Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006 12:00 PM

Carolyn takes your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

Appearing every Wednesday and Friday in The Washington Post Style section and in Sunday Source, Tell Me About It offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there -- really recently. Carolyn Hax is a 30-something repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.


Anywhere: Hi, Carolyn:

I'm a single guy and have recently met a fantastic girl, and the sparks are flying like mad. Inconveniently, she's married and has young kids. Do I have a moral/ethical obligation not to pursue this girl? Or to stop her from pursuing me? Part of me says that infidelity is not my problem -- it's between her and her husband. Another part of me says that I'm making excuses.


Carolyn Hax: You're making excuses. There are kids involved. Stay out.


Alabama: Carolyn,How do you deal with a drama queen? I have a couple of friends who are SO dramatic about everything in their lives, putting a negative spin on just about anything. Any advice on how to deal with people like this, or what to say to them, especially when the things they're complaining about seem pretty good to the outside world? (i.e., "I wish my husband would let me put one cent into decorating my house" -- this from a friend who has a huge, beautiful home.) Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: How you deal with a friend who occasionally loses perspective is easy--you just point it out when she does it.

But if your friend does this about "everything," then that's who your friend really is: Someone with priorities that you think are ridiculous. That's got an easy remedy, too, but it's a different one. Stop pretending you're friends.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn, this is Leah at the ALS Association, and I was hoping you could get word to everyone that we'd like and appreciate their support at the theatre production of "Tuesdays With Morrie" at the Warner Theatre in DC next week. They are promoting ALS awareness and allowing us to accept donations and distribute ALS wristbands at the show. You can purchase tickets and get info on our website: Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Done. And hi, and good luck with it.


Ultimatum Girl: I wrote in a while ago about issuing an ultimatum to my husband (these things must change by this date or I'll leave was the gist of it). Well, despite effort and communication, things didn't go as could be hoped. We've talked it over, and separation is looking pretty likely.

The question is, is there a dignified, honorable way to break the news to friends and family, and moreover, is there ever any such thing as a classy breakup? A separation is painful enough without our families and friends taking sides, my husband and I causing drama, yelling, screaming, scary lawyers, and so forth. I think you can go through a rough patch with dignity, but most of the splits I've seen have been ugly.

Carolyn Hax: There's a dignified, honorable way to do everything--except maybe childbirth. Or digital rectal exams.

Anyway. You tell people you love each other and gave it your best shot but couldn't find a way to get along.

Then you refrain from trotting out a list of all the terrible things he did to you, unless you're talking to your best friend and closest family members, who already know anyway.

Then you refrain from putting a value on any inanimate object or debate point that exceeds the value of getting out of this with decency. I.e., don't care more about the couch than you do about the chance of remaining friendly.

And when you get angry, remind yourself that the separation is the remedy for your anger, and therefore there's no need to bring it with you to the negotiations about any specifics.

Unfortunately, if one party does bring anger, it takes an almost superhuman effort for the other party to resist bringing some too. But it's worth trying, b/c bringing it guarantees things will get ugly.


Alexandria, Va.: Carolyn, a Post chat earlier this morning discussed a study and subsequent Post article that found that parents are more likely to be depressed than non-parents. I am 32, pregnant with my first (only?) child, and I am trying to feel more joy and less anxiety at this life development. My husband and I are pretty much on the same page with this right now.

I am hoping you have some thoughts to share on this topic that might make parents-to-be feel more confident that the next 15 years won't be a living hell! Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: I'm sure I do have thoughts, but first I need to get past the amazement that you think having a 16-year-old in the house will be easy.

There's also the problem of my not having read the article, but I've never let ignorance stop me before, so: Of course being a parent can be depressing. Parents subject themselves to, just off the top of my head, hormonal imbalances (postpartum stuff), sleep deprivation, a vicarious reliving of middle-school cafeteria politics, chilly rejection from the person to whom you've dedicated the most time and greatest energy of your life (your own teenager). And that's before you get into the things that can go wrong.

You're taking on responsibility for another life. One life has its own highs and lows; add other lives to your innermost circle, and you're going to have more highs and more lows.

Thems my thoughts.

Oh, and congratulations!


For Ultimatum Girl: All that's fine and good--right up to the point where the husband starts telling people things from -his- perspective, which make the wife out to be neglectful, greedy and "abusive."

Or when the husband takes up with another woman, who urges him to care more about the couch (or, in my case, the house I've been paying for) than remaining friendly.

Or, again in my case, when the husband runs up $35,000 in credit card debt impressing Other Woman during the separation and brings that to the table for division as part of the divorce settlement.

Take the high road, but talk to a good lawyer about CYA.

Carolyn Hax: Can't argue with that.

I've said this once and gotten smacked, but let's send it out there again and see if it fares better this time:

One of the best things you can ask yourself before you get married is how your beloved would act if you split up.

Not that you always know, but just in case those first glimmers are there.


RE: Ultimatum Girl & telling others about the breakup: When my significant other of five years and I decided to break up (not "divorce" because we couldn't legally be married), it made a big difference what we said to other people. We told people that WE had decided to break up. I think it really helps to give people your positive attitude - it tends to perpetuate positive attitude-ness. Also, when non-close friends asked why, I said that it wasn't working out, and we weren't getting along. It's important not to try to paint one person as the victim and the other as the bad guy. That goes a long way to keeping it amicable.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.


Arlington, Va.: Dilemma for "the nuts": what to do when you're in your mid-thirties and realize you love working/living overseas more than anything but your S.O. of several years (who is great in every way but doesn't like travel) is fimly rooted here? Do it for a couple years and return frequently (and risk the relationship in the process)? Stay here for sake of relationship and wish I were elsewhere?Thanks & love the chats!

Carolyn Hax: The nuts can't help you, and neither can I. You need to make your own decision.

Perhaps by defining, "more than anything."


I'm Judgy Judgerson, but...: Why would someone even have to ASK whether or not poaching someone else's spouse/parent of children is a good idea? Sheesh. Get off Fantasy Island, Retardo Montalban.

Carolyn Hax: I'm Judgy Judgerson!

No wait. I'm Spartacus.

There is a viewpoint--I won't call it common, but it's certainly not rare--that the person who did not take the marriage vows in question is not responsible for honoring them.

I think it's a weaselly dodge, but there it is.

While we're on the subject, though, I don't necessarily believe it's all black-and-white, either. The guy is far more in the wrong for wanting to go out of his way to pry a woman away from the father of her little kids than he would be if, say, there were no kids--it's a slight difference, but still a difference, given the number and innocence of lives affected, and the profundity of the effect. Meanwhile, the act of prying itself would make him more culpable than if proximity and circumstance and other external factors (say, the husband abuses the kids) were the greater force in breaking up the marriage.

So I do believe there's room for gray.

Just not in this case. Willful prying away from little family. Wow.


Washington DC: Carolyn, Anywhere brings up an interesting point. What are one's responsibilities regarding being in a relationship with someone who is married (and not in an open marriage)? If you aren't the one who is married, are you still responsible for the feelings of the spouse (let's assume no kids)? Can one separate out the fact that the person you are in a relationship with is lying to their spouse but is wonderful with you?

Carolyn Hax: No, but, like I said, I think there's a huge range of gray in its wrongness. Of course the Other Something is responsible for the spouse's feelings, since that person's behavior could directly and profoundly affect the spouse. I think anyone in this situation who fails to consider all possible impact on others' lives is being selfish and irresponsible.

However, it's too easy to declare all spouses in this case as innocent victims. People do horrible things to each other, and cheating is only one of them. Turning them away sexually is another. Verbally degarding them is another. And so on. And sometimes these will be happening within a marriage to the point where the "victim" will seek comfort somewhere else. Of course this person should seek comfort in the form of an airtight separation agreement, so the cheating is still bad, but it's a different degree of bad from, "She's hot, I think I'll rent her a condo near my office and hide all the bills from my wife."


Carolyn Hax: Sorry that took so long. I wrote out an example that I then realized was illustrating a different point from the one I was making, so I had to start over. Silly brain.


Alexandria, Va: Thanks for taking my question about depressed parents. For the record, the 15 was a typo -- I meant 18.

Carolyn Hax: Makes more sense, but I'd build in a few more years of hell and depression for tuition bills, in case s/he goes the college route.


Judgy Judgerson: Uh, didn't your current husband pry you away from your previous husband?

Carolyn Hax: It continues to amaze and depress me that people think this happened, when no one who actually knows what happened ever said, "This is what happened."


overseas dilemma: I think Arlington knows the answer already, because there were several hints in the post - "more than anything", "risk the relationship", "wishing I were somewhere else". It's just that the answer happens to be the most painful one, and Arlington just wants validation or reassurance that it's the decison they have to make. I can sympathize with that.

Carolyn Hax: Okay. Thank you.


Washington, DC: Ok, Carolyn, I've heard (and in princple agreed with) your advice on not waiting for a man to fulfill your life, and that you may never meet "the one"... but realistically and practically how do you really implement the advice you've given. It sounds great "on paper" but I don't know how I would do it. I mean, it's not like wanting a black sweater. It's hard to change a mindset that your life will be just as fulfilling with out a life partner - with whom you would not only share emotional moments, but physical ones too. So just trying to clarify your advice (and asking about the "how"), does that mean getting more comfortable with shorter-term relationships, loosening your moral values, changing your picture of what fulfillment is? I really think your advice sounds healthy, now I would just like to know what you think about how to DO it. Many thanks and thanks for helping us all!

Carolyn Hax: You're welcome, though I'm feeling bad now because it sounds like I've helped you into a blind alley.

The only way I can clarify my advice is to say, yes it does mean getting more comfortable with shorter-term relationships ... or loosening your moral values ... or changing your picture of what fulfillment is ... or whatever it is you feel works best for you. The advice isn't so much, "Go to Plan B" as "Realize there was never even a Plan A."

For example, some people find "the one" and then "the one" cheats on them and leaves or gets brain cancer and dies.

Some people find "the one," and it doesn't work out, and then they find someone else and worry that it's not like it was with "the one" and so maybe they're settling, and then fall so hard in a different kind of love that they're halfway to living happily ever after before they realize that's what it is.

Or they have a fulfilling life of serial monogamy, or a passion for their work. Think of how many awesome, world-changing people made terrible spouses and parents. Had they not been spouses and parents and instead had they pursued only their world-changing passion, would their lives not have been fulfilling?

All I'm trying to do is suggest that the variety of people's expectations maybe should reflect the variety of people themselves. (And that the variety of the application of my advice should, too.)


Fort Smith, Ark: Re: Is it going to be 16 years of hell?

No--but don't believe everything everyone will tell you about raising a child--good or bad. You will fall in love with your baby; maybe not at first (especially if you've had 36 hours of non-medicated back labor) but you will love your baby as you have never loved anything before. Nature will see to that. You WILL NOT always be deliriously happy being a parent for the next 18 years or so. You're not always deliriously happy with your spouse, are you? The parents I've noticed who've been most disappointed about being parents are the ones who think it will all be wonderful, and that THEIR children will always love them, never talk back, and that they will be the COOL parents/friends that all the kids love. It will not happen. Accept the fact you're a grown up--and that you are a parent! Your job will be to love them and turn them into decent human beings. Your children may not be happy with you --or you with them when they're 16--but the judgement of a 16-year-old is flawed at best. Parent so that when your children are parents they'll know you did the best you could do.

Parent of a grounded 16-year-old

Carolyn Hax: Nicely said, thanks.

I'll also elaborate on the part about expecting to be the cool parents/kids everyone will love: It's so easy to think your kids will somehow have all your lumps and flaws and stupidities miraculously bred out of them and they will get to live the perfect life you never got to live--but of course they won't. They'll most likely inherit a bunch of your lumps, and if they don't, a few new ones will mutate their way in, and their social seismographs will have all the usual lines and scratches. All the more reason to, as you say, just love them and do your best.


McLean, Va: I enjoy your columns and chats. However, based on your view that there are shades of grayness in engaging in an adulterous affair with a married person, it is clear you are not an ethicist. If someone is being abused or treated badly, they can end the marriage and then pursue another relationship. To do so while married, and make some poor treatment an excuse, is simply wrong-- not in a gray area.

Carolyn Hax: You don't believe in degrees of wrong? I don't believe cheating is ever right, nor is making excuses, but there are more and less forgivable scenarios that all fall under the cheating/wrong umbrella. So, I just think anyone in these situations and facing a tough decision--can I trust this person, is condemning her smart or judgmental, will this happen again, could this have happened to me, should I forgive?--is ill served by, "It's all wrong wrong wrong." From where I sit, all the useful information is in the specific circumstances of the mistake and the effort to correct it.


Prenuptual Preparation: Carolyn I'm about to become engaged, and am suddenly terrified, but not for the usual reasons. I have no doubts about the marriage; it's the wedding planning and my future in-laws involvement that worries me. While I know they mean well, they are very over-bearing and dysfunctional, and I know what they are capable of (I've known the family for almost 20 years). I know they will fight all of our ideas and plans, despite the fact that it will be completely funded by me and my fiance, and will make arrangements themselves to please their own wants. We don't want to elope or exclude either side of the family, b/c we want to be able to celebrate the event with all of our family and friends. However, we also want to focus on planning our marriage, not just our wedding. My worry is the fight with his family will distract us from what is actually important. I know it's still some time away, but I was wondering if you had any tips on how to prepare ourselves for whatever they throw at us. Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: Lessee. Have a short engagement; don't offer things up for discussion till they're already decided; don't get too attached to any one vision of the wedding, since it's going to take on a life of its own and the more you fight that the worse you'll feel; throw them a bone on a few things you don't care about to let them think they're getting what they want. If you're worried they're going to get upset and blame you, make sure your fiance is ready to tell them he was the one who insisted on [offensive thing here].

And last: Get used to it. This is just one weekend, and they're going to fight all your ideas and plans for the rest of your married life, especially when it's time for them to tell you how to raise your kids. If that's going to freak you out, use your wedding to find a way to set limits, tune them out, head them off, whatever it is you need to make peace with them.


Finding the one: Don't most people find "the one" by participating in activities that fulfill them? I don't understand my friends who sit around the house or go to bars expecting to meet "the one." Do things you love. Take a class (not online) in something that interests you. Join a group that does some activity you enjoy on a regular schedule. Get out and live. That's how I met my husband. I didn't participate in activities just because I thought I'd meet "the one," but I did end up meeting someone who shared an interest with me. And seeing him on a regular schedule at that activity helped me get to know him.

Carolyn Hax: The last sentence should have a spotlight and special ta-da music. Being somewhere regularly is the way people get to know each other. Look around and see how you made most of your friends.


Norfolk, Va.: While I agree there are shades of gray, I cannot imagine a situation in which I would forgive a girlfriend or wife for cheating. The shade of gray would only matter in terms of how I dealt with the fallout after I/we terminated the relationship. I hope that they would apply the same standards to me.

Carolyn Hax: That wife or girlfriend would be a good match for you, but it may not end up being that way. Something else I think I've said before, that the movie "Something to Talk About" does a really good job of showing an infidelity that starts out blatantly black-and-white and sneaks its way into very complicated grays, just by telling you more and more of the story.

And just so we're clear: Yes, it's wrong throughout.


Herndon, Va.: My husband is highly critical of every little thing I do, and places blame on me or our young children when something goes wrong. I've tried to control how I respond to this using various methods - trying to laugh it off, ignoring his comments, or telling him I don't like to be talked to that way. However, his behavior continues, and I am starting to worry about how it is affecting our young children. My otherwise joyful 5 year old daugther has shown some pretty scary signs of depression which she attributes to her father's treatment. My husband says my daughter is just manipulating me and blames me for getting sucked into her emotions. I don't know what the next steps are, but I don't want to continue living like everything is ok. Any thoughts from Carolyn of the peanuts?

Carolyn Hax: Call in the pros, please. The Women's Center is pretty near you and has a great reputation: 703-281-2657


Washington DC: My college girlfriend and first true love broke up after four years; she married someone else and after a few years was plainly unhappy and unfulfilled. I wanted her back desperately and decided I would tell her so the next time she visited town (as she did periodically on business).

When she arrived on that occasion she declined a cocktail and glass of wine at dinner and suddenly I realized I couldn't go through with my plan - the prospective kid changed the calculus entirely. There really -is- a difference - and a big one - when you throw a child into the mix.

Anyhow I struggled to keep a cheery face on but failed badly, and she asked what was wrong. On the condition that it was understood to be no longer operative, I told her what my plan had been. She responded, "oh - I'd have gone with you". Sigh.

She got back on the train, had the kid, is married to this day. No regrets on either of our part - letting go was the right choice.

Carolyn Hax: Well that just sucks. I'm sorry. Thanks for weighing in.


"Tell ME about it" or "TELL me about it": Where is the inflection? Is your column title stating that you would like to be THE one to whom people tell their problems (tell ME), or is it more like "yeah, TELLLLLL me about it - I, too, thought raising children would be a piece of cake."

Carolyn Hax: Door No. 2. To be THE one would be THE worst.


Re: Finding the one: Arrrghhh... many people who go out and live and do things they love still do not find the one. It is not a given! no need to blame your single friends for not meeting people at bars or wanting to spend some time at home.

Carolyn Hax: Okay, okay, I'm with you on the blame thing. But I think the point is that if you do things you'll love, you'll either meet poeple who love the same things, or you'll meet no one and still be doing things you love. So you'll have that going for you, which is nice.


While we're on the subject of cheating...: 6 months ago I wrote in about a friend who was on the brink of pursuing a relationship with a girl who already had a boyfriend. Well, you were right. Nothing I said would stop him, he pursued it, and he's still in it now. The girl insists on staying with her other boyfriend (whom she lies to). My friend is madly in love and is convinced he's not being led on, or else he blocks it from his mind. My question is, when the heck is he going to give up already?

Carolyn Hax: My question is, when are you? Not give up on him, necessarily, but give up on this notion that this romance will end and everything will be okay again. This is who he is now. Bummer, but, easier to deal with than false hopes.


Romancing in Disguise: Carolyn--

I recently became fed up with meeting girls the same way and began affecting a foreign accent in certain social situations--more to ease the boredom than anything else. To my surprise, my alter ego does a much better job of meeting people than the real me does and I find cell phone filling up with numbers. I would NEVER perpetuate this deception too far and prey on others' stupidity, but my friends say that it's still disturbing behavior. I disagree--it's just another way of having fun. What say you?

Carolyn Hax: [Sound of forehead on plaster.]

You are amusing yourself with "others' stupidity." Define "prey on" if that isn't your definition.

If your response to getting fed up is to take it out on other people, then your getting fed up in the first place becomes less of a mystery.

I'm all for a good funny, but, treat people better, please.


San Diego, Calif.: On meeting "the one:" it is possible to do so in a bar. and just because your friends hang out in bars is no reason to say they'll never meet the one. I think you can meet the one anywhere. i met mine in a bar and we've had five blissful years together, nearly four of them as smug marrieds.

Of course, people should also engage in activities they enjoy but i just wanted to dispel that all too common myth that bars are somehow inferior places to meet a man.

Carolyn Hax: Never been a fan of that myth myself, thanks.

Tho, fwiw, I got the impression that the home- and bar-hangers in question were complaining about not meeting people. Nothing to back that up but a hunch.


Washington, D.C.: I tried to submit this last time, but here goes again! When do you have to stop yourself from saying "just coming out of a serious relationship" (as opposed to just saying "single")?

Carolyn Hax: Now. Unless it's part of a larger getting-to-know-you conversation with someone who has shown romantic interest.


Hysterectomy girl from several weeks ago: Carolyn:

I wrote you several weeks ago trying to figure out what to say to people who thought I was being selfish by having a hysterectomy at 25. I had the surgery a month ago. I am doing great. The extreme pain I had been in for years is gone and I am feeling better than I have in a long time. I have decided that one of the friendships is worth saving, after some talking things out, but the other person is beyond hope. We got into a huge argument about something else and I have decided I don't want to be friends with someone so closeminded. I feel much better having terminated the friendship. I wanted to thank you and the nuts for your support. Your response that I am more than my ability to reproduce helped me a lot. Thank you again!

Carolyn Hax: You're welcome! Glad you're feeling better, and thanks for letting us all know--a huge number of people wrote in to that chat to express their support.


East Lansing, Mich: Help?

I sent this as an e-mail, but I'm starting to think I can't wait that long... So, long story short:

Just found out I have HPV, feeling betrayed because my SO I and both got tested before sex, BUT it turns out: they don't test for this, because there isn't a test. So, one abnormal pap later, I'm left infected and hurt and unsure of what to do. It's NOT recommended to inform past partners that they get tested (no test for men, pap smear for women), but I'm not completely comfortable with that. So, now there's an elephant in the bedroom, and neither of us wants to blame or be blamed, and there's no "who done it" and no treatment and... nothing to do, except warn future partners if this doesn't work out.

And I'm feeling more betrayed than I maybe should, because we've been so happy, for almost a year now, and I wanted this to be the one... Does it make any sense for that to make this worse?

Carolyn Hax: Yes and no. Obviously this is jarring news. But the part of your email you omitted here is that a staggering number of sexually active people of a certain age have HPV. It's just rampant. This from the ASHA Web site (

# Nearly three out of four Americans between the ages of 15 and 49 have been infected with genital HPV in their lifetime.

# HPV can be contracted from one partner, remain dormant, and then later be unknowingly transmitted to another sexual partner, including a spouse.

# Though usually harmless, some types cause cervical cancer.

The third item is why you need to be faithful about your Pap test, but otherwise please see this is not as huge a deal as it seems right now.

Of course, the vaccine would be nice, but till we get there (soooon, I hope), HPV is the rule for non-virgins, not the exception.


Going Long Today?: Trying to set a chat record? Appreciate your hanging 'round.

Carolyn Hax: I know, I just noticed the time. What am I thinking.

Bye! Thanks for sticking around, and type to you next Fri.


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