Dear Carolyn:

Mate and I have been together four years. Work's been rough on him lately. This morning I started one of our little affection rituals, and I noticed him hesitate. Asked him about it. He hesitated MORE, and finally said it "half-annoyed" him. I said, well, wished I'd known that four YEARS ago. I didn't say it with anger, and I didn't say anything else, but I admit I cried in the shower VERY QUIETLY when I knew he'd gone to the other bathroom. When I came out he said he didn't want me to stop doing it, that he's just twitchy right now.

My thinking is "half-annoyed" after four years is going to be REALLY annoyed in five, so I should stop. But then he said not to stop doing it. So I'm confused AND feeling like this person I thought could tell me anything is holding something back -- like, what other rituals of ours does he secretly dislike? Help? ("It" is not anything gross, just an exchange of silly nicknames.)

Virginia

You know how, when a beloved partner dies, the grieving survivor suddenly misses all those quirks once dismissed as obnoxious?

You just figured out why. Your mate could easily find your nickname for him annoying while also loving you hugely, completely, over the moon. And he could easily love that you have a goopy nickname ritual more than he hates the nickname itself.

Meaning, he could have held back his half-annoyance to protect the ritual for his own reasons, and not just to protect your feelings. That would explain his slipping under duress, and his regretting the slip.

Meaning, everything that matters could very well still be intact. So stop sniffling in the shower before you get all pruney, put this to rest and wait till there's more to worry about before you worry that it's more. If your problem is bigger than this incident, there will be other signs.

You might also want to put the ritual to rest, too, for now. If it's your only problem, you end it here.

Dear Carolyn:

If everyone else thinks your BF is great except for your own parents, what should you do? They have good intentions but also are known to be super-protective, with a "they are not good enough for you" mentality.

Any clue on how to differentiate between not-good-enough and actually-have-a-point? I'm an adult who can decide on my own, but sometimes it's tough to see things straight when it's your own relationship.

Maryland

And your own parents. Even the sanest adults can have a tough time decoding their folks.

But you've already pulled off the hardest part: You're willing to consider that your parents have a point. The real train wrecks need so badly to be right that they tune out all critics completely. Or, even sneakier -- they assume their critics are wrong because all their friends approve, when that could just mean their taste in friends is as screwy as their taste in mates.

Anyway. That's not you. And that's good.

Merely having an open mind won't guarantee you'll choose right, but everyone risks being wrong. All you can do is get your best information from your best sources, and give it your bestest shot.

Write to Tell Me About It, Sunday Source, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or tellme@washpost.com and join Carolyn's live discussion at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.