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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006; 12:30 PM

Carolyn took 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.

Other mail can be directed to Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

The transcript follows.

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washingtonpost.com: Folks, Carolyn won't be starting until 12:30 p.m. ET. Sorry for the delay. -- Liz

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Fairfax, Va.: When I tell a funny story, I really get into it. Sometimes I use voices for different characters in the stories or mime the actions of the players.

My girlfriends, who laugh hysterically when I do this, tell me I shouldn't do this in front of guys. It's not very feminine, and most girls don't use voices when they're telling stories.

I like funny stuff, though, and the girls must, too, because they're not just deadpan staring at me. In other areas of my life I'm pretty mature and conservative and responsible -- job, home life, etc. -- and I don't yearn for attention in general.

Since my mom got ill I feel like sometimes you have to look for the funny stuff in life, because life is kind of sad sometimes otherwise. But I have to admit, I go on lots of first dates but haven't had any 2nd or 3rd dates lately. Do you think they're right?

Carolyn Hax: NO. No no no no.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

I would say their opinion crystallizes every bit of bad advice I've ever seen into one piece of advice so horrific you need to encase it in a special leakproof canister before you bury it at least a mile deep into the earth, lest anyone else be exposed to it--but they're you're friends, so that would probably be a bit harsh.

Ignore them. Tell your stories. Endure your relationship false starts. When you meet the guy who laughs hysterically at the way you tell stories, you will be exquisitely grateful you did.

And I'm sorry about your mom.

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Carolyn Hax: Oh, and hi everybody.

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Williamsburg, Va.: My husband yells at me and tells me that it's my fault he yells because I don't listen. He also tells me I am the problem and I need help. When I try to talk to him about my feelings or what's bothering me with regard to our marriage, he tells me I am being "mean." Everything I do and say is wrong and I am feel emotionally beat up. I don't know if this is emotional abuse or just a communication problem that can be worked out through counseling. I will say he won't let go of his perception that I am wrong wrong wrong and he is right. Can you help?

Carolyn Hax: Yes, if you trust me that you would feel a lot better if you talked to someone about this more extensively. From here, it does look an awful lot like emotional abuse--and if that's true, you're going to second-guess yourself relentlessly as you try to sort it out, especially if you come to the conclusion that you need to get out.

So, you can start by doing some reading. Try the Peace at Home Web site, www.peaceathome.org; a lot of readers have also found Patricia Evans's "The Emotionally Abusive Relationship" helpful, though I am ashamed to admit that my copy is still sitting on my desk unread past p. 20.

You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE, for names of counselors in your area who can help you figure out (in individual. sessions) what the dynamic is in your marriage and explore whether you have a realistic shot at fixing it.

I'd also recommend marriage counseling, but that can get iffy with emotional abuse. If the abuser talks a good game, the victim can often leave the sessions with more doubts and less leverage. So, start on your own and then use that to figure out whether going jointly would make sense.

Or you could just get the hell out, but I'd rather you went through official channels since there's always a chance the abuse could escalate. (Leaving is very dangerous for abuse victims. Obviously staying is worse, but the immediate risk spikes when abusers feel like they're losing control.) Plus, you didn't say whether there were kids involved, which would demand that you be as meticulous as possible in your decision making and planning.

Whoo. I think that's everything.

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Anonymous: Say you realize you are having problems with alcohol -- or, more precisely, that you are expressing other problems through irresponsible alcohol use. How do you know whether you should commit to just a few months of booze-free-edness or swear the stuff of for life?

Carolyn Hax: Commit to a day, then another day, then another day, then see how you feel and, more important, how you're dealing with those other problems. You don't have to make any huge decisions right now, you just have to start taking better care of yourself in small but decisive ways.

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Washington, DC: I'm sure I speak for just about every guy in this chat when I say:

Fairfax, you sound like a fantastic date! Who wouldn't want to be with a confident, enthusiastic, hilarious girl? Please don't let your friends suck the life out of you.

Carolyn Hax: If not every guy, then certainly any guy she'd want to date. Thanks, DeeCee.

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Wilmington, Del.: I have many successful single female friends who are not so successful in relationships. Once problem that many of us have encountered is that many of the "nice" guys that we meet are somewhat intimidated by our high salaries. Although we can buy the bacon and cook it, we would love to have someone to share it with. How can we make income less of an issue?

Carolyn Hax: Don't. It's one thing to realize you need a more flattering haircut or a kinder social manner, but you don't ever want to get into the business of downplaying--or, essentially, falsifying--some real part of yourself just to please other people. In your case, all you'd get for your efforts is someone who needs to believe he has the economic upper hand to feel comfortable. Whoopie! Better just to keep repelling all the people you repel with your high salaries (assuming that is in fact what's scaring men off, but that's a whole other answer), and save your commitments for people who feel comfortable with you as you are.

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Carolyn Hax: Seriously. Doesn't that just sound like work, always having to monitor your effect on someone's ego?

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Washington, D.C.: In response to your first question -- there are so few really good storytellers in the world, it would be CRIMINAL to silence someone who does it so well. Use those voices for all you're worth. The world will be a better place for it!

Carolyn Hax: A whole angle I hadn't considered. The I-won't-call-them-morons who advised her to play girlie may have hit it blind, backward and with the wrong end of the shovel, but they did hit on a truth: A lot of animated women do get subdued around men. I just don't think it's so much that men prefer demure little girlies as women -think- men prefer DLGs.

Or that some men do prefer DLGs and are vocal about it and that leads animated women and/or their wrongheaded but well-meaning friends to conclude that all men must therefore prefer DLGs.

Whatever it is, yuck.

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Silver Spring, Md.: My fiancee is the "golden boy" of his family. As time has gone by I have increasingly begun taking on most if not all of the responsibilities of a wife including taking care of his 13-year-old son while my fiance has done less and less to help out. He is very successful with the magazine he owns and now he is spending time at home writing a book. He still refuses to help out and his mother continually steps in telling me he is too busy which makes me feel unappreciated by him and his family. What is the best way to get him more involved or at least appreciate what I do?

Carolyn Hax: So. According to you, his mother is telling him he is far too important to worry about household trifles, like child rearing and chores and tending to his family members' feelings.

And, according to you, he believes his mother and feels entitled to behave accordingly.

And, according to you, you are absorbing "most if not all" of these trifling responsibilities, thereby reinforcing what he already believes and the way he's already behaving.

Good luck!

The only way to get him more involved is to stop cleaning up after his mommy's precious little boy. Call his attention to the imbalance, explain to him that it's unacceptable and you will no longer play along with it, ask for a plan to remedy it, and Do Not Backslide into your role as his maid. It's possible he won't change even if you do hold the line, but it's absolutely certain he won't if you don't.

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re Salaries and Ego: I'd agree that one shouldn't have to downplay one's success in life to preserve someone else's ego, but I can't help but wonder if she's making an issue of it early on in her dating. That's a huge turnoff.

Carolyn Hax: True. But if it's an issue, better to make an issue of it early on than later on. Then at least guys will know right away she's full of herself, instead of getting sandbagged with it later.

If on the other hand she isn't humility-deficient and simply is in a clearly butt-kicking line of work, then what can you do.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn. My housekeeper gives me a gift every Xmas. I don't like this as it makes me uncomfortable and I find it totally unnecessary. Any polite way to discourage this? We give her a bonus check and something like a box of chocolates or some other nice edible.

Carolyn Hax: Accept the gift. It's an exchange of kindness between equals.

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While Williamsburg is doing her research,: Here is something she can try right now with her husband: repeat back or paraphrased to him what he says. Don't otherwise reply until you have confirmation from him that you understand what he's said.

If his complaint is that she is not hearing what he says, that should take care of it.

I'll bet his complaint is that she doesn't always agree with him, though, so he escalates -- increases his volume to yelling -- because he wants things done his way. But just in case he really feels he isn't being heard, the above technique, if done faithfully and kindly, might help.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Seems like a great approach any time someone tells us we aren't getting it--even when it's not a pattern.

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Cubicle Land, Lunchtime: Hi Carolyn,

I just did an Amazon search on the book you mentioned ("The Emotionally Abusive Relationship") and wanted to (nicely!) correct you. That book is written by Beverly Engel. Patricia Evans wrote "The Verbally Abusive Relationship". But I'm guessing they would probably both be helpful in the chatter's case.

Love your chats!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks! You could have done it meanly, too, and I'd still be grateful (though maybe a particle less).

As their both being helpful, you might be right, but the Evans is the one readers have brought to my attention more times than I can count.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn, thanks for the chat. Maybe a little advice to get cheery, in addition to a little emotional unload. Currently, I am in the process of getting separated from my wife, who I still consider my best friend, unfortunately our marriage just didn't work. My mother is currently very sick, mentally and physically. So it has been a pretty rough period. I have been going to see counseling individually as well as separately with my wife. Just taking it day by day, some days are better than others. Unfortunately, lately have been very sad. Many more bad days. Any advice to help get through this rough period? Many thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Holy been there.

It's really just a time you're going to have to get through, and until these painful things stop constituting a major part of your daily concerns, you're going to feel like crap.

However, they won't forever constitute a major part of your daily concerns. Their prominence is temporary--in the sum total of a life, even fleeting. That in itself, when you're able to believe it, is helpful.

For the rest, take meticulous care of yourself. First, think of this huge emotional challenge as you would a huge physical challenge. You will get through it better if you are in good physical condition, which means exercise, healthy food and a lot of sleep. It seems almost ridiculously simple but it really does help. (Proven so, in fact, in studies on the benefits of exercise in treating depression.)

Second, seek out non-destructive things you enjoy, and indulge as much as you can. Movies, books, art, music, friends--whatever does it for you.

Hope this helps. Hang in there.

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Mom is Biased: My mom is biased toward a sibling. I could write a long question--give a bunch of specifics--but, basically, that is my problem. what to do? In case it matters, the sibling has a TON of personal problems--of her own doing.

Carolyn Hax: Be glad you weren't the chosen one? This is a horrible thing and I don't mean to minimize your hurt feelings, but there always seems to be a chicken-and-egg element to favoritism stories: Was the kid always a little wobbly and so the parent feels eternally guilty and therefore indulges? Or was the parent always biased and the years of indulgence prevented the kid from finding his or her own strength?

Regardless of the answer, it's a situation that creates victims all around. However, if you had your choice to be one of the other victims--the overindulged issue-factory, or the parent reaping her crop of unhappiness--wouldn't you rather be you? On any day of the week, for any amount of money?

So that's really all I advise. Give up hoping your mother will ever be fair, and be glad you got the best of a bad situation.

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RE: The Responsibilities of a Wife: Carolyn,

I thought Silver Spring's problem was summed up in her first line. She apparently believes all these tasks WOULD be her responsibility if they were married. Don't you get that vibe? Her solution is easy - insist on marriage so he can walk all over her, but she can be Mrs Golden Boy.

Carolyn Hax: You might be right, but, bleah.

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"Whatever it is, yuck." : Carolyn, haven't you ever encountered someone who is one of those "life of the party" sorts who really cannot see that sometimes they're overdoing it with their comedic routines?

Maybe Fairfax is a genuinely funny and delightful person, but isn't it possible that her friends are trying, in an inept and heavy-handed way, to let her know that maybe a little bit of her storytelling goes a long way and she needs to dial it back a bit?

Shouldn't Fairfax consider that if most/all of her girlfriends are advising her to cut the comedy, maybe she needs to at least consider the possibility that she might be laying it on a bit thick, to the point where it's annoying and not funny? If you were doing something you thought was funny but your friends knew that other people found it annoying and it was getting in the way of your relationships with people, wouldn't you want your friends to tell you?

Carolyn Hax: No, because I would see it myself when I noticed they weren't laughing any more.

Certainly some people's social receptors aren't calibrated right and they think they're being riotously funny no matter how silent everyone is (because everyone of course is intimidated ... I mean, has no sense of humor). But even then, I'd argue that a genuinely funny and delightful person who goes overboard sometimes is better off just going overboard sometimes.

If she's not happy in her own skin, then she should look inward. But that doesn't seem to be the case here.

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Washington, D.C.: Please... the housekeeper isn't an equal. The people are her boss. They can fire her. They pay her. She works for them. How is that an equal. Maybe if they were stuck on an island, yes. But in the real world, not all people are equal. Take off the rose colored glasses Car.

Carolyn Hax: If I do take off my rose-colored glasses, I now know exactly where to stick them.

Two adult humans. Equals.

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Re. Golden Boy: Aren't we wondering what happened to the first wife??

Carolyn Hax: Hardly a mystery, no?

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Washington, D.C.: After much thinking and exploration, at age 41, I have decided to leave my cushy but unfulfilling job (read: golden handcuffs). The goal is to pursue consulting work and creative interests, and make my own schedule. I know I'll be working hard but I want that freedom, and I really don't need as much money as I was making (and don't have any dependents). A number of people have been very supportive and excited for me, but probably just as many have freaked out, and acted like I was jumping off a bridge, or assumed I simply hadn't thought it through. How do I handle these naysayers? I know it's more about them than me, but still...

Carolyn Hax: Feel sorry for them. You're living life as you choose to live it. Assuming it's all legal, your need to explain it ends there.

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Boston, Mass.: Carolyn,

Thanks for the great chat! I've been really stressed lately for a number of reasons (work issues, health issues, family issues, friend issues) and, I think because of that, I've been extra snippy at my boyfriend of a year and a half. I don't mean to do this and after a snide comment comes out of my mouth, I always feel guilty and apologize immediately. The problem is, he takes everything very personally and doesn't understand that I'm just going through a lot right now and might not be myself. How can I help him understand that it's not him, it really is me? I really love this man and I don't want to hurt his feelings. I know we're strong enough as a couple to get through this rough patch...

Carolyn Hax: The question isn't whether you're strong enough as a couple to get through this rough patch, it's whether you're strong enough as person to stop being snide to someone you love just because you're stressed. You ARE being yourself, and that self is a person who gets snippy when stressed. Don't you dare shift the responsibility to him by implying this wouldn't be a problem if he just learned not to take it personally.

Even for people who don't take it personally, it really sucks to be somebody's verbal dartboard.

So please realize it's wrong, start paying attention to exactly what triggers your snippiness, and try out some tactics for getting yourself to stop. Do you need 15 minutes alone between your workday and seeing him? A run? A hot bath? Do you need him to stop asking certain specific trigger questions? Can you learn to recognize the mood, so that you can warn him, "Hey, I'm feeling really bitchy and irritable, so let's ..." cancel, or order takeout, or skip dinner and see a movie, or whatever.

That said, for his own sake, he needs to do the same thing--i.e, learn to read you better and come up with a few tactics of his own.

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Washington, D.C.: I submitted this last week (in two different versions, which probably wasn't helpful), but I have a nagging feeling I might be a "functional alcoholic." At what point does one become this?

Carolyn Hax: No, I just saw it too late, or I would have suggested you cruise this Web site for a while: http://www.niaaa.nih.gov

If you don't see yourself or a solution anywhere, there's a resource link with other contacts to try.

I think you'll find the fact that you're asking to be significant enough on its own. You must want to cut back--so, cut back, and if you've tried and can't, then maybe go straight to the resources for a treatment referral or program.

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Housekeepers and Equals: Dear Carolyn, Now that someone has broken the ice, I'd like to pile on: I don't think it's crazy to be uncomfortable receiving gifts from an employee. I think your opinion may be biased because the situation is domestic; it isn't very common in my industry for employees to give gifts to the boss. I can think of some situations where that would be inappropriate or even presumptuous. (Merry Christmas, Senator!)

Gift giving is most common between friends, and sometimes from employer to employee (though usually that takes the form of a bonus, right?). This person may be "equal" to her housekeeper in terms of civil worth, but she shouldn't have some obligation to be gift-giving friends with her employee, just because that employee works in her home.

It would be nice if they were friends, given the personal nature of domestic employment, but is a person morally deficient when they don't forge such friendships?

Carolyn Hax: I agree with a lot of what you said; you lost me with the "friends" talk; and it sounds like time to clarify.

I answered the way I did because this is all happening in a home, absolutely. I would have made that clear if I had even thought about it, which I didn't, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I take it as a given that any household employee is also part household member; I think nannies get this treatment without much second thought (except at firing or boundary-overstepping time), and I believe a housekeeper is no different.

And so a strict employer-employee, office-type line strikes me as dehumanizing. It's necessary at times, but my sense is that if the employee in a household situation makes a small part-of-the-family gesture like giving a small gift (vs., say, helping him or herself to your stuff), then it's best to accept it and the sentiment that goes with it. This doesn't mean they're friends, just elements of a home.

I know a lot of you still won't agree, but am I at least being more clear?

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Playdate Hell: A pretty good friend of mine asked if we could set up playdates for our 2 year olds. We did. Her son is really mean to my daughter though. He won't share and has bitten her twice. My friend acts as if this is normal behavior but I want to cancel the playdates forever. Am I overreacting (as she thinks I am)? If not, how can I do this diplomatically?

Carolyn Hax: Just say your daughter needs some time to catch up with her son and you'd like to try the play dates again in 6 months. You don't need to elaborate on her needing to catch up on her lust for violence.

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Arlington, Va.: I need some help learning a nice way to tell my family the following - I don't want them to feel guilty, I just want them to understand. I use all of my vacation time to visit family. I live in a small apartment and we're all spread out across the US, so I understand that they can't visit me very often, but it gets tiresome to not get to use vacation time for myself. Holidays I have to travel to be with family (my parents are usually elected hosts by my older sister) and then through out the year I feel guilty if I don't take time to visit them. But then when I take the time, I feel stressed that I haven't had a vacation for me and that I used all my time on family. I love them and want to see them, I just get tired of traveling all the time. There's no hope of getting them to all move here, even though I wish they would.

Carolyn Hax: Um. You don't have to tell them anything. You plan your vacation for you, and you have a great time, and when you want to see others in your family, you make those trips as you can. And when you can't, you say, "I'm sorry, I'm out of vacation days, but I'll see you at [Holiday]"--or why don't you come here?"

Only if someone gives you a hard time about your you-vacation does this even need to come up, and even then, you owe neither an explanation nor an apology.

So really I think you need help learning a nice way to tell yourself that it's not wrong to live your own life, but it is wrong for others to make you feel guilty for that. If in fact that's what they're doing.

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Anonymous: My boyfriend is a freeloader. There, I said it. But now what? He's working to get away from freeloader-girlfriend-supported status, but not as hard as I would look and it's annoying me. He chips in when he can for things, which is nice. But I would have taken some temp job or nearby retail to make it through the rough patch. He won't do that and won't even entertain that conversation. Just high hopes and dreams of a career switch while working here and there, off and on in the old field. How do I know when the line is crossed from freeloading-for-the-moment (but being very nice, polite and thankful about it - as I would hope since I have clue where he would go otherwise!) to enabling-boyfriend-to-continue-freeloading?

Carolyn Hax: He "won't even entertain that conversation"? While he's living off you?

That's the sound of the line being crossed.

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Re: Playdate hell: Normal 2-year-olds don't share toys, and it's unreasonable and inappropriate to expect them to. "Parallel play" is typical at that age. Also, at age 2, it is unfair to characterize a child as "mean." Meanness requires deliberate intent, and kids of 2 just don't have the capability to be that calculating and aware of how their actions are perceived.

As for the biting, though, that really needs to be addressed. The biter's mom needs to make sure that Junior is not in a position to bite his playmates and that she does everything in her power to assure that he doesn't bite.

Carolyn Hax: And to correct him when he does. Thanks.

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Anonymous: Hey Carolyn, Can the same behavior be passive aggressive in one context and totally fine in another? Here's the deal: my roommate of a few months and I have very different ideas regarding kitchen cleanliness. I was raised with the habit of doing my dishes right away. She lets her dishes pile up over a few days (on one occasion, weeks) and then does them. We've acknowledged that we have different dishes standards, and generally leave it at that -- I do mine right away, sometimes I do hers, sometimes I leave them... is it passive aggressive to actively do my dishes and leave hers sitting there (or on the stove or counter or wherever)? I don't always want to do them (because then I end up doing all her dishes all the time), nor do I feel like nagging her (and I'm sure she doesn't feel like being nagged by me). ...but in any other context I'd think doing only "my own" dishes would be really weird and petty. Is it?

thanks!!!

Carolyn Hax: No, it's the only solution you really have besides living alone or putting the dishes in her bed.

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Washington, D.C.: I found out last week that, despite using birth control, I'm pregnant. My fiance is thrilled, we will be married by the time the child is born, we have a house, we both have good jobs, but I am freaking out. I want to have children, eventually, but right now I still have another year and a half of grad school to finish, travel I'd wanted to do, and am concerned about how I am going to get established in my career once I'm done with school if I have a child. My fiance points out that we are in a much better position than most people who have children, and logically I can see that, but I can't help feeling angry and resentful and like this is going to be a major impediment on what I had planned for the next 5 years. How can I stop feeling this way? I don't want to resent my child for the rest of my life. Help!

Carolyn Hax: Apologies upfront for the analogy.

If you got into a car accident and lost the use of your legs, would you see yourself being resentful the rest of your life, dwelling on the fact that all your career goals and travel, while still achievable, now required more effort for you to achieve than they would have before your accident?

Or would you see yourself being angry for a while, understandably, and then realizing 5-year-plans are to life like dunes are to an ocean--they help, but the ocean has final say? (An analogy within an analogy! Stop me before I equate again ...)

And that it's what you do about the unforeseen is what makes life fulfilling or bitter? That the greatest elements of life often aren't what you had planned, but instead what you found/learned/met/achieved when everything went wrong? Look back, you have to have examples of that in your life right now. And if you don't, surprise! You just got one.

And then look ahead and start revising those plans. Or even better, leave them open, and leave yourself open to the possibility--I'd even say likelihood--that you'll look back on all this and find it unimaginable that things could have gone another way.

If it weren't for the car-wreck thing, the Hallmark people would be calling me after this one. Apologies for that, too.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I wish I could live my life over again. I'd be much less responsible and do all the stupid things people do when they're 20. I find it suffocatingly depressing. I tried hanging out with a bunch of college kids for a while, but that just don't work when you're 30. Everyone else is growing up, starting families, and all I want is to relive the misspent youth I never had. Classic midlife crisis? Depression? Nature of being human?

Carolyn Hax: Sounds like rut burn. You've bored yourself stupid. Figure out what it is you'd really like to be doing with your life--in a life-fulfillment sense, not a beer-pong sense--and find a way to do it.

For example, finish this sentence: "If money were no object, I'd chuck everything and move to -------- and take a job at a -------."

(If any of you out there fill these in and start laughing out loud in your cubicles, please share.)

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Lamoine, Maine: Regarding the unexpected pregnancy: I might help her if she realized that she does, indeed, still have choices. She can choose to have an abortion. She can choose to place the baby for adoption (though the fiance might not go for the latter.) Still, it IS a choice whether to have the child. Sometimes realizing that you have a choice makes all the difference.

Carolyn Hax: Great point, thanks.

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Surprise Baby: Hey, freaking out is okay. Upon learning that after years of fertility treatments I was pregnant I sobbed for hours at my lost "independence". I got over it quick. We had to cancel a dream vacation we'd planned because I was due the week were supposed to go. Guess what? We're going on it this year, 5 years late, and it'll be different - and probably better - because we can see it from a completely different perspective. Yes, my career has been put on hold, but I found another one that I liked even more than what I was doing before I became a mom, and have gone in that direction.

There are surprise forks in every road, take one and see what happens!

Carolyn Hax: Surprise fork = Spork

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Dishes: Not washing her dishes is not passive aggressive. I am very messy and will get around to my dishes when I can. The ideal roommate is one who will do his dishes when he wants, leave me to do mine when I want and not nag me about it. I also then don't have to feel annoyed that he is doing my dishes and feel guilty. From the other side, I definitely think your method is the way to go.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I think doing the damn dishes is the way to go, and this is merely the perfect contingency plan. But that's just me.

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Carolyn Hax: Eek. Lost track of the time. Bye, thanks everyone, and see you next week, if in fact it isn't already next week.

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