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Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; 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, April 2, 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.

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.

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Good news! Carolyn's archives have been updated. Check out the sidebar on Carolyn's archive page to find even more transcripts from past Hax chats.

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Carolyn Hax: Hi everybody, happy Friday.

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Philly: I hate my girlfriend's best friend "E." The reasons are complicated and go back a while. More importantly though, I know I can't really convey that to my girlfriend without hurting her feelings. "E" spends a lot of time with us, both in and out of our home. I have asked my girlfriend to scale back the amount of company we have in general (that was as close as I felt comfortable coming to saying "Don't invite E over anymore") and she has done that, so I don't know what else I can say at this point. Please note that my GF and "E" are very very close and have been for about fifteen years. They are like sisters and I know I have to accept that E is sort of part of our extended family. Do I have to just suck it up and learn to like her?

Carolyn Hax: Ooh, I hope you're here now and not in a meeting or something. The answer really depends on the reasons you don't like E. And I'm not just saying this because I react to "it's complicated" a bit like my dog reacts to peanut butter. Thanks.

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Alexandria: Hey Carolyn, I heard you on NPR! Nice comparison of current events and the Scarlet Letter. Also, how cool was it that your English teacher called in?! It's time for me to re-read that story.

Cheers!

Carolyn Hax: "TSL" was definitely worth another read--it took me a while, as I said, to get used to the language, but by about the halfway point I was completely absorbed, even page-turning. And that's not bad for a 19th century bodice ripper in which the bodice was ripped well before readers arrived.

As for my teacher, I was at first horrified because I didn't listen to the name as Diane introduced her, so I had no idea who it was until she spoke a bit and I recognized her voice; by then of course she had hung up. Too bad. I did look up my grade afterward, and she gave me a B+. Her name is Heidi Dawidoff, and she was a great teacher (has since retired).

Alexandria is referring to this past Wednesday's Diane Rehm show, by the way.

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In Response to the "E" question: Why not just tell your GF that you're not fond of "E" and that if she wants to hang with her home-girl, she's free to, but you don't want to be around "E". Politely excuse yourself from the room and go find something to do when "E" is there, and ask your GF to hang with "E" in places that aren't the home. You have the right not to like "E" and you have the right to express that, but you don't have the right (as I think you know) to cut your GF off from her friend, so do only as much as is in your control.

Carolyn Hax: This is all true, but I still think the reason for his dislike will have a lot to do with whether this is a drama-free exchange between adults, or a potential relationship breaker.

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Dallas: Without going into too much detail, what do you do when you don't particularly care for a sibling? It's just me and my brother. We're in our mid-40s. Although he's my brother, he's said and done too many negative, manipulative, and hurtful things going back to when we were kids. I've been at my breaking point for a couple of years now. If this were anybody else, I simply wouldn't be friends with this person. I have a lot of good friends and a wonderful wife. I'm sorry his life didn't turn out the way he wanted it to (welcome to a club EVERYONE belongs to), but I don't see why he has to keep lashing out at me. I'm pretty much the only person he has now. Is it okay to "break up" with a sibling? Maybe I'll feel guilty later in life. I just don't know. I just want to do the right thing, but I don't know what that is.

Carolyn Hax: It's okay to "break up" with anyone, in extreme enough circumstances, so that's not the issue here. What seems to be the issue is that you're not sure what decision you can live with.

That's pretty standard, and it doesn't preclude your making changes in the way you deal with your brother. It just means you're not in a position to make any dramatic changes; those are stictly for people who are sure of what they want and sure of their justfication.

For you, a slow approach makes more sense. First, you ask yourself if the status quo is a bearable option. It's easy to assume "no" by the fact of your writing in, but it's actually helpful to start by asking yourself obvious questions. "Is this what I want?" Yes/no.

If you choose "no," then you ask yourself what you do want. Whatever the answer is, it -can't- be predicated on your brother's changing in any way. You have no control over that, so you can't ask for it.

You do control how much you see him, how much verbal abuse you'll listen to before you hang up/leave the room/go home, and whether you respond to him by defending yourself calmly, defending yourself angrily, or not bothering to defend yourself because you don't see any point to it.

Since you are, again, unsure of what you want, you can start incorporating small changes into the way you respond to him. If you normally see him once a month, you can cut back to once every other month, etc. Then you can see whether each of these small changes brings you to a point you would describe as bearable.

That methodical process will help inoculate you against feeling "guilty later in life," since you will know you pulled away from your brother only as far as you had to, and not an inch more.

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Muskegon, Mich.: Carolyn,

My wife wants to take our 18 month old daughter to an easter egg hunt at her mother's church sunday. I don't like the idea. We are not religious, in fact we are non-believers and have decided to raise our daughter as such. There is an egg hunt at a local library that would provide the same experience without the church. Am I being unreasonable in asking to go to the library instead? (She refuses, btw)

Carolyn Hax: Well, it sounds as if you're both being unreasonable, since bringing an 18-month-old to a church egg hunt isn't going to leave God-prints on her clothes, and since your wife's refusing to go to a library egg hunt says she is using the secular hunt as a means of escalating the argument.

Both of you are drawing arbitrary lines as if they're somehow absolute, and then digging in to hold them.

Instead, it would be in both of your best interests--and your unwitting daughter's most of all--if you both acknowledged these were arbitrary lines. If you want to be pure about your non-belief, you wouldn't be hunting eggs anywhere. Since you're willing to have your daughter hunt eggs as a cultural celebration rather than a religious one, then why not go to the church hunt just make your wife happy, by letting her make her mom happy?

That way, you can embrace your clearly defined belief, that non-belief doesn't have to be so rigid as to preclude cultural celebrations, and she can embrace her clearly defined belief, that non-belief doesn't have to be so rigid that she can't bend a bit in the interest of family.

Evevntually you and your wife are going to have to come to some agreement on how far you're willing to bend to serve these cultural and family priorities. But you don't need to accomplish that now, nor will you accomplish it by way of those arbitrary lines.

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Philly again, Re: Why I don't like E : Thanks for taking my question. The reasons really are too much to get into in a couple of paragraphs, so I'll stick to the main stuff. The first is that she is very jealous of my girlfriend's and my time together and does everything possible to discredit our relationship. This is exacerbated by the fact that she doesn't like white guys (which I am) and thinks her "extended family" status means she is allowed to say whatever she wants about me, including barbs about my race and gender. She is generally very fake-nice to me but quickly attacks me when she thinks I am disrespecting her friend.

The last thing is that she dated a close friend of mine about three years ago, then cheated on him and really broke his heart. The irony is that around the same time, before she got busted, she started trying to convince my girlfriend that I was cheating. This girl really is a nightmare, but again, is like family. Their parents are even friends.

My girlfriend is the less assertive one in the relationship, so when they fight and inevitably make up, my girlfriend is always the one to capitulate. I am resigned to the fact that E will be in our wedding someday.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks so much for this. Wow. I now completely oppose the idea of your staying quiet and trying to find ways to like E.

To be fair, I don't think you'll get far by making a huge stink and asking your GF to choose between you--it's not your place to do that, for one, and it will likely damage more than it fixes, and it will lower you to E's status as one who pushes your GF around emotionally--but when you have someone in your home regularly who is hostile to you, then you have a right to set limits and ask your mate to respect your needs for a safe environment.

There's also the matter of your girlfriend's inability to see E for who she is, and to demote her to a less prominent place in her life. We all have some people in our lives for whom there's no excuse beyond, "I've known X forever," and I believe firmly in granting leeway for these types of friends. There's no substitute for people who knew us when and saw us through who-knows-what, even when we chose them at a time when our judgment wasn't fully developed, to put it nicely.

But still, there's a big difference between being a clear-eyed friend of someone dubious, and being in the sway of someone dubious. The former is life, the latter is trouble. If not with E, then with your GF's inability to think and act wisely on her own behalf.

So do have that talk with your girlfriend about how you don't appreciate the way E treats you, and how, while you won't keep her from seeing E, you're going to excuse yourself from E's company where possible. Do say you hope she understands your position on this. Just make sure you also pay close attention to the way your girlfriend responds to this conversation, and don't be afraid to extrapolate bigger messages from her response.

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East Coast: What do you do when someone constantly cancels plans on you? I have a wonderful family member who truly is amazingly sweet, but has followed through on plans to visit us once in the past, say, six years. She has issues with anxiety and probably some depression, so I try to be patient, but at what point do we just start making other plans when she says she's coming and we know she won't?

Carolyn Hax: It's most likely the depression/anxiety talking, so don't take her no-shows personally; instead, just build them into your dealings with her. Any time she accepts an invitation, make that Plan A, and have a Plan B ready. It's extra work, of course, but it's nothing compared with the extra work depressed or anxious people have to do just to stay afloat. If the reponses I've received from people over the years is any indication of the norm among depression and anxiety sufferers, the compassion and patience you show toward her won't go unnoticed or unappreciated.

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Little Rock, Ark.: My wife and I have been married for 25 years. The first 15 were great; the last ten not so much. I feel like I am being abused, but oddly enough, I sometimes doubt that. She often screams at me, calls me names, talks poorly of my family of origin, tears me down. She has gotten so angry in the past few years that she has even struck me, although she will act as if it never happened or that I "made her" do it.

Even as I write this, I realize how far I've tanked into this and how sick this has become; although I have sometimes questioned this reality - am I right in calling this verbal abuse? Is it possible that I really "deserve" this treatment because of things that I have done or not done to satisfy her in this relationship?

Carolyn Hax: No one ever deserves abuse. If your behavior is so unacceptable to her that it's worthy of her anger--just for the sake of argument, I'm not defending her--then she should end her marriage to you, not stay in it and beat you down till your soul bleeds.

And, you will never "satisfy her in this relationship." That's another abuse canard that sits right next to the idea of getting "what you deserve." This isn't about what you are or aren't doing, this is about who she is. You can't do anything to change that, not would it be your job to change her if you could.

What is your job in a marriage? It's to do your best--which apparently you have--and, when that's not good enough, it's to decide what comes next for you. Do you stay in this never-good-enough role in your marriage, or do you get out? Whether you call it getting out to save yourself or getting out to give your wife a chance to be with someone who is "good enough" by her standards is between you and your conscience. It still comes down to, do you live with the broken, unfixable relationship, or do you get out? That is -your- decision, and no one else's, because this is the only life you've got, and you're the only one who's living it.

Since the degree to which you've tanked is both very common in these situations, and also very difficult to overcome, I urge you to call 1-800-799-SAFE (the National Domestic Violence Hotline) to find out where you can get counseling locally, as well as assistance in getting out and starting over. You're right in calling this verbal abuse, but you also need to call it physical abuse. Get help, ASAP, please.

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Dumped by phone in Virginia: Dear Carolyn

When, if ever, is it appropriate to break up with someone by telephone?

Sincerely,

Dumped-by-phone-and-still-reeling

Carolyn Hax: It's definitely appropriate when an in-person breakup isn't possible for a while, and so not breaking up by phone would necessitate pretending everything's okay for as long as it takes for an in-person conversation to be arranged. When that interim pretending time is a day or two, then so be it, but when it's a week or beyond, then I think pulling the plug remotely is the compassionate thing to do.

Having someone break up with you is going to feel awful no matter what the means. If the means are particularly egregious, then that's something else you have to reckon with on top of the whole breakup reckoning. But if the means were merely less than ideal, then I think dwelling on them will just turn out to be a distraction from the more urgent business of grieving, and eventually getting right with life after Him/Her.

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N. Carolina: Hi Carolyn-

My husband quit smoking in grad school, before I met him. The whole time he dated, he never mentioned a smoking habit, even though I mentioned several times that I did not enjoy being around smokers. We have now been married for six years and he recently told me about his former smoking habit (which he describes as more of a lifestyle than a habit) and also announced that he has taken it back up to manage his stress. I hate it. He does not smoke in the house, but he constantly smells like an ashtray and we have two small kids with asthma. I feel very deceived but do not know what to do about it. Please help.

Carolyn Hax: While you arguably were deceived, focusing on that will push aside a very important element of this problem: that your husband feels significant stress right now. You're a parent, so your kids' health has to be paramount, but you're also this man's partner, and so his well-being can't be relegated to a distant second place. it's a close second, tied with yours.

With that in mind, it's fair for you to tell him that you want to help alleviate his stress, both for his sake and because his stress-management method is creating new and unexpected stress for you. If you approach his smoking as an issue that both of you need to work on together, starting with a more healthy form of stress relief with him, I think you'll have a better shot at winning your husband's cooperation than if you jump out with, "You lied to me, and you stink."

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Breaking up by telephone: My dear you have not lived until you been divorced by e-mail

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

I hope you eventually came to a position of great and utter relief at having that marriage behind you.

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The Scarlet Letter - Thank you!: Just listened to the show - Now I want to re-read the book.

washingtonpost.com: For those interested, here is the link to the show Carolyn appeared on.

Carolyn Hax: It really is a remarkable book. For a large part of it I was so caught up that I forgot to underline the good parts, but there were a few places--particularly the scene toward the end between Hester Prynne and Roger Chillingworth--where I actually wrote, "Great advice" in the margins. Hawthorne knew what drove people--both to iner peace and to their own destruction. And his war on hypocrisy was passionate.

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Re: Abused Husband in Little Rock: Carolyn,

I agree with your advice one hundred percent. I wonder, though, why the marriage was fine for 15 years before heading down the abusive path it's on now. It made me wonder if the wife may be suffering from some medical or psychological condition that's resulting in her changed behavior. The couple might want to get this checked out. Fifteen good years is pretty significant.

Carolyn Hax: It is significant, and while the more mundane is still possible and even likely--that things soured between them the old fashioned way, through a combination of well-meaning fraud, attrition, denial and eventual unvarnished truth--I agree that checking for a medical explanation would be smart. That is, if the wife agrees to see a doctor, which is no minor obstacle. That they're 10 years into Phase 2 suggest that any illness isn't acute, which could make it harder for him to make a case that she get a full medical workup.

Not that he shouldn't try, he just needs to be realistic. Thanks for weighing in.

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Maryland: Dating a beautiful woman, hope to marry her someday. However, I was really taken aback when she mentioned she would probably not marry someone who did not want children in the future. I do, so it's not really an issue here, but I just wonder whether I should be concerned about marrying someone who is focused more on people that don't exist yet than on me, her potential husband? Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: It's a beautiful day for a good keyboard thump to the forehead.

She's not focused "more on people who don't exist yet than on me, her potential husband," she's telling you what her idea of a fulfilling life is. She wants a family. That's not just a bunch of people, that's a way of life, a set of values, a series of goals, a way of looking at the world. You may be all that, but if someone feels strongly enough about her way of life, values, goals and worldview to be willing to pass up on someone who is all that--just because he would cost her too much of what she cares about--then at least give her some points for knowing who she is, and being honest about that.

You, too, should be honest, if this is the case--that yes, you want children, but that you see the husband-wife relationship as paramount. That's a matter of values, too, and one that's important to disclose.

This is a strange discusson, in a way, because couples who have children need to have a fulfilling marriage to give their little family its best chance of producing a content bunch of people, both parents and children alike.

And, if for some reason she can't have children--say, one of you turns up with a medical condition that precludes both childbirth and adoption--then it's also crucial that the two of you love each other enough to see your life together as fulfilling unto itself.

People do make the mistake of seeing spouses as a means to an end as opposed to an end unto themselves, which they tend to become at one point or another, even those who do raise children. (Those kids eventually leave the nest, at least theoretically.) But there's a lot of room between seeing a mate as a means to an end, and holding out for a mate who shares your goals, even if it means saying goodbye to someone you love and who is great for you in every other possible way.

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On Little Rock: I think you are way off base with that. His story is very one-sided. My long term husband accused me of abuse much like this, when he kept all of his complaints bottled up inside and acted passive-aggressively for many years. Then he moved away and--to the questioner right after Little Rock--dumped me by phone! Needless to say, our two college age kids and I were devastated. Please, alway ask about the other side of the story, particularly when the person writing in said in this case that he doesn't necessarily believe the charge he's made!

Carolyn Hax: He said his wife hit him. If I didn't take him seriously, that would be irresponsible; just flip the genders and ask yourself if you would have questioned my treating it as a likely case of abuse. Self-doubt is a hallmark of abuse victims, too, so questioning whether it's even abuse is common.

Doing what I do means I almost always have to make a judgment call without getting the other side of the story. Yes, I will always get questions that contain a version of the truth that's so warped it bears no useful resemblance to reality. But in those cases, there's not much I can do. Was there something I could have said to your husband, for example, that would have changed his emotional sensors from being highly inaccurate to being calibrated in a healthy way?

Your best chance of not having the sad outcome you did would have been for your husband to get into the care of someone really good--and even then, his own inability to read the truth from his surroundings might have gotten in the way. We are always at the mercy of our own capacity to see clearly. That's why, when a serious problem comes my way, I often refer people to reputable sources of professional help. It's not perfect, but it at least lessens the possibility that someone will act on the information gathered by one, potentially flawed source--ourselves.

Thanks for the chance to explain my answer.

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Arguably Deceived: Hi Carolyn,

Trying to puzzle through something here. The writer above that's been confronted with a resurgent smoking habit by her partner feels "lied to," and you seem to validate that with your "arguably deceived" comment. I recognize that you're indicating that the situation is more nuanced, but I'm having trouble figuring out when the omission of information becomes deception and outright lying. I'm personally closing in on acknowledging that I've found "the one" (or "a one") and now I'm worried that something is going to hit like a ton of bricks a few years down the road. The smoker hater above feels like she was entitled to know that her fella used to smoke, and as proof that he should have mentioned it, she cites several instances where she (spontaneously? cruelly? good-naturedly?) complained that she hated being around smokers. If I was that guy, I'm not sure I would have mentioned anything either. I've done plenty of things in the past that I'm not proud of (and that I don't continue to engage in), but I'm not particularly fond of the notion that my potential life partner needs to know about all of it.

Carolyn Hax: That's why I said arguably. If we were to replace "I used to smoke" with "I had, and have since kicked, an addiction," you would probably see more value in sharing. At the same time, no, I don't think every skeleton has to be trotted out for a date's inspection. It's a judgment call.

In making that call, though, there are some distinctions worth considering: Acting like a goofball in college, for example, might not be something you want to trot out for you future mate--though I could also argue that the mark of a future-mate candidate is that you find yourself sharing your stories of goofball college behavior, not because you think you have to, but because you suddenly find that the stuff you aren't proud of is stuff you feel safe sharing. But I digress.

It's easier to argue in favor of keeping your goofballs in the past, along with other situational, youthful stuff you're not proud of--even smoking OP's when you have a few drinks too many--because it's not a systematic habit. Smoking is a habit. A smoking habit that you pick up again when stressed suggests a serious habit, which points to disclosure. Again, it's a judgment call--maybe it wasn't that big a habit and he legitimately couldn't have foreseen its coming back to bite him.

There's also this: If he had started smoking again, confessed and then expressed a desire to stop, then I don't think she'd be talking about feeling lied to. I think there's some umbrella anger here, covering a few discrete elements of the problem. His willingness to be a smoker, for example.

I also don't see her mentioning her distaste for smoking as a big deal. If you walk out of an office building only to be met by a gantlet of banished smokers, some people will walk through without acknowledging it, and some will hold their breath and resent the assault on their lungs. People react to smoke and smokers differently, and there are plenty of opportunities for these different camps to show themselves.

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Anonymous: I am having fun with my girlfriend but am well aware she's not marriage material for me. She says she is fine with dating casually for now. I know girls sometimes say this and don't mean it, so what's my responsbiility here? To keep reminding her again and again that it's not headed anywhere so she can cut her losses at some point? That seems like such a buzzkill.

Carolyn Hax: Must know: Why is she good enough to date, but not good enough to marry?

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Ditch the Egg Hunt Altogether: I tried several egg hunts in different locales when my twins were little and after the second one, I swore to never go to another one again. It wasn't the kids that were the problem, but the parents. I saw them knock over kids and grab eggs away just as my child's hand was about to touch it. I was appalled at how the adults acted. When I was little they had to stand behind the start line, but apparently no longer. I isn't worth the trouble to see your kids cry and try to explain why adults act like that. Do the egg hunt in your home on Easter morning. You won't regret it.

Carolyn Hax: I want to live in your neighborhood! (Tho, ah, maybe I do ...)

The answer to egg-hunt behavior like this isn't to flee the egg hunt, it is to film the egg hunt. Seriously. We all work hard, we need this footage to be on the other end of a link e-mailed to us by a friend.

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Re: Maryland: I'm trying not to read too much into the phrasing of his question, but his sentiments would likely raise flags with me if I were dating him. Sort of sent the message of, "Ah, so being married to you will be The Maryland Show, where all my efforts to balance career, child-rearing, friends, extended family and hobbies will be seen as my lack of commitment to, support of and interest in you." Dude, she's not even your wife and you resent the children she wants? You do realize you won't be the only focal point of a marriage, right?

Carolyn Hax: Maybe we're both reading too much into it, but I was asking those questions myself--I just didn't phrase them as succinctly. Thanks for that.

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Baltimore: I am about to become a first time parent and couldn't be more thrilled.

In gaining this wonderful and serious responsibility, how does one adjust to knowing that he/she will be giving up certain activities and interests to focus on childcare?

Carolyn Hax: Congratulations!

I would suggest not getting too caught up in the big picture. While raising a child is a Big Deal stretching over a Long Time, I think it's more productive to think of it as a process of making a lot of little decisions as well as you can at the time you're asked to make them. Thinking big can be overwhelming, for one, and it can also blind you to the significance of the small. Each little gesture with your child is what adds up to a childhood, not whether Child learned a second language or ate only organic food.

I can't speak for anyone but myself, but the best days I've had with my kids are the ones where I haven't tried to accomplish anything big, either with them or on the side while also taking care of them. Just to give you an idea, saying somethign in the morning along the lines of, "While they're napping today, I'll make those calls/do the taxes/clean out the junk drawer," proved to be a guarantee of a frustrating day. It was always better to take the day as it came, and if a big nap suddenly happened at the same time I had a lot of energy, then I'd clean out the junk drawer. Baby steps.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Carolyn, I just listened to your NPR discussion about The Scarlet Letter -- is that really your voice? I've always pictured you with more of a throaty, Kathleen Turner sound!

Carolyn Hax: No, that was my backup voice.

My real voice doesn't sound like Kathleen Turner's, either, though I'd like it to. Maybe I'll take up smoking.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Carolyn, Last summer, a series of events led me to realize my college roommates and I had really grown apart over the course of our twenties (I know, I know, how shocking--I'm an idiot, but, it came as a shock to me), and that my somewhat strenuous efforts to keep us in touch were effectively the equivalent of life support for a relationship that couldn't breathe on its own. I guess my question is about the best way to let it die a natural death--today's the birthday of one of those friends. These are women I truly thought of as like sisters to me, so it feels terrible to blow off a birthday. They've replied politely if briefly to the couple of emails I've sent since last summer, but definitely haven't reached out otherwise. The kicker is that today's birthday girl didn't acknowledge my birthday three weeks ago. Am I just a complete idiot for still wanting to wish her a happy birthday? No one has actually said, "Hey, I don't want to hear from you anymore," but am I really supposed to have gotten the hint by now?

:(

Thanks Carolyn...

Carolyn Hax: You're not an idiot, some of these friendships do make it. It was fine to hope yours would be among those that did.

Now that the growing apart has happened, though, and you've accepted it, you might as well see it as liberating. Now you're not under pressure to maintain anything. You can contact these friends when you want, to say what you want, or not. If you feel like e-mailing a happy birthday, then do it. If you forget one year, or three, or if you get birthday greetings from them only occasionally, or never, so be it. Every gesture has been disconnected from its greater significance. Sad, but, like I said, liberating in its way.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Is this abuse? When my husband gets angry at me, he will yell at me that he could "crush" me and then he raises his arm, makes a fist which he then swings toward me but always misses. I have told him that the behavior is very abusive and frightening. He, of course, says it is not abuse of any kind. He also recently thru a dinner plate at me and squeezed my arms so tight that I got a (little) bruise. Please clarify. Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: Please go straight to someone who can both clarify and connect you with people who can help you. 1-800-799-SAFE. If you want a second opinion, Google "The Gift of Fear" and the word "checklist"--it'll get you an online version of Gavin deBecker's list of signals that predict relationship violence. Your short paragraph includes several of them. Please call the hotline.

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Not good enough to marry: Didn't think you'd ask a follow-up, not sure I can make it make sense. She's just...fine. I like seeing her occasionally but have no desire to spend more time around her than I do already (about twice a week). The only real thing we have in common is we live in the same city and like the same places. I have fun with her when we get together. I'm lukewarm about her in between. I don't really think about her when she's not around and if I thought I had to choose between her and the freedom to date whoever I want, I'd choose freedom.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, that seems honest. If you think she is developing feelings for you, then the decent thing to do is stop seeing her. It's easy to make an argument that as long as you're honest, it's okay to let a fellow adult to make her own choice about accepting your terms. Unfortunately, that argument works great only in theory. If in practice what's happening is that you feel no closer to her now than you did when you first met her, and she meanwhile is showing clear signs of growing attached and wanting more, then it's cruel to keep taking actions that lead her on.

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Somewhere out there: Hi Carolyn, I really need your input on this one. I've been with my boyfriend for three years (we're both in our early 30s) and lately it has been riddled with tension. I'm annoyed. But more than that, I'm starting to wonder if this is my final straw. I can't seem to shake the feeling that he's not really my equal. He's not as bright as my friends. He's sensitive and is quick to be driven to tears. He seems to be insecure. As much as he loves me and cares for me, I just can't seem to look up to him. Is this symptomatic, or does it sound like this might be the point at which I need to make some very big decisions?

Carolyn Hax: Actually, you don't need my input; you just need to listen to your own.

Of course, when it's your own situation, what's obvious to an outsider can seem murky. When that happens, it can hep to imagine switching things around: If your boyfriend just said about you what you just said about him, would you want him to suck it up and stay with you anyway?

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Double Whammy: Dear Carolyn: My father has just been diagnosed with ALS, 2 weeks after my mother learned that her cancer (in remission for a year) has returned. I think my mother will be able to restore her health after a 2nd go-round with chemo, but what can I do to help them both, particularly my father? I am overwhelmed with grief and worry.

Carolyn Hax: I;m so sorry. Please make a call that will help you and your dad, to your local ALS association. Each chapter offers support groups for family and friends, as well as patient care and support. I can't overstate the value of being among people who understand. It's awful, but people get through it, and grabbing this lifeline is the way many of them do.

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Carolyn Hax: That's it for today. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend, and hope to see you here next Friday.

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