Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jan 14, 2013

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 takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon. I'm looking forward to your questions.

My young niece requires a liver transplant. It turns out that her mom - my SIL - and my husband are a match. We've done a lot of research into it and I feel incredibly uneasy about my husband being a live donor, due to the various risks and impact on his health. My SIL has stated she "can't" donate because it means she can't breastfeed her one year old son or look after the other two kids immediately after the operation. My husband has always been the type of person who gives more than he can, willingly and without thinking. So without any contemplation, he readily agreed. If my SIL wasn't a match either I would absolutely support him being a donor. But it seems that being a donor is too difficult and inconvenient for my SIL, yet she wants my husband to take all the risks. I told my SIL if she were to go through the operation I would take time off work to look after her and her children. Yet she stubbornly insists on my husband. Since I protested so strongly my husband says he will go ahead only if I agree, and now my SIL is extremely angry and hostile towards me. Am I a terrible person or is my SIL being selfish?

Making a decision about organ donation is not be something that should be done without thinking.  Since your husband is contemplating this, he should  sit down with an expert counselor who can outline the risks and the benefits  -- knowing one has saved a life has to be a pretty profound thing.  Your sister-in-law should also get her own counselor who can lay out her risks and recovery process. Obviously, if she were to be the donor she would need an enormous amount of help caring for the children while she heals. But it sounds as if she has the family around to do it. (Weaning a 1 year-old is a trivial consideration in the context of what's a stake here.) You need to do some major backing off. Of course your husband's health is a concern for you, and a legitimate one. And yes it's fine if you feel he was pressured into this and you want him to give it deeper consideration. But ultimately you must recognize he is an adult and this is not your decision to make. I'm sure time is an issue here, but all of you need to cool off, step back, and agree that you will act like rational adults. Once your husband and sister talk to transplant advisors, your family should hire a social worker with expertise in this subject and all of you, calmly and generously, should air things out to help you make the best decision for your niece and the entire family.

I'm 25 years old and I've never driven a vehicle. When I was 16 all my parents could talk about was how they looked forward to me being able to drive my much younger siblings (ages 4 and 6 then) around to day care and karate. The idea being responsible for such precious cargo freaked me out and caused a lot of anxiety so I would never take the permit test. They made a small fuss about it then but then just dropped the subject. Fast forward to today and my road anxiety is much much worse now. Luckily I'm a homebody and I work within a five minute walk from my fiance's (who is amazingly understanding) office. However, lately I've been getting a lot of pressure to suck it up and learn to drive from everyone. I feel like I would be a huge safety risk to people on the road and could potentially kill someone by overreacting to any number of things that could happen driving. When I say this my parents/friends tell me I'm being ridiculous and don't know how I can function with out a license. For the record, we don't live in a big city with easy access to public transportation, but this doesn't cause me any discomfort in my life so I don't see what the big deal is. What can I tell people to get them off my case?

I'm afraid I'm going to join the crowd that's on your case. I didn't get my license until I was 19 years-old because the terrifying movies in driver's ed of what can happen to young people behind the wheel worked so well that I was traumatized to the point that I never wanted to get behind the wheel.  Eventually having to be driven everywhere and realizing how circumscribed my life would be if I didn't learn, forced me to try again. Yes, it was scary, but being older and realizing how much I was causing my fears helped. There are people with medical conditions  who cannot drive and have full and adventuresome lives. But if you are lucky enough to have the capacity, you shouldn't let a long-ago worry keep you in your little circuit. You say that you're lucky to be a homebody. But you may just be rationalizing the fact that you've let your worries keep you at home. After all, those kids you were supposed to take to karate will soon be getting their own licenses.  Pick up the book Learning to Drive by Katha Pollitt, and read her wonderful essay on becoming a new driver in middle-age. You need to call some local driver's ed companies, explain your predicament, and say you want the kindest, most patient instructor. Once you get the hang of it, you won't believe how long you let your fears rule you. I still don't like to drive, but am grateful I finally forced myself.

I was never a huge believer in mysticism, but at a friend's urging, I have made three visits over the past few years to a tarot card reader that has been extraordinarily accurate. During the first two readings, she was very specific about dates and details and roughly 80% of her predicitions came true. I just visited her again recently and one of the first things she mentioned was in regard to my love life. She mentioned a name and some details about this person and said he was interested in reuniting with me but would never initiate anything because he feared rejection. I knew immediately who she was talking about, and based on my experience with him, I think there is a good chance she could be right. I am interested in pursuing this possibility, but he lives out-of-state and I am not sure how to go about initiating contact with him. I'm used to being pursued and not the pursuer. I do have an email address and other contact information. I would leave the psychic story out, but what should I say? Do you think I'm crazy?

I don't believe in all this mumbo jumbo, except when I was regularly seeing psychics I did find one who predicted that within a short period -- she said two days, two weeks, or two months -- I would meet the man I would marry. I paid her and walked out thinking, "This is the worst psychic I've ever been to" (which is a pretty silly thought itself). Two weeks later my future husband and I went out on a blind date. Upon my marriage, I permanently retired from the psychic visiting business.  Let's put the fact that you're thinking of contacting this guy because of the prompting of a  psychic.  (And are you sure your friend hasn't supplied your psychic with some helpful details about your life?)  Your  shy guy who got away sounds like someone worth pursuing.  When women get to a certain point -- one of frustration -- in their love lives, I think it's a good idea to reassess one's types and methods.  Stepping out of your usual role of the pursued and initiating contact would be a useful exercise, no matter what comes of it. When you get in touch, definitely leave out the psychic story for now. All you need to say to him is that you wanted to wish him a happy new year and hear how he's doing.

I live in an apartment complex with paper thin walls. My university owns the complex, and upperclassmen live there. My neighbor and her boyfriend fight often - or, rather, he screams at her and she cries. I have never been comfortable with his treatment of her but lacked the push I needed to reach out and do something. Last night he yelled at her for talking to some guy, and I heard what sounded like three slaps. My neighbor started sobbing, and her boyfriend stormed out. I just ran into my neighbor, and she has a busted lip and a bruise across her cheekbone. I have no idea what to do. We don't know each other, and when I asked her if she was okay, she ignored me. I think she must realize I hear some of her boyfriend's screaming matches, but she probably doesn't know that I heard last night. What's my responsibilty? I feel I must have some sort of obligation to help her. She might not trust me because to her I'm some strange guy.

The next time you hear them mid-fight call the police. In the meantime, report this to the dean of student affairs or the counseling office right away, while the cuts and bruises are fresh. You have more than enough evidence of assault. This boyfriend needs contact with the authorities, and this girlfriend needs help getting out.

Dear Prudence, While spending the afternoon with my boyfriend's roommate, he and I started sharing little gripes about our partners. While we were doing this, he mentioned how my boyfriend picks at his skin...and then eats the findings! I was shocked at this and thought that he was just putting me on, but the roommate has known him far longer than I have, so I decided to pay more attention to my boyfriends habits when we're alone. Sure enough, he is right! I have seen my boyfriend pick at his back, neck, arm and other extremities...and then hurriedly bring his hands straight to his mouth. I can't believe I've never noticed this before, but now it's something that I can't un-see. I don't want to kiss him anymore and just looking at him grosses me out. How do I mention this delicate situation to him without causing him extreme embarrassment?

This is some sort of compulsion and as embarrassing as it is, he needs to see if he can get control of it.  If now that you know this about him you are so repelled that you can't even let him kiss you, then your relationship sounds pretty doomed, so either way, there's no reason to stay silent out of a desire to  spare him this embarrassment. Say that you've just become aware of this habit of his, it must cause him a lot of distress, and you urge him to find a counselor who can help him try to conquer it. Do keep in mind that he's the same person he was when you were happy with him, and that it might be a relief for him to be able to be honest with you about this struggle.

Our son was stillborn at 37 weeks a few months ago. I've mostly kept to myself since then, but sooner or later I have to address what to do with his nursery. I'm sure the news has traveled by word-of-mouth to everyone who attended my baby shower by now. What do I do? Do I return the gifts to those who gave them to me? My sister-in-law has asked for the gift she gave me back, as she is due in a few months. I don't know what to do.

I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm also sorry you have such a crude thoughtless person for a sister-in-law.  Give her back her gift without a word.  Depending on how she's related to you, the person closest to her might want to explain to her just how much her thoughtlessness has damaged your relationship.  She sounds like the kind of person who will not understand that while you will celebrate the birth of her child, you will still be torn up with your own grief and need sensitivity and understanding. You do not have to return the gifts. Either you can put them away for now, or if you can't stand keep these reminders, you can donate them to a shelter. Anyone else crude enough to ask about their gift (please tell me there's only one in your circle) should be told you just can't talk about baby presents now.  Please consider contacting Share (nationalshare.org) a support group for people who've been through losses such as yours.

Hi Prudie! We recently moved back to a city we left several years ago. During that time two of our good friends got a cute dog that they love. She is a very sweet dog that loves to snuggle and give kisses. Now that we are back, we spend a lot of time with them so that our dog can play with theirs. My problem is their dog is so ill behaved! She jumps up constantly and is overly aggressive in her play. It has gotten to the point when we go to a public place with their dog we get anxiety about whether or not it will pick a fight with someone's dog. We have tried hinting that she could use some more training, but they always blame it on the other dog. They never take responsibility for her. And they just adopted a second dog and seem to be letting the young one learn from their older one. We have started to limit our interactions with them and I feel it is ruining our relationship. Is there a nice way to say "hey, your dogs are cute and loveable, but act horribly and need training" without being offensive?

You're right that they have an out-of-control dog which is training the second dog to be just as dangerous and obnoxious.  I don't understand why people just can't speak up about issues that if they remain unaddressed are going to ruin the relationship anyway.  Just tell your friends  you enjoy their company and their dogs are adorable, but their pooches need some behavior modification. Say that when you live with pets every day it's easy to lose perspective, but these wonderful animals will be happier, and going out with them with be less anxiety-filled, if a good trainer helps your friends be better owners.

Dear Prudence, I have dear friend, "Rachel", who generously fosters cats. The number of cats that she fosters has grown to around 15. She also has a dog and 3 cats of her own. Unfortunately, her house smells like has 18 cats and a dog!! She likes to entertain and has thrown holiday parties over the last few years. Each party has been more and more sparsely attended until this last party in which only (1) person of 20 invitees showed up. I, myself, also decided to go elsewhere. She is incredibly hurt by the fact that no one is coming to her parties and is at a loss to understand why. How do I diplomatically and gently tell her that reason why attendance is so low is because her house, literally, smells like crap? Signed, Cat-Lover but Ammonia-smell Hater

See above letter. Substitute "dog's behavior" for "house smells like piss and crap." Before you do that, if you can find out what organization(s) she's fostering from contact the group(s) and explain your friend is way over the limit and the conditions are not good for animal or human. Your friend is crossing, or has crossed, into hoarding.

I didn't get my driver's license until I was 21. I was turned off as a teenager by how nervous my mom would get when I was driving and that she would shout at me which was terrifying. Eventually I got my permit and would take the car out by myself early in the morning (when the roads were empty) to practice. I gained a lot of confidence that way, and got my license with no problem. I'm not sure if you are allowed to drive by yourself with a permit but at 25 it's not like a cop is going to pull you over unless you already did something wrong. I don't like to drive either but it's irresponsible not to learn, especially if you are thinking of having children with your fiance.

Lots of scaredy cat drivers have written in with their own stories of overcoming this fear.  A few have suggested  some kind of cognitive therapy in conjuction with an understanding driving instructior.

My friend heard domestic violence from our college dorm room during our senior year. She called the police. The next day there were sticky notes on every door in our building saying "thank you" to the unknown person who called the police. Please call the police.

Amen.

My husband and I have a wonderful and precocious five- year-old-girl. On Friday night we went out and left her with a babysitter, and got back around midnight once she was already sleeping. Feeling in the mood, we locked our door and went at it. In the middle of our passion, we heard pounding and crying at the door, and when we opened it found a terrified little girl who couldn't understand why mommy was screaming like she was being attacked. We reassured her that everything was fine and put her back in bed, but all weekend she's been acting worried and keeps asking if Mommy's ok. Last night she couldn't sleep because she's convinced herself that there's a monster in the house. You can't explain the screams of ecstasy to a five-year-old, so what should we say to reassure her and convince her that there's nothing to worry about? So happy we locked that door...

You don't have to explain screams of ecstasy, you can just explain to her that it may be hard to believe, but sometimes moms and dads like to act loud and silly together, or tickle each other. Say that what she heard the other night sounded scary, but that you and dad were playing around -- tell her to think of how she shrieks when dad chases her or you all play hide and seek. You can say it's really thoughtful that she was worried and thought she should help you, but you want her to know there's nothing to worry about and everything between you and dad is great.  When she gets older, one day she will realize just what kind of "tickle game" she interrupted.

Hi Prudie! For my entire life, my father has been a drug addict. I have many memories of him stealing my things, disappearing for days, etc. Since I've become an adult (I'm 28 now), I've had limited contact with him as I realized he was not going to change his ways. A couple of years ago, however, he stopped responding to my messages. I accepted that this was for the best and moved on with my life. The other day, I received a Facebook message from a teenage girl who says she is my father's stepdaughter, and that she would like to get to know me better as well as put me back in contact with my father, going so far as to provide me with his cell phone number. I replied back to her that while I appreciate that she is just trying to do something nice for someone she cares about, that I am not going to reconnect. Now, she thinks that not only am I rejecting my father, but her as well. That is not my intention, but I don't know how to speak with her and not to my father, and I assume she will continue to try to get me to call him since she has already sent me two 'guilt trip' messages telling me about how my father 'cries to know' I don't want to speak to him. Do I owe something to this girl who seems to love my father, or can I block her from contacting me further with a clear conscience? -Happily Fatherless

Sadly it sounds as if your father is up to his old, manipulative games. How dreadful of him to try to make his teenager stepdaughter his go between, and use her to pressure you.  You can send her one last note saying that you are glad to hear your father has been able to be an important person in her life, but it's not fair of him to make her try to get you two back together. Tell her as much as she cares for her step dad, your lack of relationship with him  is for many complicated reasons that you don't want to burden her with. Say you wish all of them the best, but not being is contact is the right decision for you. Then if the guilt trips continue, go ahead and block her.

The daughter of a friend of mine recently had her 5th birthday. At the party my friend caught her husband deliberately rigging a party game so that the birthday girl could win. When she spoke with him afterwards, he said that it was a harmless way to make the day more special for her. As an ethics question, this has my group of friends pretty split. The mother of the birthday girl and my boyfriend both see this as spoiling a child, and being completely unnecessary. The father of the birthday girl and myself both see it as a harmless ego-boost. As the arbiter of manners and morals, where do you stand Prudie?

Even the birthday girl has to learn to be a good loser. However, unless Dad tries to put the fix in on everything in his daughter's life, once everyone has stated their position, this is the kind of thing that should be dropped.

When I was in college (ten years ago) there was a guy I met through mutual friends, and one night "Bob" and I ended up hooking up... in a PG13+ sort of way. We had a lot of fun, but this was about a week before graduation and nothing ever came of it. We've since reconnected through Facebook, and it turns out that he'll be passing through my city next weekend. We made plans to catch up, and through some flirting and entendre, there's really no doubt what will happen - and I think we're both looking forward to it. The problem is that while I've been single for a while now, I started seeing a new guy "Jim" about three weeks ago. It's way too soon to have "the talk," and we're not exclusive, but I like him a lot and am excited at the potential. Getting the elusive second date these days is hard, and I don't want to mess up a good thing. So... do you think it's ok to hook up with Bob? Is that asking for trouble with Jim? I don't know the next time Bob will be in town, and I really would love that closure.

I understand being horny and all, but I don't know what kind of "closure" you get from planning to have meaningless sex with a guy you barely know anymore. Sure, if you use condoms you reduce the risk of contracting an STD, but not to zero, and the fact that you've been exchanging flirtatious messages is not an imperative to jump into bed with a former make out buddy.  Yes, it's way too early to make life plans vis a vis Jim, but because of him you yourself are uneasy about having sex with Bob. So enjoy Bob's company and decide that while it will be pleasurable to have him pass through town he won't be passing through you.

The last time I went on vacation with my dad and his new family (my stepmom and their three toddlers) I spent more time babysitting my siblings than spending time with my dad. I'm mostly happy to help out, but because my dad lives across the country from me, I wanted to spend some time with him. Since the kids were born, whenever I visit him I feel more like free childcare than like his daughter. My dad wants me to come to Hawaii with him and his new family for my spring break. I miss my dad, but if I go, I want to spend time with him and feel like a member of the family, not like the help. What should I tell him and his wife, whom I don't know very well?

Shame on your Dad. I understand that three toddlers are a handful, and that you want to have a relationship with your new siblings, but it sounds as if Dad and stepmom think, "Built in nanny!" whenever you arrive. You need to have a conversation with your dad about this. I don't know how old you are, or what kind of relationship your mother has with him. But if she and he are on decent speaking terms, she could also step up on your behalf. Tell your father you love and miss him and you know he has a lot of responsibilities with his new family, but you hope he can make time just to be with you. Say it doesn't have to be long or exotic, a weekend together occasionally just the two of you would be fine. Explain that over the past couple of vacations you've spent more time taking care of the kids than being able to be with him, and you wanted to talk about this openly before you made plans for spring break. Say that if you go, you would appreciate if they could hire a babysitter a few nights, so that you, he, and his wife could go out for a more grown up dinners and you can all get to know each other better. Say you would like to have one or two afternoons just devoted to the two of you. See how he reacts, and make your spring plans accordingly.

When I was 4, we moved into a new house. My bedroom shared a wall with my parents' and for some reason, they placed both of our beds against that wall. One morning at breakfast, I asked my mother why Daddy was hurting her the night before. A few days later, our rooms were switched, and my bed was placed on the other side of the room. I never understood why they made such an abrupt change to the house. I have no memory of this, but my brother, who was 7, remembered it vividly and told me about it when we were in our 20s or 30s (we are now in our 50s). My mother denied that this happened and insisted that it was because the closet in my original room was substantially larger (which was true.) As an adult, I was very happy to learn that my parents had an active sex life with two small children.

I really like your kicker that in retrospect you are happy your busy parents still managed to get it on!

I would venture a guess that someone near Yeardley Love heard and saw the same thing and never spoke up. Please do for this young lady's sake.

Thank you for mentioning this. I thought of the horrific death of the beautiful, accomplished college student Yeardley Love at the hands of her boyfriend and classmate. More reason to always speak up about domestic violence.

My coworker's baby died suddenly four months ago. She'd already used up her maternity leave when her baby died, so our boss gave her some time off to recover. Now she's back, but she's struggling to function. Her anguish is understandable and heartbreaking to watch. At first I tempered my frustration that she didn't do any work by telling myself that as a young woman in her twenties, I couldn't begin to comprehend my coworker's pain. Gradually over the past two and a half months I have taken on more and more of her responsibilities to the point where I'm doing 95% of her work. I feel for my coworker, but I am exhausted and can't keep picking up her slack. We used to work together closely, and when she was gone our bosses assigned me an intern. I no longer have the extra help. How should I approach my coworker? Am I being insensitive?

This woman is in agonizing pain and less than three months is a very, very short time to expect someone to be functional after this kind of loss.  I'm hoping you work at a place that has compassion and that your bosses are good people. If so, speak to your supervisors and explain that your co-worker for the time being needs more support as she deals with her grief, and you're hoping her duties can be temporarily parceled out to several people and that getting an intern back would also be a great help. If you have a decent relationship with your co-worker, you could also go out for coffee with her, listen to how she's doing, and suggest that she might want to contact Share (nationalshare.org) to talk to others who understand.

How will the birthday girl feel when/if she finds out that her own father didn't trust her to win, and rigged the game?

I agree he shouldn't have done it, but one rigged game of pin the tail on the donkey should not ruin a childhood.

Thanks everyone, talk to you next week.

In This Chat
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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