Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 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.


Arlington, Va.: I've started dating a very nice young lady. A few years ago, I would have dated her for a while and seen how things went. But now that we're both in our 30s, do I have some moral/ethical/societal obligation to decide whether I'm serious a little faster?

Carolyn Hax: I think you have a moral/ethical/societal obligation to remain true to yourself. What people need most when they're dating at any age is a clear view of the person they're dating, so they can make the best decisions for themselves.

Plus, there's a very fine line between respecting certain pressures of age and treating people like they're desperate. So, best not to even try to anticipate someone else's concerns and instead just let things run their own course.


Washington, D.C.: How do I function at work today when the news out of New Orleans makes me alternatively want to cry and go throw rotten tomatoes at the White House?

Carolyn Hax: A year ago, a lot of us were weeping through this hour as unthinkable events unfolded in Beslan. Almost exactly four years ago, all eyes were on New York, DC and Pa., and unless you were a rescue worker, you were getting nothing done. Sometimes the only thing any of us can do is find a way to keep functioning, at least well enough to click a donation link on the Red Cross or other reputable site, and maybe eventually to figure more effective ways to raise some hell politically.


Reality Check?: Do you ever feel that some of the "problems" that people write to you about are trivial and non-issues, especially considering the real tragedy that other people are facing? I would want to bang my head on the wall if I kept getting questions about frivolous boyfriend/girlfriend/job/best friend/parent etc. problems, knowing that thousands of people have just lost their homes, loved ones, jobs, livelihood within the last week.

Carolyn Hax: Today (and those other days I mentioned) may stand out, but there is real pain in progress every minute of every day. Kids get neglected, breadwinners lose jobs, terminal illnesses get diagnosed, cars crash. To lose sight of this truth is to live in a superficial little bubble, deserving of contempt.

But to live as if there is no other truth isn't the answer, either. Sometimes a hangnail can be really painful. Sometimes getting dumped or saying the wrong thing or being denied a promotion can dull your awareness of just about everything else for a while, without your being a self-absorbed freak. Sometimes you can laugh yourself (nearly) incontinent over the dumbest movie ever made, and you don't have to apologize for it. You are under no obligation to remind yourself every 15 minutes that someone is suffering while you amuse yourself.

There is room for a broad range of experience, and many degrees of pain. As long as you aren't causing someone pain for your own puny reasons, or, like I said above, not living in a nothing-matters-but-my-wedding-flowers bubble, your problems are wecome here.


Washington, D.C.: Why would you want to throw tomatoes at the White House? Do you think George Bush spoke to God and had him make it flood? I'm so sick of hearing how the President of the United States -- whomever it is -- is always to blame for things he cannot control. I'm also tired of living in a blame culture. This isn't anyone's fault. Maybe the energy used to blame people could be instead used to help solve the issue faster.

Carolyn Hax: Just FYI, you just essentially blamed the blamers for any delays in solving the flood problems.

I believe the poster was referring to the item about the Bush admin's apparently diverting money from New Orleans flood-prevention projects to fund the Iraq war. A culture of blame is not pretty, I agree, but neither is a culture without accountability. This is what a free press/media is for, to sort out the accountability from the finger-pointing. And then the free people step in, and demand whatever accountability needs demanding.

And since an advice column is not the media arm best suited to sorting this out, let's please stick to such matters as how to best manage grief, rage, disgust, and hangnails.


Midwest: want to help? to donate ... More Donation Sites

Carolyn Hax: Much better, thanks Midwest and Liz.


Carolyn Hax: I'm having a terrible time choosing my next question--I feel like I'm setting this person up to sound petty.


Knoxville, Tenn.: If Washington D.C. wants to do something more than just donate money (or cry or throw tomatoes at the White House), I understand that the Red Cross is conducting rapid training sessions for people to go to the affected areas and work for a three week period.

Carolyn Hax: I'm going to post this knowing there's a possibility it's not true. But, if true, I want it out there. Thanks.


Reston, Va.: Carolyn,

If a man has low sex drive, what should his girlfriend say to him? Assuming he is perfectly healthy, etc. Thank you

Carolyn Hax: She should say nothing to him, and to herself say, "Assuming nothing will ever change, is this what I want?"


Anywhere: Carolyn, I like and love the person that my husband is now, but when he tells me stories about when he was in his late teens and early 20s, I can't help but think how much I wouldn't have liked him. Does this happen to a lot of other people?

Carolyn Hax: Most, I would think. I can't help but think how much I would have disliked myself if I knew me at 17.

Unless he tortured small animals or something along those lines. Then you need either for him to have had extensive counseling and a serious epiphany, or to be very very careful.


Bethlehem, Pa.: Carolyn,

A week ago, I found out that my foot is broken. This means 3-6 weeks of hobbling around and possible surgery. As far as injuries and ailments go, I know this isn't major. Yet, I'm having trouble bouncing back emotionally because this has sidelined my training for two 5K races this fall. I've never been a runner and the accomplishment of actually being ready to race was huge for me. So instead of the triumphant, fit me I was imagining, I'm stuck being Gimpy the Grumpy. The worst part is that I'm on a diet (no brownie therapy) and I can't buy new shoes with a broken foot. Do you have any other advice on how to get over this disappointment and start seeing the positive side of things again?

Carolyn Hax: The accomplishment of being ready to race next year after having recovered from a broken foot will be even greater, no?

I think this is also a case where I can safely point out that not having your life's work/treasures/meaning float away is a great way to start seeing the positive side of things, or at least to put things in perspective.

_______________________, not Just FYI, the website for FEMA is .gov, not .com


Carolyn Hax: Ack ack ack. Thanks for the catch.


Re: Reston, Va.: Really? You don't think couples should talk about frustrations due to differing sex drives? I understand one person shouldn't pressure the other, or make the person feel bad, but why not be honest that the needs aren't being met?

Carolyn Hax: I assumed they had been there already, given the specific reference to a low sex drive--I though that meant they had identified the problem. If I assumed too much, then, yes, they should talk about frustrations.

But once the expressions of frustration are already out there, then it becomes a matter of making a decision you can live with, and then living with it. I believe in talking, but on some things you can only talk so much. Thanks for the catch.


For Reston, Va.: Hello - I think depending on the answer Reston gives to herself about whether or not she wants to stay with someone with a lower sex drive, if that answer is no, she still needs to figure out how to explain to her boyfriend why they are ultimately incompatible. It might suffice for her to say she believes they are incompatible and leave it at that but if he presses for more information, how does one delicately communicate issues regarding sexual incompatibiity?

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I think providing specifics would actually be more delicate/sensitive than just citing incompatibility. Something along the lines of, "I don't want to spend my whole life begging for sex, and I can't imagine you want to spend your whole life being pressured for sex."

There's also the condensed version: Your needs are normal, my needs are normal, our needs are different.


un-bridezilla land: I'm recently engaged (yay!) but find that I'm not snapping up bridal magazines or selecting poufy dresses in unholy colors. Is that normal or is something wrong with me?

Carolyn Hax: B. something wrong.


Signs of Pregnancy: My husband and I are trying to get pregnant. Do you feel the "signs" immediately, or does it take a few weeks for them to kick in? What has been your experience?

Carolyn Hax: You will feel them immediately, but you won't recognize them except in retrospect (or in a second pregnancy). That was my experience, at least. Good luck and enjoy this exciting time.


Embarrassment, Calif.: EEK! Just got to work and realized there's a hole in the seat of my pants! What do I do? Remain seated all day? What excuse do I give for not going out to lunch with the gang?

Carolyn Hax: Few will notice, and of the ones who do, few will care. Re lunch, try, "I have to go buy new pants."


Washington, D.C.: My wife's sister -- "Molly" -- has had longstanding problems with depression. However, she has only sporadically sought help. She has never committed herself to therapy, and has been on medication only off-and-on. Yet her problems persist, and she is sometimes in a deep, debilitating funk. This is frustrating to no end to my wife, who for years has counseled Molly on what she should do, heard Molly say "Yes, you're right, I will do that," and then watched as Molly slips back into her old bad habits without following the advice. My wife -- who has had her own struggles with depression -- is at her wit's end and is on the verge of simply telling Molly that she can't do this anymore. Molly's husband is not helpful, as he sees depression as a kind of weakness and psychiatry as a kind of quackery.

What can a person do when a loved one behaves in this way? Molly is not, as far as we can tell, suicidal, so forced hospitalization appears to be out of the question. But she is continuing to live her life in an unsatisfying, self-destructive way.

Carolyn Hax: And that is her choice, painful as it is for the people who love her. If your wife ever suspects Molly is becoming a danger to herself or others, then there are a few more (not terribly appealing) options, but otherwise it's a choice between frustration up close or fear from a distance. I'm sorry.


Boston, Mass.: Dear Carolyn,

Earlier this year, I made a lifestyle change. I had gone directly from college to grad school and was not taking the time to sleep enough, eat right and exercise enough. My immune system got suppressed and I was sick almost all the time. Now I am healthy and happy, but am still very conscious of getting some exercise almost every day and eating healthy foods. I've also lost about 15 pounds in about nine months to a "normal" weight. My problem is that my changes seem to make other people feel that they need to comment on what I do or don't eat or how on how often I go to the gym. My good friends and family are happy to see me healthy again, but how can I politely tell people at school and other not so close friends to drop it?

Carolyn Hax: Smile + "Thanks"; "Thanks for caring"; "Thanks for caring so much." Three degrees of the same answer, which is: "I'm using the most polite means possible to deflect your intrusive comment and let it drop unheeded to the floor."


Carolyn Hax: Congratulations, by the way, on the 180. It's hard to change direction like that, and even harder to stay on your new course.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Carolyn,

My nephew is getting married this month. He and his bride had tried for -- and may have achieved -- the most INformal wedding of all time. The wedding party is wearing shorts and the reception is a backyard BBQ.

The problem is that my family thinks it's -- just -- awful. They have very limited means and are staying within them. I find it refreshing, but how do you get the rest of the clan to chill?

Carolyn Hax: Stay out of it as much as possible, and speak up in their defense as needed. As lightly as possible, too: "Eh, I think it's great." Dismissive wave of hand optional. People who want to get all worked up about these things are going to get all worked up no matter what you do, so the trick is not to supply any more fuel to the people who aren't as upset.


Wondering....: How do you decide when it is time to get professional help for an eating disorder? I am managing fine and am still physically healthy (well, for the most part). I'm not underweight or anything... I am wondering if I let myself get worse- if that indeed is what will happen- or if I continue to try and manage as is and see if I can improve on my own. Any thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: Thoughts, in no particular order: 1. If you are wondering whether to get help, why don't you just get help and make your decision from there, with the benefit of a trained and objective professional. If it turns out you're better than you thought, then you can leave treatment at any time--a far better outcome than to stay out of treatment and then find out you were worse than you thought.

2. If you want to take a baby step, go to the National Eating Disorders Association Web site,, and read read read.

3. Whether you're underweight is not the first thing to read in determining the severity of an eating disorder. A preoccupation with food, for example, could say a whole lot more.

4. If you do decide to get help (please please do) make sure you go to someone who specializes in eating disorder treatment. Ask around.

5. If you're under 18, please talk to your parent(s) or, if your relationship with them somehow prevents that, another adult you trust.


Bethesda, Md.: re: early signs of pregnancy. I respectfully disagree with Carolyn, in all of my pregnancies I would never have know, even in retrospect, that I was pregnant due to any symptoms until about six weeks. Maybe it is different with twins because of a doubling of hormones? Everyone is different, but that is my experience. If you think you might be preggers but it's too early to take the test, avoid excessive alcohol, mercury-laden fish, and take folic acid, which is most important in weeks 4-10 of pregnancy!

Carolyn Hax: The folic acid you should take when you're trying--or, even better, get from healthy foods.

The rest is why I said, "That was my experience, at least." If I've learned nothing else from this gig, I've at least got the disclaimer thing down.

Until I forget one and you all remind me accordingly.


Paris, France: Carolyn,

Do you think it ever appropriate (helpful? effective?) to initiate a conversation with one's long-gone ex-boyfriend to fill in the gaps about what happened at the end, and why things got so bad?

Ex-boyfriend and I ended things abruptly and hatefully. We've both dated other since and gotten therapy. There was love, also infidelity, intese feelings, and emotional abuse.

I want to move on but I feel like I'm carrying a monkey on my back.

Thanks, Monkey girl

Carolyn Hax: "Ever" appropriate? Sure, yes, of course. Sometimes going back and comparing notes later can make ancient, senseless things suddenly make sense.

It can also make ancient, senseless things feel painful all over again, without shedding any new light on anything.

You can't know for sure which will happen to you until you get there, but you can figure out beforehand what your motives and expectations are. If you're looking for him to love you again, or make you feel better about yourself, or give you any kind of satisfaction, like, "I told you it was all your fault, but it was my fault, too," then there's an excellent chance you'll be disappointed and potentially re-wounded. But if you're ready to get nothing out of it but a, "Hey, I had to try," then, hey, you have to try.


Re Inlawzillas: Well, I agree that low key is great, but Devil's advocating here, maybe the in laws think a big ritual is needed? That is their tradition. That doesn't give them permission to criticize and belittle, but is there some way to throw them a bone, at least ritual-wise, if not party-wise? not sure what it would be, but maybe "i know how important a large celebration is to you, but we can't afford it and it is honestly not what we want, but if you want to throw a big dinner for people beforehand (or whenever), that would be wonderful". I had the lowest key wedding ever -- just we two and the celebrant -- but for my mom, I let my parents give a formal dinner with a wedding cake the week before the ceremony. It meant a lot to her to "do things up" for her son.

Carolyn Hax: I think that's a great thing to do if it's something the couple doesn't mind doing. Sometimes the whole point of the small celebration is to keep the proceedings out of the hands of people who are, for whatever reason and to whatever extent, toxic. No one wants to throw a bone only then to get beaten over the head with it for their efforts.

Another nice thing to do, since we're on the subject, is to give critics a chance to say their piece. Say a mother is worried the couple has failed to considered how they'll feel 30 years from now, when they're paging through old albums. It could be useful for the mom to be able to say that, and to hear the couple say, "I see your point, thanks, we'll give that some thought"--or, "We did think about that, thanks, and decided this way best reflects who we are."

Again, Those Who Would Get All Worked Up are going to stay all worked up, but others could get some peace just from knowing they've been heard.


RE: Reston, Va.: Similar to Reston's question, what if the couple has only been dating for a few months and its the girl who has a low sex drive. Is it possible that she just needs more time to be more sexually comfortable with him?

Carolyn Hax: It's possible. But so many things are possible. You kind of need to talk it out -and- wait it out. I wouldn't count on one without the other. Talking is subject to grand declarations of wishful thinking, and actions are subject to wishful interpretations.


Re: Molly and her husband: In addition, they may want to try and enlighten and educate Molly's husband on depression and its treatment. If he is absolutely uneducatable, then try the tactic of: "Try it for a few years---it can't make things worse". If that doesn't work, then the sister can ask Molly how her husband helps her---to get Molly to think about her relationship.

Carolyn Hax: Great suggestions, thanks.


Folate Words of Wisdom: Carolyn:

About the folate... it's great to have a healthy diet while pregnant! But it's hard to get the recommended amount of folate from food alone. If you ate spinach, for example, which is very high in folate, you'd need the equivalent of a very large, family-sized salad bowl -- per DAY. So, eat right, but take your folate, too. (I'm an MD, in case you're wondering.)

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, I just re-read my answer and I see I phrased it as an either-or. Oops. Point was to encourage getting nutrients in food form whenever possible, not to deter people from supplements (which I took throughout).


Minneapolis, Minn.: Just curious, have your religious beliefs changed or been altered at all since you have had children?

Carolyn Hax: No, my unfaith is unshaken.


Lowest key wedding ever: In 1992 or so, I attended the lowest key wedding ever. Groom was an impoverished grad student, bride was barely employed herself. Wedding took place in Montana, where no officiator is required.

A big crowd met the bride and groom and followed them down to a creek, where they each said their own version of vows, announced they were married, and then asked us all to pull weeds at the site for 15 minutes.

After a merry bout of weed-pulling, a potluck ensued. Entire outlay for the wedding by the happy couple was $10 for a case of very cheap beer.

Thirteen years later, they are still VERY happily married. And the pictures turned out great, even if the groom's mom looks a little doubtful.

Carolyn Hax: Maybe she'd just had a swig of the beer.


RE: Reston Sex Drive: I'm a man in my mid 30s and recently have gone through a major shift in my libedo and coming from this boyfriends perspective, I would want to know what impact this has on my girlfriend. I am very aware of the shift and fear that I am not meeting her needs. I want to but physically don't feel up to it. I would recommend that she shares her view on how it is impacting her and ask how it may be effecting him. No man ever wants to admit to not beign all the man he can be or once way. Be prepared to have one of those relationship talks that lets you know how open, honest, and secure you can be with each other but be prepared to hear the truth. Chances are that he is aware of what is going on and just doesn't know how to best approach it. In the end, hopefully you will find that you have a better understanding of each others needs and possible ways to meet them. Good Luck.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, mid-30s guy. Well said.


Washington, D.C.: A "friend" of mine will disappear for months and then call me out of the blue when I am inevitably unable to answer the phone (late at night, at work, etc.) When I call back and leave a message she takes days to return my call. She seems to have control issues and I am thinking about writing her off as a friend and never returning another call. Your thoughts? What type of shoes would be appropriate?

Carolyn Hax: There could be so many other issues--flakiness issues, depression issues, busy-ness issues, combination-of-all-three issues--that I'm not going to encourage you to write her off until you've considered alternatives. Talking to her, expecting less of her, and weighing her good points against her bad ones are three ways you can make a less angry and more informed decision on what to do.


Curious about folate: So why does the human body require more folate than we could reasonably get through our diet? What did people do before they invented supplements?

Carolyn Hax: My understanding is (disclaimer alert), it's insurance against a nutrient deficit. Before supplements, birth defects from that particular deficit may have been more common, or diets may have been different. But even if they weren't, now that we know certain deficiencies are linked to certain birth defects, and now that we can prevent a deficiency (and presumably therefore a defect) with such a small bit of insurance--one that's good for us anyway--we now have a new standard for responsible prenatal behavior.

But I'm just a B.A.


Bethesda, Md.: Carolyn,

What is your opinion of dating a friend's brother? Friend says they are off limits (bad for said friendship). I say you can't help but feel what you feel, and if you are truly friends, you should be able to work out any resulting weirdness. Thoughts? Peanuts?

Carolyn Hax: One thought: Either Friend knows something about Brother that Friend can't or won't share, or Friend is more concerned with Friend's own happiness than with yours.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi Carolyn, I'm the mom who wrote in afraid of childbirth a couple of weeks ago. I just thought I'd give you an update. Although I had a birth experience that was probably worse than anything I was picturing (involving 12 hours of labor before I gave in and had the epidural -- what was I thinking! I love epidurals! -- Nine more hours after that and ending with a c-section), it was not scary and it was SO worth it. I have the most beautiful five-day-old son now and wouldn't trade him away if I had to go through that a hundred more times. Thanks for the friendly words of comfort and advice.

Carolyn Hax: You're welcome, and congratulations, and thank you for the perfect way for me to end this on a note of hope. Bye, everybody, thanks for coming, and type to you next week.


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