Dear Carolyn:

The idea that divorced = unsuccessful haunts me. So much so that I've been "separated" for six years and can't bring myself to do the D-word. When I was single I didn't date divorced guys because they just seemed to have an aura of sadness and failure about them. I feel equally defective. I know this screams therapy, but I've done that with a few therapists and just can't see it any other way. So . . . any tips for either a new outlook or gracefully resigning myself to never being in a romantic relationship again?

-- Haunted

I can see your three therapists (and one advice columnist) and raise you five more shrinks, a Tarot card reader and a talking dog. Until you want to hear what we have to say, you're not going to hear it.

So, some incentives to pull the Q-tips out of your ears:

1. Anyone who would be suspicious of someone D-worded is going to flee barefoot and screaming from someone who remains S-worded (and therefore still M-worded) out of fear. So you gain nothing by hiding where you are.

2. Judging all divorced people as sad failures is the work of people who believe they are in full control of whether it happens to them. Meaning, people who think neither they nor their perceptions nor their partners are fallible. Meaning, not people you want to hang out with anyway. (Especially at group dinners -- they nickel-and-dime every check.)

3. Yes, you were smug and self-righteous once, too. But so is just about everyone -- once. Then life points out exactly how faulty our radar can be, and then the freshly humbled find a way to live and let live and be grateful for the education. It's called growing up. And then out, and soft and spotty, and there you have it.

4. You did your best? Okay. Good. Stop apologizing.

Of all the 6 billion-plus people in all the world, you are the only one who has to live every day with you. Instead of swearing off romance -- which makes you into your roommate of last resort -- start treating yourself as your roommate of choice.

Positive, but also conveniently powerful: Gaining your own approval frees you from a dependence on others', which puts you in the unique position to flip your detractors the bird. How's that for a graceful approach.

Carolyn:

I have close friends who, like me, are nearing 30 and I'm curious what their baby hopes are. I'm unmarried and childless; I'm not asking in an I-think-you-should-have-kids way. I can ask them about jobs, family, house-buying plans, etc., but is the baby question totally off-limits?

-- Vermont

I'd ask you to define "close," but your close friends' definition of close, not yours, is the one that applies, so we'll have to find some other way to find out if you're close enough to ask.

Like, asking them what their baby hopes are.

There is genuine cause to be sensitive about the way you raise such a private topic. Polite people don't ask.

But when courtesy hardens into boilerplate silence, the point of friendship gets lost, so genuinely close friends get a backstage pass. Plus, your phrasing is gentle; if you're loving, not nosy, you're fine. And if they can't tell the difference, their loss.

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