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Carolyn Hax: Readers’ advice on dysfunctional families, breakups and more


While I’m away, readers give the advice.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

On another way to think about that nightmare boyfriend/

I came from an extremely dysfunctional family where no one was ever nice to one another, ever. I grew up pulling (emotional) knives out of my back, and was shocked at how much other people loved their kids. My mother was mentally ill when no one talked about that, and she self-medicated with liquor. We lived in fear someone would find out and lived with a sort of bunker mentality.

So in my late teens, when I had my first boyfriends, I’m sure I was really odd and bad-tempered around their families. I knew how to deal only with being picked on or ignored. When I was around nice people, or a normal family, I didn’t know what to do. I responded the way I did with my family to protect myself. I also know I made a ton of mistakes with regard to sending cards and remembering birthdays and other occasions, since no one did that in my family.

I have forgiven my family; no one was nice to them, either. The fun part is that life and people are much kinder than I ever dreamed.

So the next time someone writes you about how awful a new girlfriend or boyfriend is, you might want to point out that they may have had a bad family experience and don’t know how to act or relax around nice people.


On feeling guilty about breaking up with someone:

I contacted my ex a few times after getting dumped because I thought I wanted “closure.” However, in hindsight, it really boiled down to inadequate self-esteem on my part: I desperately wanted to hear, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

And that’s what I heard, but it did not produce the desired result right away, because I wanted to know WHY it wasn’t me, which was perhaps gratuitous. My ex was pretty patient with my contact, always repeating the party line, but in the end it was my problem to deal with, not his — and that’s exactly how it should have been.

Broken Up

On high school and the perfectionist:

For the most part, schools reward this type of passive, obedient, perfect behavior. What kids in this position need to realize is that this might work in school but it doesn’t translate to the working world. You have to learn to take risks, say no, lead others, etc. Keep reminding yourself of this when you are tempted to fit into the passive, perfect-student mode.


On rationales for cohabitation:

Stop talking about how it “makes total financial sense” to move in with someone as a justification. Stop. It. (Unless you’d also talk about how it “makes total financial sense” to marry an investment banker.)

Finances are the worst possible reason to move in with someone; calling it out as a reason makes you sound as if you are trying desperately and unsuccessfully to justify yourself. It also makes you sound as if you are 16 and trying desperately to sell a not-good idea to your parents.

And I say that as someone who lived with her now-husband for years before getting married.

Hey, You Kids, Get Off My Lawn

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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