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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008; 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 day in The Washington Post Style section and in the Sunday Source, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. 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.

Carolyn's Recent Columns

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Cleveland: I'm getting a sense that my wife is having an affair. She stays out very late on girls' nights out, she's constantly texting and e-mailing, and she just went on a quickly arranged business trip without leaving information about where she's staying. (She just told me to call her cell phone.)

Things have been rough between us for a while, so this makes sense. But I don't have any proof of an affair; it's just a hunch, albeit one with some circumstantial evidence. Do I just ask her point-blank if she's having an affair, or is there a better way to handle this?

Carolyn Hax: I'm sorry. Ask her point-blank what's going on. Cite the fact that you and she have been struggling lately, that her behavior has changed, and that you'd rather hear the truth than be left at home to wonder, even if it's the kind of truth no one wants to hear.

Ideally she'll level with you, but if she gets defensive, that's almost as telling.

If she does give you a straight answer, by the way, please return the maturity favor and either keep your composure, or tell her you need some time to collect yourself before you discuss it further. Not that you needed me to say this, but, there it is.

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Washington: I've heard people use the phrase "his/her intentions were good" as a reason afterward for things like someone's hurt feelings, events gone wrong, even accidental crimes. Where's the line on how good someone's intentions are allowed to be before their actions are a real problem?

Carolyn Hax: Someone can have great intentions and act in ways that are a real problem. There's no line between the two, I don't think. It is merely a distinction to make when you're trying to figure out how to deal with the problem.

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Washington: Carolyn, how do you change your "type"? I have for the most part grown out of the "bad boy" stage, but still find myself being drawn to people who seem to need help, maturing, something ... I don't know what it is. In my mind, I would like to find a nice, stable guy, but I can't seem to be attracted to the ones I meet. I'm guessing that there is something in me that needs to be needed and the "together" one in a relationship, but part of me also just doesn't want to be with the mirror of myself. At the same time, I'm sick of dead-end relationships with conflicted, problematic people.

Carolyn Hax:"I'm guessing that there is something in me that needs to be needed and the 'together' one in a relationship" = the aha moment you apparently need to have before you can straighten out your unhealthy attractions. Find the need that the dysfunction is filling, find some way to remedy the need, and then I think you'll be a long way toward changing your type.

By the way--contrary to the wisdom of dog-and-cat arguments, there aren't just two kinds of people; eliminating all the problematic people doesn't leave you just with a roomful of people who mirror you. In fact, since you yourself are a problematic person, given your unresolved attraction to problematic people, I could argue the exact opposite.

With that in mind, you also might be able to advance your quest to change your type by taking a new look at the way you've categorized yourself.

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Re: Cleveland: Can you please explain this? "Ideally she'll level with you, but if she gets defensive, that's almost as telling." I have a situation where I'm practically beaten (not literally) into having to accept the suspicious behavior. How can you tell when someone is lying versus upset that you would suspect them of cheating?

Carolyn Hax:1. You know based on what you know. Put your information to a tough objectivity test, the main feature of which is the question: Have you ever been suspicious or jealous? If you're on your first such confrontation years into a steady commitment, then the other person almost has to hear you out. If you've got a dozen proven overreactions on your record (and you know who you are) then you need to err on the side of distrusting yourself.

2. You know based on the force of the other person's reaction. This is an art, not a science, obviously, but an innocent person accused by a mate in an otherwise functioning relationship is going to lean more hurt/incredulous than angry. Someone who is hiding something (or who is in a relationship with you that's already damaged) is going to lean angry/indignant. Almost too.

That's a general answer. I'd like to know more about your specific situation. What's the context? Is this person a straight arrow in other aspects of life, or a known charmer/corner cutter? Are you normally jumpy and suspicious, or are you feeling as if you don't know or like yourself this way?

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Re: Type: Also, wait for the attraction to build. My husband did not initially seem like "my type" because he was so different from other guys I'd dated. Turns out he was different in ways that really are good for me.

Carolyn Hax: Nice to hear it from another source, thanks.

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Movieville: Hi Carylon. I was wondering if you had a list of movie recomendations to illistrate points you make in your column or chat. You had suggested "Something To Talk About" I think when someone mentioned cheating or breakups. Any other suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: Funny you should ask. I'm working on a list of them right now (and that movie is on it). I was thinking of submitting it to The List, the daily feature on the Web site. But I got stuck at No. 7 about a month ago can't seem to unstick myself. If anyone remembers the ones I've cited (aside from "Something ..." and of course "Blazing Saddles," which I've scoured fruitlessly for redeeming value), please feel free to remind me.

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Anywhere, Md.: Carolyn, I missed the original chat, but caught the printed excerpt regarding the woman undergoing IVF. I too have an support problem regarding IVF, but a rather different one.

A friend recently told me she was going to undergo the procedure and asked me to serve as her back-up support to her and her husband. I said no, as nicely as I could. Can't make such a commitment as that to anyone but me, work crunching my time already, etc. She pushed, and finally I said what I really felt: that IVF is selfish and if she really wanted children she should try adopting.

Thirty-some years ago, my parent were told they couldn't have kids naturally. They adopted my older brother and were thrilled to finally have a child to love and care for. Oddly enough, a few years later I came along, the "old fashioned way." I've met several other families that have had the same experience. Adoption made my family, and the death of my brother led me to decide that whether or not I can have my own kids, I too will adopt a child that needs a family.

So for me, refusing adoption is rather personal. Her response was she wanted to have her OWN child, her husband wanted his OWN kid, blah blah blah. And besides, weren't my parents glad to have finally had their own baby when I came along? Incensed, I then told her she'd never make a good parent if she can only love her own demon spawn, and needless to say we aren't friends anymore.

Sorry to ramble, but I really hope you'll share this and remind those who choose IVF that while they are having a rough time, their choices are their own, but that others do not have to agree with you. In fact, you may really hurt someone you care about.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sorry about your brother; the math says his death was terribly premature.

I'm also sorry you took your friend's decision personally. While I can sympathize completely with the emotional roots of that offense, the logical implications say those emotions needed a hard challenge from the facts before you unleashed them raw on your friend.

For one thing, your friend now is not in the same world as your parents were 30-some years ago. That has several implications. 1. You don't know (nor do your parents, necessarily, even with hindsight) that your parents wouldn't have gone the in-vitro route had it been as common and available as it is today. Louise Brown, the first such baby, was born in 1978, if I can trust what just popped up on Google. So it wasn't an option for them.

And, 2. single parenthood has undergone a dramatic destigmatization process in the last three or four decades. Factor in abortion and women's far greater economic power, and developed countries just aren't producing babies who need homes in the numbers they used to. That's why so many adoptions are international now, involving underdeveloped countries.

And, 3. for those babies, the demand is fierce, given the additional trend of delaying childbirth. Infertility is going up. The cost of adoption can be huge, the waiting lists long, and the hoops to jump through plentiful, if not prohibitive.

So you used seriously out-of-date standards by which to trash your friend's character.

Maybe this particular friend had it coming for other reasons, but that brings up my second point: People aren't all alike.

Individuality means some women will value the experience of bearing a child more than other women. Just as some people don't want kids at all where some can't imaginelife without them. some women care more about feeling a kick, or seeing their husband's eyes in their baby.

Some adjust to a different reality and let go of that yearning, but others, in turn, are honest with themselves about their attachment to these things and decide adoption might not be for them. Should they be judged as demon carriers for that, for being honest with themselves? Should instead they be openly demonized and shamed? Into what, adopting?

Again, I realize you're emotional about this, and grieving. But please don't let that get past your lips and into someone else's business until you force yourself to consider that choosing against adoption doesn't always mean choosing against your brother.

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Funeral or visitation?: Carolyn, my best friend's mother just died and the visitation (wake? viewing?) is tonight and the funeral is tomorrow. I knew her mother only a little bit (she was wonderful), so I'm going to support my friend. My question is, am I supposed to attend the visitation or the funeral? Does it matter? I'm clueless about funeral etiquette. Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Go to both, if you can. Your friend will be more approachable at the visitation, and the funeral you attend out of respect, since you might not even talk to your friend.

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Houston: I'm another mom of a 14-year-old who is trying to find herself. She has started dressing all in black, has given up on trying to please the popular set, and is hanging with the theater arts crowd. I'm rolling with it, trying to be supportive of her finding her own voice, etc. At home she seems like the same kid -- loving to family, pleasant to be around most of the time. I read an e-mail she left open on her screen that implied she had been experimenting with drugs. I brought up the subject without admitting I'd read the mail, and she denied it. I don't know if she's putting on a front to fit in with the current crowd, or really engaging in stupid/dangerous behavior. Any suggestions on how to proceed?

Carolyn Hax: Trying to fit in with a crowd is the same as engaging in stupid/dangerous behavior. It is usually the motivating factor. She is feeling low and therefore vulnerable, and therefore is susceptible to adopting others' judgment in the place of her own. That is the sweet spot for dangerous behavior.

I think you have the right general idea in being supportive of her efforts to find her own voice, but I think specifically you missed a chance to tell her you read the e-mail. If it was up on the screen, you weren't snooping.

I also think (guessing now) the rejection of populars plus black clothes equals her decision that anger and blame are a more comfortable place for her emotionally than doubting herself and wondering why people don't like her. This can fizzle out, or it can take her to a very dangerous place.

There's no magic solution to teenage doubt and anger, but she needs you--keeping her leash short enough to limit the damage of her experimentation, but not so short she rebels harder; supporting her healthy outlets; listening, listening, listening.

You can use the e-mail to get it started: Don't punish, ask what it's about. Explain to her that you're more afraid of lies than of broken rules. You want her talking to you.

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Springfield -- re: funeral vs. visitation: And even if you don't get to talk with your friend at the funeral, she will appreciate seeing you there for her.

Carolyn Hax: Exactly. Thanks.

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IVF Couples: But what about when your so-called friend wants you to empathize with all the horrible procedures and roller-coaster emotions she is going through when you know they shouldn't be having children of their own to begin with! The would-be mother has been on anti-depressants for years and would-be Father was a terrible father to his own kids from a previous marriage! I can't even suggest adoption because it's not fair to the poor potential adoptees!

Carolyn Hax: I think the "so-called" says it all. You and this person aren't friends any more.

Nasty-follow-up-post-prevention comment: I'm not taking a side in this issue. It's possible for the depressed friend and the bad father to be making a sound decision based on a new commitment to better choices based on their bad experiences, or they could be making a horribly selfish decision at the expense of the baby-to-be. I'm grateful I don't have to form an opinion.

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For the IVF backup person: It struck me that the writer who asked the question about IVF may have anger issues, and my guess is that they relate to grief over her brother (sadness is sometimes expressed as anger). Certainly if she made a "demon spawn"-type remark to a good friend, that seems harsh. I think it might be a good thing for her to evaluate whether she is getting all the support she herself needs to cope with her grief, and to also consider if she has displaced anger. She may need some counseling to help work through all these emotions.

Carolyn Hax: Great follow-up, thanks.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Carolyn -- love the chats! Here's my question that I hope you can help with: I'm in my mid-20s and comfortable financially, but not super-extravagant or anything. I started dating a great guy a couple of months ago who has tons of student loans, is behind on rent and just got his cell phone shut off because of overdue payments. He just started a new job and is waiting on his first paycheck to help pay off a lot of these debts.

Money really is not a factor at all for me in terms of being attracted to a person, but he absolutely refuses to let me pay for anything! I understand he doesn't want pity or to be taken care of, but is there a non-tacky way of saying that I'm happy to pay for it because I enjoy doing these things for him, and it actually is me being selfish more than pitying?

Carolyn Hax: You could skip the long version and go to: "Actually, I'm being selfish--I want to do this and I want to do this with you." And if there really is something you want to do, then thats the approach i suggest.

But in general, I advise against paying for anything even remotely indulgent. You've got a guy who is, from what you say, battling back nobly from a personal low. What he needs right now is the kind of support that says, "You're fine the way you are--the indulgences can wait." Treating him to what he can't buy for you says, "I care about things that you can't give me." Which says, in the mind of someone working to feel good about himself again, "You can't give me things I care about." As he starts to get back on his feet, then you can start doing more--on the theory that he might not be able to match you dollar for dollar, but he at least can do something to keep the balance.

Were it just that you made more than he did, I would be answering differently. Then it's about choices--i.e., "isn't it great that you get to do a job you love but that doesn't pay well, and we still get to have fun because I sold my soul to Mammon." Or somethign to that effect. Someone who has less money out of choice, vs calamity, is on stronger footing and can take part more easily in a complicated balancing act.

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"Been on anti-depressants for years": Since when did that rule out being a good parent? I'd better tell my friends they all are endangering their seemingly happy children.

Carolyn Hax: Hey, I thought I preempted that.

Some people who have been on antidepressants for years have found the answer to a medical condition that was (and now no longer is) keeping them off-balance.

Some people who have been on antidepressants for years have not yet found the answer to a life severely off-balance, and so their decision to bring a child into their clear and widely expressed unhappiness can be legitimately alarming, even to people who love them.

This is why I said I was glad I wasn't close enough to know who was right. Both are possible within the limited description.

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Jealousy Question: Carolyn, my usually sweet beau of a few months is jealous in ways that make no sense to me. He is worried that I have enough straight male friends, but he's jealous of my gay friends (one in particular). I've never encountered this before, and am at a loss. I have told him that as a straight woman even if I were madly in love with the gay friend it wouldn't get me anywhere. I've asked him if he would be more jealous if I had more straight men friends who lived here (most of mine live out of the area now). The conversation deadends on this topic.

I don't get answers, but the jealousy doesn't stop. For an articulate guy, he's remarkably silent on the whys and wherefores on this topic. We've both talked about this relationship feeling really special from the start, and he knows I am looking for ways to spend more time with him on a regular basis, so what do you think might be going on with/behind this jealousy? He's not asking me to stop seeing my gay friends, but I find myself not mentioning men in general as much because we get stuck on these jealousy conversations. That's a flag I can't ignore, but I don't know what else to do/ask to get us past this inexplicable (to me) roadblock.

Carolyn Hax: Three months haven't earned a "usually." I'm sorry. Tell him that you have already found yourself withholding certain things in response to his objection to your friend; that this is untenable and unacceptable; that you would like him to try to articulate his reservations about your male friends.

If you don't respect what comes out, this "really special" potential was a false impression. Jealousy is a deal-breaker. I'm sorry.

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Re: Anywhere: While I don't agree with Anywhere's point of view on in vitro, I think it should be pointed out that she tried to refuse her friend's request to "serve as her backup support to her and her husband" without getting into it. Her friend wouldn't accept the rufusal gracefully and made Anywhere explain herself. That could have been done more tactfully, but the friend should have accepted the refusal without pushing. What does "serve as backup support" mean anyway?

Carolyn Hax: I agree, the friend should have taken "no" for an answer. I took forever just covering the main angle of that answer, and I appreciate everyone who's filling in the others.

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Quit in an hour or not?: Hi Carolyn. A desperate plea for advice: In 90 minutes I am having a meeting with my four bosses/colleagues during which we are scheduled to discuss my transition into being a Partner. The problem is, I overheard the four of them discussing me yesterday and they had less-than-flattering things to say about me. If this were a one-time thing, I could deal, but their attitude toward me clearly is condescending, patronizing, and they don't see me as any kind of peer or equal.

I am thinking about walking into the meeting and telling them I that quit -- that I overheard them and think it's just not a good fit for us to continue forward with this Partner transition. I have lots of savings and some other work brewing, but I fear that out of retribution they will hold my one client hostage and not pay out to me the invoice my client paid in to the company before the holidays (it's a five-digit sum, not insignificant!). If I stop just short of quitting, what should I do instead?

Carolyn Hax: What you should do instead is what is smartest for -you- and your career. This isn't personal; they may have said mean things about you but you're not friends, so telling them "Your party sucks and I'm going home" isn't going to be a blow against them at all. Think about what they said, ask yourself honestly whether any of their criticism was legitimate, incorporate that into a general read on ways you perform well now and ways you can perform better, and bring that to your meeting. Not a chip on your shoulder, not if your partnership here would be a net asset to you professionally.

Short version: Do what a peer or equal would do.

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Obsession: Carolyn, I need some advice on keeping (or restoring) my equilibrium. For years now I've been a volunteer political activist, something that has always been a big part of my life but which has had beaks and troughs according to the election cycle.

Recently, however, I have become involved on a particular campaign as well as managing my ongoing political responsibilities, and for the past few months it has turned into a pretty extreme commitment. I do political work almost every night, often until midnight. I spend far too much of my working day on things not related to my job. My husband, who has always been amused but supportive, is now starting to make comments that this has all gotten out of hand. And he's right, I know it is.

But here's the thing - I feel great! Tired, and a little overwhelmed maybe, but excited fulfilled and happy like I've really felt before. I love the work I'm doing and although if I put my mind to it I'm sure I coudl find ways to cut back without hurting the campaign too much... I don't really want to!

At the same time, I don't want to wake up when this crazy ride is over and find I've ostracised my husband, lost my job and basically have no life. I feel exactly like a drug addict, which is weird because I am moderate in all my other habits.

What should I do?

Carolyn Hax: Talk to your husband. Tell him how it makes you feel. Ask for his blessing to pursue this. Tell him how much you love him (since it's why you can't throw yourself into this without his blessing). Depending on the profession, obv., people take sabbaticals from work all the time to pursue a particular project, and their employers allow it when they see the bigger picture of not only a happier employee, but also one who will return to the fold rich with experience and insight.

What you'd essentially be asking for is a sabbatical from your day-to-day involvement in your home life, so you can run with this opportunity.

As for your job, you really do need to address that, either by cutting back or by talking to your employer.

Basically, though, the point is, instead of letting yourself get sucked deeper into a temporary life-consuming commitment, try finding a way to make it all official and run with it. If that fails, then, yes, you will have to pull back.

By the way, thanks for "beaks and troughs."

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Re: Quit: You may not be offered the partnership. Friday afternoon meetings are not the best sign. Whatever happens, just tell 'em you want to think it over, then do so this weekend. Come back Monday with a clearer head and sense of purpose.

Carolyn Hax: Great, thanks.

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About quitting: Carolyn, It does matter whether or not they respect you when you are entering into a Partner situation. It often involves a buy-in, and if there is a lack of respect you have to ask yourself if you will be taken seriously.

Carolyn Hax: Which goes back to the initial advice: "What you should do instead is what is smartest for -you- and your career." That could mean saying no as well as saying yes.

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Anonymously Anywhere: Carolyn, to boil down a very complicated situation to the most basic elements, my 19-year-old brother is moving in with my husband and me for the next eight months. This development is in response to recent revelations that he no longer could cope with being in college while struggling with untreated mental issues (guessing depression, mood disorder or similar). My parents are in the picture, but for a lot of reasons it's better that baby bro lives with us right now. He has committed himself to counseling, but it's going to be a long process.

The problem is that I'm anxious and worried for him all the time. I surf mental health Web sites at work and lie awake at night thinking about things. I need to chill, I know, but this is so big, so drastic, and I'm the one in the middle trying to care for my brother and my parents simultaneously. How do I relax and just let this thing happen without so much stress?

Carolyn Hax: Counseling would be a fine idea for you through this, if only to give your stress a defined place to go so it doesn't leech into a situation that hardly needs any more. It could also sharpen your ability to read your brother, when it sounds like he needs a very sharp caregiver looking out for him.

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Movie References: You've used "When Harry Met Sally" before in the context of people wanting to date their best friends.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks--you're right. For those who are submitting their own ideas, I'm grateful, and there are some really good ones, but I also can't use them because I can't credit you. I'm looking for the ones I've thought of and used in the past. Save your ideas for when I post the list, so you can have a lively bunch of comments.

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To Engaged Too Soon: My husband (of 17 years) and I were engaged after we'd known each other nine months. Our church required some pre-marital counseling, so we met with the priest. He asked "why the rush?" He said he asked couples who had been together less than a year or more than five "why the rush" or "why is it taking so long?" I've always remembered that -- there could be legitimate reasons for rushing or waiting, but it made us think. And that should be the point.

Carolyn Hax: It's a great question, but what helped it along in your case was the source of the question. Here was someone you understood not to be judging you. That gets a little fraught when you try to put the same question in the mouth of, say, you mother. Then it's, "WHY CAN'T YOU JUST BE HAPPY FOR ME FOR [BLEEPING] ONCE," if not out loud then maybe in some deep adolescent recess of your brain. Not that it can't be used at all, I just think it might require some thought about tone, timing, body language, etc.

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For Quit in an Hour...: Actually, this may be one of their review tactics. I've sat on such boards and there is a period to review posivites, then a period to review negatives. She/he might just have heard the latter. ... Think carefully before jumping to conclusions so drastic.

Carolyn Hax: Interesting twist, thanks.

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Regretsville: How do you know when you are "settling"? I want to move to Point A, but I can't afford to live there. Point B is not my dream place, but it's affordable, my family is there and it's a good place to live. Then again, I don't want to be 90 and full of regrets.

Carolyn Hax: Unless Point B is a maximum security prison to which you're sentenced for life, you can change your mind later as circumstances change. It's not easy to uproot, granted; it gets harder as you get older; and you're smart to consider the quicksand angle of any relocation, but don't let those factors over-influence your thinking, either.

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Chicago: Okay, you probably feel like you address this a lot (snooping), but I think there are many of us out here who still have angst about what to do in these situations. The Ohio man who thinks his wife is cheating: So, what if he approaches her, asks her directly about the affair, she doesn't get defensive but says "no, I'm not having one," but he still just can't shake the hunch that she is having the affair?

You say never to snoop. So at that point he should just leave her without getting official "proof" (by snooping)? Or just suck it up and continue on with her with the hunch that she's cheating (and now lying)? It's at this point that so many of us snoop, and I'm not saying it's a good feeling or the "right" thing to do -- but it sure does give peace of mind after all is said and done. I'm speaking from experience.

Carolyn Hax: Okay. What if instead of confirming something, you took what you did know so far and acted on that? Would your actions have been any different?

To use today's example, this guy is in an unhappy marriage, his wife is behaving erratically (in the rare event she's home), and she won't communicate with him. What should he do?

Would you have different suggestions for two different guys whose facts are the same, except that one man's wife is having an affair, and the other is just avoiding him for the sake of avoiding him?

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Washington: Simple question, no answer I can dream up: My long-time boyfriend suddenly has decided that he isn't sure he wants kids; before when we've talked about it, he always has. It's a deal-breaker for me. How long do I wait while he "figures it out"?

Carolyn Hax: Wait till -you- figure it out. You've just gotten a new, unwelcome bit of news to process. Give yourself time to turn it over in your mind. Giving him a schedule would never be anything but arbitrary; at least if you govern your own choice, it will some kind of sense.

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Carolyn. I am married to a compulsive liar. In the past two months, many, many things he has told me have begun to unravel. I always knew about the little white lies, but they were too mundane to make a big deal about. Now I have found out about an emotional affair (probably physical, but no concrete proof of that), lying about where he was, who was there, what bills he paid (um, none). It really seems like everything out of his mouth is a lie.

We have a 22 month old. I can't just up and leave, though at moments lately I really want to. I don't know how to trust him and I'm beginning to get really controlling, since I don't believe what he tells me. Is there any hope? Can compulsive liars change?

Carolyn Hax: I'm not sure I agree with your rhetorical question. You would get up and leave if your husband, say, abused your child, wouldn't you? Well he's abusing your trust, and while splitting abruptly might not be the way to handle this, you need to start lining up your thoughts about life on your own. Try it on, plan it out, face it. Meanwhile, you get into counseling to find out what you're up against here--the questions about whether he can change, about why he does this, about whether couples counseling would have any merit, about what life on your own would entail. You're in the town of the Women's Center--pls 411 or Google it and call.

Meanwhile 2, secure your money, and since I may have overlooked something else you need to secure, call 1-800-799-SAFE to find out other steps you should take to protect your: self, child, credit, belongings.

I say all this assuming you've already confronted him on the lying, but if you haven't, I would make the how-do-I-protect-myself call before you take that on.

I have to sign off now, so please write to me at tellme@washpost.com if you have anything else. (I'll collect other suggestions to send you too, from readers, as I normally would if I were staying online.)

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Carolyn Hax: Bye all, thanks, and type to you next week.

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