Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 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.


George Mason, Fairfax: Carolyn, what should I major in? What should I do with my life? Gaaaah!

Carolyn Hax: Major in something you love. It's as good a start as any in getting paid to do something you love, sharing life with someone(s) you love, and living somewhere you love. Which is the point, I think--to get as close as possible to achieving this. Gah.


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn, in kind of a follow-up to the question in today's column-- how much time are you obligated to spend with your sibling's SO when you can't stand him/her? She always wants to bring him along and while the rest of us would rather gnaw off our arms than hang out with him, we also don't want to never see her again.

Carolyn Hax: None. There is no obligation. That you want your sister in your life means you will have to spend at least some time with dread SO, but even then, it depends entirely on how far you're willing to go to keep this guy out of your life. Are you ready to, say, approach your sister about occasionally coming solo, and risk offending her? Are you ready to skip some family events?

There's no right answer. I wish there were, too; it would relieve us all of a lot of guessing to be able to say, "Okay, I've spent the required two holidays with your idiot SO, so now you can't bring him again till the next calendar year."

Really, I think the best case scenario is the sibling is aware of his/her unpopular choice of mate, and gives the rest of the fam a break occasionally--but siblings who think that clearly rarely seem to choose the kind of SOs everyone's desperate to avoid ...


Somewhere in Virginia: What do you do when you figure out that you hate your husband? Not just "not love" him, not even just dislike him a little, but really actively hate him. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but I really very strongly dislike my husband. This is not good - we've been married almost eight years and have a daughter who's almost 1. I don't feel that leaving him and splitting up our family is a good option, but on the other hand, he drives me insane and is so unpleasant to be around. Should I try to get him to attend some counseling for his depression/anger management issues? Should I go to counseling for depression of my own? I suppose marital counseling is what we need but I doubt he'll go for it. My daughter is a comfort, of course, but I'm just so depressed at the thought of spending the next 20 years without love in my life.

Carolyn Hax: Oh my. Start with counseling for you, primarily so you have a place out of the home to take all this hatred. Then, try to sort out where it all comes from, and then use that understanding to help you figure out what you can do about it. You've got some serious, practical decisions you need to make, and soon. Think of this as a trip to an emotional organizer who can help you identify what needs to be done, when, and why.


20 years after choosing a major: Since we started off with the "find something you love" concept, here's part 2: How do you figure out what you love? For some people that's an easy question, but I find it a tough one. I've been out of the work force for a while with young children, and now I want to consider a new direction. I don't want to go back to my old job. It's hard to get excited about something new -- and I'm 41, and more than a little fearful about starting over.

Carolyn Hax: What do you gravitate to in your free time? What elements of your scholing/job came most easily to you, and/or were the most rewarding? If you won Powerball tomorrow, what would you most want to do with your next 39 or so years? Even ridiculous leisure examples can be illuminating, as can give-to-charity answers: What diversion would you choose and where (golf, skiing, adventure travel, shopping travel, beach-blobbing ...), or what charity? Health, education, children, the arts, libraries--all of these say something about who you are and what drives you.

If this kind of thinking itself doesn't come to you naturally, there are people who specialize in it--there's a whole industry around this kind of counseling/coaching now, and while it might take some effort to find someone reputable, it might still be worth a look.


Anywhere, U.S.A. -- online only, please!: Relative and new boyfriend live 60 miles away. We invite them to an earlyish dinner. They announce plans to stay overnight, saying they'll leave the next morning "after breakfast." We'd offered dinner, now we're feeling like a B&B that's expected to provide linens, turn-down mints and a full breakfast. Initially, we were too shocked to refuse, but are now feeling like our weekend's been hijacked. Advice?

Carolyn Hax: Um. Depending on where your "anywhere" is, those 60 miles can take two hours or more to travel--or, in DC Friday rush, 17 hours. This is not to say their inviting themselves overnight is okay, but the tone of your letter is that you'd rather they stay politely at the end of the 10-foot pole. So. How close do you want to be to this relative? If the answer is, "Not very," then adjust your invitations accordingly--e.g., meet halfway for a dinner out.

As for this visit, at least give them a chance--they could be planning to make you breakfast.


How do you know what you love?: The best advice I ever received was to think, "what do you enjoy so much that you would and do pay to do it?" -- then figure out how to be the one who gets paid.

Carolyn Hax: Good one, as long as you aren't too literal about it (if your answer is, "Drink tequila," for example, you might be in trouble). Thanks.


picking a major!: When I graduated from high school I wanted to go to culinary school but my parents told me I was "too smart." I went to one of the nation's most prestigious private colleges, and now that I'm working in my first "real-world job," all I fantasize about is being a chef of caterer or doing something food related. Sucks. Do what you want, follow those passions!

Carolyn Hax: So have you requested information yet on any culinary schools? Signed up for weekend gigs with a local caterer?


Columbia, Md.: Why do I keep hearing that is someone has never been married by a certain age, say 35 that there must be something wrong with them. Is it better to have been married and divorced than never to have been married before. Marriage just is not right for all people. I can never see myself married but that does not mean that I do not want someone to spend time with and do things with that are just easier to do as a couple but marriage has always been a strange concept to me. It does not mean that if you have never been married that you must be gay or have something wrong with you. What is normal for you may not be normal for me or someone else. Everyone just stop judging and live your own life.

Carolyn Hax: If you keep hearing that, you're listening to the wrong people. Your explanation might feel good to get off your chest, but anyone worth persuading already knows.


Re: Do what you love: I'm all for doing something you enjoy, but how realistic is that for most people? It's certainly a good place to start, but most people aren't fortunate enough (like you, ahem) to have a skill they love that they can making a living off.

Carolyn Hax: Put it that way, and it suggests I was a writer when I went to college. I went in expecting to major in something math/science oriented, and abruptly decided my first week there that what I really wanted to do was read good novels. So I found my way, a year later, into the History and Literature department, and got a job after graduation as a paralegal. I switched to editing about a year.5 later, and didn't make a living fully off my writing until I was 11 years out of college.

So. Major in what you love.


Siblings: You wrote, "I think the best case scenario is the sibling is aware of his/her unpopular choice of mate, and gives the rest of the fam a break occasionally"

How does the sibling explain that to the mate? "My family dislikes you and you've already been over for Fourth of July and Labor Day, so you're on your own for Thanksgiving"

Doesn't sound right to me.

Carolyn Hax: Obviously you don't exclude people from major holidays, and I don't expect anyone to say to a spouse, everyone hates you so you have to stay home.

But in my experience the Dread Others know on some level the reaction they cause, and would rather stay home. Why can't the sibling just say, "Sure, you can sit this one out"? I've found that the sibling often drags the mate to everything even when the mate is reluctant--or won't come at all if the mate is busy or isn't interested--which brings us to the flip side of the problem we're talking about: The issue is usually with the sibling, and the bad mate choices are only a symptom.


Depressed?: Online only please -- I fear that I am crossing the line between the normal blues and all-out depression. This comes at a time when I "should" be happy -- fiance'-wise, job-wise, city-wise, so much love in my life. But I feel anxious, sad, alone, so much of the time, and fear I'm alienating the person I am about to spend the rest of my life with. He says I'm becoming withdrawn while I just feel bad about myself and weird. It's not clinical (I don't want meds), and I really don't have much to complain about. I just keep waiting to snap out of it and nothing seems to help.

Carolyn Hax: How do you know it's not clinical? Have you sought any treatment? I'm not saying You Must Go on Meds, but to make that decision without getting a competent, professional diagnosis seems to be self-defeating in a way I doubt you'd consider under other circumstances. Your car is clunking, and you say you won't go to a mechanic because you don't believe in them? Not a likely scenario.

Please treat your mind as conscientiously as you would anything else. Get some solid referrals; get a professional diagnosis; ask that talk therapy be part of any treatment regimen you're offered, so you can figure out where the bad news is, in anywhere, in all your good news; and weigh your options carefully from there.


Doing what you love: What if you find your dream leads you (geographically) far away from your significant other's dream? I think this is a bigger and bigger issue for many of us-- two of my close friends live across the country from their husbands because of the nature of their careers...I CAN'T be the kind of woman who just follows my husband wherever he goes, and I don't want him following me and being unhappy-- but my deepest unhappiness would be to be without him. He's part of my dream.

What to do?

Carolyn Hax: What kind of woman is that, then? Weak? Dominated? Frilly-apron wearing?

I agree this is a bigger and bigger issue--every generation is more empowered and mobile than the last--but judging people who make choices you wouldn't is about as old-school as it gets. This is about freedom, and as someone free (in other words, legally and economically able) to choose to follow any of a number of paths your dreams may dictate, I would hope you'd be able to recognize the different ways people choose to live those dreams.

It could be your significant other would prefer to be with you and take what comes than pursue his current, specific career dream somewhere else. People are complex and ever-evolving, as are dreams. To imply that only one place can satisfy one dream is pretty limiting, for one; and, to imply that as a man he'd be resentful of a choice to go to your city--if that's in fact what you are implying--is, frankly, offensive.

I realize I could be misreading it, but I see no allowance for the fact that he--or anyone--could realistically prioritize relationship over career. And that's not freedom, that's just the same social tyranny we had before, but now with career satisfaction playing the role that used to be played by "Leave It to Beaver"-style domestic bliss.

Go where the pull is the strongest.


the unliked SO: So, I think I'm the unliked SO. Not with my mate's family but with his friends. Nothing blatant, but eye-rolling, knowing glances at each other, etc. My mate is oblivious but it feels obvious to me. I just try to smile, smile, smile and be interested in others, but it is wearing and makes me sad. I like all of them just fine by the way -- they're cool and interesting. I just wish I didn't feel like they would just as soon I disappear, which I won't be doing any time soon if ever. My SO is oblivious to this, just as a matter of personality -- he likes everyone and everyone likes him -- and so his response is "they like you just fine, honey." I hate to stay away just to please the friends, but I have to admit that it's taking its toll. What do you do if you're the one that is the unliked one?

Carolyn Hax: Pass on seeing these friends as often as is practical/palatable, and see how you do. If they're not a huge feature in his life, that could well do the trick, and have the side benefit of freeing some time to do stuff just for yourself, which can grow hard to come by as relationships grow closer.

If it turns out these friends are a huge part of your life, and that dealing with them is a huge source of discomfort for you--which can be true whether they really do dislike you or not--then this might just not be the guy.


Washington, D.C.: I've finally bitten the bullet and sought counseling for the general unease I've been dragging for over two years, but what no one tells you is that your relationship with your therapist opens up a whole new can of worms. She listens and is supportive but I sometimes wonder if she shouldn't be pushing me more, challenging what I say. How does it work? I truly cannot face looking for someone new and pouring everything out again. That said, I know I haven't given her much to work with except "I feel very lonely, unhappy and I don't know why."

Carolyn Hax: Tell her what you just told us, and see what happens. It might be that she isn't right for you--it's like any relationship, really, in that not all are meant to be--but at least give her a chance by helping her get to know you.


For depressed bride:"This comes at a time when I 'should' be happy -- fiance-wise, job-wise, city-wise, so much love in my life."

What a crock! It's not true that you "should" be happy even though that's what they say. They lie.

This is a major life transition for you (getting married) full of loss as well as the obvious gain -- you lose some of your independence (as does anyone who gets married; no more unilateral decisions on money and vacations, etc.,) you lose your old relationships with friends and family. The new relationships may be fabulous, but it's not the same.

There's a book called "The Conscious Bride." It's not very helpful as far as offering advice, but it is helpful in that it shows you that you are not alone feeling all these dark feelings during this supposedly "happiest time of your life."

Carolyn Hax: And this is even assuming all these changes are really good. There's no correlation that I can see between what "should" make one happy and what actually does. Except possibly the reverse--the unhappiness that comes with doing what you "should" without asking yourself what makes sense.

Anyway, thank you. I can't vouch for the book but here it is.


For Depressed...: I, too, did not want to go on medication several years ago. In fact, I didn't even think my depression was that bad. But when the therapist diagnosed me with depression, I said "Well, it's pretty mild, right?" She looked at me and said "You cry every day and you don't know why. No, it's not mild." Even then it wasn't as much of a wake up call as the therapist saying, several weeks later "If you had diabetes, you would take insulin. If you had cancer, you'd get chemotherapy. I know you think this isn't a big deal, but it is. And if you don't go on medication soon, I'm going to start to consider other options" which meant hospitalization. Even when the psychiatrist gave me the pills, I hesitated for a week to take them. But I swear, the day after I started, I woke up feeling like I had been living under a cloud that had lifted. My major concern was that I didn't want to be falsely happy. I realize now that that's not what medication doesn't make you falsely happy, it makes you normally even keeled. I'm not saying you need to go on medication, I'm not saying you're like me, but I, too, felt sad, alone, and miserable all the time, for what appeared to be no good reason. Sometimes the chemicals in our brains aren't just working right, and they need some help to get the right balance. Am I perfect now? No. I'm still depressed...and possibly always will be. But I have normal ups and downs like everyone else now...not downs that cause me to want to do something drastic, or downs that cause me to want to stay in bed for a week and feel like getting in the shower is a major effort. So, while you may not want to be medicated, and you may not even need to be, don't rule it out off the bat. I'm convinced that it saved my life.

Carolyn Hax: Well put, thanks--to you and all others who wrote in. A lot of eloquent arguments for making informed decisions.


Unliked SO: Is there anyone in the group that seems remotely approachable? If so, I'd say to him or her: "So, am I just paranoid or do I just wear on everyone's last nerve? I love Jim, so I want to be able to get along with his friends, but I just can't shake the feeling I'm grating. Please, tell me what I'm doing so I can stop it."

And then brace yourself for what they say.

Carolyn Hax: I like it a lot ... until I put myself in the position of being approached by some unpopular mates I know, and having to defuse that question bomb. But hey, I guess if I'm freezing people out badly enough for them to know they're being frozen, then I guess I'd deserve it.


Boston: What is your opinion on "breaks," as in I need a break and now I want you back!


Carolyn Hax: Well, sometimes people need breaks to be able to think clearly, and sometimes they realize during them that they're grateful for someone and ready to commit.

I'm sure there are endless configurations of sometimes ... sometimeses ... but what matters is if you find your person or situation credible. General opinions don't apply.


sibling v.s. SO: After my SO and I broke up, my sister told me that she hated the guy from the minute she met him, good riddance, etc. Well, the SO and I got back together so now I don't bring him to family events and we don't hang out with my sister and her boyfriend like we used to (when I thought she liked him). In fact, I kept in under wraps for months that we were an item again. Awkward? You bet it is!

Carolyn Hax: Sure, but have you talked to your sister about it? Figured out how you can stay close despite this? Offered to field any questions or address any worries she might have about your relationship? If your choosing this guy was a good, grown-up choice, then you can make good, grown-up accommodations for it.


Loser Sibling?: Hi, Carolyn. I live pretty geographically close (60 miles) to my mother. I try to spend a weekend there every couple of months, and feel like we generally have a good relationship, but I am starting to wonder. I am always the one to do the travelling; she never comes to me even though I live in Washington where there is way more fun stuff to do. I remodelled my house FIVE YEARS AGO and she has yet to come up to see the splendor. Lest you think that it's the prospect of the drive that is offputting for a 70 year old woman, I should mention that she drives more than 400 miles, one way, every month to spend a week with my youngest brother.

I get that he is a bigger draw because he is the father of her only grandchild, and her trips are as much to see the baby as to be with him. But I just found out she came to DC with a group to tour the monuments last week. I am finding myself (a) really, really hurt that she couldn't even be bothered to tell me she would be in town so we could at least meet for coffee or something; and (b) really ashamed that I am 40 years old and still irritated that Mom seems to strongly prefer her sons over her only daughter.

Should I tell her that I feel hurt or just let it go?

Carolyn Hax: Tell her you feel hurt. But before you do, try (really hard) not to judge your relationship with her by comparison, but for what it is. And if you find you still want more, for your own reasons, then ask for more--specifically invite her, for example, and say you'll get tickets to X or Y.

Just as long as you're prepared to hear no. People have their quirks--she might be whupped from seeing her gandbaby and bottomlessly grateful you're able to drive to see her--and often it's just not worth it to fight them.


Washington, D.C.: Why do some people say "Online only please"? Are the questions ever used for the inprint column? Just curious.

Carolyn Hax: Yes. Often said--it's in the intro material*--but bears repeating.

* "Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column."


Re: Doing what you love - try #2: You know, I think the writer gave her own answer in her city and state.

Unless I misread you, your answer, Carolyn, was to solve this by having the man decide to give up his dream of location to prioritize relationship over career. Having made that choice personally to stay in a city I hated to help my ex through grad school, I can safely say that it was one of the worst decisions of my life, and it's taken years to overcome the aftereffects. But that's just me.

Where I'd disagree with you was that your writer gave her answer directly: her greatest unhappiness is being without him, which given this means that following her husband around and giving up her dream is a lower priority. "Doing what she loves" means that she needs to prioritize her life to be with him. Rank ordering his priorities versus hers is not only unfair to him but pretty destructive to the relationship. He might be able to live apart happily for a while, while she can't. That's not his problem to solve. It's hers, and she has to figure out her priorities for herself.

Carolyn Hax: You misread me. I was challenging the poster's assumptions about what does and doesn't make people happy; I was not suggesting a specific course of action.


Doing what you love (part 2): Ok, so what if your significant other quit his stable, well-paying job to follow his dream and become a military fighter pilot? And what if he is now never going to be in the same place for more than 2-3 years at a time? And has a 9 year commitment? At the time he joined, we'd only been dating for a year, and I didn't want to stand in the way of him doing what he had always dreamed of doing, especially I didn't (and still don't) know what I want to be when I grew up. Now I can't imagine my life without him, but I also don't want to give up my chances of having a career. And on top of that, I hate the job I'm doing right now (picked the wrong major), most of my close friends have moved away, and my boyfriend is stationed in a tiny town 600 miles away where the only jobs available are at fast food restaurants. Any suggestions on how to go about fixing my life?

Carolyn Hax: See it as not broken? I realize you can't snap your fingers and have everything you want, but that just means you have to think harder about what you want. Do you want this guy ... if it means you postpone your career? If no, do you want him ... if it means you pursue your career in a flexible way, by, say, going back to school, finding work you can do anywhere (telecommuting, consulting, freelancing--there are also no limits on entrepreneurial choices except your imagination)? Can you make a happy live that also involves some extended separattion? What are you willing to do to make this work?

And, finally, how supportive would he be of your taking a creative approach to this?


Carolyn Hax: Sorry guys--just spent too long debating whether to answer a paricular question. I'll try to find some fluff to send out quickly to make up for it.


For the fighter pilot's girlfriend: Um, the military has dealt with your situation a time or two. You might want to see what resources they offer on this.

Carolyn Hax: Not fluff, but quick. Thanks.


RE: Unliked SO: DON'T ask the others why they don't like you unless you trust them to offer healthy criticisms. They could just be jealous that you're taking the SO away. They could be mean and petty. I asked my ex's family the same thing and all I got was that I was "fat" and had "ugly shoes". They didn't have a reason for not liking me other they just just didn't want to.

Carolyn Hax: But wasn't that useful information? Now you know not to feel paranoid about not playing well with good people, but instead to feel good that you were judged wanting by people whose judgment is wanting--which, cosmically, I think adds up to a compliment.


Need Help ASAP in Va.: Carolyn, what do I do when my husband and I keep having the same argument over and over? Scenario: he promises to do something or be somewhere, completely forgets, gets reminded, forgets again, and so on . . . and then gets mad at ME when he screws up! He knows he is "disorganized" in his words and this effects him at work and at home, but after all these years (nine together, six married, and three kids) he seems to have no desire to change. This puts a lot of burden on me to care for a 4th "child" as far as having to be on top of money, appointments, etc. -- I can't do it all on my own! I've let him know many times in many ways how when he says he will do something I really count on him to do it, and how it affects me and/or the kids when he doesn't. Please help.

Carolyn Hax: I can't help you with his blaming you for his screwups--seriously childish, that--but I do think it's time you stop trying to fix this in ways already proven ineffective at fixing it. How are you reminding him? If it's verbally, try putting reminders in writing; if it's in writing, try verbally; if he's better at remembering some things than others, then try to figure out what naturally sticks in his mind and skew his chore list to those things.

Some people do turn out to be, if not impossible, at least incompatible (and or severely unpleasant). But since you seem to have cast your lot with this person, the best I can suggest is that you try to tweak that lot--to try to play more to his strengths. He'll feel better, you'll feel better, kids'll feel better. It sounds like now the whole schedule hinges on his weaknesses. Recipe for a recurring fight.


Re. 'Because you're fat & your shoes are ugly': They said this with a straight face?!

Did you bust out laughing?!?!

Carolyn Hax: I had assumed she was interpreting for us, but if that was the real answer, then we can only stand and clap.


Depressed Bride Again...: Thank you so much for your responses to my original post -- it made me feel a whole lot less alone and gave me a great deal to think about. I am not doubting the person or the relationship but I am alarmed by the amount of time (as you said) I spend fighting tears & forcing myself simply to get out of bed in the morning. One further question, if there is time: how do I go about getting a referral for counseling? I don't know who I could ask. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: If you have an Employee Assistance Program at work, that's a start; you can ask your regular doctor if there's someone s/he knows. You can ask friends who have had counseling; you can ask friends to ask their friends; you can ask people you know who work in related fields; you can ask a clergy person, if you practice a religion; if you live near a teaching hospital, you can see if there's a clinic. This is just a start, so if it yields nothing please email me.


Columbia, Md.: Carolyn,

What shoes should I wear with capris? I love my Tevas, but husband says they aren't sexy enough. Help?

Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: Ballet flats, pointy flats, strappy flat sandals (just nothing busy at the ankles), heels only if you trust your eye for proportion and if your husband is sexy enough.


Washington, D.C.: Fluff? Sounds like we need some bendy monkey updates! What is your's doing at the moment?

Carolyn Hax: Mine is signing off. Bye bye, thanks, and type to you next week.


Re: Forgetful husband: Couldn't that be a sign of some type of medical condition?

Carolyn Hax: Absolutely. ADD crossed my mind, which they'd end up working around pretty much as I advised. Couldn't hurt, though, for him to get screened. Thanks for the kick.


Alexandria, Va.: Need Help ASAP in Virginia may have a husband with ADD -- she could consider suggesting he see someone for a diagnosis. Undiagnosed ADD causes plenty of marital breakups, for the reasons "Virginia" notes.

Carolyn Hax: Well what do you know.

I post this at the risk of its starting to look like a citizen's diagnosis--it's not. I just want to second the remark about undiagnosed ADD (and other conditions that affect behavior). I've also read ... in the past year or two, I think ... an article tracking how ADD affects career paths as well as home lives, often passing as flakyness or the more sinister lack of interest in pulling one;s proper weight.


Wash DC: So did the two points-of-view about one issue ever get anywhere?

Carolyn Hax: Ack, thanks for reminding me--please consider this an open-ended recruitment for two points of view. I'm still collecting. This is an ongoing project. Thanks. Questions?


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