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Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Friday, April 23, 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.

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. Wearing my Caps T-shirt and playing (in my latest return to 90s music) Beck. Just thought I'd share.

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Washington by way of the Midwest: Hi Carolyn, Wedding season is soon to be upon us, and I'm finding that I'm receiving invitations to weddings of acquantiances that I haven't seen or talked to in a few years. We've kept in touch via Facebook, but that's about it. With my entry-level government salary, and all the weddings taking place back home in Wisconsin - I don't have the funds to go to any of them. I am happy for all of their marriages, but I'm wondering about protocol for sending gifts. I haven't kept in close contact with any of these couples and I don't have enough discretionary income for gifts. Is a nice card appropriate? I can't help thinking that I've been invited just so that they can receive a gift.

Carolyn Hax: A nice card is appropriate. Harboring negative and unfounded suspicions about couples' motives is not appropriate. Unless you have evidence to the contrary, just assume they like you and be flattered. Then limit your spending to $5 with a clear conscience and a generous spirit.

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Softball: How many dates am I allowed to go on with a new guy before it becomes leading him on (assuming my interest doesn't grow from this point)? I don't have strong feelings yet and am willing to see where it goes, but am sensitive about being selfish.

Carolyn Hax: If you enjoy his company and look forward to seeing him, and if he is not pressing for more from you than you're willing to give, then you can date-and-wait for as long as you want to.

If you're wishing you were eager to see him (but, obviously, aren't), or if he's way more into you than you are into him and a request to slow things down hasn't affected his sense of urgency, then pull the plug.

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Depression Intervention: Dear Carolyn and chatters,

I need to organize a depression intervention for a close family member. What are the best resources for me to consult first? Has anyone had experience specifically in depression intervention that they can share with me?

Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: I would see what NAMI has to offer, because it has a hot line, programs specifically for families, and easy access for other family/friends who might not all live in your area.

I'm open to suggestions from nutterati, too.

BTW, this is not an endorsement of interventions--whether that's the right approach in this case is something to talk about with the staffer at whatever organization you decide to use.

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Re: Wisconsin Weddings: Hi Carolyn,

I just wanted to echo your response about being flattered in being invited and not worrying about the gifts. When I got married last year, I sent out several invitations to my college friends, many of whom I only keep up with via facebook and Christmas cards. I didn't necessarily expect them to come, and certainly didn't expect a gift. Instead, I would loved if they had been able to attend and wanted to let them know I was thinking of them. No guilt required. Really.

Carolyn Hax: In case anyone wants proof that this actually happens. thanks.

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I want my Mommy: Hi Carolyn, thank you for your great service - I've been reading your column for more than five years now. I need a list of reminders to turn to when I return to 'wanting my Mommy'. Through extensive counseling over the last six months I've discovered that I was loved 'conditionally' as a child. Much more conditionally than my sister who toed the line and did everything she was expected. When I rebelled or simply chose another path I was held at arms length and this still occurs (my sister and I are in our 40s). I still grapple with that longing for the Mom who will love me no matter what. Is it just a matter of me taking care of myself that will allow this want to lessen? I don't feel this longing all the time, just now and then. I don't expect Mom to change but feel that for my own peace of mind I have to let it go. Can you help me let go of this idealistic dream?

Carolyn Hax: I don't know--that's mostly up to you.

But I might be able to help you with a misconception you're carrying with you from the past. You say you were loved "much more conditionally" than your sister was--your sister who "toed the line and did everything she was expected," while you "rebelled or simply chose another path."

Assuming this is an accurate representation of the facts, I think you're missing that your sister was loved just as conditionally as you were. She merely chose to meet the conditions, and therefore received an allotment of love that reflected this choice. You chose not to meet the conditions, and your love allotment reflected that choice, too.

Obviously, both of you were ill-served by a system like that, and you showed it by your reactions: Both her sucking up for approval, and your telling authority figures exactly where they could shove their approval, are both normal responses to a punitive environment.

Likewise--to get even deeper into the past--setting up a punitive environment for one's children is a typical, if unfortunate, response to having grown up in a punitive environment. Do you know your mom's parents at all? Were/are they tough on your mom? Was she asked to toe the line, and emotionally dressed down if she didn't behave as they wanted?

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Carolyn Hax: Following this trail of breadcrumbs isn't going to take you to the Land of Unconditional Love. But there's a good chance it will take you to the Land of Seeing Your Mom as a Complete Person, as opposed to seeing her as this outsize emotional force.

It can also help you see what she might have been trying for. There's actually a fine line between raising good kids by rewarding good behavior (which is a widely endorsed and encouraged approach to childrearing), and raising resentful kids by using rewards to tease and manipulate them. Such fine lines can be hard for any parent who has to make a decision on the fly with young kids in a charged situation; ask parents to make the right choice when they've had no good excxample from their parents, and you're going to see a lot of, "Why can't you be good like your sister?"-type infractions.

Anyway. Seeing the way she was damaged herself (as is most likely the case) doesn't erase any mistakes she has made with you and sib--adult responsibility attaches at some point, no matter how bad the circumstances of one's childhood--but it can explain her, humanize her, and narrow your expectations of her into a more realistic range.

In the best case, it can even fuel an impulse to take care of her feelings, even while you're rightly holding her responsible for the harm she did to yours. It's a complicated dance, but, then, that's how most of them are.

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Re: Depression Intervention: I understand that you and your family care, but please be careful. As the recipient of one, I must advise you to remember to treat the person like an adult, and know when to back off. I went into a hospital, and since coming back, have been treated like a child/with kid gloves. I have a certain level of resentment which has strained the relationships with my family members and may make some less likely to ask for help. Several of the others I spoke with in treatment had similar reactions. That's worse than not seeking help initially. So, in short, be there for them, but know when to say when.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for weighing in.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: As someone with long term depression, a "depression intervention" would not have helped. I think I would have reacted by further isolating myself and cutting ties. People who are depressed don't need to hear that they have a problem and it affects other people so they should shape up. They might need more concrete help in finding good professional help, or faith in that they're already worthy but could be amazing with a little help, or unconditional positive regard.

Carolyn Hax: Another good one, thanks.

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Depression Intervention: As a social worker and someone who has struggled with depression over the years, there really isn't an "intervention" you can perform.

Some sufferers can work through it with talk therapy, others with psychotropic meds and some require both. The right therapist for me could do nothing for your relative. There is no magic switch or pill that suddenly ends depression. It can be a long journey our of a dark nasty place.

You can have your relative involuntarily committed to a mental health institution if they are a harm to themselves or others, but otherwise there are few options.

Encourage your relative to seek out therapy, let them know that you care and will be of assistance, but ultimately, your relative will have to intervene for his or her self.

Carolyn Hax: About sums it up, thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn, I wonder if you might comment quickly on over-analyzing relationships and the harm it can do. I ask as a person who keeps back and forthing on thoughts and feelings about my boyfriend's behavior and at some point I really wish I could just live and let live and see what happens...

Carolyn Hax: Okay, I'll play: Why can't you live and let live? What's the scab you can't stop picking?

Which has to be, I must say, one of the all-time most revolting expressions.

Enjoy lunch.

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Gotham City, Apparently: Dear Carolyn,

There have been six reported breakins in my neighborhood in the past two months. This is very alarming to me and I really want to move to a "safer" (read: more gentrified) neighborhood, a notion my husband finds offensive. He believes it is our responsiblity as concerned citizens to participate in programs that strengthen our community, not to bail when it starts to feel too dangerous. I am more worried about our safety and that I won't be able to talk him into moving when we eventually have kids, and I just want to get out of here. Whose side are you on?

Carolyn Hax: Such a combative way to frame it.

I'm on the side of couples who listen to each other and approach difficult subjects with their dukes down, vs. those who pick a position and dig in. I'm on the side of people who take thoughtful actions based on facts, vs. those who employ numbers that may or may not pass statistical muster to justify hysteria. I'm on the side of people who compare apples with apples, vs. those who use an apple (six break-ins) to judge an orange (where you'll raise the kids you don't have yet).

As a resident of a neighborhood that has had about, oh, six reported break-ins in the past two months, I do have some of this in the front of my mind. Including: How wide a definition are you using of the term "neighborhood"? twenty households, or 500? How violent have these crimes been? How has your local law enforcement responded? How have people foiled these burglaries (since presumably some have)--alarms? dogs? motion sensors? Have you tried these yet?

How safe are your streets for walking around?

How does this trend compare with these other, "gentrified" neighborhoods you're coveting?

Those neighborhoods alone are the heart of a whole other line of potential questioning--covering everything from values to commute times to lifestyles. It can't be all about numbers of break-ins per capita, can it?

(more)

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Carolyn Hax: These questions have all been focused on understanding the scope of the problem and the actual threat it poses to your safety.

Once you have a hold on these -facts-, then the issue becomes one of communication with your husband. He cites his community responsibility, you cite your sense of personal safety (and eventual kids). Where do you put each other on your list of priorities? Where would kids go, should that time come for you two? Where does the tenor of the neoghborhood fit in, the convenience, the diversity, the access to work/culture/major transportation hubs/etc.?

Right now, you're both dug in on abstract concepts. The conversation you need to have is on concrete issues of day-to-day life: Are you at a significantly higher risk or harm, do you have friends among your naighbors, are you living the lifestyle that suits you, do you believe in putting each other's needs above abstract concepts, and are you reflecting that belief in your decisions?

This is not about a possibly stolen computer vs. a moral obligation possibly shirked. This is about the way you two want to live your day-to-day lives together. Cool the emotional jets, and get talking.

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Reliving High School?: I can't decide whether or not to go to my high school reunion this weekend. I don't want to, but I feel like I might regret it if I don't. The reason I don't want to go is that I don't particularly want to spend an evening with people who didn't give me the time of day in high school. But people change, and I feel not going is letting stupid high school emotions "win". Should I just suck it up and go?

Carolyn Hax: Scratch the itch. (A dermatological-cliche theme is emerging here.) If the experience does nothing more than remind you how much you dislike this group of people, then you'll never again have to feel conflicted about not going.

If anyone's thinking, "NO, just don't go!," there's merit to that argument, too. But people do grow up, and reunions do often yield pleasant surprises, so I'm in the try-it-once camp for anyone who's torn between yea and nay.

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More Wedding Qs: Is it normal to have an entry fee associated with a wedding shower? A new to me friend was discussing an upcoming shower she's arranging at a nice restaurant where it's going to cost the attendees $20 to attend. I'm a recent transplant from small town flyover USA where showers are usually held at someone's house or a hotel conference room. I don't know her well enough to ask if this was normal and am not invited to this one, but want to know if I should be prepared for it in the future. It also has a request for "no box gifts."

Carolyn Hax: It's putrid. Even in flyinto country USA.

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Cincinnati, OH: Oh, wedding season IS almost upon us! Will you be having a wedding-centric extended chat session soon?

Carolyn Hax: I'm game, if there's interest. What do you all say?

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Baltimore: Hi, a question for you and fellow readers: I am a guy and I'm weary of always having to be the one to ask the girl out. Sometimes I cannot tell whether she is interested, and if I ask and they aren't it seems to change things. What are some ways that women hint they are interested in going on a date?

Carolyn Hax: Someone who likes you will make and hold eye contact, ask questions about you, seek you out when there are other poeple she could be talking to. This could be someone who just likes you, vs. wants you, but the former actually might be more promising than the latter.

Someone who wants you will laugh harder at your jokes than you think they deserve, touch you more than incidentally, act self-conscious, mill around you to the point of awkwardness.

That's what I've got, off the top of my head. Anyone else?

Oh, and it doesn't always have to be about asking out and dating. Making friends is a less stressful precursor than dating to becoming more than friends. It just takes patience, as well as an attentiveness to what people offer besides surface appeal.

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Don't Laugh : My conservative mid-80s grandma literally had a heart attack the day she learned I am gay and preparing to marry my same-sex partner. This sounds like sitcom fare, but it isn't. I know there's some reason I shouldn't feel as guilty as everyone is causing me to feel...but I figure you'll be able to articulate it better than I could.

Carolyn Hax: Well, no one is "causing" you to feel guilty, any more than your big fat gay wedding "caused" your grandma to have a heart attack. Your guilt comes from you, and her shock comes from her.

You and your grandma have your closely held beliefs. Hers is that couples of the same sex should hide in shame, not marry. Yours is that good children and grandchildren don't do things that they know will displease their elders.

If only because of their negative effects on your health, both of these beliefs need to go. And they both, oddly enough, hinge on the issue of choice and responsibility. Both, in fact, are beliefs that a person's choices should reflect the fact that group needs trump individual needs. Your grandma would like to pretend the world is without variation in sexual orientation, and thinks it's your duty to set your needs aside to make that happen.

And she rubbed off on you a bit, as will happen in families. You feel that responsibility, and feel bad that your choices didn't reflect it.

But if you think a little harder about your decision, you'll see that your choice reflects a reasonable calculation, one that I think society is making now as a whole: The benefit to her peace of mind in your staying closeted is minuscule compared with the harm to your peace of mind in staying closeted.

In the average day, unless she's in a homosexual relationship herself, she doesn't have to think even once about what gay couples are doing with their lives. In the average day, if you weren't allowed to share an honest life with the person you love, you'd think almost of nothing else.

So there's only one reasonable solution: You marry, and she deals with it. I;m sorry the latter involves a cardiac event, but her heart and mind are far more responsible for that than yours are.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn, my sister has basically transformed into a different person since marrying into this kind of New York semi-socialite family. Our background does not at all match these people's and I think she works hard to conceal where she comes from, which means cutting ties with me and our dad. What's worse is I see signs her marriage will not last, and I don't want to resent her if/when she shows up looking for support. Any suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: She doesn't like herself, she's trying to outrun who she is, and there is, by your estimation, a strong chance she is going to fail publicly and painfully in this effort.

I know it's asking a lot, but at least know intellectually that this is not personal. It's not an indictment or rejection of you; it's the behavior of someone you love who's in pain. Know that, and you'll be in the perfect position to help her collect herself and, I hope, help her make some peace with you and your dad.

Now, whether she takes you up on that offer will be up to her. Should her marriage implode, she might be ready to do some hard work on learning to like and accept herself. She might also wash up just long enough to regroup before launching a search for the next person who offers her a chance to become someone else.

Either way, though, what she does is still not about you.

The part that's about you is how you react to her social climbing. Whether you're insulted by it, amused, bemused, jealous, indifferent, worried--the important thing is that you recognize how you're feeling and be true to it when you deal with her.

It's when you feel one way and purport to be another--e.g., feel jealous, but purport to be concerned about her well-being, or feel insulted but pretend to be indifferent--that you'll make the biggest mistakes in your relationship with her.

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Carolyn Hax: Back in 2 min.--need to address tummy rumblage.

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Carolyn Hax: Okay I'm back. Grapes to the rescue.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: I have a friend who I'm interested in dating. I don't want to ruin the friendship, but I think we'd do well as a couple. I've kind of been testing the waters by being flirtatious with her some, having more meaningful conversations with her, etc. If she always reciprocated or always didn't, I'd be totally clear on how to proceed. Unfortunately, it seems like half the time she's definitely into it and the other half she couldn't care less. What the heck does this mean?? Should I pursue further? Drop it like a hot potato before I embarrass myself or ruin our friendship? Ask our other friends if she's said anything that could shed some light?

Carolyn Hax: No no no, don't ask friends. Too middle school. Keep "testing the waters," but don't think of it as that.

Instead, think of it as getting to know her better, and letting her get to know you better, while you figure out whether there's anything to the idea of the two of you.

Even if she were receptive to dating you right away, you'd still--as an emergent couple--be figuring each other out. You'd still also be on a path that could lead to your being a committed couple, or to your breaking up and wanting nothing to do with each other, or to your saying "nah" to the couple thing but remaining friends.

Now, you're on that exact same uncharted path, you're just on it as friends. A little suspense isn't the worst thing.

When it starts to feel like bad suspense, more-stress-than-it's-worth suspense, then you can move things along, either just by asking her out and facing the consequences, or asking yourself whether you haven't gotten your answer already.

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Social-Climbing Sister Question: What exactly is social-climbing? I think I get the idea of this concept (it's always negative) but how is it different than trying new things with different people? People don't seem to mind when people achieve material success through hard work...so how is social climbing different than moving up the economic ladder? I guess I'm just asking for clarification between the differences.

Carolyn Hax: Social climbing involves choosing people for the status they convey instead of the company they provide. The details can vary, but that's the nut.

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Dallas: Hi Carolyn,

My roommate has been dating a guy since January and plans to get married to him in December. It has only been a few months since they met and they are already engaged! They are still in the stage where they are all over each other and can't get enough of each other.

My friends and I are concerned the two of them are moving way too fast. He is a really nice guy from what I've seen, also he isn't an American citizen but she told me that he will get citizenship in a couple years (an event unrelated to them getting married).

I have voiced my concerns lightheartedly as I don't want to attack her, but she just laughs and brushes my comments off.

I am worried that they will get married before the 'honeymoon' phase wears off and once it does, they will wish they hadn't rushed. I have been with my boyfriend for two years and really enjoy our time together before we make a lifelong commitment and settle down. If we get engaged I would want to enjoy that too.

What should I do (if anything)? Is this not my business? We have been friends for 15 years.

Carolyn Hax: This is so not your business.

As a friend of 15 years, you can say, "I'm your friend and I love you and so I'll only ask this once: What's the big hurry?" If she answers in any way that isn't defensive, then say, "Okay, I'll be supportive and shut up." Then you drop it.

If she is defensive, be on the lookout for other bad signs. Don't say anything unless you witness something firsthand and you're confident what it means.

Nobody ever wants to see a friend suffer. But unless you and your friends have some other sign of danger besides the big hurry she and her fiance are in, you're all crossing the line onto her turf. It's not up to you to help her find love everlasting, nor is it up to you even to prevent emotional bumps and bruises.

There's a difference between waking up and thinking, "I wish I hadn't rushed," and thinking, "I wish my friends had told me my boyfriend scared them." The latter would be your business; the former is just growing up.

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Green Monster: Care to settle a disagreement between my friend and me? Do you think jealousy is always a sign of immaturity, or do you think it's something everyone experiences from time to time, and that the test of maturity is whether you can be happy for someone else in spite of it?

Carolyn Hax: I'm going with the latter, but I could be influenced by the more thoughtful writing that went into the second position.

Now that I think about it, though, both sides have absolutes that I don't like. If you say it's "always" a sign of immaturity, that's hard to defend, and if it's something "everyone" experiences, then that's asking too much, too.

So, I think a person can be mature and still feel the occasional jealous twinge, and show that maturity by being happy for someone in spite of the twinge. Hell, jealousy can be the way a mature person spots an aspect of his or her life that needs attention. Even a state of contentment needs occasional maintenance.

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Chantilly, Va.: So the boyfriend isn't an American citizen? And they're rushing frantically toward marriage? I've got alarm bells going off. He may very well be a nice guy, but not citizen + marrying citizen can = a nasty plan to get citizenship.

Carolyn Hax: Obviously that's the concern, but the twitterpated friend offered information on the man's citizenship status--meaning, she too is aware of the potential for a nasty plan to get scitizenship.

Now, maybe this guy has lied to her in response to her concerns. But is it really her friends' place to butt in based on that possibility alone? If she were oblivious to the possibility, then, fine, they could say something. But she knows, she asked him, she is satisfied with his answer. Unless the friends have grounds to challenge that satisfaction, they have to let her form her own opinions.

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Boulder, Colo.: Carolyn, I can understand the woman not wanting people to know where she came from. Where we live now there are people with a lot of money and I feel kind of inferior to them. They can afford a lot of stuff I can't and just have better lives. Weekends we have to do work around the house and errands and they have housekeepers and so can just have more fun.

Carolyn Hax: Your circumstances are inferior, in the narrowly defined terms of chores, but -you- aren't inferior. Quality of life is independent of quality of character; just ask anyone in the service profession who has ever been treated like dirt by someone who feels entitled.

I'm sorry people are enjoying more leisure time than you are and doing so in your line of sight, but the first part of that is inevitable--there will always be someone richer, better equipped, having more fun, whatever. But we all usually manage that just fine if we're listening to great music while we do dishes, vs. watching a present-day equivalent to "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." It's having to watch other people live better that makes us feel like shmucks.

All I can suggest is that you stop gazing out your windows (literally and/or figuratively speaking) and concentrate on making the material of your daily life into something that fulfills you--and if that's not possible, reaching out for things accessible to you to round it out.

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No box gifts: What does this mean?

Carolyn Hax: Not entirely sure, but I suspect it means, "Cash and gift cards, please." I do hope, though, someone brings candlesticks taken out of their box and then wrapped that way, all lumps and tape.

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Texas Too: There are so many illegal immigrants (male and female) here that pull this trickery. I've had it happen to friends and family. Everything is always great until they get married. Then the person can do what any con artist would do, clean out bank accounts, ruin credit, ruin lives. I do believe a good friend would point these out in as non-offensive way as possible. Everyone wants to be loved but it's not worth the price of being used.

Carolyn Hax: I agree completely with your last sentence. But there's no causal connection, really: If other people's concerns were effective at preventing someone from getting used this way, wouldn't there be fewer successful con jobs? Sure, a concerned friend can and should say something--be it your "con-artists can be very charming"-type warning, or my "What's your hurry?" warning. But someone who doesn't want to hear it isn't going to listen.

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Carolyn Hax: Tried to find a short one to end on, but no luck. That's it for today. Thanks!

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I do believe a good friend would point these out in as non-offensive way as possible.: Trust me, someone already has. Probably several someones.

Carolyn Hax: Wait! A couple of other late thoughts coming ...

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Washington, D.C.: Is there time to weigh in about immigrants marrying US citizens? Hope so. I was engaged to a non-citizen. We were together for over four years and loved each other very much. What ruined it? Having people constantly question our relationship because of our differing citizenship status. It got to be too much, and we broke up. As he said when we ended our relationship, "No one will ever believe I would marry you just for you."

So shut up. Questioning people's citizenship motives is just cruel.

Carolyn Hax: Sigh. Thanks. And:

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Texas Three: Texas Too: There are so many illegal immigrants (male and female) here that pull this trickery.

Uh, there are a lot of LEGAL immigrants -- and CITIZENS -- who pull that trickery too.

Carolyn Hax: Well, the bank-account-cleanout trickery, not the citizenship one. But, point taken.

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Montreal: Hey weren't you going to post the link to the 'classic abuser' profile from several chats ago? I could use that, or a date so I could look it up....

Carolyn Hax: Gah, you're right. Sorry. Will have a quick look ...

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Caps T-shirt?: Does this mean you are no longer a Red Sox fan? Or do you root for both until the day they meet in the World Series?

Carolyn Hax: I have a lot of room in my heart. It got tough when the Giants and Patriots met in the Super Bowl, but otherwise this kind of poly- is jolly.

I have to say, though, that the Caps have been the most fun.

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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.

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

Past Carolyn Hax Live Discussions

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