Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 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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Florida: You must be starting off with a challenging question! I'll just play solitaire (or maybe get some work done!) in the meantime.

Carolyn Hax: Is it late? My computer says it's 12:00 on the dot.

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Cat Tolerator: I thought your advice to the woman who is engaged to a cat-lover went overboard. By any reasonable standard, he is not "putting her through hell." She's probably waking up because she's not used to the (2) cats; she knew about them, she should get used to it. And if it's that big a deal to her, she should end the relationship, but I don't think he's the unreasonable one.

Carolyn Hax: Come on, he's being totally selfish. If my mate came to me with something that was interrupting his sleep--a serious discomfort, trust me--and the remedy didn't involve something extreme like giving my pets away, I would at least try to accommodate. I love pets, I see them as part of the family, but not equal to humans who are making reasonable requests.

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Georgetown: Welcome back! Didja miss us?

Carolyn Hax: I did! Thanks.

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Virginia: A couple years ago, my good friend was dumped by her long-time boyfriend out of the blue and I helped her through it. He never did anything bad to her, but she was so heartbroken and it really hurt me to see it. Over time, she and her ex have become friends, but I can't help take it as a slap in the face for all the help I gave her to get over him. I kind of disrespect her for being his friend and have told her. It's straining our friendship, but I can't get over feeling like my helping her was a waste of time if he's her friend.

Carolyn Hax: The fact that she got over him--with your help--could be one reason she's able to be his friend. And/or his being her friend could also be helping her with the process of getting over him, since the sense of being discarded is often a huge part of the pain, and a follow-up friendship says they do care about each other, just not as mates.

I'm explaining why the friendship doesn't necessarily devalue her broken heart, but I don't have to. I could just point out that helping someone doesn't give you say in what they do with their lives from that point. You care, you help, you understand that, at all times, it's her life to live as she chooses. You don't have to respect her decision to befriend her ex, but there's also no call for you to take it personally.

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San Diego, Calif.: Hi Carolyn, I thought your response to Portland on Wednesday was great, but it raised a question in my own life. What happens if your problem is the opposite - if you're not jealous enough? I'm not overly self-secure, I have just never had a jealous streak. With my 20/20 hindsight I can look back on a few relationships, both romantic and platonic, where a healthy bit of skepticism or jealousy would have warned me of a bad situation. But I never interpret that way. So when my boyfriend un-invites me to happy hour claiming it is only work people I don't think a thing about it until he breaks up with me a week later for a girl he works with - turns out he uninvited me because he wanted to be alone with her. That sort of thing. Is the opposite of being insecure and jealous being terminally oblivious?

Carolyn Hax: I've got a question that I hope suffices as an answer: If you are terminally oblivious, is that so bad? Would it have helped you to suspect the bad situation a week before all was revealed?

I suppose you wouldn't be asking if you were happy with the outcomes of these bad situations, but my beef with more-than-occasional jealousy (at least, one of them) is that it often gets you worked up about situations that you ultimately can't prevent. Which I guess brings up a similar question/answer: Had you known the happy-hour excuse was a whopper, would you have been able to keep your boyfriend? Would you have wanted to?

Obviously I have a bias toward letting things unfold instead of trying to turn them all in your favor. If you feel you've swung too far toward unfolding or if you feel you suffered more for being blindsided, pls write back and we'll keep going.

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Anonymous: I love pets, I see them as part of the family, but not equal to humans who are making reasonable requests.

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Would the pets be equal to humans who are making UNreasonable requests?

Carolyn Hax: I'd actually put the pet as the higher priority. If she were insisting that, for example, the cats had to go because she hated having cat hair on her clothes, I'd advise keeping the cat and losing the girlfriend.

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Chicago, Ill.: I agree with your advice about when you help someone through something, you don't have a say in what they do from then on. But I deal with that frustration, too. In my situation I have a friend who often has these mildly dramatic anxieties...about things ranging from dating problems to work issues (don't we all?). But usually I'll devote a lot of energy talking her down from a ledge before a big stressful event. Then after said event passes, I'll hear nothing and I'll ask how it went, and she'll say "Oh, it was no big deal." So I end up feeling frustrated that I devoted all that time to making her feel better about something that ends up being "no big deal."

Carolyn Hax: Certainly you have full say in what -you- do. Next crisis, for example, you can choose to expend less energy, or to remind her that it's never as bad as she thinks it's going to be (with specific examples), or to support her as always but anticipate that you'll hear nothing from her because it was ultimately not a big deal.

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Trenton, N.J.: Actually, with the whole cat thing, the guy could just be avoiding an unpleasant task. Guaranteed the cats will spend quite a few evenings yowling outside the door once they are excluded, ensuring some serious misery for the couple. Many cats can resort to things like peeing on pillows or in shoes to express their displeasure. The boyfriend could just be scared that it won't work or she'll grow impatient with slow progress and unpleasant consequences and that the next step is her demanding that the cats be the next to go. He might be hoping she'll get used to it before she draws any lines in the sand.

Does she understand the task she'll be undertaking with her boyfriend if she insists on a cat free bedroom?

Carolyn Hax: I actually thought of this, and I see it as a problem with him that's almost as bad as insensitivity to her needs. If this is what he thinks and feels about her request, the stand-up thing to do is to SAY it. E.g. "I understand what you're asking and sympathize, but kicking the cats out isn't that simple, because they'll yowl/pee/whatever." Out of respect for the woman he loves enough to marry, the stand-up next step is to then do some homework about how to retrain the cats.

Seriously. This isn't about cat love, it's about human respect.

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Sleep deprivation...: ...is a well-known torture device. Also, it's much harder for some people to get back to sleep after being awakened than for others. I can't see "getting used to it."

Carolyn Hax: Thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

Why am I having such a hard time breaking up with someone I'm not very happy with? My friends all say he's a really nice, funny, stable guy. But he has really poor relationship skills such as putting me last, flirting with other girls, not being there for me emotionally. Also, I've met someone else that seems to be really cool, my type, and attentive. I just can't seem to break up with my current guy. Help?

Carolyn Hax: How are your relationship skills? Sounds like you're looking to others to help you form your opinions, looking for emotional satisfaction from a person who withholds it from you, seeing one guy as grounds to leave another, and hesitating to act in your own best interests. I don't mean to be cruel. It's just that I suspect, given your brief but very familiar account, that this or any other new guy isn't going to resolve any of your frustrations (except maybe temporarily), and in fact will probably intensify them. I wouldn't be surprised if the old guy weren't also attentive, at first.

So, I'd suggest learning to stand confidently on your own before you get involved in another relationship, an amorphous and highly personal process that has a clear, uniform start: Ending the unhappy relationship. Tonight.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Any advice on overcoming the urge to drunk dial late at night during the weekends?

Carolyn Hax: Drink a whole lot less.

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Not Looking Forward to the Fourth: I'm seeing my family this weekend, something I always dread because, frankly, I don't like them. Any words of wisdom for how to get through it?

Carolyn Hax: Find enough to like for one day, even if it's just the fact that you're happy to remain in contact with family, even family you dislike.

And if that's not good enough, start making other plans for 9 out of 10 holidays. It's not easy, but it can be done.

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Boulder, Colo.: Just curious -- do you ever edit the gender identity of letter- writers before publishing? We LOVED your Sunday column about kitty konflict, and wondered if the original writer might have been a woman -- women being, stereotypically, more likely to bring a cat into a relationship.

Carolyn Hax: I've never changed the sexes in a letter. I also don't change tone or substance. The only edits I make are to streamline letters that meander, tweak grammar (I leave many imperfections intact, but try to fix the distracting, confusing and embarrassing), and get the finished product to fit.

Nick changes the sexes a lot, but he can do that, since his art stands alone.

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Re: drunk dialing: Virgin Mobile offers a "drunk dialing cure" -- you can call in and tell them what numbers you want blocked during certain times, so you won't be allowed to drunk dial your ex on weekends.

As someone who has never drunk dialed in her life, I find this to be hilarious!

Carolyn Hax: They should wire it so that dialing the blocked numbers connects you to a cab company.

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Time to thump Gene's head: Betray, AL: Gene - Last Wednesday a woman wrote to Carolyn Hax asking what what she thought about her requesting her fiance to stop confiding in his mother with all of the details of their arguments and problems. Her response:

"I can't think of anything that would alienate you from your new mother-in-law faster than putting a gag order on her son. Shutting out is not kind. Controlling is not winning."

I think the sharing of those details to anyone, especially his mother, to be a huge betrayal. What is your take on this?

Gene Weingarten: A huge, honking, nearly inforgiveable betrayal. This is the biggest mistake the otherwise sagacious Carolyn has made since she unwisely backed stay at home mommying over all other forms of mommying. (A position later at least partially rescinded, I believe.)

A marriage is like the Mafia. You don't go outside the family. You respect your spouse's privacy, in matters of strife and disagreement and embarrassment. (I exempt professional counseling, which is a whole different ballgame.)

Carolyn Hax: I'm not sure he'll feel it, what with that hair.

I am sure, or at least I suspect, that Gene's marriage is happy enough for him not to have considered that "protecting privacy," and demands thereof, have left spouses in unhappy marriages dangerously isolated from people who care about them.

Full disclosure, though--while that certainly drove my answer, I also believe, to the point of zealotry, in a hands-off kind of love, where you trust your mate to make choices that serve the marriage well, even if they wouldn't necessarily be your choices--and deal with any problems only when and if they happen. Free to be, man.

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Another In-Law Question: My inlaws are coming this weekend. And staying for quite a lot longer than I'd like. My other half and I tend to start bickering and being miserable to one another if the in-laws say any longer that three days. But now we're looking at five. The in-laws manipulated their way into a longer stay... and my other half didn't want to deal with telling them it was too long. We have a baby coming in a few months, and I just KNOW that they're going to keep pulling this manipulative -&-% and not listen to me... and my other half is going to just let them do what they want because it's "easier" than confronting them. Any advice?

Carolyn Hax: Find a way to have to be out of town for a day or two of it, even if it's to "have to be out of town" at a hotel one town away. If it has a spa, even better. If you can't afford it, crash with a friend. Why not? In-law avoidance therapy could be good practice for when the baby comes, and you learn that while most things need solutions in principle, sometimes practical ones will suffice in a pinch.

Speaking of solutions in principle. I would urge you and your husband to find a way to work out the in-law thing--and, if there is one, the larger not-dealing thing--before the baby comes, lest you bicker this kid into researching kindergarten study-abroad programs. He needs to see that his avoidance is an unhealthy pattern that lays extra burdens on you. You need to see that avoidance is the pattern he learned and be selective about the issues you ask him to face. You both need to see that bickering doesn't work. And if you can't get to these points on your own, please find a good marriage counselor.

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Missed it: I missed the Sunday column and can't track it down on the Web site. Could you provide a link? It is receiving a lot of attention today.

Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Sunday's column , and all Carolyn's columns .

Carolyn Hax: Thanks Liz.

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Virginia: Online only please -- my best friend died very gruesomely last week in an alcohol-related accident. Now I have this horrible running image in my head of her last hours, like a television on in the background. I can't sleep, which is probably making things worse. Short of taking drugs (not an option) what can I do to get this out of my head?

Carolyn Hax: That's awful, I'm sorry. Have you sought any non-drug treatment? There is a lot out there in the way of trauma counseling. Talk to your regular doctor for a referral.

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Washington, D..C: Is it wrong for a single to crave physical and emotional contact? Everyone else seems to have it. It's gotten so that I get furious whenever a pretty woman sits next to me on the Metro or I see some happy couple walking down the street. Clearly, this is Not Healthy. Ideas?

Carolyn Hax: It's certainly not wrong to crave it, that's normal. I think it's wrong to assume everyone else has it, since I would venture more people are lonely than not (with people in unhappy relationships leading the charge). And, I do think the Not Healthy is right, and explains your inaccurate everyone's-happy-but-me judgment.

The quesiton is, how unhealthy? Do you need an attitude adjustment, or treatment? It's not something i can necessarily tell from here, but you probably can just by trying the first and seeing if it's enough.

To try adjusting your attitude, I'd try three things: 1. find other ways to make your life fulfilling. If you can;t think of any, you're either depressed and should skip to the treatment phase/ doctor visit, or you're not thinking hard enough. 2. When you look around you, remove the self-pity prism and see what's really there: People doing their best, with or without companionship, in as many forms as there are people. 3. Lean a little more on the relationships you do have.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm siding with Gene on this one. I dated a guy for a while who confided in his parents after every fight we had, even a minor one. I had to ask him to stop talking to them, because it started to feel like 3 against 1 every time we had even the smallest disagreement and they would get him so convinced that he was right that he wouldn't entertain the idea of compromising with me. I just didn't see how half the stuff was even his parents' business in the first place(like where we went on vacation, etc.) I think that involving your parents in relationship disagreements (esp minor ones) really crosses a line and is totally unfair to your SO.

Carolyn Hax: But you broke up with him, right? My point in letting people be is that the guy was the problem, not the confiding, and demanding that he not confide wouldn't change the fact that his judgment and his relationship with his parents were both problematic.

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Arlington, Va.: My husband and I (with the help of a trusted accountant) have realized that it is costing us money to have me work. Figuring in our tax rate and child-care costs pushes it into the red, not to mention parking, gas, extra babysitters when I travel, etc.

The thing is, I've always worked. And while I don't LOVE my current job, I like what I do and the people are nice. I like that there are people who know me as me first and a mom second. I like having financial independedce (well, in theory) and I like getting out of the house. I think staying home is going to make me crazy, but how do I justify it when it negatively affects our bottom line.

Any words of encouragement?

Carolyn Hax: To say you can't work because it's costing you money means the only reason you're working is to make money. Apparently, it's not. I think you need to go back, with your husband and without the accountant (at least in the first stage), and figure out the home/career/family life you both -want-, for your child(ren) and for yourselves. Home? Working? Full-time? Part-time? Paid? Volunteer? Blow the possibility-realm wide open and see what makes the most sense.

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Changeville: Carolyn, I'm feeling a bit isolated from a good friend. She has been going through troubles such as a hot/cold boyfriend, job insecurities, needing to move but having no money and relatives letting her down. All of her problems are not self-inflicted or created for drama. She's really going through tough times. The problem I feel (and I'm sure I'm being a jerk) is that I've had some ups and downs myself lately but when I talk to her all she wants to do is talk about herself. I also feel that sharing my good news will be a slap in the face to her. I just want my old friend back, but the troubles I see her having are enormous and not going to go away overnight. Should I stick there with her and find other friends/outlets for my own life situations or do I have a right to be annoyed that I can no longer celebrate anything good with her?

Carolyn Hax: I think it would be fair, without undermining your compassion, to say to her that you have wanted to share things in your own life lately but haven't known how to, given her very real troubles. Say it in a help-me-share kind of way, not an accusatory way.

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Re: Gene's response to yours: How come you have never discussed your "Mommy Wars" affiliation? Has your view toward it/about it changed since you wrote your chapter?

Carolyn Hax: I've mentioned it, and my views stand. There are good and bad parents who work and good and bad parents who stay home, and one major difference between them is how well they know themselves and their children. Figure out what your kids need, and figure out how you're best suited to provide it. Any more specific instructions, to me, are meddling.

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Re: Virginia: Is it possible the poster was a boy who liked her himself?

Carolyn Hax: Or a girl who liked her herself. Crossed my mind, too, and meant to float that in my answer, but forgot to. Thanks. (This refers to the early Q about counseling a friend post-breakup.)

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Washington, D.C.: How does one date multiple people? I've always been the girl who gets into a serious relationship too soon, and now I'm trying NOT to jump into anything serious too quickly. So I find myself dating three guys, all of whom I like and enjoy spending time with. But I find myself feeling a little guilty for being with one and not the other. And I also find myself worrying that by dating multiple people I won't let myself develop stronger feelings for any of them. I just don't know how to do it!

Carolyn Hax: That you haven't developed stronger feelings for one over the others suggests it's a good thing you haven't isolated one to "let" stronger feelings develop. When it comes to mating, the guy himself should determine how strongly you feel, not how often you see him or under what pretext. As long as all of them know you're dating casually and dating others, you have nothing to feel guilty about. If it continues to feel weird to you, you don't have to keep it up--why work that hard--but I would suggest you replace it with not dating anyone. Unless of course you find yourself missing one of the guys in particular, which would be one way a take-it-slowly strategy pays off.

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Frustrat, ED: Carolyn,

I am looking for suggestions as to how to get my wife to see her lack of interest in a physical relationship is a problem in our marriage. I've tried to discuss it with her - outside of the bedroom, of course, but she just says she doesn't know why she's no longer interested. All other aspects of our marriage are going very well - good communication, lots of laughter, date nights out at restaurants, plays, movies, etc. We enjoy our time together, but we both have outside hobbies, interests and friends to keep us busy. FWIT, we're two healthy people, in our early 30s, married 7 years. Thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: When she says she doesn't know why, you don't have much choice but to take her word for it. But you can then say that your physical relationship is important to you, and, unless you misundertood, was important to her once, and so it would mean a lot to you if she would be willing to explore possible reasons--with a gynecologist, psychologist, her own unspoken feelings, wherever her best guess leads her.

It saddens me how often I see cases where human touch is withdrawn without explanation, and I think committed couples owe it to each other, at minimum, to treat it as if it's important. That is something I think you can ask of her--to understand that it's important. If she can see that, you may still not be satisfied with the outcome, but you should be able to get a more satisfying answer than the one you have now.

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Not Healthy, Washington, D.C.: Fulfilling life? The nice job, the volunteering, the good friends, the going on vacations alone -- all very "fulfilling." But it's getting old. A little company would be nice.

Carolyn Hax: No one's saying it wouldn't. But company gets old, too, and so does pining for what you don't have. I'm not unsympathetic; just unendowed with the power to grant you happiness. The only solution to any problem is to change what is within your power to change. You can't, on your own, acquire a mate. So you do what you can do. You can also get angry that it isn't enough, but that creates new problems and leaves the old one unsolved.

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Washington, D.C. Brigthwood: Hey Carolyn,

Read your column online and in the paper. Got a question. A guy broke it off with about a year ago. He stated that we could be friends, but there would be no more sex nor dates. Well, yesterday he sent e-mail asking if I wanted to come out and play as he wanted to get in some sexual mischief. I am a little taken back. I don't know how to take this. Does it sound like it he could be interested in being more than friends again? I am afraid to ask him. I don't wish to be hurt again.

Carolyn Hax: Then don't respond to people who email you when they're horny. They taught us this one in advice school.

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Working for negative income: Another GOOD reason to work is if you are in a field that changes, and you are likely not to be able to find a good position once the day-care years are over. I was able to find a good part-time job during those years--and my income barely covered child care--but then when I wanted to return full-time I had experience, both on my resume and in actuality.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. A couple of other postings came in to this effect.

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Cost-Benefit Analyses: In figuring out the cost of working - have you figured in long-term benefits such as, will you be promoted in a few years? Will child care costs decrease in a few years? If you quit now, how long will it take you to get back to where you are now after a few years off? What about health insurance, life insurance, 401(k) contributions? Just more to think about. I have known several people who were paying more in child care for a short time, then got promotions that made the jobs pay better, and in time child care costs are reduced or eliminated.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.

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Raleigh, N.C.: A girl I work with is having a baby a few us offered to throw her a shower; we expected she'd offer up a list of about 15-20 close co-workers, but instead she wants to invite nearly our whole company (150 people) because she doesn't want to hurt anyone by excluding them.

We've limited our scope of the food we'll provide to cut down on the cost and logistics, but it still has left us squabbling about how to organize and pay for this feeling-saving extravanga. My question is this:

- why do pregnant women/brides always seem to think these events are as monumental to everyone else as it is to them?

- how do these good intentions always seem to go so horribly of the rails?

Carolyn Hax: Going off the rails requires the involvement of two parties: one to get big ideas, and the other to indulge them. If you think you can get away with it, explain that not everyone is in a position to buy gifts for everyone in the company who gets married or pregnant, and so the best way to protect feelings is to invite only those closest to her.

Or, just tell her no, you can't afford it, and hand her a proposed guest list for her input.

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Carolyn Hax: Time to go; the cat walking around on my keyboard is tired. Thanks everyone for coming and type to you next Friday.

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Not healthy (Again): Last time, I promise...

We get back to the irrational anger. How do I accept that there's a piece of my life missing, but not get angry about it? And what do I do when the anger just bubbles up?

Carolyn Hax: There is NOT a piece missing from your life. Your life is what you have at any given time, and so there is no "whole," there are no "pieces." Make the best of what you have at any given time, in part by doing what you can to work toward what you want. And please talk to someone about that anger.

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