Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 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.


The Sunny South: Hi, Carolyn, Love your advice and your style! Fluffy question: does it not irritate the tar out of you when someone describes their situation to you using phrases like "boy meets girl, girl smittem, boy same?" You're a writer; you have an ear for language. Do these messages make you want to whip out a red pen and start adding verbs?

Carolyn Hax: Thanks! But, nah. I see it as the written equivalent of making jokes about dying alone in a house full of cats--people are self-conscious about their problems and worried about looking silly, so they take a self-mocking, yes-I'm-as-amazed-as-you-are-that-I'm-writing-to-an- advice-columnist tone.


Carolyn Hax: It's the tone I use when I admit in public that I'm an advice columnist.


Boston, Mass.: Carolyn,

What is the definition of "single"? Someone suggested to me this week that different people might have different definitions for this term.

It seems like you should cease to think of yourself as single when a relationship progresses to a point where the other person would be hurt to find out that you're still shopping around. Yes, I know some people get attached too quickly, but don't you still have an obligation to be honest with your attachee?

Carolyn Hax: To some it means "not married." To some it means "not committed." Some use it interchangeably and let the context indicate which one applies. Some hide behind it, some roll it up and beat themselves with it, some bake it into muffins.

If you are behaving as if you are single when you know (or even suspect) the person you're seeing believes you're committed, then you're hurting that person.


Washington, D.C.: "G" here from todays article. First, I want to say thanks for answering my submission. I really appreciate it. I have a question, though. When you mean lay off the limits, what exactly do you mean? Time limits, or the limit that he has to move here. And how much time do I give him to make a decision?

Thank You!

Carolyn Hax: Hi, G.

I mean lay off the limits. That means you don't set limits on what you'll tolerate (e.g., he moves or you dump him), and you don't set time limits on his decision (e.g., he decides in 6 months or you dump him).

It also means you don't set a time limit on how long you resist setting time limits (good one, by the way).

It means you let him make his choice, whenever he makes his choice, and you decide if it's one you can live with. It also means that if at any point you get sick of waiting, you say to him, "I'm sick of waiting." And it means that if at any point you decide you want to break up, you break up.

And if you just can't help yourself and have to say, "Six months is my limit!" because not having a neat number attached to this will make you nuts, then make it a limit you set with yourself.


Washington, D.C.: How do you explain to a significant other that saying "I'm sorry" isn't always sufficient to fixing a problem?

Carolyn Hax: The way you just said it seems pretty clear to me.

But it would probably help your argument if you could set out what it is that -would- suffice--for example, some assurance that it wouldn't happen again, or that it's not an indication of a larger problem. Or, some real effort to repair any damage the problem caused, as a show of good faith and/or an acknowledgement of how bad the problem's consequences have been for you.

Or, if the problem is of the kind you can't or don't want to fix, you could provide a specific reason, like fundamental incompatibility or catastrophic loss of respect or trust for that person.

Did I miss anything?


Washington, D.C.: Hi. My wife and I agreed when we had kids that she would stay home until the youngest was in school. The youngest has been in school for a year-and-a-half now and she isn't working, isn't looking for work, and has told me that she doesn't want to go back to work because she enjoys having time to pursue her hobbies. I've explored many avenues here: she's not depressed and she herself admits that she'd be able to easily pick up a part-time position in her line of work. It's not like I'm asking her to start billing 4000 hours/year at a law firm; I just want some help providing for my family. Do I have any options here at all that I'm not seeing?

Carolyn Hax: "I would like to have time to pursue my hobbies, too, but I don't have that choice because I have to work every day, which suddenly doesn't seem fair."

Of course, there are a lot of issues that complicate the math. For one, it's not as if her job as chief parent is gone. There's a whole lot of childrearing left to be done, it's just happening after school hours. Plus, there's the benefit an employed spouse reaps by having a spouse at home full-time. I'm there myself, and it's a really nice thing.

Then there are the parts I don't have enough info to determine--your money situation, for one (do you need her $ or just want it?). And, your ability to find time to pursue your hobbies. Have you been a full-time parent on nights/weekends to give her a break, or have you used your nights and weekends as your break from work? In which case the school time could be her hard-earned nights-and-weekends equivalent.

Then there's the fatigue factor; a full-time parent or pre-school-age kids works 24-7-365, and I could see not wanting to jump from that job to one that grabs all your weekdays--again, while the kids are still pretty needy.

So you two need to open your minds to various ways a spouse can contribute to the family workload and wellbeing, and use that to decide ways you can both pull your weight without growing to resent the other.


Everything I need to know...: I learned from the Fab Five...

I recently heard the following guidelines for making a real, acceptable apology on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and I liked it so much that I adapted it for use with my 7 year old...

They said that a true apology should include the three "R's":

Regret--sincerely express your regret for what you've done.

Responsibility--take responsibility for your actions

Restitution--offer something that will at least attempt to provide restitution for your actions. Easier when you've broken something concrete that can be replaced, harder when you've betrayed a trust.

Anyway, I thought that was very helpful both in making apologies, and figuring out what to ask for when someone else is apologizing to you (in the case of the 7 year old, the responsibility seems to be the hardest part!)

Carolyn Hax: But I'm sure he looks fabulous while dodging it. Thanks.


I'm sorry: The phrase "I'm sorry" is only as good as future behavior makes it.

Carolyn Hax: That, too. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Hey, Carolyn,

Since "G" is here, maybe she can satisfy my curiosity: why does your boyfriend dislike the D.C. area so much?

I'm having trouble imagining how someone could hate a city so much that they would give up being with their girlfriend in order to avoid living there.

Is it the summer heat, the politics, the traffic? I must know ...

Carolyn Hax: Seriously? I love the place and I can think of about 50 reasons. Hates heat, hates cold, hates cities, hates the east, hates traffic, hates the architecture, hates the vibe, lived here once and counted the days till he could leave for reasons he can't even explain to himself. Places are powerful.


Boston, Mass.: How does an otherwise intelligent girl get her head around the fact she's going to have to support herself, not be supported? (ducking for cover)

Carolyn Hax: I'm crying so hard for you, I can't even type an answer.


Looking for ADHD in Archive: Hi Carolyn -- love the chats!

A long while back (within the last year) a "nut" had an absolutely perfect, succinct description for adult ADHD.

Any way to serach your archives? Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: I could try a search, but the collective memory is usually faster and more accurate. Anyone?


Wait a minute: Unless you're writing your columns and chats for free, that wasn't a fair assessment of your situation. My husband is home full time, too, but he's also employeed and bringing in money to the household - like you.

I think the guy made it pretty clear that the income was needed.

Carolyn Hax: It was a fair assessment. Kenny is the full-time parent, and I'm the one who's working.

He said he wanted her help providing for the family. That's not the same as needing it.


Re: Wife who isn't looking for work: My how the times have changed. Remember when our parents argued for days on end, because mom WANTED to get a job, and dad thought it was irresponsible, a rude comment on his manhood/ability to provide, etc.?

Reminds me of when Bob Barker STOPPED dying his hair. Some people dismissed it as "He's just making a statement."

Carolyn Hax: Yeah, definitely one for the careful-what-you-wish-for file.

("Which did she mean, the women wanting equality, or Bob Barker's hair?"


Cubicleville, Va.: At the risk of sounding incredibly shallow, is it really so terrible or unusual to be physically turned off by a partner who has gained a lot of weight and shows no interest in trying to lose at least some of it? I know the motivation has to be internal, so I keep my mouth shut, but how do I indicate how much it bothers me? I've tried the health route -- no effect. thanks much.

Carolyn Hax: It's neither shallow nor terrible nor unusual. Obviously it's best for there to be enough love and attraction rooted in the intangibles to help keep the attraction alive as the tangibles change--especially since the tangibles eventually wind up down around our knees anyway.

But there's also more to it. Just as taking care of ourselves is an internal thing as well as external, attraction is, too--and it can be hard to respect, and therefore stay attracted to, someone who's content to fall apart.

Butt-coverage clause: Not that it's this way with everyone, or that everyone who gains weight is falling apart or unworthy of respect or both. It's just that there's often a lot going on in the mechanics of attraction, and knowing that can help when you need to understand and then address a problem like yours.


Washington, DC: Okay, he "hates the architecture"... so much he refuses to live with his girlfriend?

Either he's a mad genius artist, or something else is going on here.

Weather I can understand; some people have delicate health and can't tolerate heat or cold. But "hates cities"? "Hates the east"? Isn't that a little shallow?

Carolyn Hax: How is one's connection to place shallow? It's the air you breathe, the sights you see, the chatter you hear, the people you move among, the time you spend trapped in the car. To some people it's not so big a deal, but, remember, we're animals. Habitat can make or break, and architecture is part of habitat. Mile after mile of little brick boxes, a sky blocked by towers, stucco stucco stucco, no way to see the ocean without half a day in the car--some of these things erode some people's souls.

Not to say he's one of these people, since these are just my speculations I'm expanding upon. I'm just saying it's not fair to assume place automatically takes a back seat to person or else something bigger is wrong.


Weight gain in spouse: Some people get their undies all bunched up but there is big a difference between:

"Hah! I've got you now, no need to put any effort into trying to attract you anymore. It's not (you're not) worth the effort."

And "My metabolism has slowed, I've pushed out some kids, I'm so bloody tired by the end of the day that the thought of taking on an exercise program is daunting."

And, "Hey, I like my body like I am. I used to starve myself out a neurotic insecurity and now I'm comfortable with myself and feel pretty dang sexy with my new curves."

And, "I'm overweight and depressed and so I eat more cookies and then I feel more fat...."

That's why sometimes the skinny partner is being insenstive and sometimes the fatty is being a jerk. Totally depends on the motivation.

Carolyn Hax: I love it when i can sit back and let you guys do the work. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn:You know what would be cool? To auction off a lunch with you for your favorite charity. I'd bid. You might want some sort of background check of the winner, or security presence at the lunch, but you could factor those costs into the opening offer.

I'm serious.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks! Nick and I actually did auction ourselves off last May (brunch at a nice public venue) to benefit the ALS Association. Watch this space for mention of future events.


Re: Not looking for work: The husband said he'd explored many avenues, but he didn't say he'd actually had an honest discussion with her about working. Other than depression, there are lots of reasons it can be hard to get out there and look for a job. Like, not knowing what you want to do, or where to look, being nervous about re-entering the workforce or getting rejected... I just wonder if they've really talked about it.

Carolyn Hax: Husband? Still here?


Washington, D.C.: I went on a group travel trip and ended up completely falling for this guy. He is in an open relationship with his girlfriend, that he had been planningon ending soon. I hung out with him for the first time since we've been home, and it was weird -- we both seemed a little nervous. He hasn't called for the last 2 days, which is weird once you've spent 24 hours a day for 10 days with someone and it was amazing. I have this terrible terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that he has changed his mind about me and I'm wishing I didn't act nervous the other day. I really will be crushed if this is just a trip fling. Basically, how do I keep from freaking out? Ahhhhh

Carolyn Hax: It's a disappointment, so you're going to freak out some. Nothing wrong with that.

I'd try not to dissect everything you said or did or felt the other day when you saw him, though. You were being yourself, and if it wasn't going to work on those terms it wasn't going to work. Instead I'd look at it as a you-had-to-be-there thing: You were caught up in the moment, he was caught up in the moment (and possibly caught in a lie). Sigh, and put it in the memoirs.


Re: Boston who has to support herself: Your response was funny, and I enjoyed it, but I assumed that you'd follow it up with a "real" answer - are you going to?

Carolyn Hax: Oh all right.

You treat it like any expected future that for whatever reason doesn't occur: You accept it and use your new material to start working on a new future. Very little ends up happening as we hope or envision; the sooner we get used to that idea--even better, learn to be grateful for it, since it's actually a good thing our lives aren't limited to our imaginations--the happier we'll be.


Wednesday Bridezilla's mom: "We made the mistake of being caught up in the excitement and have found we cannot live up to the financial contribution she had hoped for."

Looks like she did promise more than she can deliver. Or perhaps she promised more than her ex can or will deliver. But your advice was on the money - appologize for the mistake and then spell out precisely what she can and will do, and what the father can and will do (or have him do it himself) and then let her deal.

Carolyn Hax: Someone emailed me with an excellent point to add to this--that if the parents are imposing their will on the plans, then the couple has a right to be pissy about money that was promised and then withdrawn. It didn';t sound like there were any unfunded mandates flying around in this case, but I throw this in just because I for one was having a hard time thinking of any scenario in which a 29-y-o bride could justifiably have words with a parent over the amount of $ the parent was giving her for her wedding. And I have heard plenty of stories of parents demanding that Mr. and Mrs. X and all 47 members of their extended family HAVE to be there, and then expecting the couple to pay for it and/or exclude their own friends to make room.


New York, N.Y.: Dear Carolyn,Great chats, but I think you gave the wife who wants not to work in order to have time for her hobbies way too much credit. I (female) side with the husband 100 percent. Why is the issue whether they really need the money, or whether it would just make things easier? She prioritizes her hobbies and then cheerily sends him off to work, like her time is more important. Ugh! People -- you are not entitled to a cushy life, and it is not your spouses's job to feed you money. Yes parenting is an exhuasting and real job, and yes both parents should participate, but if the couple TOGETHER doesn't decide that what's best for the family is to have one full-time stay at home parent, then the other one should get off his/her lazy butt and work. Sheesh. I fail to see the difference between this and the woman who made you cry by asking how she could wrap her head around the idea that she'd have to support herself.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks! But I think you're giving too much credit to the credit I have the wife. I was merely trying to throw in possible mitigating/complicating factors for him to consider before he accused her of being a promise-breaking, leisure-seeking barnacle. For two reasons: 1. I think these household-balance situations really are that complicated, and 2. I think there's a better chance of a happy outcome if he goes into the conversation inclined to be charitable, vs. ready to be angry.

The difference, btw, is this person is half of a couple raising young children. That's seriously hard work.

And, for what it's worth, I think it's kind of a bummer that the concept of a homemaker seems to have been run out of town by an angry mob. Sure, it was awful for the job to have had gender assumptions and second-class citizenship attached to it, but does the whole concept need to be chucked with the Mr. Clean water? Can't a couple at least consider the possibility? If the working spouse feels it's unfair, then they can discuss another idea.


Bride to be: How old of a bride is justifiable in questioning the money her parents give her for her own wedding?

Carolyn Hax: No age, actually. I shouldn't have included that part. If she's old enough to get married, she's old enough to figure out the finances with the groom. Any support from a parent is a generous gift.

That is, again, assuming the parents aren't imposing their will on the wedding plan, and assuming there have been no promises (but even if a promise has been broken, you smile and deal and do your whining in private).


Re: Supporting yourself: There are so many advantages to making your money, I can't imagine one dreaming that things would be otherwise (unless of course you are a stay-at-home parent): a sense of worth, achievement, and, more prosaically, being able to buy whatever you want without someone looking over the bills. Make the most of it!

Carolyn Hax: Good points, thanks. I'd go even deeper--that you aren't dependent upon or beholden to anyone. You're free (in fact, or if need be). This can be serious stuff if you're, say, in an abusive or unhappy situation, or your breadwinner dies suddenly. I've said this before in a column, that full-time parents do assume a risk in surrendering their financial independence for the family cause.


Jealousy Train: I am 25 years old, pregnant, and about to get married. All this happy news. At least for me and my soon to be husband. But I can't feel by feel jealous of my older sister, or at least resentful of my parents for loving her more. Let me add that my sister is great. She is smart and beautiful and kind. She married her longtime sweetheart. She has a law degree and an amazing job. Everyone loves her, and she loves everyone. I love her dearly, too. But it seems that my life seems like chopped liver in comparison. My parents paid for her college cause she is so smart and got such good grades. I went to community college and paid for it myself. I transferred to a state school after and paid for it myself. My parents shelled out a fortune on her wedding last year, and a smaller for her lawschool graduation.

I am paying for my own wedding, and my parents have offered to help with nothing. I don't expect my parents to go broke on me, or shell out extravagant amounts of money on me, but it just hurts that they don't seem to care about my milestones. How do I come to grips with this?

Carolyn Hax: Be grateful for it? Sounds perverse, since what you describe sounds like the kind of pain you never really outlive. But at the same time, your life also sounds really good--and it's a life you pretty much scraped out for yourself. Be damn proud of that, and be proud that you're a big enough person to love your sister and realize this wasn't her choice. Be grateful for the people who love you, since they love YOU, which you know because you're essentially self-made.

And, love your baby, to whom you will be able to provide an environment that's loving and just. At least till cafeteria politics intrude.


D.C., yet again: And yes, we have discussed it quite a bit. Discussed it so much, as a matter of fact, that she's made it clear she doesn't want to discuss it any longer.

Carolyn Hax: That's definitely not fair--until you are both comfortable with the arrangement, the discussion remains open.

If necessary, you might need to take this to a marriage counselor, but you also can try approaching it as, again, a fairness and balance-of-labor issue. If you've gone the, "We had an agreement," route, you need to abandon it, since, especially with kids, what you expect can be so different from what you get. Better to stick to the present, a present in which you feel you are carrying a disproportionate amount of the weight. Either she has a different view of it, which she owes it to you to share (and you owe it to her to hear without bias), or she's fine with your working harder than she does, which she needs to admit to your face.

And which brings us back to the marriage counseling thing--unless you can come to an agreement on your own about what other weight she could carry, or what burdens you can stop carrying, to make this not so outrageously parasitic.


Re: wife not working: The point that nobody has commented on yet is that they both agreed that the wife would go back to work. Now the wife is going back on it.

Certainly situations change from how you envisioned them, and people's feelings change. And when a couple decides together on a fairly big issue such as this, if one partner wants to back out, he/she needs to have a good reason. And maybe the wife does, maybe she doesn't. But they need to talk about it and come up with a solution.

Carolyn Hax: What s/he said.


Cafeteria politics: Hey, Carolyn, what's up with your "cafeteria politics" references? Was elementary/middle/high school that awful? Granted, a lot of kids suck, but so do adults, and the nice thing about cafeteria politics is that you have a mommy and daddy and coaches, extended family, teachers, etc. who are all smart and wise and can make it better.

Man, I'm suddenly nostalgic for cafeteria politics.

Carolyn Hax: Ooh. I don't know about that. Kids usually know when mommy/coach/teacher isn't looking, and then all you have is you--and when you're 6 or 9 or 11, it's tough to take the long view. I'd rather have my anti-meanie defenses on-site, which is why I'd take adulthood over middle school any day.


Fulltime parent vs what?: Um...not to be overly sensitive, but as a working mother, I assure you I am also a full time parent to my darling baby daughter. And my working husband is a full time dad.

Carolyn Hax: You are being overly sensitive, since I assume you know exactly what I meant.


New Haven, Conn.: Just wanted to point out, with regard to "G"'s boyfriend, that "hates the area" could easily be a proxy for "I have good friends and a good life where I am, and I'm afraid to give that up and risk being wholly dependent on my girlfriend for my social world," or "I'm not ready for that kind of commitment." "Hates the area" may be the real reason, but is more likely only part of it. I also somewhat question G's apparent disdain for her boyfriend's life/job -- I sense a slight note of condescension (that his job/life is not as permanent or important as hers and therefore is easier to give up).

Carolyn Hax: Works for me, thanks, though I think there was room for two interpretations on his job/her job. Could merely have been a practical thing: He's flexible, she's not.


Alexandria, Va.: Dumbest decision of my life, I broke up with my girlfriend last July. I have regretted it every day since and am currently trying to win her heart back.

I fear I am too immmature for her start dating again, I have lost my confidence.

What can I do to "buck up"

Carolyn Hax: "I have regretted breaking up with you since the day I broke up with you, but I can't hunt you down and make you want me back. If I'm what you want, I trust you to find me."

Then you ride off into the sunset.


Carolyn Hax: And if she takes you back, then we'll know I'm mature enough for her to date.


Washington, D.C.: Love they hypocrisy in "let's discuss it" now that the woman got the kids she wants and the man has no option but to support her.

Why does nobody acknowledge that this guy has no options? Why should he have to go to counseling when SHE is the one who cannot keep her word?

Carolyn Hax: He does have options. He can divorce her. He can leave a job he hates for one that's more fun and has shorter hours but pays less.

They're drastic options, but if in fact this all was a grand manipulation on her part, it would serve her right. Pity the kids, though.

But if it wasn't a grand manipulation, then it's best--with any bout of spousal unreasonableness, in any marriage--for the (possibly) wronged spouse to eat a little bleep and try to work things out--by going to counseling WITH (possibly) unreasonable spouse.

You say "Why should he have to go to counseling when SHE is the one who cannot keep her word?" as if marriage counseling were a solo endeavor.

And as if scorekeeping in a relationship were okay, which it isn't, ever. All parties are best served by trying to find some room to agree, even the (possibly) wronged spouse, even if (possibly) unreasonable spouse technically doesn't deserve it.


Alexandria, Va.: Carolyn,

I mean this in the nicest possible way, but could you please sign off so I can get back to work?


Carolyn Hax: Okay. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend and type to you next week.


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