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Carolyn Hax Live: My Boyfriend Doesn't Want Me to Study Abroad, plus White Lies vs. Brutal Honesty and I'm Falling In Love With a Coworker

 Carolyn and her mother, Liz Hax (family photo)
Carolyn and her mother, Liz Hax (family photo)

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 10, 2008; 12:00 PM

In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, 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 was online Friday, October 10 taking 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.

A transcript follows.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

Carolyn is raising money to treat and defeat ALS, the disease that took her mother's life. If you'd like to make a contribution to the ALS Association, click here. Or, spend time with Carolyn and your fellow peanuts at the Walk to D'Feet ALS in Washington on Sunday, October 12. Click here to join the Hax Pack.

Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

Carolyn's Recent Columns

Carolyn Hax Live Archives

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Carolyn Hax: Mom spent her last week of life in hospice care (saints, those nurses, all of them, with wicked senses of humor; they had a "Life is short. Eat dessert first." sign up in plain view).

Anyway, the hospice stage sounded an alarm with her four daughters, and we all gathered at her bedside to spend those last days with Mom. She referred to this gathering as "the drama."

And so it seems appropriate that I channel her attitude as we herald the close of The Drama, 2008. The Walk to Defeat ALS is this Sunday at 10 a.m., with registration, coffee and cookies starting at 9 a.m.

The location is Constitution Gardens. It's the whole corner of the Mall at Constitution and 17th, but the best way to get to the starting area, where we'll be gathering, is to enter the Mall from Constitution across from 20th St. I hope to have a sign up, but if I don't get organized enough, look for the team in white T-shirts with the black pen-and-ink singing pit bull on the back. (I'll assume no other teams will have one of those.) I'll distribute T-shirts there.

There's still time to pitch in, too, if you'd like--the link is above--and if you'd just like to acquire the latest in singing pit-bull fashion, you can buy a T from me directly for $20 by emailing haxpack@earthlink.net and then being very patient.

Finally, I'd like to thank everyone who has helped send the ALS Association more than $25,000, courtesy of the Hax Pack. That, especially at this moment in history, is a beautiful thing.

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Rosslyn: Hi Carolyn. It's me, Rosslyn from a few weeks back. Broke up with my fiancee because she didn't want kids, remember? There were some things in there about "zing," too.

Well, shortly after the breakup, we found out she's pregnant. How's that for a story, huh?

Just wanted to share.

Carolyn Hax: Technically, that's the beginning of a third chapter of a story. Is a wedding for three in the planning stages?

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Carolyn Hax: Bulletin ... I have a column-related deadline-driven phone call I need to take, back in 5 ...

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Kensington, MD: Holy crap! I'll be working until I'm 100 and my kids can kiss their college funds goodbye. Any ideas on how not to totally panic?

Carolyn Hax: The more people succumb to their panic, the longer we'll all have to work?

Maybe it's not a way to prevent panic, but it's an argument against indulging it.

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San Antonio, TX : I'm a big fan of the conveniently placed little white lie, but only when it's not used to hurt anyone. My girlfriend, on the other hand, believes in honesty, but she sometimes mistakes that for total candor--she shares every thought that ever crosses her mind, no matter how hurtful or minute. I try to tell her it's sometimes okay to keep her mouth shut, but she condemns that as an endorsement of lying. How can we reach a middle ground here?

Carolyn Hax: Not sure you can, and not sure you'd even want to. You don't disagree on whether to set the white-noise machine for "city" or "rain forest"; you disagree on what constitutes moral and civil discourse with fellow human beings. You either respect AND get used to each other's ways of doing things (I really don't think it can be either-or), or you're not compatible.

Though she is tacitly inviting you into what could be a liberating experiment: Try being with her as honest as she insists upon being with you. I'm not usually one for games, but this is too tempting and, as a fig leaf, potentially enlightening.

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phone call: will we be able to tell which future column benefited from/relied on this phone call? because I'm now I'm all curious as to the kind of situation that would prompt Ms. Hax to consultation. I realize it's probably none of my business, but I don't watch reality TV so these are the kinds of things I get excited about.

Carolyn Hax: That would seem to tag you as exactly the audience for reality TV.

The issue is Columbus Day; I need to file a week's worth of columns today that would normally be due Monday, and I was waiting to hear about one last thing before I sent them off.

As Hitchcock knew so well, the truth is never as good as what you're imagination creates in its absence.

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Childless in Chicago: Carolyn, per last week's chat, weren't you going to put an entry in your discussion group about how to handle the "So, when are you having kids?" question when you don't plan on having any?

Love your columns and the chats. Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: I think it's coming--my new material got backed up a bit by an outage in the groups earlier this week, and by the pileup of major news.

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Rosslyn for the millionth time : I'd say thirty percent chance of a wedding IF she's not lying. Zero percent chance if she is. (Suspicions were aroused when she delivered the news: "This is what you wanted, wasn't it?")

I've learned a major lesson from this, though. When you force someone's hand, you only leave them bitter.

Carolyn Hax: Oh my. You do not trust her? Thinking she is capable of lying to you is as bad for the prognosis as her actually lying to you.

You know her. You know whether that "This is what you wanted" was her way of showing anger, or grounds for suspicion. I really do think you know.

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Virginia: A comment to the woman who can't see her grandchildren on terms that she would prefer... How does she know that "it would mean a lot to him (her son) to have a close relationship with his children"? Perhaps he is in agreement with his wife on whatever issues may exist. This is a situation in which I could potentially see myself in toward the future. My husband and I do not prefer to be in the company of his parents. They aren't bad people, but they are the way that they are, which includes being judgmental, narrow-minded, and pushy. We've already had discussions that, when the time comes, we will limit interactions between those grandparents and the children. It was a decision made by both of us. Being in this situation, I feel that the writer may be leaving something out, or even may not realize why it is exactly that her relationship is being limited.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I was leaving something out. The letter was much longer (as was the draft of my answer) and did contain specifics of the son's interest in having his mother involved.

A lot of people have been arguing the DIL's side here, and while it's certainly possible that the MIL is completely deluded about her relationship with the son, there was no smoking gun--she indicated the son took her side, encouraged her involvement, and discussed the issue with her--and she cited specific examples of over-the-top DIL behavior that appeared to me 1. as not open for interpretation unless MIL outright lied in her letter (e.g., direct quotes from an e-mail) and 2. as pretty convincing.

Yes, I always try to see the other side and, when called for, to urge the writer to see the other side. But I'm not going to do that when there's no, "Hmmm ..." moment in the letter. I thought it telling that the people who wrote in to object mostly saw themselves in the DIL, and proceeded to describe circumstances that were in fact very different from the ones in the letter that ran in the column.

Could the MIL have been flat-out lying? Of course. That's why my advice was for her to play by the DIL's rules.

When it comes down to it, I think people are often too stingy with access to their kids--or, when access would legitimately endanger the kids, too stingy with the truth about why access is being denied. The scenario as presented by the MIL rang very true as a situation where the DIL is holding the strings.

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washingtonpost.com: We've been experiencing some technical difficulties but hope to be back up and running very soon - stay with us! - Elizabeth

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Carolyn Hax: Sorry about the stall. I'll try to achieve blazing speed to compensate.

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re: Rossyln: I think your bigger problem is that it doesn't sound like you particularly like your ex-fiancee.

Carolyn Hax: Well, there's that, too.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn, love the chats.

Here's my dilemma. My boyfriend and I are three years into our relationship, and he wants to get married. I don't and am growing increasingly convinced we should break up (it's not the marriage thing, it's him).

I've been getting more sure of this for a long time (at least a year) and have been dragging my feet doing anything about it. I know I'm being unfair to him, but I'm terrified of being alone.

Can you give me any advice on how to handle this?

Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: The fact that you think it's okay to keep your unbeloved around as a security blanket is giving me some uncharitable thoughts, and yet you do seem to feel bad enough already, so so I will try to answer carefully.

Your problem is fairly common, and certainly understandable. However, that doesn't grant you the right to inflict collateral damage. Please summon the strength and integrity to face your fear on your own, and if you find you need others' help, then get it with their informed consent.

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toxic: I'm going to see someone this weekend that I know is toxic for me. I feel slightly guilty about it because I've done well at staying away for the past few months. But the problem is that I still care about him and I dont have a lot of friends in the area, other than him. Is it possible to have a healthy relationship with him? I'm not even sure what that means. He is my friend. I'm in love with him. He isn't in love with me. We both know the facts but still do this friends with benefits/pseudo-relationship thing from time to time. I'm worried it's keeping me from other relationships but I also haven't found anyone else I want to be with. So what's the harm?

Carolyn Hax: The harm is that seeing this person underscores the worst elements of yourself. It highlights that he doesn't love you; it highlights that you feel lonely; it highlights that you're not strong enough to resist the short-term high of something you know is bad for you in the long-term. It's actually possible, in a very narrowly defined way, to see this person and have it be an expression of strength; however, you aren't seeing him on those narrow terms. Your going is clearly a surrendering of what you believe to be your better judgment. Do right by your sense of self-worth and stay home. Fix the holes in a healthier, more lasting way.

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Carolyn Hax: I was BLAZING. You all just missed it.

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white Lies: The problem with white lies is that not everyone defines that term the same way. It's like deciding for someone else what they "need" to hear.

Total honesty is not lying. It is not saying everything you think. If I am in a bad mood and my husband's joke that he is telling for the millionth time is getting on my nerves,he really doesn't need to hear that. The problem is my mood, not his quirk of telling jokes over and over.

Carolyn Hax: I have an opinion of "total honesty" that seems to align with the ... guy? I've lost track ... who asked the original question.

But I think one's opinion of total honesty/rudeness/insensitivity/self-righteous self-indulgence is irrelevant. Both halves of this couple believe they're right. What they believe is at odds, and it's also very fundamental to the way each of them goes about living day-to-day life. Their relationship is just as doomed whether they're both right, or one of them is wrong. That's because for them to get along in a meaningful, enduring way, at least one of them will have to give. It's pretty apparent that one of them won't change, and the other shouldn't.

The reason I said he(?) shouldn't want the other to change is that it's a difference suggestive of even bigger differences. Even if she does learn to hold back, that won't be enough--there's still the immaturity to be reckoned with.

If she comes around on her own and recognizes the error of her unfiltered ways, then that's something else.

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George Mason, VA: Carolyn,

I'm studying abroad for three and a half months starting in January. I'm very excited about this opportunity, and though my boyfriend says he's happy for me, he's been miserable since I told him, about two weeks ago. At first he kept telling me it was because he was going to miss me, or that he was a little jealous, but he told me the real reason a couple days ago. He's worried that I'll change drastically while I'm away, and not want to be with him when I come back. I love him dearly and am completely committed to him, but the thing is, what he's worried about is possible. Then again, it'd be possible even if I never left my neighborhood. What can I say to console him? I hate seeing him like this.

Carolyn Hax: Tell him that if your relationship is dependent upon your maintaining the current state of your personality and character, and if those are dependent upon your never leaving the environment you share with him, then your relationship isn't going to survive anyway. Those are unnatural, unrealistic conditions.

I'm good at this consoling stuff.

Truth is, it sounds as if he needs a little more time in the incubator before he's strong enough to breathe adult air. Which is fine, you're in college and all. But it does mean that your relationship, which is based on the compatibility of two people, consists of at least one person (but probably both) who can anticipate a lot of growing and changing (not to be mistaken for shakin' up and fixin') in the near future. It's not a message that anyone wants to hear, but he needs to let go and start trusting himself to handle whatever happens. Your efforts to console him through his moping are well-meaning, but probably enabling the mope.

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frustrated, DC: Is it just me or is the discussion not working properly today? I love you, but I'm about to bail on this technology.

washingtonpost.com: TOTALLY NOT JUST YOU!!!

Carolyn Hax: I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE.

Even though through the down times, I've reheated my leftover Panang tofu for lunch, gotten coffee, answered emails, checked the Sox schedule (8:37, Matsuzaka), checked the ALS tally (closing in on $26,000) and sent out my columns.

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Carolyn Hax: Note that I did no online shopping.

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white lies: My friend believed in unfiltered honesty when he was young. Then he told a girlfriend that he hadn't originally been interested in her, that he'd really been after her roommate but that, when it became clear the roommate wasn't interested, he'd "settled" on the girlfriend. The girlfriend quickly became a very hurt, very angry ex-girlfriend and my friend developed a healthy appreciation for filters. He's so much more pleasant to be around now.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sure she's happy to hear that.

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A battleground state: I'm in a friend's wedding next month. She's been calling a lot lately to discuss ongoing relationship problems (they've been together 11 years) and said in a recent call that they plan to go ahead with the wedding mainly because folks are already invited. So far, I've just been listening. Is there any chance whatsoever that weighing in on this topic will be at all useful? I realize opinions are like certain unmentionable body parts, but I can't help but wonder if she is telling me all this so that I will convince her that there is still an out. On the other hand, I'm 99% sure they will get married.

Carolyn Hax: "Are you hoping I'll jump in to say, 'Don't do it'? Because it seems self-evident that getting married to avoid recalling the invitations is the definition of a bad idea." That way you're both opining and letting her know this is her mistake to make.

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Re: Honest vs. "Honesty": Here's the other arrogant thing about being "honest" to people: the candid assessment of the obvious truth assumes that the other person is totally clueless.

Yes, I know my nose is huge. I've had it for almost three decades. hard to miss. Yes, I know there's powdered sugar on my black shirt. I was there when I spilled a bunch of it on me. Yes, I'm aware that I'm unemployed and need a job. I wake up to that misery daily and would love to fill my days with a career I enjoy. Yes, I know my refrigerator is constantly empty. I get a reminder of that every time I open it. Yes, I am aware that I can adopt a baby if I am unable to have one. That process has been around awhile. I have heard of it.

It's like they want to be some superhero -- Captain Obvious to come save the world.

Goodness if I didn't have that I don't know how I'd function.

Carolyn Hax: I am totally being Captain Obvious for Halloween now.

Sorry, Disaster Girl.

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Lost in Fairfax: Carolyn, with the passing of your Mom, maybe you can give me some relate-able real world advice. My Mom just passed 3 weeks ago, and while I am not crying my eyes out every day, I am now overcome with a strange sense of apathy and paralysis. I can't get anything done (work, housework, interactions with family and friends) nor can I summon up the energy to care bout all the stuff that is getting pushed to the wayside. Is this normal, and will this pass? When I can care for 5 mins, I get afraid that this will be the new me and it scares me (until I don't care anymore). Help! How did you get thru it? Thanks and love your column!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, and I'm sorry about your mom.

Your body has its own pain-relief system. It is completely normal to feel numb, detached, tired, and to lose interest in the many small things that used to be the substance of a typical day. All your strength is going to the business of processing your loss.

To help you get through this time, it does help to recognize what your body is doing and why. It also helps to force yourself to prioritize and delegate. Make a list of the things you can't afford to ignore or postpone during this strange underwater phase, and the things you can. Hand off as many things on the urgent list to someone(s) close to you. Save for yourself the things that give you some sense of peace--working, say, or cooking, or laundry. We all have comfy spots in our routine.

Trust that this is temporary. I maybe should have put this first.

If you find that urgent things aren't getting done, or that you're not feeling even the slightest bit better as each day passes, then please consider seeking counseling for your grief. DC area has the William Wendt Center, about which I've heard good things.

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For Studying Abroad: I hate to do this to people but the biggest mistake I ever made was to be in a relationship while studying abroad. Granted, I was gone for a year not 3 months, so that does make a difference, but the entire time I was away I had one foot here and one foot there and could never really enjoy my time away. I didn't travel and visit nearby countries, didn't do much of anything except go to internet cafes and talk to my then boyfriend. And yes, you will change, it may take time to realize the change but it will definitely happen.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. The whole point is to immerse oneself in another culture, which is impossible with one foot back in the states. Seems the boyfriend is the one who's most aware of this.

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Carolyn Hax: But, you know, if you love something, like, set it free.

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Washington, DC: My sibling and I have had a good relationship for a few decades. But ever since we each had kids, I can't stand to be around his/her family. While my kids are probably on the uptight side, his/her kids are certifiably wild. I have no desire to see them in restaurants/movies/or even in my own house. How do I go about resolving this problem that has essentially ruined a decades long good relationship?

Carolyn Hax: Well, you can be patient--the monsters eventually grow into bigger monsters who want nothing to do with the adults. And, in the meantime, you can pick your venues carefully. There are places where kids can run at least somewhat wild without driving everyone crazy, so choose those.

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In Defense of Honest People: I've known several people like this over the years. While their insensitivity can be socially irresponsible (and downright immature at times), I must admit: these are the best people to ask advice. If you're being an idiot, they'll tell you, "You're being an idiot." Plus, a compliment from them always seems more sincere, because you know they'd tell you otherwise.

Isn't this the reason we all flock to your column, Carolyn?

Carolyn Hax: Gosh, I hope so.

But on the Internet, nobody knows we're dogs. Well, you know who I am, but since nobody knows who anyone else is, there aren't any witnesses to the red marks you get from full-contact honesty.

By the way--good for you for seeking this kind of honesty from friends. A lot of people don't recognize the need for it, much less consciously and actively seek it out.

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Washington, DC: I work in a small office with a great group of people. I've been here for 2 years. At first, my co-worker and I got along pretty well. We bonded in the face of a boss who we both saw as overly domineering and micromanaging. She's younger and I tried to get her to stand up for herself.

Now two years later, boss and I have a good working relationship and this younger coworker really grates on me. I've come to realize that her style of communication (passive agressive, manipulative) is maybe not just youth - but really her.

Of course I wonder about my previous attempts to change her. Not the best side of myself. But anyway - I'm tired of the dynamic that's going on here and no longer feel terribly interested in being "friends." I know she senses the distance that's growing, and wonder if there's any point in doing anything but let it grow. I can't see the point in saying any of this out loud. Do you?

Carolyn Hax: Dunno. Sounds as if you and she were peers, in an emotional sense, when you first met, and you grew while she didn't. Fair to say? Sounds relationshippy I know, but work people are people too. (Up with people!)

Soooo ... instead of dealing with your annoying colleague just from the perspective of the evolved person who now finds her annoying, try looking at the problem, and at her, from the perspective of someone who recently traveled the path that she too needs to travel. Anything you can suggest to her (that won't come off as patronizing)? For example, think of what you now see in your boss that makes working for him/her okay now. Can you pass this along in a constructive way, in response to your co-worker's complaints?

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George Mason again: I see the point about one foot at home, one abroad, but what's the solution to this? I can't put it off until I'm single, and breaking up with my boyfriend because I'd like to do some traveling/learning abroad seems like a pretty lame reason...What can I do to be able to fully immerse in the foreign society?

Carolyn Hax: You free each other to live in your separate moments, no obligations, no grilling, and no promises other than to be honest about your feelings when you get back. If you can find a way to phrase it that helps it not sound like the work of an advice columnist who got punchy during intermittent technical outages, then so much the better.

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A brilliant idea: I wrote despondent about six months ago re: the end of my marriage. There are still many, many tough days, but I am getting better and stronger and growing with every passing minute (I didn't even realize I had this much growth I was capable of).

For a while now, I've been thinking I might want to exit my job, which I love, but am exhausted by. What I really need is a good long break to recharge and refocus.

Recently came to the brilliant idea of asking the boss for a sabbatical -- three months unpaid. Even more brilliant -- go to New Orleans and build houses with Habitat. I can do something good for the world (yes, it is starting to not be all about me again), explore a city I have never (!) been to and return with a new perspective to a job that I think I might be able to still grow in.

Guess this is all to say, I still would prefer to have my marriage intact and am still deeply sad, but flowers can grow amidst even the dryest deserts with a little bit of rain...

Carolyn Hax: What a brilliant idea. Thank you, and enjoy your time off.

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RE: Study Abroad: Yeah, you miss out when you are in a relationship when studying abroad. But what's the alternative? Breaking up when you don't want to? That's no prescription for happiness. Do what makes sense to YOU, and don't be afraid if what makes sense evolves over time into something else. You can't live your life based on your current perception of what hindsight will tell you. For no other reason than you're probably wrong, anyway.

Carolyn Hax: True. And people who do, for example, squander time abroad in Internet cafes typing to their significant others will learn a valuable lesson for later in having the courage to let go.

But I do think that if you anticipate feeling tied down to someone at a time you'll come to regret being tied down, pre-emptive action is a reasonable thing to consider. If you're not up to setting anyone free, then you can decide to, say, get in touch only once a week, and set a day and time for your spoken/typed/video conversations.

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Re: Abroad: Hi Carolyn - What's wrong with staying together while she goes abroad? Why are you advocating that the only decision she can make is to break up with her boyfriend? Seems to me there are two choices to be made, but you are only advocating one as a solution.

Carolyn Hax: No, I am advocating this:

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for abroad person: My now husband and I spent three years living in different countries. We had an agreement that we would let each other live our own lives and stay in touch as we went through our various changes. We both grew up and changed and we also said that if we met someone else we would deal with that when it happened--which it never did because we just took each day as it came and allowed ourselves to be ourselves and share our lives together but in a different way than the typical one. In the end, we appreciate being together even after 11 years of marriage.

Carolyn Hax: I love you, man!

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Help: I am in 100% love with a coworker. Butterflies and daydreaming and wanting to throw my arms around and kiss in love. It is destroying my marriage and I don't seem to care. I know I need to stop or leave my job or confess to my spouse but I can't do any of those. Help. What do I do?

Carolyn Hax: That's not love, that's hormones. Hold on as tightly as you can to your rational self and put all your energy into not doing permanent damage. Butterflies pass, but betrayal is forever.

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Crisis in real time (online please): Hi Carolyn-

Late last night I was accidentally privy to a conversation between my fiance and his brother. Apparently the darling man is having second thoughts about our upcoming wedding and is thinking about asking me to suspend it indefinitely.

He doesn't know what I overheard. My heart is broken, and I can't decide what to do with this information. My dignity wants me to confront him and bow out voluntarily before he has a chance to deliver the blow. But the other part of me desperately hopes he can psych himself up.

What is my duty here?

Carolyn Hax: Dignity and desperation both can get in the way of your best interests. Please just tell him what you overheard. If it doesn't lead to a conversation (eventually--maybe not at the moment) that is both your most difficult and best ever, I'll be very surprised.

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Help: It's not hormones. We connect on EVERYthing and I have felt this way for a long time. I have children and a clueless spouse and feel trapped and suffocated. I know this new person would be the best thing but I can't make that step. I guess I have a conscience but I don't know what I should be doing.

Carolyn Hax: Then it's the trapped and suffocated talking, the sense that you're getting oxygen after not having any for so long. PLs get thee to counseling, solo, to deal with your soul death from the unhappy marriage. The colleague feels like the answer but no new person can be the cure when your current condition is sick. Daydreaming and butterflies are the giveaway--they're screaming, don't trust me. Wait--oxygen isn't the right metaphor: Think desert, and mirage. Get yourself a safe place to talk this out, asap.

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Carolyn Hax: Sorry for the truncated chat, but I have to go. Thanks everyone for your patience, and have a great weekend.

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