is why it's SO important not to harp on every little perceived offense by the in-laws. You stockpile credibility for when it really matters to have your spouse on your side, and when you need to say: "You know I'm not one to get upset about stuff your mother says, but this time it was over the line and I need you to have faith in me here."


Carolyn Hax: Somebody tape my **** key, please.


Lansing, Mich.: I think your advice was great re: lack of sex drive. I married a guy, and it went from bad to worse. It made my life miserable. He never wanted sex and I still had a libido. Be wary if your partner isn't into it before you get married. It will, as you suggested, go downhill from there!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Check out this next post:


Signal Hill, Pa.: Good afternoon, Carolyn.

Today's letter really caught my attention. I have to agree: Do NOT marry her.

My situation is similar. My relationship with my wife was wonderful until we had a house and children. In fact, it is still mostly wonderful, except that she has practically no interest in sex. She would be perfectly happy being intimate three or four times a year (which of course is nowhere near my preferred schedule).

This has become a huge obstacle between us. I feel myself pulling away from her when I want to be close, just because I don't want to face yet another rejection. Not only does she not want to be amorous, she doesn't want to deal with the fact that I do. It is depressing when we go for weeks and do nothing, and it is humiliating when we finally do get together and it becomes obvious that she is only acquiescing.

We have talked about this, with no result. This is not a medical problem. She went off the pill for a year (not related to this problem), again with no result. In her mind, the problem is not her lack of interest in me, but my refusal to be happy just snuggling on the couch.

In the meantime, I am still a fairly attractive, pleasant guy. Women seem to enjoy talking with me. All it takes is the right smile or a touch on the arm, and I'm in a tailspin. I want someone to find me attractive. I'm dying to hear a woman say "I can't wait to get you home alone," and I would prefer that it would be my wife. She's made it clear, though, that I'm not going to get the affection that I need from her.

Again, aside from this, my wife is everything that I always wanted in a woman. Attractive, funny, smart, similar values, and a lot of fun to be with. But the realization that this is likely to be the way that I spend the rest of my life is the most soul-numbing thing I can imagine.

Again, don't marry her, unless you're prepared to give up this part of your life forever without taking it out on her in the future.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for helping with the don't-just-take-it-from-me portion of our program. Wish I had an answer for you, but when you have a fundamental disagreement on what the problem is, your choices become take it, or leave it.

Like you need to hear this from me. Sigh.

Though I do wonder what your wife would say if she read your post ...


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn -
Why are so many of your answers a roundabout way of telling someone to not get married? The low sex girl was saying that the sex wasn't the greatest but she wasn't upset about it, it seems like you magnified it to a problem when really she was just looking for confirmation that a low sex marriage can work.

Carolyn Hax: She got my honest opinion -- that if it's important, stop trying to rationalize it away, and face it. And that if it's not, mazel tov.

Have you seen the divorce rate lately? And to round out the statistic, have you spent time with any unhappy couples who have chosen to stick it out "for the kids"?


Carolyn Hax: Mind you, just because a marriage fails doesn't mean it couldn't have been a good or valuable experience overall -- pain is often the needed precursor to the great moments in life. Fertilizer for the flowers, call it. But I'm not sure people are ready to hear, "Sure, it's fine, as long as you're feeling bold enough to explore and you're not afraid of divorce," and accept it as non-facetious advice.


carolynesque ... on the sex: Has anyone suggested finding out why the libido isn't there?

Carolyn Hax: I hope so, if I've neglected to. That should always be one of the two steps to deal with a sex problem: find out if you both agree it's a problem, then find out if it's a problem that can be fixed (health issue, stress, er ... competence). Each step is useless without the other. For Signal Hill guy, e.g., whether there's a fixable problem is moot b/c the wife has no inclination to fix it.


Is sex important enough to get a divorce over?: Seems a shallow reason, doesn't it? but of all the other reasons, is it a good one?

Carolyn Hax: It's shallow if you're not a physical person, but profound if you are. Which is why compatibility here is so so important.

I also think society's puritanical element has done such a disservice to everyone by treating humans' animal side as somehow deviant or unclean or even just frivolous. We are intellectual, emotional, AND physical. Would you really ask someone to deny the existence of a third of his or her self? It just needs to be kept in check, just as, say, our emotional impulses do.


Maryland: So, if both the woman and man felt their low-sex marriage was wonderful and didn't even give it a second thought until an outside source brought it up for discussion, would your advice have been different? I think the problem is that you are saying "have similar values" (yes!) rather than "you're doomed if you don't have lots of sex" (no).

Carolyn Hax: My advice would have been, if you're happy,* don't listen to people who aren't in your marriage. They don't know anything you need to know.

*And if you're unhappy, obviously, then outside opinions might help -- but gather and weigh judiciously, don't buy all of it wholesale.


Re: Signal Hill, Pa.: Signal Hill's letter broke my heart, because I could easily be the woman he's writing about.

My significant other and I have been together for nearly seven years; at the beginning, I had a stronger sex drive than he did. Then I went on anti-depressants and some other medication, and it KILLED my sex drive. I'm actually off most of them now, but the effect has remained. I'm not only not interested, but actively don't like it anymore. I WISH there were something I could do -- I've seen doctors, therapists, etc., and nobody has been able to help -- and I know it's not fair to my sweetheart. I know it's not fair to me either, but ... I just can't make myself want it. I don't know what I'm going to do ... I miss this part of myself, and would give anything to have my sex drive back.

Carolyn Hax: This is going to sound, well, shallow, but have you tried working out? Dancing, yoga, whatever appeals, and can maybe help you re-discover your physical self without all the emotional freight that is sex?

BTW, you couldn't easily be the wife in that letter, because you care and are heartbroken for him and you understand what you're asking him to live without. I imagine that kind of empathy would take a lot of the pain out of Signal Hill's "voice."


Rockville, Md.: All these unhappy, doomed marriages are scaring me. I mean, it sounds like you're more likely to win the lottery than have a happy marriage. What advice do you have on making a marriage work if you find after the fact that there are a few speed bumps?

Carolyn Hax: No no no, the lottery chances are about 1 in several squillion, and the marriage chances are a strapping 4-to-5-ish in 10. For perspective, the chances of ... hmmm ... becoming a Vogue cover are more of the lottery sort. Think of it in terms of your neighborhood. You probably have a dozen happy marriages within trick-or-treating range of your home, but no lottery winners or Vogue models within miles. (Manhattanites, Parisians and Angelinos excepted, as they'd insist, being too cool to trick-or-treat.)

So, relax, optimism is appropriate here. In fact, I'd say it was essential for the second part of your question, helping a marriage get over the speed bumps. It's almost ridiculously simple. Dwelling on the bumps will make you miserable. Addressing the bumps and then leaving them behind, concentrating instead on what's good about your spouse and marriage and life, will make you happy.

The extension of this is a good way to think about when to give up on a marriage -- when it's impossible to leave the bumps behind, either because they're too huge to get over, or you leave one behind only to see 20 more looming before you, or because you keep going over the same damn bump every day and nothing either of you does will ever change it. Then it's time to say, well, you tried.


Response to Signal Hill Again ...: Yes, I'm a dancer by profession ... so unfortunately the physical workout thing isn't helping.

Carolyn Hax: Pooh, was worth a try. Have you talked to your doctor? If you can be pharmaceutically deadened, seems to make sense at least to ask if you can be pharmaceutically revived.


Not shallow at all: ... to suggest physical activity. In fact, how about some kind of physical activity both partners can do together, where they're engaging in a leisure activity in each other's company, but sex is absolutely not a part of it? Dance lessons, tennis, walking, birdwatching -- geez -- something. I'm getting the impression these married couples are just people who happen to live in the same house and only have contact when they're in bed together.

Carolyn Hax: I think that's part of the problem. Intimacy of all kinds needs at least some attention, some fuel. Dance lessons, date nights, long walks should go on the calendar from the beginning, when it's a no-brainer that you'll spend time together. That way you're establishing traditions and habits, which can then sustain you through hot and cold cycles (and rinse cycles, if you're into that kind of thing), whereas assumptions that you'll always just enjoy each other and want to be together can take a beating when big changes occur, like having kids or investing more time in careers.


For the woman on anti-depressants:: Belly dance! I mean it! I struggled with some of the same issues and quite honestly this dance has changed my life. Not because it's sexual in itself (that's a misconception) but because it exercises and tones and stimulates circulation to the lower abdomen. And it's great for spinal strength and flexibility, which we all need. And it's graceful and fluid and percussive at the same time. And you're focusing less on how you look and more on expressing the music, which makes it meditative AND a workout at the same time. And it's great for body image issues if you happen to have any -- there's not the culture of "skinny" like there is in ballet, and both thin women and larger woman look great doing it. It's been hugely helpful to me.

Carolyn Hax: Bitchin', thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Online dating. Boy emails girl, girl emails boy, talk, lot of fun conversations. Then boy stops emailing? Should the girl call or email to ask why?

-- online dater

Carolyn Hax: Would it matter? Boy gone, relationship short a few dimensions to begin with. I'm sorry.


Washington, D.C.: Yeah, but is Signal Hill guy communicating to his wife how her lack of sexual attention is making him FEEL? It's one thing to say I don't get it enough, but it's another to say I feel rejected and this is making me unhappy in the marriage. She may have no idea that he is that miserable. Why is it so hard to COMMUNICATE anymore?

Carolyn Hax: It was easy once?


Running from marriage: In reponse to the poster who accused you of telling people to not get married -- um, if any part of you is unsure about getting married, why would you want to? I personally would like to wait 'till I find someone that I actually want to spend the rest of my life with, rather than get married for the sake of having a ring.

Carolyn Hax: People have been conditioned to believe that "All relationships are work," or some such gray rot, that allows them to think that a problem or two like having to grit one's teeth through sex is normal and to be expected in any relationship. So, they grit their way right up to the altar and five years later they explode. Relationships don't need work, they need attention, and that attention shouldn't feel like work, at least not often.


Denver, Colo.: Re. today's column, are you aware that a blind man, Eric Weihenmayer, has successfully climbed Everest? -- although I believe he had all his shoes.

Carolyn Hax: Wow. Being three-legged must have helped. Thanks!


*****: Guess you never found that tape ...

Carolyn Hax: I did, actually, but decided I needed the freedom to type =8-)


Carolyn Hax: So we have a major theme chat, a real one this time, however inadvertent, and no one complains because there are no babies in it? Conspiracy, I tell you.


Carolyn Hax: Eek, what am I doing here. Bye! Sorry Liz. (Liz who has left the building and had lunch and hosted another chat and been back from her travels for 45 minutes and counting.) Thanks everybody and type to you next Friday***************


three legged?: I guess I'm slow, I don't get it.

Carolyn Hax: "All" his shoes. Ha ha. You're not slow, I'm weird.


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