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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 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.

Mail can be directed to Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

This Week's Columns: Sun.| Wed.| Fri.

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Carolyn Hax: Eek--I've been here for a half-hour reading questions and I didn't even notice the time. Posting ASAP. Sorry.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm thinking about leaving my boyfriend of three years, even though we get along wonderfully and I love him a lot, because it kind of feels like I'm settling and I'd like the chance to find someone to love -and- be "in love" with. If we do break up, the typical advice is to become happy and comfortable with the idea that you might be single for the rest of your life -- but if I knew I would otherwise be single for the rest of my life, I'd keep my current guy! The whole reason for breaking up would be to try to find a better relationship, so that makes it hard to go into happy-to-be-single-forever mode. Is there a better way to look at this?

Carolyn Hax: Maybe look at your reason for breaking up not as trying to do better, but trying to see what the "right for you" feels like. You're not sure this is it, and no matter what happens, you're right to take these doubts seriously.

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Think I'd Rather Eat Dirt.: Hubby and I are going to host friends (instead of family -- we'll see them @ Christmas) for Turkey Day. Hubby wants to invite his sister, who is not interested in anyone who is not her, and her BF. The thought of having to host her for days is unimaginable. Should I suck it up and agree for her to show -- even though we'll see her at Xams?

Did I mention that I can't stand her? (At our wedding, she tried to pass off a toast from Wedding Crashers as her own. No, really.)

Carolyn Hax: Whatever you do this year isn't as important as finding some long-term solution to the sister that is tolerable to you both. Working it out on a holiday-to-holiday basis is an extremely stressful way to go, especially when, from the looks of it, you are coming at it from very different perspectives. Sample discussion topics: Does he know how you feel about her? Do you know why he wants her to come for Thanksgiving?

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Stepmonsters: I'm sure that I won't be the only one to jump on the future MIL who is featured in your column today, but it sounds like there are probably reasons that her future DIL has gravitated to the "stepmonster" rather than her. The MIL not only wants to make an issue out of who DIL asks to be in her wedding, but implies that it is inappropriate based on the fact that the DIL didn't meet the stepmother until after she started dating her son!?! Almost as if this is part of some conspiracy on DIL's part to ruin MIL's life? Hopefully she will follow your advice and won't let her jealousy and/or personal baggage set a bad tone for the future of her relationship with her DIL (and her future relationship with her son as a married man).

Carolyn Hax: Actually, some people jumped on me for being insensitive to the mother, and some didn't jump on anyone but suggested I should have advised the mother to tell the bride that she was hurt by the stepmonster's inclusion, given the history between the two of them.

My thinking on all of the above is that the mother definitely needs to grow up; the stepmother probably does; the bride probably knows she's flagrantly picking sides in a war (and therefore intensifying the old one, if not starting a new one); the groom should step in but either sides with the stepmother, or is so used to dodging the effects of warring women that he refuses to challenge the bride's decision (or doesn't know how to); and that the stepmother's inclusion in itself is the harshest blow, and whether she's actually in the wedding or not is irrelevant now. The damage is done. So, what's left? Good sportsmanship. Stand there and smile.

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Re: Washington, D.C.: Is it possible that this poster just needs to re-ignite the spark? I think most people could leave their significant others and (eventually) find someone else that makes them as happy. But becoming happier than someone else already makes you usually requires looking within yourself first.

Carolyn Hax: It's possible, but I think for that to work, a person has to feel s/he's past the information-gathering stage. I won't attach an age to it, because people can get there at 20 or not be there at 90. But it's the sense that there aren't a whole lot of surprises coming in your knowledge of yourself, and that you've met a pretty good cross-section of the population, and you feel reasonably comfortable there aren't any huge surprises lurking out there, waiting to introduce themselves to you the day you get back from your honeymoon. Efforts to reignite the spark are best suggested to those who won't always be looking around the room, wondering who else is there.

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Re: First question: if your reason for staying is "so I won't be single" that says something in itself.

Carolyn Hax: Much shorter answer. Thanks.

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Anonymous: I have a co-worker with whom I work fairly close with. I can't stand him. When he started the job we got along just fine, but he has since treated me (and others) rather poorly and can't stand that I outrank him. I am able to remain professional with him (though I have confronted him once or twice about this so he does know I do not appreciate how he treats me).

My problem is he's apparently starting to realize he has no friends (he might even be realizing that his behavior has something to do with this) and has started inviting me to things like his birthday party etc. I have no desire to see this person outside of work (or even at work but I have no choice). I've made excuses for not going to his functions as I will be working with him for about another year til our project is done.

Do you have any suggestions on how to tell him I have no intention on attending anything he invites me to without making things too awkward at work?

Carolyn Hax: It is possible he had some kind of epiphany or growth spurt and now wants to set things right with the people, right? So I would think that the charitable approach, as well as the professionally sound one, would be to keep an open mind about his worth as a human, and to keep responding to him one invitation at a time. There's no need to make excuses; an, "I'm sorry, I won't be able to make it, but thank you for the invitation," will suffice.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi Carolyn, what do you think of a couple that has been together 6 years, (both divorced) not married or living together yet when I ask, are you in love with her the response is I think so. All this after a 6-month break initiated by her. Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: I don't think anything until I'm reading about it from one of the people in the relationship. Except maybe that I'm glad I'm not one of the people in the relationship.

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RE: "so I won't be single": She should ask herself how she would feel if the situation were reversed and he one day said "I'm with you because I don't want to be single forever."

Be mature about it. Break up now, if not for yourself, out of respect for him as a human being.

Carolyn Hax: If this wasn't covered by the previous answers, here it is. (I've lost track.) Thanks.

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Anywhere, USA: Husband just found out he can't have children. We suspected this, but the actual verification of it has been a blow to him. I've tried to talk to him about it and explain that I didn't marry him because I thought he was a babymaking machine, but because I love him and wanted to make a life with him with or without children. However, he is feeling all kinds of stuff right now about this development. I'm not sure what to do.

Carolyn Hax: Try to get as close as you can to feeling what he's feeling. You assured him that your feelings for him won't change, which is good, it covers the possibility that he feels he let you down. But no doubt he feels he let himself down, too, and you need to take that into account.

Also, imagine that someone in his family died. He'd be grieving, and it would help for him to know you love him--but if your only assurance were that your feelings for him didn't change, that would not only be inadequate, it would be weird.

All this is to say, this is about him, too--so many people envision their kids, or just have the idea of their someday-kids, knocking around somewhere in the back of consciousness. And so, to him, this is a loss, and the loss of an idea can feel as real as the loss of a person. So look at it from that perspective. It might not work as a clear set of instructions for what to do, but it might help you see what he needs.

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Annoying co-worker: Can't she just say "I'd rather keep our relationship professional" and leave it at that? If the guy keeps asking it can get embarrassing. I've been there and it's easier to just cut it off. You don't have to say "because I don't like you."

Carolyn Hax: Sounds good, thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: In the past three years I've lost three close relatives, and one of my friends battles cancer. I am now panicked at the thought of dying and see every bodily pang as a possible death sentence. Every odd freckle could be melanoma, every chest twinge a heart attaack, every gas bubble a tumor, and so on and so on. Any advice? I wasn't like this before.

Carolyn Hax: This will sound like I'm passing you off, but it's such a clear case for grief counseling that I feel like I'd be wasting your time discussing anything else. Ask around, find someone good, get started before you drive yourself nuts. Hospices, disease-specific support associations, clergy members are all good places to start asking.

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Variant of the first question: So let's assume you feel like the first poster and want to move on, but you're mature and want to move on for good reasons. How do you say that? I don't want to be demeaning - "I've out grown you" or "There's got to be more to life than this." But I have to say something after 11 years and two children. Or is this a pre-mid-life crisis and my last surge of hormones want to experience someone else before I shivel up? It feels selfish, and if I look ten years down the road, it looks pointless, but it doesn't stop the yearning.

Carolyn Hax: How would you explain it to your kids, in hopes they'll grow up to model your behavior? That's how you say it, do it, live with it.

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Re: Annoying co-worker: Cut the guy a break. So he got off on the wrong foot. Now it sounds like he has realized he was a jerk and is trying to make a new start. Can't the 'nuts come up with a better idea than just permanently writing him off? Don't we all deserve a 2nd chance at some point - wouldn't we all be better off if we gave someone a 2nd chance?

Carolyn Hax: Yes. Emphatically. But I don't think that's incompatible with declining his invitations to functions outside of work.

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Northern Virginia: I have an older sibling that with whom I don't get along. Suffice it to say he did something that I see as unforgiveable, but now refuses to acknowledge it. He will be in town to visit mom and I will be forced to spend some time with him. He wants to move past problem and have a civil relationship. I encourage mom to have a good relationship with him, but I would prefer to not have one with him at all. Is there a way to convey this without creating bigger problems?

Online only, please.

Carolyn Hax: What do you mean by civil relationship? If it means being cordial when forced to be in the same room with him, that doesn't seem all bad--call it a gift to your mom. If it means your communicating with him beyond these unavoidable encounters, then I think you can say to him, privately, that you can't just pretend X never happened.

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For Variant: Start with the yearning. How do you know your spouse doesn't feel the same? I think talking to your spouse would be the first step of an honorable road.

Carolyn Hax: So simple. Thanks.

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For Anywhere: I found out in my thirties, after a decade of trying and tests, that I couldn't have kids. My husband never said "I love you anyway" because it would never have occurred to him that there was any connection whatsoever between my ability to have kids and his love for me. His not feeling an impulse to reassure me on that score actually was more reassuring than if he had, if that makes any sense.

That doesn't mean it wasn't a painful discovery for me and he let me talk and cry, and he listened and empathized. What he didn't do, and I'd suggest you resist it as well, is to look for the bright side as people who have since learned have been tempted to do. "Hey, you can travel more" or "no college tuition to save for" don't really touch the feelings of sadness. There may not be a bright side and it may stink to high heaven, but it is a development that should be totally independent of your feelings for each other. Act accordingly. It will help him.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you, thank you for the point about the "bright side." For the rest of it, too, but especially that.

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Am I the only one...:...who finds the casual usage of the epithet "stepmonster" extremely offensive? There are many of us who try very hard to be good stepparents, it's difficult enough without society's automatic assumption that you must be an evil bitch just because your spouse has children from a previous relationship.

Carolyn Hax: I would if this were in fact society's automatic assumption that you must be an evil bitch just because your spouse has children from a previous relationship. But it isn't. It's an extension of the use in a letter that referred to someone specific, so it's no more offensive than the use of Bridezilla or Groomzilla in a specific wedding question, Momster in a mother question, or Outlaws in an in-law question. We play with language here. It's not personal.

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Stafford, Va.: Re Washington, D.C.: She brings up the whole murky "settling" issue in relationships. I was just wondering if you see this more nowadays -- namely people who are otherwise happy in their relationships simply want to break up to see if they can find someone "better" (e.g., hotter, richer, flashier, etc.). Often the complaints appear as extensive pickiness. But if there is a trend here, would it not partly be a manifestation of excessive consumerism, perfectionism and self-centeredness in America in general?

Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: I suppose you could make that connection, and I also think you'd be right, with some people.

But that might just be because any theory will be right with some people. There's something else going on nowadays that I see as much more positive, and that's a top-to-bottom questioning of grand assumptions about the way people are supposed to live.

Is everyone supposed to get married and have kids? Are men supposed to be breadwinners and women homemakers? Is "be fruitful and multiply" a good thing? Will everyone who dislikes kids magically fall in love with his or her own? Is monogamy good for everyone? Is "I wish I had spent more time at the office" really the one deathbed regret that nobody ever ever has?

Some of these have long since been challenged into smithereens, but that doesn't mean we're finished with them.

(part 1)

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Carolyn Hax: (part 2)

In a way we're just working on the next phase. So we've accepted that strict roles based on gender are small-minded, limiting, counterproductive. We've removed a lot of the artificial obstacles to living a gratifying life, and allowed for a much more individual approach to life.

Absolutely, that has included some overcompensation, some swings into the celebration of selfishness, some confusion in who does the unglamorous work of life, home and society while others go chasing their bliss.

But does that mean that we were wrong to ask whether celebrating the golden anniversary of a stifling bicker-fest, held together by guilt and duty and fear and gossip-aversion and avocado appliances and four or five unhappy kids, was the best we could do? I don't think so. It just means we have to more more thought into decisions like these.

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Carolyn Hax: I already regret taking that on live. I hope it made sense by the end.

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Speaking of stepparents....: My teenaged son is not very likeable. I'm crazy about him, of course, as is his dad, and my husband of four months is kind to my son, but finds it difficult to like him very much. The kid is crabby, negative, mouthy, and stubborn... just like I was when I was a kid!

As I said, my husband is kind to my son, fetches him from school, cooks things he thinks the kid will like, baked him a cake for return-from-camp celebration and so on. I'm thankful for all of this, that he keeps his personal feelings of not liking the kid very much out of their relationship and does try hard to be a good stepparent.

Is there anything I might do to help hubby with his feelings? I don't think he needs to feel guilty about them -- as I said, he's consistently kind. But is there something I can do to help my DH like my son better? I think DH is distressed that he doesn't like my son more.

(DH has no children of his own.)

Carolyn Hax: Seems like the best thing you can do is point out to your husband that you were like this as a kid, since he obviously likes you. People in flux are in general hard to like, but that's awfully ... general. If you can make the specific connection that your son's worst traits now will bear the most fruit later, he might feel, if not more warmly toward your son, then at least more invested in him as a work in progress.

Plus, this is a teenager who just got a new parent four months ago. I don't think many people respond to that kind of change with an effusion of hearts and flowers. As long as your husband continues to be a stand-up guy and doesn't try to force a relationship beyond that, then his feelings for your son will probably take care of themselves.

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Eating Dirt: As a variant on the question from the woman who dreads spending Thanksgiving with her sister-in-law, I am dating a man who is very close to his brother. I feel that his brother takes advantage of him by leaning on him financially, even though he is fully capable of supporting himself and uses my boyfriend to live above his means. In the past, I have stayed out of it because I did not feel that my boyfriend's financial arrangements were really any of my business. However, now that we are talking about marriage, I don't know that I can stomach contributing to his brother's cause myself and don't really know how to approach the situation. More importantly, when this is the only concern that I have about this relationship, am I being naive in thinking that it is a bad idea to marry someone if I will always have a bad taste in my mouth about a close family member?

Carolyn Hax: It is a bad idea to marry him without getting the brother issue out in the open. Whether you're right about the brother or not, you'll build up some serious resentment over the money that goes his way, and he'll build up some serious resentment over your interfering in one of his important family ties--and there's little more corrosive to a partnership than resentment.

You're talking about marriage now, so you have the opportunity to ask him whether he's ever felt that his brother takes advantage. (I would phrase it as a question, to see what he says, instead of dropping your fully formed but not fully informed conclusion on his lap.) You can make it clear that you never felt it was your business until the marriage discussion came up.

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Washington, D.C.: Kid to College!

Help!

My daughter is leaving for college (yeah!) on 27 August. Her Dad (my ex) just announced that if she didn't spend the last week before school with him (she lives with me), he would renege on his half of the tuition! I don't have the money to cover his emotional blackmail and my 18-year-old has made up her mind to go stay with him. I am devastated. Any advice or words of comfort?

Carolyn Hax: For comfort, I guess I can point to the fact that your daughter is not only old enough to make the decision herself (it would have been -so- much worse if you had to decide this for her), but also nearing the point where she'll see through this blackmail and adjust her feelings for her dad accordingly. If she hasn't already. Obviously, that's bad, too, but I hope it tempers any sense of injustice you feel.

For advice, I would suggest keeping in mind that your daughter is now living through a pristine argument in favor of financial independence. Spelling it out for her might be too heavy-handed, but if the opportunity presents itself, you might be able to help her see that being beholden to someone robs you of your freedom to live on your own terms.

And if she happened to parlay this into applications for scholarships, grants and loans to cover half her tuition next year, that wouldn't be the worst thing.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mom with mouthy, stubborn, PITA type of kid might also approach the kid about his behavior. He's not going to find many people in the world at large who will be crazy about him, like mom is, and will find very few who will be kind to him, like step-dad is, while he continues to act like that. If he's a teenager, he's old enough and well past time for him to learn some basic manners himself. I come from a family of four, and with addition of step-dad, instantly gained another 5 brothers, so know something about the strains of combining families. It works better if kids take some responsibility for how they act, too.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.

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Dear Carolyn: I'm a man. I hate my mother for what I think are valid reasons just shy of criminal abuse. No, she's not crazy or violent, but I have my reasons anyway. Still, the three women I have seriously dated as an adult, plus all the others I get close to enough to divulge info about my past, are all eventually frightened off, all independently referencing that old adage: "Never trust a man who doesn't get along with his mother." I've heard it six times now since college, even though more than one of my girlfriends have had equally caustic relationships with their own mothers. Is this fair? Should I just start keeping my past stuff to myself? Do you or your readers think there's any truth to that saying?

Carolyn Hax: I think everyone has more truth to him than one saying can cover. However, if every woman you approach cites the same reason for backing off, then it might be worth exploring the mother stuff with a reputable pro. Certainly there are some problematic mothers out there, and a son who keeps his distance might be the best possible sign in that case--however, if the son is still struggling with the relationship, then that could reveal itself to potential dates as an insurmountable problem. Especially if it manifests itself in the way he treats women.

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North Carolina: Another MIL problem -- mine drives me nuts for a lots of reasons. She doesn't listen to what anyone else has to say in a conversation, if you disagree with her, she becomes sarcastic and says something to belittle you, she puts my husband down frequently (either for something he's said, done or even how his clothes fit), and she breaks a lot of the parenting rules I've set down for my 8-month-old (then claims she didn't know about the rules, despite being told several times.) If you call her on any of this, she gets angry, very defensive and has been known to start crying. I'm at my wits end, and my husband understands and feels much the same way I do, but doesn't know what to do since he does love his mother. My question is, how do I make peace with this situation? I don't want to hurt my husband by continually complaining, but I've got to find some way to tolerate her without seething inside!

Carolyn Hax: This is really hard, I'm sorry. I think the next thing to try is a combination of letting go of your expectations for her to behave like a healthy person, and setting out simple, almost cartoonish terms for dealing with her: You keep visits short. You stretch out the time between them. You talk about shallow things. You ignore little insults and even a few big ones. You don't leave her alone with your baby. You call her on only the absolutely nonnegotiable things--your baby's safety, for example.

At least run it by your husband, see if it's a blueprint you both can follow.

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I want kids... now: Carolyn,

This is a new one for me. I think my biological clock has gone on overdrive. I can't stop thinking about having a baby. Its gotten to the point where when I see a pregnant woman on the street or a newborn in stroller I get tears in my eyes. My BF and I live together, and are planning on getting married, and have discussed having children, but its still some time off since he just started a new job and is getting financially stable, along with some other complicating factors. but, I'm 32 and starting to feel the pressure of having kids before it gets too late. I'm not sure if this is just a hormonal thing or I want a baby to make up for other things in my life that aren't too hot right now, like my tepid job and very limited social life. I don't think I asked a question here- maybe someone else out there has had overwhelming baby yearnings? thanks.

Carolyn Hax: To your non-question, an answer: Put some thought and energy into that tepid job and limited social life. It'll either solve the problem of your wanting to "make up for" missing things with baby cravings, or it'll do nothing for your baby yearnings but improve some other very legitimate elements of your quality of life. Win win.

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A big enough house, really: Hi Carolyn,

I am crazy about dogs. I really want a dog. If I can't have a dog I'm going to volunteer with dogs, but how do I know if I can have one? My boyfriend thinks we don't have time for one, since we both work full-time and he's about to start his dissertation; I agree that we don't have time for a puppy, but would love to get an older rescue dog. But what concerns me more is the fact that I'm not a very good housekeeper, and the place is messy enough without also having to look after a dog and vacuum up fur. On the other hand, a dog is like instant therapy for me, and it might cheer me up enough that chores don't seem like a burden. Plus frankly, if I wait until I become a tidier person, I will never get a dog. That said, we don't have a lot of money. I know you always say people can't really be prepared to be parents, but can they be prepared to be dog owners? Or do you just jump in and trust yourself?

Carolyn Hax: You research dogs and see if there's a breed that would thrive in the environment you offer--and you go into it knowing that, in the end, you might just have to say no to yourself.

That's it. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend, and type to you next Friday.

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