Married friends of mine worry me. He's narcissistic, controlling and explosively vents his frustrations on her with vicious remarks. She then gets upset, he apologizes, they make up--over and over. I've seen him strike one of his dogs with a rock, push another down a staircase, hurl a third off a chair. Privately, she admits his behavior is bad, but underscores his "good qualities." She is financially dependent on him. They've been in counseling for years and now talk of having a child. What's this couple's prognosis? Can I do anything?

--Matt, Chicago

He will keep hitting those poor dogs. He will keep berating and probably hit his wife. He will berate and probably hit the child. She will allow it all to happen because she's in denial--which is a whole lot easier than admitting there is something about her that draws her to a controlling man.

There's your prognosis.

People have free will, maddeningly enough, and so you can't change your friend's mind for her. But you can try. Here are five statements counselors use to approach victims of abuse:

1. I'm afraid for your safety.

2. I'm afraid for the safety of your future children.

3. It will only get worse.

4. I am here for you when you are ready to leave.

5. You don't deserve to be abused.

I'll add a sixth: Animal abuse, like verbal abuse, is a known precursor to domestic violence. If she doesn't believe that, have her call 800-799-SAFE and describe her lifestyle.

I'm not promising she'll bite. She probably has past emotional damage she's not ready to face that tells her she deserves to be belittled. All you can do is educate her, and care about her, and help her when she's ready.

Dogs, bless their uncomplicated hearts, aren't attracted to the people who mistreat them, so they won't resist your help. Kim Roberts at the Humane Society of the United States recommends these steps for reporting abuse (unless doing so puts you at risk): Gather all the facts--what the craven freak did, who else witnessed it, where, when (date and time), and which animal was hurt--then call your local police, humane society or animal control officer, depending on local procedures. Call the police non-emergency number to find out what those are. You can also get printed information from the Humane Society (888-213-0956).

Maybe watching authorities rescue her dogs will clue in your friend that there's something to be rescued from. A thin maybe, but, maybe.

Dear Carolyn:

I recently met a smart, nice and successful guy whom I am getting to know better. I am attracted to him and there seems to be a lot we have in common, but he is a terrible kisser. I feel like he is going to suck in my face when he kisses me. Is there any tactful way I can bring this up?

--Hoover Vacuumed in Richmond

"I'd rather not kiss your liver"? Just say, "Gently, please, like this." Unless he has a great sense of humor and a granite sense of self, keep Hoover between us.

Hi Carolyn!

I am happily married with two great kids. Life, for the most part, is pretty swell. But over the past few years, I've found myself straying from my religious upbringing and identifying with a more agnostic point of view. My husband's Christian beliefs are really important to him and I know he'd freak if he knew (not to mention my mother, but that's another story).

I don't have a problem with the kids being raised Christian and I don't want to inflict my developing belief structure on anyone else. But I feel like a hypocrite trudging off to church.


There's a reason "Keep the lie alive!" is not a popular slogan.

Starting with your husband (and ending with your mother, if you even have to go there), explain your recent . . . let's call it curiosity. It's much less brutal than "I reject your God," for one thing, and conveniently seems to be true.

Since his jumping up and down and clapping is pretty much out, nudge your husband toward as productive a response as you can hope for. Say you know he'll be disappointed, but you also know hypocrisy would be the greater insult. Right? Right? Feeding him lines is a lot more diplomatic than throwing stuff out and saying, okay, deal.

It'll help that you don't want the kids to be affected--but they will, at some point, need to hear why Mom's not in church. It's as good a time as any to plug tolerance. There is more than one way both to serve the collective good and be true to oneself. And, there's more than one path to faith. Agnostic means you haven't ruled out God; have you considered the Unitarian Church? It's receptive to "developing beliefs," but technically Protestant, which might cushion the blow at home.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or, and join Carolyn's live discussion at 8 p.m. tomorrow or at noon Friday at