Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 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.


Letting Go?: How do I learn to let go? My longtime boyfriend left me, came back multiple times only to leave again. I now have strong reasons to believe he cheated on me. He still emails me and IMs me once in a while, sometime says he loves me. He appears to be stringing me along. He doesn't have the decency to admit to me what he has done and apologize. At the same time, this was the man I thought I'd marry and even though his actions have been despicable, I still love and care for him. I know I shouldn't, but I do. I don't know how to "move on." Will I ever stop loving him and move past this?

Carolyn Hax: You "move on" by realizing you can separate love from attention. Maybe you'll always love him, but that doesn't mean you have to take his crap every time he comes around with another delivery. And don't wait around for an apology, either, because, what's the point? It doesn't really even matter whether he cheated. He's not there for you, he's not making you happy, it's done. Block his emails if you have to. Proceed with your life without him.


Washington, D.C.: Your answer to Confused in Connecticut about whether she should tell her child about a half sibling made me think about my own situation. Can you believe the father I haven't seen in over 16 years called my mother about two years ago to tell her to make sure I never contacted him? To make sure that his sons, my half-brothers, would never ever find out about me? They don't know he was married before! I still wonder at his audacity. What do you think? I have a loving family around me now, but I keep thinking one day, something will happen.

Carolyn Hax: The sun rises, tides change, leaves fall, something always happens. If you're talking about being the one to make something happen, then please do it for carefully considered reasons beyond wanting to spit in your father's eye. Not that I'm unsympathetic to any urge of that sort--"audacity" is a kind way of putting it--it's just that angry reactions are never as satisfying as we think they're going to be.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Hello, Carolyn:

Scenario: I was engaged to a girl. It did not work out. Now as I go out into the dating world, one of the question often asked is "have you ever been engaged or married?" I don't want to lie, but I would like to leave that part of my life behind. What would be an appropiate way to respond to such questions?

Carolyn Hax: "I've been engaged, but it didn't work out." Trying to finesse your past will just tell everyone you're still hung up on it.


Seattle, Wash.: Dear Carolyn:

I recently met an intelligent, sweet and caring woman. We're both in our 30s and ready to explore a relationship. She disclosed to me that her father has cancer and is undergoing surgery in a few weeks. I want to be sensitive to the emotional demands in her life. How do I "pursue" this relationship and yet give her adequate space to deal with her family situation (without giving her the wrong impression that I am not interested). I want to be in the picture, but I can appreciate how stressful this must be.

Carolyn Hax: You're halfway there just by recognizing this as a time when she might need special attention.

But halfway is just far enough; actually giving her special attention whether she wants it or not would be going to far. Depending on her temperament, her father's temperament, her family's dynamic, the gravity of his illness, the extent of the surgery--just to mention the biggies--doting on her could be essential or ridiculous.

That's why the best thing you can do is just be aware and follow her lead. Invite her to things, keep them low key, gauge her mood, and try to find the path between tiptoeing and pushing. It's there.


Arlington, Va.: I've often heard and read that depression is "anger turned inward." What is your take on this? I suffer from depression at times and have analyzed my feelings and situations surrounding the onset, and don't necessarily feel angry about anything. Any thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: I do believe that anger left unexpressed or unaddressed can certainly lead to depression--but so can a lot of other things. That's why generalizations, biases and platitudes about it and its treatment fall so flat.


Washington, D.C.: What's up with all of this "leave that part of my life behind, put this all behind me" crap. We do not wake up every morning as a blank slate. Whatever we did or did not do is a part of us - it is cumulative. You can use the experience to help you grow (or not). Own up to whatever you did and move on for heaven's sake.

Carolyn Hax: You tell em.


Confused in Conn too!: I've also been thinking about Confused... Is there really any way to know when a good time to spill the family secret is? I'm holding onto a doosey, and while I have ethical questions about it, I'm rationalizing by saying that my cousin is 12 and his parents must decide. But once he's older? How long do I have to hold confidential something I want to tell?

Carolyn Hax: Forever, if the only reason for telling is that you want to tell. It's not your doozy, it's someone else's life. Respect that, and behave only in a way that you are confident is in the best interests of others. And if you aren't confident which way is right, then put a sock in it till you are.


Half-siblings: I just finished reading about the column and last week's responses, and I hate to say it, but nobody seems to be talking about the possibility that discovering mystery half-sibs might not result in a happy family reunion.

I have a coworker with surprise half-siblings, and the revelation was not a welcome one. In fact, the coworker wasn't interested in developing any kind of sibling relationship with them.

So, go ahead and do what you think you have to do, but don't expect that everyone is going to think that their half-blood matters.

Carolyn Hax: Wasn't the first post of the day about the possibility that the other half- might not want the contact? Not saying this to be contrary; I just had thought that possibility was covered. Thanks.


Virginia: My boyfriend of 3 months broke up with me last week and I am heartbroken. I did not see it coming and I really liked him. Yesterday he sent me a long email explaining why he broke up with me. He said he needed to date someone to get over his ex (which I didn't know about), things with me got way over his head, and many of the things he did with her were things he did with me, to the point of picturing her face when he slept with me. He said he told me all this because he felt bad about dumping me.

At first I was sad, but now I am wondering what the heck is the point of telling me all this? Today I feel very stupid for not knowing he was doing this, but looking back, I'm not sure there were any signs.

Carolyn Hax: Well, at least you won't be up all night 20 years from now in your tattered, yellowed wedding dress wailing, "Why ... why ... WHY?!"

It was more than you needed to know, but it was something you can certainly use. It wasn't you; he's judgment-challenged; dating is a bad way to get over breakups: Three valuable lessons to take away from all this. Sorry.


Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend has some sort of issue that he's not willing to talk to me about. It's starting to affect our relationship because he is becoming withdrawn/acting different/less affectionate. He swears that his feelings for me have not changed (and thus I should not take the fact that he's slept on the couch for the past two weeks personally). I don't know what to do. I know I can't force him to talk to me about whatever the problem is, but I don't know how much longer I can go on with him like this. What should I do?

Carolyn Hax: You can explain to him that he can't move to the couch without explanation, without also damaging your feelings for him, since being shut out tells you quite plainly that you aren't as close to him as you had thought. That's something you can and should take personally, even if his move to the couch really did have nothing to do with you.

The longer he shuts you out, the more it becomes a trust issue--i.e., the more you're going to question your prior understanding of your life together. And once you've been at this questioning long enough--this part, you can say to him or just to yourself--you do get to a point where you say, okay, I guess we had nothing, and the relationship is over. So, it's really one of those internal ultimatums*: He includes you in what's going on in his mind, or you're out of there.

*Tell youself this only. If you say it to him, it's a threat, which won't accomplish anythign.


Salt Lake City, Utah: So after coming out of an illness like depression, should you kind of treat it like a 12 step program? My sister has hurt a lot of people but doesn't want to own up to it. No apologies or rethinking her actions. She still thinks in the same black and white way but now does it with a smile. It's seems so juvenile for a 28 year old woman to hold a grudge against her family when she was the one who was sick. It's not like we didn't help her (money, paying for trips home, calling to check on her or just chat, even using my network to find her a new job). I'm not looking for her to throw herself at my feet, but some realization that the same crappy thinking doesn't seem like progress (you did this, you didn't do this). My parents are at their wits end trying to "fix" her, but I just think she needs to admit she wasn't a very nice person even if she couldn't help it.

Carolyn Hax: I think you need to admit that this is the sister you've got, and so the more you want from her, the less satisfaction you'll get. Unclench your fists and see how much you can part with--expectations, anger, hopes of a "normal" family ... none of it is helping you any more. You helped her because you wanted to, because you could, because it seemed like the right thing. Good stuff. Please try to see it as enough in itself.


No Rebound?: I only had one boyfriend -- it lasted three years. I had never dated before, so now I feel like I want to "learn" how to date- is that bad? Dating around to move beyond an ex?

Carolyn Hax: Dating to get to know new things and new people, including yourself? Great. Dating to erase the memory of the ex boyfriend? Not fair. The way you phrased your question, I'm not quite sure which you're considering.


Re: boyfriend's issue: About the ultimatum part: why isn't is all right to tell him that this lack of trust in her is damaging their relationship, and if he is unable to let her in and share some of what he's going through, then the damage could become too much for the relationship to survive? I would think that he should know this...

Carolyn Hax: That, sure--though a legit response to "the damage could become too much for the relationship to survive" would be, "Are you threatening to leave"? And since you are, you'd pretty much have to say yes.

Which isn't as much of a dead end as, "Marry me or I'm leaving," since marriage doesn't fix anything, whereas sharing his feelings presumably would. The problem there, though, is that you can't keep doing it--you get one shot at it, and you'd better mean it.

Anyway, I'm just trying to prevent my words from being twisted into, "Talk to me or I'm leaving."


Also in Virginia: Responding to the earlier comment about the boyfriend who dumped the girl b/c he realized it was a rebound from a previous relationship.

On the other side of the coin, should we just automatically reject any cute, nice, smart guy who has just ended a long-term relationship? I'm in a situation where the guy, who has been broken up with his ex for about a month, is actively pursuing me. He's exactly the type of guy I'd typically date, he doesn't seem too emotionally damaged, but I don't want to get invested in him only to realize that I was "the rebound girl" after all. Am I just being a scaredy cat or being "smart?"

Carolyn Hax: If you're rejecting him because you've noticed signs he's still hung up on an ex, then you're being smart. Also smart, I think, would be to keep an eye out for signs that he can't be happy outside of a relationship. You want the big push to be about your sparkling self, and not about your convenient self.

If you're rejecting him just because he's out of something recent, then that's along the lines of never dating anyone divorced or younger or blond or who didn't finish college. Everyone's story is different, and every person should be weighed accordingly.


To Salt Lake City, Utah: Seriously, please treat your sister with compassion. The best gifts I've ever received are the warm welcomes and "glad to hear from you" "I cried when I heard from you" without judgment that came from ormer colleagues, friends and family after getting out of a three-year stint with depression. I know how I acted, and they do, too. But they know I was doing my best.

You know what, also? Your relationship with your sister can change from here on out. You have the opportunity, now that your sister is better, to call her on her sh-t, as my therapist would say. You can deal with her as a healthy adult, because she can handle that now. So, next time she does x, y, or z, you can tell her how it's affected you, and then ask for amends at the time it happens--that's sort of the 12-step program you were referring to, wasn't it (the apologies)? But it doesn't have to be so harsh, especially when you don't have to let things build up for so long.

Good luck!

Carolyn Hax: Nice approach, thanks.


Am I weird?: I've been dating someone for four months (we're both in our 30s), we're not seeing other people, but other than that we haven't talked about where this is going. And, shockingly, I'm okay with that. I don't need definition, because I honestly don't really know where I think it's going, or want it to go.

Am I deluding myself? Or is this healthy?

Carolyn Hax: Well, if you are deluding yourself, you're doing it while remaining noncommittal, which seems fine to me. It's when you're deluding yourself and steaming toward a commitment that it's time to start worrying.


Ultimatums: The best thing anyone has ever done for me was when a friend issued me an ultimatum a few years ago. I was engaging in very destructive behavior, and my friend finally said, "Stop this now or our friendship is over." That made me realize just how valuable my friend was to me and just how badly I'd been acting, and it really forced me to turn my life around. I think ultimatums in times like that are a good thing.

Carolyn Hax: Seems to me the common elements are taking a stand against destructive behavior (say, drinking), vs. not getting something you want; and meaning it, vs. trying to manipulate a situation to your benefit. Thanks.


Down under:

Hi, Carolyn-

I've been spending tons of time with a girl whom I like a lot. From the body language, any sane person would assume we're a couple - hand-holding, her head on my shoulder, etc. We've talked about what's going on, and she claims that she's completely into her long-distance boyfriend, that she's not interested in me, that she's simply being affectionate. But the hand-holding and snuggling continues.

I'm thoroughly confused. I've no idea whether she's interested in me and conflicted about the boyfriend, simply enjoying the attention, or genuinely clueless about her effect on me. I'm willing to be patient, but I don't want to be an idiot. Any guidance?

Carolyn Hax: She's completely into her long-distance boyfriend. Now do what you think is right given that fact.

The truth is, as you know, that it could be any one of the possibilities you listed. But when that happens, you go with what you've been told, vs. what you think, see, or want to hear. Inoculate yourself against high hopes followed by the "I-told-you-all-along" shootdown, which is never any fun. Take her at her word, -show-her that you're taking her at her word, and let her be the one to tell you anything different.


Not the Speedster: Carolyn,

I got a photo-ticket in the mail the other day (you know, where a traffic camera catches you speeding) and was confused by the location -- a street where I rarely drive -- until I noticed the date and realized it happened on a day I had lent my car to my boyfriend. I am quite certain he earned this speeding ticket.

I'm not sure how to bring this up with him. We're going through a slightly rough period where we both feel like we're letting the other one down (in lots of small ways), and we're both feeling a little beaten up. I don't want to throw fuel on that fire ... but it's $100, and I didn't do it. Any advice, pretty please?

Carolyn Hax: "Hey, I think you might have gotten a ticket when you borrowed my car." A "slightly rough period" would not justify his giving you a hard time here. Be open to the possibility that you've figured wrong, sure, but don't cower in fear of his reaction. That's more than a rough patch, that's an unhealthy dynamic.


Weird One Again: How do I know whether I'm truly remaining noncommital, though? The fact that we're not seeing other people seems to be some level of commitment, no? Perhaps this is cause to worry...

Carolyn Hax: Then see other people. But if there aren't any other people you want to see, then that could be why you're not seeing other people.

In other words, don't think so much.


Re: defining the relationship: What if you've been dating three years and have not had one single "where is this going" relationship question? We just don't talk about this stuff. We're very comfortable together, but not sure it's love. I'm just afraid to bring it up.

Carolyn Hax: I have a hard time seeing "afraid" and "comfortable" in the same relationship. If you have something to say, say it. You don't prevent a scary consequence by staying quiet; whatever it is (if s/he doesn't love you, say) it's already there. It's just a matter of awareness.


Re: Down under: : I've been in this situation, and acted like she meant what she was saying. Later, I learned that she was hoping I'd make a move.

Not sure what that says....

Carolyn Hax: It told her you were taking her at her word and if she had something to say she needed to say it.

Mind-reading makes a really romantic story until somebody guesses wrong.


To Down Under: Dude, I know that girl! She's totally jerking you around. She's just into you for the attention. She does that all the time. FYI, she makes a lousy girlfriend. Always snuggling up with some random dude.

Carolyn Hax: Snort.


Philly: Re rebounding: What if the person you're seeing on a regular basis recently ending a relationship with a live-in significant other, claims the relationship was long over, but doesn't want to be in another one? He knows he seems uninvolved and keeps an emotional distance, but he doesn't want to acknowledge that he's already in another relationship.

Carolyn Hax: Then why are you putting yourself in one, on these terms? Take him at his word. Let him be the one who comes around and owns both his words and behavior.


Re: Ultimatums (Ultimata?) : I had to issue that ultimatum to the friend who was killing herself with drugs and self-mutilation. I called the appropriate numbers to get her help, tried to talk her family into intervening, etc., but finally told her it was up to her, and that I couldn't watch her destroy herself.

She chose the drugs and the cutting. Outright chose them. It's been four years, almost five, and I still worry about her every day.

Carolyn Hax: I hear you. We talk so much about happy and unhappy endings, and here's what we usually get: messy and still in progress. Sorry you couldnt' help her.


re: Not the Speedster: Carolyn,

You mention that cowering in fear of his reaction isn't a rough patch, but an unhealthy dynamic. What if you're not cowering in fear, but what if you're becoming uncannily able to predict his negative response (including variations of: This issue isn't my fault, it's yours for bringing it up! My apology is heart-felt and sincere. You're darn right you should apologize! What more do you want from me? etc.) And you just avoid brining any issues up because you don't want to deal with it?

Carolyn Hax: You're choosing your words in an effort not to hit the triggers of someone's verbal/emotional abuse. Call it what you want, but it doesn't sound like much of a life. 1-800-799-SAFE. Please run it by someone. Thanks.


Ultimatum versus boundary: The difference between an ultimatum and a boundary is that an ultimatum says "You need to do this or I'm out of here" while a boundary says, "This is what I need" and recognizing that the other person may or may not be able to give that, and taking responsibility for our own choices and not laying it all on the other person.

If I need a partner who opens up to me, that's what I need, and I'll eventually leave the relationship if my partner isn't willing or able to open up. I get to have that boundary, because it's what I need. An ultimatum says, "You need to open up to me," when that might not be what the partner needs, from his/her point of view.

It's important to remember that the other person gets to choose his/her response to whatever boundary we set, and we get to choose what we do about that. It isn't about the other person doing what we want, it's about each person being responsible for their own behavior.

If the other person really can't/won't do what we need, then we get to decide that, yes, we do need that so this relationship/friendship isn't going to work for us. And we take responsibility for that instead of blaming the other person.

This may sound like pie in the sky, but it really does work, and it's a lot less crazy-making than setting ultimatums and getting resentful when we have to carry out the "or else" part (I've been there too).

Carolyn Hax: Well, I think we're done here. Thanks!


Carolyn Hax: Sorry for the lull. I just bailed on a question I had almost finished answering.


Photo ticket: The person who's car it is can go to court and show that she isn't the person in the picture (the ticket should show a picture of the driver as well as the license plate). The ticket will be dismissed and she cannot be forced to identify the driver.

Carolyn Hax: I've gotten a couple of these. Can't vouch for anything but it's worth looking into, thanks.

And of course this is only about the 100 bucks and other consequences of a moving violation; the answer stands on the Person Who Can't Be Approached.


San Antonio, Tex.: (Online only, please)

We're meeting my Mom's new boyfriend Sunday. It's her first serious relationship since my Dad passed away, and it seems to me to have gotten serious awfully quickly, but I'm kind of biased, I must admit. I'm happy she's happy, though -- really!

I have this fear she's going to want my kids (under 8 y.o.) to call him some version of "Grandpa". Any advice about how to handle this? Since the relationship is still pretty new, I would rather we describe him as her "friend" and use either his first name or Mr. So and So.

I was doing a pretty good job of not freaking out about her new relationship until the whole "Grandpa" thing occurred to me.

Carolyn Hax: You're happy she's happy. Beyond that, you're creating problems where none yet exist. I know it's hard, but it would be harder if your mom were unhappy. Hang on to that as needed.


RE: Speedster: I think anticipating and avoiding your significant other's displeasure (and sometimes verbal abuse) is sadly too common, and the effects last a long time. Even though I haven't been with the person who did this to me for quite a while, we were together for five years, and I still think my current (and very wonderful) paramour will be mad about innocuous things, like when I feel different than she does about something. And she always says, "I really want to know how you feel about things, and I don't care if we disagree."

Carolyn Hax: Nothing to add, just hoping even one person has the epiphany of recognition. Thanks.


Just curious: Hi Carolyn,

Do people settle a lot in their relationships? I have a friend who is with a guy (and has been for a few years) who is ga-ga over her and will get her/do whatever she wants. I think she might be ashamed of him - his background, his employment (not a doctor, lawyer - but still respectable), etc. She has repeatedly admitted that if she marries him, she will be settling. Why is she staying?


Carolyn Hax: Because she has no idea yet that if he marries her, he'll the one who just settled.


Washington, D.C.: An etiquette question for you and the 'nuts...

Got engaged this week. Is it customary for me to get my fiance an engagement gift?

Carolyn Hax: If there's something you'd like to get him, I think that would be swell. Congratulations.


Need Help Staying Out of It: A friend got engaged earlier this year to a girl he'd known for only a few months. He told me the only reason he proposed to her is because he's 30 and feels it's time to settle down and get married and have kids. He doesn't even love her. I tried to talk some sense into him, but he didn't want to hear it. He said if it didn't work out they could just divorce. Fine, it's his life and his mistake to make. BUT I feel for the girl and and any kids they will have. I just went through a divorce after almost 10 years of marriage (no kids) and can't imagine someone entering a marriage without every intention of making it last a lifetime. Divorce is painful and can be very messy when it's not amicable and there are kids involved. What can I do, not so much for my friend but for the woman going blindly into this marriage thinking he loves her?

Carolyn Hax: Stop being friends with this person, and tell him it's because his reasons for marrying reveal a selfishness beyond expression?

I know the temptation is to tell the fiancee everything, but you don't know her, you don't know their relationship, and you don't know their future. She will have to use (or blindfold) her own eyes.


Intro: Carolyn, Time to change the intro! Now you're an expatriate of New England again. Depatriated? Ex-repatriated?

Carolyn Hax: Re-expatriated. Or recently re-ex-Patrioted, since the televised non-Redskin/Ravens games seem to be all Dallas. Bleah.


All the baby talk?: Why all the miscarriage questions lately? Or am I just being hyper-sensitive since I just had a baby and everyone I know is either trying to conceive or pregnant...

...speaking of, why don't they warn you from age 25-40 all anyone talks about is babies. Or is that just my friends? Maybe I should expand my friend-group.

Carolyn Hax: The latter. But I did unwittingly run two baby cols back-to-back; I didn't write them in that order, they just fell in that way. So, apologies there.

And apologies to Liz and to whatever body parts have fallen asleep after sitting here for 2 hrs 37. Bye bye, thanks, see you next week.


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