Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 8, 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 Bæfers 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.


Friendstown, USA: Hi Carolyn, I hope you can help me help my friend. As brief as possible: after 1 year long distance, she moved many states away to be with him at his request, and two years later he's dumped her. And not a let's-work-through-these-problems-first break-up, a literal "go back home" dump. She's obviously devestated and is not helped by the fact that he was her life up there, and her entire support system is a very expensive and very long flight away, but reachable now for now allnight calls. We can get up there to literally pick her and her things up to move back here, but she's still fighting for him. He's been honest in explaining the love is no longer there, but she thinks it's his stressers and that she still has a chance. I know we can't mend her broken heart, but what do we say/do to keep her from boiling a family bunny?

Carolyn Hax: Not much. She needs to find out for herself, probably in humiliating fashion.


New England: Dear Carolyn, I am in a the second year of a lovely relationship with a man who is a wonderful friend, lover, and companion. He is an important role model and friend to my two elementary-age children as well, and they love and respect him (he has no children of his own). We are both in our late 30s and previously married. We are both generally healthy, happy, successful and without too many hangups or too much baggage.

So what's the problem?

The problem is that I am terribly ashamed and embarassed to tell him that I take a mild antidepressant. In fact, I am afraid he will leave me if he finds out. I have a history of depression in my family and tend to give in to darker moods without the medication, so I prefer to take it, though I could likely live without it too. I don't think that I am mentally ill or unsound, but I am afraid that he will think this.

Could you help?

Carolyn Hax: If you've been reading these things for a while, I've been trying to help with this all along, almost every week. Depression is no less an illness than ... something chronic ... say, epilepsy. But would you be "ashamed and embarrassed" to admit you took medication for that? You have a health condition and you have the presence of mind to manage it responsibly. If he leaves you for that, you are well rid of him.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn, My sister-in-law just got laid off from her job and is pretty bummed and surprised. I just got a great new job -- should I not tell her about it, downplay my happiness, or not think of them as related (I mean, they're not but the timing feels unfortunate). We are close but in different states. Thanks

Carolyn Hax: Not telling her about it or downplaying your happiness would be an insult to your sister--you'd be treating her as if her job loss has rendered her so fragile she can't bear the weight even of one more pebble. She is a grownup, she's built to handle several more calamities on top of this one, and your news doesn't even qualify as a mild blow, much less a calamity. It's -good- news, for someone she cares about; and even if it doesn't feel that way to her emotionally, certainly she's adult enough to know, in more than an abstract way, that some people are going to get good news while she's trying to process her bad news, and she needs to behave accordingly.

Anyway. Her coincident misfortune demands only that you be sensitive of her feelings, and sensitivity demands only that you acknowledge the cruel timing of both of your news. Newses.


From "Friendsville" Again: Just wanted to say thanks for the affirmation. Pretty much what we all thought. She's been a long-time friend, so knowing we'll be adding to her hurt by saying "he's just not into you" has kept all of us from saying it to her. Cheers to this time next year when she'll appreciate the tough love I'm about to give her. Will it be selfish of me to do some massive shoe-shopping before this? I need my three (or four)-inch heeled support system for this.

Carolyn Hax: No no no. You take -her- shoe shopping. She needs the support more than you do.

And remember a little tough love goes a long way. Say it once, back it up with a judiciously chosen example or two, and let her take it from there.


Arlington, Va.: On that note of mental health and meds: My friend just announced he's in love with me after four years of friendship. It's the first time we've both been single, but for years we've danced around an attraction (and love, including talking about raising a family together). He's now actively "wooing" me.

The problem? I think he's manic depressive (sex addict, overly exuberant/passionate about things, etc.). So why get involved with someone who has so many warning signs? Well, I may love him -- it was an instant connection four years ago that never died. But my brain is telling me I'd be a fool to take on someone with multiple partners, doesn't believe in fidelity long-term (every marriage in his family has experienced infidelity) and gets into passionate debates all the time. How to decide?

Carolyn Hax: With your eyes wiiiiide open. Someone with a mental illness, whether diagnosed or just suspected from clear behavioral cues, is by no means automatically undatable. It's actually no different from dating anyone else--you take what the person has to offer as a whole, and decide if the whole, this combination of good and bad, will be a satisfying companion for you.

So, in your case, the first thing you should do is inform yourself on bipolar disorder, before you assume anything about him. You may be way off in your thinking.

Then, once you've rooted out any possible prejudices, you leave any lay-diagnoses behind completely and consider what you know about his behavior: e.g., he can be overbearing, and is unlikely to remain consistently faithful. Then you decide whether the connection you feel is enough to sustain you through the difficult times. For some the answer will be yes, for some it will be no, but the important thing is that it's an answer based in the best information you have. You don't want to get into it only to be surprised that he's not going to magically change, and I can't imagine he'd want that, either. But you may want to get into it knowing it's not the easiest trail ever blazed, but the one best suited to you, and not be one bit of a fool.


Carolyn Hax: I'm still here, just reading questions. So many many questions.


Bizarre, N.J.: So last week (the eve of my first wedding anniversary) a very long-ago boyfriend got in touch. Apparently he's getting married this week (it seems a bit bizarre that getting married made him want to look me up?). And by the way, his oldest child was conceived while we were together -- I made peace with the cheating at least 7-8 years ago, but still. On the plus side he seems to have gotten his life together (it was pretty much a train wreck by the time we broke up), and I'm happy for him and all, so yay. It's just... weird. Anyway. Any advice on how to deal? And more important, how to keep my (wonderful) husband from freaking? He doesn't mind the contact but still is weirded out by the whole thing (as am I).

Carolyn Hax: Sounds like -he's- trying to make peace with the cheating. Maybe go into the marriage with the sense he's confronted all his old ghosts. Best thing you and your husband can do with it is feel good that you were able to assist in the unburdening of another soul, and not give it a whole lot more thought.


Washington, D.C.: How do men who are "emotionally unavailable" ever become normal and dateable? I mean, presumably all these exes who end up married even a couple years later have some epiphany or are they meeting people with lower expectations of their emotional maturity? My single girlfriends (all in our 30s) have met enough of these guys to think 90 percent of men are somehow mildly emotionally disabled. They put all their energies into working and give about 50 percent of the effort to their relationships unless they are chasing some 25-year-old. It's really disheartening. I know there are good guys out there, they just seem like an endangered species.

Carolyn Hax: If they happen to be happy with someone who happens to be 25, saying that they're "chasing some 25-year-old" makes you into the people guys are asking about when they send in questions that open with, "How do women who are pissed at all men and worried about their ticking clocks ever become normal and dateable?"

I'm just sayin.

But if it's a series of 25-year-olds that has no point other than serial 25-ness, then they're not after an emotional connection at all, and possibly even trying to avoid women who might punish them for not wanting an emotional connection. So be happy they're chasing women other than you.

And those who don't chase serially and instead marry a couple of years later, it could be, yes, they've found women with emotinal expectations that are different from/lower than yours.

But it could also be that the response men have (in general) to dating the wrong person for them could just be very different from the response women have (in general) to the same mismatch: Where women pour out their thoughts and feelings and theories in an effort to find even some connection, men keep their thoughts and feelings and theories to themselves until they're certain there's some connection. So you're both going to be equally discouraged when it doesn't click, just in demonstratively different ways.

The upshot of all of this being, don't generalize. Keep living, keep loving, see where it goes.


Bipolar disorder: Bipolar disorder is NOT about debates all the time, or exuberance, or even sexual compulsion or promiscuity, although a bipolar person could exhibit those characteristics, in the same way a non-bipolar person can.

It seems to me that it would be a lot bigger issue whether he has been officially diagnosed as bipolar (or suspects that he may be bipolar). If he's not on board with your lay diagnosis, you have serious problems. He may like himself just fine as as a passionate, verbal and sexual person.

And he may not like his partner pathologizing him.

Carolyn Hax: Well said, thanks.


Re: Bizarre: Okay, that's weird. I had a similar thing happen to me a few weeks ago. An old boyfriend, I mean like four years ago -- or more -- called out of nowhere and told me how he was getting married soon, but was feeling bad about the way we ended (he cheated, I found out, he begged forgiveness, I gave it, and he cheated again, I kicked him to the curb.) and wanted me to know he had changed. I honestly had no idea why it mattered after so long after the fact and told him so. He said he wanted to go into his marriage with a clear conscience. So I asked him did his wife-to-be know about his past habits and he said "Of course not." So I said, "You haven't changed a bit" and hung up on him.

What an a**!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for sharing! Hope all brides of a few weeks ago are still on their honeymoon, and not back at work reading this.


re: bipolar dating: I have bipolar disorder, and so does my mother. I take my meds and am doing well, but I've seen enough bipolar to see what it does to people. First of all, you SUSPECT he is bipolar. If you are worried about his mental state, ask him about his mental health history. If he claims never to have had an evaluation, diplomatically ask him to do so stressing that you want him to be as happy as possible. Second, sex addiction is a common add-on to bipolar disorder. If he is a bipolar sex addict, then the best hope he has for getting beyond that is to find new ways to channel the physical and emotional sensations that stress causes. A note of warning: it sounds as though sex addiction is common in his family and it takes a very strong person to rise above that kind of background, especially if he has to struggle with his own bipolar. He may be strong enough and he may not. But don't even attempt this if you cannot deal with highs and lows. Properly managed, bipolar disorder can give you a window into every facet of the human condition. Untreated it will turn everything and everyone into the nuts and bolts of one raging ego. Good luck.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: I was wondering if you could clarify your stance on housework, given that you have asked a couple men who have recently written in if they pull their weight around the house. For the record, I am a neat freak married to a not-so-neat freak. I do not think that I am the one who gets to unilaterally decree the baseline level of cleanliness around the house, though, and I would never expect my husband to work to my rule. I was wondering why you seemed (correct me if I'm wrong) to take it for granted that women seem to have that right, and why men seem to have an obligation to meet whatever ambiguous standard their wives decide to set.

Carolyn Hax: Happy to correct you, because I do think that's wrong. What I "take for granted," though more accurately it's "expect given what experience has taught me," is that most women of current adult generations were raised to include at least some housework on their autopilot to-do list, and that men's ingrained habits fall all over the spectrum, from Felix to Oscar, but still tend more toward the Oscar. (Bringing with it a tacit acceptance that "mom" will take care of it.)

This is changing, mercifully, as more working mothers raise sons. But the in-box complains of unequal weight-pulling at home are heavily skewed toward women angry at under- or non-contributing men. (Much much more skewed than, to recall a recent mars-venus debate, the wanting-more-sex issue, which was a fairly even split.)

Even given all that, I do not think the woman, or anyone, has a right to set a standard that a partner must meet. The standard is one of decency: If you wear clothes and eat food and use dishes and sleep in a bed and shed hair and skin and I'll quit here before you all barf, you have a duty equal to all other adult household members to do laundry, grocery shop, cook, do dishes, change the bed and sweep the floors before the failure to do so results in piles of stuff in the house.


Arlington, Va. (again): I'm sorry, I forgot to ask this before -- what's a good way to address the issue to see if he's in treatment? Just say, "Hey, I've noticed a pattern of X, Y and Z, and while in the past I asked if you were a sex addict, I can't help but wonder if you're manic depressive?" Is there a NICE way to bring that up?

Carolyn Hax: Seems nice enough to me the way you said it. But please use bipolar, vs manic-depressive. More up-to-date and therefore accurate, and therefore better reflects your concern.

BTW, you are v. close, right? I can't remember the original post. That is the key element to asking nicely--asking appropriately.


New York, N.Y.: Hi, Carolyn. How should I go about getting over someone when my heart isn't in it? The short story here is that I've fallen really hard for a girl who happens to be one of my best friends. I told her how I feel, and her response was basically that the timing is off and she's not in a position to figure out what's going on between us right now. I know I should take this as a "no" and move on so I don't torture myself indefinitely. But part of me keeps thinking the door is still open and worries that I won't be able to get over her without losing a friendship that means a lot to us both. How can I get out of this mess?

Carolyn Hax: Try the friendship for as long as you can stand it--ie, until you are sure you'd rather lose her entirely than keep sticking pins in your arm--and then move on. I agree that you should take this as a "no" and move on so you don't torture yourself indefinitely, but sometimes it takes a while for a "should" to graduate from a painful hypothetical to a desired course of action. There's no harm in giving it some time for that transition to happen.


Re: Tough Love: What, exactly, is she planning to say as part of the "tough love?" I'm gathering "he's just not that into you," but I wonder why it needs to be said. I think it's great everyone is banding together to help, etc., and to listen -- but this all sounds pretty fresh, and, in my experience at least, it's better if people come to these realizations themselves. More to the point, she's not going to believe you til she's ready anyway -- and, in point of fact, you could be wrong. But, bottom line, she's going to do what she's going to do, and believe what she's going to believe -- why do you have to offer your version of the truth, in "tough love" fashion or otherwise? Doesn't sound like she's asking -- and, even if she does, I don't know that your knowledge of the situtation is superior to hers. Why not just say who knows, but right now you need to get out of here -- just love, not tough love.

Carolyn Hax: I agree with all of it, thank you, though given the late-night distress phone calls, it sounds like she is inviting some opinions from her friends. If so, those opinions should be frank, not cruel, and said with the understanding that only the guy himself knows for sure what he's thinking.


Seattle, Wash.: ON the Messy Mars/Clean Venus question: I kinda think that's one of the first things that happens in a relationship (if it's gonna be successful): You lighten up on unrealistic standard, and I'll tighten up on things I wouldn't normally care about, like, say, making the bed every day.

AND: Nobody ever mentions here that there are a lot of "Daddy will do it" expectations, either, like fixing broken stuff/yardwork, etc.

Carolyn Hax: Right right. Role assumptions bad. Thanks for the assist.


25yearoldville: As one in his 30s often accused of "chasing 25 year olds," I'd like to add to your response. I think the plaintiff from DC misses the point. It's not that she's 25; it's that what you interpret as your "emotional maturity" I interpret as "baggage." From personal experience, it has nothing to do with age; it has everything to do with her outlook on life, and the fatalism that accompanies some people after a few bad experiences. Emotional and intellectual depth is attractive; bitter and jaded isn't.

Carolyn Hax: So you're fresh as an emotional daisy at thirtysomething, but your XX peers are all "bitter and jaded"? I know, you said "some." And you would have a great point if it didn't manifest itself in (apparently) a taste for 25-ish-year-olds, wich undercuts your assertion that it has nothing to do with age.


Re: cheating pre-spouse: Carolyn, I just have to comment on the previous person's question about whether the soon to be married ex-cheater had let his wife know of his history. My spouse actually did tell me he was a cheater in the past. He even told me how lucky I was that he never cheated on me.

It may have given him a clear conscious, but it has kept me wondering during 10 years of marriage.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Carolyn Hax: Mmmmmm I don't agree. I think you're stuck between ignorance and education and that's what's killing you here. WHY did he cheat in the past, WHY is he not cheating now? If he were able to articulate to you some maturing process he went through, or epiphany, or soul-search that explains why he's not the same guy as he was in his cheating days, then I think you could trust him not to cheat on you.

But if he expects you to sleep well at night thanks to "luck," he has been mightily unfair--it's possible inadvertently (in case you decide to reopen the subject). He might have thought it was a compliment/profession of deep love, but not thought through the consequences on you.


Hey now....: I'm a mommy and I'm the fixing thing and doing the yardwork -okay, not all. Daddy does the dishes and the floors.

Which brings me to my question. Why are we so fixated on gender roles in terms of housework? I suppose this goes back the original posters query itself. Even if you say that dividing up the tasks should be equal - is it just part of the social mindset that Jane does this and Joe does that? Why not mix it all up?

Carolyn Hax: I think it's deeper than social midset, I think it's habit, with roots formed before we're old enough to form memories. I also think the mix-it-all-up approach is more common than it ever was, and is growing ever more so, but it's still at a point for most where it has to be a conscious, mutual, post-it-on-the-fridge choice--and often the couples who most need to get to that point are the farthest from being able to talk, negotiate, rethink and contribute that openly. In a way it is both a core value (as it affects behavior) and a mere symptom (as it pops up as a problem between partners).


Olney, Md.: If you refer to caring for your own children as "babysitting"...If you think that washing YOUR clothes is your spouse's job, without you even asking...If you groan or sigh when asked to help out...Then you are the problem.

Carolyn Hax: Or if you need to be asked before you'll contribute, or if you say you'll do something and you even semi-regularly procrastinate until your partner gives up and does it him/herself.


Boston, Mass.: Hi there Carolyn:

Question re long distance relationships (3,000 miles) - its really hard, obviously. What if both people have a different idea of how much communication should take place - one feels unloved as a result and one feels perplexed... why do you question our love? How do you express your needs without sounding pushy and over-demanding? And if you request more communication - then when it comes you're not sure if its sincerely a desire to communicate (yes, I know, insecurity is playing a role here and I don't want him to have to deal with my insucurity issues). When is it time to just throw in the towel? I understand what my limit is for a local relationship, but I'm unsure what extra cushion I should give a long distance one ... any guidelines for these things to offer?

Carolyn Hax: Since you're to the point where a towel-throw is already an option you're willing to consider, consider doing it while you're still in the relationship. Meaning, give up. You're not going to get what you "need." S/He does not provide it unforced, and you can't enjoy it when forced. Stop hoping for it, expecting it, looking for it in your inbox.

Then see whether you are capable of enjoying whatever effort the other person makes naturally. Like I said, you've already got breakup on the brain, so why not try warm turkey vs. cold?


When I was 25...: I was wearing all black, (working on) bitter and jaded. At fifty, I'm very happy to be optimisitic-to-gullible and overly generous. It ain't age. it ain't experience. it ain't luck.

Carolyn Hax: And it ain't the black clothes. I'm head-to-toe gloom and in a most excellent mood.


For Washington, D.C.: Another take on telling your laid-off sister-in-law about your new job: Rather than fearing the her worst reaction, maybe consider the best-case scenario: it could actually be encouraging news, and could give her hope - that there -are- other jobs out there to be found. Anyway, just a different POV.

Carolyn Hax: I would like it except that it's dangerously close to, "Don't worry, you'll fine 'The One' too someday" (bonus points if you raise your eyebrows and add, "when you least expect it"). I know the economy's job supply is a bit more predictable than the earth's mate supply, but not much when you're talking about an individual and not a whole population. Better just to say, I wish my good luck hadn't come hand-in-hand with your bad.


Arlington, Va.: Recently, my mother passed away unexpectedly, leaving me feeling completely rotten. Everyone has been supportive of me during this time, except my husband. I know he is empathetic to the matter, but he never really got along with my mother in the past. It seems like since she died, he has made comments that have really been disheartening to say the least. I've told him that what he says sometimes hurts me, but he argues that he is being supportive, and that I'm overly sensitive. I'm getting to the point where I just want to leave him if this is how he is when things are emotional for me. We've only been together for two years.

What should I do?

Carolyn Hax: That's terrible, on both counts. I'm sorry.

Two things I would suggest, before you resort to the drastic: 1. If "what he says sometimes hurts me" accurately reflects the words you use when you talk to your husband, try to be more specific in your approach. "When you say X about my mom, I feel very hurt"--best said just after he says X. And if he replies with his claim that he's just being supportive, ask him to explain his rationale for that. Listen to it, weigh it, respond to it as needed. Tough when you're freshly in pain, but it's going to be your best information if/when it comes time to consider your future with him.

2. Please get counseling. You've got emotions all over the place and you don't feel comfortable, for whatever reason, letting those emotions spill over at home. Get yourself a good safe place to cry and talk about this (too much to ask of friends, to play this role for you full-time). Once you're free of the excess, you'll think more clearly and be in a better position to make such enormous decisions. Not that you should discount your feelings right now, just that you should take note of them and then take care not to act on them till the riot in your head settles down.


Flipside for Boston:: I'm in a similar situation (but local)... not getting what I "need" in terms of contact/communication. The difference is, he USED to give me what I needed, and its steadily slowing/dwindling... does this mean "he's just not into me"? Is this really who he is, versus the person of the first 6 months of dating? Or can I think that because he did it before, he's capable of it, and I can talk to him about it and try to change it?

Carolyn Hax: Ack no no no no! Do not think that because it was true in the 1st six months that it will ever be true again. I know I've announced about 20 things as Mistake No. 1 in making a long-term commitment, but this is really really Mistake No. 1 in making a long-term commitment. The first six months are what they are courtesy of a newness adrenaline shot. This or that circumstance can change, but, for obvious reasons, newness cannot be recaptured in any enduring way.

The only reason I'm not going to declare, "this is really who he is," is that he's probably not even there yet if the attention is still dwindling. When it hits a stable resting point, that's probably his rock bottom, and THAT'S who he really is. And if you're happy then, you have a keeper.

And I mean this in the sunniest way.


Re: her mom died: I was recently in this situation. My dad died and my husband didn't get along so well with him. My dad and I didn't have an ideal relationship and my husband would say things like, "I'm glad he's not around to hurt you anymore." Not helpful.

I just talked to my husband openly about what helped and what didn't. Sometime we'd fight about it but we did a lot of talking and most of it was what I needed from him, wished he could say/do to help, etc.

On the one year anniversary of my dad's death, he put a framed picture of my dad and me and a card saying "Treasure his memory, especially his laugh. Sometimes I miss him, too!" on the kitchen table. One of the nicest things he's ever done for me and I think all our discussions helped him learn to help me.

Good luck.

Carolyn Hax: I just got all choked up. Speaking of keepers.


Re: tough love: FWIW, I was in a similar situation many years back, only I was the girl trying to make it work with a guy who had broken it off - and I so WISH that my friends had gently said, "He's just not that into you" - the great thing about friends is that they can add some perspective when yours is totalled from heartbreak, etc. Yeah, it would have hurt but I would have saved myself alot of time and humiliation.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks so much for the other side.


New York: If she doesn't experience her husband's comments as supportive, how can he decide unilaterally that they are supportive?!

Carolyn Hax: He can't, he can only be -trying- to be supportive, which can either be a difference of his omitting a crucial "trying," or of his being too protective of his own needs (slash-ego) to be sensitive to hers. Something she's going to have to explore in the whole discussion process. Tough spot to be in while grieving, but sometimes it takes a shakeup like profound grief to change the way you look at your everyday life.


Oh happy day!; : My preemie twins are coming home from the hospital today after 3 months!; No lingering health issues!; I'm so thankful and I feel like it's actually sunny on this rainy day.

Carolyn Hax: Happy news, thanks and congratulations (and goooood luck).

You guys are hitting all my probably-still-healing spots, so I think I'll go cry now. Thanks for stopping in, and type to you next Friday.


Sleepless, Va.: Hi Carolyn,

I am extremely sleep deprived as a result of a seven-month-old who will not sleep longer than 2 - 3 hours at a stretch. (I also have a toddler, but he sleeps really well.) I'm beginning to resent the middle of the night repeated calls for cuddles/room service. My work suffers, too, since I am addled from lack of sleep.

Any advice on how to handle it? I'm really sad and exhausted.

Carolyn Hax: Email me!


Waldorf, Md: Not age, luck, or experience? Then what is it?

Carolyn Hax: Humility. Hard work.


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