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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 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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Houston: I just realized I'm Bridezilla and very much in danger of alienating my two closest girlfriends. Anything I can do in the five weeks before the wedding, or is it too late (I've been out of control for almost a year!! Ahhh!)?

Carolyn Hax: You can do something in the next five minutes: Apologize. Acknowledge that you've been out of control for almost a year.

Then pledge that, for the next five weeks, you will just let people enjoy themselves, and try to let yourself do same.

Then give them permission to let you know when you're slipping. That in itself should satisfy any taste for revenge they've developed in recent months.

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Twin Cities, Minn.: Carolyn -- I'm terribly afraid of doctors. I've had problems with insomnia and depression for as long as I can remember and I want to fix them and I spend a lot of time thinking about making appointments, but I have problems actually doing it. I don't know why I'm so terrified, I know they're there to help and all that, and I've never had a bad experience or anything that would give me a legitimate reason to be afraid. Just the thought of talking to someone about my weakneses makes me feel like some sort of failure, like I should be able to handle this by myself and they're going to look down on me for not being able sleep or be happy all by myself. Why does this seem like such a big scary ordeal? Any tips for getting over myself and just doing it? I know it seems so simple but I'm constantly finding excuses not to go through with actually making the phone call.

Carolyn Hax: Two things off the top of my head: Would it help if you made an appointment first just to meet the doctor? Would it help if you brought someone you trusted with you to the appointment? Neither would preclude having the actual appointment, if you decide at the time that you feel comfortable enough; you could always just send the friend to the waiting room.

And: You don't need to see a "doctor," per se. There are clinicians of many kinds trained to handle anxiety and depression.

Finally: Doctors have heard it all. Plus, it's their job not to judge, since that would actually interfere with their ability to give you the best care. If you feel judged, say so and/or find another doc.

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Carolyn Hax: Two more things (I realized how late it was and wanted to get the first part out there): "Problems" is not synonymous with "weaknesses." Certainly if you have a mental illness, that's not a weakness, that's as much an illness as the flu or cancer.

As for finding a provider, that can be a bit of a scavenger hunt, but I would start with reading up about, and then placing a call to, one of the therapeutic associations--www.psych.org or www.apa.org to start.

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Seattle, Wash.: Hi Carolyn,

Love the chats and really value your advice. Related to today's column, I have been dating a guy for a few months who is close friends with many of his exes. I trust that nothing is going on between them, but can't help but feel jealous and a little weird about it. He knows that it makes me feel this way, but also that I don't want it to change his relationship with them or the amount of time he spends with them. So how do I get over feeling this way? It makes me insecure, constantly comparing myself to them and reminding myself that he's with me, not them, doesn't always work.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you.

Someone who is close friends with "many" of his exes is most likely able to leave the clutter of old feelings behind him--instead of seeing it all over the place whenever he looks at someone he used to date, which is how some people are. I would suggest trying to see things a different way yourself; reach back into memory, for example, for a time when your relationship with someone changed and you got used to the new way with only rare looks back at the old. (Doesn't even need to be a romantic relationship. It can be a customer who became a colleague, a colleague who became a friend, a boss who became an equal ....)

If you can do that, then you can try putting yourself into his position, and maybe then you can persuade yourself that the presence of past loves doesn't automatically produce extra comparisons with past loves.

In fact, there's also this: A guy with 20 exes whom he never sees or talks to can still spend every waking minute with you comparing you to these past 20. So there isn't necessarily any correlation between sight and mind.

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Finding a doctor: I like to ask coworkers on my same health plan which doctors they've liked. It's daunting to look through the directory and pick at random. You don't have to tell anyone you ask why you need to see a doctor, either. Just say you're looking for a new general practioner, and you'd like to find someone who is understanding. This has led me to some very good doctors.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.

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Anonymous: My ex fiance got married recently. He and I were together nearly three years and split due to his infidelity. We remained close after the split, and even after he started dating his fiance, we would still talk frequently. But it was a messy sort of friendship.

Up until the day before his wedding ,we were still talking almost everyday. I was not invited to the wedding for the simple reason, I am still a major source of strife between them.

I called him a week or so after the wedding ,to say congratulations and found that he had changed his number. Am I wrong to find this really hurtful? He'd mentioned doing it off hand a few times, to keep himself from calling me when he was alone? But was it actually necessary?

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I'm going to argue yes.

Obviously it wasn't "necessary" in the sense that he -couldn't- have done it in a less hurtful way. He certainly could have told you he was going to do this, or he could have told you, back when he was getting serious with his fiancee, that your friendship was too problematic for him to keep. I could spend all day tossing off better ways to manage or ednd the friendship.

However, even from such a short description, it's clear this friendship was throwing off red flags like confetti from a parade float. And so it's not uncommon for people who need to end those friendships to jump off abruptly, just to save themselves from the temptation to get back in. He's married. His marriage doesn't need the strain of a messy friendship. Think of this as a wake-up slap. Not fun, but at least now you're awake.

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Talking to someone about my weakneses makes me feel like some sort of failure: But by NOT talking to someone about your "weaknesses" you are failing yourself. Having "weaknesses" is nothing to be ashamed of. We've all got them. Being able to admit that you have problems and allow yourself to make mistakes can be quite a relief.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you.

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Therapy Stigma: Whenever someone tells me they feel weak or like a failure for needing to see a therapist, I suggest they think of it like a professional consultant.

If a major corporation hires a consultant to assist them with a project, their competitors don't say, "Hah, look at what they had to do. They are too weak to do it on their own!" It's considered normal business practice.

Carolyn Hax: Another good one, thanks.

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for Twin Cities: Maybe it would help if you called a mental health hotline? You could practice speaking about your difficulties with a real person, but in a sort of anonymous way. That might help with the next-- necessary!-- step, making a real appointment. Hang in there.

Carolyn Hax: Another good idea, thanks.

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More finding a doctor: Your health plan may have someone who's job is to help you find a doctor. Mine has a patient care coordinator. I was given her name by a nurse practitioner to find a mental health person. She asked me general questions to find out what I was looking for, then suggested several people in a convenient location. Worked out great.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you.

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Thanks for planting this seed:"In fact, there's also this: A guy with 20 exes whom he never sees or talks to can still spend every waking minute with you comparing you to these past 20. So there isn't necessarily any correlation between sight and mind."

You just opened a whole new category of jealousy and paranoia...

Carolyn Hax: Glad to help.

You have exes, yes? You make comparisons sometimes? Generally, you're either happy in your new relationships (i.e., the person compares favorably) or you get out (person compares unfavorably)? All pretty much true?

So why can't you be okay with knowing that a partner will go through the same mental process that you take for granted as typical and healthy?

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Washington, D.C.: My wife often tells me "not to take things personally." For instance, I am behind on a scheduled project at work. The owner of the company publicly asks me about my schedule at inopportune moments. I feel "bad" about this. My wife says, "Don't take it personally, he just wants you to finish the task." How is it that when someone speaks to you personally, about your personal work, that we don't take it personally? It's not like I'm saying, "He doesn't like me." It's that I feel dispirited. Sometimes it takes me a while to snap out of this feeling. So what does "Don't take it personally" mean to you?

Carolyn Hax: It means different things, depending on the context. Your wife might mean, "Don't take it as a reflection on you or your work," which would be a nice thought except that it's hard not to see being behind on a project as not reflecting your ability to get it done.

Now, if the project is too big for the resources allotted to it, then your being behind wouldn't be a reflection of your abilities and therefore wouldn't be "personal."

Unless -you- determined the staffing, funding, and schedule, in which case the tardiness would be a reflection on you.

Oy.

Then we get to the public callings-out on your tardiness. Even if it isn't your fault, being treated as accountable in front of colleagues is a hard thing to let slide. For that you either need an iron sense of self, or an iron certainty that your colleagues know it's not your fault you're behind, or both.

(more)

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Carolyn Hax: This is where your wife comes in, and it's also a metter of context. If she knows the reasons/circumstances of your struggle with the project, then maybe she's just trying to remind you not to blame yourself for things you can't control--which might be the right message in need of better delivery.

If she doesn't know the details, then maybe you need to share them, and connect those dots to the bad feeling you bring home from work. Knowing what you would like her to say instead of, "Don't take it personally," can also help.

And finally I wonder if it's time for a meeting with the owner, so you can get at least some control of the way you give updates on the project.

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Re: Twin Cities: One more piece of ammo for Twin Cities: tell yourself that your fears are your disease talking. This part of the question struck me: "Just the thought of talking to someone about my weakneses makes me feel like some sort of failure, like I should be able to handle this by myself and they're going to look down on me for not being able sleep or be happy all by myself." That is EXACTLY what depression and anxiety disorders make you think!!

That's why depression is such an insidious disease to treat: because everything sounds so "normal" and "logical" when you're in the middle of it, and you don't have the perspective to see that it's not. So if you're conscious that it's your disease talking, you can use that to your benefit, because those fears usually become strongest and most overwhelming right when you're doing what you need to do to overcome them. (I tend to think of them like a little parasite, where the more you try to get it out, the stronger it tries to burrow in and hang on). So when you do something that you think is the right thing, and those fears kick in, you can tell yourself, gee, that clinches it, I MUST be doing the right thing, because look how hard those fears are pushing to make me back off.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.

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Maryland: I'm battling what I feel is depression/latent grief/possible bi-polarity. In the past few years I've lost several close family members, including my mother, who was practically my best friend. It's been a lot to take on and sometimes I feel out of control emotionally. On the outside I can remain even tempered and pleasant, but on the inside (and often in the car) I'm screaming. I'm set off by the tiniest, most insignificant things and my focus has been way off. I also cry a lot at very un-sad things. My mother was clinically diagnosed bi-polar and so is her brother--both took meds to control it. While I'm not opposed to seeing a doctor/psychiatrist, my husband thinks they are complete quacks and I doubt I would live it down. I don't need his permission, but I don't want to start a fight or make this any more difficult than it needs to be either. Any words to convince him that this is a good idea?

Carolyn Hax: Don't bother. Do what you need to do to get stronger and healthier, and then when you're stronger and healthier you can worry about your husband. I know it sounds impossible, but I think you also know this: "I feel I need to do this. I anticipate that you won't agree with me. But I also hope you will set aside these doubts to support me." Either way, you do what you've got to do.

For what it's worth: Someone who knows your family history and your grief, and who closes his mind to the possibility you would benefit from care, has a lot of furniture pushed up to the door to keep the door shut to differing opinions. So don't blame yourself if you don't get through to him.

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Bethesda, Md.: Carolyn--

Any hints on making/helping your heart catch up with your head after a break-up? Recently out of relationship after much analysis, counseling, etc. made me realize that it was just not a good relationship for me. But I still miss the person terribly and find myself fantasizing that we'll get back together. I can usually reason my way out of these moments but wish they would just go away altogether.

Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: They will, or at least most of them will. You just need to put some life mileage between you, and give yourself other, more productive things to think about.

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Embarassed to go back to the doc (more mental health): Related, I think:

I need a nudge to go back to my doctor. She's my partner's doc also; I went to her once after years of not seeing anyone, and she's a good fit for me in a lot of ways. She put me on antidepressants for the first time ever after a lifetime of depression and it was a fantastic move, but then I didn't go back, let the prescription run out, and now months later I'd like to start over but am very embarrassed (and once again depressed). Should I slog through finding someone else, or have doctors really seen it all? She's a no-BS type, which is part of her appeal, but it also means that if she thinks I've been a dork she'll probably say so. Help, please!

Carolyn Hax: She's a good fit. Just go.

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RE: friends with exes: Carolyn:

Just wanted to throw my experience in the ring. I intentionally have never stayed friends with an ex after the breakup. There was a reason you went from friends to lovers and then to the breakup and going back to friends just never works. Even if the ex moves on, when you see or talk to that person your new partner will always feel skeptical and it's not worth bringing that baggage into the next relationship. Start clean people! It will save you a lot of pain...

Carolyn Hax: It works for you. Please stop assuming that means it works for other people--especially since the "reason" you cite might well be that your interest in each other was genuine but in the end not romantic. What a great basis for friendship.

And especially since some people read, "your new partner will always feel skeptical," and think, maybe I need a new partner who's more secure.

Some exes can become good friends, some can't. It's when you force things--either way--that it becomes a problem.

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Alexandria, Va.: What do you say when your SO says "I love you" and you're not ready to say it back?

Carolyn Hax: Dunno. What would you like to hear? How about,"I want to be able to say it back, and hope you can be patient"?

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Washington, D.C.: Hi there,

I've been reading the chats for awhile and love them.

My boyfriend is getting ready for a bi-annual trip to visit his family. Usually I go on one of the two trips, and this is the one where I stay home. This has happened several times now, where the week before the trip he must be so focused on going home that he is distant and somewhat cold towards me. I've talked about this in a light manner and the idea hasn't been well received by him and is sort of blown-off. Thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: See if you can live with it more easily by ignoring it. It's one week, and you see it coming, and then it goes away. Since you haven't been able to change it, maybe it'll be freeing if you just decide not to try.

BTW, if this expands beyond this one very specific situation, and your general MO in handling your hurt feelings is to play "light" and his general MO is to blow you off, then don't ignore it. That will need direct attention, no see-how-he-reacts emotional trial balloons. (It will also have to wait till he gets back.)

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Northern Virginia: My wife is out of town, she will return on Sunday evening.

I will clean the house: vacuum, dust, laundry, take out recycling, mop, etc., as always.

When my wife returns from out of town, she always walks in, looks around, complains that the house is a mess, and proceeds to clean for two hours.

Should I not bother to clean?

Is it me or her?

I'm very confused.

Carolyn Hax: Does she know you clean it for her?

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Bleccchhhhh: So I started snooping on a hunch and caught my boyfriend cheating. Subsequently ended the relationship. His argument? I found out through "dishonest means" (a small amount of very obvious forensic work -- his lies weren't well-hidden at all), so it "shouldn't count" = I should pretend I never found out and we should stay together. Is it me, or is that the biggest load of nonsense you've ever heard? He's 31, by the way. Much too old to make a joke out of this.

Carolyn Hax: He can make any joke he wants. Whether you find it amusing is the part that's up to you. So is sticking around to hear another one.

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Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend of almost two years maintains relationships with women that he knows are interested in having a relationship with him. He tells me that he is not interested in them, but that he wants to be friends with them and that he can "manage" the relationship so it doesn't cross any boundaries. I say that by maintaining relationships/contact with women he knows are pursuing him IS crossing a boundary and is an invitation to trouble down the road. (Also unfair to the women if he is giving them "hope" of some kind by taking their phone calls, etc.) I don't think anything is going on physically, but he does talk to them on a fairly regular basis, and I'm having a hard time with that. I've explained my feelings on this/have asked him to reverse the situation, etc., but he insists he is in control. Any thoughts/advice? I'm not the ultimatum kind of girl, but I'm starting to think about it.

Carolyn Hax: Thinking about it so, what, that he can stop seeing these friends just to keep going out with you? Then you'd still be seeing a guy who sees nothing wrong with [objectionable behavior here], and would keep doing it if you let him. In other words, the deck chairs might all be rearranged to your liking, yippee. If you think what he's doing is bad enough to make you not want to go out with him, then break up with him.

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Online Only Please: Good morning Carolyn,

I recently heard from a colleague that my new boss at my new job had a personal tragedy in her life several years ago (a Google search confirmed the information). My boss has not said anything about it to me. As she and I are getting to know each other, she has made a few comments which seem to me to be possible invitations to ask her more probing questions and therefore give her an opening to talk about it. I am not a naturally nosy person, so I don't feel comfortable really pushing the conversation in that direction. The one time I sort of tried to do so, she didn't take the bait, and I haven't tried since.

It's none of my business and I am not trying to extract any details from her (the basics of the situation are on the internet for anyone to read), but I am starting to feel uncomfortable having this knowledge without her knowing I have it. I don't know if it's appropriate for me to say something to her and "clear the air," or if that will just serve to make me feel better but do nothing helpful for her. What would you advise?

Carolyn Hax: Say nothing, do nothing. Don't push the conversation--if she wants you to know something, she'll say it--and egad don't "clear the air." Someone who has had a big life event "several yaers ago," happy or sad, is already well accustomed to the fact that others know, even strangers. There's no need for each of them to report in. Just use your knowledge to avoid doing something insensitive, and leave it at that.

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Re: Clean/Messy House: Some people find the activity of cleaning to be relaxing (as crazy as that might sound to some). She might find it helps her to come down off of the stress of traveling. Or, it might be a way for her to "nest" after being out of the house for a bit. Don't bother cleaning. It sounds like she wants to do it herself, so let her!

Carolyn Hax: Um. I agree until the "don't bother cleaning." I would say keep cleaning, but do it with the hope of cutting her "work" in half vs. saving her the trouble. It's still a loving exercise to restore the house to order for someone, even if she sees it only as partial order.

My point in asking the question, though, was to see if she was knowingly dissing his effort, or doing it unwittingly. If it's the former, that's uncalled for, even for someone who likes to "nest."

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Comparisons...: Very apropos of today's chat. Ever since my girlfriend met one of my exes at recent party, she's been constantly comparing herself to my ex in a negative way. The fact is that my ex is a gorgeous women, paid to look beautiful and about a decade younger than my current girlfriend.

If I wanted to be with my ex, I wouldn't have broken up with her! How can I reassure my girlfriend that I prefer her -- a few extra pounds and a decade of wear and tear included -- to my ex? I mean, nobody looks as good at 40 as they do at 30, but who cares? What else am I supposed to do or say?

Carolyn Hax: As needed--and only when really really needed--just a brief, "Remember, I broke up with her," followed by your normal day-to-day warmth and attention. That's really all you can do, since this is her issue with herself.

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For Alexandria, Va.: I was an SO who said, "I love you," and didn't get any response. At all. Not having any sort of acknowledgment at all really sucks. If you care at all about this person, just be honest with them -- even if it means that you don't feel it and know you're never going to feel it. They deserve to know that and perhaps find someone who will reciprocate their love.

Carolyn Hax: Well said. Thanks.

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Wishing vs. Asking: My uncle died earlier this year and while I wasn't terribly close to him, it was sad. My husband comforted me some, and went back to playing video games. I found out today my grandfather is probably going to die very shortly. Husband is on a trip a few hours away and says he'll pray. I wish he'd offer to come home early to be with me, like I wished he'd stopped playing video games to be with me. But I don't want to ask, because I feel like most people would want to be with their spouse when he or she is in distress. Am I wrong for not wanting to ask for that comfort?

Carolyn Hax: Maybe. I mean, no one even wants to have to ask for comfort. But sometimes we do have to ask, and it doesn't necessarily say something awful about the person who needs to be told. Your husband can only act on the knowledge you've given him about your feelings about your relatives. If all he's really seen is, to use the uncle example, a history of your not being terribly close, then his brain is going to turn its dial to "not-terribly-close relative" and dispense comfort accordingly.

So you need to spell out the "but it was sad and I am in distress" part for him. Especially if you're going to hold it against him for not making the leap between what he sees and what you feel--in this case, from, "probably going to die shortly" to "I'd like you to be here." Even if you choose not to speak up, please expect him only to read the situation, not read your mind.

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I love you: Well, when did you say it? I'm not advocating coldness or ignoring someone's love, but there are those who throw out I love yous after a week or less of dating, in which case it feels weird and disingenuous. Just something else to consider in this whole issue...

Carolyn Hax: Another argument for reponding honestly. "Um. You've known me a week."

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Messy House Guy: I think you let his wife off the hook too easily. Even if he does a terrible job, it's just rude to walk in and pronounce the house a mess. My husband and I both travel for work leaving the other to work FT and take care of the kids and I would never do this to him, even if it was a mess (which it's not) and would hope he would have enough consideration not to do it to me. At some point you should still be courteous. If I was him, my feelings would be very hurt.

Carolyn Hax: I didn't mean to let her off easily. I was hoping the husband would write back so we could talk about the wife's negativity some more. I haven't gotten a chance to finish my answer.

You are right that, even if she didn't know he cleaned, it's rude to criticize a spouse like that. Thanks for the catch.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Dear Carolyn,

I'm getting married next week. My fiance's mother is not coming. She doesn't approve of the fact that he's getting married again (he's been married several times before). She says that's not why she isn't coming, but it's clear that it is.

I'm very hurt that she can't support her son (who does EVERYTHING for her, from paying her bills to making sure she gets to all her doctors appointments) and just be happy for him for this one day. I'm hurt that she doesn't even want to meet me (we've never met - this week was supposed to be our first time meeting and getting to know each other a bit).

How can I put this aside and stop feeling hurt, angry and disappointed, and just enjoy my wedding day?

Carolyn Hax: Too bad the "Don't take it personally" question wasn't first, or we'd have a full circle: This is the mother's issue. It includes her son, since the breakdown is in their relationship, but it doesn't even graze you. She hasn't met you. So it's not that she doesn't like you.

You could, I suppose, extract some hurt feelings from the fact that she disapproves of your decision to marry someone already oft-married, since that is an indirect statement about your judgment. However, she has denied that's the case.

That leaves anger at her for no-showing your wedding, and also disappointment that you're not going into this with two families united behind you--and those are justified and real.

However, they're quite real in another sense. They're the kind of thing that happens to almost everybody in some form--what life event is without disappointment? Come on--you're marrying living proof that things don't always go the way you want them to. Either get used to processing that--inhale, exhale, proceed--or think again about what you're about to do.

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To comparisons....: Ack! When telling your current girlfriend that you prefer her to your ex, please do not mention current girlfriend's "few extra pounds" and "10 years of wear and tear"! Try something more along the lines of, "I love your curves" and "I'm glad we're at the same place in our lives."

Carolyn Hax: I don't know. Those remarks didn't bother me--I mean, who doesn't know they're there, the dents and the pounds?

Anyway, I can't be here any more. Gotta go. Thanks, happy weekend, and type to you next week.

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NYC: Carolyn,

Aghh, it makes me twitchy whenever anyone says, "I feel like most people will want "blank" when "blank" happens. That is such judgemental way to approach the world! We are all different, we all have different needs, norms and assumptions.

Carolyn Hax: ding ding ding! Yes. Thanks

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