Carolyn Hax Live: Searching for a 'ghost cheerleader'

Oct 18, 2019

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax answers questions and responds to comments about breaking up with your best friend and regretting it, a grandmother with questionable gifts, and a particularly controversial situation involving a database. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Hello, happy Friday.

Dear Carolyn, 2 years ago I left my fiancé, who I'd been with for 4 years. I was 27, had developed strong feelings for someone else, and was scared that I was doing the wrong thing. He was and remains to this day the best person I've ever met, and I'm not sure why I couldn't love him all-the-way. We didn't have the strongest sexual chemistry, but couldn't I have managed that? He was loving and supportive and my best friend. I recently asked him if he'd consider dating again, and he said he's moved on and is happier now. Is this a sign that breaking up was actually the right thing to do? Or did I make a huge, life-altering mistake? I'm scared, single, uncertain of the future, and sad.

When you're "scared, single, uncertain of the future, and sad," that's usually when you look back on any nice, comfortable things you used to have and kick yourself for giving them up.

But fear is an idiot. It makes rash and expedient choices for us that we come to regret when we start feeling comfortable again and the sense of danger passes.

This guy no doubt is a really good person, and was your best friend. But, you didn't all-the-way love him. The reasons for that aren't important--it only matters that you didn't.

So, use that to justify closing the door on all related what-ifs, and focus instead on your fears, sadness and uncertainties. What isn't working for you? Is there anything that therapy could help you address? What changes are you in a position to make, starting with the smallest? 

If you have to ask yourself whether you could have managed the meh sexual chemistry, by the way, then the answer is most likely no.

Hello, my boyfriend and I have been together for over 9 months. When we first met, I made it really clear I did not want to date someone who drinks alcohol, and he told me he would quit. After two months of him giving up alcohol, we became official. However, it was around the 6 months of not drinking or 4 months official that he wanted to start drinking again. We argue about this constantly and I feel like we have hit an impasse where I don't accept his drinking and he won't stop. He claims he does not drink often, maybe 5 drinks a month, but I want it to be zero. We love each other, but I don't know how to get past this.

Break up.

You don't get to tell people what to do or how to live. You can ask for things, but they can say no. And you asked, he agreed to it, he changed his mind. That's the end of the line. You can either have your rules or this guy, but not both.

Reminder: Any time you "argue about [anything] constantly," then whatever problem you're arguing about is now secondary to the main problem of refusing to accept reality. That is always, always, the relationship equivalent of an own goal.

Can you help me come up with a way to tell my mother in law that while we appreciate her generosity, she has hilariously terrible taste in childrens clothing and we would like her to stop picking things out? She already gives us an unreal number of toys and books, so I can't redirect there, and she is pretty easily offended, so I can't just come out and say "Hey, we love you, we appreciate you, please stop trying to dress the kids like psychotic clowns."

Ha. No, nothing you can do. Unless the kids are old enough for you to say to her, with a straight face, that they like to pick out their own clothes now so buying for them isn't a good bet anymore.

Otherwise you just say oh-gosh-thanks and consign or donate them, because if someone liked the psychotic-clown look enough to design these clothes,  then someone will like it enough to claim them. If/when she notices they're not wearing them, then you go with the line about their choosing their own clothes now and [stage shrug] what's a parent to do?

Carolyn, I can't get Baby Shark out of my head. But for the first time, I don't really mind. Is that a bad problem.

This is a great problem, doo doo doo doo doo doo.

Having much nostalgia up here, remembering all the Nats games we went to with the dudes.

I stumbled on a comment my husband left on a blog he reads. The context is complicated but the gist of his comment was that when he was choosing a wife (me), he was not worried about finding someone he considered his intellectual equal but rather someone who would be loving and supportive toward him on a daily basis. I have never ever heard him express anything like this in public (and wouldn’t have married him if I had). We are equals - ours is not an old fashioned helpmeet marriage, and we are not even religious. We both work in academia and I consider myself an intelligent person. He is, too. I am shocked and hurt by this and haven’t begun to untangle what to say to him about this. The blog is public - this wasn’t snooping, just unfortunate chance.


What you're thinking he was thinking is no doubt much worse than what he was thinking, so, don't worry about what to say to him, just tell him you saw it and ask what he meant by it.

I'm guessing you'll be able to tell whether his explanation is genuine or not, and if it's not, then that's what you talk about.

Maybe this is purely artificial sunshine, but it is possible, at least, that he was talking about his mind set at the time--which could have been exactly as he wrote, and he could still have been rewarded for it by finding in you a daily loving supporter AND intellectual equal.

Anyway. Give him a chance to fix what he broke.

My wife and I met at a time when we were very young and very religious. Ten years later we've shed the religion but still hold on to a sexual ethic that consists of believing that sex is about love. Neither of us have ever been inclined to legislate that on others, but held it to be true in our own hearts. We've been talking about it for the last year and she's come to a different ethic, one that she says doesn't need to be about love, that feels hard for me to accept. We're talking about it in therapy but it feels like an impasse. Is there any way to reunify our beliefs? How do other people get through this? We're very close and I love her very much.

Why do your beliefs have to be unified? 

As long as you're not acting on them in a way that's in conflict, of course.

But two individuals make up every marriage, and with that reality comes the necessity to reconcile or just accept some differences. I'd love to hear more detail about why this is a problem, if you're out there and willing to share.

As for the sex issue, not that you care what I think: Human sexuality has a reproductive component, a physical wow component, and a love component--all of them built-in, and each of them possible without the other two. Isn't there something to that? 

I've recently realized that my mental health is not very good and I should probably try to lean on "my support network" if I want to get better. Problem is, a big part of the problem is that I don't trust people to be there for me. This has been proven (recently!) and it's making it hard to actually believe that I even have a "support network" let alone one I can actually rely on. Help?

I'm sorry you're feeling low.

I urge you to start by setting up a professional support resource--call your primary care doc if the idea of finding a therapist feels too daunting right now.

Once you've established a place where you can go in a crisis, then start the work of building your network and building your trust in that network.

Here's the secret, though, about counting on people to be "there for me":

Some will be, some won't; some you'll be shocked to find at your side, since they were outer-ring friends at best, and some will break your heart with their absence; sometimes you'll have everyone answer your distress call and sometimes no one will. So the idea of "counting on" other people is really misleading. What you're actually counting on--and what I urge you to ask a therapist to help you develop--is your own resourcefulness. It's your own ability to find ways to get through tough times.

That can mean leaning on friends, yes, and trusting them sometimes. But that's just one piece of it, an offshoot of the larger mechanism of trusting yourself, which includes: 

-your own ability to recognize when you're in trouble

-your own ability to distinguish between being just-the-usual down and needing help

-your own ability to identify what is helpful

-your own ability to locate that help when needed.

So, I'll use my own moody self as an example. If I'm down, I might prefer to talk to a friend or my dad or a sister. So, I'll call or text the person whose "medicine" seems right for what I'm feeling.

And when that person isn't available or just isn't hitting the spot, then I go to alternatives that are at least somewhat reliably helpful and are more under my control: the dogs, a walk, a cry, yoga, escapist TV/movies, a book, a charitable act, a call to someone I can help feel better, getting annoying chores done (accomplishment as analgesic).

You can scrape together your own version of this, yes? The person or four to call, and the list of simple, feel-better steps? Because -that's- your network, and the person you're trusting, always, is you. 

This is for the person who found out about her fiancé’s trust fund in the October 11 chat. Carolyn, I really hope you’ll print it in next week’s chat. Three years ago I was in her shoes. Months before our wedding, I found out that my wonderful, kind, lovely fiancé had a trust fund. It explained why he always had money for concert tickets and meals out even though he worked a low-paying job. The biggest mistake I have ever made in my life was rationalizing it and going through with the wedding. The money is a red herring. This is about the fact that your fiancé has kept back a major piece of who he is and how he lives his life until after you made a serious commitment to him (got engaged). In my case, the lie of omission about the trust fund (because that’s what it is! a lie!) was the first of many other falsehoods, misrepresentations of himself, and cracks in the foundation of his character that I only discovered after we were married. Within a year of getting married, I was making a safe exit plan. Your gut was telling you something didn’t add up. Otherwise you never would have thought twice about all that golf and all those dinners out—or you would have felt comfortable asking him much sooner. I’m not saying you have to break up with him this minute, but it sounds like your relationship has moved pretty fast. Please, please put the brakes on the wedding train and do not marry until you’ve had a chance to really get to know him with this new information. You’ve been working from a map of his character with key landmarks obscured. It is much, much easier to get married than it is to get divorced. And once your finances are legally entwined, it is a nightmare to separate them. Block out the voices that say you don’t have time to figure this out, because you do. You have to.

Happy to post this, thanks. 

Years ago, possibly during a holiday-themed chat, someone wrote in saying that she'd gained some weight and was nervous about visiting her appearance-judgmental family. You had some excellent advice about confidence and self-worth. One of the other chatters had some practical advice: Go to a store that specializes in plus-size clothing and get some clothes that fit well, and ask the people who work there for help finding things that are comfortable and flattering so you feel good and aren't squeezed into your old clothes. Well, I'm in the same position now (stressful job, stressful country) and remembered that advice and finally found some layers and foundation garments that actually fit and don't pinch or poke and I feel much better and anyway THANK YOU to you and whoever that was with the advice and to all of the other chatters for sharing their experiences every week.

This is so great, thank you, and I too am grateful to everyone for sharing. I'm constantly learning new things.

Dear Carolyn, I'm in my late 20's, and lucky to have a great career and people I'm on friendly terms with (hopefully some to be friends in the future), but every now and then I find myself craving some external validation, particularly someone who has a sense of where I came from and how far I've gone. I don't have any family and things were a bit chaotic for me growing up so I don't really have people I'm close to from my past. I was living out of my car at one point and am now gainfully employed in the career of my choice and pretty well adjusted (I think!). I take pride in those accomplishments, but I also find myself wishing from time to time that someone else could look at everything I've done and say, "I see where you've been and how far you've come, and I just want to let you know I'm proud." What can I do in those moments when I find myself longing for a sort of phantom witness to my life, a ghost cheerleader who doesn't exist? - Filling in the Blanks

Please, allow me:

It is impressive how far you've come, and you've earned every pat on the back you can get.

I'm sorry you don't have a circle of knew-you-when intimates who can share your pride with you. That's a lonely feeling.

I wonder, though, if the sheer badassery of your arc can actually be your solution instead of the problem.

Have you considered turning your journey into art of some kind? What comes immediately to mind is storytelling, a la The Moth LINK, because I have zero doubt your experiences could fuel several trips to the stage. But there are so many options: essays, fiction, autobiography (hello, "Educated"?), poetry,  a novel in verse, graphic novel with a collaborator if needed, poetry, standup comedy, song lyrics. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination, and in the expression alone I think you'll feel validated and seen--with the possibility of a grateful audience someday.

Probably not the kind of witness you were thinking of, but, "ghost cheerleader" tells me maybe I'm on to something?

I'm a professor. People who are professors can be really snobby about others being their intellectual equal, as if book smarts are the only thing that matters about a person. I had a dear friend - a professor marrying another professor - who printed their academic credentials on the back of their wedding program. They were not being ironic. I did not choose my husband because he was my intellectual equal either. I chose him because he is a warm wonderful supportive human being. Who I love more than anything else. He IS my intellectual equal. It's one of the things I love about him. But that's irrelevant. I can imagine marrying someone not as 'smart' as me but warm supportive and loving. I cannot imagine marrying someone who is smart but a jerk. When I read the blog comment, that was my interpretation. Who a person is is much more important than how smart they are.

I once broke up with a Best Friend for reasons that sound similar to what you describe. Even though I knew it was right at the time, years later I would still ask "Did I make a huge mistake?" I compared everyone I dated to the Best Friend and none of them ever seemed as good as him. I wondered if I was limiting myself? I eventually did meet the love of my life and I realized that Best Friend's role had been to set the bar very high. I never wasted my time with anyone who didn't reach those standards. My now-husband passed well-above those standards! And Best Friend and his wife are now our Very Good Friends. Sincerely, Took Awhile, but Moved On

Love the idea of the ex as a bar others needed to clear. 

FYI - love the soccer reference, but may have been missed by this American crowd. "Own goal" could be confusing to someone who doesn't know that it means to score a goal against yourself.

Let them eat Google!

My brother joined the Army last year. A couple of weeks before he shipped off to boot camp he met a boy. They carried on a relationship long distance while my brother completed his training. During my brother’s last training (during which he is completely incommunicado), the boy said he was going to go to my brother’s training graduation and invited me to send a care package to my brother through him. I lost the boy’s address and lost track of time (and due to the time difference by the time I realized this the boy was already asleep and the package had to go out within the hour). So I looked up the boy’s address with a powerful database at work that I knew could pull his address. In the process I discovered the boy may have some legal issues that I felt my brother should know about given my brother’s security clearance and their imminent plans to move in together. I told my brother about the situation and offered to pay for legal help to get this potential issue resolved for them so that they could move forward with peace of mind. When my brother told the boy, the boy threatened to take legal action against me and try to get me fired. Now my brother and the boy are engaged. I recognize that I am not a perfect actor here, but I meant well and offered to pay for whatever legal fees they might incur to fix the possible issue. I recognize the boy may justifiably feel I invaded his privacy and deservedly feel upset about that but I feel it should be clear I wasn’t trying to cause him harm (I offered to pay for his legal fees!) so I don’t understand why he lashed out at me the way he did and threatened to cause me serious harm. To me, threatening someone’s livelihood and threatening to sue them in response to my conduct is beyond the pale. My brother ultimately called off his fiancé’s attacks and said he is “fine” now. But I am not fine and I do not know how to move forward. In my view, you do not threaten family (or potential family) — ever. If the shoe had been reversed and my wife made an analogous threat against my brother, my wife would be permanently out of the picture. I don’t expect my brother to have the same standards per se (though I am disappointed that the boy’s extreme reaction — he was literally calling lawyers — did not give my brother pause before proposing). Now that it looks like the fiancé is going to be permanently around, however, I don’t know what to do. My brother and I used to be very close but I can’t be happy about this engagement when his fiancé’s first instinct was to destroy me. What do I do at family gatherings? At their wedding? How do I maintain a relationship with my brother?

1. This guy sounds like seriously bad news.

2. "Boy"? I'm not comfortable with this. Though I'm sure I've let "girl" go by a thousand times. Maybe I should sort this out sometime.

3. I read it twice, but sometimes miss things in an unbroken stream of text--have you had a sit-down conversation with your brother about your profound, enduring concern this guy jumped to making such a serious threat? Making clear that having the threat removed is only a minor part of it, since the person making the threats is presumably still convinced of his standing to do this?

If not, then that's what I'd do. It's probably more likely to break things with your brother than fix things in his life, but the threats were so egregious that I think it's incumbent on you to set out your boundary with your brother. I'm sorry.

And for fox's sake, I've searched up addresses to send people things more times than I can count, and yes, that serves up all kind of other info on them, if it's out there. It's not as if you had him followed. 

I am beginning to realize that my husband loves me to pieces as long as I stay "in my place"--which in our marriage means that I am a supportive help to him in all the things HE wants to do. I have been with him to countless weddings, work gatherings, and family functions, and he always comments on how nice it is to have someone to bring along. I mingle and talk to people (mostly about him/his work/his family) or else have a drink and entertain myself. And then last weekend, we attended the wedding of my college roommate. He complained bitterly about every part of this venture. The 45-minute drive. The fact that he would not know anyone else there. The "showy" venue and wedding style. The fact that it cut into a football game he wanted to see. We left early. Having thought it over for the past week, I see now that he's behaved this way EVERY time I invite him along to anything. It is also worth noting that I never drag him to my work parties and socialize with my friends mostly on my own. There are other areas in our relationship that feel uneven in this way. If it's been this way for our whole marriage (eight years), would it be bait-and-switch to insist that it change now?

OMG no. A bait-and-switch means you represented yourself as X to achieve some goal, and then revealed yourself as Y as soon as that goal was achieved. A bait-and-switch is tricking someone.

What you're talking about is an epiphany, a 2 + 2, an "aha" moment to end all "aha" moments. (Except maybe "The Sixth Sense," cuz, damn.) That's an honest process, even if its result is to turn you Y when your husband married you for being X.

It is completely appropriate for you to say to your husband now that you replayed last weekend over and over in your mind, and realized the good sportsmanship in your marriage goes only one way when it comes to each other's social functions. 

Have specific examples ready.

And, too, be ready to see the whole picture of your marriage when you figure out whether it's fair and whether you're getting what you need out of it (arguably two different things). For example, he may be a PITA when it comes to your social commitments as you small-talk maturely through is, but he may be the absolute champ at _______. In a way few people ever are. And going solo to your stuff is a minor emotional tradeoff to make for it.

I'm not encouraging you to rationalize, btw--just to think broadly before objecting specifically. It's rarely a wasted exercise.


Tell that to my ex who called off our wedding because of anxiety. I was never so attractive as I was walking out the door.


I'm sorry.

Regardless, you weren't the right people for each other.

And that could have stoked the anxiety.


This is potentially such a win-win! Our kids voluntarily chose psychotic clown outfits, then critiqued us for being boring. Let the kids choose whether or not to wear them, and just embrace the radical clash of patterns. It can be fun if you let it, and this phase won't last long. Be sure to send photos to grandma.

AND save them to use against your kids when they get older. [sinister cackle]

If this is really that important, you'd probably be better off finding someone who agrees with you, i.e. who already doesn't drink either. Not someone who gives up drinking because you've made it a condition of being with you.

In addition to Carolyn's point, also make sure you're asking for the help you need. If, during a busy week, a friend asks if I can get a drink of coffee, I may say no because I have too much going on and it seems like a casual invite. That friend may think I am not there for her. BUT, if that friend gave some context that she was having a hard time, would like to talk, etc., I would know that it's not just a casual thing, rework my priorities, and support her. So, if you are reaching out to people, make sure you are giving them the signals they need to give you the support you need. Some people may still drop the ball, but many more will step up.

Great point, thank you.

Isn't it dishonest, at a certain point, to not tell the MIL you don't intend on dressing your kids in the clothes she continually buys? She's spending her money on these gifts and turning around to immediately give them away seems disingenuous. If it's 1 or 2 things each year, that's easier to let go. Dress them up in the clothes, take a picture for MIL, then donate. But if she's bringing things once a month or more, that's a lot of money that she's spending and it doesn't seem right to accept if it won't get used. Maybe redirecting her to clothes the children would like, or that are currently missing from their wardrobe would help. Or suggest that you already have the clothes covered so experiences with the MIL are something the kids would enjoy more and help make lasting memories.

Those are fine suggestions, and the OP should try them--but, you know what? The problem isn't that MIL is being lied to, it's that MIL is "easily offended," which creates an environment where truth-telling is punishable by her emotional acting out. So, the price of the culture she created is for her money to go toward dressing people who can't or won't pay retail for their psychotic-clownwear. I can live with that.

You want a ghost cheerleader who doesn't exist. I totally get that fervent desire, one which helps ward off loneliness and also offers validation. But in addition to what Carolyn says about public expression of your "story," I suggest author Anne Lamont's advice about life and about growth: "It's an inside game." Which means we have to be our own cheerleaders, the authors of our own story in the face of loneliness, and we have to re-parent ourselves for all that we never got. Looking to others serves just as an understandable, but ultimately pointless, struggle for meaning when it's really an "inside game" that we need to participate in. --Been there

Love this, thanks.

BTW. I have read some Anne Lamott essays (and excerpts of "Operating Instructions") that have really stuck with me, but that's it--can you recommend a starter syllabus?

I, too, came from an extremely chaotic background and, in fact, have lived with (and managed -- with help) some level of PTSD for decades as a result. I never had to live in my car, but close to it. I am now a highly educated professional woman and have been successful in a career that I love. But I also felt a loss similar to what you described. I ultimately realized that, for me, it was a lack of continuity in my life that saddened me. Yes, it's not having someone from your past to celebrate your present, but it's also not having people in the present seeing all of you, because those past struggles are invisible precisely because you have "made it." It's a distinct type of loneliness. I decided to focus more on developing relationships with people who would have respected and been kind to me even in my darker days, because they're just like that. Or they had also had similar dark days. They recognize and celebrate what I did then to get by, not just that it's over. I now have professional friends who I can make only-those-who-have-been-there-will-get-it jokes about living in poverty or dealing with stupid aspects of the social welfare system. I don't hide my history, but I also don't make it the center of my life. It's a part of me, but it's only one part of me. When I accepted that I am both who I was then and what I am now, with no shame, I felt more whole. And I no longer feel that grief and loneliness. This may or may not fit for the OP, but I wish them well. And congratulations!

This is great, thank you--and broadly applicable, given that someone who, say, moved a lot can also identify.

I think you do need to start telling your story, but I also think the mindset in which you approach your storytelling is important. While I get the longing for a ghost cheerleader, approaching storytelling solely to get that need met may be overly transactional and ultimately counterproductive. Instead, I’d argue that sharing the story of your journey with others may actually be part of your continuing recovery from those traumas, and part of learning to trust other people even as you’ve learned to trust yourself. To put it another way, I wonder if you might be missing not so much validation as intimacy, the sense of knowing others and being known, and I’d structure the storytelling accordingly - as an opportunity to *share*stories with others, yours and theirs, and to learn how to be there to cheer *each other* on.

missing not so much validation as intimacy,

I like it, thanks.

Hi Carolyn, I'm a high school student who struggles with her mental health. It's really hard for me to motivate myself to do homework and classwork, and my parents just discovered how horrible my grades are. My mom says we'll discuss it tonight, but she never wants to talk about my mental health or acknowledge that it's a struggle for me. I really want to succeed, but I don't feel like I'm getting the support that I need, and she doesn't even want to talk. How do I get across to her that I need more help than I'm getting, and that I'm not just lazy?

I'm so sorry your mom doesn't hear you.

It's possible she's too scared to, or just feels out of her depth with mental health issues but feels like she "knows" school and grades and their black-and-white metrics. So she keeps returning to that as if it'll solve your other struggles.

A couple of suggestions: 

First, if you have a school counselor or a teacher or coach you trust, ask if you can meet with this person to talk about what's on your mind. This goes back to the support network idea ^^ above--give yourself more than one place to go in case that one place isn't there for you.

Second, what about your other parent? Is a one-on-one conversation a realistic possibility?

Third, writing. You do it clearly, so use that tonight and hand your printed-out question to your mom. Just as it's a different process to say something vs. put it in writing, it's a different process to read something vs hear it. Let your mom read (and reread) how you feel.

If you feel unsatisfied with your parents' response, then ask to see your pediatrician. It's a confidential setting and this is just as much about your overall health as a flu would be, or a broken bone.

Please check back in next week, if you can and want to. You're not alone in this.

I'd suggest you start with "Bird by Bird", her book about writing. On the religious side of her work, maybe "Travelling Mercies."

Anne Lamont's book, *Bird by Bird*, would be a perfect place to start. It's about writing and about life, both pertinent for Carolyn's suggestion and for "Ambiguous Grief's" concerns about living and feeling fulfilled and not alone. The title story is especially wonderful.

You may be flooded with these but... Start with Traveling Mercies or Help. Thanks, Wow.

You're right -- I shouldn't have called my brother's fiance a "boy." It was an attempt, I think, to minimize the overwhelming horror I feel at the situation by calling him a demeaning term. He's a man. And I agree, the man is bad news. I've talked to my brother about it, which is when my brother said his fiance is "fine" (as if his fiance was the only one who might be upset by this experience). I told him I was not fine, and he deflected by saying he had to run and would call me the next day. It's been several days and he hasn't called. I have always felt closer to my brother than pretty much anyone else so I am hesitant to be angry with him -- and who can fault anyone for loving the person they love?-- but I guess I am. It's scary to be angry, though, because it feels like a further loss.

I get that. And this is indeed several losses, if what seems to be happening happens and your brother shuts you out for personifying a truth he'd rather not face. You lose your closest person, your good feelings, your source of good feelings, your touchstone.

In that case, you go to step 2, which is to be there, steadily, even at arm's length, even if it refreshes the grief every time. That's because, if your instincts are right, then your brother is going to need to know he can count on you if/when things unravel.

I'm sorry.


A wiser man would have posted, "I wasn't concerned with finding someone who is my intellectual equal, and it's a good thing because she's smarter than I am."

Indeed, great point.

Let's go for it, though, and say a smarter man.

OP may have violated the law or even just company policy. At my company, we are explicitly forbidden to search for information on anyone when it's not explicitly related to something we need to do our jobs. We cannot search for freidns, family members, or Justin Bieber. If anyone finds out, we can be fired and/or charged with legal violations. Any public site, fine, but using work tools for something like this is really invasive.

Yes, fair point, but 1. OP admitted the oops and 2. meant only to find the address. So, the aggrieved party here (if true) would be the employer, not the fiance. Intent is the whole thing for the searchee, or would be to someone healthy.

I second the idea of having a professional to talk to, or to refer you to a support group if you have a specific issue you are grappling with. I go to a kind of a support group that meets on a regular basis, and that stability helps me deal with the fact that the other people in my life are there sometimes and not at others. Plus the other people know what I'm dealing with and are there to help themselves, too, so there's the added benefit of being both the helper and help-ee.

LW’s published response is still deflecting their possibly professional misconduct (powerful work database, anyone?) and selfishly only Considering how LW is impacted. Actions have consequences. Own up yours.

He used a "powerful database at work" Makes me think he used work resources inappropriately (thus the threat to have him fired) and found out about some legal troubles that are NOT public information. If that's the case, at least own up to what you did. And you've put the guy in an awkward spot by forcing him to disclose something that should have been his to disclose on his own timeline.

I'm getting a lot of responses to this, along these lines, and this is the most concise. I agree that searching him in a private database makes it more of an invasion, and therefore more problematic for the fiance to respond to.

I keep going back to this, though: Had it happened to me, and had there been a logical explanation (the address lookup), I still wouldn't react with threats to ruin my fiance's brother professionally. Ever. I'd be upset, I may forever resent the brother if I found him disingenuous in the delivery of his part in things, but an accident outing is just that, accidental--and what got outed was real and mine. So going great guns at the messenger just seems like really bad news. Still.

I dated someone for about six months who was very loving and validating - loved having me by his side. Until I realized that every time we went out with my friends he didn't feel well. Usually before, but sometimes during - could we go home early. I still remember telling my friend that we had to go home as he didn't feel great and the look on her face as we both had the same light bulb go on. Wait a minute ... Now it makes us laugh, but man, people are sneaky.

Or oblivious. He might not even have recognized what he was doing. But, yeah.


Sometimes, too, they're depressed. I spent years hanging out with a friend who, after a while, only did stuff when it was her idea. If I made the plans, then she'd cancel at the last minute. Every time. The eventual diagnosis did not come as a shock, though I didn't put it together in the moment.

Her intent was good when she looked up the address. But then she found and shared legal information about fiance to brother. That was NOT ok. Fire-worthy, probably. But on a personal level, she overstepped severely.

Talk to your teachers and school counselors. I think the best part of an educational professionals day is helping a student who wants to be helped. They want you to succeed. Asking for help is a great skill to have.

I hope my wife doesn't go around (correctly) pointing out that I'm not her emotional intelligence equal, and that I lack her amazing commonsense. Actually, I'm fine with that. Maybe my SAT scores were higher than hers. I don't care. The fact is we each bring strengths to the relationship. And hers are more important to the success of the relationship than are mine.

I call BS. LW shared private and sensitive information about legal issues with Brother.

If I were the LW i'd be more concerned that the "boy" lied to the brother (by omission). Carolyn is right - the brother is going to need the LW's support if he goes through with this wedding. What else is the "boy" hiding - what made him so defensive/offensive? Sure, LW shouldn't have done an unauthorized search, and shouldn't have meddled, but if s/he did so out of concern for the brother, I'd say make whatever peace is possible with the "boy" and just be there for the brother.

Strong feelings on this one. 

One more pairing and I'll leave this:

OMG! I don't think in the years reading I've ever disagreed with a response as much as I do here. From the wording it definitely appears that the OP used some sort of Law Enforcement or other official database that provides much more information than an address search. Intent does not matter when doing something potentially illegal... Its still illegal and admitting the "oops" doesn't negate that. I don't necessarily disagree that the fiancee might be a bad guy... although we're only getting one clearly biased point of view on that, but given then level of information accessed, using this database was a clear invasion of policy and both the brother and fiancee have a right to feel violated and upset.

The reality is that people use their "powerful" work databases all the time for things like addresses or birthdays. I'm with Carolyn - the intent is what matters. The LW's intent was to get the brother's package to the boyfriend. The boyfriend's intent became to ruin the LW's life by getting him fired and harming his future employment prospects. I think people insisting that Carolyn focus on the LW's minor transgression are really not seeing the forest for this one, insignificant tree!

Or, let's revise it to major, fireable, possibly illegal transgression. 

It's still "the boyfriend's intent became to ruin the LW's life" that I don't think the severity of the transgression wipes away.

If you're tempted to judge your friends by how quickly and often they respond to your calls, please don't. It's easy to romanticize the test, that a crisis will somehow show you who's true blue and will read your tone of voice exactly, max out their credit card and ride to rescue you on the opposite coast at 3 AM. And that the rest really weren't friends worth having. Leaning solely on friends to solve problems that require professional care support is guaranteed to cost you some friendships unnecessarily. Remember when you call on friends that they may be dealing with their own problems you don't even know about. Do line up a professional supporter and a hotline to deal with emergencies. Invite friends to help with other support activities. But don't guilt them if they miss subtle clues or can't come through often. Do reciprocate support whenever you have the energy. Friends trade support; if it's always one-way, that's just unpaid help.

Excellent points, thanks. 

Thanks to everyone for these questions/responses! There are more in my shoes than I ever thought of.

Glad to be able to point a spotlight.

I appreciate your response. I know there is the reality of the three components factor. I certainly wouldn't argue that. But moreso we've always had a value system based on the sacredness of the shared experience. It's painful that she's shifting from that. I guess the response you gave indicates that it's just a matter of accepting the pain of that realty rather than finding a way to reunify our values. FWIW, I'm not trying to imply she shouldn't have her own thoughts and ideas. It's just this particular idea feels very tender to me.

No doubt it feels personal, as if what you share has been somehow devalued.

But I don't think it necessarily has to be. It can just be an awakening to the experiences of the wider world, and that a different path can be valid, even beautiful. I hope the reality isn't only about pain for you. Thanks for writing back.

I have access to one of these through work also and there aren't any restrictions on how I use it. It's a subscription service, not some kind of top secret government database.

Same. I wish we'd hear back from OP on this.

No. We. Don't. This is the old "everybody does it" scam, and it doesn't fly.

You're right on the "everybody does it" as a trash defense.

There seems to be a hierarchy of work databases, no?

Just throwing this into the mix. Some databases are indeed public. My state has a searchable judiciary case database and I can find all sorts of information on individuals without violating any laws. It's the last place I would consider looking up someone's address if that's all I needed. I get the feeling OP deliberately used this 'powerful database' hoping to find out damning information about 'the boy' to share with the brother. And 'boy." Eww.

Possible. Yu, my producer, msged me this just as I was posting similar to you guys: "seems like 'powerful database' means very different things to different people."

So without OP I'm going to have to leave this as anything from an overstep that wasn't a huge deal to which the fiance suspiciously overreacted, to a massive overstep that the OP should have been fired for, if not prosecuted, and the OP is lucky the fiance backed down.

It's a subscription service. Not illegal (the man's threats of suing me were baseless but designed to ), but definitely potentially terminable. I liked him and supported their relationship until this response. My only goal was to get a present to my brother in time, but I certainly admit in retrospect I wouldn't have done it (though I suspect that my brother's fiance's behavior will come out in other ways, so maybe it's better to be prepared?)

Ah. Thank you for writing back. 

Hierarchy of work databases is right. If we're talking Lexis-Nexis, Carolyn's original answer is totally corrected. If we're talking NCIC, LW should be at minimum fired and probably in jail. Without knowing where on the spectrum the reality falls, we're all just projecting.

We have the OP now, but this is where I eventually got, too. 

Thanks everybody!

Who could have foreseen that, in a city full of professionals who work in secure environments with sensitive data, a question about misusing data would cause a firestorm of controversy?

Who coulda. 

Glad I stuck around for the end.

Okay, that's it for today (stomping on embers). Have a great weekend, everybody, and special thanks to Yu for getting stuff to me so quickly. Type to you here next week.

In This Chat
Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.
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