Carolyn Hax is away. The following is from Feb. 26 and March 3, 2006.

Hi, Carolyn: My boyfriend is always putting his female colleague before me — they travel together a lot, even share an apartment (two bedrooms) when they do, and when he's with me he always takes her calls, even if we're away on holiday, even if we're sitting down to drinks or lunch, even if she rings him four times in a row because she's bored while waiting to board a flight!

I get upset because I feel disrespected. He says, "Don't worry, it's you that I love. But she's an artist so she has a big ego" and he needs to "treat her with kid gloves."

I said I'd rather have his respect than his so-called "love." I mean, what's love without respect? Should I be seeing red flags?

— Slighted in London

Slighted in London: I suppose, but calling it a red flag elevates it to the serious-discussion-about-your-feelings level. This is better dealt with at the “Pick up that phone one more time and it’s going in your martini” level.

He can be this woman’s toy poodle if that’s what he really wants, but not on your time and not at your expense. The redder flag is that you’re still taking this, and not questioning your respect for him.

Dear Carolyn: I've always been told not to "sweat the small stuff," to compromise, cooperate and not let little things upset me. At what point do the little things stop being little and start showing how he really feels about me, and our relationship? I live in mortal fear of overreacting, but I don't want to spend my life feeling constantly irked and overlooked.

— Sweating the Small Stuff

Sweating the Small Stuff: Pretending not to sweat the small stuff isn’t the same as actually not sweating it.

But it’s hard to describe the point where small stuff becomes big. Not only do we all have different thresholds — not to mention different relationships testing those thresholds — but it’s also just something you know when you see it.

Conveniently, though, your concerns capture very well something else that’s hard to describe: the reason it’s so important to find a way to be happy alone, before you try making things work with someone else. It gives you a point of comparison, a baseline that allows you to say, when you’re tired of parsing every remark and questioning every silence, “Wait a minute — I don’t need this. I was fine on my own.” It tells you when love costs too much.

It also gives you some resistance to small stuff. When you believe you’re a (more or less) good person, you’re not going to interpret every little thing as a challenge to that perception. Your sensors — for differentiating among humor, meaningless barbs, grumpiness that is about you, grumpiness that isn’t about you, and grumpiness that isn’t about you but is intolerable nonetheless — simply become more accurate.

If you haven’t been in this position, and you aren’t confident enough in your judgment to try it right now, then you can try to approximate the feeling: Figure out what you like about yourself, and don’t like. Figure out what you can change, can’t change, don’t want to change. Now think about how many of these things your relationship forces you to change, stifle, compromise, justify, explain. That’s a pretty sound mark of “big stuff.”

Dear Carolyn: Okay, so how do you go about finding a good marriage counselor without anyone you know knowing? Our marriage isn't in trouble, but we really need to work on our communication. I don't want to ask our pastor or my OB/GYN because I am pregnant with our second child, and I really don't want anyone thinking we are having serious problems. Is a marriage counselor even what I am looking for? Should I just let my fingers do the walking?

— Virginia

Virginia: Sure, but, you’ll need strong fingers, because they have to carry you to your pastor or OB/GYN.

In the meantime, get a head start on your problem by noting your priorities: You’d rather risk choosing an incompetent therapist than looking bad to people whose opinions of you are thoroughly irrelevant. You’d rather have things look happy than be happy.

And that is a communication problem at its molecular level. To communicate, you need to be able to say what you feel. To say what you feel, you need to be able to say some difficult things. Like, “We need help.”

Your pastor and doctor know you, are trained to help and are bound to keep your confidence. It’s also not their place to pass judgment, but if they do, it could well be favorable. One of the most important things you can give your children, besides food, shelter and love, is an example of how loving partners behave. Forget appearances and have the courage to say what you need. Communication, Chapter 1.

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