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Carolyn Hax Live: Sensitive about a Scar, Don't Want to Leave My Kid With My Ex's New GF, Dealing With Emerging Mean Girls and Is It OK to Invite Yourself Along?

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 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, December 5 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.

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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washingtonpost.com: 2008 Hax Holiday Hootenanny of Horrors 12/12 at 12

Carolyn Hax: Hi everybody. Hope you've got anecdotes roasting on an open fire, getting ready for next week's holiday special. I just got the Night Before Christmas 2008 from Pops, but haven't had a chance to read it. I can tell from the attachment, though, that it's as wretched as ever.

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Arlington: I've fallen for a coworker.

When she started, I had a bit of a crush, but was able to distract myself until that died away (I thought). We became friends. But then she had some issues, and I helped as a friend, and she was appreciative, and then I went away for a week and found myself thinking about her constantly.

We're in the same department in a small office, but with no chain-of-command issues.

Help? Focusing on flaws isn't working.

Carolyn Hax: If you can stand it, stay with the friendship. It will tell you, better than anything else can, whether there's something big happening here, or something incidental that you're misreading as something big.

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Carolyn Hax: Any longtime readers out there, you might recognize that advice as a significant departure from what I used to think about those I've-fallen-for-a-friend situations.

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Kansas: My new girlfriend has a big scar on her chest from a childhood heart surgery. When I introduced her to my family, my sister, who is a pretty accomplished TV make- up artist, offered her some tips on how to camouflage the scar using a certain type of powder. My girlfriend got very upset and offended, and the rest of our visit got pretty contentious.I thought we could just move on, but weeks later I find that people on both sides are pressuring me to issue some kind of statement about this. I think it's really stupid and that as grown-ups we should just move past it, but since we apparently can't, what am I supposed to say? For what it's worth, I can see both sides: my sister was just trying to help, but she really didn't know my girlfriend well enough to offer that kind of advice.

Carolyn Hax: From what you said here, I've formed an opinion similar to but not exactly the same as yours: Your sister was wrongheaded and presumptuous to speak up, but your girlfriend is now ignoring the fact that your sister also had good intentions. This problem could have been dispatched immediately if your sister had merely apologized for overstepping her bounds, and if your GF had accepted.

Now, it's going to take multiple, mutual apologies -- your sister for overstepping her bounds, and then for failing to recognize she had done so; and your girlfriend, for holding out for her half of the baby instead of trying to find something to forgive.

Where my opinion differs most from yours is in the matter of moving on. When the bad feeling has advanced to this point, you can't just expect people to shrug it off. It has to be reckoned with. So, the "some kind of statement" would best be centered on the need for both sides to acknowledge missteps. The players on both sides are trying their best, each trying to live the way she thinks is right. That those two ways are in conflict doesn't mean they can't respect each other's efforts to live thoughtfully and with purpose.

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Friend: Why? What did you used to say?

Carolyn Hax: I used to think that the effort to conceal one's feelings for a friend would introduce so much artifice and dishonesty that the friendship would be reduced to a fraud. What I failed to consider was that it's not necessary to conceal your feelings in these situations. It's just a matter of not putting them into words. There's nothing dishonest about declining to blurt out your every emotion.

So, applying it to this guy's situation (guy? girl? I can't remember): He'll need to behave in a professional way, no one with a workplace attraction gets around that, but if in the course of his friendship his interest in his colleague shows in subtle ways, that's kind of the point, isn't it? That's how people figure each other out.

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My nerves are so shot : Per our new custody arrangement, I have to drop off my daughter for the first time today with my ex-husband and his horrible new girlfriend. There is nothing I want to do less. How do I make myself okay with this? Daughter is 3 and in a very formative stage, obviously. Will bubble wrap keep the new lady's fingerprints off her?

Carolyn Hax: I don't know if this will make you feel better or worse, but here goes.

If there were such a thing as emotional bubble wrap, we'd all be tempted to use it, and we'd all be wrong to succumb. I sympathize completely with your horror at handing over your pride and joy (and your biggest responsibility ever) to someone you don't trust. The thing is, though, even if there weren't a horrible new girlfriend (HNG), there would still be a whole life full of influences, good and bad, awaiting your child. Parents (rightly) research and agonize their way into the best choices they can make about day cares, or babysitters, or preschools, but even the best research can't protect them from the other kids, who make play guns with their fingers or repeat the profanities they heard on the Metro or form cliques that don't include them--and whose parents also researched and soul-searched and fretted their way into choosing that same school you did. It won't protect them from adults you trust who have frailties you didn't foresee. It won't protect them from you, who will (guaranteed!) pass along some bad habits or misguided thinking.

They will leave fingerprints, all of them, and there's just so much you can do about that.

That's why being a parent is only partly about protecting your kids. It's also about fortifying them -- with love, with listening, with encouragement when they do good things, with the assignment of age-appropriate chores, with the incremental (and earned) letting go to teach them independence. These are better than bubble wrap, because they help a kid become strong enough to resist yielding to every thumbprint.

(disclaimer to follow ...)

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Carolyn Hax: Obviously, this answer would be different if there were grounds to suspect the HNG (or ex) would be abusive. Certainly, too, people who unwittingly entrusted their kids to abusers will take great and justified exception to the idea that the emotional-bubble-wrap idea is universally bad.

I'm just saying that given the real and unavoidable risks of introducing a defenseless child to the world, the most productive frame of mind is a practical one: How much say do I have, where is it most important that I use it, when do I have no other choice but to let go, what do history and context say about which risks are real and which are perceived, and how can I keep myself from responding so emotionally that I become a hazard myself.

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Re: chest scar: There is some information, and I think it's important: How did this sister know about this scar? Is it visible somehow? This is on a woman's chest. And it's December and they're from Kansas, so it's unlikely they were hanging out by the pool and the gf was in a swimsuit. So, probably someone brought it up. And not the sister, b/c she would not have known about it. Who mentioned the scar? Why? If it was the gf, and then she gets offended -- I don't know, that seems very thin-skinned and a big mitigating factor for the sister's overstep. If it was the bf, then what is he doing talking about his gf's scars?

Carolyn Hax: I disagree with your chain of logic. A vee-neck sweater could easily have shown the scar.

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Is love enough?: Carolyn, that's it, that's my question. Thanks

Carolyn Hax: No. That's it, that's my answer.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi.

Recently I've been caught off guard by a few relationships that have dissolved that have really surprised me and other friends. How can you tell if your relationship is going to work out for the long haul? I know that you're not a psychic and I'm not looking for a crystal ball answer. I'm just wondering if there are certain (and pretty consistent or predictable) signs that I can look for that might indicate one way or another.

Thanks

Carolyn Hax: The only answer that doesn't get into crystal-ball territory is to pay attention to actions. If you're building hopes and impressions on what people say, then you're likely to treat lukewarm actions as a "mixed message," when in fact they're a clear message. The actions are everything.

That's true even when the actions aren't lukewarm at all, but at a full boil. Too much too soon is just as suspect as someone who fawns over you only when s/he happens to want something from you, and disappears in between.

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scar on chest, Texas: I too have a scar on my chest that I don't cover up (from cancer, not a heart issue). I'm not sure I would have reacted the way the girlfriend did, but I don't cover up my scar for a reason -- it is part of who I am and what made me who I am, and I am proud of it. The sister needs to apologize, not only for overstepping, but for insulting the girlfriend by implying that who she is needs to be concealed. The boyfriend also needs to realize he is on shaky ground. It took me months to forgive my mother when she said "It's a shame you couldn't find a dress that covered up your scar" at a wedding we attended. It not only undermined my confidence in how I looked that day, but also undermined my confidence in how I looked every day, naked. If the boyfriend sides with his sister, this could really cause issues in his relationship.

Carolyn Hax: Well said, thanks. One more:

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scar on chest, Texas again: P.S. One of the main reasons we don't wear makeup to conceal our scars is that the makeup doesn't stay put, especially in the cleavage-y areas. When your decolletage rubs together, it rubs the makeup around, no matter how fancy the makeup is, or how good your application is.

So we live with our scars. It takes time, strength, and courage to allow them to be shown. Being reminded repeatedly that you don't look like everyone else, or like the ideal, is disheartening, frustrating, and diminishes the strength of the scar bearer. This is a body image issue, and the 'helpful' sister did the equivalent of walking up to the girlfriend and said "you're a little plump, but I know of a great diet that will help you," with the difference that the girlfriend has no ability to diet. This is not something you would normally be an apologist for...

Carolyn Hax: Thanks again.

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Re: chest scar: I don't know all the details, of course, but one thing that jumped out at me is that the sister is a make-up artist. I have a friend who's an accountant and sometimes she is overly frank about money. I'm a recovering copy editor, and sometimes it's hard to turn my internal SpellChecker off, even when it does not matter, like on restaurant menus. Doctors sometimes forget that gross surgery details are not dinner table conversation, because they talk about them all day long.

It doesn't make it OK, at all, but sometimes professional habits spill over into your personal life. Thinking of it that way might help the gf feel less defensive. It was still a rude query, but she did mean well, and she probably spends all day every day being asked how to mask imperfections and forgot to notice the gf never asked, and her words crossed the line from advice into criticism.

Carolyn Hax: Another good take -- though I still believe that, once the GF responded the way she did, the sister should have been quick to deplore her miscue. In fact, if it went down the way you say, then that would have made the apology even easier: "I'm sorry, I do this all day, and sometimes I get technical at the expense of people's feelings."

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Seattle, Wash.: My husband was laid off from his job two months ago. My question is, how do I answer the well-meaning family and friends who keep asking "How is the job search going?" when the answer is, horribly. I don't want to sound rude or depressed, but I also don't want to give false hope to these people that he'll be hired soon and that everything's great.

Carolyn Hax: "I appreciate the support, but that has become a hard question to answer. We'll let everyone know as soon as there's something to report."

You also can give the streamlined version: "When we know, you'll know." Some people will catch on the first time, some will need you to repeat it (verbatim) to get the underlying message.

Good luck to you both.

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HNG and ex: Is the horrible new girlfriend a horrible person, or just horrible because she's with the ex? Does the father of this child love her and cherish her as much as distraught mom does? I'm sympathetic, but how do you discern in these postings whether you have someone here with a real concern or someone still hurting badly from a break-up?

Carolyn Hax: Sometimes all the info I need is between the lines; sometimes I have no way of discerning. This one was the latter, and for those I try to give an answer that doesn't hinge on any variables. I think my answer would work if the HNG is a good person, a bad person, or a knotty mess of the two.

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Job Hunt: Maybe the best answer to people inquiring about how a job hunt is going is "horribly." That way, people would feel invested in helping find you a job. Times are terrible and pride goeth before the fall. There's nothing incorrect about telling everyone everywhere that you need a job.

Carolyn Hax: Interesting angle, thanks.

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the road to hell, etc: Carolyn, Any time we say, "But he/she/they/we meant well", we're basically excusing plain old rudeness. Meaning well and speaking well do not equate.

Carolyn Hax: I disagree. The law allows for mitigation, so why can't we, particularly in our most personal interactions?

Certainly some behaviors need to be decried more firmly and publicly than our society seems to have a stomach for--the demagoguery of this recent election comes to mind--but just as it's possible to become so gray-tolerant that there's no respect for right and wrong anymore, there's also a risk of being too black-and-white, particularly when it comes to conflict in our inner circles.

Take the immediate circumstances of the conflict, take the knowledge you have of the people involved, put them both in context, and try to differentiate the good from the bad. Then, ally yourself accordingly. That's how I'd suggest approaching any conflict, in fact.

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For Shot Nerves: I have a 3 year old son who, despite being the product of a short-lived ill-advised relationship I had when I was very young, is my absolute favorite person; I too agonize I have to leave him with his paternal family.

Here's what I try to remember: he is going to figure out that his father is a loser, and it's going to hurt him. I would like to be the person he comes to for support/comfort when this realization occurs. If I demonize his father, or if I act jittery and uncomfortable every time his father's name is mentioned in my presence, this will not happen; he won't come to me for fear I'll go off the deep end. Yes, leaving him there still sucks, and I'm still anxious the entire time, but at least I'm fairly certain that my son will feel comfortable telling me if something unpleasant happens while he is there, and that keeps me somewhat sane. Try try try to keep the lines of communication comfortable and open with your child when the conversation turns to these visits and/or the father and HNG. They are a real part of your child's life and pretending they don't exist or acting like they're a death sentence every other weekend will not help his/her (can't remember original gender) adjustment.

Carolyn Hax: I would have posted this just for the "absolute favorite person" reference. Oddly refreshing language.

I agree with the advice, though, too. (It even passes the what-if-the-father-isn't-really-a-loser? test, because it not only still applies, it gets better, because the advice is to keep any unhelpful opinions to yourself.) So, thanks!

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The Sticks, OH: Just so you know, maybe for some of us, "HNG" has a whole different meaning: "Horny Net Geek."

Carolyn Hax: And now for all of us. Thanks.

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Today's column, stop-liking advice: I had a situation once where I crushed on someone for well over a year. He was the friend of a friend and a famous (local) local musician in the town where I live and he was gorgeous, intelligent, talented, etc. Everything I always wanted in a boyfriend. He was also engaged and it was torture always running into him and sensing what I thought was a spark (we had a lot in common) and knowing I could never have him.

ANYWAY, we ended up becoming friends and eventually I realized that he was irresponsible, sloppy, a bad drunk and a clingy boyfriend. I think what Carolyn says is true and perhaps I magnified those bad qualities in order to save myself. Further FWIW, even after I drifted out of the crush it made me realize that crushing on people I can't have was my modus operandi in the dating world and the real trouble was that I was afraid of opening up to someone who actually liked me, hence all the unattainable crushes...

I'm not saying I realized all of this overnight or that this even applies to this situation, but I do know that when I date people now, I am less afraid of true intimacy and at age 33, I am finally listening better (to myself and others) and having meaningful relationships.

Sorry for such a long post. I guess today's column triggered something because I have SO been there. I wish I had learned that stuff in my early 20s!

P.S. My former crush is STILL not married. If anyone wonders...

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. A story can explain things so well.

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Help!: Hi Carolyn! Love your chats -- this is my first time submitting. I would consider myself a pretty self-assured person. Relatively successful and young. I am in a great relationship with a great man. We are recently engaged and set a date for next November.

My problem is -- I am scared that at any moment he is going to leave me or hurt me. I know this fear is irrational and I know it stems from the very strained relationship I've had with my father most of my life. He was present in our home -- but he was absent. Not really involved and constantly cheated on my mother and he really didn't try to hide it. Now, my fiance has never given me a reason to not trust him. But for some reason, I can't shake this feeling that he's going to leave me or hurt me in an unforgiving way. I know it may seem contradictory that I can say I trust him and feel this way. But I do. However, I don't want to lose him by implying that I don't trust him with my heart. How do I let this go?

Carolyn Hax: Figuring out whether you can or can't trust this man is just so much Titanic deck-chair shuffling. The person you don't trust is you. That, too, is an inheritance from the absentee dad, a more significant one than the surface awareness that people hurt others, leave, cheat, and the rest of the a la carte horrors.

When you've got emotional chaos at home, one common response is to invest everything into the stability of your surroundings--the right grades, the right activities, the right job, the right relationship. The problem is, the stability of these things isn't in the things themselves -- it's in you, the person learning the material, practicing the routines/lines/skills, doing the work, showing the feeling. Hitting all the "right" milestones provides lasting satisfaction only when your actual pursuits satisfy you. (Thus the phenomenon of the imploding perfectionist, the person who does everything "right" and winds up miserable and mystified.)

There are two emotional transactions that foster trust in a relationship. The first is the transaction between the two of you: If it's built on real and -enduring- things, like common interests, values, natural affinity, easy conversation, complementary strengths and weaknesses -- then you're going to be less concerned that a mere pebble will send it careening off the tracks.

The second is within you. If you know that you'll find a way to pull yourself back together, even if it does careen off the tracks (since just about anything can), then you'll fear it less.

Back to your home situation: Not to blame everything on Daddy, but if your upbringing didn't equip you to perform these two transactions, then you're going to need to learn on your own how to perform them. People get there by deep thought, life experience, counseling, role modeling or endless combination of these and other possible influences, so there's no one formula. But since you refer to yourself as self-assured, I would start by taking apart that statement to figure out what you think contributes most to your strength. Just having a grasp of your own best resources can help you see you have much less to be spooked about than you think.

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washingtonpost.com: Hey everyone. Nick here. One of my lesser-known annual duties with this gig is to draw attention to Carolyn's birthday, which happens to be TODAY!

Please join me and sing, in the absolute worst, loudest and most off-key voice you can muster, Happy Birthday to the best advice columnist since Socrates, and our great friend, Carolyn Hax.

Cheers, Nick

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San Antonio: Hi Carolyn,

I have the opportunity to pursue a relationship with the brother of my ex-fiance. The feelings between us are long-term and serious, but I wouldn't want to do anything that disrespected or upset my ex. I have asked him for his thoughts, and he always says something along the lines of, "Of course it hurts me, but you shouldn't let that stop you. I'll get used to it in time."

How do I read that? Is he giving me his blessing with a dose of honesty, or is he hoping I'll respond to the "of course it hurts me" part? What would you do in this situation?

Carolyn Hax: Read it the way you should read anything else, at face value. Maybe it's just because I'm disinterested, but his response seems crystal clear to me.

Besides -- if he does think it would be wrong for you to date his brother, then the onus is on him to say so.

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From a HNG: I was dating a divorced man with 2 kids and was with them almost every weekend for 2 years before I met their mother. I was surprised that the mother didn't meet me and get to know me as much as possible. I thought that if I were her, I'd get to know the new girlfriend, only to know who my child spends time with while I'm not around. (The more you know, the better!)

I later learned that she didn't want to meet someone her ex fell in love with (her own words). I thought her rejection of me was selfish as a parent because she considered only her own feelings and she didn't do what was best for her child.

The new girlfriends should be treated as the new babysitters or elementary school teachers. Me thinks.

Carolyn Hax: Great point, thanks. It also supports what I was saying about the ways parents themselves leave smudgy fingerprints on their kids. It's so easy to slip from wanting to do your best by your child, into the rigid thinking that you're the only one who can do right by your child. Whether it was true in this case or not (don't have anywhere near enough info to judge), you make it easy to see how an HNG can wind up being the better parent.

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Happy Birthday Song: -Croaks like a frog-

Happy Birthday To you! Happy Birthday To You! Happy Birthday Dear Captain Obvious/Amazing Analyzer, Happy Birthday To YOU.

-pulls your fingers out of your ears-

There'll be cake later at the Eat N Belch.

Carolyn Hax: Well, shucks. Thanks.

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Durham, N.C: .Carolyn, My wonderful daughter, an only child, is 9 and likes to have her friends come over, usually singly but sometimes in pairs. Her friends are all nice kids, but occasionally I spot what seems like the beginning of "mean girl" behavior -- nothing horribly overt, which I could smack down immediately, but whispering between the two kids who aren't mine. My daughter is mostly oblivious to this, but I think sometimes it bothers her. What should I do when I see this happening? These kids are too old to automatically behave as I tell them without resentment that could spill over onto their relationship with my daughter.

I kind of want to call a meeting of all parents of girls to talk about "mean girl" behavior in general and what we can all do to combat it, but maybe that's overkill.

Carolyn Hax: I'd start by seeing what your daughter has to say about it. Ask some leading questions, and wait patiently for the full answer. She might have some good ideas about dealing with it, and if she asks you, then you can collaborate on some. If it comes from her, it will be so much more effective.

I would bring it to the Parental Panel as a third resort. The next place I'd go is to their teacher, in confidence (assuming that's the connection the girls share).

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Washington, D.C.: Imploding perfectionist -- that's me!! That's for putting a name on it.

Carolyn Hax: There's a club, but no meetings, because we've all sworn off planning.

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Cubicle Land, D.C.: Carolyn, how do you become a better listener? My SO gets frustrated because he will give me advice, but I only seem to listen and absorb the advice when it is coming from someone other than my SO. I've read some advice books and tried those listening techniques, but nothing sticks! Help!

Carolyn Hax: Is this advice you're asking him to give, or is he offering it whenever he feels moved to?

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Happy Birthday, Carolyn!!! : Speaking of birthdays, my boyfriend's is tomorrow, and I am going to propose. (Yay nontraditional gender roles!) I have been planning this for a long time, but of the dozen or so people I've told, about eight have responded with some variation on the "never propose to a man" party line. The remaining four say "good luck" but with this sickly look on their faces. I have chosen to ignore the naysayers, but I'm starting to actually sort of freak out now. Do you think there's any truth to that logic?

Carolyn Hax: Thanks!

If your boyfriend wants to marry you, he will be over the moon.

If he doesn't want to marry you, or if he's interested in marrying you only if he gets to have his tradition ticket punched just so, then you'll be better for finding that out now, vs. after you get strung along/serve as his ticket-punching vehicle.

Good luck (said with a look on face no sicklier than usual).

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THREE IS BAD NEWS: To parent with mean girls... My mother never ever let us play in threes. Way too easy for it to become 2-on-1. With 4 there's always recourse to 2-on-2, which can be a problem but at least is a fair fight!

Carolyn Hax: Unless it's 3 on 1, but I do agree with you on threes.

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At work about to cry: Hi Carolyn,

I work for the UN in a developing country. There is a small expat group here and an even smaller group of people that I work with that form the base for my potential social circle.

The problem is I've been subtly cut out of the group. I think this happened because I befriended one intern who the others didn't like so much and I got lumped in the mix of the two 'outsiders' with him. The intern is gone now and I've found myself with no friends. Right now my colleagues are around me planning their weekend away together (it's a 3 day weekend here) and I'm being completely left out.

I feel so upset and off-kilter. It is particularly tough here because I have no other support systems, no other friends, family or outlets beside work. I love my job and work here and it's also been a dream of mine to work for the UN, but the people are making me want to pack up and leave. Should I look for another job or try to approach the group of 'insiders' differently?

Thanks, typing this has made me pull myself together a bit.

Carolyn Hax: Glad to hear it. It is the kind of hurt that's acute when you're in the midst of it, but that can fade quickly as soon as you're engaged in something else.

As for how to deal with it, I would try two things. 1. Make an extra effort at friendly overtures to people you'd like to befriend (note that I didn't say "to this group"; you may find you don't like these people, especially if it's in any of their natures to exclude, and were hoping to be included for inclusion's sake); and, 2. make an extra effort to draw more from your surroundings than the satisfying work. As long as you don't take irresponsible risks, being on your own without a support network is a great test of your ability to cultivate "outlets beside work."

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No birthday proposal: Don't propose on the birthday! Those should be separate events.

Carolyn Hax: Really? I've gotten a couple of these, and it wouldn't have occurred to me to care -- back to the it-would-just-be-great-to-be-marrying-the-person-one-wants-to-marry conceit.

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shot nerves and HNG: Another poster wisely commented: If I demonize his father, or if I act jittery and uncomfortable every time his father's name is mentioned in my presence, this will not happen; he won't come to me for fear I'll go off the deep end.

Alternative outcome: you will develop a relationship in which your child is rewarded with attention from you when he delivers stories of how awful dad and HNG are; even though child spends only every other weekend with dad, much time and energy is expended the rest of the month reviewing what a jerk dad is, instead of just enjoying time with child.

I work in a family law practice and I see this all the time. So sad. Not the relationship you want. Don't become this parent.

Carolyn Hax: Ack, yes, I've seen this play out among adults, too -- where the warmest attention goes to the one who is willing to trash a rival. It's insidious.

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Propos, AL: My husband and I decided together to get married. There was no proposal, just a natural evolution to the relationship. We have been married now for 10 years. You would not believe (or maybe you would) how hard this is for people to understand. Really, I have explained it to some relatives over a dozen times and they still look at me as if I have sprouted horns. I still think what we did makes a lot of sense but then again I am about as sensible as a person can get and not terribly romantic or traditional.

Carolyn Hax: Really? It doesn't seem that strange to me, certainly not to the point where they'd ask to hear it several times. Is that so they can properly parade their disbelief?

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Proposal: woman to man: I think the real answer is why at this point do you not know how HE would react, as opposed to just how would a MALE react? I know someone who proposed to her husband -- it was wonderful for them. I also knew that it was important to my husband to be the one who did the asking and that was fine with me. So really, the answer is why are you running this by your co-workers for approval?

Carolyn Hax: Good Q. Are you?

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To the UN worker: The best piece of social advice I've ever received is: "Don't be afraid to be the third wheel." In other words, don't be afraid to ask others to include you in their plans. This works best with new acquaintances, but I think it may apply here as well. So when you hear others making plans, say something like, "Hey, that sounds like fun, do you mind if I join you?" If they do mind, you'll get the message. And usually they don't!

Carolyn Hax: Angel Hax: Great social advice, thanks, as long as you position yourself to be receptive to "the message," since it might be subtle.

Devil Hax: Does it still apply if one would be a fifth wheel?

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Unlistener: Both. I'll ask for advice or he'll offer advice if I'm griping about something or dealing with someone. He gets frustrated when I tell him that I was talking to so-and-so who mentioned that I should do x, and my SO will mention that he had given me the same advice a few weeks before. I've tried focusing on my SO when he's talking, but what he says doesn't seem to stick in my brain and I don't even remember having the conversation. This has been happening for years but I can't seem to break the cycle of unlistening.

Carolyn Hax: Why so much seeking and taking and discussing of advice? She asks, inching cautiously across the thin ice.

Seriously, though. Unless you're at a transition point, I'd be wondering why outside opinion on your choices/decisions is such an issue.

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Proposal: They weren't coworkers, they were my sisters, mother, closest friends. And I wasn't running it by anyone for approval, just babbling about my plans out of excitement, I guess.

To clarify, my issue isn't that I think he'll be bothered that I proposed before he could do it first. My issue is that many people believe, and I can see why, that with men as traditionally commitment-wary as they can be, if a man wants to marry you, he'll ask. Meaning if he doesn't, you shouldn't, because then he might say no. I know that he loves me and has no intentions of breaking up, but I know lots of men who feel that way about their girlfriends and would just as soon stay single forever.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for clarifying. It actually makes a difference, but not the one I expected.

Since the people closest-closest to you are the ones with the wan responses, is there something you're missing? Is there a reason they might not be excited at the prospect of your marrying him?

One more thing. The idea of "men as traditionally commitment-wary" has exactly this impact on you and your proposal: 0. There may be zero correlation between what men are traditionally and what your boyfriend is. Please, please, just look him, at yourself, and what the two of you create together, and make your best move from there. Nothing else means anything.

And (one more one more thing) if you do proceed and you do get your feelings hurt tomorrow, don't let anyone told-you-so you; anyone with a founded concern needs to share it as such. E.g.: "I see you putting so much more effort into this relationship than he does." That actually means something, where as "Men like to propose" is just so much intellectual packing material.

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Washington, D.C.: Wait... you've gotten a couple birthday proposals, or a couple of those comments? If the former, I would start to wonder what the heck is going on. Especially if it keeps happening after you're married.

Carolyn Hax: Is it okay if they're balloon-grams?

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this doesn't sound so good for the relationship: "I've tried focusing on my SO when he's talking, but what he says doesn't seem to stick in my brain and I don't even remember having the conversation"

Um, is the not taking his advice the only problem here?

Carolyn Hax: Noted. Back to the earlier question someone had about signs a relationship is faltering -- once one or both of you gets into the business of guiding the other, that's a bad sign. When you get so much lecturing you start to tune out, you've already passed several hundred miles' worth of bad signs.

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"Mind if I join you?" What?!?!: Goodness, no! Please, if you overhear me making plans with a friend or friends, DO NOT INVITE YOURSELF to join! I don't mean to be a witch or a mean girl, but seriously, I would have to say yes because I would feel horribly rude doing anything else and I really don't want you there! That's why you're not invited!

Carolyn Hax: Bit extreme, no? I get that it's not appropriate in all contexts, but I certainly hope that if a couple of people from the cube farm are grabbing a sandwich, then others can join in without committing a faux pas.

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re: About to Cry at Work: A bit of practical advice to get through the weekend... 1. Go to a cafe with a journal or postcards or a book. Sit down with a cup of coffee. Look around and say hello to someone around you. You might meet someone interesting. 2. Hang out in the cafe/bar attached to a hostel -- you'll meet people who are either new to the country and trying to settle in or people who are traveling thru. You might meet a group about to make fun weekend plans that you can join up with. 3. Most importantly -- get out of your room/flat this weekend. Do not sit around and mope.

I've lived in several developing countries, and in a few of them I was alone. Forcing myself to say hello to strangers and smile a lot helped me get through, and I met many people just by sitting near them in a cafe that wound up becoming dear friends and travel buddies. The hardest weekends are those spent moping. It sounds elementary to say "just don't mope," but sometimes it is that easy. I used to do it and then realized that it was boring and unattractive, so I just stopped. Life is a lot more interesting when you smile at people and see who smiles back.

p.s. HAPPY BIRTHDAY CAROLYN! Just thought you should know that I've embraced your outlook over the years, and it has improved my life. Thanks for being out there for us!

Carolyn Hax: You're welcome, and thanks for pitching in.

That's it till ...

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washingtonpost.com: 2008 Hax Holiday Hootenanny of Horrors 12/12 at 12

Carolyn Hax: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

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"Hey, that sounds like fun, do you mind if I join you?": I would respond negatively JUST because of that nerve. Carolyn, you always support natural evolution. Pushing yourself in is bucking natural evolution. If people want to spend time with you, they'll let you know. Poster is learning what it means to be an EX-Pat, an outsider with limited contacts.

Carolyn Hax: Will post this to Philes ...

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