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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005; 12:00 PM

Programming Note: Carolyn was online Wednesday, Dec. 21, at Noon ET instead of her normal Friday timeslot.

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 It seems like my past is catching up with me this week. For one reason or another, of which I don't know, my ex-boyfriends are resurfacing. Why is that guys tend to break your heart and leave, and only to return a few years later confessing their love?

Carolyn Hax: Why, I can't say, but why knock it? A gift card might be more useful, but validation is still a nice gift.

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Carolyn Hax: Oh, and hello. Good of you all to remember to come on Wednesday. I almost didn't.

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Washington, D.C.: I've never known my husband to be violent or have a bad temper. I've known him to be angry over political situations/injustice etc. but never seen it directed at a specific person. A few days ago, I witnessed a road rage incident where he got out of the car yelling and screaming and confronted the other driver. His behavior was such an overreaction to the situation, I am still completely shocked. We talked about it and he apologized and admitted to handling the situation very poorly. But I still can't get it out of my head.

Should I be worried? I have a super-low threshold for aggression in normal society, and I think this was way over the top. Is it a matter of time before he reacts this way again? (I've known him four years, and haven't seen this type of behavior before).

Carolyn Hax: A dramatic personality change should always be brought to a doctor's attention. It is a theme that runs through any discussion of any adult-onset mental disorder--personality changes should get checked. Don't mean to be alarmist, especially since this is (apparently) the only exception you'd witnessed, but you're out there talking about violence and I'm just in here guessing, and so I'm going to err on the side of caution.

Actually, I just got an email from the American Psychiatric Association that might have useful information ...

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Carolyn Hax: Here it is: They have a "consumer Web site," www.healthyminds.org, with "information on many common mental health concerns, including warning signs of mental disorders, treatment options, and prevention measures."

I haven't had a chance to get to the site myself yet and so can't vouch for it, but it seems like one of the things that makes the Web great--a place you can zip to, to figure out whether in fact you should be seriously alarmed or just kind of alarmed by the road rage incident.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn: Do you have any advice on how to subtly get across the message that you're not interested in someone as more than a friend? I've agreed to have drinks with a friend (as I would do with any of my other friends) but suspect that he may be interested in something more. He's someone I like and enjoy hanging out with, but I'm not interested in more than that -- is there a way to get this across without it being a big or awkward thing? Added twist: I've recently gone out on a few dates with someone new (though it's still very early), and we'll all be at the same New Year's party through mutual friends.

Carolyn Hax: If you aren't reciprocating any clear more-than-friends gestures, subtle or otherwise, then you are sending a message. As long as he isn't doing anything overt to show he wants otherwise (which would demand an overt refusal), you can keep getting away with just being his friend. Since you may in fact just be his friend.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

After a few years of back and forth with psych meds (took them for a while, decided I was better and weaned myself off, repeated cycle twice), my doctor and, to some extent, I have come to the conclusion that I'll have to be on them for a long long time, if not forever, to get the best quality of life I can. I'm having a tough time coming to terms with that idea. Any thoughts on how to make sense of it without the stigma?

Carolyn Hax: If you were diabetic, you would take insulin without shame. It's as much about chemicals with you as it is with a diabetic, it's just a different set of chemicals.

That's how I would make sense of it.

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Washington, D.C.: Following up on the alcohol discussion last Friday. I am starting to think that I may have a problem with it, but I don't know if I'm overreacting. Lately I'm finding myself drinking more than I intend to -- usually at social events, but sometimes at home too. This happens 2 - 3 times a week. Part of me wants to chalk it up to the holidays, but it seems like there's always an excuse. I don't want to give up drinking, but moderation seems to be a problem for me. I don't know if I should "get help" or just try to cut down on my own.

Carolyn Hax: Certainly stop on your own, for now. Whether you want to or have to make that a permanent move is something you can decide later. First order of business is big enough, the immediate concern of feeling out of control.

If your effort to rein yourself in works, then you can move on to the decision about getting help or not (based, I think, on whether you're able to understand why you drink more than you intend). Obviously, if it doesn't work, then please get help.

I've found this to be a good Web site for the kind of questions you're asking yourself right now: http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/

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Boston, Mass.: How will I go on without Johnny Damon?

Carolyn Hax: Doesn't stuff like this make you feel like a big fat sucker? To us it's personal, to them it's a business, and the more personally we take it, the richer they get.

At least now, anyone who's ever wondered if he would still Johnny Damon without the caveman hair will get their answer.

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re: Psych drugs: Carolyn,

To take this a very large step further, I had a friend whose brother just committed suicide. The backlash she received from people was...well, discouraging, and a lot infuriating. As a result, she was having a hard time coping with the loss and the stigma. The only thing I could think to say to her was similar to your response - your brother died of a disease. Period. Mourn him as though he died of cancer. (It helped to that my dad had died of cancer, so I could appreciate the other feelings that come with such a loss.)

I think it helped, if for no other reason than she knew I had no judgment.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you.

To take it another very large step further, how many people with cancer die because society stigmatizes treatment?

Backlash creators, please listen to all this. Thanks.

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Maryland: Recently I attended a party and my roommate gave me the opportunity to get a woman's phone number. At the time I was drunk and more interested in her friend but took the number anyway. I called her and told her I was interested in her friend nicely. She said she would pass the message. What do you think my chances are of meeting up with the other woman?

Carolyn Hax: 0.

Or, 100 percent, if you gravely misunderestimated the beauty of the woman you called.

You have to appreciate the cruelty of that.

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Rockville, Md.: Who's Johnny Damon? Does asking this question mean I am hopelessly out of touch?

Carolyn Hax: No, just hopelessly not into sports.

Red Sox star.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Carolyn,

I have the holiday blues BAD. I'm to the point of (almost) wanting to pull on the bacon pants and go for a swim. Any words of wisdom to help me get to 2006? And the volunteer thing won't work -- did it before and it made things worse. Thanks, and happy holidays.

Carolyn Hax: Please tell someone how you're feeling. Someone you love, someone you haven't called in ages and who will be pleasantly surprised to hear from you, someone who would be upset to know you were blue but didn't call, someone you don't know well but know you can count on, someone who can fit you in for an appointment. It doesn't matter to whom you reach out, as long as you reach--and as long as you're prepared to make a third or fourth call if your first attempts don't connect.

If people annoy you, volunteer to walk a friend's dog. Seriously.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Road Rage

Sometimes a guy just has a bad day. I don't know if that needs to be brought to a doctor's attention. Venting is a good thing wouldn't you agree. So, instead saying that maybe he should check out the personality change with an MD, maybe she should sign him up for the gym where he can work out agression. OR, she could think of more creative ways to help them relax.

Carolyn Hax: Overreact, and you waste a little time and money. Underreact, and someone could get hurt.

I do not agree that venting is a good thing when it involves venting rage at a stranger over a minor irritation.

In fact, I think its merits have been greatly exaggerated in other situations, too. Sometimes talking (repeat: TALKING) about something helps a person work through the emotions that go with it--but endlessly talking or ranting about something without an attendant effort to work on the problem is really the same as dwelling on it, which can actually -prevent- a person from feeling better.

There's no down side to getting some exercise. But there's a huge down side to writing off aberrant, antisocial behavior as "a bad day."

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Bacon Pants: I agree that reaching out to friends or family is a good idea, but if the holiday blues are BAD and the bacon pants are about to be donned, wouldn't that be a sign that this person might want to take a depression screening test or call one of the APAs to find a referral?

Carolyn Hax: If the (almost) was serious and not a joke, the call should be to 911. Truly.

Some others, in addition to the one I posted earlier, are www.depression-screening.org, www.nimh.nih.gov (click on "depression"), www.psych.org, and www.apa.org

My concern about these, and the reason I opted to advise calling someone now, is that the help you get from the referral route is slow--like, two-or-three-weeks-from-now slow. This need sounded more immediate.

Thanks for the alert reading, and the chance to expand on the answer.

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Misunderestimated!: Great word!

Carolyn Hax: I can't believe I let that get by. (I think they call it "misunderproofreading.")

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Baltimore, Md.: Carolyn, thanks for taking my question. How do you fire a really nice guy who is also very incompetent?

Carolyn Hax: There's a place for him in the world, right? But this just isn't it. So take the long view, I guess, and hope he hasn't run up his credit cards lately.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Just a thanks to Liz and/or dot-com for putting the posting link back at the bottom of the page!

washingtonpost.com: You're welcome. We realize it was long overdue.

Carolyn Hax: We can't type, but we're here to serve.

Technically, I can't type and Liz is here to serve, but I prefer to think in the aggregate.

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Rockville, Md.: Re: Road Rage -- a few years ago my husband reacted to a minor irritation by passing a car on the right side of the road, at a traffic signal when the right lane was going to disappear. I was terrified, horrified and in tears. I insisted that he do something to explore what that was about. Turns out he was seriously depressed and was just at the end of his rope. Some people are good at hiding and ignoring depression and no one is aware of what is going on inside. When they explode like my husband did it seems to come from no where. Insist that he address this in some way. The next incident could end unhappily.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you.

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Bummed: Dear Carolyn,Is it reasonable for me to ask my boyfriend to change jobs because of unreasonable hours? (Night shift, six days a week, no public holidays off. He'll be working Christmas AND New Year's.) It's his first job out of college, he's been in it less than a year, so changing jobs will make his resume look bad. He'll also likely have to take a paycut, bringing him from paying rent with a comfortable margin just barely scraping by. Would I be too selfish to ask this of him? It just sucks to see him only one day a week, only to watch him sleep through half of it. By the way, I don't want to dump him.

Carolyn Hax: If he's getting more out of it than you're losing, then it would be horribly selfish. If he hates it more than you do but is just dragging his feet, then it would be your place to ask that he consider your feelings in his decision.

And if it's just about preserving the resume, then he can start looking now for something else. If he doesn't get any nibbles, no loss, and if he does get a new job, he can certainly take it--especially if he understands that continuity will be more important this time (though not necessarily essential).

But since you're the one asking, not he: Is his spending a year this way really so unthinkable?

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Blankville: I think I found the original reference .

I still don't know what bacon pants are/is/means?

washingtonpost.com: I think you did:

"I think that Frustrated marriagin' guy (bovine citified jackass) should step in front of a fast moving person conveyance, or for the lady's sake, perhaps go for a long coastal swim at dusk wearing bacon pants."

Carolyn Hax: Timeless, isn't it? I'm getting misty all over again.

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Washington, D.C.: Here's the Christmas gift I'm getting -- divorce papers! My husband announced last month he wants a divorce so he can be with his high school girlfriend, who he's been having an affair with for the last year. Three kids under six, won't go to counseling, I've begged, reasoned, no avail. How do I get through the holidays without pulling a Sylvia Plath?

Carolyn Hax: Three kids under six. Live for them.

And this: Your husband's behavior feels brutal now, but if you were to live with someone this selfish for the next 15-20 years of active childrearing, you would accrue so much more unhappiness that this phase would seem small by comparison. Hug your kids, rally your nearest and reliablest, call for help if you frighten yourself, and rip the Band-Aid. Know that the wound will heal.

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Re: Baltimore and firing a nice but incompetent guy: "So take the long view, I guess, and hope he hasn't run up his credit cards lately. "

Um, why is it the boss's concern/care if the guy doesn't manage his finances well?? The boss's only concern is the ability of the employees.

Carolyn Hax: Twas a reference to the time of year, not an advised course of action.

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Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: I've been out with this girl a few times but it seems that timing isn't our strong suite. After a night of drinking we spent the night together which was wonderful. Unfortuantely, she pushed me away again saying while she has feelings for me she can't start anything right now. We're obviously attracted to each other but can't seem to make the next step. When we're out drinking and having fun there aren't any barriers but when that's over it's back to normal. Should I keep pursuing or let this go?

Carolyn Hax: If normal is to have nights of drinking, neither of you is ready for a "next step"/committed relationship. Not a judgment, just an observation.

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New York, N.Y.: Carolyn,

Please help me! I'm dating an incredible girl whom I love dearly and who is perfect for me in almost every way. The catch: she's overweight. I know I shouldn't care about this, but I do. What's worse, I know that part of the reason it bothers me is because I just can't get past the appeal of walking around with a beautiful woman on my arm. Carolyn, how do I get over this? Seriously, I want to marry this girl, but I'm terrified that if I do, I'll always have this lingering feeling that "I could've done better."

Carolyn Hax: Then don't marry her, please. Not yet, not till you can walk through a crowd and be so happy you've got this girl at your side. She deserves it, you deserve it.

As for how you get to this point, I can't show you the way. Your values are going to have to ripen to the point where you see her as beautiful and/or don't care what other people think.

They may never get there, and if that's the case, better to admit that to yourself than to marry her out of fear that you'll regret losing her--and deny her the chance to feel like a prize.

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Re: Maryland: How do guys not realize how horrendously tacky it is to approach a woman only to get info about one of her friends? This happened to me all the time in college, when I had a particularly attractive roommate. My roommate and I both found this behavior unbelievably crass, and she never went out with anyone who "approached" her in this way.

Carolyn Hax: My guess is people rationalize it as something they do only once, without considering that the person they approach for info may well have gotten this same approach for info from 100 guys and now feels about as attractive as a boot-scraper.

Thanks for the PSA.

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Dulles, Va.: Carolyn: While visiting friends in Florida, they graciously took me to a wonderful four-star restaurant. The atmosphere and ambieance was lovely. The view of the Gulf at sunset was magnificant... the wine, appetizer's and main dish were outstanding! However, when dessert was served it was topped with Cool whip (literally). Needless to say I found this disappointing and surprising after everything else was so upscale and nice. When the server came to clear the table and leave the bill she asked if we were happy with our food and service. I felt as though I should express my disappointment in the dessert (I did eat it) being served with coolwhip when the rest of the dinner obviously used the best ingredients. My dinner companions... were floored to say the least... that I expressed my disappointment to the server. Was I wrong to do so? Was it tacky or since the server asked did I had a right to voice my opinion and feelings? I would love what you think. Thanks

Carolyn Hax: You should always answer the server honestly when asked about the meal. The exceptions I can see are when you criticize the meal in front of the people who just paid for you as their guest, and when the people who treated you would feel slighted as hosts.

But if they already knew of the cool-whipping (hm) and of how happy you were with the rest of the meal, then you were probably okay on the former front. It's the latter where maybe your radar failed you. Good guest always says, "It was all lovely, thanks."

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For incredible overweight girl: A buddy of mine got married to a girl like that -- but truthfully, whenever they're around each other they're just so obviously blindingly happy that I don't even notice she's carrying around any extra pounds. Self image, and how one carries oneself as a result, comes across as so much more important. If she makes you grin, and you do the same to her, people will envy you far more than if you had some slinky dopey model in tow.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.

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McLean, Va.: If Rockville falls to pieces when her husband passes a car on the right at a stoplight, he's not the only one who needs to go to counseling.

Carolyn Hax: I am stunned by the push to minimize this. Fearing for your life because of someone else's angry, reckless driving at an intersection is a great reason both for tears and a serious talk.

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Selfishville: Carolyn,

This may be a strange question because you of course don't know me so all you have to judge on are my words.

I'm a good person. I really think I am. I am always kind to service people and cringe when others are not. I'm empathetic and a good listener to friends and family and I'm a great employee.

But I've come to understand that I have many selfish tendencies. I just do. I guess I wrestle with it because I recognize it and I even feel bad about it... but that doesn't change the fact that by nature it's me.

How do I unselfishize myself? Or do I even need to?

Carolyn Hax: You're right, all I have are your words, but I also know that you're human (or the best canine typist since Zuzu) and that means you're going to have selfish impulses. If you don't, you won't be typing for long; self-preservation is a drive built into every form of life, for obvious reasons.

The responsibility of a good person is to recognize when those impulses come at the expense of others, and to weigh carefully how much of a cost is fair to inflict. So, for example, you don't sneak out of work early every day because others would have to do your work for you, which wouldn't be fair, but you do stay a full day and want your hard work to be recognized because you'd like to advance (... ahead of your coworkers) and make more money (... than your coworkers).

Make any sense?

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San Diego, Calif.: How can I get people to stop making pitying comments over my plans to spend Christmas alone? Early Mass, gym workout, wonderful meal, self-indulgent book, great music -- why can't people just accept that this is my ideal holiday?

Carolyn Hax: Tell them you're seeing someone special and then don't elaborate. They don't have to know it's you.

Or, tell them yes, you have plans, and cut it off there.

Or, let them pity you and you privately pity them for not understanding that solitude can be blissful.

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Every Christmas: Every year my husband spends a godawful amount of money on my presents. Every year I spend a reasonable amount on him. Every year I choose between returning his presents and making him mad or working my a-- off to pay for them. Every year I'm concerned he's disappointed in the simple gifts I give. And every year his birthday comes a week after Christmas, and I feel cheap about Christmas, so I buy something too extravangant and work my a-- off paying for it all spring. My questions for you:

1. Ain't holiday traditions grand?

2. What godawful expensive thing should I get him for his birthday this year?

Carolyn Hax: A treadmill?

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"dopey model": "dopey model"? Do we really have to perpetuate this?

Carolyn Hax: Nope! But we can also see it as shorthand for prioritizing outer beauty over inner without getting too bunchy.

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Are you kidding!: I can't find my glasses, my boyfriend doesn't live up to my "snobbish" standards, I was served Cool Whip in a 4 star restaurant. Um, maybe I'm being a little sensitive, but if this is the worst that these people will ever experience, they should consider themselve lucky.

On another note, happy holidays, happy new year and thanks for the chat ever week.

Carolyn Hax: You're welcome. I think.

But:

"I can't shake the sense my friend stole from me."

"If I care about a difference in education levels, does that make me prescient or shallow?"

"In the process of being myself, think I might have offended people I care about."

Not all life is life-or-death, and when it isn't, what's wrong with caring about the way we deal with the people we love?

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Re: Overweight girl: My wife and I are both overweight, but we're very happy and love each other very much. I have never been embarrased by her, but I am often embarassed by MY FAMILY who seem to repeatedly make this an issue. Most recently, was a birthday card my mother sent my wife with a joke about arm-fat. Why do people even go there?

Carolyn Hax: Long answer that can be shortened to, "to make themselves feel better." Better in two senses.

What can you do. Congratulations on your happiness.

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Re: Every Christmas: Sorry, but as husband and wife, why is she working her a-- to pay for his presents? Aren't all their expenses joint expenses? Sounds more like they need to sit down and craft some sort of budget, or maybe this year she can give him (them) the gift of a meeting with a financial planner...

Carolyn Hax: One marriage, one Visa bill, two people working their a---s off.

Like the planner idea, thanks.

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New Hampshire: I've found over the years that the absolute best way to survive the holiday events (Christmas dinner/gift exchanges) with family members -- whom you see very infrequently and/or once saw and hung out with alot decades ago -- is to lower (eliminate) expectations. If you maintain some notion that on this one day of the year you will suddenly "click" with people who have not been part of your lives for years -- or that uncle Johnny who gets drunk all the time will somehow not get drunk on this day -- then you set yourself up for a miserable time for yourself. Your thoughts on this approach...

Carolyn Hax: I'm doing the wave at my desk.

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Washington, D.C.: Don't you hate pants??

Carolyn Hax: Not in December.

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Middle of the World: You touched on this in a past chat, but I was hoping you could elaborate a bit further, December birthdays. Birthdays are a casual thing in my world. My friends and I don't exchange gifts, we either call, or send a card, or get together for dinner, some times on the day but generally with in the week, we've been known to forget and yet life has gone on. I now have a sister-in-law who has a birthday in December and seems to have very specific expectations about it. The first year I didn't even know when it was so I missed it entirely, the next year my gift didn't get there on time (but less than a week late), and this year I had a brain fart and got the gift there what I thought was on time, but I had the wrong day. This is apparently causing a fair amount of angst, but the only reasoning I've gotten about why I'm a horrible sister in law, is that "I have a December birthday and it's very important to me." As a fellow December kid, can you shed light on this?

Carolyn Hax: Someone needs to explain to her that toddlers are cute only until they turn 4.

Get a card, send it on time, hum through the whining, and good luck.

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Washington, DC: I'm wondering how to approach gift-giving events with my future in-laws. My family traditionally gives small gifts with a lot of thought behind them. If we don't have a clue what to give each other, then we give gift cards to stores we know the other one likes. My fiance's family, in contrast, tends to give gifts with gift recipients and encourages each other to return the present and exchange it for something else if they don't like it. They will also return, then rebuy, presents at after Christmas sale prices to save money. This style of gift-giving seems, to be frank, not all that true to the Christmas spirit, and feels a little nickle-and-dime-ish. Also, it felt a little hurtful when I found out a gift I gave my future sister-in-law was returned and exchanged for something she likes better last year. I don't want to create a big ta-do about this, but I also don't want their tradition to become my tradition. Should I just keep quiet about it?

Carolyn Hax: Yeah, and if you can't see the beauty of it (no stress, no expectations!), then at least try to see the humor in it.

If it helps you feel better: My family does a regift exchange--draw a name, give that person something awful from your attic. This year, Kenny and I both got gifts I once gave, for real, to some family member.

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

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Carolyn Hax: On that note ... bye everybody, thanks for stopping by, and merry Christmas and/or happy New Year, since this is it till Jan. 6. I'll stay glued till then if you will.

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