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

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Carolyn Hax: Hi, everybody. Today's announcements: I'm going to be speaking Sunday as part of the Bethesda Literary Festival. My session is 12:30 at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda, and if you want more info or to check out the whole schedule, go to www.bethesda.org. Hope to see at least two of you there to whom I'm not related.

Also, a reminder to everyone who has written a question to me recently or who plans to send one, that I'd also like to have the other person involved write me a letter, too. Think of it as a cheap conversation-starter.

And finally, next weekend is PedALS for Hope--it's the ALS Association's second annual cycling event to raise money for the fight against ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It's in Ellicott City, MD, bright and early; www.alsinfo.org. Please consider sponsoring or participating. For latecomers to this forum, my mom died of ALS in 2002, so all support for this cause is welcome. Please also stay tuned for information on the D.C. ALS walk in October, for which I plan to form a team.

Thank you for your attention. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

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Meh land: Should (must?) you be able to answer the question "Why am I with this person?" in a distinctive and affirmative way? As in, not just "we have fun" (since you presumably have fun with lots of people), but either some distinctive trait "I love him" or unique combination of "we have fun, we make each other laugh, etc."

If the answer to this question is "yes," how to move forward? How do you work on it, or, decide to break up if there's not really a "reason" to break up, just a lack of reason to stay together?

Thanks for any insight.

Carolyn Hax: I don't think you -have- to be able to answer that to be happy. You could be inarticulate, verbally or emotionally, and still find someone you enjoy having around.

Your question, though, sounds a lot like what people say when they're trying to talk themselves into or out of something, and so, if that's true, I'm wondering: Which is it, and why?

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Lexington, Ky.: Hey, Carolyn. Any good break-up advice today? I have a relationship I need to end for a pile of reasons, but every time I'm with him my spine liquifies. I see him and it's all fun and laughter and sex and that breaking-up thing just slips from my mind.

And then I'm alone again and all I can think about is getting out.

Carolyn Hax: Why? What are the reasons? If they're that huge, I can't imagine forgetting them.

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Insisting on Giving Advice: Any advice on how to get friends who want to help to scootch back a little? I've listened to them but question whether they've listened to me as their advice on the topic is more related to their experience than mine and not necessarily helpful. I know they love me and I love them but with my counselor as steady backup I feel like I have a good handle on things. Unfortunately when I say that things are moving along and try and change the subject I get super concerned looks and them insisting no really that we talk. Am starting to feel like a bit of an invalid and that's starting to cause more stress than the original problem...

Carolyn Hax: That kind of pressure isn't appropriate and so you shouldn't have to be in the position of finding a clearer way to say no--but you are in that position so you need to find a clearer way to say no. Including, "Please don't insist. You mean well, but you aren't helping."

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Friend break up gone bad -- Maryland: After months of inappropriate behavior -- mostly stemmed from this person drinking to black out stages -- I "broke up" with a longtime friend. I just didn't want to handle it anymore. She asked why and I explained and told her I couldn't put forth the energy anymore.

Fast forward a few months. She is calling again, asking to hang out. Maybe people deserve a second chance, but honestly I just don't want to give her one. I feel like a jerk, but I need to protect my own sanity here. Is there a way to end this once and for all? I thought that's what I did a few months ago when I said "I can't be friends anymore."

Carolyn Hax: Has she done anything to deserve a second chance? You still wouldn't owe her one, but it is an important bit of info in the decision whether to grant her one, and whether to feel at all bad if you don't.

As for what to say, you wrote a good line yourself: Just say you thought you were clear a few months ago when you said you couldn't be friends any more.

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Should-have-learned-my-lesson-ville, USA: Hey Carolyn,

Today's column struck a nerve for me. I too treated someone that seemed to have potential as a girlfriend terribly in the short period of time I knew her. I overracted on several occasions and now she won't speak to me. I treated my last girlfriend the same way and I thought I had learned my lesson after sabotaging that relationship and deeply regetting it. I know I acted the way I did in part because the new girl reminded me of my ex-girlfriend (which is a good thing because she had a lot of positive attributes). I would love to apologize in person and make amends somehow but I am sure she never wants to speak to me again. So, how do you get over that feeling that you messed up what could have been a wonderful thing? I just can't shake the feeling that this was my chance to get things right after my last relationship and I blew it again.

Carolyn Hax: If you messed it up that badly that quickly, it wasn't a wonderful-thing-to-be. It sounds simplistic but I really believe it. If she were good for you, she wouldn't have brought out the worst in you, and if you were good for her, she wouldnt' have reacted with such finality to your mistake.

Also, there isn't any such thing as "the" chance to get something right or make amends. Each is a process that starts now and runs for the rest of your life.

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Pushy friends: If it's more than one person doing this, and they have such strong reactions to her predicament, either this person is a magnet for drama queens or she is in much worse shape than she or her counselor seem to be aware of. Could it be that the friends are seeing something that the counselor isn't privy to? I suppose it could also be that the friends are helping each other ratchet up their hysteria quotient, but something about this doesn't seem as hunky dory as the person would like it to be.

Carolyn Hax: It's possible and I did think of that, but still the answer isn't for concerned friends to keep pressing. A person in serious trouble will be in more serious trouble if s/he feels there's no choice but to retreat. This will happen less if the person in trouble is able to say, "Please back off, you're not helping."

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn,

I have a first date tonight with a nice, normal guy. I'm so excited -- the nice and normal are not par for the course for me. Any advice so I don't blow it?

Gracias!

Carolyn Hax: Take off about 800 lbs of expectation freight, then go and see how it goes. "Nice" and "normal" aren't diagnoses you can make at this point. Those take years to nail down.

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re: Meh land: I'm still trying to figure out which it is. I've been spending the last several months waiting for things to solidify on one side or another and it just hasn't happened. So now I'm trying to figure out if that is due to just being too comfortable in a sometimes good, sometimes blah, sometimes stressful (though I can, even though I may not want to always have to, handle it) situation. Or, if that comfort is actually a thing to embrace. Basically, there is something keeping us together, but I can't figure out that is just some form of being inarticulate or if it is laziness of some sort.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Carolyn Hax: Describe the "sometimes stressful." (And why you would sign on for an indefinite hitch with someone who is guaranteed to introduce at least intermittent stress but who does not offer you any one thing you can identify as good.)

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For Friend break up gone bad -- Maryland: Is her friend going to AA or otherwise getting help for her drinking problem? If so, are you willing to be supportive of her? Of course, if it's just the same old thing I wouldn't blame you for staying broken up with her.

Carolyn Hax: I'll nudge it further, and say I wouldn't blame you if she were going to AA and you felt no desire to befriend (refriend?) and support her. Sometimes, someone pushes you beyond caring and you don't have to apologize for that.

However, writing off a friend who isn't trying to get well, and writing off a friend who is, are two different decisions and I think it's important to know which one you're making. Both for your own peace of mind, and for the purposes of wording your "No, thanks" statement.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi,

My hubby had a rough childhood and there are a lot of issues he never really dealt with. He thinks that nothing can be gained by him talking to a counselor and he doesn't see that what happened to him as a child still influences him every single day. Just a minor example: I can't eat cheerios in front of him, because of something nasty his brother did to him involving cheerios. It sounds silly writing it down, but there are bigger issues that cause him to hold back in many areas of his life. How can I help him see that counseling might help? These things -- like the Cheerios -- will come out of nowhere and it takes me a while to realize why he is acting weird about something.

Carolyn Hax:"You are punishing me for things your brother did. So while you may feel you have nothing to gain by talking to a counselor, I feel I have something to gain by your talking to a counselor. Please do this for me."

And then, for you, see a counselor on your own. You have chosen to put a difficult and, I imagine, draining marriage at the center of your life. Some support might lighten the load.

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Frederick, Md.: My wife and I have been struggling financially ever since we were married four years ago, due primarily to health issues and the job market. We got together last week with a couple of college friends who updated us on classmates we had lost track of. One apparently married a wealthy man and is living a life of ease. When one friend said, "Well, she married money," my wife rejoined, "Unlike me." This led to an awkward silence, but my wife did not take back the comment. Am I wrong to feel upset and embarrassed about this? I love her dearly and don't drink, smoke, gamble, do drugs, play around, or abuse her in any way. She says it was just a quip, that in fact our lives would be better if one of us were rich. Can you help?

Carolyn Hax: I do think she owes you an apology, but that's not worth the ether I'm sending it into. She has to see that herself.

Maybe the reason she doesn't see that is, if you reverse the joke--you say it about her--it's funny. I have to wonder what planet spawned her, though, if she doesn't know that male breadwinner pride has endured through every advance toward gender equity. Maybe you need to explain that to her.

Or, maybe she really is angry about her lot in life and is taking it out on you, and you both need that out in the open.

If it helps, "She married money" has evolved into a harder-than-ever slap in the face to the woman who married money -and- the man she married, which impeaches not them so much as the person who said it. So no one came out this exchange unscathed.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you do when you've hurt someone you love by treating them badly? I essentially stood up my boyfriend to stay out drinking with my friends, and, on top of that, was rude to him about it. I would never act like that sober, but I make bad decisions when I've been drinking. I've left him messages apologizing and and trying to explain. Now I just don't know what to do with all this guilt...

Carolyn Hax: Deal with your alcohol problem. That's what you do with the guilt.

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Richmond, Va.: Boyfriend of 4+ years is a functional alcoholic. Any point in investing more time with him? As I understand it, by definition, all of an alcoholic's relationships are dysfunctional. Most of the time, he's fine with me, although if he has had too much, he gets unpleasant and argumentative. We work around this by not seeing each other 2-3 days a week so he can "get his drunk on" out of my sight and hearing. Advice?

Carolyn Hax: Read your own question, recognize how very deep the hole is you've fallen into, and get out.

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Sabotage: To the people sabotaging relationships: GET THERAPY. It's not the fault of the person you treated badly, and they are perfectly entitled to never speak to you again. Carolyn, you told the should-have-learned guy that the right woman wouldn't have 'brought out the worst' in him, but he admits to sabotaging relationships and overreacting! I've seen that behavior before, and it doesn't matter how wonderful the other person is when their partner is determined to destroy the relationship.

Carolyn Hax: That's one interpretation of it. It wasn't a situation where I felt comfortable taking this guy's word as a full accounting of what happened. Sometimes, a key element of the "sabotage" is choosing someone extremely high-maintenance (difficult, demanding, jealous, thin-skinned ...), and then the reaction to that is another.

This doesn't justify mistreating someone, obviously, but it would extend the definition of the problem to include the people he chooses, instead of making it just about a guy who overreacts when he likes somebody. This is usually the case with any pattern of dysfunction--in fact, the dysfunction -always- includes the people/things/traits someone finds attractive. And so I really do think there was no potential this-was-the-one happiness thwarted when things got ugly.

But I do emphatically second the counseling motion. Best undertaken before any new attempts at finding love.

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RE: Marrying for money: Maybe she meant it as a compliment that she married her husband for love and not for his money?

Carolyn Hax: There you go.

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Whoa-ville: Carolyn

Who peed in your cheerios this morning? Sorry, I get that you are tough love and people should know what they're looking for, but some of your responses seem a little bit harsh today. Especially to the girl who inadvertently stood up her boyfriend by staying out with her friends. You have no idea how often she sees her friends, how much she drinks, etc., and assumed she had a drinking problem. That is way harsh.

Carolyn Hax: I disagree. If I don't hear alarms when I read, "I would never act like that sober, but I make bad decisions when I've been drinking," followed by an inability to manage morning-after regrets, then I don't belong in this job.

I certainly didn't and don't mean to be harsh, so for that I apologize.

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re: Meh land: The sometimes stressful runs the gamut from really thoughtless, but serious comments that stress me out to punching walls (never people, just pillows, doors, etc). Problem with the sometimes stressful is that it may stem from autism spectrum type organic issues and not just general jerkiness.

Good stuff does abound. Affection, help, time, listening, laughing, sharing, etc.

Also, I sent my good friend a link to the chat and his response was, "Hax is saying what we're all thinking." So I guess that should be pretty telling as well. I really appreciate you helping me talk this out.

Carolyn Hax: Happy to help, or at least try. Your friend's response should be telling, yes, though this is about what you can live with.

Just don't fall into the trap of, "He can't help it so I can't in good conscience leave." How well you handle the challenges, and how well he handles the challenges--since the measures people take to address their conditions/illnesses/disorders, and their effectiveness, vary so widely--have to be huge factors in any decision you make. And if you're not up to it, you do him no favors by staying.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Carolyn,

My best friend of over 20 years (we're 25) recently got dumped by her boyfriend. To say that he wasn't good enough for her is to put it mildly. He barely saw her, always put her down and was even what I consider to be verbally abusive. When he told her he was leaving, he said he didn't want to "settle."

This was her first relationship, and she is taking the break-up hard. I know this sounds cliche, but she is really a very smart woman and always independent--never let herself get bullied and pushed around. I was stunned she had let this guy walk all over her.

Now, she is actually saying that if he calls her and apologies, she would actually consider getting back together with him. She doesn't think she'll find anyone better than him. So far, I've held back, but I just wanted to yell that he's not even remotely good enough for her--that's he a loser who is going nowhere in life, and that he treated her extremely poorly, to put it mildly. But I'm afraid that will depress her more and isolate her, especially from me (we once had a minor spat when I said that he treated her badly).

Any thoughts on what I should do? Love the chat--thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Ask questions. Get her to talk her way to ... well, I would hope some better conclusions, but if not then at least some more thoughtful ones. When things were good, how did he make you feel? What is it about him you'll miss?/What was it about him that you;d want back? Are there things about him you didn't like? Etc.

There's a reason this is a cliche, and the more she sees it the less likely she'll repeat the mistake.

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Breakfast table: Hey, maybe that guy's brother really DID pee in his cheerios when they were kids...?

Carolyn Hax: Still not grounds for denying his wife her Cheerios.

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To Whoa-ville: Carolyn was absolutely not "way harsh". She really nailed this one on the head. If your drinking interferes with your relationships, you have to fix the drinking part before anything else can be repaired.

Carolyn Hax: Way grateful for the backup.

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Overweight SO (online only): Hi Carolyn,

I am in a very loving relationship with a wonderful person. The issue of recent concern for me is his eating habits. He is overweight and so far that hasn't been a problem because I am still very physically attracted to him; but he has some health problems that would be alleviated if he lost some weight and improved his eating choices. This has started to make me worry, but I try to make suggestions for living a healthier lifestyle only on occasion so as not to become a nag. He's done a little better, but he hates diet and exercise. When does a person's food choices become a deal breaker?

Carolyn Hax: When you decide you don't want to watch a person consciously make bad choices that could ultimately deny you something you care about.

Some people don't reach that point. Some see it as, well, I'll enjoy the time I have with this person, even knowing it might not last as long as it could. Even knowing that his choices might be the reason it doesn't last.

People really do bring different perspectives to this, which is why combat troops and race-car drivers and smokers and miners have spouses, too, not just accountants and ... accountants. Cheddar-poof chowing might not seem like it belongs on the same list as, say, firefighting, but a lifestyle choice is a lifestyle choice and in the end you can choose to support it, or not.

And finally: If you see yourself growing to resent his tossing away a life you value, then probably not wise to stick around (and, ugh, bring kids into it). It is after all his choice.

Just kidding: One more thing. Stop dancing and not-nagging around it. Have the conversation. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C. again: Carolyn - I'm the person you told to use my guilt to deal with my drinking problem. You weren't harsh, just honest. And you were right. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: No, thank you. I'm pulling for you.

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Quitting Smoking: Carolyn,

What is the best way to help someone quit smoking? My fiance has smoked for a long time (which is strange because he goes to the gym every day and takes otherwise great care of himself). He says he wants to quit, but he's been saying that for as long as I've known him. I've never smoked so it's hard for me to relate. I know it's something he has to do himself, but how can I be supportive and helpful without being pushy or a nag?

Carolyn Hax: Don't push or nag, just be right. "If you're going to say that, then mean it. Right now you're lying to both of us."

Have you thought about what you're going to do, if he doesn't quit? Will you go through with the wedding? Will you make him smoke outside? Will you nag him and wring your hands the rest of your life? Your clarity on this is important to both of you.

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Lexington, Ky.: RE: Breaking up. The reasons: He's lied to me about something big and I don't know that I'll ever be able to trust him again. I'm concerned by the way he treats his loved ones. He's distant and immature. Most of my friends and family think he's an ass.

And yet I'm hanging on.

Carolyn Hax: Write "sucker" on your hand before you go to break up with him, and when he starts charming you out of your very legitimate doubts, look at your hand. Would that work?

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Houston, Tex.: I'm a single, 34-year-old guy. And I desperately want to get married and have kids. Desperately. Oftentimes, to the point that it distracts me negatively. How do I go about not letting those wishes totally take over my life?

Carolyn Hax: Okay. Figure out what you would want your life to look like if it didn't have a wife and kids in it. Get past the "but I can't imagine it" sputters, and do it. Really see yourself there, as someone productive and fulfilled. And then, start nudging your life toward that--the career, the location, the home, the hobby, the purpose.

Almost everybody ends up in a rut like this, at some point, for whatever reason. It's not just specific to your circumstances.

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Chantilly, Va.: Carolyn- I've been close friends with a woman for several years now (I'm male). In the last year or so I've been very rude to her on a number of occasions for little things that she's done. I blow them out of proportion (to myself), get huffy and leave. I've never insulted her directly and I feel terrible right after doing it. She's tired of my apologies, but now that I see it as a pattern (thanks to her), I know I can fix it. Am I justified in asking for yet another chance, or have I blown it?

Carolyn Hax: Worry about fixing it first, and securing your second chance second, if at all. Winning her friendship back involves her doing something for you, while becoming a less punitive person involves your doing something, indirectly, for her. The more generous approach will benefit you immeasurably more in the end, whether this one friendship survives or not.

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Thank you for not smoki, NG: My fiancee also smokes and has also wanted to quit for as long as I've known her. She quits from time to time, then picks it up again when stress gets to her. This is how I deal.

- I recognize that she may never quit

- she knows that I want her to quit but I don't nag--just encourage her when she says it's time to quit again

- it's an addiction and very hard to manage

- we're moving to a state where you can't smoke in restaurants. :P

- I will not buy her cigarettes. Ever. She wants 'em, she can get 'em.

Finally, she knows that I have one boundary when it comes to her smoking. She cannot, full stop, absolutely, smoke while she's pregnant (which will not happen accidentally). She's totally on board with that. (I hope she can live up to it, but I'm gambling that way.)

Carolyn Hax: Great, thanks.

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Helping a smoker quit: I was a light smoker and quit with little problem. My husband, however, was a regular smoker and had been for 16 years. He was never allowed to smoke in the house or my car, he understood that those things affected me too, and respected my wishes. I never nagged him about his smoking.

I decided, after watching my mother die of (non-smoking related) cancer to tell him how I felt. I said that we can do everything "right" in life and still get cancer, and I was not happy about him conducting an activity that increased those odds. I was scared that I would have to watch him die, of something for which he could exert control. After that I dropped it.

He didn't quit right away, and it took him a few tries and a long transitional Nicorette gum phase, but he is now smoke free for almost a year. I never got his back about the gum or the relapses, but told him how relieved I was when he made it through.

Hope that helps the person who loves a smoker.

Carolyn Hax: I hope so too, thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you feel awkward responding to questions about people's love lives when it is a day of mourning in Virginia today? Usually I love your online chat, but the issues seem really petty today.

Carolyn Hax: No, I don't feel awkward. This is a place people can go to talk about or read about or ideally learn about dealing with other people. What's going on in Virginia today is about the very same thing, but at its most wrenching extreme. We're all just here, doing the best we can.

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Bethesda, Md.: Carolyn,

I recently broke off my engagement to be with another guy - a male friend that I had fallen in love with. Of course the new relationship crashed and burned, for really obvious reasons that I knew myself ahead of time and chose to overlook. Now I'm stuck - I'd like to consider reconciling with my ex-fiance, but I know I am not over the other guy. I am currently not talking to either - the friend for my own sake, and my ex for his. I am trying to find happiness by myself. Is there anything else I can do? I feel like my ex is slipping away from me, and that I've made a huge mistake - but I am still not over that mistake.

Carolyn Hax: I don't think any decision you make will be a wise one if fear of loss is driving it. Wait till your feelings settle down, if only to see -where- they settle down. It almost sounds like you want to put your ex-fiance on layaway, so you won't lose him during the time it takes you to sort out your feelings. That's not at all fair to him.

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Houston, TX: (Online only please)

Hi Carolyn! I've turned into my mother and I need your help to quit. I find myself turning people off with my constant one-upmanship during conversation. For example, someone I met recently told me about a recent shopping trip to a store I used to frequent in my old neighborhood. Instead of listening and asking questions like a normal person, I cut her off and told her that I know all about that store because I used to go there. She seemed a little taken aback and I felt like the idiot I was being, but it's hard to stop. I've turned up my inner monitor on this but what do I do when this stuff slips out? My mother also does this and I'd like her to quit - being on the receiving end is off-putting, to say the least. Who wants to talk to someone who does this???

Carolyn Hax: I would, if you stopped yourself and acknowledged that you started one-upping without meaning to. Something like, "I'm sorry, I just talked all over you." In one sentence, you turn something that made you obnoxious into something that now makes you vulnerable and human.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn. Met a guy a couple months ago, have been seeing him 2-3 times a week since then. The thing is, I really enjoy him while we are hanging out, but I don't really miss him the rest of the time or feel super-eager to see him again, the way I have with other guys I've dated. How would you interpret this? Not sure whether it means I'm "just not that into him" and should move on, or that I should grow up and stop expecting to feel like a nervous schoolgirl about the guy I'm dating. Online only, please. Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Seems like a perfect occasion for letting it unfold and answer your question for you. You're under no obligation to dump him or propose to him by sundown, right?

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Provo, Utah: I'm getting married this summer, but I'm having second thoughts. The second thoughts have come about mainly because I've cheated on my fiance with two different guys in the past year. I'm still seeing the second guy, but I'm about to end it. My fiance doesn't have a clue, and I have no intention of telling him. I chalk these cheating episodes up to sowing my oats before settling down, but my best friend says I should break off the engagement. I doubt I'll find a better husband. He's handsome, smart, and makes a great living. What do I do?

Carolyn Hax: Free your husband-to-be find a better wife. Please.

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Carolyn Hax: Or was that the bad Cheerios talking? How's this:

You're two affairs in, about to marry someone and still thinking only of yourself. Please think of the man you;re about to marry, and whether he deserves someone who makes and equal priority of his happiness and her own.

Marriage is not an accomplishment, it's a promise to man one of two oars on a rowboat.

I think I like Bad Cheerios Carolyn better.

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Carolyn Hax: On that note. Bye everyone, thank you, and type to you next week.

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