washingtonpost.com
Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 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 transcript follows.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: Do you believe in being friends with ex-boyfriends? If I dated them long enough to care about them, even after a break-up I tend to want to try to be friends as I valued that component of the relationship. Why does "just friends" work sometime, and not others?

Carolyn Hax: Because formulas don't work on people. To be friends with an ex, you need a basis for friendship plus two people who want to stay friends. Whether you have all three is something you just have to find out when you get there.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn! Happy friday!

A good friend of mine has recently begun dating a girl that none of the people in our group like. She is subtly rude, and not very nice to him. He is head over heels for her. If he asks what I think about her, what should I say? My response so far has been, "I am glad that you are happy", but I feel like I am not being honest (well, more explicit in what I think anyway). And I am not sure that I will be hanging around her all that much because I don't really enjoy her company.

Is it better to just suck it up and act like I like her, tell him I think she is a beeotch (which he definitely won't believe at this stage), or just limit my time hanging out with the two of them together?

Uggh.

Carolyn Hax: "I don't feel like I know her well enough yet to say." Since it sounds like you don't, if you mean it when you say "recently." You can even elaborate, if he asks you to, that she's been a little prickly with his friends.

I have no reason to doubt your judgment in particular, and in fact you're probably right that she isn't too nice, but even "probably right" still leaves room for the possibility that you're wrong, and that she's an acquired taste you merely haven't acquired yet. Limit your time with her, sure, but also give her a chance. For your friend's sake.

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Re: girl who read her boyfriend's email: Carolyn, don't you think this girl's relationship is in trouble anyway? She snooped into her boyfriend's email, found something (seemingly) minor, and is now moping around about it without being able to 'fess up to him...I broke up with my last boyfriend not because I found that he'd been emailing dozens of other girls flirtatiously but because I realized how screwed up it was that I felt the need to snoop on his computer activity-- it becomes addictive, and is NOT becoming. or fun. If you're even tempted to snoop, your relationship probably lacks a certain level of honesty and trust, right?

Carolyn Hax: That's one possibility, certainly, if you feel suspicious and you're snooping to confirm those suspicions. Then I agree the relationship is shot and you might as well break up before you start gathering proof, because the trust is gone.

The other possibility, though, is that the snooper is just nosy and feels no sense of boundaries. Of course the relationship is shot then, too, but not because the trust is gone--because there never was any trust, because the snooper is too immature for it.

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Washington, D.C.: To the woman who read her boyfriend's e-mail and found out he's been discussing their fights with friends ... I was recently in your boyfriend's shoes. My boyfriend and I had a disagreement, and he overheard me talking through it to a friend over the phone a few hours later. He was extremely hurt and felt betrayed. What I explained to him made him feel better, and it might make you feel better too. My boyfriend and I are very different people. When we argue, discussing the issue with a close friend helps me get another perspective on the issue. Many times, the friend has told me that he/she would actually side with my boyfriend in the argument. It helps me tell when I'm being unfair, and when I might have an issue that's worth more discussion. I'd never share anything my boyfriend said he explicitly wanted kept private...but I know that sharing the details of our smaller arguments has saved us a lot of bigger ones.

Carolyn Hax: I know I feel better. Thanks.

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When your partner cuts off contact...: Last week you took a question from someone who had cut off contact with her partner. I'm on the other side of the situation, and I hope you can give me some advice.

Background: My partner cut off contact without warning or explanation, and I continued to try to contact him, first because I didn't know he was cutting me off, then because I was afraid something had happened to him, then because I was desperate to find out what I'd done wrong to make him cut me off like that. I eventually noticed the parallels between his behaviour and that of an escaping abuse victim, but, long story short, a therapist assessed me and confirmed that I'm not an abuser and, based on the information I have, I didn't do anything wrong.

But now there's a problem: when he left me, he never returned my keys. I'm moving in a few months, and have to return the keys to the landlord. How far is it appropriate for me to go to get the keys back? If I can't get the keys back, how do I not get in trouble with my landlord?

And, of course, this is all complicated by the fact that I all at once want to fall into his arms and throttle him and burst into tears and jump his bones, and I have no idea whether I could keep my emotions in check when talking to him.

Carolyn Hax: Have an intermediary contact him about the keys. Don't use this as a reason to try again to get in touch with him.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Carolyn, My husband and I have the same fight over and over... we have 2 children, 3 years and 7 months old and whenever my husband gets annoyed he curses. Not directly at the children, or me, but at the situation. I don't have the cleanest mouth but I do not curse around the kids. I think it is completley unacceptable! The thing is, when I bring it up to him, he completely agrees. When he is calm he knows its terrible to curse around the kids. BUT when he is annoyed and seeing red he lets the language fly! When he gets mad, I am always telling him, it's fine to be annoyed but pelase just "don't curse" but that just fires him up more..... its tough because he knows I am right, but old habits die hard I guess. Any suggestions????

Carolyn Hax: Um--how often does he "see red" to the point that your concerns only make him angrier? This may be more of an anger-management issue than a cursing issue. I'd float the idea--when he's really really calm--of his talking to someone about his temper.

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New York, N.Y.: In today's column you wrote that B's ex probably won't and/or shouldn't get back together with him. I'm in a similar situation w/my ex, he's screwed up many times. I feel like I shouldn't get back with him, but I still love him and the temptation is hard. Esp when he's working on all this stuff (w/a doctor), just to better himself. So, my question, why did you advise that?

Carolyn Hax: Because it sounded like she had had enough, and like he was more interested in getting her back than in holding himself accountable or examining himself as person.

Your situation might not be the same so I'm not going to advise the same. Just the fact that your ex was willing ti get help does say something. However, I do think you still have to consider your situation may in fact be the same--as well as the possibility that you two just bring out the mess in each other.

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Washington, D.C.: When everything else is there, how important is the physical (both attraction and sexual) to a relationship's success?Can great friends who are just OK lovers make for a great couple?

Carolyn Hax: Just-okay sex for the rest of your life. Yea or nay? it's really up to you.

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Keys: Call a locksmith, have the locks changed, and give the landlord back 3 new sets of keys. Seems like the most adult & least problematic solution.

Carolyn Hax: Beautiful, thanks. Though might need the landlord's okay for the change.

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Fairfax, Va.: I sent in a statement last week about stalking. I'm doing it again (seemingly stalking you, but not really). Seriously people, "please don't contact me again" means "please don't contact me again". Your right to know, or need for closure does not trump the other person's right to privacy.

I was stalked for 2 years, by someone who "loved me". The police did not take it seriously because there was no overt threat of violence. I was a wreck. And Hollywood seems to glamourize the "we were meant to be together", "I will always love you", "I won't give up on you" scenario. It is sickening to me.

Just as "no" means "no" in rape situations, "no contact" means "no contact". Get over it, move on. And law enforcement needs to take it seriously when people are unable to get over it and move on. People like that are dangerous. Do not give them an inch. Trust me, they will take a mile and it will take over your life.

For the person with the keys, suck it up, pay the fee for the landlord for the keys, and move on.

Thanky. I feel better now.

Carolyn Hax: Well-earned. Thanks.

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Re: Cutting off contact: "I eventually noticed the parallels between his behavior and that of an escaping abuse victim ..."

How would the boyfriend's behavior parallel that of an escaping abuse victim?

Carolyn Hax: People who are leaving an abuser are often given specific instructions on how to handle the breakup so that they can minimize the risk to themselves, and his actions must have included similar steps. At least that's what I took it to mean.

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn, do you have an advice on how to manage "shade of gray" encounters with an ex-boyfriend that has turned into a quasi-friends with benefits?

To give you a touch of background, my-ex broke up w/me after his father died and wasn't able to be in a relationship ... but still wanted to be friends. I care about him so I accepted the friend offer...but we have a very strong physical chemisry...so being just friends also turns physical when we see one another. We are both busy professionals that don't have time to maintain a relationship and have not had relations w/anyone else since the break up.

Part of me wants to break the chain & sever all ties...yet I don't want to loose this individual in my life. What would you do?

Carolyn Hax: Keep it if things are fine with you as-is and you don't want any more from him, lose it if you're kidding yourself that you're going to progress back to going out.

Of course, it's always possible you will wind up together again--I don't know you guys and all the other usual disclaimers--but you've pretty much spelled out that you'll set aside what you want so that he can have whatever he wants. That's a great way to invest a lot of time in never getting what you want.

Doesn't matter which gender is in which role here, by the way.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm struggling to understand what it means when women (as one chatter just wrote) claim that they "still love" their men despite the fact that they cheat/treat them like crap/whatever. I have a friend who refuses to get out of a relationship in which her boyfriend mentally abuses her -- and comes too close to physical abuse for comfort. In fact, we (her pals) are afraid of him when he gets angry. But she "really loves him" and he's her "best friend." I want to either tell her to get a therapist or go on a peace mission to Iraq where her boundless ability to "love" selflessly might be more useful. But I also know I sound really, really callous and jerky. How do I remain a good, honest friend to her despite my snarky attitude toward her "love" and frustration with her? I've just been avoiding her as is ... which makes me feel like a bad friend.

Carolyn Hax: In between his spells of awfulness, he offers her something she thrives on, even lives for. That's how abusive people keep their victims. Again, doesn't matter what gender is in which role; women use this same bait-and-switch BS on men all the time. It basically kills any chance that they'll be intimate emotionally, but the constant promise that the good side will come out again soon--bearing flowers and gifts and emotional heroin--also makes it almost impossible for the abused mate to leave. Which of course is the point.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the best recommendation you have to get over falling in love with a friend, who wants to just be friends?

Carolyn Hax: The usual. Wallow for a while till you feel sick of wallowing, stay busy, limit contact with pain source for a while, give it time.

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Re Fairfax and stalking: No, stalking is never, ever justifiable, whatever the circumstances. At the same time, unless abuse was involved, disappearing without an explanation is also unacceptable. Be an adult and tell the person why you don't want to see them any more, and then you have the right to expect them to move on.

Carolyn Hax: This ties in two different things. One is the post that started it, which some of us may have forgotten, since it was from a few chats ago--a woman dumped a guy by abruptly cutting off contact. I'd get even more specific than you did, though: that unless a person's in fear for his or her life, there should be some clear statement that it's over, and that you don't want any further contact.

Which brings us to the second tie in, the steps an abuse victim takes to leave a relationship. Often people either just start screening calls, which lets the potential stalker/persistent caller see what s/he wants to see as your reason for leaving--or people find excuses to soften the blow of leaving, like, "I'm not ready for a relationship," which, to the persistent, is like saying, "... but I will be ready someday." Thereby justifying two years' worth of unwanted contact.

Sorry for the delay. I try to be really careful with this stuff.

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Re: Arlington: Carolyn, I think your response to Arlington was a helpful description of why people stay in bad relationships. But how would you address Arlington's questions about how to remain a good friend to the person in the bad relationship? I too have a friend in a bad relationship -- we all hate the guy and think they're bad for each other. It's hard to find the right middle ground between telling her how to live her life, and standing by and just listening to her talk about how unhappy she is, neither of which are what a friend ought to do, in my book. (She is in therapy now, which seems to be helping.)

Carolyn Hax: Great about the therapy--at least she's admitted to herself that her behavior is a component in her unhappiness. That's huge.

As for what friends can do, it's between telling and listening: asking. When she talks about how unhappy she is, try asking her questions that can help her figure out what's going on. E.g.. "What would you like him to do in that situation?" (Answer.) "What do you think is keeping him from doing that?" (Answer.) "Do you have any reason to believe this is going to change?" (Answer.)

BTW, I disagree with you on one point. Sometime I do think a friend ought to just listen sometimes, even if it's to the same old crap. For one, sometimes even serial complainers deserve a pass from their friends. And, it'll help you ask better questions next time when you think you'll hurt yourself if you have to give her a free pass to complain about the same old crap again.

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Alexandria, Va.: To the poster asking about "an okay sex life." Don't do it. You can find someone who is great in that area and the others. It just takes time ... One who has been there.

Carolyn Hax: Can't argue with you, but I can post this:

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To okay sex only couple: It might also depend why the sex is only okay and how long they've been going out.

Sex with my current guy wasn't really that great to start but I really liked him and we mentally click. Over time (and rather quickly, thankfully) the sex improved immensely and was the BEST EVER for both of us within a couple months.

Consider being patient ...

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. And this:

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Just-okay sex: "Good sex" is something that can be learned if the parties are willing to work on it. If everything else about the relationship is great, I'd say get a book or something, hop in the sack together and let the learning process begin!

Carolyn Hax: "Can," not "will." Preemptive strike against the follow-up posts.

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Re: Arlington, Va.: Whoa, you make it sound like an abuser is making a conscious decision to mislead with flowers, etc. Couldn't it just be that they didn't have good role models, are dealing with internal issues that creep to the surface, are tired of the way they are treated, etc,etc?

Carolyn Hax: Could be. But if the answer when called on it is some version of, "I'm not the problem, you are," then conscious or un-, this is a "pattern" that isn't healthy and isn't changing and its origin is beside the point.

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Why is disappearing without an explanation bad?: The message is, "I don't want to see you again." Does the reason -why- really matter? If I don't want or expect a person to change for me, what difference does it make why I broke up with someone?

Get the message, please. Try three times, and then stop. Sheesh!

Carolyn Hax: Try three times, and then stop, yes--but the reason does matter, a lot. People want to know if they've made a mistake they can then avoid making next time.

Now, my advice to people who have been dumped has been (I hope) pretty consistent, that in most cases they shouldn't take the dumping personally--it's usually just two perfectly fine people who don't fit right.

But still, if you've spent enough time together to have been considered a couple, you owe the person at least an, "It's not you, it's me." Which get's a bad rap, I think; it actually explains most breakups pretty well, is one notch kinder than, "You're fine, just not for me," but is no less true.

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re: abusive flowers: Whatever about the abuser's possibly dealing with a pattern they saw...blah, blah.

The abuser is making a CONSCIOUS effort to get back on the abused good side and/or think that they can make up for what they've done by being nice.

Carolyn Hax: Another tie-in, to the "I've been terrible but I want to show him/her that I've changed" thread. Once, okay, but keep coming back with that one and you just won't be credible. Or, shouldn't be.

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End of my rope!: Please help!

I work full time. I go to school three nights a week. I have a four year old son that I have to shuttle around. And I have a husband that I'm about to sell for parts.

The nights I go to school, my husband logs on the computer and plays around until I get home, around 11. He doesn't have to watch our son, since he's with my mother (DH doesn't get home early enough). Over the last semester, our apartment has fallen into shambles. He only does the dishes when I pitch a fit, he never picks up, he doesn't do laundry. I honestly can't name a task he does on his own regularly.

I'm at the end of my rope. I'm tired of begging. But a dirty sink just seems like such a stupid thing to go to court over. What can I do?

Carolyn Hax: Don't beg. Show him your list of things you do every week, and ask him which ones he wants to take over. If he doesn't halve the list and stick to it, give him the alternative of choosing which day of the weekend he'd like to take over full care of your son while you de-sty-ify your home. If he resists, ask him which hour of surfing he'd like to give up for the weekly marriage counseling sessions.

And if he yields on none of this, it's no longer about a dirty sink, it's about his being content to make your life miserable while he indulges himself. Not only is that a court-worthy offense, it's one you don't want to teach to your son as acceptable behavior. Poor little dude.

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Baltimore, Md.: Let me try this again, it messed up last time:

Carolyn,

I'm in a tough spot. I am the best man in a friend's wedding this fall. Recently, the groom-to-be confessed that he is extremely frustrated with his and his fiancee's sex life. He said that his finacee doesn't like having sex with him, and they probably do it an average of once a month. Apparently, this trend has been going on the whole time he has been engaged (1.5 years). Because my girlfriend and I enjoy a VERY healthy sexual relationship for a couple of twenty-something-year-olds, I was surprised to hear this. I know other engaged couples and newleyweds who can't seem to keep their hands off of each other. I asked him if he voices his concerns to her. He said, "yes, but nothing changes." The confession got worse when he said that if this lack of sex trend continued, he would call off the wedding. I understand wedddings can be stressful for the bride and groom and sometimes sex gets put on the back burner, but sex once a month? I care for my friend dearly and can understand his concern, but short of saying "seek (pre)marriage counseling" immediately, I don't know what to say to him. Their relationship had definitely had its share of ups and downs, but is mostly a good relationship with few other problems.

Carolyn Hax: Tell him that if it's at the call-off-the-wedding point, he needs to talk to her now. Immediately. This weekend. Seems to me that after 1.5 years, the only thing he gains by waiting is a bigger wreck the closer the wedding draws near.

I'm wondering--were things okay before the engagement? If so, it could just be coincidental that she cooled on him right around when they got engaged, but it could also be that she's hung up on something that they both need to dig out honestly.

Either way, time's up, he's got to deal.

And congratulations on getting some on a regular basis yourself.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Dear Carolyn,

Over the past few months, I've seen a number of questions from people that center around the same basic premise: people are just kinda "meh" about their relationship/job/life in general but aren't willing to do anything to figure out why or change. specifically with relationships, do you think this is just a general malaise of the twentysomething/thirtsomething set? I see people around me who say really callous things (i.e., "we've been dating for x years and she's a really great girl, but I just don't know if I could marry her") and wonder if it's just the people I know. or have social norms just mutated to the point where being "meh" about stuff is okay?

Carolyn Hax: Big question for such a small forum, but, off the top of my head, I'd say social norms have mutated to the point where people are willing to admit openly to being meh, instead of just pridefully keeping it quiet, and to where more people feel entitled to more than meh.

The latter especially. Someone was asking me recently if I've noticed anything change in my mail over the years, and I didn't have an answer right away, but later on it came to me that entitlement is on the rise. People are less and less willing to say no to themselves, accept that some choices inherently rule out others, accept that much of life is routine.

Not pointing a finger here; I catch myself doing it too.

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So-so sex: One more take on the sex thing -- my husband and I have bad sex. Feels like I should have my face blurred on TV to protect my identity. Sex is such a part of media and naturally, of life, that to have bad sex is a crime against nature. But for me, F that.

I'm married to an incredible man, truly amazing. The sex was never great, and only good on rare occasions. We tried the teaching route, therapy, etc. Never got better than mediocre. I used to think to myself -- I'm going to have bad sex for the rest of my life. Bummer. but then I'd remind myself of the awesome sex I had in the past with others and how the guys could never even begin to compare with my husband. I just thank God for my husband, for his love and humor and kindness, how we match on so many levels, and compliment each other in other ways.

What matters about sex is how much it matters to you. Don't look to others to tell you what works for you. But I guess that applies to just about anything.

Carolyn Hax: Pretty much. Looking to others is for people who aren't sure and who need a point of reference. Eventually, though, you get to where more information isn't going to help any more, and you just need to occupy your own life to your own satisfaction. Thanks.

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Chicago, Ill.: Carolyn, You left out the reason as to why disappearing without an explanation is bad, unless there is an abusive aspect. It shows that you are completely immature and have absolutely no regard for that persons feelings to leave them high and dry like that. Personally, I don't think you should be allowed to interact with people if you are going to treat them like that.

Carolyn Hax: Should we identify these people with signs over their heads, or something unmistakable like deelybobbers? Or maybe inflatable suits that allow them to eat, sleep and do their jobs but prohibit close human contact.

I agree with you in theory, it's the practicle angle that stops me.

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For lazy husband: You can also calculate how much it will cost for you to hire people to do his half of the chores, and then do it. It's worked wonders for many friends who had a hard time getting a spouse to pitch in for various reasons.

Carolyn Hax: Yes, but you can't hire someone to make you un-p'ed. There's an anger point beyond which a clean house isn't enough.

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Carolyn Hax: Back in 2. Sorry.

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Re: Sex and Engagements: I know it's old-fashioned but it's possible the fiance is having guilt -- I know several of my friends (mostly the previously religious) who have either cut back on the sex or stopped entirely. Something about getting engaged triggers their pent up guilt about being fornicators and then 'poof,' there goes the sex until after the wedding.

Just another perspective -- still worth discussing.

Carolyn Hax: Stuff like this is why it's worth discussing. Just as he's withholding from her how close he is to calling off the wedding, there are plenty of things she could have on her mind, both that she's not sharing with him and that are getting in the way of their sex life. Guilt, fear, anger, sadness, feelings for someone else--all can show up in bed.

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Seattle, Wash.: How much importance do you think should be given to the fact that someone is still in college and pursuing a particular degree when trying to decide if their selfish behavior is acceptable in a relationship? I am not in school anymore, but am working for the university that he attends, and am in a very public, easily accessible part of the university, yet he has come by to see me only twice. He also doesn't call me unless I have tried to call him, and then only sometimes will he return a call. I haven't spoken to him in a week after he referred to me as a 'distraction' and I don't know, if he does get a hold of me, if I should be accessible to him, or make him somehow earn me back. I also worry that this seems very pathetic and that I am letting him stomp all over me. We have been together a year and a half, and this behavior is not uncommon.

Carolyn Hax: Then why, why, why do you want him to "earn me back"? Good thing I haven't had lunch yet.

Here's a question for you: How much importance do you think should be given to the fact that someone makes you feel bad?

Answer: A lot. I hope.

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Carolyn Hax: Afterthought. Your opinion of yourself comes across as a bit battered (and I'm sure I didn't help that, sorry). Whether the guy's seeming indifference to you is behind that or it was well udnerway when you met him, I don't know. But getting this particular guy to come around, assuming you can, just isn't the answer. Start treating yourself better--first step, chucking out any guy who treats you indifferently. That act alone will change the way you walk, like a massage and a new pair of shoes.

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Arlington, Va.: My guess is, before you were engaged your girlfriend has sex as much as she thought you wanted to, but now you are engaged and your fiance has sex with you as much as SHE wants. If that's not compatible with what you NEED, there is an issue. But geeze man, sex for every month in the rest of your life with someone you love and adore? Fair trade off probably.

Carolyn Hax: Another possibility, thanks. Though "every month in the rest of your life" assumes her interest won't drop off over time, which it very well could, or her sense of security won't increase, which it soon will. He could be one wedding away from once a year.

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Re: Tuesday chat parenting topic: About the mother/teacher who said she thought misbehaving children reflected badly on the parents... another poster said she made a good case for private schools. What do private schools have to do with anything?

Carolyn Hax: Nothing. Which was one reason I said what I said about sleep deprivation.

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Revelation?: Hi Carolyn,

I had a really crappy weekend: found out my Mom has to have chemo, got raked over the coals during my Master's defense -- all in the midst of a very disheartening job search. But what I realized (silver lining!) is that I could share all of my feelings - sad, angry, silly - with my boyfriend, talking it out and bonding over the crapiness. And I thought, is this what being in a relationship is supposed to be about, experiencing the good and the bad together? Is this what bonds you together and helps you choose each other to spend your lives together, instead of anyone else you might run into later? Do I get it? Am I close?

Carolyn Hax: Oh, look at the time. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend, and see you next Friday.

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