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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 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.

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Throw in the towel?: How can you tell whether or not a relationship is worth saving?

Carolyn Hax: 1. Will the bad things ever change. Realism, not optimism. Meaning, no, "But s/he was so great to me at the beginning." Everyone's great at the beginning.

2. If no, will you ever be able to stop seeing the bad things as bad things? Should you?

3. Does s/he have a lot of money?

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Re: today's column: In today's column, you mentioned that the letter-writer's boyfriend might be unconsciously controlling.

Is there any way a person can tell if they themselves are unconsciously controlling?

Carolyn Hax: You are controlling if:

You think things will go wrong if you don't do them yourself, or at least supervise them being done your way.

Your happiness depends on their going right.

You get upset when even minor things go wrong.

Those are the basics. You also correct the tiniest of mistakes, take on everyone whose opinion differs from yours, get look-at-me upset over things you actually could shake off if you tried--I could go on all day.

It's all really just insecurity, a fear that you won't be able to handle your version of a worst-case scenario, like getting cheated on, or having someone close to you die, or being seen as stupid. Controlling behavior is a defense against all kinds of fears.

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Washington D.C.: How do you know the guy in your last column was manipulating her?

Carolyn Hax: How do you know it's spring?

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Baby Shower Hell: I'm in hell. I'm pregnant. I'm having a baby shower tomorrow and it's being thrown by my husband's friend. It's a coed thing and it's a friends-only type thing. My father-in law found out and he's just furious about it. No one in my family nor my husband's family has expressed any interest in throwing a shower. I'm fine with that (none of us are all that close). Why am I being chastised because of the guest list? Ugh.

Carolyn Hax: Why are you being chastised and not your husband? He should be taking the full impact of this one for you.

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Carolyn Hax: Things might be a little twitchy today--we've been having cable problems, and my connection has already cut off and come back on three times since noon. I'll try to work around it but please don't flame me in the long pauses today. (You can have at it again next week.)

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That's me!: Oh my God! I'm controlling! Others have told me this, but you make it seem kind of obvious. What do I do now? I don't want to be controlling.

Carolyn Hax: Let things happen. Let people be themselves. Let things go wrong. See that an evening at the restaurant you hate, instead of the one you picked out that would have been much cheaper/closer/better/less noisy, isn't the end of the world.

See that people dress themselves badly, eat badly, marry badly, express themselves badly, choose to invest badly, and somehow seem to like their lives that way. See that even when they do all this and hate their lives, there isn't a whole lot you can do about it anyway--and that's the way it's supposed to be, because it isn't your life.

Or, if you're a fear-of-death type control freak, see that people can drive badly and forget to wear their seatbelts and never get their brakes checked and still outlive the rest of us. Or they'll die in an accident and there won't have been a damn thing you could have done about it.

See that it's sometimes better that way, sometimes worse, but always less stressful, since you're essentially detaching yourself from the outcome, surrendering responsibility.

And if you can't see yourself seeing any of this, see a pro. No shame in it, and often it's the quickest way to trace the origins of a fear.

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Carolyn Hax: Okay, I'm back. I'm trying a different computer.

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New York, N.Y.: Since we're on the topic of controlling behavior, and you've repeatedly stated that snooping is controlling behavior, would you say that such behavior (aside from the normal open the medicine cabinet type stuff), should generally be a relationship-ender, or at least a serious red flag?

Carolyn Hax: Yes. It's not that hard to say to yourself, "This is not my business," and not look. And so anyone who does make a habit of snooping either believes s/he is more important than you are, has no sense of right and wrong, or has zero self-discipline. None of which I'd call promising.

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Fairfax, Va.: Controlling:

1. Often is associated with obsessive compulsive tendencies.

2. It's tough to change, but one help is to admit it to those close to you, ask for their help, and let them give you a gentle elbow in the ribs when you start going over the line. The hardest thing I have ever done and must continue to do is shut up and let my kids raise my grandkids! I think I botched the rearing of my own pretty badly, leaving one of them (the other seems to have been immune) certain he'll never be good enough, or right enough, or whatever.

Carolyn Hax: Heartbreaking. Thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: I could really use any help with figuring out how to feel OK with the husband's female work friendship (lunches, walks home, speed dial), it's innocent enough but I am so upset about it. I feel immobilized with sadness, hurt, anger. Any tips -- this one is a me thing, not a him thing. Thanks

Carolyn Hax: Are you sure? I'm not suggesting that it's not innocent. There's just a lot of room between "co-workers" and "lovers," and in that space can be a lot of things that make you feel legitimately sad or rejected or jealous. Is he sharing a side of himself you wish he were sharing with you? Are lunches, walks home, and frequent calls for no reason the kind of thing your relationship has never included, even though you've always wished it did? Are you seeing less of him now? Are you seeing in him things you haven't seen since you and he were in the happy happy buzz buzz phase?

All these things have the power to tear you up inside, and if you're feeling any of them, you should raise your concerns with your husband. Not in a "Stop this friendship," kind of way, but in a, "Please see it from my perspective" kind of way.

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Washington, D.C.: My girlfriend is a flirt, mostly in denial about it (though not completely) and I've taken this as a sign of her potential for infidelity. We've argued about it and our sex life has suffered, usually to the tune of her increasingly refusing my advances. She claims to still be attracted to me, but says it will 'take time' for her to feel "safe" enough to want sex with me. Is she sabotaging things beyond repair or should I give her this time, or, should I just move on?

Carolyn Hax: Why are you on her so much about the flirting? Do you have any other, solid reason not to trust her? And what on earth is, "Potential for infidelity," except a control-freak-themed chat's answer to the Death Chair?

Because if you don't have solid reasons not to trust her, back off, and if you do, break up, because when the trust is shot there's nothing to salvage.

That said, the withholding sex and not feeling "safe" stuff is a dance of the seven red flags. If she truly doesn't feel safe, then she should have broken up with you immediately after she realized that, and if she's just doing this to punish you, she needs to grow up as badly as you do.

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Medicine Cabinet: Can we say that even other people's medicine cabinets should be left alone, too?

Carolyn Hax: Yes, we can. Although Southwest Airlines said it best.

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Your answer didn't go far enough: For the woman whose husband has a close friendship with a co-worker, you said, "You should raise your concerns with your husband. Not in a "Stop this friendship," kind of way, but in a, "Please see it from my perspective" kind of way." Fine, but assuming he CAN see it from her perspective, are you assuming he will give up the friendship? Are you saying he SHOULD give up the friendship? And if he doesn't? I don't disagree that she should talk to him but then what??

Carolyn Hax: Then they need to figure out what works for them. Maybe there's something about the long walks together that particularly pains her, so he puts an end to those. Maybe he invites his wife to join them for lunch. Mayeb she'd find that awkward and insulting to "chaperone" their lunches but just the fact that he invited her is enough.

Maybe he tells his friend that the friendship is cutting into time with his wife and he needs to scale it back. Maybe he tells his wife he's not willing to give up any aspect of his friendship to make her feel better, and that tells her where his priorities are.

Who knows. The details are between husband and wife.

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Washington, D.C.: Back to the issue of snooping as normal versus relationship ending behavior. I once went to us a boyfriend's computer (he had given me permission to use it) and as I entered in the URL I wanted that started with "M" his autoword function supplied a website of a popular dating website that he apparently had permanently logged into. Upon finding this out I confronted him, and he told me I was a snoop. He said he was allowed to be a member of this site since he was only looking at the pictures. We've since broken up over unrelated issues, but I'm interested to get your thoughts on which one of us evidenced the relationship-ending behavior.

Carolyn Hax: You didn't go looking, you happened upon the information innocently--and while I'm sure people will say you had to hit "enter" for the browser to take you to the auto-filled site, that to me is like hearing his cell go off at 3 am and choosing to pick it up to see the caller ID. It's a, "What the heck is this?" reaction, not an, "I think I'll check up on him" decision.

Plus, his counteraccusation sounds like an attempt to shift blame, not a serious charge. "Only looking at the pictures" is up there with not inhaling.

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Don't know what to do with my life: Graduating senior (from college), taking a year off before grad school to work in the field... always doubting myself. How do I know what I like to do vs. just what I am good at and already have skills to do?

Carolyn Hax: It's not unusual for those to be one and the same. When you're bad at something, it's generally not fun to do it for a living.

But for the sake of argument, there could be a better path for you that draws on similar skills--and the way to figure that ou, for most people, is to try on your decision and walk around for a while, to see how it fits. Like, say, for a year before grad school.

Even then, don't set your expectations too high. You aren't under orders to Know Exactly What You Want by the age of 25. Some people change careers at 30, 40, 50, 60, or all of the above. Life is long.

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Washington, D.C.: What did Southwest Airlines say?

(Not all of us fit inside your head, you know.)

Carolyn Hax: Sorry, I figured everyone had seen the medicine-cabinet-snooping ad, because it ran for a couple of years.

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Arlington, Va.: I have always felt fine with my husband's friendships with women. My recent concern stems not from the fact a good friend is female, but that she seems, well, in technical terms, fruit-cakey. We all socialize occaisionally, so I have talked with her myself. However, she seems to have upped her demands on husband's time. He comes home and says he keeps giving her advice she won't/can't listen to, and he is worried about her.

What can I do? Other than stress that he has done all he can (leading horse to water, etc). This seems to be morphing into a Lame Duck situation. I am now leaning towards slapping him upside the head and screaming "She's using you!"

Carolyn Hax: "She's using you" doesn't have to come packaged with slapping and screaming. (Though things are always more expensive when sold separately.) Suggest to him the possibility that she's asking advice more for the attention than for the advice, and that she may well like her life the way it is ... or else she'd actually try to fix it ... see?

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Not all of us fit inside her head?: Then where the heck am I??

The ad was a woman was at someone else's house, opens the medicine cabinet and the shelf comes crashing down, and spills everything out. Then the voice over says, "Need to get away?" and then you hear the blurp about low fares.

washingtonpost.com: blurp? HAHAHAHA.

Carolyn Hax: Not only do I have a very small head, but it hurts today. It's all beginning to make sense now.

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Fun for a living?: I know the exception to this one! My boss!! She's horrible at her job and everyone knows it except her. She loves it though!

Carolyn Hax: Ah, but she doesn't KNOW she's horrible at it. That is the key.

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Chicago, Ill.: Dear Carolyn,

All of this talk about what's controlling and what's not really makes me examine my own relationship. I find that my girlfriend seems to want me to feel one way or another, or do one thing or another, and if I don't, she gets mad at me. It's at the point where I don't feel comfortable saying what I want to do -- go out at night, or just read, whatever -- for fear of angering her. I realize that a big part of this is my own fault for not being more assertive. Do you think the situation is salvageable?

Carolyn Hax: You'll find out as soon as you start being more assertive. Be kind, pick your battles carefully (since you won't accomplish anything if you take stands just to take stands), and then don't back down.

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Anti-confrontationville, USA: My ex is having trouble letting go. I take a lot of the blame. Although he always treated me well while we were dating, he started to coax me more about committment and sex toward the end (nothing too unreasonable). Rather than tell him I wasn't ready, I simply cut off contact with him in July. Since then, he's sent a letter or card about every other month telling me how much he misses me and how he needs at least some closure. Am I selfish for simply blowing him off?

Carolyn Hax: Yes. That was cruel.

To err on the side of caution, I could say that his pressuring you at the end and his persistent cards since could have some creepiness to it (and maybe that's why you cut him off so abruptly). But even if that were true, what you did still wasn't right--the way to deal with someone, even someone creepy, is to tell the person it's over. Then you can cut off contact.

So, write a letter back giving the guy his closure. Say you ended it because you and he didn't want the same things. Tell him you should have said it to him in July, and you're sorry for that. Then ask him please to stop writing to you.

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Taking time to feel safe enough to have sex is a red flag?: In every relationship, as well as when rebuilding a relationship where some trust has been lost, it always takes me time to feel safe enough to have sex. I can't see what the problem is here. Not feeling safe isn't the same as feeling unsafe, it just means we haven't reached a certain level of trust yet. Is this really a problem? I always thought of it as a normal progression, and now I'm all confused.

Carolyn Hax: It is part of a normal progession, of course, or at least it can be. But in this case the thing that was causing her to feel unsafe hadn't gone away at all--he was still treating her, unapologetically, as an "infidelity risk." The returning-to-safety process is one that kicks in when the damage at least has stopped and the repair process is underway. Here, the loss of trust hadn't even been stopped yet. So, a decision to stick around till she felt safe--again, amid no signs that conditions were improving--was not a sound one.

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Princeton, N.J.: I love the control freak conversation today! My situation is a weird mix. I'm a control freak about other people's writing (especially if we're writing something together), but completely a door mat over social events. How do I get to a good balance?

Carolyn Hax: Become a professor?

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Not a sex kitten: My boyfriend's one major relationship before me was with a very sexy and sexual woman. I can't shake the feeling that I just don't measure up in that arena, and as a result I'm inhibited, which makes me even less sex kitten-like. How do I stop comparing myself to her? (By the way, he doesn't ever compare us; he never even talks about her.)

Carolyn Hax: They're not together now. Which means either he dumped her, which means he wants you more than he wants her--or she dumped him, which means you want him more than she does. Both make you sexier to him.

That's one approach. Or, you could make a conscious effort to be more physical. Go dancing or take a dance class, lift weights and get strong, start taking weekend hikes--whatever time and geography allow. Get out of your head and into your body.

Or (my e-hands on your e-shoulders): Snap out of it! Cheez. There will always be someone smarter, prettier, sexier, funnier. It's your life, YOU live it. Stop handing it over to yesterday's kittens.

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Re: no closure: If she really just cut off contact with him with no explanation, she owes him more than a letter. She owes him at least a phone call, where he has a chance to ask questions, where she does her best to honestly answer them, and where he gets to say whatever he needs to say (whether it's to tell her what a horrible person she is for the disappearing act, or to tell her he misses her or whatever).

Oh, and she definitely owes him an apology.

...from someone whose ex did something pretty similar to her...

Carolyn Hax: You're right about all of it. I was trying to be extra super cautious.

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Newburgh, N.Y.: My definition of controlling: My husband. I just had two babies within two years (one is 18 months, one 3 months). Feel like I have a very bad case of PPD. Went to doctor, he prescribed Wellbutrin. Started feeling better, slightly. Husband tells me it is all in my head -- that I read too much and decided that I needed to be sad. Pretty much told me to get over it.

Now I am even sadder.

No question, just needed to vent. Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: That's it? You're just going to drop that bomb and run?

What he did was horrible--you can't even hand him literature on PPD because it's not the research he doesn't believe, it's you. And it's not like he'll come with you to counseling.

So. Do you have good support from other sources? Friends, family, coworkers, doctor, church? Please lean on everyone you have within arm's reach to help you get through this. Expect nothing from your husband, starting now, except the list of things he currently provides. When you're feeling stronger you can revisit this with him.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Carolyn!I met the greatest guy in the world. I am 28, he is 33. We have been dating for two years. The problem: He goes to church just about every Sunday and gives 10 percent of this income to his church. I am a Christian, but just not as intense as he. The going to church faithfully I can deal with, I just resent the 10 percent thing. How can I tell him he needs to spend that money on something important (like ME!) and not give it all to his church?

Carolyn Hax: Suggest he give it to his next girlfriend.

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Re: No closure...: ...am I the only one reading this as him being a potential stalker? He was pressuring her, and it sounds like she tried to tell him how she felt and he wouldn't listen. Silence is the only answer some people understand, and sometimes it's necessary to skip straight to the silence if someone won't listen...

Carolyn Hax: I read it that way, which was the reason for my caution. It just felt right on the line, though. It's also why I included the "Don't contact me again" part. If he then disregards an explicit request, then she'll know it's not really love that's driving him.

I will say, though, that I don't agree on skipping to the silence. Even if the person doesn't understand or respect it, you need to say, once, "This is over, please don't contact me again."

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Louisville, Ky.: No, no, no.

I'm a man, and I completely disagree with this. If he's writing letters to her eight months after the fact, he needs a puppy, a kitten, a hobby, or anything. If he hasn't gotten the point yet that he's not wanted, writing him a letter will only confuse him.

I've seen this among men time and again. They'll hold on to the smallest bit of hope. If she made her getaway, she should stay away. It's him who is the problem here.

And, seriously, how pathetic is it to write to someone eight months after the fact? Why should anyone want to talk to you if your self-esteem is so low as to chase after someone who obviously isn't a good match for you?

Carolyn Hax: And yet a third opinion. Thanks.

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Middle of Washington State: I had PPD that I ignored for months. Finally saw a doctor. Then saw another one. Then visited a therapist. They all told me to go on Celexa. Carried a perscription for a month because husband said he felt his wife didn't need to be medicated. FINALLY filled the perscription and was on it for about a year. Then HE decided I should stop taking it because I "didn't need it anymore". So I did -- cold turkey. Now I'm wondering... maybe my unhappiness is with him and his controlling behavior and not the chemical imblance of PPD?

Carolyn Hax: Certainly one can exacerbate the other. Did you like the therapist? Might be time for a follow-up.

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"Withholding" Sex?: I don't agree that "withholding" sex is necessarily a sign of immaturity. If the boyfriend has, without basis, accused her of "too much flirting" and "potential for infidelity," I could see how she might not be feeling too close to him right now and therefore, even if she still cares about him and wants to work stuff out, she may not feel comfortable enough to have sex with him. Just my 2 cents.

Carolyn Hax: Now that makes sense to me, thanks. I guess I just didn't see much justification for wanting to work stuff out, but I forgot that I had direct access to his thinking, and it's possible she doesn't.

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Carolyn Hax: Time to go. I was going to sign off with a control freak knock-knock joke someone sent me, but it's taking too long to find it. So, seeya, thanks, have a good weekend, and let other people have a good weekend too.

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Columbia: PPD-Sounds to me that these men are listening more to Tom Cruise than they should. If a man told me that I do not need something that my doctor and therapist tells me that I do then bye bye.

Carolyn Hax: Unfortunately he's just a new face on a very old prejudice.

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