Tell Me About It
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005
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: Washingtonpost.com 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.
In today's column, the letter writer says, "She continues to list his name in the phone book next to hers." If his name is John Smith, and the ex-wife is Jane Smith, what is the writer saying the ex-wife is putting in the phone book? If she's putting Jane Smith, I agree with your answer. But what if she's putting Mrs. John Smith? Or John and Jane Smith (literally his name next to hers)?
Carolyn Hax: I would assume it's John and Jane Smith. My point is the same: Whatever. Ignore it. Not your problem.
A friend asked me what I thought the salary of her position should be (as its getting transferred to a new company and she has to interview for it again). I answered honestly -- from her response, I could tell she thought I was devaluing her. I wasn't -- I just know the field better than her. Now she is all upset with me. I told her "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you what you wanted to hear" but I guess that made it worse. I wasn't trying to be mean but now I don't know really what to say to her -- if anything.
Carolyn Hax: Nothing. She asked you to be honest, and you were.
Two posts in and we already have a theme: Egos like overripe pears.
Hansfield, Md. :
Sigh. I'm an optimist at heart, but sometimes I have to admit that it's hard to convince myself that it's going to be a great year. I mean, 2004 was fantastic, but then if it was so great then how can I be sure that 2005 will be better?
Put another way: You seem like a positive person. What do you do to convince yourself that tomorrow will be better than today?
Carolyn Hax: Why do you need tomorrow to be better? Or 2005? Some days are going to suck. Some entire years are going to suck. Seem to me that if you want an attitude that will withstand reality, you need to accept that everything passes, and that includes both the bad stuff and the good. That way you appreciate good times (enjoy them while you can) and stay on the rails during bad times (because things will get better).
How does one go about finding the right person to marry? I've been dating but I'm so frequently disappointed. I find that many people are disrespectful, insecure and manipulative.
Carolyn Hax: That could be because many people are disrespectful, insecure and manipulative. But if every person you date seems great for a few months, but turns out to be another variation on the same mistake, then take a hard look at what you find initially attractive about a person. Same cover, same book.
And if there are no clues there, then try patience, and get to know people before you start dating them. That requires a different way of looking, though. You need to put yourself in a position to see the same people regularly, informally, and (ideally) under different kinds of circumstances--not coincidentally, the way you make friends with people. At work, classes, church, gym, hobby groups, etc.
Ugh, this has been an utterly dreadful week. I dropped my boyfriend off at the airport on Monday so that he could say goodbye to his father that is dying of cancer, I have crap loads of homework and work piling up and have NO concentration because my mind is totally focused on my man's situation. I've been staring off into space all day and I'm getting nothing done. Any advice on how I can concentrate better?
Carolyn Hax: See answer to Q No. 3. Some days will be utterly dreadful. So, make out a to-do list that takes this into account--keep it short, essential, and give yourself a 5-min stretch break each time you manage to cross something off. You can get ambitious when you feel better.
The Med Zone:
Today I'm supposed to start my
medication for depression and am totally
freaked out. Feels so strange to willingly
take chemicals, though I know if I hit a
rough patch -- as I do about once a month
-- I'll be kicking myself for being too big a
wuss to take a little pill. Is the hesitation
normal? Maybe this is a peanuts Q.
Carolyn Hax: Do you drink coffee or alcohol, smoke, take over-the-counter cold remedies? You willingly take chemicals. It's just a matter of degree.
That said, I don't think it's unusual to be totally freaked out, so your doctor should be willing to talk to you if you put in a call to his/her office. (I say should because doctor accessibility isn't always what it should be ... and if your doctor doesn't call back, you can start your medication Monday after you place your please-talk-to-me call again ... and if your doctor doesn't call back after two calls, please find another doctor.)
The friend who got upset over a fair salary estimate is being a prima donna, but I think the friend who said "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you what you wanted to hear" didn't help the problem. That's right up there with "I'm sorry you're upset" or "I'm sorry if I offended you." Passive-aggressive apologies are the worst.
Carolyn Hax: I would agree, except that, when backed into that particular corner, it's hard to find things to say that are right. Think about it--how big is the difference between, "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you what you wanted to hear" (supposedly bad) and, "I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news" (a good-manners classic)? It's all in the shadings of tone, and, while snarking back at a prima donna isn't exactly model behavior, maintaining model behavior when one is having one's button's pushed by a prima donna who just asked for your help should replace the talent competition in the Miss America pageant. If this person kept her cool when she said it, I'm not throwing a flag.
So, I've got the in-laws visiting this weekend. My mother-in-law has the habit of wandering around the house, tsk-tsking at how messy things are, then cleaning up.
1. I just did the floors yesterday, please don't imply I don't know how to push a mop.
2. Don't clean things by moving everything around so I can't find them.
3. The house would be neater if she'd raised a less sloppy child.
4. It's not like her place is spic and span, in fact it's much dirtier than mine.
I know I should appreciate her cleaning the house, but it's insulting. We'd rather spend time visiting, rather than watching her struggle with a toilet brush.
Besides, I know how to clean and despise the constant implication that I can't take care of her precious baby! How to deal?
Carolyn Hax: Stop seeing it as her implying that you can't take care of her precious baby! See it as her feeling threatened by you, or having OCD, or being angry that women of your generation have choices that let them not be clean freaks the way her generation's women felt they had to be, or just being nervous/neurotic in general and not knowing what to do with her hands. Whatever. See it as a free house cleaning. Take deep and cleansing breaths.
Tiny Town, Ga.:
Ugh. What a totally depressing chat. We need a cheerful question...
So Carolyn, my hermit crab is reluctant to move into one of the new, shiny, colorful shells I bought for him. What do I do?
Carolyn Hax: Pull the shell and give it to a hermit crab that isn't too spoiled and full of itself to appreciate it.
Carolyn Hax: Better?
How's this for Washington, D.C.?:
(Whose boyfriend has a sick dad) You can't help your sweetie from D.C. (well, maybe a short phone call to check in this afternoon), so how about telling yourself that the more work and homework you clear off your plate now, the better you'll be able to devote yourself to him when he gets back?
Carolyn Hax: The perfect steeple to chase, thanks.
Hey Carolyn: I need your help. My live in boyfriend, who I love dearly, smokes pot. A lot. Before work, right after work, and more on the weekends. This didn't used to bother me but now it does, I guess because we're getting older, and I've told him so. Usually, when I tell him it bugs me he says "it's no worse than having a few beers after work, it's better for you than caffiene, blah blah blah." Then I end up agreeing with him and saying, "okay keep smoking pot." But a funny thing happens. I keep getting upset, he keeps telling me pot is harmless, and I keep saying okay, keep smoking. Repeat this cycle once a week for six months. Now I feel like I'm as much part of the problem as he is because I let him talk me into being okay with his pot smoking. I've tried getting to the reason why his smoking upsets me so much and its because I don't like thinking that he has to be in a haze at all times in order for life to be bearable. I've asked him if he's depressed and he says no, just that he hates his job and once he finds a job he really likes he won't want to be stoned all the time. I don't really buy it. When I ask him if he smokes so much because he's unhappy in our relationship and needs to be high to hang out with me he says I'm being silly and gives me a hug. I've done my research on weed, so I know he's right about it not being any worse than having a few drinks (which I would be okay with), but still I don't like it. What to do?
Carolyn Hax: You'd be okay if he needed a few drinks before work just to get through the day? Stop researching, pleading, making excuses and E-on-the-eye-chart enabling, and break up with this drug addict. Or potaholic, if that makes you feel more fair. Eesh.
Despite what everyone says about me, I feel like I'm out of control. I have a prestigious fellowship for grad school, a loving husband, a comfortable home, a cat. Yet, I can't stop obsessing that I'm too fat, my house isn't clean enough, I don't read literature any more, and I gave up playing the piano years ago. Everywhere I look, I see my own failure even though everyone else seems to think I've got it all together. Nobody wants to hear successful people whining about their insecurities, but sometimes I just hate myself and feel so alone. How do I get past this and start seeing the best in me?
Carolyn Hax: Talk to someone who isn't going to feel obligated to tell you, "You're amazing, don't worry!," and instead will be able to help you figure out why you feel so driven to be perfect that you can't possibly measure up, no matter what you achieve or how hard you ride yourself, and therefore doom yourself to be miserable. For my part, I can't do much but assure you that people don't like you in spite of your inevitable lumps, they like you for them, since "perfect" people are off-putting and lumps are funny--but it probably won't mean anything just to hear it once, especially without any reckoning with your upbringing (the most likely source of your drive). Better to get a steady supply of it, either from a friend (or group of) to whom you can relate but whom you feel no urge to impress, or, in the absence of that holy grail, the paid equivalent: good therapist.
Carolyn Hax: Feeling the need to underscore: Since you feel out of control, please pursue the professional counsel right away, at least until you no longer feel out of control. Thanks.
Any insight about whether expensive, "exclusive" dating services are worthwhile? My sister (age 54, divorced 10 years) is obsessing about the fact that her twin sons will graduate from high school in June 2006 and leave home for college, leaving her alone. She will receive an unexpected (one-time) tax refund of $5,000 and is ready to sign up for a dating service. She doesn't have any savings outside of her retirement package from work. I'm thinking that she should either save her money... but what do I know? I've been happily married for 20 years and maybe a fancy dating service would be good for her. She keeps pressing me for my opinion and then is mad that I'm not as enthusiastic about the dating service as she is. Any thoughts?
Carolyn Hax: Your sister's job hasn't by any chance been transferred to a new company, has it?
She's worried and looking to you to reassure her and doing it under the guise of asking for your advice and you're taking that guise at face value and, horrors, trying to advise her. (Which is actually fair, unless you're aware of the guise and ignoring it just to piss her off, which I don't think you are, though you are judging her some and it shows.) (Holy parenthetical.) (Anyway ...)
She is looking for you to assure her. You don't feel that you can. Right? At least, not on the specific point of the $$$ dating service. So, I think you should just beg off being her adviser here, by saying you don't know anything about anything, but that you think she's going to be fine whatever she does, and she should just trust her own judgment. (And not push for people's advice and then beat them up for giving it. But leave this part out.)
Re: Potaholic Boyfriend:
I don't know what your views on pot are, but this is an illegal activity going on in her house. She shouldn't risk getting caught for his stupid acts. It may be pretty harmless, but I can't stop hearing the background music... "bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do?"
Carolyn Hax: I think it's stupid to do something illegal--but for some reason I always assume the bust scenario is either pre-rationalized, a long shot, or both. But you're right to bring it up, thanks.
I just had to laugh at the mother-in-law question. If my husband wasn't an only child I'd think she was talking about mine.
My MIL is a terrible housekeeper at her own house and always insisted that I didn't have to go nuts cleaning for their visits. Without fail she'd come in the door, say, "you didn't have to clean for me" and then set about sweeping dustbunnies out of hidden corners with a dust-pan and hand broom. Once she even swept the entire CARPET in this manner after watching me vacuum it.
Yes, she drives me nuts. For her it's like peeing on a fire hydrant -- she's marking her territory. I know the territory's mine so who cares? Now I just make sure she's really got something to clean when she gets here (I've put her to work cleaning out my fridge).
As my sainted mother always said, "those who are looking for something wrong with you deserve to FIND something". If the worst she can say about me is I'm a crummy housekeeper (which I probably am) then hey, let her shout it from the mountain! Doesn't make me a bad person.
Just my 2 cents.
Carolyn Hax: Fished from the sofa cushions, I hope.
Hi. My boyfriend and I, after a few months of arguments, have decided to get a little counseling. We don't want to break up, we don't want to live together/get married if our relationship has this much conflict and to get us out of this "stuck" place I suggested therapy and he agreed to pursue the benefit offered at the school he attends. Today is our first appointment and we're both really nervous. I don't know what to expect or what to tell the counselor or even what I want to change. Is there anything I can do to get the most out of this experience without setting my expectations unreasonably high?
Carolyn Hax: One thing: Don't let shame, fear, nerves or anything else keep you from being honest. That's why you're going, after all--because, for whatever reason, you and you BF aren't getting through to each other. Since you'll be there with your boyfriend and not solo, you will have one consideration, and that's not to say anything gratuitously hurtful. Otherwise, though, you'll get the most simply by participating.
About reimbursing parents for college...:
You suggested in today's column that a reimbursement is in order if you spent six months as a lawyer before deciding to quit. I'm aware of a similar situation, but there was a LOT of parental pressure to go in the first place.
How long do you think you would need to be a lawyer before the requirement for reimbursement has passed?
My feeling is that parents shouldn't send their kids to school with strings that last past graduation -- and shouldn't hesitate to tell their kids to look into loans if they want a high-priced degree. Then mom and dad can afford to retire eventually, and their kids don't feel like they owe it to their parents to stay on the career path they chose at 18.
I left the rat race a few years ago. It's been great, I highly recommend it!
Carolyn Hax: Congratulations!
Re the reimbursement crack, there's so much that has to be weighed before you make a decision like that--which you obviously appreciate, since you included the info about parental pressure and means.
At one extreme: If you beg your parents to pick up the tab and they're just scraping by as it is and you drop it without coming even close to investing as much of yourself ask you asked them to invest, then you pay back.
At the other: If this is something you've spent your whole life wanting to do and you were prepared to pay your own way and your parents insisted and you agreed only after going 12 rounds with them and even then picking up your living expenses with savings and a library job on weekends and then you graduated and got a job and had a horrid and sickening epiphany and hated the law and offered immediately to reimburse your parents, you should be absolved of paying back a cent.
You, you're in the murk somewhere. All you can do then is consult your conscience and do your best.
Carolyn Hax: All that, and I give you nothing. Nice gig I've got here.
Not as nice:
I'm afraid the incessantly cleaning MIL would drive me nuts. Can't you just call her on it? Politely, but firmly. I mean, I could try to find all sorts of ways to tolerate my MIL talking about my weight gain during pregnancy, but it was ultimately better for my sanity to tell her firmly that the topic of my weight was not up for discussion or comment, ever. Plus, it probably kept me from committing homicide, though I think a jury would've acquitted me. Can't you just say, "I know . . . (attribute some benevolent purpose to the cleaning), but I must ask you to not do that when you're here. You are our guest, and your constant cleaning of our home hurts my feelings and makes me feel like a bad host. We would prefer to enjoy spending time with you."
Carolyn Hax: "Not as nice"? I beg to differ. Thank you. (And if I were on your jury, I'd at least have hung it for you.)
About a year ago, I learned that my good friend's boyfriend is married, and that he has been promising to leave his wife and marry her for virtually the entire three years they've been together.
Sticking my unsolicited opinion in, I told her that as a friend, I loved her, and that I thought she deserved better than him and should dump him. This was in response to a crying session where she was bemoaning the fact that it had been 2+ years and he wasn't making any move to leave his wife. After that, she pretty much cut all ties with me. We had some email communciation after that for a few months, and then she stopped replying to my emails. It's been almost nine months since I last heard from her, and I miss my friend! Should I reach out again, or just let it go knowing I hurt her?
Carolyn Hax: What you said was fine, the way you said it was fine (better than), the circumstances in which you said it were fine. She knows you're out there and will seek you out when she's ready, if ever. This is not to say you shouldn't try--maybe a twice-a-year, I miss you and hope you're okay--but you shouldn't take the blame for her cutting you off. You didn't hurt her, you spoke once, with her best interests at heart. She's hurting herself. Sad.
I am recently divorced, and have just started telling acquaintances and not-so-close friends the news -- that I'm using my maiden name again, etc.
As I go about this tedious (at best) process, I find myself becoming more and more annoyed by the reaction of most of these people (most of whom are married), which is a pity-filled facial expression that says "oh, you poor thing."
I'm not minimizing the grief, trauma, etc. that I've been through, but "somehow," I've managed to go on with my life, landing a great new job, losing a few pounds, and really looking forward to my new life. My ex-husband and I still have a good relationship, and I don't see that changing.
There's also this expectation from them to hear all of the gory details about what happened. They obviously wanting to ask more questions but unsure about what do say.
How do I gracefully tell these people to wipe those pathetic looks off of their faces without sounding like a: I'm in denial, or b: that I'm cold and heartless?
Carolyn Hax: If took the chip off your shoulder and padded it with terrycloth, maybe you could wipe their faces with it.
"Oh you poor thing" could just mean they feel sympathy--especially if they're married themselves, since they would know firsthand that even an amicable divorce means the death and burial of a lot of hope. Who knows, maybe some of them want out but can't even face the idea, and so they imagine themselves in your place.
And, just as you aren't minimizing the grief, their recognizing your grief doesn't mean they're minimizing how well you've come through.
AND, their wanting to ask questions doesn't necessarily mean they want to dig gleefully through your dirt. It could just mean they care about you and you caught them off-guard and they want to know/understand but aren't sure what they can ask and what they can't.
So, cut them the same break you want from them. Even if some of them do pity you and minimize your strength and want to dig through your dirt, since those people aren't worth the effort it would take to call them out on it.
"I'm sorry if I offended you"???:
Is that really passive-aggressive?
Carolyn Hax: Technically, no. The offense in "I'm sorry if I offended you" is that it's often used as a non-apology apology. I.e., I'm not sorry I did what I did, I'm just sorry you called me on it/caught me/are now making me pay for it. Tone thing again. Plus, the "if" has to go: "I'm sorry I offended you" (you high-maintenance, overripe pear).
I am going through the same sitation as Altered State with my boyfriend. It's been two years now. Why did you advise to just dump him like that? Should I not help my boyfriend to seek help? I struggle with this constantly, trying to figure out why I have such a problem with this habit, and trying to decide how to help him. He has asked for my help in quitting, but I'm always at a loss for what to do. Is it my responsibility to confront him every time I smell that reeking smell coming from the basement?
Carolyn Hax: It has been two years. Exactly when will he be seeking this help? It's your responsibility to leave him so he sees that he is destroying himself. You, right now, are helping him pretend that he isn't. And why is it your job to stick around "helping" him when he won't even help himself?
If he makes a genuine, sustained effort to help himself, then that's a different story.
Any questions? Al-Anon, Families Anonymous, etc., can pick up the explanation from here.
So, when it is ok to call in sick? I mean, how sick do you have to be? Yesterday I required so much kleenex that going out in public would have just been embarrassing (3 boxes in one day. I think its a record). Today I am less of an embarassment, but I share an office, and assumed that my poor unsuspecting office-mate would not be too keen on catching my delightful cold. But I feel like I am wimping out by not going in.
Carolyn Hax: This isn't my usual kind of sick, but I'm confident that when your nose is exploding, you can forgo the heroics.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
Can open marriages actually work? I have fallen for a man in an open marriage. We've been seeing each other for four months and continue to do so, even though we are both getting more emotionally attached. So stupid and selfish, yes? What to do?
PS. His wife knows about me.
Carolyn Hax: Stupid, okay, but since you're sharing him, it's hard to make "selfish" stick.
What to do? You already know, or else you wouldn't be asking for permission to rationalize your way out of doing it.
Re: friend's married boyfriend:
I am in a very similar situation and so I wanted to tell the person that there's not much she can do to bring her friend back. But at the same time, I feel the same sort of blame for my friend not talking to me anymore. I finally got some peace when someone said to me that if she's going to end a close 10-year friendship with me, she at least owes me an explanation, even if it's a pathetic one. So I asked her if she could tell me what it was and said I'd accept it and move on without judging her, but that I just wanted to know what went wrong. She hasn't responded. At this point, I'm still dealing with the blame issue but feeling like I've done all I can to resolve things.
Carolyn Hax: Well-advised by your someone, thanks.
Today is Thursday (posting early) and my parents just told me that they are coming for an overnight visit on Saturday. I told them that this is not a good weekend. My wife and I have a lot of catching up to do as we just had a string of guests last week and the previous weekend. I asked that we look at our calendars and pick a date that works well for all of us. They responded that they wouldn't come this weekend, but that they do not think it is right to tell your parents that they can not visit. Am I a bad son? Is it OK to say no to your parents if they plan on visiting on short notice?
Thanks for the advice!
Carolyn Hax: You did the right thing. Sorry you're being punished for it.
(And, from the Dept. of Anticipated What-Ifs: Even if there was some big reason for their visit that they're not telling you, like they have some news they need to share that's best shared in person or something, then it's still not okay to punish you; they should just admit they have other reasons for coming beyond a mere visit and give you a chance to change your mind.)
I liked today's post -- any suggestions on convincing yourself that it's okay to want less responsibility? Many of my friends seem to strive for the most success in the public eye, i.e. we are seen as the people that will become CEO and people treat us that way. When we want step outside of that track for a while (or permanently), how do we reconcile with all that pressure on us to succeed by those we admire most? (Friends, family, higher-ups in our companies)
Carolyn Hax: Something like reconciling one's inner voices with outer ones is so personal, no instructions from the outside are going to work for you. They'd just be another item in the "outside pressure" column, in fact.
But something that caught my eye--why is it "those we admire most" are a source of something as blunt and negative as pressure? Seems to me admiration is what you reserve for those who are able to respect the individual, which would then suggest an enlightened definition of success. Pressuring an entire class of people to be tomorrow's CEOs is just mindless.
Carolyn Hax: Speaking of mindless, my head hurts. (I know, not that I need a reason to sign off. Maybe I just want to whine.) SO, I'm going. Thanks everyone, as always, and an extra thanks to those who responded to my plea on behalf of the ALS Association. Here's the gala site again: www.alsinfo.org/gala.html
Happy weekend, and type to you next week.
Fluff question. What kind of shoes are you wearing right now?
Carolyn Hax: Fluffy ones (slippers).
Hey, could you let Nick know he's been on a good run of 'toons lately?
Carolyn Hax: ACK! I have a post from Nick. Hold on, everybody (who's left to hold on ...)
Oh, and thanks, I'll let him know.
Carolyn Hax: Hello From the Fringes of Carolyn's Life
This is Nick, Carolyn's ex (otherwise known as "Plan A") Thought I'd chime in and say hello. Hello.
I'm bouncing off the walls a bit. As you may or may not know, during a recent visit to the DC area with the love of my life, our adorable dog, Zuzu, she decided, without
explanation, to tear her cruciate ligament. She needed reconstructive knee surgery and here I am, for the next three months.
My little Boo can't be left unsupervised for the next eight weeks or so because 1) she's a dog and tried to walk eleven seconds after surgery, which is a really big no-no given that she's just had her tibia sawn in half, rotated and then re-attached with screws and a metal plate and 2) she's a breed with a freakishly high pain threshold which means she doesn't merely try to walk; she tries to run, jump, sprint up and down stairs, cartwheel, go bowling, juggle on a unicycle and generally move as explosively as the Tasmanian Devil - a VERY big no-no indeed. I, or at least someone, has to watch her until the bone mends or one of us strangles the other from being cooped up together 24/7.
Why am I telling you this? Because I'm struggling with a drawing and need to walk away for a moment. Plus, I'm a little stir crazy and this is a classic cry for help.
Since I can't really leave the house, my friends have been great about coming to visit. However. They've all conspired (I'm sure of it!) to bring only cookies and cake and chocolates. And other than picking up a 54 lb pit bull every once in a while, I can't really exercise...I'm turning into a veal. I'm the worlds largest boneless chicken breast. I get winded when I take a curb. Jellyfish have better
Nothing prioritizes your life like a fuzzy, voice-activated waggle machine. Fortunately I work at home (home being my extraordinarily generous buddy's house in Arlington) so I'm able to napalm any semblance of a social life and stay here and refine my maternal skills and write to you good folks ... until I glance at the clock and realize I'm still on deadline, so...
Thanks for listening. Thanks for reading. Have fun with Carolyn. Chat soon. Come visit. Bring food.
Carolyn Hax: There. That was Nick, everybody. Apologies for the tibia-sawing stuff, if anyone's still having lunch.
There's a drawing to illustrate this post ... let me see if I can get it to the right person.
Nick in the Maelstrom:
Does Nick realise that he's asking to be bombarded with mad hoardes of screaming women - mass hysterica not known since the fab four?
Actually, he's asking to have your inbox filled with requests for his address
This could make a great cartoon.
Carolyn Hax: But I get to draw it.
© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive