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Tell Me About It

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 7, 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.

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn --

A quick etiquette question for you. When you are out in public, say traveling on the Metro, and you notice the man in front of you has his zipper down -- do you tell him or no? By telling him, I am saving him from possible embarrassment but I am also telling him I was looking at his crotch. [Not in THAT way -- but still] To tell or not to tell?

Which is better?

Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Hm. I'm probably not saying anything, both because I'm a coward and because the consequences of my not saying anything just aren't that cosmic. But if I were traveling with someone who was conveniently (and quite assuredly) male, I might ask him to tip off the guy for me.

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Olney, Md: Hey Carolyn/producer, it's 11:10am. Where's today's column? I'm going through withdrawal! :D

washingtonpost.com: Tell Me About It (Friday, Oct. 7)

Carolyn Hax: It seems to be where it should be, thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn- Submitting WAY early b/c I am living this now... Along the same lines of the "why is it hard to leave a crappy relationship" comments over the past few weeks... At what point do you just have to stand up for yourself and say "enough". He is semi-manipulative and has cheated (is cheating?) but is going to a counselor and getting help...and I still love him and want to see him, and us, make it. At what point do I stop giving him the benefit of the doubt and start giving it to myself. How do you know when you have reached that point? Or does it take hitting rock bottom...

Carolyn Hax: What's your definition of rock bottom? Why do you think you want so badly to stay with this guy? What, exactly, do you think you need from him for this relationship to make you happy? Are you being realistic in hoping for this, or are you ignoring clear indications of who he really is?

And if you are being realistic about his ability and willingness to change--ie, you've seen improvement, you've been getting progressively happier, you're sure he's doing these for his own reasons and not just to shut you up--then are you being realistic about the fact that these improvements will make you happy?

(An easy, non-abstract example of those last two: You want to lose weight. Is your goal realistic, or do you expect to get your tall, heavy-boned frame down to a size 0? And if a size 0 is within your reach, do you really think getting there will magically solve all your problems?)

Are you staying with him because your ego/self-esteem/stubbornness demands a happy ending? Sometimes I think it's as simple as not wanting to admit failure.

Anyway, those questions should get you started. I;m sure there are others; if I don't forget, I'll come back to this.

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Virginia: Is there anything I can do about the fact that my sister is a really lousy mother to her 5-year-old? She's not abusive, but she just sets no limits at all. Typical conversation: "Mom, can I have a cookie?" "No, and don't ask me again." "Mom, give me a cookie!" "OK, fine, I'll give you one just to shut you up."

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I think telling a kid you're doing something just to shut him or her up is verbally abusive. But that doesn't add a whole lot of options to your list, since correcting her will make her angry and defensive, and (IMHO) it's not so egregious as to override her anger and defensiveness.

So, things you can do. 1. Jump in when this happens and give the kid some positive attention ("Hey, let's (favorite constructive thing here)"), thereby serving as a source of attention for one and a good example for the other; 2. you can try to get more involved without your sister around, by offering to take the kid to the zoo or library and give your sister a breather (possibly undeserved, but maybe a breather will restore her patience some); and you can trust the kid's school, friends, etc., to correct some of the problem by setting some limits.

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Blue Stater in Ohio: Dear Carolyn,

While I usually love your column and agree with the vast majority of your advice, I had a wee problem with Wednesdays column about the boyfriend not invited to the wedding issue. Not that all couples have to be invited to weddings - especially if the SO is of relative new vintage, and I definitely think "and Guest" is a nice, but unnecessary gesture, IF you have asked a person to shell out for or invite him/her to any party prior to the wedding - that person should be invited to the wedding itself. It looked to me like the uninvited body was included in all the lead up events but not the event itself. I understand why his girlfriend is upset, but applaud him for being willing and able to let it go, and urge her to do the same.

Carolyn Hax: I do agree that if the partner had been included in all lead-up events, s/he HAD to be invited to the wedding. I'm glad for the chance to add this, because a few readers pointed out that if the partner was in fact female (where I had assumed male), then she might have gone to girl stuff, like the shower and bachelorette party--in which case her exlusion from the wedding itself was jaw-droppingly rude. A very different answer to a small change in facts.

That rule of inviting your shower guests to the wedding applies to everyone, of course, regardless of gender--if you're invited to give gifts at all the pregame events, then the bride/groom have no business saying, oops! You cost too much to invite! come wedding time. The only reason my answer changes night-and-day based on the gender of the partner in this particular case is the single-sex nature of the pregame stuff. Interesting.

Another interesting element to this: If the couple in the Wednesday letter was in fact girl-girl, that elevates the "No ring, no bring" edict from silly and arbitrary to flat-out offensive.

Which is why I would have expected the letter-writer to explain that they were a lesbian couple, if in fact they were ... ? It's usually an extraneous fact, the sex of the pair, but not here.

Anyway. Thanks!

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Carolyn,

I am torn about having kids. One hand - I love kids and would love to create a loving family with my great hubby. Other hand - I find that bringing a life into the world to be audacious, like playing god. What gives me the right to determine who will live or die? I know it's a natural to procreate, but seems unethical.

I am struggling with this.

Carolyn Hax: I can relate. I had (and still have) serious guilt about producing people only to force them to have to endure middle school. Who in their right mind would choose to experience zits, humiliation and salisbury steak? And the common answer to this kind of speculation, "Aren't you glad your parents had you?" doesn't work for me at all, because if I weren't born I wouldn't exist to feel the loss. I mean, duh. And maybe I'd finally be getting some sleep.

As for your "right" to determine who will live or die, you were (probably) equipped to produce life, so God or evolution says you have the right.

So what you really have is selfishness. Having a kid, because you want a kid, is a me me me thing. Though, as I;ve said before, it turns out to be the last me me me decision you ever have a right to make. So, make it, and assuage your guilt by making sure, before you go off and procreate, that you would want the life you'll be giving your kid(s).

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Anonymous: Do you think it's the small things that make or break a relationship? In other words, your relationship has the basics: love, honesty, mutual respect, common values...Yet you and your partner keep hitting the common wall because of personality differences, i.e. she's a planner and he's not; he thinks short-term and she's long-term. This is the basic theme though in different permutations.

Carolyn Hax: See, I think those things are huge. Don't minimize them just to suit some preconceived notion of the "right" or "wrong" reasons to break up.

Besides, size matters only in a relative sense. It's your ability, jointly, to reduce the size of your differences that will make or break your relationship. People live happily together with the same differences that break another couple up, because Couple 1 can let them slide while Couple 2 can't.

And this isn't pressure for her to let his short-term thinking slide. It's a call for her to be honest about her ability to be happy with--even better, explicitly enjoy--a person who flies by the seat of his pants, and for him to be honest about his ability just to roll with it and be a good sport when she has to plan things down to the last micro-detail.

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Re: Torn about kids: Normally I think it's silly to recommend adoption to anyone, because everyone already knows of the option. But. This seems to be a perfect example of "Why not adopt?" You love kids and your wonderful hubby, but worry whether YOU should bring one into the world. Taking care of a little being whose bio parents can't do so seems a lovely resolution to this dilemma.

Carolyn Hax: Beautifully said, thank you.

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Yikes - did you mean this?: "As for your "right" to determine who will live or die, you were (probably) equipped to produce life, so God or evolution says you have the right."

Having read your chats and columns for years I'm sure you didn't mean this as it could be read, but please confirm! Just because someone "can't" have children (and needs to adopt, or infertility treatments, etc.) doesn't mean you don't have "the right", right?

Carolyn Hax: Right. I put the (probably) there just so the people who were struggling wouldn't feel slapped by a breezy assumption.

Just don't get seven embryos implanted and then declare that it was God's will that you have septuplets, please. That's taking the right, and declaring it Divine, and putting it on Silly Putty, and going over it with a steamroller.

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RE: Arlington, Va.: You mentioned in your response to Arlington that having a child is a selfish thing. I have always considered that using that word in any argument regarding childbearing decisions is inappropriate. Chosing to have a child and chosing not to have a child can be viewed as equally selfish acts. It's driven me nuts to hear people say "I shouldn't have a child - I'm too selfish" when I know of several people who selfishly chose to have children (pursuit of pregnancy, not accidental) regardless of their economic/emotional/physical ability to have one - yet they think they behaved selflessly.

Carolyn Hax: I dunno. I'd argue against misapplying it or--can't help myself--applying it selfishly. Taking it out of the argument entirely is like declaring surgery bad because it draws blood. Apply it carefully, with thought, and with regard to the person you're using it on. For a mother-in-law to declare her daughter-in-law selfish because the daughter-in-law AND HER SON have chosen not to have children is an abomination--NO ONE is ever entitled to someone else's child, and there's no right to have grandkids.

However, in arguing against the word, you give two excellent examples that use selfishness constructively. If a person know's s/he's selfish, then, yay to the decision not to have kids (a very unselfish act, in a way). And if a person decides to have kids without regard for the life those kids would have, then we need the word there, too.

And back to what I said to start this--that you don't have a kid for the sake of a kid, you have a kid, ultimately, for you. I think admitting that gives a potential parent a really, really important shot of humility before creating a new life.

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No ring no bring: I appreciate you clarifying your answer, but I still think you seemed fairly supportive of the idea that it's OK to exclude people because of finances. Isn't that policy essentially saying to the un-invited, "I'd rather have beautiful flowers and expensive catering than share my day with you"?

Carolyn Hax: Who says the catering isn't reasonable? Who says they didn't already scrap the flowers? Who says having a pretty setting, for one day in a life, is morally inferior to inviting this or that person neither the bride nor groom really knows? Who says every bride and groom who know and like 300 people have to invite all of them to a backyard potluck? Weddingitis is silly, but anti-weddingitis can get silly, too. People aren't under any obligation to invite all their friends' possibly-temporary, possibly-permanent mates. They can decide to keep things intimate, they can choose a place that doesn't fit everyone just because it's affordable or means something to them, they can decide to save their money for things that matter more to them than whether their hyperpissy college buddy has someone to talk to instead of having to be friendly to strangers.

I am supportive of people giving largely decent couples a break.

Thanks for this other chance at clarity.

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Washington, DC: About the "No right, no bring:" Invitation to a pre-wedding event does not guarantee an invitation to the wedding because the hosts are different people. Not only did I not have any say as to who was invited to my showers (as I did not throw them), I didn't even know who was until I got there.

My -small] wedding, however, was my husband's and my list.

And besides, it shouldn't be about the gift. If you don't want to give a gift, don't go.

Carolyn Hax: You're right, but this is an unfortunate example. Your shower-throwers should have been more careful (assuming you aren't talking about informal, whole-office-gathers-in-the-break-room-type showers, in which case I feel strongly that the obligation doesn't attach). And no, a wedding isn;t about a gift, but a shower is, which is why it's important to be careful.

Aaaaaand, because situations like yours do happen, usually with all well-intentioned people behind them, I'm going to use it as another argument for people to resist getting all huffy about these things. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Help me settle a dispute -- do people interpret a baby announcement as a call for gifts? Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: It's an announcement of a baby. If you want to give a gift, then go for it, but you are under no obligation. And you are also under no obligation to refrain from announcing your baby just because some people will mistakenly view it as a call for gifts.

I need a good breakup question.

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Can't get over it -- online please: Hi Carolyn,

Love the column and hope you and/or the peanuts can help. Earlier this year, best friend and I competed over a girl. She chose him and they dated for the summer. It ended and lately she's been a bit flirty with me. My female friends have said she is giving me the go-ahead sign to ask her out. I can't get over that she initially chose my friend over me. How do I get over it and not miss out on something I wanted six months ago?

Carolyn Hax: She went for your friend based on early impressions. Now she's apparently gotten some later impressions that have pointed her to you. Remember, people who are enjoying their 2d, 5th, 20th year together aren't reveling in each other's early impressions. They're there for the character, personality, humor, conversation, intimacy--all of the slow-cooking stuff.

Or maybe she doesn't like you better, and instead is just working her way methodically through her teensy little pond.

One sure way to find out which of these (or other possibilities) is true is to go out with her and see what happens.

We're nosy. Let us know.

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Re: Virginia "can I have a cookie?": Grrrrrr. I hate it hate it hate it hate it when someone who is not a parent takes it upon themselves to declare that someone else is a failure as a parent, based on either a "snapshot" view of the situation or that the parent person does something contrary to their own particular pet version of what should be done.

My brother once declared that my daughter, who was then about 4 years of age, was going to become a delinquent, drug addict, juvenile offender and I don't know what else, all based on the fact that when she was three hours short of a nap one very hot day when we went shopping, she threw a temper tantrum and I didn't immediately start punishing her. I knew the kid was just overtired and cranky and that punishing her would do nothing-- she needed to get home and get her nap.

"Virginia" should also know that when you're a parent, you're on 24/7, usually multitasking and ALWAYS tired, and sometimes to get things done (or even just for the sake of ten minutes peace so you can drink a glass of ice tea and take a mental vacation) you hand the kid a cookie knowing it isn't the best thing to do.

I sure hope "Virginia" is a perfect person. Maybe instead of criticizing her sister, she should offer to help her out a little.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sympathetic to your argument, and I agree that people can be rude, self-important, presumptuous, and flat-out awful in judging others' competence as parents--awful awful awful--but I think it's equally (and similarly) unfair to assume this sibling is being like your brother. S/he could very well spend a lot of time around the sister and her 5-year-old and know whereof s/he speaks.

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Falls Church, Va.: For "can't get over it":

DO NOT ask her out. Are you nuts? She wants to enjoy taking every bit of pride you have and throwing it out the window. She didn't like you before. Now that someone treated her bad, (or whatever) you are all of the sudden good enough to ask her out?

If she must go out with you, she needs to do the asking here. Actually, begging and explaining.

Just be happy that in this "competition", you won when she picked your bud. Everyone knows it by now. Your buddy especially...

Think about it.

Carolyn Hax: Here's the other side. It's possible a lot of it is true, thanks.

I do object strongly to the notion that picking the other guy first means she still sees you as the next-best thing. I have a bottomless supply of stories from people who fell for their BF's or GF's friend.

So, yes, sometimes people are jerks. But sometimes they're slow to figure stuff out.

And, while I'm objecting: Who says going out with her depletes even a molecule of his pride? It takes guts to try, not hide.

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Arlington, Va.: My colleagues were recently discussing the suicide of an acquaintance who had small children. They described his act as "selfish" because the children will have to live with his death for the rest of their lives. I tried to kill myself a few years back, and, while I don't have children, can clearly remember the desperate act of trying to stay alive when my depression was spinning out of control. In the end, I could not bear to live the life I had. I cannot imagine how this man who killed himself (1) could have been thinking logically enough to try and stay alive for his children and (2) could have managed to live a life he hated. Aside from the fact that yes, sometimes things do get better, only the person experiencing the pain knows how bad it is. I didn't say anything to my colleagues, but I am a bit upset about their negative view of this poor man. He had an illness and it killed him. It's horrible. I think he deserves our pity, not this self-righteous indignation. Am I over-reacting? Should I not judge those who don't understand severe depression? Or are they right? Thanks for your insight!

Carolyn Hax: I think it would have been appropriate to point out that you were sad for them all, and that it was possible--in fact, likely--he was so deeply under the influence of his illness that he truly believed his children wouldn't want him around.

And even if that's not true, it is true that depression warps people's view of the truth, and that the man is dead now, and that both undercut any indignation.

And that horrible losses should be grieved, not judged.

For your own peace of mind--it does sound like you're right, these people don't understand severe depression, and were thinking only of the poor kids.

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Washington, D.C.: Once you are married must ALL desires for the opposite sex cease, aside from your spouse? What do you do if you find yourself attracted to someone?

Carolyn Hax: Of course you'll feel desires. You're still (more or less) human. The problem is when the desires are more compelling than the marriage itself. That's why tending to the couple aspect of being a couple is so important. If your flame at home is burning, you can get a stir from the outside and bring it home. If the flame at home is dead, any stir from the outside is going to be a painful reminder that the flame at home is dead.

And even if the flame is dead--it can happen even if well-tended--tending to your coupleness also means you still feel close, intimate, part of a joint life project, and that alone can nudge the marriage ahead of the outside desire.

I feel like a well-meaning old minister.

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Carolyn Hax: Hi. I'm still here. I was just scrolling scrolling scrolling because there was a question I wanted to answer, but now I can't find it. Bleah.

But now that I've been through the queue (twice)--thanks for all the support re profligate cows. Please be assured that next time I answer a question about a couple who live together, I am going to get just as many why-buy-the-cows as I did before. What can you do.

Unless I suddenly see that question, I'm signing off. Thanks everybody, type to you next week, and have a great weekend. And if anybody's in a position to do so, please have a talk with the Sawx. Thanks.

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Seattle, WA: I am a woman whose father committed suicide. It was the

most selfish thing he ever did. It was also a great tragedy

and the result of an illness that beat him in the end.

Both things can be true at once, and both things are.

While I think people who have not lived with severe

depression, or around it, tend to underestimate its power,

it is also my experience that people who have been

depressed but not been survivors of someone else's

suicide tend to underestimate the damage that having a

parent kill himself does to children.

Years of therapy have convinced me that my father's

death was the tragic outcome of his struggle with a

deadly disease. One of the things that disease did to him

was make him profoundly selfish -- so focused on

himself and his inability to see a way forward, that the

needs and humanity of his children receded into the

distance.

Everyone's right -- and what the situation calls for, I

think, is compassion towards everyone involved in such a

tragedy.

Carolyn Hax: Very very well said, thank you. (And I'm so sorry for how you gained these insights.) I especially appreciate your including the fact that depression does make people extremely self-absorbed. It's something that's difficult for both sides to understand and appreciate fully.

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