Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 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.

A transcript of the discussion follows. Other mail can be directed to Carolyn at


Washington, D.C.: Tips on how to ask a guy out? (I'm female.)

Carolyn Hax: Hi. Use the lowest key possible, I think. For example, invite him to "continue a conversation," or suggest coffee after a class/meeting you have together, a movie if you're talking about movies ...


Carolyn Hax: Which is what I'd tell a guy, too.


Personal, Crisis: Carolyn, please help me get a handle on myself. I've had a difficult 18 months; my mother was terminally ill throughout 2006 and died in January. While she was ill, I found myself greatly disappointed in my friends' lack of response -- almost none of them made any effort to contact me and many didn't even return phone calls or e-mails from me. That has continued. In addition, I realize that I've not made a very strong social network here in D.C.; all of these non-communicative friends are from high school or college and spread throughout the country. I find myself always being the one to make contact, and I'm not feeling very close to these friends because I'm trying to deal with my anger about their behavior. I'm also at a loss as to how to make close friends here when I'm emotionally such a handful. I can't just meet someone at a volunteering event and unload all of this. How do I deal with my old friends and connect with new ones?

Carolyn Hax: Have you considered "unloading all of this" on a therapist? I'm sorry for such a stock answer, but it does seem like the first step is to work the grief and anger down to a more manageable size, and since they're unmanageable in part because your close friends aren't helping you with it, a therapist is a natural consideration.

I would also consider, if you think you're up to taking it on, selecting a friend or two and trying to help them help you. Think carefully who might be receptive to a conversation about how disappointed and alone you've felt. It could be that some of your friends care more than you realize, but just weren't aware of how badly you needed them. (Grief does elude or outright stump people, especially those who've never been through it.)

It's also possible they care exactly as much/little as you realize, which is why I included the part about your feeling up to it. And the part about the therapist.

Take care, and I'm sorry about your mom.


Friend with a new baby: Hi Carolyn,

I really hope I get get your help with this. I have a pretty good friend (work friend, if that helps) who recently had a baby. While most everything else about our friendship has stayed the same, she has begun to interject the "well, you don't have a baby so you can do X, Y, and Z" statement nearly anytime I mention my husband and I are going on travel or if I'm just going out somewhere.

Her main point being that because we don't have kids, we have more freedom. True, and while I have no doubt having a kid brings a whole new level of responsibility to her life, I'm getting a little tired of feeling like my activities are negated in some way because we DON'T currently have kids.

I would really, really like to go back to where we could tell each other about our lives without having this newfound "one-upsmanship" battle going on.

Carolyn Hax: These are her own frustrations, so don't take it personally. You can either just roll with it while New Mom figures out it's a bad idea to make her stress everyone else's problem, or you can find a nice way to excuse yourself from these conversations altogether, on the theory that your courtesy will call her attention to the fact that she's making her stress into everyone else's problem: "I certainly don't mean to rub it in. If you'd like me to keep my life to myself for a while, I'll understand."


Re: Personal Crisis: The person dealing with her mother's loss might also want to try to locate a grief support group.

Carolyn Hax: Good idea, thanks.


North Carolina: Discussion happening tonight: need help, please

After nearly a year of trying to keep together our relationship, I told my husband this week that I want to split up. We have grown apart, and seem to have little in common anymore save for what we call "Ours" in our house. The cat. The spices. The furniture.

We have been friends for nearly 20 years (high school) and have been together for seven. He has been extremely kind and generous through all of this. We have both left the house for two-week stretches (he gone, then me, for our own school/work projects); neither time I missed him, but I know he missed me.

The rational side of me that had everything figured out has since been trumped by my heart (which, in light of seeing my husband pack his tools and household things all week, has me panicked, waffling. The act diminishes my pluck and heady need to leave). There are no villains here. I am breaking up with my best friend and it is killing me to do so. My question is: how do you know that what you think you want is actually what should happen?

In my mind the split makes sense, and then the material reality of house-selling, of telling friends (who view us as an ideal couple), of wondering about life on the other side without an Ally sets in. There is love between us, but it has never been passionate love. I don't want to prolong his pain and I understand his practical act of preparing for what's next. He's giving me what I want, everything, and won't stand in my way if I don't want him. But selling the house is a huge step.

We're having a conversation about it tonight, and I need something, a framework, to evaluate what I'm doing, whether I'm making a mistake in letting go of this.

Carolyn Hax: Have you considered merely separating, instead of something so final as selling off the house? Two-week stretches can tell you a lot, but possibly not enough, especially when you're using the highly contradictory "little in common" and "my best friend" in the same description. A year on your own could help you (both) get some real perspective on what you have and don't have when you're together.


Sisterly love?: Online only please. Love your chats, Carolyn. How do I balance being happy with my romantic relationship, and understanding that my mom is upset by it because my older sister "should have been first to find someone"?

I understand that it's cultural/generational on her part. I understand that anything could happen -- my relationship could end tomorrow, or I could get run over by a bus and my sister could fall in love with the bus driver, thereby getting married first which is apparently more appropriate.

But in the meantime...I'm happy. And I want her to be happy with/for me. Instead, I feel secondary to my sister in mom's eyes, and as though I disturbed the natural order of the universe by daring to talk about marriage before my sister has walked down the aisle herself. Just grin and bear it, I guess? Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Just grin and bear it. Accepting life as it comes means accepting life is out of your control, and some people just aren't ready to take themselves out of the starring role in their own personal dramas.

You can do your part, though, by realizing your mother's approval is likewise out of your hands. It's one of the harder habits to break, the habit of pleasing a parent, but you've got great incentive to break it.


Anonymous: Hi Carolyn and peanut gallery, here's my question:

Friends A & B are on-again, off-again (now on). We all go back a decade. Friend B has had a longtime crush on A. A is pretty obviously "settling" for B. It's agonizing to both see a friend settle and see another friend be settled for. I'm not sure which is worse and at some point one of them is going to ask my opinion.

I generally adhere to the "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" philosophy. Do I turn and run? Hide until it's off-again? Hope that the settling morphs into actual feelings?

Carolyn Hax: When someone asks your opinion, say, "That depends. Are you happy?"


Madison, Wisc.: The other week, you had suggestions on what friends can do for a friend with a sick child. Can I also ask for suggestions on what friends can do for a friend who just found out she is terminally ill? I live 1,500 miles away, so dropping off a casserole or offering rides to the doctor are not options. But I want to reach out to her and show my support and love.

Carolyn Hax: Have you thought of what you might want in that situation? And then adjusted it for what you know about that person? For example, if it were me, I might want an old friend to plan a trip for us (if travel is an option) to visit someplace that was important to us. If your friend has kids, you can put together some photos and memories to help replace some of the stories she won't be able to tell.

This is making me sad just typing it.


Soulmate Theory Debunked: Can I just say that I am sick of the word soulmate? This is not about me since I am in a great marriage.

People write to you and tell you that they want to meet their soulmate and you see commercials for dating sites that talk about the soulmate.

It is nonsense. My husband and I met at work and fell in love. What if I'd not taken that job?? My husband grew up 1,000 miles from my hometown and only moved to my hometown for college because his dad divorced his mom and married a woman originally from there and she wanted to move back. There was no divine plan.

I do think some couples are sort of meant to be. My sister and her husband have the most convoluted and odd story of how they met. It is just bizarre. I do think that was meant to be but the rest of us just fall in love and see what happens.

My advice is stop looking for a soulmate and start looking for someone you can select and buy a car with or organize the basement with or pick a movie at the video store with since that is what married couples actually do on the weekend.

Carolyn Hax: Okay, but only if you add, "Can be yourself with, talk easily with, and enjoy sleeping with."


Re: Personal Crisis, a perspective: Regarding "Personal, Crisis", I'm sorry to hear about the loss of her mom. The loss of a parent or other very close relative is something that I think you have to experience to understand just how profoundly and deeply the loss is. It cuts into every aspect of your life.

Which is a point I'd like to make to Personal, from the perspective of someone who is 50 years old and has experienced the loss of a parent, a brother, and two parents-in-law: when you're young, in the part of the life cycle where your own relationships and career and other passages are at the forefront and you haven't experienced much in the way of deaths of people you know, it's hard to understand how profound the loss is for someone else. Especially if that someone else is at a distance.

Personal should try to cut her friends some slack, because they probably truly do not understand how awful her loss is and how helpful it is at such times to have people reach out to you. FWIW, her friends may just not know what to say to her that doesn't come off as shallow or in some way egocentric, so they say nothing -- which is an easy thing to do when you aren't right there. They're probably not bad people, or uncaring, just untouched by grief themselves and not sure how to deal.

What's true is that when you get to be my age or older and have experienced death, and the friends you have also have experienced death and loss, you find that it's easier to speak to someone else about their loss and they find it easier to speak to others. (That's one reason why older people can really get together to talk out a loss in a way that younger people sometimes find ghoulish.)

"Personal" should also understand that in the young, death itself is a frightening issue, something to be staved off and to shy from.

All of us who have experienced a loss like hers understand her grief and anger. If her friends don't have that experience, they don't know how to deal with it and for that reason she might try to forgive them for their awkwardness.

Carolyn Hax: Well said, thank you.


West Coast: Carolyn,

My wife took my daughter on vacation with my in laws for two weeks (because I couldn't get the time off). While they are gone, I am completely relaxed. I sleep well, actually run and exercise, come home to a mercifully quiet house. I don't miss them as much as I probably should. I could get used to the sanity.

Then, my brother and his wife are divorcing, my sister and her husband divorcing, my brother-in-law and his wife divorced. Wife's friend and her husband divorced.

How do you keep it all together when everyone around you is divorcing? Especially when I feel this way right now and I know my wife has felt the same way I do in the not so distant past.

Carolyn Hax: First, I wouldn't get too freaked about enjoying the peace and not missing the family. One of the biggest things you sacrifice for marriage and family is time alone in an empty house. Some people hate it and don't miss it, but others can love their spouse and kids and crave the alone time on an almost daily basis. It's just one of those things -- an empty house seems great ... except when it's all you'll ever have, and a full house seems great ... except when it's all you'll ever have. So enjoy your little vacation and resist the urge to draw big conclusions from it (except possibly that you and your wife might need to build more alone time into your day-to-day lives).

As for the how-do-you-hold-on-when-everyone-else-is-letting-go question, you just pay your priorities a visit and carry on accordingly. Going for a run sounds nice, but it doesn't seem worth a divorce.


Heavy Air: Wow, so far today we've had a dying parent and disappearing friends, parental cultural pressure and now a terminal friend.

I know we're almost out of the prime wedding season but can someone write in about a bride/groom/zilla so that I can get a laugh in here?

Carolyn Hax: No kidding. Sorry guys. Maybe this will make up for it:


Washington, D.C.: My sister-in-law is getting married in a few weeks. Yay! She has chosen to costume the wedding party in ridiculous ren-fair outfits that will make most of them, especially the men, look like refugees from a children's hospital production of "The King And I." Boo! I am not in the wedding party. Yay! My wife (the bride's sister) is. Boo! My wife agrees with me on the idiocy of the whole thing. Yay! In the event that my sister-in-law asks me what I think of the whole thing, should I lie and say everyone looks great? If so, how do I do that convincingly? I am a lousy liar.

Carolyn Hax: Come on, you can't summon even one neutral adjective? Festive, memorable, fairy-tale?

Though now it's a moot point, since, assuming you didn't make this up, you've just told everyone how you think the wedding party looks.


Rockville, Md.:"I don't miss them as much as I probably should. I could get used to the sanity. "

Said like a true man (and I'm male). As you said, getting some "me" time is great when married with kid(s). But only a man would think "Hey, if I get divorced, I'll have so much 'me' time it would be great."

Um, divorced with kids would mean LESS me time since you don't get rid of your kid(s) (well, you can but that's just wrong). You would have more juggling and transit times to spend some time with your kid(s).

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, except for the "only a man" part, since those distinctions do little but undercut arguments.


re debunking the soulmate theory : Okay fine, but I don't have a basement, never rent videos and have no desire to ever do either. DO I still have to look for someone to do that with?

Carolyn Hax: Yes. I'm afraid there's no room for variety, negotiation or alternate weekend plans.


Long distance: From your experience, are relationships that start out long-distance ultimately unsuccessful?

Carolyn Hax: No. Like any relationship, it's about where it goes, not where it starts.


Washington, D.C.: Carolyn, I met my boyfriend at work. Since then he started interviewing for other jobs because he feels he has been unfairly treated by the company we work for, and he tried to convince me to do the same. However, I work in a totally different section of the company and I love my co-workers and supervisors. He told me he felt betrayed that I wanted to stay with the company after everything that has happened to him and said that if the situation were reversed, he would have left on my account. This is starting to seriously affect out relationship. What should I do?

Carolyn Hax: Try to see it his way, and, if you can't, then stick to your guns. Explain yourself thoroughly -- for example, that you don't see his mistreatment as a failing of the whole company, but as a breakdown in the supervision of his section of the company, a breakdown of a kind that occurs even in the best-run businesses. (Really just an example, not trying to put words in your mouth.)

Then let him know that while you would like him to accept your reasoning, you understand that it's not up to you and that he'll have to heed his own conscience.

The implied message to him being, make up your mind and keep me or dump me accordingly. You don't want this dragging out. You also don't want to fall for the career edition of, "If you really loved me you'd ...."


Ren Fest wedding: Do you get to eat with your hands, and throw gnawed bones at the band? Yay!

Carolyn Hax: See, I totally missed this possibility. Thanks.


Fluffy question: Well, sort of. I know you've had an American Staffordshire Terrier, so I need some rather specific advice. I've adopted a lovely mutt who is at least half pit bull. I've had him for about a month. He's a doll: he loves other people, he loves other dogs, he's playful, he's learning voice commands. I'm doing my best to be a responsible owner, so we go to the dog park and he's getting doggie obedience training next month. I try to acclimatize him to all sorts of people and stuff (bikes, motorcycles, people playing Frisbee, etc) so he'll not freak out about any of it.

He loves interaction but doesn't jump, bark or mouth people.

What do I say when I'm asked what kind of dog he is?

Saying "mutt" is true, but then people opine about his probable parentage and viciousness. Saying "the shelter said he was a retriever mix" is also true, but, honestly, it's a clear lie (on their part). Saying "part pit bull" is most honest, but it causes consternation among non-dog-owners (the dog people tend to be okay with it.) I hate to say AmStaff, since it's an actual breed to which he probably doesn't belong.

Any suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: Answer people's questions honestly, then repeat as needed: "Bad owners are the problem, not bad dogs." You won't change everyone's mind; you can only be (keep being) responsible, be patient and hope the pit-bull-as-fashion-statement trend dies a quiet and long overdue death.


The million-dollar question: Carolyn,

I asked this question to Amy Joyce a LONG time ago, but now I'd like your take.

Dating a co-worker: good idea or bad idea?

This is a notion I've felt conflicted about for as long as I've been in the workforce, because even though I've met MANY attractive and interesting people through work, it feels like the most dangerous thing to do, because if things go south, you still have to face that person every day at the job.

Your thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: Indulge a big initial attraction to someone new only if you like going into a full-body cringe every time you venture out to refill your coffee. If you get to know the person well first, though, then I definitely wouldn't swear off dating a coworker. That way you also give yourself time to get out of the same chain of command, if necessary.

Which is what I hope Amy said, since she married a guy who also works at The Post.


Washington, D.C.: What the heck is a Ren or a Ren Fest?

Carolyn Hax: Renaissance Festival. Jousting, lutes (I think) ...


For Fluffy: Tell them he's a pit-doodle and leave it at that. Everyone loves a doodle.

Carolyn Hax: That's pretty funny.


Plainsboro, N.J.: RE: Friend with a new baby.

My problem is slightly different from the person above. Both I and my wife are well past the child-bearing age. We could not have kids due to medical reasons. All our friends know this. Still they say things like "You are painting your walls white (or getting white carpets)? Lucky for you you don't have kids" or something equally stupid. These are quite intelligent and educated people we are talking about. Don't they realize how painful it is for us to have our misfortune referred to as "lucky"?

Carolyn Hax: They will if you say, "We don't see it as lucky." I'm sorry.


Los Angeles: I agree with "low key" asking out, but I do have one problem with it... I feel like I never know if it's a date or not! I'm in a relationship, and when I get asked by a guy I don't know well to "grab coffee" or "a quick lunch"... I don't know what to say "Um, is this a date thing? Because I'm not available." (which sounds obnoxious) But then I'd hate to be in the middle of lunch and reference my boyfriend and wind up sounding like a jerk. How do you respond appropriately?

Carolyn Hax: I think you just accept or decline based on your instincts -- does it really seem just-friendly, and is it a friendship you'd like to pursue? And if the answer's yes, then you just go along with it until something comes up to suggest otherwise. You avoid the jerk thing if you refer to your boyfriend where you normally would, and don't where you wouldn't. The whole point of the low-key approach is not to lock into some Date or Not Date category. I think people lose out on some great friendships and/or dates because they're forced to commit upfront to one category or another, before they really know what's there.


Trading the Concrete for the Abstract: This applies to the dating in the workplace question, but also, I think, to the woman who is considering divorcing her husband and the husband who's afraid he's enjoying being alone too much - they're all asking questions in the abstract, when, the fact is, the answer so often is going to be dependent on facts and circumstances that will only develop over time. This doesn't really help, I suppose, but it seems to me that we keep looking for these big answers to big questions - "what if the world without him feels lonely?" "how do we stay together when other people are divorcing, and I kind of like being alone?" "should I date a co-worker?" - all helpful questions to ask, but ultimately somewhat unanswerable, or answerable only on a day-to-day basis. Not sure where I'm going with this, other than to suggest we just have to "live the questions," and accept some uncertainty.

Carolyn Hax: Agreed. I think where you can go with this is to advise people not to answer these big questions until the answers are unavoidable, undeniable, parked across their front lawns and blocking the door. And if someone isn't at that point but still feels pressured by an awful limbo feeling, then it might be time for an incremental step -- such as a trial separation or a semiannual solo long-weekend vacation or whatever it is that might help scratch the itch but won't feel too permanent.


Boston: From all your experience with these you think if the relationship is already about "working out differences" in the first six months -- so much so that you can get terribly frustrated with each other -- that that's a big red flag. Yes, I know relationships require work, but isn't at least the first six months supposed to be bliss? Or are the communication skills and learning to adapt to differences mean there's some hope? Or if you get this way too early it's hard not to kill the love...

Carolyn Hax: Great question -- I had to take a minute to page through my memory. I'm not going to say that a rocky start can never produce a smooth relationship, but I do believe you need to reach a point of ease in the way you get along, or else the love will wear out.


Fairfax, Va.: Carolyn,

Where do I look for my wife's misplaced libido?

She always kept it with her while we were dating, then after we got engaged, I noticed that she started to get a little careless with it, and now, a few months after the arrival of our first child, it's MIA. She says that she's just not interested; that it's not me; it's her. I have to beg.

Is this "normal" for some (40ish) women? Any advice?

Carolyn Hax: It's normal normal normal the first few months post-partum. Normal even up to a year. It's also normal for things to slow down with age, and also with familiarity.

So, the first possible cause you're just going to have to wait out. Let her body recover from what, you must realize, has been a complete mechanical and hormonal upheaval. Then, if time and recovery don't address her libido problem, you can address the other two, through remaining active and lively in your relationship.

A hint to help you address all three possible causes: The more you engage in and contribute to your home life, and the more you nurture the relationship with your wife (three words: weekly date night), the more you'll do to preempt any physical alienation.


Separation, Va.: My husband and I separated in what I was sure was a prelude to divorce. I gave it time and thought I'd feel footloose and fancy free. Instead I felt bereft. We got back together and have found a mature, deep love. He had some temper work to do, and he did it. The separation was exactly the right move.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for weighing in.


Fluff Question: Tell us the truth - don't you feel just a tiny bit bad for Johnny Damon, stuck 10 games out of first in the Bronx?

Carolyn Hax: No.

Well, okay, a little. Not for being 10 games out, but for being so diminished. It was the hair, and the hair is gone.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

My boyfriend of nearly one year decided six weeks ago that he was "having second thoughts about our relationship" and left. I recently found out that prior to dating me, he used to date models. I am not a model. I am a lawyer and have a generally healthy dose of self-esteem. I exercise. I'm attractive. Etc. etc. And yet, upon hearing this, I have never felt worse about myself.

Please help. Words of encouragement. Anything.

Thank you in advance.

Carolyn Hax: Please think about what it means for one to "date models." If it helps, try it this way: "He dates redheads." "She dates pro athletes." "They treat people as if they are just paper cutouts." Get the idea?

And then please don't blame yourself for what, if true, would be his shortcoming, not yours.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

My mother recently lost her job of 20 years (part time position became a full time position and, for whatever reasons, she was not on the list of qualified candidates to apply for the new position). She lives in New England and I live in DC. Other than the obvious, "let's brainstorm about career options," how can I help her? I already call/listen/offer advice and I've offered to draft/revise her resume.

Is that it? Did I miss anything?

Carolyn Hax: Bad things happen to people, and sometimes people have to get through them on their own. As long as you leave no doubt that you love her and that she can count on you, you've done what you can.


This now: General question about what is considered advice. Most of the time you advise not to advise unless someone asks for it - which with I agree. But is asking a pointed question giving advice? IE, a friend seems to be unhappy in her marriage, is it okay to ask are you happy? Why? That kinda stuff. Or it is better just to let her say only the stuff she's comfortable with. I'm a generally curious person and I seem to ask too many questions that people take as advice when I'm just trying to understand - or am I? Any advice?

Carolyn Hax: I think the pointed question is the perfect way to get people to find their own way to answers, but I also think you need to be careful when you use it. If it's out of nowhere, it can sound really judgmental and/or nosy. If the other person is already on the subject, then go for it. And if the reaction to your doing that is generally defensive, then dial it back a little next time.


Boston: Carolyn,

I thought your advice in Sunday's column was absolutely the correct advice, but should include an explanation to the grandmother's likely reaction to it. When I stopped hoping and working and asking for my mother's approval, she had no further use for me. At first it felt like rejection but eventually I understood that my job in her life was to want her approval which made her feel special because her approval was important to somebody. It hurts to realize you're not a person in your mother's or grandmother's life, but the upside is that you realize that the deficiency isn't in you, and you watch yourself carefully to ensure that you like or love people for what they are in themselves, not what their behavior makes you feel.

Carolyn Hax: Great point, thanks for finishing my answer.

And finishing the chat. Thanks everybody, and have a great weekend.


Mom's Job: What about offering her a small loan, she might need it to get through. Or what about talking to an attorney, maybe it was age discrimination. Or what about going to visit to get her through a tough period?

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. One more:


Helping Mom:

When my mom retired earlier (sorta forced), she felt depressed and so I asked her what she always wanted to do...she wanted to write a novel (who knew?), so I helped her find software that asks all of the right questions and has a pre-set format, then set her up with Mystery Writer's of America membership...she was so excited and now she does a little freelance writing on the side for local papers and small trade publications...nothing big, but helping her get "serious" about her hobby (not just saying "you should write more," but actually making her feel professional), gave her the self-esteem to apply for some professional work...she's much happier now than in her old job and making only slightly less.

Carolyn Hax: Again, thank you.


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