Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007; 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 an ex-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.


Philadelphia, Pa.: If you had to cut calories in your life, and the choice was between pancakes and cocktails, which would you give up?

Carolyn Hax: Pancakes. I could have waffles still, right?


Relationships Stink Sometimes: Carolyn,

I really, really need you to tell me straight-up if you think I'm being crazy, and I know you will.

Here's the situation: I'm in a (temporarily) long-distance relationship with my boyfriend of four months, although I've known him for several years. I am crazy about him, but I am beginning to feel tested, as though he is holding back a significant part of himself until I prove myself worthy, somehow. He thinks he's a great, supportive boyfriend, but I'm not feeling that. I feel like he does this relationship in his spare time -- we never talk on the phone, it's always IM, because that way he can talk to me and read his websites at the same time. If I call him it feels awkward. He'll go an entire day without talking to me and then tell me I'm unreasonable when my feelings are hurt (I don't throw fits, I don't even bring it up, but he can tell, somehow, that I'm sad, so he gets points for being sensitive). He also greatly overexaggerates how much time we spend talking every day in an attempt to cite how much he is giving of himself. I really don't want to pick on him, and when we've had these conversations I always try to couch anything I say so that it doesn't sound harsh or offensive or critical. It's clear that I feel more strongly about him than he does about me, he's even said that, saying he just needs to fall for me on his own time. I'm confused, though: I thought at 3 months, we're supposed to still be in the head rush stage? Please help, Carolyn, I don't know what to do, I'm sad a lot of the time. If it makes a difference, I'm mid 20s and he's early 30s. Thanks, love the columns and chats.

Carolyn Hax: I do think you're crazy, but only because you're moving backward--you downgraded your boyfriend of four months to your boyfriend of three months by the end of your question.

You're also measuring your relationship by your idea of what it's supposed to be, but that's not crazy so much as self-defeating. If you were to accept your relationship for what it is, no more, no less--a long-distance holding pattern that eventually may or may not take you somewhere you want to be--could you live with that?

And if you can't live with that, are you ready to call it off? Because pointing out your wishes and needs hasn't worked, and so that leaves you with the unappealing selection of continuing with your fruitless campaign for more attention, or letting go (at least till you're in closer proximity).

Although his blaming you for your feelings and multi-tasking through your cponversations(!), and your using these things as reasons to tiptoe around him, are hardly promising, I nonetheless added that parenthetical because I do see something in what he says--that maybe he needs time to fall for you. You may be in head-rush stage, but that doesn't mean he has to be in that place himself Right This Very Instant or else it'll never happen. He could very well fall for people slowly. If you're ready to trust that--and also accept that he may never fall, no matter how long you wait--then it might be worth it to back off and give this thing time.


Carolyn Hax: Sorry, that one took longer than I thought.


Charleston, .S.C: I have a good girlfriend who got married a few months ago. Since that time, she has taken over all control of her husband's life. I mean everything. She does not let him carry money, for instance. The other day he went to get his hair cut and before the hair cut was over she showed up to pay for it. I'm not joking. He likes rock music and she likes country so now she will not let him listen to rock music in the house. She told him that he could listen to the type of music he likes while he is in his car alone and that is all. Of course, she will listen to what she likes in the house. There is just a lot of stuff like this going on now that I did not see before they were married. She has been my friend for years, we are in our 30s, and I did not see this side of her before. At least not anywhere near to this extent. I am quickly losing respect for both of them, for her for treating him like this, and for him for taking it. It is getting to the point where I want to say something, to her mostly, but I don't know what to say. But I am getting to the point of not wanting to spend any time with them, it is hard to watch her control him and he just take it like a little boy. Should I just slowly start distancing myself from them both. Even when I am just with her she will say things to be about him and how she has to tell him to do everything, etc. I have been biting my lip, but I am busting to say that she has turned into someone I don't know, or maybe don't care to know.

Carolyn Hax: Why are you biting your lip? if you're already prepared to trash the friendship on your own out of disgust, you might as well go down speaking the truth. I would just say their marriage is their business and your opting out of the friendship is your business, but she sounds like an abuser-in-training, and anything you do to call her attention to it would be an act of decency; even if she never becomes abusive, she could also be oblivious to the fact that she's trashing her own marriage. Plus, she is confiding in you, which puts you at least on the border of its being your business, if not safely within bounds.

Obviously, you can't and don't want make yourself part of this drama, but you can certainly point out that her infantilizing him can't posssibly be healthy.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn. Missed you on Friday.

Here's my issue:

I have a friend who worries entirely too much about EVERYTHING! Weeks in advance, she's already worried about how she's going to get around the airport when she flies alone for the first time at the end of the month. This has been the topic of conversation at least three times in the past week already. I've done what I can to assure her that she'll be OK, but she is still concerned. I have no doubt that her worrying will only increase as the time approaches until she finally goes on her trip and sees that there was really nothing to worry about in the first place. This serves as only an example of one of countless worries that I discuss with her regularly. I've told her that she should look into counseling, but she said that I serve as her counseling. She's 24 now; I can only imagine how worried she'll become as she has to take on more and more responsibilities in her adult life. What can I do?

Carolyn Hax:1. You can tell her that her expecting you to counsel her is not fair to either of you, since it introduces an imbalance in your friendship, and it's a further disservice to her, since it puts her at the mercy of someone unqualified, not to mention maxed out by the business of navigating her own early 20s drama.

2. You stop assuring her it will be okay. It isn't working and it's driving you nuts.

3. You point out to her that you're going to stop assuring her because it isn't working. Instead, your only advice from now on will be practical. That includes telling her to go to the Web site of the airport where she's arriving, so she can familiarize herself with the layout and information booth locations; telling her, when she raises the issue again, that you have no new advice beyond what you've given; and telling her that her worries could be an extension of a diagnosable, likely even treatable condition, and so why suffer through it blind when she doesn't have to? If it's nothing, then it's nothing and she's wasted an hour and 200 bucks.


Sigh.: Carolyn -- My mom finally agreed to see a counselor. Found out today she's doing it because I want her to and not because she thinks she has any issues to resolve.

I'm happy she's going but also sad that she's doing it because it's what she thinks she has to do to make me happy. All I want is for her to make herself happy.

Blah. Help.

Carolyn Hax: You did your best. In fact, you got more accomplished than most in this situation. Not only did you get the horse to water, you also got plain affirmation that you love her and she loves you. Hang onto that and hope for the best.


Bowie, Md.: Comments on the two early questions:

Isn't the situation Charleston described already abuse, not abuse in training?

And maybe the long distance guy doesn't like to talk on the phone. I hate the phone. I've been married 16 years and still some of my phone conversations with my wife are forced and terse and less than satisfactory. Stop putting so much emphasis on the quantity and quality of phone conversations.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for two good comments.

1. You're right that it's abuse. I was thinking precursor-to-physical, when in fact it's already emotional.

2. Always useful to consider with people who arent' communicating as you'd want, that they communicate more comfortably in other ways. (Which in itself could be a problem, if you really need someone who operates as you do--but part of deciding that is learning to accept differences and then seeing how well you work together.)


Washington DC: For Relationships Stink:

This line struck me:

"I am beginning to feel tested, as though he is holding back a significant part of himself until I prove myself worthy, somehow."

That's exactly how I felt about my boyfriend about seven years ago. He was sweet, considerate, good listener, but seemed to hold me at arm's length. We had a couple of blow out fights, mostly about his not taking me to his family functions. Then I decided his behavior was making me sad and self-doubting and we broke up.

Fast forward and we're now married with two small children. I think he needed the time apart to realize that he did want me in his life. For that to happen, he had to make me a top priority. When he came around four months after our breakup, all that arms-length stuff was gone.

I'd really encourage the poster to stand up for what she needs in a relationship. If you can tell he's multitasking, end the IM. If he's not calling you as often as you'd like, don't whine about it. Just take it as information that helps you evaluate the relationship and move on.

Carolyn Hax: Another helpful point, thanks.


Washington, D.C.: I am more disturbed than anyone else by minor disruptions in public settings. Crying babies. Rustling papers. Gum chewing. Popcorn chewing. Cell phones. People talking.

I find I cannot concentrate in a theater or in church if this kind of stuff is going on. I get very irritated and start thinking about how ignorant and selfish the perpetrators of these noises are. I get angry and distracted.

What can I do to calm down about this stuff? I know rationally that these people aren't actively trying to annoy me. I know others aren't as annoyed as I am. What to do?

Carolyn Hax: You can get screened for ADD (or other conditions in the sensory family). Really. The things you just described are symptoms occupational therapists look for, both in adults and children. Check the Web, your doctor, your health plan for the most logical course of action in seeking a diagnosis.


Toledo,Ohio: Carolyn,

Should I try to reach out to my ex-girlfriend? We were very good friends before we started dating last year. We had known each other for about a year prior to that, and then we decided to go ahead and date each other because we were really great friends and adored each other. But things changed in a very confusing way when it came time for me to leave because of a job. Before we even had a discussion on whether we would be breaking up, she decided that she "assumed" we would be breaking up when I left, and started dating somebody else the day after I left town.

Break up went really badly. I was totally devastated that she had started dating this other guy (who happens to be 19 years her senior, she's 26 and he's 45.) Anyway, a friend recently told me that her new boyfriend has also since moved to Minnesota, and now she's alone, but still willing to date him longdistance. My thing is, how comes she was willing to date him long distance and not me?

And should I reach out to her if this relationship of hers fails? I still don't understand what happened to us? Am I being crazy or should I just let this go? I haven't spoken to her in about two months and I miss her like crazy.

Carolyn Hax: Missing her is hard, but it sounds like being with her is harder. Until she finds the maturity to handle complicated emotions head-on, I think you're begging for a hard kick to the exact same spot as before.


Re: Mom's therapy: Carolyn and poster,

Over 20 years ago my mom went to rehab for me and my brother. While the common wisdom is the person should go for them, sometimes they are so low that the only way to help themselves is to do it initially for someone else. My mother stayed sober and credited me for getting her there in the first place. I would worry less about what her motivation is and just support the fact that she's going. Maybe she feels she is not worth going for right now. Sometimes people start making big changes in their lives for other people, pets, etc. but it doesn't necessarily doom them to failure.

Carolyn Hax: Great, thanks.


Chat question: Is this chat on Mondays now?

Carolyn Hax: No, just today. I'm back on the usual schedule this Friday.


I might be the worrying friend: I worry about everything. It serves me well -- then when things go terribly I'm prepared for it, and when things go well I get to be surprised and happy. For me, simply not worrying about stuff and assuming it will all work out fine would be like buying a house while unemployed and assuming I'll find the money somehow.

When I'm mentioning that I'm worried about something, it's because I think you can either do something about it or give me practical advice. I do not want to be told that everything is going to be okay, because obviously that isn't certain enough and I want to be prepared for when it isn't. So I'll just tell you more about why I'm worried so you'll understand what the problem is and be able to help me come up with a solution. What I'm looking for is for you to help me figure out "Okay, if X goes wrong then I'll do Y." Telling me that everything will be okay would be like if you asked me directions do get somewhere, and I said "Don't worry, you'll find it."

Carolyn Hax: Question: When you share your worries, do you ask specific questions? Or are you expecting people to distill your general worries into a specific question for which they'll have a practical answer? That seems to be asking a lot, if that's the case.

I'd even go so far as to say it's a disservice to others. I think people are generally happy to help when called upon, by both friends and strangers, but when every time you have a worry it becomes everyone else's worry, too, that seems like a lot for people to carry around--their normal worries, plus any of yours--just so you can have a happy surprise when you don't get lost between your gate and baggage claim. Life is negative enough without the assist.

If you really are generating worry at the slightest provocation, then please take that as a more general invitation for preparation and see a specialist about getting screened for anxiety. You don't have to change who you are or your organization strategies, just maybe get a better, more productive handle on what's going on in your mind.


Don't scare people away from counseling!: You wrote (to a reader whose friend needs counseling) "If it's nothing, then it's nothing and she's wasted an hour and 200 bucks." Please clarify for your readers - so many of whom are hesitantly considering counseling - that there are many, many options that do not cost anywhere near $200 per hour. Thank you!

Carolyn Hax: Okay! You're right. I threw that out as the cash-for-doctor option. Insurance; EAPs; fees charged on a sliding scale; non-doctor counselors, social workers, psychologists; clinics at universities and hospitals; clergy who are trained therapists--all these and more offer sessions for much less out-of-pocket.


Chicago, Ill.: About Charleston, I disagree with the advice you gave -- there could be other explanations for the wife not allowing her husband to have money. My husband is a very impulsive spender and racked up TENS of thousands of dollars in credit card debt while we were married, after having to bail him out several times, I will not allow him to have credit cards on him. He isn't allowed to have debit cards either because of his habit of withdrawing a few hundred dollars every couple of days. An innocent, non-abusing explanation for Charleston could be that he isn't allowed to have credit either and they didn't have the cash when he went to get the hair cut. It strikes me that the writer is not there 100 percent of the time and doesn't know what the give and take is in their relationship and that his/her energies would be better spent worrying about his/her own life than complaining about how much country music his/her friend listens to.

Carolyn Hax: Just because there's a logical explanation for it in your case doesn't mean it's an explanation that applies here. There appears to be a lot more going on in this marriage than in yours (she will not "let" him listen to rock?)--plus, the wife is sharing all this information with her friend, thus inviting the friend to weigh in, which is all I advised.

Furthermore ... let's say the marriages (and sound reasons for control) are exact parallels. It still wouldn't be cause for me to silence a concerned friend. This friend is concerned; this friend is a friend. This friend should be able to say, "I worry that this isn't healthy" without being made to feel meddlesome or intrusive. If anything, a resistance to friendly concern would suggest the wife had swung too far from justified control into controlling behavior. Which does happen.


Falls Church, Va.: Online only. How do you recommend dealing with jealousy relating to money and material things? Most of the people I know are much more well off than me. And I know that they aren't in a boat load of debt and simply look well off. It depresses me that I am not at that level. How do I tackle this? Thank you so much. Love your chats and columns.

Carolyn Hax: This is going to sound simplistic, but please at least try it on: You can deal with the jealousy by loving what you do. That's a bulletin for the jealousy center of your brain that, sure, you could have more money by now, but then you'd have to have chosen another career path--which you wouldn't want because you love yours so much.

It doesn't work for inherited money--that requires a different bulletin to a different brain center--but I'm assuming that's not what you're talking about.

it also doesn't work when you hate or feel indifferent about what you do. In that case, though, your coping path is clear--search (soul and classifieds) for more satisfying work.


Kicking Myself: Carolyn,

I recently broke up with my girlfriend in what can only be described as an orgy of self-destructive behavior that is extremely unlikely me. I was on marriage track one day, and cheating the next in a rather transparent manner. I can't figure out why I would do such thing. Yes, I am scared of committing, but I wouldn't treat a street bum this way.

She asked me why I would do it, and honestly, I can't say because the me I've always known wouldn't have done it. Except I did. Needless to say I am rather confused and now have plenty of time (as a single person) to sort it all out. Where do I even start?

Carolyn Hax: Simple answer: Either she wasn't right for you, or the you that you've always known isn't right for you. I'm loath to make this Get Thee to a Shrink day, but a more complicated answer might be better explored with competent professional help. If careful, courageous thought hasn't yielded anything (by courageous I mean with a willingness to face personal fault), and if you don't have someone in your personal life who can offer some useful ideas, then getting help is really the best answer for when we're mystified by (and upset by) ourselves.


Live-in Mom: Dear Carolyn,

I really like your sense of humor and the way you can keep it up while answering serious questions! Please help me with the following:

When I had my first child four years ago, my mother came to live with us and help with the baby -- Being a first-time mom, in a new country without many friends/relatives, I don't know what I'd have done without her. The thing is, she's still living with us. Mind you, she is a great help to have around, a nice person, and as my dad passed away about six years ago, she'd have to live alone if not with us. My mum's 56, healthy, well-off and I am sure can lead a life of her own but I know

she'd prefer to live with us and not by herself. It's just that I can't help thinking shouldn't I get a chance to run a family without "help"?

I'd like some privacy sometimes, time for the my husband, son and me to bond as a family. In a few years, I know my husband's family will also want to live with us as they are getting older too and all this is driving me up the wall... is this natural? Or am I being too selfish..?

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for the nice words.

You've actually found some nice words to express what you're feeling about your live-in mom. I know there are plenty of people who can't hear anything gracefully if they don't want to hear it, but if your mom is a good mom, she will be able to handle this:

"I know you prefer to live with us and not by yourself. It's just that I can't help thinking, shouldn't I get a chance to run a family without "help"? I'd like some privacy sometimes, time for the my husband, son and me to bond as a family."

Even louder, for the cheap seats: A good mom wants gratifying lives for her children, even if it means she has less for herself. (A good mother also won't respond with this Martyr's Creed when asked to make do with less.)

certainly you need to play that in your head for a while before you say it, so you're sure of your need to have your own space. I think you'll get an even better answer, too, for both of you, if you're willing to think creatively, and some thought in advance can help that. Can she come stay with you X times a year, for Y period of time? Or set up a second home near you, that she otherwise rents out as an investment? There are ways for her to stay involved with you and her grandson without making tea in your kitchen 365 days a year.


So true...:"the you that you've always known isn't right for you."

I found out this nugget the hard way. I endured the life path I had set out for myself in quiet misery for years, trying to make the best of things. It led to "an orgy of self-destructive behavior" and eventually resulted in the bitter end of my marriage and my child living in two separate homes.

Looking back, there were signs that this path was wrong for me, but I guess I wasn't capable of seeing them. I'm much happier in my own skin now, but it came at a terrible cost.

Carolyn Hax: No doubt. Thanks for weighing in.


Vienna, Va.: Hi Carolyn,

I am hoping you can give me some answers on how to cope with my situtation. I have recently started dating someone who I had known as a teenager and young adult. He has a 16-year-old son from a previous relationship. Anyway, his son's mother has told my boyfriend that he needs to start doing things with his son with no one else around (eg Me). His son and I get along wonderfully and I think he is a great kid and the feeling is mutual, he thinks I am really cool. His ex-girlfriend is a very controlling person with everyone in her life (makes son call her at work when he gets home from school and he is not allowed to have friends over). Although they have not been together since before my boyfriend's son was born, she is still trying to control my boyfriend's life. Now that she is not dating anyone, she feels his time should be spent entirely with his son. I feel like I am the bad person now because I feel like he has to choose between time spent with me or time spent with his son.

Carolyn Hax:1. Be patient. A 16-year-old isn't long for this life of doing what Mommy says.

2. Be open-minded. The boy could be upset that he never sees his dad without you around, and reluctant to speak up for fear of hurting you (whom he may still genuinely like), and his mom could be advocating for him. Even if she does have a history of controlling behavior, that doesn't preclude her from having valid concerns occasionally, or from making legitimate points. in fact, I think a lot of parents won't let their teenage kids have friends over (or go to friends' houses) unchaperoned.

3. You've "recently started dating" this person. Son time trumps you time. Know this before your mouth forms a complaint, and then see if you still have a complaint.


Washington, D.C.: I've been trying to lose weight and have managed to lose a substantial amount (over 50 pounds). Recently I was in a car accident and because I was afraid I would regain some weight, I was very careful about what I snacked on. And I was put on Prozac (not related to accident). I'm still injured but I went to my weight loss center and lost seven pounds during this time.

One of my e-mail buddies heard about this and was unhappy with herself that she hasn't lost weight. She wasn't mad at me but mad at herself. She only got a little snippy with me on IM saying "well now you can wear smaller clothes." I realized later that no, I can't, because I have this cast and future surgery scheduled.

I know this is HER problem but what do I say in response to this? And I feel like I cannot tell anyone anything good because they'll be jealous. And yes, we're all over the age of 45.

Carolyn Hax: Eh. Just ignore it. If it is or becomes a regular thing, then please do feel free to say, "I feel like I cannot tell you anything good because you'll be jealous"--or the more economic, "Yes, what a fortuitous car wreck."


Re: Jealousy: What's the bulletin for the inherited-money brain-center?

Carolyn Hax: The life you live makes you the person you are; if you had been born into money, you wouldn't just be you with more money.


Vienna, Va.: What's wrong with wanting your son to call you when he gets home from school? Sounds like none of your business since you haven't known the son for 16 years like his mom has.

Carolyn Hax: Agreed. Thanks for typing it for me.


Washington, D.C.: I'm reading your chat, so it feels like Friday afternoon - can I go home now?

Carolyn Hax: Of course.


Arlington, Va.: Hi, Carolyn:

I've asked this before, but didn't get a response: How do you know whether you're depressed or just have the blues? I've been blue for about a year, but have never thought I was depressed until I read somewhere that being down for this long could mean depression.

Carolyn Hax: Does it matter? If you feel bad, and if you think talking to someone might help you find a way to feel better, why not try?

I guess "blues" are shorthand for "deal with it yourself," but I think that distinction is headed for um extinction. Talking to someone is part of dealing with it yourself, for one thing. And, if you start to make an appointment and it feels weird because you'd rather try eating better and gettign more sleep and exercise (or a better job, healthier friends, saner spending habits, whatever) first, then first start to eat better and get more sleep and exercise (or find better job/friend/savings vehicle)--then, if a month or two of that yields nothing, you can go back and make the appointment. It's this perception that getting help is tantamount to walking off a cliff that I hope dies an overdue death. You can take small steps and turn back at any time if it isn't for you.


ALS on Frontline: You should tell the chatters that they can learn more about ALS by watching Frontline on PBS tomorrow evening.

Carolyn Hax: YES. Thank you. I meant to post a notice of that.

Also, I will be forming a group for the Washington, D.C., Walk to D'Feet ALS on Oct. 21. Early notice.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: This feels a little silly, but a friend of mine kind of decides on the way I have to talk to her. I swear she doesn't want to talk to me if I'm happy. She only wants to talk if I have a problem to work out or I'm feeling blue. What's up with that? It's starting to creep me out. Like she's feeding on my misery which also ends up being her misery by the way. Why can't two gals just talk about shoes?

Carolyn Hax: Many can, just not this one. Have you pointed this out, btw?


RE: Charleston: The letter wrtier didn't mention that he was miserable being treated like a little boy. Er, did anyone else think that maybe the guy is perfectly happy with his marriage?

Not to bring weird kinks into it, but some people LIKE this kind of treatment. Maybe we should answer that question before we go accusing people of emotional abuse.

Just sayin'.

Carolyn Hax: I agree in theory that there's a lid for every pot, but sometimes I can't help but be skeptical that someone can be "perfectly happy" in an arrangement like the one described. Sure, it's probably not a simple case of wife abusing husband, but a person so comfortable with being controlled could well be a product of a similarly unhealthy home, and so what do you do about that? Saying, "Oh, he likes it that way," sounds awfully like a midcentury American miscue, that women like to have all those complicated decisions made for them by their husbands. Granted, the reverse is true--saying they (or he) can't possibly like it is also a pompous projection.

So all anyone on the outside can do is try to be reasonable based on a general, and flexible, understanding of what is healthy, or else we end up in this sludge of relativity in which everything is a choice, and so there's no such thing as abuse. We can only call what we see.

Not that this automatically makes it every outsider's business to "rescue" the husband or the wife or anyone in a ... let's call it "oddly balanced" marriage. This whole discussion is about the appropriateness of a close friend and confidant expressing concern, which, remember, originated with her seeing a change in her friend that she finds disturbing. It seems appropriate here.


Carolyn Hax: Another one that took forever, when we should all be outside drinking lemonade. To that end--bye, thanks for coming on a Monday, and I'll type to you again this Friday at the usual time.


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