Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006 12:00 PM

Programming Note: Carolyn was online early this week! She joined readers Wednesday at Noon ET for the first show of the new year.

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.


WallaWalla, Wash.: Hi Carolyn!

How much bickering is "normal" in a relationship? Do you think it's possible that some couples just thrive on it, and need it to keep the spark alive?

I am friends with a couple who constantly bicker. About little things, big things, stupid things, ANY things. I can't figure out why they're still together because they both always seem to be miserable in each other's company. My only thought is that they're either scared to be alone, or have some amazing, secret sex life that somehow fuels the rest of their relationship.


Carolyn Hax: I've never understood it myself, and define the "normal" amount of bickering as 0. But people's tolerances, habits, comfort zones, means of showing affection, etc., are all different, and that's a good thing. Perhaps more in theory than when you actually have to listen to it.


Carolyn Hax: Oh, and hello. Thanks for adjusting to another Wednesday appearance.


Chantilly, Va.: Hi Carolyn,

The first letter in today's column reminds me a bit of my own situation. I've been dating a charming and attractive woman for about 3 months (I'm 27, she's 23). In the past, she's talked about having "pet freshmen" in high school, boys who would do little things for her, wait in lines and so forth, in hopes of dating her. This didn't bother me, and we've joked about it. Lately, though, she's mentioned that she does the same sort of thing now to male co-workers who have crushes on her, getting them to complete tasks for her by leveraging these crushes ("How much do you really like me? Well, why don't you..."). I called a foul on this, saying it was one thing for a high-schooler to do it, but that a grown woman should know better. It strikes me as thoughtless and manipulative, not to mention immature.

She says I'm overreacting to a little harmless flirting, and that "all women do this." Is she right? Am I making a big deal out of nothing?

Carolyn Hax: If you are, then I'm wanting to puke over nothing.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I'm dating a different kind of guy who I would not describe as the most manly. For example, he has no interest in sports, no male friends but easily gets along with women, is very fussy about his appearance, and can act somewhat effeminate. I continue to date him because he is very loving, caring, affectionate, smart, funny, etc. I know how he is perceived by others and sometimes I wonder about him. Do I have reasons to be suspicious about his sexuality or should I just accept him for being a different kind of person?

Carolyn Hax: Dunno. How's the physical side of this friendship?


Burtonsville, Md.: Hi Carolyn,

My situation was somewhat similar to the first question you answered in today's column. The difference is that my now ex- boyfriend was jealous of a male friend who had professed his love for me a while ago (a year before I even met the ex), but is currently in a longterm relationship with someone else. My boyfriend and I eventually ended up breaking up over it because he was convinced I shouldn't have been spending any time alone at all with my friend. I also never put the ex on hold while I was trying to figure out my feelings for my friend. I knew I was dating the ex, but he thought that any time I spent with a male friend was a "date". My ex-boyfriend was convinced that if someone is in a relationship, she shouldn't spend time alone with her male friends. This was my first serious relationship, so I wasn't sure of protocol, and insisted on being able to do it. We fought about it a lot and now that I'm sad and alone, I can't help but think I wasn't following proper procedure. Your thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: There is no "proper procedure." Instead there are judgment, sensitivity, respect, common sense. Of course people in relationships can maintain opposite-sex friendships, as long as the Big Four are given their say.

To use the example of your male friend--if he still had feelings for you or you for him (his being in another relationship is immaterial), or if you were conducting this friendship in any way on the sly, then it wasn't entirely appropriate. But if you were genuinely Platonic, if any past feelings had blown over (to the best of your knowledge), and if you were conducting this friendship as transparently as you would with any other friend, then your BF owed it to you to shut up and trust you.

Even in the latter case, do some of these things get complicated? Sure, sometimes. But you deal with that when it happens--applying the same Four. You don't try to pre-empt complications that haven't even been born yet by establishing blanket prohibitions on someone else's perfectly innocent behavior.


Carolyn Hax: That was a mouthful. Sorry.


Philadelphia, Pa.: The no male friends would be the big trigger for me -- as it would be if a woman had no female friends. Quite apart from the issue of is-he-gay, the lack of friends of the same gender is something I'd worry/wonder about -- how does he explain that? (For the record, I think it's a good sign when people have friends of the opposite gender, too -- to cut half the human race out of the friendship stakes seems just wrong to me, no matter what).

Carolyn Hax: Great point, thanks.


Re: Chantilly, Va.: This kind of behavior (getting guys who are interested in her to do work for her) was also immature in high school. I don't know any woman who acts like this. She is treating others unkindly, and is doing it purposely and knowingly. That should be a huge red flag about her character.

Carolyn Hax: What s/he said. Thanks.


The Bickering Bickersons: My husband and I adore one another, but my sister frequently tells me that "You guys fight all the time!" We are two very opinionated people and if he says that Roger Clemens is the best pitcher ever, he knows damn well that I will come right back at him arguing that no, actually, it's Walter Johnson. We argue all the time. Some people construe that as fighting and think we must be miserable. But we're not, and we enjoy the arguments very much, and would marry each other again in a heartbeat.

Carolyn Hax: No, actually, it IS fighting.

Kidding. Thanks.


Chicago, Ill.: Happy New Year and I love your chats! I ended a long relationship because I was ready to get married and he wasn't. After a couple of weeks he decided that he wants to marry me and can't live without me. He was married once before and I know he has some fear of another failed marriage. Is this really common with people who have been married before? I want to marry him, but I'm somewhat irritated that I had to end things for him to realize what he wants.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks!

Makes sense that it would be common, no? But I'm not sure that even matters. What does matter is whether his feelings inparticular--including where they come from, how he handles them, how he expresses them, how you figure into them--make sense to you. For you guys to have any chance, you both need to find a way to understand and accept how the other regards marriage. If your BS meter is going off and/or you're irritated, then it's not enough for me to tell you, "Yes, all veterans of failed marriages are scared," even iof it were true, which it's not. You need to -believe- his fear, understand it. You need to talk to him.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn and lovely producer!

I've been with my boyfriend for over two years. We got together in college, moved to the same city (but live apart), and generally, have a very healthy and happy relationship.

The problem? I am in absolutely NO RUSH to think about marriage/weddings/babies/the future. The boyfriend and I have a blast together, are still head over heels in love, make time for separate friends and activities, adore each other families, and have similar values concerning morals, finances and all those important things you need to discuss before marriage.

So WHY am I in no rush to move things along? Someone once told me, "The only reason people don't get married young is because they're not sure." (I'm 23. The person who told me that is also 23, married, and knocked up.) I do think it's possible for a couple to simply enjoy what they have at that present moment, and not worry about what might happen tomorrow. But another part of me worries that maybe I am still unsure about him being "the one." I don't ever see myself with anyone else, and I still get butterflies when I think of him... but I don't really care either way if I get a big fat ring on my finger.

Am I completely kidding myself? Is it true that you should "know" immediately, and if that's true, shouldn't I know by now?

Carolyn Hax: The only reason people say there's only one reason for things is [omitted due to extreme unkindness].

Here's what's true: that questioning something you believe is good, just because someone else thinks you should question, it is ridiculous.

There's insurance built into the status quo: You continue to enjoy whatever it is you're enjoying unless and until something happens to tell you you no longer enjoy it.

At which point you do something about it.

Pretty cool, if you think about it.


Rockville, Md.: I am currently in the beginnings of a relationship with a girl who I have strong feelings for. My problem is that I am Jewish and she is Catholic. I am worried that getting involved is pointless if things are going to be complicated by religion. I have no problem with her faith, and we are both juniors in college so marriage is not exactly nearby. I really like this girl, and have had a very hard time finding girls who share my faith. I don't necessarily see this as a make-or-break point in a relationship, but I doubt my parents would approve. What should I do?

Carolyn Hax: If you're seeing this girl because you can't find anyone Jewish, then I think you need to look a little harder.

In other words, if it's going to bother you, then don't bother. But if dating someone outside your faith is an honest reflection of your values--i.e., and not of your most recent rationalization--then go for it. A college relationship that goes the distance isn't exactly common, so the faith thing may never be an issue, and if it does end up being one of special few to go the distance, then, well, yay. Right?

But remember who you're talking to.


Same gender friends: well, I (a female) don't have any female friends at the moment. Not because I'm gay, or because I don't like women, but because out of all the people I know right now, the ones I have the most in common with happen to be men.

Carolyn Hax: Not that there's anything wrong with that. Seeing a red flag doesn't mean you dump the person who raised it, it just means you ought to get a little more information to see if there's a real problem there or if there's a simple explanation--say, that you happen to have more in common with the men in your life right now than with the women.


The McBickersons: I wish couples that bicker in public would knock it off. Whether they have a great marriage or not, it's really unpleasant to be around. There's nothing worse than sitting and staring glumly at your menu while the McBickersons argue for 30 minutes about whether or not hubby really is allergic to parsley, why his neurotic mother convinced him of a parsley allergy, and so forth.

If a "couple discussion" takes you away from the main conversation for more than a minute or two, that means you're probably bickering and making everyone around you uncomfortable.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Another one coming:


More Bickerings: My wife and I used to argue all the time. Then, one day, we woke up and thought, "why do we argue all the time" and stopped. Now, we don't have a lot to say to each other.

Carolyn Hax: Oh.


Rockville, Md.: Hi Carolyn,

My on-again, off-again BF still has not given me a Christmas gift even though he asked if he could get one "later" on Christmas Eve because he "hasn't had a chance." I have given him two and am waiting on the third. How do I approach this without sounding like a nag? He is an artsy musician type and traditions are not his thing but he asked if we could "do something" Christmassy before he left for Pennsylvania to visit his family. He did pay for Christmas Eve dinner (I left the tip/bought nitecaps) but that is not what was planned. I feel like waiting longer to talk to him about it for effect but feel I will explode by then. What to do?

Carolyn Hax: Realize you're on-again-off-again dating an artsy musician type who claims "traditions aren't his thing" while basically doing whatever he pleases--and stop expecting him to be the boyfriend you want him to be. This is it. Proceed accordingly.


Anywhere, USA: I basically got fired for having a bad attitue at work. It was deserved, but it was also sort of a perception problem: I thought I was being a helpful, devil's advocate type, but in fact I was being relentless negative and unproductive. It's just sort of how my brain works -- it goes to the flaws in a plan and tries to fix them. It used to be a helpful trait, but somehow it's become too big a part of my personality. But I think the "tries to fix it" part is... I don't know, broken. I can see it creeping into other things, too -- like, if I develop a crush, I tend to think of reasons why it wouldn't work rather than why it would. How can I dial this tendency back? I don't think I could or particularly want to become relentlessly upbeat, but I have to figure out a way to get this in check. I've had a rough year, and it's made me too negative and risk-averse.

Carolyn Hax: 1. You recognize that you need to change the way you're wired.

2. Recognition alone hasn't been enough to change that wiring.

3. You are suffering as a result.

To me that consitutes the might-I-benefit-from-therapy test, and you passed. Please consider it.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

I am trying to figure out what I can do for my sister -- two days after Christmas, she caught her boyfriend of three years with another woman in his car 30 minutes before they were supposed to leave on a trip. This is two days after he brought my aunts and grandmother flowers on Christmas, got my sister a $500 purse, parents a nice gift with a sappy card about being a part of the family, etc. He was seemingly the nicest guy ever, whole family loved him. Since this happened he has not called my sister, sent one e-mail (they never communicate via e-mail). My sister is devastated-they had gone engagement ring "looking" together. We are all blindsided, and upset. I even feel betrayed. I want to help my sister realize in the long run she is better off without him, but I don't know what to say besides the usual (unhelpful) he's a jerk, etc.

Carolyn Hax: Ugh. There really isn't that much you can do. Listen, sympathize, take her to movies, remind her that she doesn't have to figure it all out right away, and that it's okay just to cry and feel like hell and put off decisions and stuff until later.

You did add the "(unhelpful)," but I'm going to say this anyway--beating him up can make her feel worse by intensifying the "I was so stupid" element, which has to be pretty intense now already. Remind her that you were all unsuspecting, and even that otherwise good people can be capable of horrible things, which is true, and that he could very well be hating himself more than she's hating him right now, which is certainly possible.


To Anywhere USA: Carolyn, can I just chime in that Anywhere USA should be proud for paying attention to the wake-up call that getting fired has given him/her? A lot of people (especially those who are predisposed to negativity) would have just assigned blame to the boss or organization, without taking any personal responsibility. After such a rough year, I thought Anywhere might appreciate a well-deserved pat on the back for taking responsibility and wanting to change.

Carolyn Hax: True true. Thanks.


Seattle, Wash.: I have made it my goal for 2006 to get comfortable with the idea of being single and childless, as I am 35, not married, not dating, and not (at this moment) in a position to adopt/sperm bank/etc.

I go back and forth between okay with this and simply devastated. I know there are a jillion things I can do and have in my life that I wouldn't be able to if I were encumbered, but I can't help imagining myself old and sick with no one to take care of me.

Words of wisdom from you or the peanut gallery?

Carolyn Hax: Just a couple of things to think about:

Neither marrying nor having children guarantees you'll have someone taking care of you when you're old and sick. Spouses predecease or leave you; kids move overseas or have their own kids or just flip their parents the bird (or die, too, but that's almost un-typable).

There's no one formula for comfort or security or even for a rewarding life. Actually, there is, but it's got absolutely nothing so specific as "marriage" or "children" attached to it: Give. Give to your world, engage in it, be part of it by whatever means is available to you. Even this isn't a guarantee that it'll be there to give back to you when you need it, but it'll get you closer than anything else, marriage and kids included.


Arlington, Tex.: Carolyn --

Please help. My last girlfriend ended our relationship abruptly and without explanation even though things seemed to be going well. My attempts at reconciliation and later just simple closure were scorned. I didn't handle it well, and have sought professional help, but even though I'm doing better, I still think I need this closure to move on. Because I'll probably never get it, how can I learn from this experience and prevent it from affecting future relationships?

Carolyn Hax: To me, learning is closure. You can get her to explain why she left and still come away unsatisfied if you don't feel she interpreted things accurately, or told the truth, or let you get your say, etc.

But if you look back on the way things were between you, you can often get the explanation you're seeking on your own. Use hindsight to spot things you didn't when you were with her; look at her behavior in a larger context--for example, did she take on challenges at work or in her family or friendships, or did she run from them?; replay your conversations. Usually it's all there.

And if it isn't all there, you still can keep it from infecting your future. You can either accept that she was unusually difficult to know, or say "oh well" and vow to be a better listener.


Arlington, Va.: Why do teenagers make the same mistakes we made when we were that age? We try to share our knowledge of what we've learned, but it doesn't seem to help anymore than our parents lectures did when we were teenagers. Just found out a family friend is pregnant at 16 -- the same girl with whom I'd discussed delaying sex until later and using birth control (and I know her family had done the same). It's so disappointing to know that I made similar mistakes and was lucky enough to not have consequences, but I wasn't able to prevent her from making the same mistakes and she does have to face consequences for it.

Carolyn Hax: I think you can answer your own question by recalling how you felt when you were a teenager making similar mistakes despite being warned not to. Don't you remember? Chafing at being told what to do, (necessary) skepticism of all things parental, hormones, excitement at access to adult things, sloppy impulse control ...


For Seattle: Oddly enough, I just got a letter from an old college friend who is 36 yesterday saying that a few years ago he realized that he wasn't going to let the lack of finding a special interfere with living life to its fullest.

I guess for him that meant adopting 2 children. The birthmothers are part of his life and life of his kids, but he is raising them and they seem to all be doing great. I am not saying you need to have kids to feel fulfilled, but I noticed such a joy in his voice when he stopped searching and started living. He was also a Ph.D candidate who decided to honor his secret wish to be a high school teacher. No matter what the right path for you is, I hope you embrace it!

Carolyn Hax: Pretty cool, thanks.


Baltimore, Md.: Maybe I'll luck out today and get my question answered? I surely need some luck. I'm about to turn 35. Husband of a year is 36. He has always had trouble making big transitions, and the latest is he's 'not ready' to have children. He swears (and I believe him) that he definitely wants at least one child. Yet he can't say when he will be ready to try, or what needs to happen before he can try. I have a history of miscarriages in a previous relationship, so am desperate to start ASAP in case we have trouble. He perceives any discussion as pressure that makes it more difficult for him. Am I doomed to be childless b/c my husband is too afraid? He loves our nieces and nephews...I just don't understand this and I'm starting to get so angry at him. Although I know it isn't malicious on his part, I'm beginning to feel betrayed and misled. Other than this, our marriage is wonderful. He refuses counseling. Please, please help me!

Thanks, I love your chats!

Carolyn Hax: I don't know what to tell you, other than that you should start the counseling and hope this is enough to persuade him to join you. From here, it looks like both of you are seeing this only from your own perspectives, but that you have a hard medical/chronological reason for not being able to meet him even halfway here.

I'd suggest you lay out your reason for him--or even better, make an appointment to get an OB to do it for you--but it sounds like your husband has decided he's entitled not to decide and therefore to stick his fingers in his ears and to blame you for trying to talk.

Not exactly great for fatherhood, but I'm guessing, since you know him to be "transition" averse, that you know him also to get past these little, essentially, tantrums.

So. If you have an approach that has worked with him in the past to get him to accept change, try it. At this point, anything is going to take a while, and so a sure thing wastes the least time.

If that sure approach has been to give him five years, then it's Plan B: explaining to him that you don't have the luxury of giving him the time he needs, and that he's going to have to (grow up and) accept that you're both under pressure, which you both now have to handle, together, as a couple.

Given your anger, I might just go straight to Plan B. Either way, I think you have to let him know you're feeling angry and betrayed.


Greener Grass: Dear Carolyn,

When do you know when it's time to make a change? I like my job - good co-workers, pays well -- but I don't love the area I live in even though I have some great friends I'd really miss if I moved. I've been tossing around the idea of making a major movie to a different company and different state but it's scary, espeically as I'm pretty settled here. How do you figure out if it's time to move on if there's perfectly good reasons to stay, and where do you start?

Carolyn Hax: This is another question that's almost impossible to answer. I think you just stay put until the curiosity about/desire for something else builds to the point where changes your center of gravity.


Alexandria, Va.: to Seattle who's single and concerned about care during her old age - she should look into Long Term Care Insurance while she's young and it's cheap. If she's a Federal government employee, or closely related to a Federal employee or annuitant, the Federal program is excellent and won't disappear in X years because the insurance company went belly-up.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, everyone should. Assuming that a spouse or kid will be able to drop everything to tend to you, much less want to, is pretty short sighted, bordering on presumptuous. Anyone who has watched someone suffer a long illness knows it's emotionally and sometimes physically grueling for the caregiver, not to mention expensive.


Washington, D.C.: Spouse has depression/anxiety, wants second child (first is two); uspet at me because of my suggestion to get into better physical shape before the new venture. Am I out of line?

Carolyn Hax: If by physical shape you mean in better control of the depression/anxiety, then, no, you aren't out of line. It's only fair to the children to make sure both parents have any medical issues tamed.

But if by "spouse" you mean "wife" and by "phys. shape" you mean "lose weight," then that's a crappy thing to say to someone whether she has emotional issues or not. If she's at risk for obesity-related health problems, then say that, with a doctor's backing. But otherwise, cheez.


Re: Baltimore: He refuses to discuss an issue important to you with inherent and valid medical reasons for resolving sooner than later.

"Other than this, our marriage is wonderful."

If that's a wonderful marriage, I'm glad I'm single. (and 37 and childless and maybe a bit too comfortable with the current situation. But still.)

Carolyn Hax: Thank you. I took forever and still didn't hit that one right.


Re: Needing Closure: Your answer to Arlington's question was excellent. Situations like these make you question whether the split was because of your partner's issues or because you were just completely duped by an uncaring person. How should Arlington (and others) resolve these questions?

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Sometimes I think you have to resolve that some questions can't be resolved without more information. So you get on with your life, and you either get duped again soon and realize you need to start paying closer attention to the people you choose to trust, or you go for a good long while dupe-free and realize that one person was both a jerk and an exception.

You can also dig into your history with other people, if you can't stand the suspense. A bad experience can certainly help you see a pattern in past relationships--friendships and family ties included--even if those others didn't necessarily end badly.


Virginia: Wow, serious chat today. Growing old, having children, pregnant teenagers. Man.

So... uh... woohoo for having the "submit" link at the bottom of the page!

Carolyn Hax: Let's blame it on Wednesday.

(Back to Fridays next week, by the way.)


Washington, D.C.: My wife says I don't get out enough with my friends and says I stay at home and watch TV too much. What is wrong with that Carolyn? I mean, I work a rough job and I like to relax when I get home from work. Am I being a lazy bum?

Carolyn Hax: Better question, is there anything wrong with being a lazy bum?

Surely your wife has a reason for saying what she did--she's afraid you're depressed, or feels pressure to be your whole social life, or wishes she could have the house to herself once and a while without TV noise and a blob in the couch. Ask nicely and go from there.

And don't call her Surely.


Dallas, Tex.: I like to consider myself fairly non-judgmental, but I find myself almost constantly judging my boyfriend negatively. Can I still be non-judgmental if I'm only judging him and he really, really deserves it as he is completely self-absorbed?

Carolyn Hax: Can we judge you for choosing to stay with (and browbeat!) someone who's completely self-absorbed?


No-rush-to-marry -girl again!: So does that mean that one day I'll just wake up and decide I'm ready to be married? And the get down on one knee accordingly, and hand him a...rock?

Sounds pretty cool to me!

Carolyn Hax: Well, not necessarily, but since the whole point is that you'll eventually find out for yourself whatever there is to find out, I'll just butt out.


Carolyn Hax: Speaking of which: bye bye. Thanks again for keeping up with the time switch, and I'll type to you next Friday.


Guilford, Conn.: Another perspective on not panicking about having kids. If I'd had kids when I was 32, I would have had them with the wrong man. At some point I realized that, despite being married to a good man, I was most definitely married to the wrong man for me. Subsequently I found/was found by the right one and I had a kid at the age of 38. Hoping for another one soon.

Do not have a child with someone this ambivalent (or maybe manipulative?) This is your child's father. You can make no more important choice for your child's life. Which daycare is trivial after this decision.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks--important not to let the time issue overtake other, possibly more serious issues.


Washington, DC: Re: Washington, DC

I do mean "wife", and I do mean "weight", and I mean for

better control of depression/anxiety, and doctor's

suggestion of weight.

Carolyn Hax: Then you've got to be clear that you love her and find her beautiful and that this is about her health. And you also need to appreciate that her having not-fully-controlled depression/anxiety is going to color your suggestions and almost guarantee they'll be received badly, even before you add the fact that this involves weight, which in istelf almost guarantees a bad reception.

So, reassure generously and lean hard on the doctors and offer to take long walks with her and the 2-year-old and hope for the best.


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