(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

Carolyn Hax is away. The following letters are from June 7 and July 31, 2009, respectively.

Dear Carolyn: How do you know if you have good instincts when it comes to trusting people? I like to pride myself on that, and I’m sure I’ve been duped no more than the average person. But after a recent duping, I’m finding most romantic interests (or women in general, really) untrustworthy, and I back away. How do I know if I’m being paranoid or just ran into a bunch of shady romantic prospects?


Atlanta: Whenever you have trouble with all [group name here], it isn’t about [group name here], it’s about you. I’ve found this to be a useful self-diagnostic tool.

It applies when every boss at every job is a nightmare; when all other drivers are jerks; when all adherents to a belief are monsters, liars or fools. It applies even when there isn’t just one group, but instead any group will do: “My teachers hate me,” “Only the rich kids make the team,” “I was never my parents’ favorite.”

So when you find “women in general” untrustworthy, that points to a problem with your instincts.

To identify the problem, please start with the whole “I like to pride myself on . . . ” idea. What we hold up as our greatest strengths usually say more about our greatest vulnerabilities than anything else. Your taking great pride in your judgment of character suggests instead a preoccupying fear of betrayal.

A true strength, on the other hand, will be something you don’t think about much; it’s so reliable you can afford to take it for granted.

You say you’ve recently been duped, and you’re reeling. This is a fine time to tease out your underlying feelings on trust. Specifically: Why is it so important to define yourself as a keen judge of people? Do you see skepticism as a mark of intelligence? And therefore believing lies as a personal failure? Are you worried about how you’ll feel after being deceived, or how you’ll appear to others?

You suggest in your letter, backhandedly, that believing a few whoppers is a fact of life. Maybe in that viewpoint you have the seeds for a different perspective on deceit: that believing lies isn’t a personal failure, telling them is. Lying and paranoia are all about shifting blame to somebody else.

Believing, on the other hand, takes courage, and telling the truth takes courage. They’re the two sides of taking a stand, of saying, “This is who I am” — and knowing that stand might hurt. There’s no shame in a courageous act, even when it turns out to have been the wrong choice.

Dear Carolyn: My ex from two years ago and I didn’t speak at all after the breakup, but since the beginning of this summer, we have been talking online for hours every day. It is totally innocent and will never turn into anything romantic ever again.

The wrench is, he has this shrewish, controlling new girlfriend who (a) ended our relationship, (b) hates me and (c) feels threatened by his having any female friends. He is more or less not allowed to be talking to me, and lies to her about doing so, which I think is absurdly immature of them both.

Am I in the wrong for tacitly condoning this behavior? I told him once I would only talk to him if he was honest with his girlfriend about it (not that I care about her feelings, but it seemed like the moral thing to do), but that went by the wayside when he reminded me said girlfriend is totally unreasonable about these things and is easier sidestepped than confronted. What say you?



You’re both making this “shrewish, controlling,” not-at-all-new, two-year girlfriend sound more sympathetic than she probably deserves.

If he has such a big problem with her “unreasonable” rules, then he can break up with her. Knock-knock.

And taking someone’s attention for “hours every day” is not innocent when a fairly established girlfriend probably feels she has a rightful claim to at least some of that time; and when that time is instead going to his ex, who resents her and has ample motivation to undermine her; and when he’s lying, by omission or otherwise, about how he’s spending his time. At that point it doesn’t matter if you and he are just plotting to knit booties for underprivileged children.

You, meanwhile, aren’t just “tacitly condoning his behavior.” You’re actively enabling him to treat his current girlfriend the way he treated you. Your noble, be-honest-with-your-girlfriend-or-else ultimatum had all the structural integrity of facial tissue.

Maybe the girlfriend is a shrew who done you wrong, but you’re being pretty horrible to her, too, and you’re doing so for the dubious privilege of spending time with a guy who so lacks the courage to break up with women himself that he needs to recruit other women to do it for him.

So, the better question here is, what say you? I would suggest: “No, thanks.”

Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.