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KNOWING WHEN IT'S TIME TO LEAVE

Carolyn: How do you know when it's time to leave a relationship?

-- Washington, D.C.

When you're lonelier with the person than you would be alone.

Which is why it's so screamingly important to learn to be happy alone before you tie yourself to someone. You need to have that reference point to be able to judge a relationship soundly.

If the issue is whether a broken relationship can be fixed or not, look at the traits, in both of you, that are making things difficult. Now be honest about which of those will ever change. (Hint: If they've been the same all along, or at least since the initial buzz wore off, then assume they'll never change.)

For example, she's not affectionate, never has been, but you think -- hey, how hard could it be for her to give the occasional hug, since that's all I really need?

ANK, bad thinking. Consider it impossible -- for her. Assume she will never be more affectionate than she is now, and then decide if you can be happy with her as she is.

Be watchful
Carolyn: OK, so my boyfriend and I are doing great. No glaring problems. I have only one reservation: All his friends (who are great, by the way) cheat on their significant others. My gut tells me to forge ahead and give this guy a fighting chance; after all he did truthfully answer my dumb question, "Do all your friends cheat?" My mind tells me "birds of a feather flock together." Am I being overly suspicious? What are your thoughts?

-- Somewhere, USA

I think you have to take this guy as he is, and that means having your honesty sensors up. I'd say his cheating friends mean you have to have your sensors more finely tuned, but that actually implies falsely that you can be a little less vigilant with people who don't have cheating friends.

We all need to pay attention to the subtleties of anyone we're with, and that includes attitude toward cheating and cheating friends (does he condemn them at all?); respect for society and the law (e.g., does he go 60 mph through residential neighborhoods?); sensitivity to others, especially when he feels he has the upper hand (e.g., how does he treat waiters?); kindness when nobody's looking. Either the data pile says he's a good person, or it says he isn't.

Too much fighting
Carolyn: I have been in a relationship for over a year now, and lately things have not been going well. We can't seem to stop fighting, and now it has resulted in both of our saying things just to hurt the other. Is it possible to fix, or should we just give up and move on?

-- Seattle

I think you should stop saying things to hurt the other person. You're completely in control of that. Drop your defenses, say what you really mean and feel, hear how s/he responds to that, and then decide whether it's worth fixing or not.

Worried about mom
Carolyn: Over the past several months, I've seen my mother showing more and more signs that she might be depressed. Today I drove her to her annual physical. She made the comment afterward that she didn't tell the doctor that she's been depressed because she doesn't want to take yet another pill. Do you have any suggestions on how to be helpful without pushing meds unless she gets to the point where she's ready for them on her own?

-- Portland, Ore.

She may never feel ready for them. That, you have to accept.

But she is ready for treatment -- she admits she's depressed, that's huge --and therefore she's ready to hear that there are better ways to decline medication than to lie to her doctor.

All she has to say is that she feels depressed, but does not want another pill. The doctor can press, urge, lobby, flap his arms in protest, but none of these means Ma has to take anything she doesn't want.

Something else the doctor can do is suggest alternative treatments -- and, even better, possibly make a connection between one of your mom's other pills or ailments and the depression.

Even if your mom's right and there's nothing the doctor can do, she has nothing to lose by asking -- and, more important, nothing whatsoever to gain by stuffing her fingers in her ears and saying BLAH BLAH BLAH in the presence of medical expertise.

Write to "Tell Me About It," c/o Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail: tellme@washpost.com.

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