Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Feb 13, 2012

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence took your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon, everyone.  Valentine's Day questions are especially welcome. 

My good friend and her husband have owned their dog, Riley, for Riley's entire eight-year life. Now that their children have gone off to college, they want to travel more, so they have decided to surrender Riley to the pound. I have tried to convince them to find a local group that fosters animals in private homes until they can be adopted instead of taking Riley to the pound. If they can't be bothered to find Riley another home, at least they can ensure he won't risk euthanasia. They don't want that hassle either; my husband and I live in an apartment that doesn't allow pets Riley's size, or I would take him until I could find him a home. Now I am trying to convince my friend to keep Riley until I can find him a home. She thinks it's overkill, and I think maybe we should end our nineteen-year friendship. I am overreacting? I think unless a person's circumstances change drastically in a short period of time, they owe it to their pet to find him/her a new home rather than surrender them to the pound.

I guess your friend should be grateful her husband didn't ditch her once she reached menopause. And the husband would be well advised to stay healthy, lest any medical problems interfere with her travel schedule.  Your friends are abominable.  Sometimes  because of allergies, deployments, illness, foreclosure, people are forced to give up a beloved pet.  But to look at a dog who's been a devoted companion for 8 years and decide it's time for the needle because you've got a long cruise coming up is repugnant.  Let your friend know that pounds can only hold animals for a few days, and a surrendered 8 year-old dog is not going to be highly adoptable.  Tell her you are willing to help find a group that will take Riley and then do it's best to find their dog a new home.  (No, you shouldn't have to do this, but stepping in will help save this poor creature's life.)  Your priority now should be to get Riley settled. But I agree that you've found out something so despicable about your friend that painful as it may be, her belief that her dog is disposable may mean that your friendship ends up in the Dumpster.

Hi, I somehow married the most unromantic man... he loves me dearly but does not participate in any romantic occassion including Valentine's Day and our Anniversary. I, however, love celebrating these things. I am not about to force him to buy me something but do you think it would be okay for me to get him something? I just love buying him presents and Valentine's Day is one of my favorite occasions and I hate to cancel it altogether because he is not the type to do anything about it.

I'm wondering if on the way home tomorrow my husband will see the other frantic male commuters and fight his way to  one of the last subway bouquets.  Your husband is a lucky man because instead of your writing in about how you wish to hammer him into shape and make a romantic out of him, you accept that he's a loving man who's not good about holidays.  But his disinterest shouldn't ruin your Valentine's Day.  So go ahead and do it up.  If he seems embarrassed and abashed that he doesn't have anything for you, explain that while you know he's not a Valentine's person, you are, and his gift to you will be to enjoy your pleasure at celebrating how fortunate you both are.

Dear Prudie: My parents adopted me as an infant in 1978. I do not know of any other home then with my parents and they are absolutely wonderful parents. I never had any interest in meeting my birth mother. Recently, an attorney contacted me who is representing my biological mother. He told me that my biological mother would like to meet and get to know me. I have no desire to meet her. My husband and parents told me this decision is up to me and they would support whatever I decide. Am I a terrible person if I decline the offer to meet her?

Goodness, no.  We are so inundated with stories of family reunions that people who have other desires when it comes to biological relatives get completely overlooked.  I've known adopted people who have made contact with birth parents, and others who feel completely content with their adoptive parents and have no interest in finding out about their biological origins. It's wonderful that the people you love are not pressuring you and only want you to be true to your own heart.  There are many legitimate reasons for not wishing to pursue a new, emotionally freighted relationship.  It is good that your biological mother has gone through an intermediary and not just shown up at your door.  You can tell the lawyer you've given this careful consideration and you want him to convey to your biological mother that you will always be grateful for the painful choice she made in 1978, that she allowed you to have wonderful parents and a great life, and that you hope she understands that you are going to respectfully decline her offer.

Dear Prudie: Recently my sister in law called to ask if she could put me and my husband down as legal guardians of her children in her will should anything happen to her and her husband. I told her no without even having to think about it. My only daughter is 20 and moved out awhile ago. I love her and I love being a parent but there is no way in hell I want to have more kids. My sister in law became offended and my husband thinks I was harsh. My husband is the only sibling she has and my in laws are elderly. I'm not sure who would be available and willing to take on the responsibility on my brother in law's side, but I am certainly not willing to do it. My husband also doesn't want any more children but if our nephews were orphaned he thinks we should raise them. I will not cope with more kids and I emphatically refuse to sacrifice my life to raise three more children I barely know. I don't even want to take care of pot plants, much less three young boys whom I've met five times. Am I heartless for refusing to even consider? I freely admit I will be a terrible, uncaring, resentful guardian.

Your sister-in-law shouldn't be offended, she should be relieved. Your crude, hard, instant dismissal of this serious and profound request is all she needs to know about the need to keep looking for a potential guardian.  I hope your sister-in-law realizes that  faced with untenable family members, many people turn to friends to fill this role.  I'm sure she's got some decent ones who would be willing to provide her brood with a loving home.  She should be reassured that while she is right to put a guardianship in place, the chances of it ever going into effect are infinitesimal.  And you should be reassured that you have so needlessly damaged relations with your sister-in-law that they will never ask you for anything to do with their kids again.

You might want to point out to your friend that ditching the dog may damage her relationship with her children. I doubt they'd be too happy to know that mom & dad ditched the dog in such a cruel way. If Riley is a purebred, then you could try contacting a rescue society devoted to his breed.

Great point about the kids.  Are these the kind of parents who say, "We've covered your tuition, now get lost"? The letter writer should encourage her friend to include the children in this discussion. They may have some persuasive powers, or ideas on a more loving home for poor Riley.

My husband of 24 years (the last 2.5 years of which he's been involved in an affair with his crush from high school) has been living across town since early fall, but we continue to see each other everyday, mostly so he can visit with our 15- and 17-year-old kids (who don't know about the affair and expect us to patch things up). We normally do some sort of nominal thing with the kids for Valentine's Day, and he suggested we take them to a new frozen yogurt shop. I agreed at first, but now I can't stomach the thought of seeing him at all tomorrow. I don't want to hurt the kids, but I'm thinking of faking being sick, so they'll have to go with just him. Any alternative suggestions?

The most loving thing you can do for your children is to start telling them the truth.  They are certainly old enough to understand what's really going on and it's cruel to keep them thinking this is some long-running tiff that's going to be patched up.  (Which they are probably pretending to believe so as to not hurt your feelings.) You and your husband are physically separated and he's seriously involved with someone else. Valentine's Day or not, it's time for you to get a lawyer and start moving on with your life.  Tell your children that you can't celebrate Valentine's Day with their father because things are obviously not good between you.  Tell them they're free to go to the yogurt shop with him, and then the three of you will do something else, maybe the following day.  You're hurting the kids more with this unconvincing illusion.

on the poster who does not want to raise her nieces & nephews. You were right that she's done her SIL a favor by instantly declining, but then you castigate her for perfectly reasonable feelings about the situation.

It's perfectly reasonable not to want to be a guardian for young children.  But what decent people do in that situation is say how honored you are to be considered for this and that you and your husband will think it over because you take such a responsibility very seriously.  It's fine to then say to your spouse, "Over my dead body!"  But then you go back to the relative and say that you've thought long and hard about this, but you realize that you would not be in the right place in your lives to be able to take on the care of young children. You add that of course, if the worst happened -- which it won't -- you would be part of these children's lives.  I was harsh because the letter writer deserved it.

Dear Prudie: My husband's family is very religious and while we respect that, we do not subscribe to their belief system. Over Christmas, we were staying at their house and evidently my mother-in-law found my birth control pills in my makeup bag. Since then, we have been getting an onslaught of emails about how wrong birth control is and how we are sinners, etc. It is easy enough to just delete the emails, but yesterday she called and told us that either we attend our nephews birthday party or she does because she refuses to be in the same room as us until we "see the error of our ways." I know you usually suggest counseling or screening for family members who act so erratically, but I think this is a matter of conviction, not illness. My husband and I do not want to make the rest of the family choose between us or his mother, so we are inclined to skip the party. But on the other hand, why should I have to skip a party for being on the Pill?

At least Congress hasn't yet passed the "Comprehensive Make-Up Bag Search For Contraceptive" legislation. I don't care what your mother-in-law's personal beliefs are, she doesn't believe in the sanctity of marriage, adulthood, or privacy.  It's possible to simultaneously have strong religious beliefs and be a nut, which seems to be your mother-in-law's situation.  She cannot dictate your reproductive choices, nor your social events. If she doesn't want to go to her grandson's birthday party because you will be there, then tell her she will be missed (even if she won't be), but that you plan to attend.  She should not be given the power to treat everyone else like her minions, so do your best to ignore her intrusions and rants.

My husband and I have been close friends with another married couple for a while now. I just learned through my husband that that the husband of the other couple is having divorce papers served to the wife (my best friend) tomorrow. Should I give her a heads up? She will be devastated for so many reasons as it is. I just feel she should be a little more prepared. They have been having a lot of problems lately and he refuses to seek marriage counseling. Whenever the subject of divorce has come up in the past she says "He just gets like that sometimes."

You can't soften this blow with a heads up, and it's not really your business.  If being served with divorce papers on Valentine's Day doesn't adequately get the message across that you're married to the wrong person, I don't know what will.

I think my nephew, a young teen, killed my dog. Two summers ago he threw tennis balls at a stray cat, and my sister gets sensitive if anyone broaches that subject or his treatment of animals. Last week he came over to do some yard work. I let my beagle out to play in my fenced yard. Fifteen minutes later, I heard yelping. I ran out and saw my nephew staring at my beagle, who had been impaled on one of the fence's sharp points. The fence is four and a half feet tall, and my beagle never showed an inclination to jump over it, as my nephew says he did. I am heartbroken, and maybe my emotions are causing me to lash out. But I cannot understand why my nephew did nothing to prevent my dog from jumping, as he was working in the same area. He also had blood on his shirt. I do not know what to do or if there are any actions I could take. My husband and sister-in-law think our nephew killed my beagle too. Please advise me, Prudence.

This  makes the people who want to dump their inconvenient dog sound humane. This is horrifying and deeply chillling and if your suppositions are true your nephew needs immediate help.  Read any biography of a serial killer, and it almost always starts with torturing animals. The family needs to get together and hire a mental health professional to be part of an intervention with a boy's mother.   This kid -- again if the story is true -- has to have  intensive therapy.  Frankly, if the mother will not act, I'm wondering if the criminal justice system should be alerted.  In any case, I think your family should also talk to an attorney about what to do regarding what appears to be an animal murder by your nephew.  Again, chilling.

why not just show up at the party without telling Crazy MIL anything? Even if there's a scene, MIL will have caused it, not the poster.

Good point.  Don't respond to Grandma's emails,  tell the in-laws you look forward to the party, and let Grandma show up, point her finger and scream, "Contraceptive users!"

Can I just offer something from the kids point of view. When I was in college my dad had an affair. Instead of telling my brother (also in college) and I what was wrong my parents hid it. We could tell something was wrong. However, they always pretended to be still together and in love every time we were around. Due to my mom constantly being upset among other things my brother and I jumped to a conclusion. We spent over a year thinking that my mom was dying of cancer before my parents finally came clean. Who knew I would be so relieved that my parents were "only" getting divorced. Please please be honest with your kids about what is wrong. Kids often know something is wrong and may jump to a worse conclusion.

Thank you for this perspective.  Kids do know when something is terribly wrong and parents only damage their children by making them complicit in the lies.

Nancy and I work at the same national department store in the same department. I am a new hire and do not work on commission, while she does. Nancy has asked me to ring up my sales with her employee number so she will receive commission for the items I sell. We all have sales goals, but Nancy says that as long as non-commission employees sell $200 a day, the managers won't mind. I do not buy Nancy's logic, and though I do not plan to make a career out of this job, I do want to perform well. I am seventeen, while Nancy is in her late thirties. I have not been using her employee number, and she has noticed that her sales have not increased dramatically since my arrival. I am having trouble (sad as it is) to tell her to screw off (or something more professional) to her face. How should I handle this? We must also sign customers up for store credit cards, a real pain, and Nancy wants me to enter her employee number with those as well.

It will be good practice for you to be firm and professional with this colleague who is trying to manipulate you.  The next time she bugs you just say, "Nancy, I'm sorry I can't go along with your request.  Please don't ask me again to do this. Thanks."  If she doesn't stop, then take it to your manager.  If you do, be direct and non confrontational. Just say Nancy has made this request numerous times, you are uncomfortable with it, but you wanted to check what the company policy was on giving commissions to salespeople who don't actually make the sale.

I do not want to leave my newborn daughter with my in-laws when I return to work. They grab her roughly when they pick her up; they grip her ribs too tightly; they don't support her head and play with her like she's her more durable, older cousins; they fill her crib with plushy toys; they feed her sugar/honey. Any requests for them to follow the practices which my husband and I believe are safer are met with hostility and accusations. My husband doesn't see the way they handle our daughter very much, so he tends to think I'm overreacting. When I return to work, I want our daughter to go to my parents. Am I overreacting, and how can I breach that sensitive topic with my husband? Their house is also fairly messy.

You can tell your husband that because you're a new mother, the possibility of  over-reacting goes with the territory. But you have watched his parents closely and unfortunately they do many things they do are alarming. (What with the sugar? Honey is not  supposed to be fed to infants! A crib filled with plush toys is a suffocation hazard!) Tell your husband you understand that it's complicated to hurt his parents feelings, but that neither of you would forgive yourselves if something happened to your daughter while in their care.  Explain that thankfully your parents are available and your daughter will be safer with them.  You can tell him a lot of things are negotiable, but your daughter's safety is not one of them.

My husband (or as I think of him now, "Sara's boyfriend") texted me over the weekend that he's willing to go through a divorce, but only if I don't tell anyone (friends, relatives, kids, family dog) about it until mid-June (after our daughter's 16th birthday and our son's high school graduation and 18th birthday). I want to thank you for reminding me that keeping secrets is hardly ever a good idea. The kids don't need all the details, but you're right: They do deserve someone in their lives who treats them with honesty. Keep up the great advice, whether it's castigating bad dog owners and aunts or putting sad, confused moms back on the right track.

Thanks for the follow-up.  Your husband has walked out of this marriage so he can't dictate the various lies he'd like you to tell on his behalf because he thinks it makes him look better.  You don't have to give your kids the details, but they should know their parents have split and their father is involved with someone else.  Forget making deals with your estranged husband -- find yourself an excellent lawyer.

My daughter is a bit of a showboat, and so is her fiance. He proposed to her at the wedding of my best friend's daughter. It might not have been so bad, but he made the DJ stop so he could propose to my daughter in front of all the guests. Then he asked the DJ to play his and my daughter's two "songs" so they could have some "couple's dances." I was mortified, especially when my daughter's fiance tried to get my husband to give a toast. My best friend told me her daughter was annoyed but not distraught over the proposal and mostly minded the break in the dancing. But even if she and her husband aren't angry, I feel my daughter and I owe them an apology. What should we do?

You needed to have some serious talks with your daughter about her need to be the center of attention a long time ago -- maybe around kindergarten age.  But at least she seems to have found a partner who shares her desire for the spotlight, even if they go through life  offending so many people that there's no one in the audience.  You're right, it was juvenile and inappropriate to turn someone else's wedding into their event.  You need to have a talk with your daughter and explain that there are some hurt feelings because  of what happened and you would appreciate it if she apologized to the bride.  I'm going to bet your daughter has a fit and refused to do it.  You can tell her she's a grown woman and she'll do or not do as she likes, but that she should think about how she'd feel if someone did that at her wedding.  Then you tell your friend and the bride that you are so sorry about the interruption of their lovely event.

A simple solution I have found is telling my SO exactly what I want and what we are going to do for valentine's day. He's happy because he can't mess up and he knows I will be happy. I am happy because he loves me and that I have a box of dark chocolate truffles and my favorite red wine.

An excellent solution.  And truffles and red wine are good for any occasion!

My mom used to work as a stripper and now works as a dominatrix. I did not know this about her until my early twenties, when I saw an ad for her in an alternative newspaper. My brother and I were raised by our dad and our stepmom, but our mom was always involved in our lives. When I asked her about her professions, she was honest, and I am in no way ashamed of her. I don't think she was victimized or abused, and I respect her right to do what she wants. I happen to have friends who seriously dislike sex workers, though. A stripper in our city was recently raped, and they made jokes about her work. Is there a polite way to respond to their insults and defend my mom?

People making jokes about sexual assault should be called on it because what they're saying is horrible, not because your mother is a sex worker.  In the situation you describe all you need to say is, "Rape is not a joke."  Good for you for being understanding and sympathetic to your mother, especially considering the rather shocking way you discovered her line of work. You don't have to be ashamed of her, but you don't have to tell people about what she does,  either. If your mother was in the CIA you wouldn't say, "My mom's a spy," but probably, "She works for the government."  If people ask you what she does it's only a little bit of a stretch to say, "She's a kind of therapist." 

Dear Prudie: My uncle was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver a few years ago and recently received a liver transplant. Since the transplant, he has been in relatively good health, but has started drinking again. A stipulation of being on the organ donor list is attending AA meetings, which he did while waiting for the liver. Now that he has it, the doctors obviously cannot take it back, and he started drinking again. I find this behavior absolutely horrible -- there are so many people on that list who did not get a liver so he could. It has gotten to the point where I find it difficult to be in the same room as him when he is drinking. Everybody in my family seems to think this behavior is okay, but I just cannot get over it. What do I do?

Sadly you watch your uncle throw away his life and an organ that could have saved someone go to waste.  When you're together and he starts drinking you could say, "I'm sorry, I have to go because I can't stand to see you kill yourself."

My boyfriend got a job teaching math at the same posh private school as me last October. He quickly earned the enmity of our students because he wouldn't go over lessons with them and expected them to come to class with an understanding of the chapter's contents. I can understand why that would upset some, but he expects a high level of responsibility, probably because he's only taught at the college level. Two weeks ago, because his students kept complaining, the school let my boyfriend go. Now I must deal with colleagues who thought he got what he deserved and students who I know were happy to see him fired. I resent many of them and could use some advice about how to proceed. I love my boyfriend.

To be let go at this point in the school year means that your boyfriend was one disastrous teacher, and your accounting of his methods confirms that.  You love him, so tell him that it's for the best that this happened because unfortunately his approach to his students didn't work, and he wasn't taking criticism well.  Now that he's gone, the remarks about him will simmer down.  If people start ragging on him you can say that it pains you to hear this criticism because you know what a fine person he is.   And your school may be "posh" but there's something a little disconcerting about that being the  adjective you use to describe the place you've chosen to work.

My neighbor started hanging stray cats when we were in 6th grade and moved on to starting fires. He raped a schoolmate by the time he was 15 and luckily, did us all a favor and accidentally blew himself up when he was making a bomb in his room. They found very disturbing diaries after he died. Do not make light of this kid - he is a ticking time bomb, forgive the pun.

Your description gave me goosebumps.  You're absolutely right, the dog-killing teen needs intervention and close supervision.

I would actually recommend that everyone invited to her daughter's wedding actually does just that...propose away and have the music stopped each time, demand their own "songs", announce pregnancies or the start fertility treatments, and on and on.

Now that's a wedding I would pay to attend!

Dear Prudie, As we approach Valentine's Day, I'm dreading the annual parade of friends trying to set me up with women -- and women sometimes hitting on me. I'm 23 year old man and secretly gay. Coming out is still far away for me, so in the mean time, I'm not sure how to fend off these well-intentioned friends who keep suggesting I ask so-and-so out. And it's really uncomfortable when a woman comes on to me, and I have to rebuff it. I have no interest in women! I feel like I come off as holier-than-thou or a prude when I say thanks but no thanks. Help me get through Valentine's Day with tact!

"Thanks, I'm not in the market," should do it.  I don't know why coming out of the closet is so far away, but coming out would really solve this problem.

Thanks everyone.  I hope the romantics who are with non-romantics can find a chocolate-laced solution to make everyone satisfied.  Happy Valentine's Day!

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Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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