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Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Thursday, July 8, 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 (who hasn't melted). Bad news is, I don't have air conditioning. Good news is, I'm in coastal Rhode Island, so my bad news is about 10-15 degrees less bad than it could be.

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Carolyn Hax: Oh, and thank you for rolling with yet another time change. I think this is the last of the odd scheduling, at least for a while.

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Georgetown: At my age (25), and as a straight female, what do you think is the ideal age of man for me to date? More specifically, how old is too old? Please speak in generalizations if possible, because they seem to ring true for the men in my city.

Carolyn Hax: There's no answer to this question. There are only individuals, the unique circumstances they combine to create, and the case-by-case answers to the questions they raise.

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No questions, please!: Dear Carolyn,

My live-in boyfriend of eight years feels that I ask him too many questions. He recently requested that I no longer ask him any questions but instead rephrase everything into a statement expressing what I want. For example, instead of "When would you like to meet for lunch?" I should say something like "I would like to know when you would like to meet for lunch." This is frankly exhausting, and sounds strange to me. But I can't really come up with a good reason not to comply, and he argues that it would really be much less frustrating for him. Should I suck it up and deal with this? An outside opinion would be helpful.

Carolyn Hax: This outsider thinks your LIB is being petty and ridiculous, with a foot in the door of controlling, but you haven't given me much to go on.

I have some broad questions: Why the eight years of living together? Is this a permanent arrangement that suits you both, or is one of you waiting for something to happen?

... And some narrower ones: Is this typical for the two of you, either to micromanage each other like this, or for one of you to micromanage the other? How do you get along in general?

And, when you heard this request of his, did the idea of saying, "Yah, right"--lightly, not angrily--even cross your mind? And if it did, what stopped you from responding that way?

And finally, how old are you both?

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Carolyn Hax: Yes, I did enjoy responding to that question with a barrage of questions.

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Parents' surname game will be a head-scratcher: I have a question about this column - I am in a similar situation except my boyfriend and I are not married and we are not planning on getting married anytime soon. (we are domestic partners and in a committed, loving, 5+ year relationship) and we are expecting our 1st child. Our name compromise was Smith Jones for a girl and Jones Smith for a boy - like the column. I am always amazed at even in these modern times of independent women how it is still expected that even if I do not change my name, that I am expected to bow to tradition for my childs. I am sure of men had to so the 9 months and labor, they would not be putting their wifes name on the kid.

Carolyn Hax: I don't think it's necessarily "expected" that children will get the husband's name. I just think that couples would be doing their kids a favor if they just settled on a name and were done with it. I also think that not bringing a gender-based shoulder chip into the discussion is also a favor couples can do for their kids, not to mention for each other. Resisting paternalism, I get, but resisting one's husband for being male? Seems to me each couple should come to it with a willingness to hear out the other parent-to-be.

I got a pile of responses to that column, and while there were a couple of, er, creatively named kids who stepped forward to say they either liked their parents' compromise or weren't bothered by it, there was a clear trend in the other direction.

In general, people who defended creative naming were the ones who had used it on their kids. The people who wrote in to condemn it were the kids whose parents had not given all their kids the same last name, and spent an unwelcome amount of time explaining themselves; the people who were faced with negotiating funky name schemes (school administrators, for e.g.); people who had funky name schemes not by choice so much as by circumstance (divorce, remarriage, steps); and people who ran across complications due to naming schemes that seemed like a good idea at the time (incidents cited involved doctor's records, insurance, school authorizations, etc.--lots of extra documentation requested).

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Carolyn Hax: There were also some who wrote in to say that people aren't obligated to make choices just to make things easier on other people. That strikes me as one of those credos that looks fine from a few steps back, but that gets uglier the closer you look. (Now I'm thinking of Cher in "Clueless," describing someone as "a Monet.")

Okay, yes, we do have to follow our conscience on things, and do what we feel right. But that doesn't supersede simple consideration, does it? Fine, buck societal pressure and choose the family name that reflects your values. But please don't take that so far that you leave people scratching their heads about who belongs to whom and how everyone should be addressed.

Final note: This has nothing to do with one half of a couple keeping a birth name. Adults can call themselves what they please. It's the assigning of names to kids that I'm talking about.

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Carolyn Hax: Okay, this is "finally" for real: I like the Spanish naming custom. Everyone in a nuclear family goes together, everyone is represented and nobody changes names at marriage. Ahh.

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From Gene's chat: Someone said they liked the idea of giving the kid Dad's last name to connect Dad to the kid. I like that. I know some men have a hard time feeling involved, and bonding, because Mom carries the baby, gives birth, and is (sorry) usually Prime Parent at least in the beginning. Even if Mom keeps her name, I like the idea of giving the baby Dad's last name to connect the two of them.

Really, it all boils down to this: Mom has had her name, and Dad has had his name, for a long time. They're adults and can do what they want with their own name: change it, not, whatever. But when you have a baby, it's a new person getting a brand-new name, and imposing the parents' years-long hangups on the name is silly.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I got a comment similar to this from a woman whose husband put it to her that way. She made a pitch for her last name, and he pointed out that she was giving the baby life, which is really the most awesome thing going. What he could give was the name. She was moved by that.

Not everyone's going to be, and not everyone should be. I will defend to the last each couple's right to work out the name issue their way. Obviously the you-gave-life point doesn't apply with adoption, just for example. All I ask is that people find a way to settle on one name. Otherwise you just end up looking like the North-going Zax married to the South-going Zax.

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Re: No questions, please!: "He recently requested that I no longer ask him any questions but instead rephrase everything into a statement expressing what I want."

What if she is asking him a question, but in reality, knows exactly what she wants or wants his answer to be? For example: "What time do you want to meet for lunch?" Him: "How about 1:00?" Her: "No, let's meet at noon." This can be anything, what restaurant to go to, what show to watch, where to vacation....I had a relationship like that, and it drives you nuts!

Carolyn Hax: Interesting take. Possibilities like this are why I asked for more info--it seemed like such a weenyish thing for him to ask that I wondered what the dynamic was, and if that could explain it.

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No questions again: Thanks for responding! In answer to your questions: We have only lived together for about 1.5 years. 1.5 years of dating and 5 years of long distance before (finishing up school). We are in our early 30s, with no plans for kids, so no rush on marriage and this is mutual. I think we would both be ok never getting married but haven't ruled it out. We do tend to get in a lot of fights over small stuff, which got worse after moving in. He is easily offended, and I tend to be dismissive and stubborn. I am trying to be less dismissive and a bit more accepting of other viewpoints, hence the lack of "Yah, right" as a response. (Wow we sound like such great people...) I think that's covered it. Hope it helps!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks so much for writing back.

I will have to disclose a bias against the easily offended. To my mind, when you're touchy, it puts other people in the position of having to do and say everything just to your liking, or else you punish them.

I don't think that's a defensible way of dealing with other people. If you happen to be a sensitive person (as in physically, you're more than typically reactive to light, sound, touch, smell), then it's legitimate to make that known to loved ones and to make it one of your nonnegotiable desires in a mate and close friends--that they not have bull-in-china-shop tendencies.

If instead your sensitivities are emotional, then I think it's incumbent upon you to work on it--to trace the origins of your high defenses and to work on lowering them a bit. Since any one of us can change only so much, I think that hard work needs to be paired with a self-awareness that you're going to ask a lot of the people who are close to you. In this case, it would mean your boyfriend says to you something to the effect of, "I realize I'm making a ridiculous request of you, but I'm hoping you will humor me anyway"--followed by the Jeopardy Edict (posing questions in the form of an answer).

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Carolyn Hax: Now that I've got that ridonkulous disclaimer out of the way, here's my advice:

From what you describe, you two seem to be in the same place in life and in agreement on where your relationship is going, which is a solid foundation. On top of that, though, you're building a weak structure, given the petty fighting, the non-solution solutions to that (i.e., his asking you to change the way you punctuate your sentences), and the lack of unity in your overall approach to your incompatibilities.

It seems to me, given these two pieces, your relationship might benefit greatly from some training in communication. Couples counseling is one way, and another is, essentially, marriage classes, though there's no need to be in or headed for a marriage to take them. Check out smartmarriages.com for a listing of classes. While I generally don't refer to specific programs, this one has been mentioned to me time and again as a useful resource by professional counselors who do not have a stake in the site.

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Too many ?s: As a guy I have had to tell my wife on occasion when there's way too many ?s. I don't know why the pipe burst, why the internet is slow sometimes or why my mother is so difficult with you. Simplifying it I think a lot of guys prefer a straight statement to a question expressing an opinion.

Carolyn Hax: Gahhhh. Point taken, but it's not guys, it's people. Please.

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A queston for "no questions": When I read that her partner wanted questions reworded into statements expressing what she wants, it made me wonder if he is perceiving her questions as a passive-aggressive way of telling him what to do, and would prefer she just come out and say what she means. I've caught myself doing this before, where asking "when would you like to go to lunch" or "have you taken the trash out" really means "we need to go to lunch now because I am hungry" or "you need to go take the trash out". I made it a point to not do this, and my husband and I communicate much better, with less frustration on both our parts. It is something to just be aware of and consider.

Carolyn Hax: Like this muchly, thanks.

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Questions?: I would understand him asking for her preferences, or to state what she wants, because some people just won't make a decision. I think he wants her to say something like "I would like to meet you for lunch at 1:15" instead of "When would you like to meet for lunch?"

Carolyn Hax: Nother good lead, thanks.

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Sleepless: I have a 16-month-old daughter who rarely sleeps through the night. I have discovered that neither my husband nor I have the stomach for "cry it out" methods. Usually leads to all three of us crying it out. Other than teething and the occasional cold/cough, there is nothing physically wrong with her. And during the day she is the happiest, most engaging thing ever. Am I dooming her for a life of failure if I continue to comfort her, or are the "experts" right that I must "sleep train" her now before she becomes a serial killer?

Carolyn Hax: Seems to me your bias is showing, that you think the cry-it-out proponents are fascists who would suck some joy out of your child just to serve their thesis on sleep.

If I've got that wrong, please do say so. I'm just reading "validate me" here, vs. "answer me."

I can validate the idea that if you are all happy with the situation, parents and child, then it's okay to treat experts (and/or "experts") with some skepticism.

But I can also say that at some point, be it over sleep or candy for breakfast or pierced ears or sleeping over her friends' house while friend's parents are away, you're going to need to have enough backbone to say "no" and mean i, no matter how hard your child cries. I've seen that don't-let-Baby-cry thing work out more or less okay for a couple of years, but then turn really ugly when the child gets old enough and aware enough to realize s/he's the boss, not Mom and Dad. Kids can't handle power like that, it messes them up.

I'm not saying you're there or even headed there--you haven't given me enough to draw that conclusion--but I hope you and your husband can be honest with yourselves if you are in fact so tear-averse that you're headed toward obeying your kid.

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First-time poster: Hey Carolyn, I'm a long time reader, but a first time poster. I was wondering if you could help me with what may seem like a superficial problem. I am in my early 20s and have been dating my current boyfriend for over two years now. It's not the most stable relationship, but we both really love each other. We are both considering going to law school in fall 2011. I wondering if you think we should take each other into consideration when choosing the location of our law school. I love him and want to be with him, but everyone is telling me that I shouldn't factor his location into my school search. What are your thoughts? We have dealt with long distance during the summer time for the past two years (new jersey and maryland), but never too far that we couldn't visit. Help??

Carolyn Hax: Why isn't it the most stable relationship? That is (almost) everything.

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What if she is asking him a question, but in reality, knows exactly what she wants or wants his answer to be?: If this is the case, his "solution" is the wrong one. It's not whether it's interrogative or declarative or imperative, it's whether she's concealing her wishes until he expresses an opinion. "Shall we meet for lunch at noon?" is a question but gives more information. "Do you want to go to McDonald's or TGI Friday's for dinner? I'd kind of like a Big Mac myself" etc.

Carolyn Hax: Exactly right.

Can't say if this is what's happening to the couple in question, but it is the type of thing that can happen when half of a couple is sensitive, and when the other half is set on a certain outcome. X wants what s/he wants, and so will try to make that happen--but Y is touchy, so X will couch things to avoid setting Y off. Result: Two people mincing around each other and driving each other crazy.

The solution her is always, always for both just to be clear about what they want and accept the consequences; whether the result is harmony, a fight, or a breakup, at least it will be reality-based. The way the intentions/preferences are phrased here is good, though I'd be even more direct in the second case. "I'm in a mood for a Big Mac--want to go to McD's for dinner?" Or, of not wedded to that idea: "I'm up for a burger--McD's sounds good, but I'm open to other ideas."

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No questions again, part 2: Thanks for the advice. We have talked about couples counseling. A couple of people have mentioned something interesting, that maybe I know what I want when I ask. I laughed a bit at this, because he actually does this to me, or used to. He'd ask what I want to do, I'd say X, he'd say something like have you thought about Y? Usually I'd be ok with doing Y. So I figured I'd cut to the chase and just ask him what he wants. But the result now is that I ask a lot of questions, which he finds both annoying and upsetting that I'm not asserting myself and just asking him to make all the decisions. This is a pretty enlightening chat from my point of view...

Carolyn Hax: So glad to hear it, thank you.

It does sound as if both of you need to trust each other, and yourselves, enough to just say what you want. As you're getting used to doing that, you can also make a point of specifying how strongly you feel about the choice.

That will help you with any trepidation over pushing your agenda on the other--which is a legitimate concern between any two people, since a power imbalance is the beginning of so many unhappy endings. However, you two seem to be tripping over yourselves trying to avoid saying what you want. You identified that avoidance in him, in his asking you what you wanted when he already had Y in mind--and instead of addressing that, you adopted his flawed tactic.

So, again--try saying what you want. If he wants something else, then presumably he will say so, and then you work from there. As long as both of you are receptive to each other's truth-telling, and don't punish each other with fights or freeze-outs, then truth-telling will become your standard mode of operating.

Like I said--once you speak your minds, you'll either find ways to agree, or your inability to agree will be out in the open, where you can deal with it directly.

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Husky dad, husky baby-to-be follow up?: Is Carolyn going to follow up with this today?

Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Yes, will get to it in a sec.

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Reposting on Carolyn's request: I submitted this to the last chat just as we were running out of time:

This is going to sound really awful, but with a baby girl on the way, I am worried about passing along my husband's physical genes. He is 6'8" and fairly husky, and his son and daughter from a previous r'ship are enormous for their ages. I was eager to have children, but as the day draws closer I worry I've done my daughter a disservice by sentencing her to a big, awkward life. Any advice on learning to feel less guilty about this?

Carolyn Hax: This is so hard, because what I'm going to advise is going to be difficult to achieve: This will be a real problem for your daughter mainly--and possibly only--if you continue to have this attitude that big, for women, is bad.

Anyone who is "different"--i.e., doesn't blend in with the pack--will feel some awkwardness at various points of childhood. The kid who's a head taller or a head shorter or has flaming red hair or is way skinnier or way rounder or whatever is going to feel conspicuous. There's no way around that. There's also no way around the fact that being conspicuous is, variably, an asset and a liability, and no one person has full control over which one it is. That's life.

It may help to think of it this way: Being way smarter is on that list of conspicuous traits that, at various points in childhood, is regarded as a liability. Do you ever find yourself hoping that this child-to-be will avoid the curse of getting the genes for big intelligence?

There is nothing more beautiful than a human being who carries unusual traits with confidence.

Parents have outsize influence on whether unusual traits are seen as gifts or curses.

If your child is born with unusual traits, please, please have the presence of mind to foresee their beauty. Watch the Williams sisters play tennis, or watch some WNBA games, or stand and salute the bodies on world-class female swimmers--I mean, wow. These are impressive riffs on the human form.

I haven't even gotten into fashion models, who are of heights that make them conspicuous well before middle school.

And your daughter hardly has to be an athlete or model to be beautiful. She just needs to like herself. That can start with -your- liking her. I don't want to punish you for being honest about your trepidation, but, please, take a hard look at that trepidation and start working on the anti-big bias that's driving it.

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Coasting: Is there anything wrong with a single, childless 50 year old whose only goals in life are to coast to retirement, having saved enough to make retirement comfortable and carefree? I keep reading about having a grand purpose in life, working in a field that you love, being creative, etc. and it just sounds like too much work to me. I like to have good, clean fun. I don't like to be responsible for other people. I give to charity, but I don't want to work in a soup kitchen or be hands-on with helping others. My job is not very fulfilling, sometimes boring, but it pays well enough, and I don't feel overwhelmed or like I can't produce what is required of me. I get along with the people at work, and I don't find myself dreading going to work.

Do I need to challenge myself? Do I need to set more goals? Is coasting such a bad thing?

Carolyn Hax: The only thing that suggests there's anything wrong with the way you're living is your asking me/us whether it's wrong. If you think what you've described is the perfect life, then, congratulations, you're living the perfect life.

If instead you have some nagging doubts, then heed them.

To answer the concept question--whether a grand purpose in life is necessary for having a good life: I'd say that we all benefit from variety in people's life purposes. People with small ambitions, quiet lives, or just a knack for fun bring needed balance to people with grand ambitions. Someone needs to tend the gardens and bake cookies with the kids. What matters, I think, is that you bring more to the world than you take away. That's a good life. The details are up to you.

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Downtown D.C.: My stepmother is in hospice. Her middle-aged son with a history of substance abuse is depent on her financially. She has enabled him all of his life. But she is not leaving him a penny, and not telling him in advance. Instead she is telling her other kids that they need to look after their brother. They won't because they see him for the toxic person he is. Meanwhile, my dad will be left alone to cope with this mess. The son, who has been violent to others in the past, intensely dislikes my dad. All of the rest of us live several states away. The son lives a mile or two away and my dad plans to continue to live in stepmom's house, which will infuriate son. How can I protect my dad?

Carolyn Hax: Is your dad frail, or not fully competent? If he's in good health and has made up his mind to handle the situation the way you describe, then there won't be much you can do--as scary as the situation may be. If you haven't talked to your dad bluntly about this, and about your worries, then I suggest you do. Do realize, though, as you're speaking that he's under great stress with his wife in hospice, and offer to handle any logistics for him, if that's what's keeping him from choosing another path--say, selling the house and moving closer to one of his kids.

You can also ask whether he has a good lawyer lined up to handle the estate. A buffer between your dad and his stepson seems like a basic precaution to take.

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Re: First-Time Poster: I know your question was addressed toward the relationship aspect of your law school search but I would strongly suggest considering the marketability of the school's degree as well. We are in an extremely tough time in the legal market and certain law schools just don't open the doors that others do. Confounding the problem is the fact that most students leave law school with near-crippling debt. I would very strongly advise you to weigh the financial costs and potential job opportunities in addition to proximity to your boyfriend.

Carolyn Hax: Seems wise, thanks--many others have sounded a similar alarm about entering the law profession right now.

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Anonymous: When my wife is upset about something - whether it is between us or about something else - she will explain it to me using the instance at hand, a few other factoids about things she's upset about, what she had for lunch yesterday, and three people marginally related to what upset her - or maybe they ARE what upset her(?). She's flustered, she talks for a long time, and I get confused. In order to be able to support her, I try to find out what, exactly, is upsetting her in the moment, and I try to do this by asking questions and rephrasing what she said back to her. I'm wrong probably half the time, which makes her even more upset, because she thinks I'm not listening. Do you have any thoughts for a better strategy on my end?

Carolyn Hax: Unfortunately, saying something back at people is considered a constructive way to show that you're actively listening, and to catch any misunderstandings early in the discussion. So if that's not working, then it might be that her own frustration from trying to express herself is to high for that approach.

Have you tried -not- attempting to zero in, and iinstead saying something more neutral--e.g., "I want to understand you, and I want to help. Is there something I can do to make things better, or do you just want to get it off your chest?"

It just seems to me that it's easier to put words to what we want than it is to describe what we're feeling; maybe the thing she wants from you will then help you decode the why. And, you run less risk of sounding as if you're trying to give her a specific solution to her problem. If she's just trying to express it all and wants nothing more than a listener, then your responses might be hitting her wrong (though, again, what you describe is actually considered a good listening strategy).

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Sleepless Again: Thanks for answering. I actually don't hate the "cry it out" folks at all, and kind of wish I was one of them. I'm just not. At least at night. We're not averse to saying no at all and do it with regularity even when it results in a roll on the floor tantrum. To me there's a difference between hearing her cry for the forbidden cookie and hearing her wail all by herself at night. I'm at a loss, and I think the angst over the "experts" in my first question comes from every book having that propaganda angle that their way is the only way. I don't know what I'm looking for, really. I'm exhausted and just wondering if we're on a path to years of sleepless nights or if she'll just figure it out eventually. I know you likely don't have the answer - I'm just feeling sort of lost about it.

Carolyn Hax: That's such a common feeling--when the advice doesn't seem right but acting on instinct isn't working, either.

It's great that you can say no in other contexts. That's huge.

Now I would suggest talking to your pediatrician about alternative schools of thought on sleep training. They're out there, it's not all Ferber--I think Dr. Sears is one source of alternatives, and Harvey Karp ... but it has been a while since I had to read up on this, mercifully.

If you've tried and your doc hasn't been helpful, hit the Web. There will be a lot of people who don't have any idea what they're talking about, so you need to have your skepticism set to High, but people do love to talk about the authority they swear by. Eventually you'll read a few descriptions that look a lot like what you're going through now, paired with philosophies that align with yours.

The argument for a program, by the way, is to help you make decisions and remain consistent when you're out of your mind with frustration and sleep deprivation. The question is, which program dovetails best with what you're already doing, and just tweaks it for the better.

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Surprise! It's a human!: I'm 5'10". My sister is 5'4". Same parents.

This goes beyond a parent's concern for just one possible outcome. There are so many others that are physical (without getting into deformities). She might be big, or have terrible acne, or her ears might be too low on her face. She could dance terribly, sing like a banshee, laugh like a hyena. Her teeth might come in looking like it was an enamel free-for-all, or she could be knock-kneed. She could have a unibrow all her life.

In other words, there are so many things about her that could be 'remarkable,' but don't get hung up remarking on them or assuming her life will be less (or more!) because of them.

Carolyn Hax: I'm dancing terribly and singing like a banshee in celebration of this post. Thanks!

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Beyond Frustrated: Carolyn. I am frustrated. My girlfriend keeps getting relationship "advice" from a coworker of hers, who just so happens to be a guy.

He's a good 10 years older than her (at least), which tells her two things: 1) he has more experience so his advice is worthwhile, and 2) he's not looking at her as a potential hook-up/girlfriend for himself.

It also tells ME two things: 1) he's a decade older and still single, so NOT a good source of relationship advice, and 2) he probably/definitely IS looking at her as a young hottie to get with.

Anyway, she always tells this guy about the issues or disagreements we're having and then reports back what he says, which pretty much always backs her side. She uses this as evidence that she is right. This creates a secondary argument about what place this guy's opinion has in OUR issues.

Girlfriend is convinced that I just refuse to accept this guy's perspective because he is a guy and he happens to agree with her. I am imagining this guy's evil master plan to become first her sympathetic confidant and then her boy toy.

This is a mess. How should I be handling this? Who's in the wrong?

Carolyn Hax: Both of you are wrong.

Your first mistake is in stereotyping this guy. He's single so his advice is worthless? Wow.

Your other, more germane mistake is in paying attention to who this guy is and attributing motives to him. What he may be trying to accomplish here is a red herring.

What you need to pay attention to, exclusively, is your girlfriend's point of view. Where she got it doesn't matter once she believes it, and once she believes it, you have to treat it with respect. If there's ever a grain (or more) of truth in what she says, then you have to acknowledge that, no matter how suspicious you are of the source. And if you think it's way off, then you have to talk about your disagreement on the merits alone.

The minute you make it about his ulterior motives, you've not only stopped listening to her, you've also essentially said she's a tool for not realizing this guy has ulterior motives. Not respecting her is good for one thing: a precursor to breaking up. Otherwise, showing her so little respect is just going to make you both miserable.

Now, her mistake: using a third party to make her arguments for her. Doesn't matter that he's male (or not), or whether he's right about your situation. What she's doing is no different from saying, "All my friends agree I didn't do anything wrong here." My forehead sees that and knows it's about to get whacked with a keyboard. She either grows up and owns her relationship and her decisions and her opinions, or she's too immature to hold up her end of an adult commitment.

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Carolyn Hax: Not to get you all fired up, but you're probably right that the guy is using the supportive-guy persona to position himself as your replacement. It's just too common a strategy.

It's also not your primary problem. That's because he wouldn't be a threat if things were working well between you and your girlfriend. He probably wouldn't even hold much appeal for your GF. He allows her to feel supported and understood, after all, and if she were getting that with you, he'd be a moot point.

So, force yourself past the territorial urges and give the primary problem your attention: You and your GF aren't getting along, aren't listening to each other, aren't supporting each other. Start by really listening to what she says. Then, see how you really feel about her take on things--specifically, see if there's anything to which you can openly express agreement, and do so. Then, be specific about where you disagree and how you feel, and see where it gets you.

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Enormous, big, and awkward: This is how this person described her two stepchildren. So I think some internal work on the large bias is probably a good place to start. How would they feel knowing how she perceived them?

Carolyn Hax: I know, ouch. The thing is, kids are all awkward at certain ages, even the ones of average height and smaller-than-average height. They also go from cute to eek-not-cute-anymore, which is a stage that isn't always easy on the eyes, to a more pleasing adult configuration. There's a reason we all want to burn our yearbooks from about 5th to 11th grades. Parental love is a lifeline through these years. Think of how awful you feel at a low point--any of us--and then think of how it feels when someone's face lights up from seeing you.

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From the Great White North Re: Spanish Naming Customs?: Hi!

Sorry, I don't know what they are. Could you please expand a little?

Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Google it--it's too long to spell out here, but it Solves the Problem.

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Washington DC: Oh my goodness, Carolyn, get off the chat and go to the beach! Sure wishing I was in Bristol RI right now...

Carolyn Hax: Well, I'm not on vacation, and I'm not in achingly beautiful Bristol (close enough, though--it is RI after all), but I think I'll leave anyway.

So ... bye, thanks all, and type to you again next Friday.

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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.

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