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Carolyn Hax Live: 'Raging' feminist?; Nanny vs. wife; Graduate School of Torture; Reason vs. excuse; Goodbye zForum, and more

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Friday, Feb. 18, 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 2009 and 2010 chats have been added to her archive. 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. One announcement and then we'll get going.

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washingtonpost.com: Amuse us, and you can win a signed print of a Nick cartoon, with your caption on it. Enter the Nick Galifianakis Cartoon Caption Contest in the Comic Riffs blog: Nick drew the cartoon, you write Cupid's laugh line. The contest ends tonight so think fast.

Carolyn Hax: All the entries are under the blog post as comments, so even if you don't enter, have a look and weigh in.

I have to say, after working on three of these a week for the better part of a decade, it's nice to see you guys try your hands at one.

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Washington D.C: My wife and our nanny argue every few weeks. Our nanny has been great: she's been with us for nearly 2 and a half years. And my wife, to be honest, can be unreasonable at times. They asked me for my opinion last time (a disagreement of whether my wife overruling the Nanny's decision is healthy for our son, since he now goes straight to the "appeal" process). I agreed with my Nanny and my wife was furious. Should I stand up for my wife is a disagreement if I think she's not right?

Carolyn Hax: No, it sounds as if you did the right thing. But now you definitely need to follow that up with an in-depth conversation with your wife about where you both stand on the general philosophies at work here. They include, by my count, philosophies on childrearing, on supporting your spouse, on being true to your principles, on standing up for an employee who is being treated unfairly ... and I'm sure there are others but that's what I have off the top of my head.

You'll want to save this conversation for when neither of you is freshly upset about an incident--but even then, given what you and the circumstances are saying about your wife, there's a good chance it will turn into a fight anyway. If it does, then it's time to consider enlisting a reputable and skilled marriage counselor to help you resolve your differences. A good workshop, either on parenting or marriage, could help, too, if it's a good one (check www.smartmarriages.com).

That's because, while it's easy for me to respond to your specific question with, "Yes, back the person you believe is right," that answer isn't going to cut it for a recurring problem. You say your son is already skilled at reading the atmosphere of conflict, and that's ultimately going to hurt him long-term, even if the dynamic is consistently one of well-meaning Parent 1/Nanny in the right, vs. well-meaning Parent 2 in the wrong. That's a case where being right becomes a secondary consideration to being collaborative (that is, assuming the points of disagreement aren't of life-changing significance, since few of them ultimately are).

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Carolyn Hax: Clarification: All caption entries go under the cartoon on the blog page. If you submit them here, they won't be entered. Thanks.

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?????: Do you mean that the twerpy cartoonist does not write the captions?

Carolyn Hax: Nick and I write them together, after he edits my column.

?????: twerpy cartoonist?

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From the Peanut Gallery: As a comment poster and avid reader of your daily columns, I wonder if you read them and your reaction to them.

But more than that, I wonder if the LW reads the comments. Some are quite funny but some are really hateful and ugly. We don't have all the background info that you have so there are a whole lot of assumptions made and discussion and dissing going on.

Egads, with the sometimes unruly nuts, I don't know if I would ever want to air my problems out in public. Do you receive feedback from the original LW on the comments?

Carolyn Hax: Occasionally, and, yes, they do find some of the comments very painful to read. Most go into this with their eyes open and realize they're subjecting themselves both to my signed opinion and a Web's worth of anonymous opinions. Many, too, have the presence of mind to say, "They don't know the whole story so this isn't really about me," when a harsh comment is based on an incorrect assumption--or even to take something painfully accurate to heart--but it's still jarring.

I don't think people in the comments section should hold back what they perceive to be constructive criticism, but I do think people should reread their posts and envision the LW reading them before hitting the button.

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Charlottesville, Virginia: Hi, Carolyn! I applied to an uber-competitive graduate school program (they only accept 25 people!) and received a call yesterday to tell me I've made the cut down to the last 35, but they need one more week to cut the final 10. I am completely obsessing over it and can't thing about anything else. It's my whole future and I'm so close but it could be so easily pulled away. How do I stay CALM these next six days and get out of my own head?!

Carolyn Hax: It's only six days, but I realize that means nothing to you now.

And, it's not your "whole future," it's merely one possible future. If you want to find people whose great futures were set in motion by the total collapse their dream futures, then I doubt you'll have to look far. This page is far enough, actually: I'm not just a proponent of the Post-Collapse Recovery Club, I'm also a client.

Finally: You've got six days of nervous energy at your disposal. Start cleaning our your junk drawer(s), closets, wardrobe, files, address books ...

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Nanny Wars: Has the husband considered that the wife might be having trouble with the nanny dynamic? As a working mom, I know it can be hard to accept that someone else is helping to raise my kid. Even if she's totally happy with her decision to be back at work, it can still be hard when someone's questioning how you want to do things with your child. Just food for thought when talking with her about these reoccurring arguments.

Carolyn Hax: Yes, that's another one for the list, thanks--the philosophy on maternal (or paternal) instincts and hired child care.

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Washington, dc: Is there ever a time when cutting a grandmother out of the picture is the right thing to do? If she has shown manipulation to the kids and parents, clear favoritism and poor safety measures ( but does not admit to any of it)?

Carolyn Hax: Of course there's a time when cutting someone out of the picture is the only reasonable thing to do. Just be sure you save it for when you're sure the person's presence poses a risk of real damage (vs. just being a nuisance), and for when you've tried all possible ways of preventing the damage while still having the person in your life.

With a manipulative relative, that might include shorter/infrequent visits; avoiding visits at emotionally charged times (holidays, anniversaries, B-days); hosting visits on your own or neutral territory only; sharing activities (going to a play) vs. conversing; combining visits with neutralizing third parties; etc.

It may seem ridiculous to go to such lengths to accommodate someone who is bringing nothing to your family but selfishness, cruelty or chaos, but I think there's a tendency to oversimplify villains. It's not uncommon for people to become manipulative as an almost feral response to very trying emotional circumstances in their pasts. Wherever possible, it's good to think of the grandmother (or other perpetrator) in terms of being a victim, and see whether that illuminates anything for you.

If it doesn't, or if there's just too much opportunity for her to scar the grandkids emoitionally, then complete detachment might be your only choice.

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Clarification please: A disagreement broke out yesterday in the comments section about your position of what the 2-year mark in a relationship means. Would you mind clarifying?

The meat of the disagreement is whether you believe that after 2 years, love dies due to repetition and monotony, or that resembles nothing like what you have ever said.

Carolyn Hax: Initial attraction butterflies rarely survive past the two-year mark of a couple's relationship.

Initial attraction butterflies are what often cover up an area of fundamental incompatibility. So, people swept up in the floaty in-love feeling often make the mistake of thinking it's true love when it's just adrenaline/pheromones, and then they find themselves married to/living with someone who isn't that scintillating to talk to, who doesn't help much, and who isn't even that great in bed any more.

So I advise people who feel passionately in love to hold off on any big decisions until they've been together a couple of years. That's when familiarity takes over and their relationship's natural, sustainable pace will become apparent.

Real love doesn't die at this point, it gets stronger--so that's actually a better, more accessible measure: If you hit the two-year mark and then spend the following year getting even closer, then that's a promising sign. If you spend that third year struggling and/or drifting apart, then that may be a sign not to build your future on this one.

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Chicago: What is the difference between a reason and an excuse?

Carolyn Hax: What you're hoping to accomplish by providing it, I guess. Reasons help the injured party feel better, and excuses help the perp feel better.

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Cutting Out the Grandmother: Carolyn, this is at least the second time recently that you've advocated for letting a "victim" behave inappropriately (the other was the woman who's mother had allowed her to be abused).

I suspect that everyone who mistreats others was once mistreated; I'm sure it's a big part of why they make the choices they do. I agree that compassion is important, but shouldn't we hold people responsible for their actions? I don't think those things are mutually exclusive.

My mother was abused as a child, and I sincerely grieve for what she experienced, and for her many losses. It seems tragic that we would add to those losses by saying that because she was a victim, she can't make better choices herself-- she can't find the courage and dignity to live a different sort of life. Excusing manipulation, dishonesty, and abuse because someone was a victim seems to communicate that they can't be better than that.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I don't advocate for "letting a 'victim' behave inappropriately." I advocate for making estrangement a last possible resort. In the answer you cite, I listed a bunch of adjustments a family can make. All of them are geared toward closing off opportunities for bad behavior, and encouraging good behavior.

I wish there were a direct channel to everyone's better angels, and that people would be moved to tap into their "courage and dignity" when someone simply stated to them that X is the rule of your household or Y will not be tolerated.

But the reality of it is that many bad behaviors are intractable, and there has to be a third option between re-raising an adult relative to become a better person and kicking them out of the family. It has nothing to do with "excusing manipulation, dishonesty, and abuse"; if that were the case, I'd just be advising people to feel sorry for these relatives and open their homes to them without reservation. That's not what I'm advising. I'm advising that some people are living the only way they understand, and if forthright attempts to elicit better behavior have failed, then estrangement isn't the next step. The next step is, essentially, containment: Honor the complexities of family ties, and try to make things work within certain, increasingly firm limits. Then the next step is estrangement.

In every one of those steps, there's accountability: If a relative lies, manipulates or abuses, then there are consequences attached to that, in a careful, thoughtful, logical sequence. At every point, said relative is given the chance to make better choices, exactly as you advocate.

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Manipulation: My ex is extremely manipulative. Words out of context come back to haunt me and he focuses on symantics of a discussion or an arguement instead of the main point. Now that I've kicked him out (for a host of other lovely traits as well), I noticed the manipulation has turned towards our daughter. We are trying to be amicable for her sake, and I do think she needs her father in her life, but I want to protect her. I just don't know how.

Carolyn Hax: Please bring in a good professional to guide you, someone to whom your daughter can also talk as she tries to grow up with each of you pulling her in a different direction.

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Re: Charlottesville: Is she applying to the Graduate School of Torture? What is the point of telling the top candidates that they're still in the running? It's not as if these 35 applicants have made a cut and are going in for an interview - there's nothing productive they can do about it.

Carolyn Hax: Do they have T-shirts?

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Reason vs. excuse: An interesting dichotomy, but what do you do when your spouse asks for your reason, and then when it doesn't comport to her world view, or her method of doing something, dismisses your "reason" as a "excuse?" It may sound petty, but it gets tiring to be asked "why did you do that" or "Why do you think that" and answer honestly, only to be dismissed no matter what you say.

Carolyn Hax: It's not petty, and I think you have to say exactly how you feel when this happens. Keep your cool and say, "I feel very angry/frustrated/diminished when you ask me for a reason and then dismiss it as an excuse. This is what I think, and ask that you treat my opinions with the same respect that you treat your own--even when you disagree with them, which you're entitled to do."

This might be one for ongoing counsel (this is shaping up to be therapy/workshop day), especially if yo make no headway in asking for respect, but I do think that if you're honest about your feelings, patient in talking about them and ---calm--- in your demeanor, you have a good chance of making some progress without professional input. Your exasperation is showing and her dukes are high, so the primary task for you now is to keep from emotionally checking out. This disengagement is the phenomenon well tracked by the Gottmans: www.gottman.com

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Seattle WA: One more re: manipulation: My mother is unbelievably emotionally manipulative, but unless there's some deep family secret, she's never had any kind of "abuse" or victimhood.... she's unbelievably conservatively religious, been a stay at home mom/wife for decades now.... and everything is a "test" of my love and loyalty, like I have to prove my love & respect for her over and over and over. So if being a victim or abused is not the reason for the manipulation, what are other reasons?

Carolyn Hax: She could just be profoundly insecure.

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DC: Great question on reason versus excuse. What if there is no clear injured/perp - meaning how can you tell if someone is just incredibly sensitive? For example, one person finds something offensive (mildy, nothing crazy here) that no one else does. I try to initiate a conversation why (so I can not be offense again), but I'm accused of giving an excuse. Am I just supposed to apologize everytime s/he is offended?

Carolyn Hax: No. Just say, in response to the perceived offense, "X is certainly not what I intended; I meant Y. I can see why you would find X offensive." That way, you validate the feelings in response to X while not apologizing for them, since you never intended anything but Y.

Now, if you meant Y but were somehow sloppy and/or left room for people to interpret Y, then apologizing is a good faith gesture.

It can be hard to know where that line is with people who regularly take offense at what you think are small things, so often the best thing to do is decide how close you want to be to the person, and work from there. If it's someone you value a lot--or if there's a greater good to be served by keeping things steady, like keeping things peaceful at work--then you apologize sincerely for the greater good. If it's someone whose presence in your life is optional and it's looking like this relationship isn't a great idea after all, then it would make more sense to hold your ground and see what happens.

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New York, NY: What's your opinion on women who grossly out-earn their partners? I'm a raging feminist yet have difficulty with the fact that I make much more than my boyfriend. He doesn't have a college degree, so his lifetime salary ceiling is capped. If we ever buy a home together, I'll have to pay more -- but he can fix almost anything around the house. Then I shudder to think "he's earning his keep." How do people avoid resentment? If I made $250k, I'd care less, but I don't want to face a lifetime of struggling with bills and never feeling financially secure (especially once we have kids) while dealing with the fact that he can't contribute equally. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: If you were grossly out-earned by a boyfriend, would you lose sleep over not being able to "contribute equally"?

I'm not sure the lenses through which you're viewing this situation are doing you any good. Making it a male-female issue is a loser, because it's so not fair; you can't go out and demand/expect/capitalize on equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work and then be dismayed at out-earning a man. The inevitable consequence of a system where it's every worker for him- or herself--without bias--is that roughly half of the women in hetero couples will have to get used to the idea of making more than their sweetumses.

If you get rid of the he-she lens and go with equality of contribution, then you're still boxing yourself in awfully tightly. Not only does the need for roughly equal income needlessly (and arbitrarily) limit your potential-mate pool, but it also ignores a big, salient fact of life: Careers soar and stall, or change, or get shelved entirely. The person who makes the same amount you do could kick your butt in 10 years after a series of promotions--or be a house spouse while trying to re-enter work after a layoff. Your guy with the low "lifetime salary ceiling" could hit gold on a great idea, great opportunity, hard work, or a later-in-life college degree. Are you going to revisit your marital calculations and make necessary adjustments every five years or so?

Look at this man for who he is, and decide whether you're ready to go through life with him, come what may, knowing there will be bad times--not because he doesn't earn "enough," but because there are always bad times. If he's a good guy to know in bad times, then that will prove to be priceless, no matter what each of you earns.

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re: apology for offending: I angered a friend by saying that a certain Yankee player "sucked," which she likened to using an ethnic or racial slur. I thought (and still do) that was completely insane and wasn't going to rescind my comment, however I did apologize for saying something that offended her, which was true. I think she felt better that I heard her and I felt better that I stood my ground while still being considerate.

Go Sox.

Carolyn Hax: Happy spring training!

I see what you're saying, but it's perilously close to the "mistakes were made" school of apologies, where "I'm sorry if I offended anyone" is a popular choice. So it has to be a genuine "I'm sorry -that- I offended you."

And: Equating "sucked" to an ethic or racial slur is completely insane.

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re: next six days: During a similar suspenseful time in my life I went on long, long, long walks. I walked for hours to and through all sorts of neighborhoods. Bonus points if you can leave your phone at home.

The exercise helped me sleep & dilute the nervous energy; the time & privacy allowed me to consider a multitude of thoughts, feelings and outcomes. The different neighborhoods gave me glimpses into the lives of others, often helpful in refining perspectives.

Plan something special for the 7th day, regardless of what the outcome will be.

Carolyn Hax: For those who have the time, walking is a powerful ally when your brain needs to sort some things out.

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He-She $$$: "...but I don't want to face a lifetime of struggling with bills and never feeling financially secure (especially once we have kids)..."

Then don't choose a house/cars/lifestyle which costs more than what the two of you make, with breathing room and savings, right?? I don't even understand that statement, it's a life they haven't even started to live, and it's already too expensive? We should each already feel financially secure supporting just ourselves, much less once we share with a partner.

Carolyn Hax: Can't argue with that, thanks.

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For New York Feminist: My sister married a man who wanted nothing more in the world than to be a police officer. She knew they'd always struggle, but loved him and knew he was a good man, so they married and did okay.

A few years later, a traffic incident (not his fault) led to a forced retirement and unemployment. He decided to study up on financial counseling.

He now makes a six-figure salary with yearly trips to the Caribbean. Go fig. Money comes and goes, try not to get too hooked on "this will always be this way".

Carolyn Hax: Except when it comes to character. Then it's very wise to accept what you see as what you get. Fanks.

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re: Seattle WA: Seattle's mother could be my MIL, save the religious bit. Very sensitive to The Way Things Should Be and often plays the role of victim to get her way; holidays and birthdays are often explosive if they don't follow the exact order she deems. We believe this comes from her deep- seated resentment towards her parents for showing favoritism towards her older sister (which, in fairness, they absolutely did). She refuses to have a relationship with her sister, although she's tried to reconnect many times. She seems quite comfortable in the role of Disadvantaged.

Just another possibility for Seattle and others to consider.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. So many tributaries can supply this particular river. Personality has a lot to do with it, too, in addition to subtle environmental factors. For example, sometimes a kid with two loving parents but a significant amount of instability--money problems, parents' marital problems, frequent relocation, etc.--during the formative years can have a higher need for (the sense of) control than others.

An explanation like that doesn't always jump out of a person's history. And, of course, not everyone responds to that history by becoming controlling--another argument for taking an individual approach each time.

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Washington DC: Hi Carolyn, I'm currently in a online conversation with a good friend about her boyfriend. Basically, her complaining, me listening. I don't mind being a sounding board, I really don't...but she's being completely unreasonable and for a lack of a better description...a "dramatic girl" about the whole thing. What should I do, short of making up a lie about a meeting and logging off??

Carolyn Hax: Why aren;t you telling her the truth? Not in a mean way, but in a loving way, with the intent of helping her find happiness--since that process has to include identifying ways she's contributing to her own unhappiness.

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Success: My gosh can we please broaden our definition of success? A fancy grad school degree only available to 25 "chosen ones" will not make or break your entire life. Earning more than your boyfriend does not diminish his worth as a human being! Carolyn, you needed to take the keyboard to the heads of these two!!

Carolyn Hax: That would be assault. If I took the keyboard to my head -for- these two, then I'd be doing my job.

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Anywhere, USA: How about if someone said you said something offensive but that it was sooooooo bad they couldn't even repeat it? And then continued to beat you over the head about what a bad person you were every time you tried to figured out what on earth it was? Are you expected to apologize for ofending them when they refuse to explain theoffense?

Carolyn Hax: I did a column in this in January I think ... yes, here it is, Jan. 19: http://wapo.st/hfbNaC

This someone is being completely ridiculous, and you don't owe any apology unless and until the offending comment is brought to your attention. You can say you're horrified at the idea that you said something too bad to repeat, and you hope this person will give you a chance to make things right by letting you know exactly what you did wrong. If that fails, then wash your hands of it.

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in Pieces: Really need some help in joining the Post Collapse Club. Heartbreak 7 months ago, still not recovered even though in a much better relationship. Not feeling depressed, feeling crumbled. How to put back together again?

Carolyn Hax: Identify your strengths, and build on them. Identify your weaknesses, and work on them. Identify things about you that don't seem to change, and accept them. Identify people or situations that bring out the best in you, and invest in them. Broken down in to small, everyday steps, it's within everyone's reach.

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DC: And: Equating "sucked" to an ethic or racial slur is completely insane.

Some people (especially those of a certain age) find this term ("sucked") repugnant. Why is that "completely insane"??

Carolyn Hax: Apples and oranges. Finding it repugnant is a matter of taste. Equating it to an attack on the merits of a specific population is a matter of ideas, and it's an idea that doesn't fly. In my opinion.

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To Job or Not to Job: My youngest child will begin kindergarten in the Fall. We live in the DC area where an extra income (mine) would make life a bit easier on our bank accounts. We live modestly but I think both my spouse and I would be happier with a bit more spending money. I keep waffling because I am loathe to send my children into a daycare situation for spending money. I remember carefree summers and spring vacations and wonder if just waiting it out until they can care for themselves is the better option. I also can't discount the fact that I really, really want to get back into the world of adults. My spouse is fine either way given the choice to have children was both of ours and it made more sense for me to stay home (lower earning potential). How do I sort out my wants from needs keeping in mind the kids are the most important part of this equation. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Well, different answers can certainly fit the description of being "good for the kids." Having parents available, having parents be happy, having parents who aren't stressed over money--these can all be employed as arguments for one choice or the other.

I think, instead of wrestling with the Big Question, the approach that makes sense for your situation would be to wrestle with the Small Details. You want to be off summers and vacations, and home in the afternoons? That points right at a job in a school system.

I realize it's not that easy, since you actually have to get and do such a job, when maybe there are no openings or you aren't remotely qualified for that. But, they're big, varied places, and it isn't all about teaching. Schools also have administrators and lawyers and therapists and engineers and whatever else. With everything from preschools to grad schools, you've got more options just i the age array.

And since you're in a position to take your time getting back to work, you could also spend the next year or two training for a career that allows you to work in schools, or just enter a field where you could stay on your kids' schedule--one that offers flex hours or part-time/job sharing, or contract work where you're your own boss and work only on projects that allow you family time.

Like I said, think small, first. What job will let you work only in the hours you'd like to work? And get creative from there.

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For in Pieces: How can you be in "a much better relationship" if you still haven't "recovered" from the previous heartbreak 7 months ago? Not saying the current relationship is bad, just sounds like you have some individual healing to do.

Carolyn Hax: Yes, was thinking the same thing, but the answer went in a different direction and I forgot. Thanks for the catch.

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Wash, DC again: I guess I'm not telling her the truth b/c I tried the 'loving' way and she's not getting it.So the only other way is more blunt, and I don't want to hurt her feelings. To be more specific, her boyfriend was supposed to come with her this weekend to meet her parents for the first time. He had a family issue come up and can't go. She's furious.I tried to say "oh well, your family isn't going anywhere, he will meet them next time" and her response is "I'm not going home anytime soon. Its always SOMETHING with him." I guess I'm lost b/c I don't know what "always something" is and if it IS "always something" then they should just break up? Maybe i'm just being cranky b/c its 2:30 on Friday afternoon and I'd rather be outside somewhere having a beer...

Carolyn Hax: Well, then 1. maybe you need to meet her for a beer at 5, and 2. maybe you need to be talking about this in actual conversation form, instead of typing? I can see why you're drawing your conclusion, but maybe he does find ways to get out of things he says he's going to to, and maybe she's legitimately fed up, and maybe she is talking about it because she's trying to decide if it's breakup time and she wants to talk about it with a friend first?

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Carolyn Hax: I may have posted that too quickly--UPS dude was at the door. Anyway, it sounds as if you're bumping into the limitations on e-conversation, and you might actually help her work this out in her mind if you have a more fluid, spoken back-and-forth about it. Your crankiness might even be an asset, since you might be inclined to challenge something she says where on another day you'd just say, "Gee, yeah, that's awful." As long as you challenge nicely, a la: "Wait a minute--is it really fair to lump his having to cancel your date two weeks ago because of a headache with canceling this weekend because his mom is sick?"

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F@&#adoodledoo!: Now don't we all feel better?

Carolyn Hax: On that note:

Bye, thanks, and type to you here next week ... OH and I almost forgot. Next week we go to the new format. So it's the end of the long buh-bye to old forum, too.

Carolyn Hax: Oh, and don't forget the toon-test ...

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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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