Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006 12:30 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.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm about to ask a girl out on a date and I'm scared! I feel like a kid asking someone out to homecoming.

Carolyn Hax: I don't think scary social things ever completely stop being scary. The consequences of failure just seem a little less drastic.

Good luck!


Washington, D.C.: Dear Carolyn -- I think my relationship has turned a bit abusive. My girlfriend of about a year has always been moody and had a temper, and although it can be hard to deal with at times, I've been ok with it. But lately, if she gets upset with me, she calls me vulgar names, says very hurtful and nasty things, hangs up on me, etc. Later she will apologize saying she doesn't know why she treated me like that and she doesn't know how to stop, and I feel bad for her. I've never seen myself as someone who would stay in a relationship where they are getting routinely hurt, but I love her and I want to help her- she can be a very sweet and loving girl. We have talked about her seeking counseling for her anger issues- is there anything I can do to help her and, more importantly, is there any hope in working on an abusive relationship?

Carolyn Hax: There will be a point where it's more important to take care of yourself than to keep trying to help her, and you'll be there if her abuse turns physical or if you're starting to suffer emotional damage.

Whether there's hope, that depends on how receptive she (or her condition) is to treatment, and that in turn depends on how willing she is to deal with her problem. If the counseling is just something she talks about but doesn't actually get, then this thing's done. I don't see much hope.

FWIW (since what you describe sounds like a deteriorating condition): I think she should be getting screened for a mental illness, and not just counseled on anger management.


Dress Codes: So I got the registration sheet for my 20-year high school reunion, and it says "casual cocktail (no ties!)."

I wasn't planning to wear a tie, since that fad in women's clothing has long since passed (thankfully) -- although since I graduated in the 80s, I suppose an homage to John Hughes isn't entirely out of the question for some. But while I know what "casual" and "cocktail" mean, I really don't know what the planners want when they specify "casual cocktail." Thoughts? Shoe recommendations?

Carolyn Hax: Party clothes, whatever feels most flattering. Wear the shoes you bought even though you knew you couldn't possibly justify buying them.


Denver, Colo.: Carolyn: Any words of advice to console someone whose good (I thought) friend left them out of their wedding? I feel sad, angry, and snubbed, but at the same time realize it's completely ridiculous to care so much. I guess I'm supposed to hold my tongue and go to the wedding anyway and pretend everything is fine, right?

Carolyn Hax: Unfortunately. If it helps, 10 years after their weddings, a lot of people are mystified by their own wedding-party choices. It's billed as a reflection of lifelong bonds, but a wedding party often ends up being a snapshot of a moment (A had me in his wedding, and B hates C, and D's sister would freak if excluded, but E would take it well ...), with all the durability of one of those New Year's In-Out lists. Try to shrug it off, and be glad you can wear your own clothes.


Arlington, Va.: Carolyn - help! I know it's been discussed before, but now I'm in the nasty position of knowing someone's cheating while their spouse has no clue what's going on.

It's not my business so I should butt out, right? I still feel like crap about it though.

Carolyn Hax: If the victim is a close relative or friend, you tell (or pressure the cheater to tell or else you will); people left in the dark by their trusted inner circle often stay angry at the people who remained silent longer than they do at the cheater.

If the cheater is a close friend or relative, urge him or her to end one relationship or the other, asap.

If you're peripheral, remain so, crappy as it feels.


Burke, Va.: Carolyn, I just found out I'm pregnant after much difficulty. We had actually just started talking about going the adoption route and raised that with our extended families. So now I'm pregnant and medically "at-risk" so we're excited but nervous at the same time. The dilemma is that we're going to be visiting my family for a big weekend next week (my dad's 60th) where we'll be asked a lot of questions.

My gut reaction is to tell the extended family. I'm a pretty open person anyway and the way our family grapevine works, if something happens, they'll know about that, too. My husband has left the decision up to me. Am I too eager to share?

Carolyn Hax: I don't think so, not if you don't. My guide is to tell good news to anyone you'd also tell bad news. My cautious congratulations!


For Denver Colorado: Two years after my wedding and I am still questioning why chose the women I chose to be in my wedding party.

One I am no longer friends with, mainly because I realized she was a snooty person whom I couldn't for the life of me understand why I ever was friends with her to begin with.

In the end it really doesn't matter since that person is still your friend.


He/she could quite possibly be trying to save you from Bride/Groomzilla! Be thankful you don't have to spend money on the ugly Tuxedo and/or Dress and party it up with the rest of the guests!

Carolyn Hax: There you go. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn. Thank you for all of the great advice. Here's my problem: I'm 27 and I'm sick of dating boys. No, I'm not going out with 13 year olds, all of the guys about my age seem to still act that way. They may be past some of the trappings of that age group but all of the ones I seem to meet still need a girl to show them the way, make plans, etc. I want to find a man who likes my help and input, but doesn't need it. Where do I find that?

Carolyn Hax: Where you find everything else worthwhile--in a deep well of patience.


Seven Y ear Itch?: Okay - I'm coming up on my seventh anniversary. Does the seven-year itch start now or is it almost over? I don't know whether to start holding my breath or heave a sigh of relief!

Carolyn Hax: It's almost over.


Carolyn Hax: Just wanted to see what it was like to tell someone what s/he wanted to hear.


Washington, DC : Is there anything love can't justify? I'd like to think there isn't, but my fiance and I are looking at some pretty big career/family/environmental sacrifices on both ends, and I just hope our reason (best possible start to our marriage) is good enough.

Carolyn Hax: There are a million things love can't justify. Abuse. Murder. Deceit. Self-immolation, literal or figurative. If you start to feel your sacrifices are cutting into the quick of who you are, then you're right to start saying no. That doesn't have to mean the end of it all (tho it could), just that you need to find flexibility somewhere else.


For Angry Girl's Boyfriend: Carolyn, agree with everything you said. He can also be observing a learned, unhealthy family dynamic that's she's not even aware of. Paying attention to how her family treats her, etc., and perhaps pointing out how it makes her feel (if it's happening in her family) can help her see she needs help.

Again, I think in this case, it's probably more than that. I've been in that poor girl's shoes, though, where "It's OK to be the worst with the ones you love, because they love you." It's toxic thinking, and a person needs help to change and realize being yourself doesn't mean being as nasty as you want. It can feel "normal", "right" and "appropriate," though, if that's all you've ever known.

Carolyn Hax: Good point, thanks.


Re: Dating boys: I am 26 and find myself in the same dilemma. Guys my age don't seem to have the maturity and stability that I need. I find myself dating men older than me. I refuse to date anyone over 50 (arbitrary number), but usually my relationships are with guys in their upper 30's into their 40's. I'm not looking for a father figure. I just want someone who is on my level. If I'm ok with it, is it still ok?

Carolyn Hax: Of course, if you've (a) thought through the consequences, such as the possibility of having a mate who's elderly 20 years before you are, or an older father for your children; and (b) taken care not to generalize all guys your age as immature. Call it a bias, but I always think it's suspect when people date categories.


Dress Codes, AGH: The poster with the dress code question reminded me of two weddings I went to recently. At one, the post-rehearsal cocktail reception was "country casual," at at the other, the ceremony and reception were listed as "island chic." Stop the madness! It's hard enough to figure out what to wear.

Carolyn Hax: Unjustifiable gingham shoes; unjustifiable straw/rope/canvas shoes. Where there's a will, there's a way.


Spokane, Wash.: Carolyn: I just found out an old friend (we've lost touch for a few years) was left by her husband. I'd like to contact this friend and see how she's doing, but I'm unsure how to approach this subject. Pretend I don't know and let her bring it up? Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Don't pretend you don't know. Just don't be the first to bring it up, and if/when she mentions it, say you knew but wanted her to be able to bring it up at her own pace.

It's not a perfect solution--there will always be people who find it offensive that you stayed quiet, offensive that you brought it up, offensive that you even knew, offensive that you called, offensive that you didn't call--but it's one that at least shows respect both for her feelings and her intelligence.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Carolyn,

Hopefully you can help. My boyfriend of the last four months and I have decided just to be friends because our futures are going in completely different directions (i.e. there's no feasible way for us to see each other within the next six months -- one year, he's in Korea right now) but he's the first person I've ever felt like I loved. I'm pretty broken up about it but don't want to fool myself into thinking that there's something there when we would have tried our damndest to make things work if we thought there could be a real future. I'm just afraid that phone conversations from now on will be a bunch of "So..."'s or "Well..."'s or, most dreaded, "I miss you so much" which is NOT moving on and definitely not friendship. Any words on how to transition? He really is a great guy and I want him to be a part of my life, even if it's just as friends.

Carolyn Hax: This is going to sound too pat, but I actually believe it: If your conversations dwindle to "So ..." and "Well ...," then it probably wasn't going to go the distance even if you hadn't gone off to different parts of the globe. If you're good together, you'll talk, freely, about anything. That's the thing that you can trust, not the buzzy "I'm in love!" thing you get after only four months (and that you usually lose in due time).


RE: Spokane: It sounded like they don't speak regularly, and that the only way they'd have contact would be if Spokane made the contact, via phone call or letter or what have you. Could you elaborate on how to address that awkwardness? Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: "I was thinking of you and wondering how you were doing." Or whatever else you would say when you were calling someone with whom you had lost touch, life change or no life change.

But now what we're back on the subject, one more thought on the original answer: There are going to be people with whom it's obvious you should just come clean. "Hey, I heard X, and I wanted to let you know I'm here." But I think you'll know those people--straight-shooters, former very close friends, etc. It's with the ones who have you second-guessing their bluntness tolerance that I advise hanging back a bit.


Portland, Ore.: Hi, Carolyn:

I've been dating a young lady for about 10 months. We are 30-something professionals. The relationship has had many ups and down, and we have been trying to work things out. The one thing that keeps bothering me is that the young lady continues to be active with online dating profiles. I have expressed to her that I find it is difficult to date someone who appears to be holding out for a better deal (or even a better match).

This is becoming a deal breaker for me, because this relationship is supposed to be exlusive. And I consider ACTIVE online profiles to be an intrusion in our relationship, and yes, unfaithful.

I've never been in this position... any advice?

Carolyn Hax: If she's doing something that she knows hurts you, and she hasn't supplied an explanation for doing it that shows she respects your feelings but has other legitimate priorities, then she isn't worth what it's costing you emotionally to date her.

I tried to answer it without the specifics of online dating because I'm sure you have been in this position before. There's nothing "new" in relationships; there are only more media.


Re Boston, Mass.: I would just caution her to be sure that BOTH of them are fully resolved on being "friends only" in the future. I just, in the last week, had a painful parting with someone I had dated for three months and was friends with for a year post-breakup because my romantic feelings for him never fully went away. We always had plenty to say to each other, but in the end he was much more firmly resolved about us only being friends than I was. I finally realized it when he started dating someone else last month and I flew off the handle.

Carolyn Hax: I understand, but I'm not sure what happened to you was preventable--or, maybe more accurately, should have been prevented. How were you to foresee that your feelings would last? How was he to know his wouldn't? You value each other, so you try, and you hope it doesn't get messy. Even when it does get messy, I still think that's better than launching a bunch of preemptive strikes against anyone's feelings getting hurt. (Easy for me to say, not being in active pain as you are, I know.)


RE: Dating Boys: Isn't it possible, just maybe, that she's looking for men in the wrong places? Also, could her standards be too high? And who's to say she's so mature herself?

Carolyn Hax: Possible, except for the standards thing. Specifically, people should never -try- to lower their standards. Either someone seems good enough, or not; I doubt any of us wants to be on a date with someone who thinks, "You're not good enough, but I'm striking out everywhere else so I guess I'll give you a try anyway." Thanks but no thanks.


For Portland: Ok, I can see his point (and agree) about the profiles. But may I vomit that he refers to a "30-some professional" as a young lady?

Carolyn Hax: Please do. Thanks.


Fairfax, Va.: Hi Carolyn,

I've been dating my boyfriend for about 10 months, and we've never had a fight. Minor disagrements, sure, but not a full-blown, yelling, screaming, fight. Is this normal?

Carolyn Hax: I shudder to think that "a full-blown, yelling, screaming fight" is somehow assumed to be normal. It may be common, but it's still a failure of better ways of communicating. If you've come by your hystrionics-avoidance honestly--i.e., if neither of you is secretly suppressing rage or stockpiling unspoken resentment--then please regard that as a precedent, not an aberration.


Re: Dating Boys: I am a 26-year-old boy/man. For what it's worth, I dated an unending string of immature, emotionally unavailable girls before meeting the woman I married last month. My suggestion? There are few mature options on both sides of the gender divide- keep at it, and try not to blame men in the process. In my experience, people are the ones who are often immature.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, young man.


Portland, Ore.: Does anyone ever actually successfully become friends with an ex if they try right after the breakup? The only time I've had luck with this is if we breakup, then reconnect at some later time, after the raw feelings have died down. It also helps if you have no expectations about what the relationship will be -- you might be great friends, you might not.

Carolyn Hax: I agree with the last part. The first part does make sense as a general idea, but it's just too couple-specific to work as direct advice. The chemistry of the couple and the specifics of the breakup are more likely, I think, to affect the outcome than the timing.


Anonymous: Portland: If you have already expressed how you feel and are not satisfied with her explanation, just find your way out. Or whatever you think is right for you.

Re: Boston: That's why it's so important to wathch all the signs. If it's not right, just get out as soon as you can.

I'm gone now.

Carolyn Hax: Who was that masked adviser?


Harrisburg, Pa.: For Portland as well: I thought about vomiting too but decided to give credit for the effort.

At least he didn't say "girl."

Carolyn Hax: I would have preferred girl. Vastly. It's like saying, "guy."


So many engaged and unengaged: Hi Carolyn --

I am very excited to me newly engaged (read: Wednesday evening!). In an unfortunate considence, Wednesday evening, a co-worker of mine was left by her fiance. I work in a very small office and am friends with this girl. How do I balance being so happy about my development without shoving it in her face? Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: It's an office. Don't talk about your engagement beyond saying it happened, and answering direct questions (politely but economically). And, please please, don't spend business hours on the phone planning your wedding. This is unbearable even for those within earshot who haven't just been dumped.

I am happy for you, even if it doesn't sound that way.


Freaking Out: Carolyn,

First of all, thanks for taking my question, if you take it. Second, please answer this online only. Third, I swear I am not making this up.

I just moved to Florida for grad school, to a town about an hour from where my aunt (mom's sister) and uncle live. I've seen them a few times since I've been here. I've only ever been around them when they were both in the room. Anyway, I just got a letter from him, talking about how he and my aunt aren't having sex, and how hot he thinks I am, and how this complicates the celibacy thing for him, and how he hopes I'll get over the fact that he thinks I'm hot and will hang out with him when my wacko aunt isn't around. He also managed to diss my mom's brother.

So, not only is he being a jerk about my family, he's being completely disgusting in hitting on me. I promise I never saw this coming, and certainly wouldn't have encouraged it. I've never felt so disgusting in my entire life. I called my mom and told her, and she asked me to fax her the letter tomorrow. I know my mom won't fly off the handle and do anything crazy, and that she and I will talk more before any action is taken. What should we do? I can't recall ever having been this skeeved out.

Thanks, and sorry for the grossness. I'd really appreciate any help you can give me and my mom in dealing with this.

Carolyn Hax: I'm not sure about faxing it to your mom. Isn't it enough that she knows what he's trying to do?

I'm also not sure you should even respond. Don't dignify it with a response.

Obviously you'll have to decide what to do about seeing them in the future, but if you do choose to act as if nothing happened, then you should be prepared to tell him never to approach you again.

The one that's really got me stumped is what your mom tells her sister. Can I hide behind the fact that their relationship should dictate her approach?

I'd love to hear from you guys on this (so late, I know).


Please read -- this is important!: My sister thinks that cowhide clogs (the black and white ones) are hideous, and she says if I get a pair, she refuses to be seen with me in public. I am in love with them, and I think I'd rather walk alone in my cow clogs than with my bratty sister. Who's right?

Carolyn Hax: Moo.


Girl and guy?: No, girl is like say boy.

Guy is female or male. I'm so confused.

Carolyn Hax: When you are asking out someone who has ovaries, you are not asking a "guy" out for a drink.

My forehead huts.


Dating Boys: From my own experience, I found that I gained quite a bit of maturity after I stopped believing I was so much more mature than everyone my own age. Similar to finding out that the more you learn, the less you really know. I'm just sayin'.

Carolyn Hax: I am so angry at myself for not saying this.

However, the original (? I think) poster did have a point with being sick of dating people who expected someone else to take care of everything for them. To have the thought cross your mind, "Who am I, your freakin mother?" is not necessarily a sure sign you're full of yourself.


Wilmington, Del.: Regarding freaking out.

I'm a 56-year-old man who's waited all his life to be old enough to be a dirty old man.

That said, her uncle's a pig.

Carolyn Hax: Well, yes, we know that. ideas?


Anonymous: You know, today's Q&A is really quite possibly the most bizarrely random compilation of issues I've ever seen!

Carolyn Hax: It was the cow clogs, wasn't it.


Elkridge, Md.: This is for Freaking Out: If your uncle never behaved this way before, his new unwanted behavior may be a symptom of damage to the control center of his brain. Espically if it happened after a head injury.

Carolyn Hax: Scary. Sad. Thanks.


For Freaking Out: You and your mother should talk to your aunt and let her decide what to do about her marriage, then support her decision. But you have no reason to be around Uncle Skeevy again, unless there are 20 people around as well, like at a family reunion. And remember - it could be worse. Your uncle could be the blood relative instead of your aunt.

Carolyn Hax: I like it, thanks.


Re: Freaking Out: It seems like this is a great example of why it's necessary to know details about the relationship before being able to give advice. Maybe mom and her sister have the kind of relationship that encourages such communication, or maybe it would do irreparable damage.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, it does sound less like hiding when you put it that way.


Um...: Old enough to be a dirty old man? There's no such age.

Carolyn Hax: You've obviously never had the pleasure of meeting a truly delightful dirty old man. (Bud, you are missed.)


Bizarrely random compilation : Can't just blame the cow clogs, you've also got Uncle Sceevy and asking ovaries out for a drink -- but only if they're mature enough. Why am I picturing a joke that starts, "Two ovaries walk into a bar...?"

Carolyn Hax: ... in unjustifiable shoes ...


About gendered nouns : So "young lady" is, what, condescending? But at the same time, some people will complain that "girl" is worse, that "woman" is matronly and that the seemingly inoffensive "female" is oversexualized. What will we accept?

I'm a 21-year-old non-male, by the way.

Carolyn Hax: So you are a woman, which is acceptable for use on any female person over 18, except when used in the phrase, "She's a woman now," which is lunch-dislodging. Also acceptable, girl where you'd say guy--or gal, but only if you're at least two states south of the Mason-Dixon or a truly delightful dirty old man.

Seems perfectly clear to me.


Alexandria, Va.: For the creepy uncle question -- perhaps her mother knows this about him already -- creeps don't suddenly become creeps when a woman is in the room. Chances are he has a history of creepiness that her mother is aware of. I would guess that this has happened to other family members. Perhaps your mother has discussed his creepiness with her sister before, but wasn't believed. The letter would be proof. Anyway, keep your distance and keep your friends away from him. We had a creep in the family once. Turns out, once one story came out, many more did. If you think you have his creepiness under control, realize that it is just in relation to you. His creepiness is probably being foisted upon others, too. Sorry to be so cynical about him, but I'm guessing this isn't his first occasion to behave inappropriately towards women.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Many more coming:


For Florida: Definitely ix-nay on the ax-fay.

Don't fax mom that letter. If only because it sounds like she's going off the deep end right now and should take a moment to calm down.

Be glad you have the letter, so when the dude denies it, it won't be a matter of your word against his. I'd actually consider taking this to your school counseling center, so the counseler could ask follow-up questions to help you decide what to do.

Love that free school counseling!

Carolyn Hax: Tahnks. More:


Re: Freaking out: The uncle needs to be told firmly, "Your advances were inappropriate and unwelcome, and I'm very uncomfortable about the position you've put me in. Do not contact me again, and do not put me in the position of having to collaborate in hiding your secrets. I will not do so."

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.


Anonymous: Re: Freaking Out. She should be prepared for her uncle and/or aunt to blame her. That could get ugly.

Carolyn Hax: Good catch.


Icky Uncle: Icky Uncle definitely needs to be dealt with -- to go so far as to write and send a letter with no previous, more deniable icky behavior (the "bump" at the kitchen table, the leering look, etc.) really indicates something has gone very, very wrong with him, or that this is not his first time doing something this ICKY. There are other family members to consider, too, some of whom may not be of age, or be as able to handle as our writer....

Carolyn Hax: Another good point. Thanks everybody.


Clogtown: Buy the clogs! Types the person sitting at her desk weating her favorite pair of brown and black cow clogs.

Carolyn Hax: Everybody, check the neighboring cubicle.


State of frustration: I left my husband. He was a cold, unfeeling jerk. I told my mother this. (He also cheated, which I didn't tell her because she'd blame me for not being an adequate wife.) She doesn't believe me. She's telling all the relatives he left me, and alluding darkly to possible reasons that are so awful I had to lie and say it was my idea. I can't talk to her, which is OK and kind of the norm, but I hate all the family eyeing me knowingly. How can I keep my cool and my dignity (while meanwhile struggling with the heaping helping of guilt the ex is laying on me for "destroying our family" and "having no regard for marriage vows")?

Carolyn Hax: Have you gotten any counseling? You went from an abusive mom to an abusive husband, which is rarely a coincidence. And, I think you'll achieve the most sustainable cool and dignity through tending to your own health, and letting others just say what they say. Hard, but not as hard as trying to get other people to change the way they've always been. Take care.


Creepy Uncle: She should keep the letter and she should fax it to her mother. Because as someone already pointed out, the mother may have insight that the daughter may not. As, well if it ever gets legal you'll need a copy of the letter. All I can say is that if my mom found out my uncle did this she'd want a copy of the letter, too. For safe keeping, for a reference that you didn't keep the letter to yourself i.e. in court when asked why you kept the letter a secret if it was so upsetting, what you gonna say, for a another perspective on things.

Carolyn Hax: Last one, thanks, because I do want it somewhere that she should keep the letter, and I'm not sure if anyone else brought it up.


Go away!: I really need to get back to work. Will you end it already?

Carolyn Hax: Fine. Bye. Oh, and thanks for all your patience with the schedule; it's been tough trying to restore equilibrium after the move. I think we're back to noon next week, though. Have a great weekend and type to you next week.


Woman/Female/Etc..: Carolyn, did you just say girl where you'd say gal?

Gal? My mom would have a heart attack if she heard a woman say that word ... and she'd punch a man if he said it.

Carolyn Hax: No, you read me funny. I am in a non-state and I'm not a dirty old man.


Two ovaries walk into a bar...: "Can we get some decent cervix, here?"

Carolyn Hax: !


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