Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 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.


Reston, Va.: Okay, maybe I'm hopelessly naive, but I do have a question about your response to the mom about sex and teens. I completely agree that trying to scare, threaten, or trick kids into not having sex won't work, but is it reasonable to hope that kids will wait until at least after high school?

This is a completely academic question for me, because I don't have kids. However, I've seen plenty of trauma that has resulted from teen sex where one or both of the participants just weren't emotionally mature enough to be making those kinds of decisions, whatever their hormones were telling them.

Carolyn Hax: Parents can hope all they want. But they're still stuck with the fact that they can't chain their kids to the kitchen table. That leaves them back with the answer they don't want to hear, because it doesn't sound good enough: Teach them without getting hysterical, limit them appropriately for their ages, and hold your breath.


Northern Virginia: Re: Today's column

Maybe the reason he is always late is because he knows she frequently is and he's factoring that in when meeting her.

The fact that she is irked is unbelievable!

Carolyn Hax: Wouldn't that be great?


Penn Run, Pa.: Considering quitting my job to become a full-time freelance writer. Is it better to slowly ease into it by writing the occasional article while keeping the full-time job, or to jump right into it and throw all my energy toward it?

Carolyn Hax: Have you ever written freelance? Do you enjoy writing enough to motivate yourself when no one's looking over your shoulder? Do you have buyers lined up for your work? Are you independently wealthy? Many important considerations. If you're experienced, disciplined, connected and financially padded, then, sure, go for it. If even one of these boxes isn't checked, though, I'd start with moonlighting.


Alexandria, Va.: What are your thoughts on online dating? I have had some time after a long term relationship and feel good and comfortable. I want to meet new people and try dating. I have never used the internet to meet people before. Do you think that online dating is too forced and forward? I guess it is tough to get to know someone from a picture and a profile.

Carolyn Hax: Not tough, impossible. You can love someone on email and loathe them in person.

You can get around that by getting to know people in person shortly after ordering them from the menu, but that still leaves you with the other hitch with personal ads, online or otherwise: You're overtly mate-shopping. Bleah. But that's just my highly objected-to opinion. Do what works for you.


Milwaukee, Wis.: How do you help a son who has low self-esteem and financial and marital problems with three daughters in their teens who is now drinking? He tried counseling but too expensive. Should I try to pay for his counseling?

Carolyn Hax: First try to find low- or no-cost counseling. It's out there. Contact the local branch of the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and/or the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Google or 411 them. There are other accreditation groups, but these are the three at the top of my head and if I take any longer to dig people will yell at me.

And if you strike out, yes, offer to pay for the counseling, but only if you;re sure it won't make him feel even more powerless. Tough thing to know for sure about someone else, but this is your son, you probably know enough to make a close guess. Good luck.


Re: Kids and Sex: Educate them! To the point that sex becomes boring, actually. Make sure they know about the diseases, teen pregnancy, birth control, the emotional issues -- everything. My school had a very thorough sex education program (it was a private, secular school), and my choice to wait was based largely on the fact that I recognized that I didn't want to get involved in anything that complicated.

Carolyn Hax: Great testimonial, thanks.


The Gym: Carolyn,

Why do people insist on walking around the gym lockerroom nude? I know it's a lockerroom and people are sweaty and showering and changing but haven't people heard of a robe or wearing a towel? I seem to be on the same schedule as one particular naked women getting ready at the sink across from me, I try to avert my eyes but with the mirror there are only so many places to look. Aand to make it worse she wants to have a conversation. The locker room is not their bedroom, stay dressed!

Carolyn Hax: If she were wearing a shirt, would you talk to it? Or would you look her in the eye or go about your locker-y business while you talked? It's a body! Big whoop.


Online dating: My experience is that it works. It takes patience and common sense.

Carolyn Hax: With patience and common sense, anything works.


Seattle, Wash.: Hi, Carolyn! I'm a 32-year-old male. Everything in life is pretty good, except that I am concerned about my relationship with my girlfriend. She believes it is okay to engage in name-calling. For example, she calls me "stupid" on a regular basis without provocation. In addition, she often physically hurts me she is upset during a discussion. Carolyn, my concern is that over time this could brew resentment in me. Additionally, I am starting to lose respect for myself. At first, I assumed that she would grow-out of this immature behavior, but it has only gotten worst. This doesn't sound healthy to me. My guy friends think I should just "take it." My gut tells me otherwise.

Carolyn Hax: Your guy friends have me thinking this post is a joke.

She is abusive, which is a really great reason to dump her, ideally by lunch.

But you don't even need that kind of reason when being with someone makes you miserable. There are 3 billion women out there, some of them both single and legal, most of whom understand that to call someone stupid is a violation of about 20 basic laws of decency.


Tennessee: To the would-be freelance writer: Also factor in the transition period. I'm not talking about whether you sell or not. When my husband and I moved to a rural location, he told me to write, write, write and he would pay the bills. It was a very exciting prospect, but do you know what? It took me a year or more to really get in a groove. There are a lot of things to distract you when you write from home, and I'm not talking just TV. Pretty much anything will do! Like reading Carolyn when I should be working every Friday! Discipline is the hardest part, so even if you've got everything else covered, it might be better to build up a writing habit if you're lacking that now. Oh, and I'd been writing part time for 10 years when I took this on. In the first year, I think I got about as much done as I had been getting done in 2-3 months when I was working. This is not uncommon, by the way. I know lots of writers with full time jobs and family who always seem to get way more done than us full-time writers.

Carolyn Hax: Absolutely. I'm reading you while I'm supposed to be working. Thanks for the insight.


Gym nudity: Carolyn, there's good naked and there's bad naked...

Carolyn Hax: Don't we all know it. But what are you going to do, throw a tarp over bad naked? It's a body. Big whoop. Repeat as needed.


Silver Spring, Md.: Also, for the mom with kids and sex question: Do NOT flip out on your kid when s/he asks you a questions, or tells you something. It is better to take a break, a walk, or refer the question to another adult.

When I was 16, I asked my mother a question abour oral sex. You would've thought I'd killed someone. The only thing her attitude wrought was the absolute assurance that I'd never ask again.

Carolyn Hax: Great stuff, thanks.


Fairfax, Va.: Where do you start if you just can't seem to connect with people? Not just romantically but also as friends.

Carolyn Hax: Counseling with someone who comes well recommended by someone you trust.


Kids and Sex: One of the best things my parents had me do as a teenager was to help volunteer for our church outreach group to single moms. Some of them were only a couple of years older than I was -- it was terrifying and overwhelming to try to imagine my life with a kid. My parents never said "don't have sex," they said "don't have sex until you love someone and you're positive they love you enough to stick by you through any unintended consequences." I waited a lot longer than I probably would have otherwise.

Carolyn Hax: We should collect these. Brilliant. Thanks.


Science is squicky: Seconding the information overload angle. My boyfriend is in a science field and knew so much about the diseases, risks, etc that he refused for a very long time on those bases alone.

Carolyn Hax: Okay, as long as it's an overload of accurate and proportionate information, and not information skewed to scare.


Online dating: One thing to consider from a guy's perspective. Now that I have given in to online dating (I resisted for quite some time) I am FAR less likely to approach a woman in a bookstore, at a bar, at a softball game, etc. With the women online, I know they're single and interested in dating and it is a little less bruising to the ego if she says no (or nothing) over e-mail than in person. So actually, while I'd argue that online dating can definitely be a good thing, I also think it has made traditional dating more difficult. Just a thought.

Carolyn Hax: Interesting thought, thanks.

I've actually backed almost entirely off the, "Just approach the person," advice, though I didn't make the connection you did. My thinking is just that, if it doesn't come naturally to someone to say something or of the situation doesn't naturally present itself, it's probably just going to be awkward and unpleasant for both parties.

The kind of meeting that seems to work best--again, everything has worked for someone at some point, there are no absolutes here--is one that occurs in the flow of daily life. Meaning, you join something not to meet people, but to enjoy the group activity, and you'll get to know people in the process. Or you go to a party because you like the host or support the cause or whatever, and you meet people in the process. Some people's skills at this are better than others', and some people's luck is better than others', but those are the things--along with patience and common sense--that are going to make online dating work, too.

So my point is merely that online dating isn't a magic fix for anything other than a low supply of new people. If you can see it just for that, and if you can keep sight of how artificial it is and put your expectations away in a safe place for (much) later, then it'll probably deliver as you hope.


Chicago, Ill.: I really appreciate your frank, but thoughtful approach and would appreciate your insight into a situation that I'm sure is not unique in general, but nevertheless intimidating to me at the moment -- In a tough spot with S.O. where we basically fell apart due to lack of communication which led to lack of sharing and affection and it just went into a downward spiral. We've acknowledged that we were not happy and would like to work toward putting the pieces together, but first need to take some time apart to sort through what happened and what we need to do if we go forward. That being said, how does a couple get a clean slate without rehashing all of the negative things that happened in the past? At some point, you need to get it out in the open, but I know that dwelling on it is not the answer. I've never been in this spot before, and I really haven't a clue as to how to proceed. We both love each and want it to work, but aren't sure how to make that happen at this point, and seem to be ill-equipped to deal with our baggage. How do you deal with the past, but not dwell on it so that you can move forward, learn from it and then just put it aside so you can move on?

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for the kind words.

This is not an easy question to answer quickly; in fact, it reads like a goal you establish with a therapist before undertaking treatment.

But you seem to have gotten really far in your thinking, so, who knows, maybe one push can get you the rest of the way (depending on where the S.O. is in all this). What I would suggest is coming up with specific examples of breakdowns between you--times where you needed/wanted/hoped for X, but got Y instead, and then responded/retaliated with Z.

Then, set out the example for your S.O. If you two can come to an agreement--that X was the ideal result, or Y was, or that you'll never agree but can compromise by adjusting your expectations without compromising who you

are--then that's the first step in learning from the past.

The next step is actually pulling off what you agreed, next time you get into a similar situation.

The next step is making that new behavior a habit--i.e., living that way without feeling put-upon or drained.

If you fail at any of these, I think there's a good chance the relationship won't ultimately work (or it'll last and you'll be unhappy).

I also think you can accomplish all of these but still fail if you continue to blame each other for or feel angry about your past arguments. Part of the understanding at the outset has to be that you both contributed to the problem, and that you both need to acknowledge your failings to your own -and- each other's satisfaction. The forgiveness and release from blame have to be real, and not just to facilitate the reconciliation.

Whew. Sorry.


Kids and Sex: I'm a pediatrician and I talk to kids all the time about sex (and drugs and their bodies and anything else they want to know about). And I talk to them with their parents OUT OF THE ROOM because they are sometimes unwilling to ask questions with a parent there. If they are OK with mom/dad in the room later, that's fine. I've had parents upset at me because I won't say if their child is sexually active, but I won't because of doctor/patient confidentiality. It is important for EVERYONE to understand how their bodies work and to not be afraid to visit a doctor. I encourage kids first and foremost to respect themsevles, respect their bodies, and respect others. I will give them the unvarnished truth about sex and will freely answer any questions they have (and I pride myself on never blushing). A 13yo boy I saw they other day wasn't sexually active, but he "plenty of chances". And we talked honestly about how STDs and fatherhood would impact his future plans (football player and engineer). A 14yo girl was sexually active and mom didn't know (but suspected). I said that she might want to consider talking to her mom, but that I wouldn't. And we talked about how her 16yo pregnant cousin's life was going to change. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. Tell them the facts and emphasize respect. Threats and scare tactics aren't often effective. Honesty is.

Carolyn Hax: I'm just going to keep posting these as I see them. Seems like a case where more is better. Thanks.


To the guy who thinks his girlfriend will outgrow her immature habits: Don't hold your breath! I married a girl who seemed perfect for me in so many ways, but who exhibited (what I thought were) youthful behaviours she would surely outgrow. Well, she never outgrew them, and in fact they got worse! We divorced after four years (no kids, thankfully).

Run, don't walk, to the nearest exit.

Carolyn Hax: This converges nicely with the teenage sex theme if I offer up the slogan, "Hope is not a method."

Does this give anyone in the pushing-40 set a flashback?


New York, N.Y.: For the guy with the verbally abusive girlfriend -- she could be my old roommate! She was nice enough, but she kept calling me doofus, [poopy]head, stupid, etc. to the point that I just couldn't talk to her for read of feeling crappy. She did this name calling to everyone, and I probably could have handled it once in a blue moon, but not everyday. Leave before you stop respecting her.

Carolyn Hax: Had it really been "Poopyhead," would that have made it okay?

Not that this applies with the Seattle guy--his GF is not only belittling, but also hitting. Seriously bad news, at best for his self-worth and at worst for his safety.


For Milwaukee: As the daughter of two alcoholics and the sister of two others, I urge you to try to help your son if he'll allow it. Growing up with an alcoholic parent is a nightmare I'm sure that he wouldn't want to inflict on his daughters.

Two things that Carolyn didn't mention are your local municipality and AA. Most local governments have mental health departments that provide counseling on a sliding scale. It wouldn't cost anything to call yours and get a little information.

Also, if your son doesn't have an objection to the "higher power" aspect of AA, it could be a life-saver for him. It's free and it's non-judgemental. I can't speak from personal experience (the family's addictive tendencies take carb/fat, not alcohol, form for me), but from what my brother tells me, people talk about everything in those meetings. If your son were to go to a few meetings and realize that he could safely talk about his marriage and money problems, it might be a tremendous help. He might also meet people who could help him either through their own services or through recommendations.

I wish you and your family the best of luck.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for the great info. To the AA mention, I'd like to add that not all support-group meetings are the same, even within one organization. Different times and locations attract different people, and different people set different tones. True of AA, NA, grief support, anger management, all of it.


Kids and Sex: Agree completely re: the educate, and then let go, line of reasoning; somehow a lot of these questions seemed to come up while I was in the car with Mom, and she'd keep driving around the neighborhood while she answered.

On the other hand, the oral sex comment reminds me that I didn't handle it so well when my grandmother and great-aunt asked me what "was it about this oral sex, anyway?" I'd been buying increasingly racy Harlequin romances for them -

Carolyn Hax: Don't forget A loaded gun should have the safety on.


Teens and Sex: I love the thoughtful and insightful comments about the importance of sex education and dealing with teens!!

I taught reproductive biology to college students for years and I was always horrified at how little they knew, although statistics tell me many of them are sexually active.

But what disturbed me the most about the original letter writers column was the 'especially girls'... As in 'we especially want to make sure girls don't engage in teenage sex but it doesn't matter as much if boys do'?!?! Pray tell, who do they think the teenage boys are having sex with?

Good grief, people, enter the new century!! There are risks and consequences to both males and females regarding sexual behavor and they should be thoroughly and accurately taught about them so they can make informed decisions, based on their own values and personal beliefs, which are likely influenced by their parents.

OK, climbing down off my soapbox now...

Have a great weekend, Carolyn!!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks! I almost climbed on that soapbox myself, but gave the writer the benefit of the (very slim) doubt. To my mind, at least, it could have meant that the writer had a girl or girls and so would appreciate it if I made my suggestions specifically with girls in mind.

Yeah, I know.


Miracle of Technology: Just wanted to say that, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, I can follow your chat and watch the Red Sox game at the same time - won't say what's happening unless you want me to do so.

Carolyn Hax: I just got a bulletin. I'm feeling very fragile.


Hope and Other Methods: Just thinking how much of a tightrope it is -- the one writer's comment about how her parents told her to wait til she loved someone reminded my of a high school boyfriend who was pressuring me, by telling me that his parents had said something similar -- i.e., that his parents said you didn't wait until marriage, you did it when you loved someone. It's a tough area, not just for teens, but for adults -- but I do think education and trust are key. And, as a parent, realizing your kids aren't going to do what you want, necessarily - but, if you give them the right tools, and work to engender self-respect in them, as well as respect for others, they'll make the choices that are right for them. And it'll all be okay.

Carolyn Hax: ... in most cases. I think it's really important to realize that sometimes things do go wrong, even with a carefully raised child. People have a blind spot here, and that's what makes parents who've been spared pass judgment and distance themselves from parents of kids who get into trouble. Yes, sometimes parents are to blame. But I think parents who pat themselves on the back and say, "MY kids would never do that!" are deluding themselves.


Please Enlighten Us!: What are the 20 Basic Laws of Decency. I'd really like to see that list, and, frankly, I'm a little too lazy to try to create it myself.

Carolyn Hax: Me too. But I'll start it and see what else you guys have to add. What would I put on it ... oh:

1. Your time is not more important than everyone else's. (Takes care of line-cutters, tailgaters, wait-staff abusers, housework-shirkers, call-in-sick-when-you're-not-ers...)


Cary, N.C.: I'm having a hard time trusting my boyrfriend again. The mistrust has nothing to do with any other women. Our relationship was great until he started drinking too much. For about two weeks, he was either sleeping, working or drunk. I would show up at his place for a date, and he would already be drunk. He would drink alone and be drunk at 3 in the afternoon. When he was like this, he was very mean and accusatory. I finally told him to shape up, or I'm out. He was good for a while. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he went on a four-day drinking binge. After he sobered up and we had a few talks, I agreed to stay but told him he had no more chances. He's been pretty good since. The problem is that I am very indifferent to his company and anything romantic in our relationship. While I have forgiven him for his past drinking problems, I can't forget. While I want our relationship to be "back to normal," I don't believe he has truly changed. Any advice?

Carolyn Hax: I could suggest a few things (Al-anon, educating yourself on alcohol problems; is good). But if you don't believe him, and you don't foresee ever letting his good behavior persuade you--i.e., you're always going to be waiting for the other shoe to drop--the relationship's already over. I'm sorry.


Naked in the Gym: Who cares if people are naked in the gym? Sounds like this girl has issues of her own. Actually, I think it would be great if Americans were more comfortable with their bodies and others. What is so offensive about it? I don't understand.

Carolyn Hax: clapclapclapclapclap

I think it would actually help with sexual judgment, to tie together two more threads. A hallmark of U.S. culture seems to be to naughtify any and all mature pleasures--sex, alcohol come to mind--and then to freak out when young people charge in unequipped and of course get burned.


Simi Valley Calif. - more decency: How about:

It won't kill you to say please and thank you. If you ask for something say please, if you get it, say thank you.

Thank you!!

Carolyn Hax: You;re welcome.


Here's one! (Decency law): Thou shalt not ask friends/family personal questions such as "When are you getting married/having kids/etc". Nor will you comment on someone's appearance unless you are giving a complimetn.

Carolyn Hax: And your compliment won't be, "Wow, you've lost a ton!"


Basic Law of Decency: Pressuring someone to do something they don't want to do (have sex, have a conversation, try some of the salmon mousse) is never, under any circumstances, "being nice" or "being polite."

Carolyn Hax: Come on, just a little, you can be uptight tomorrow.


"MY kids would never do that!": Even if it's true that your kids would never do that, don't pat yourself on the back, pat your kids on the back instead.

Carolyn Hax: You know? That would solve so much.


Washington, D.C.: I need a few pick me up words. I'm having a really hard time getting over a relationship which ended a few months ago. Went on my first date this week. There was not, as I was worried would be the case, the same feeling of compatability and instant connection as there was with the ex. That relationship taught me how important that quality is to me, and I'm so worried I'm never going to feel that level of compatability again.

Carolyn Hax: It might be a whole lot more fair, to you and to the people you date in the future, to tell yourself now that you are, in fact, never going to feel that level of compatibility again.

Instead, you are going to feel something else--because you will be with someone else. And this something else could be SO much better, in its way, than what you had. Be patient. Give things a chance.


Decency law: A mood is not an excuse, nor a justification. ("I snapped at my kids because I had a bad day at work" doesn't cut it.)

Carolyn Hax: Nice, thanks.

It can, however, be an explanation--"I'm sorry I yelled. It wasn't anything you did, I just had a bad day at work that I shouldn't have taken out on you." It can also be a warning--e.g., next time I have a bad day at work, I need to watch myself around (or ask for help with) the kids.


Snapped At: Carolyn, please help. My boyfriend snaps at me on occasion, but never feels that he needs to apologize. I've told him that it is corrosive and the tone-of-voice more than the message is what is hurtful, but he feels justified in snapping at me, because he says he tells me things 100 times and I don't listen unless he does snap at me. I am a bit absent-minded and somewhat of a "dawdler"; my sense of time is definitely not his. How can I convince him that being nice ALL THE TIME is just how you treat people, and that if you snap you apologize, or else people (me) end up feeling like crud. He acts like I am intentionally being uncooperative; I'm not. I think snappishness is so disrespectful and arrogant, but he won't listen to me.

Carolyn Hax: Then GET OUT. You are being yourself, and he is making you unhappy with that self, because -he doesn't like it.- There is absolutely no signoficant reason that staying with him is better than being single.

Add to that, he is controlling, and no less verbally abusive than the woman who was calling her boyfriend stupid. Get out, get out, get out. Life doesn't need to be like this.


What's wrong with complimenting on weight?: "And your compliment won't be, "Wow, you've lost a ton!" "

I assume this is meant for those not actively dieting. If I had an overweight friend that was successfully loosing weight and asked how he/she looked and he/she did drop alot, I see nothing wrong with saying "Wow, you've lost a ton!"

Carolyn Hax: But in your example, the person is a friend who has told you s/he's dieting and then ASKED your opinion. Which makes it completely different from making an unsolicited comment to someone to whom you're not close. In that case, "You look great," is a fine thing to say.


Wainwright, Alberta, Canada: Just a note on the "Higher Power" aspect of 12 step groups. I'm a member of Al-Anon, and have some experience of AA, and we really do work very hard to make sure people do not use the spiritual aspect of the program to push their sprituality on others. There are many athiests in the programs -- the higher power does not have to be "God", but can be anything that the person chooses -- personally, I use something that you could probably call "Science" for want of a better term. A lot of people are scared off by this part of the program, but it really does not have to be a big deal unless you make it so. And, you're right, different meetings have a different feel -- shop around a bit.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, I think this is a common hurdle for people.


Men's locker room: In this place, inhibition apparently declines with age. I don't mind it. It reminds me somehow of going to the zoo.

Carolyn Hax: Perfect words for a perfect thought make a perfect end.

Bye, everybody, and thanks.


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