Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Oct 21, 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 look forward to your questions.

Dear Prudence, I am 17 years old and I have had the same best guy friend since I was 13. He has been going through a lot recently -- both of his parents have been diagnosed with fatal illnesses, so he wanted to have a couple people over to keep his mind off of everything. By the time I got to his house he was really drunk and the others who were there were intoxicated as well. I immediately took over the role of caretaker. I got everyone else to go to sleep on the couch so they wouldn't drive drunk. And then I had to take care of my best friend. I finally got him to lay down in bed and watch a movie. I fell asleep during the movie and woke up at about 5 am and he was on top of me holding me down and touching me. Ever since he has been texting me like nothing happened. I haven't been responding so he is getting angry at me as if I did something wrong. I don't know how to proceed from here.... He has been my best friend for years and was basicallly family to me. I am ashamed to tell anyone that it happend and I am terrified to face him at school. Please help me, I dont have any clue what to do or how to react to this.

This is one of those situations in which as an adult I wish I could wave a magic wand so you kids would only have to deal with problems like writing your college essays, not such overwhelming problems as terminal illness and sexual assault. First of all, I think hope you can talk to your parents about this. You know if they will be able to listen sympathetically and give you good advice, or if  they will just react punitively.  Depending on the support you find in your family, you could consider calling  the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. They have a hotline and you can talk confidentially to someone there and get help on figuring out how to proceed. Being able to tell someone what happened will itself be a great relief to you. You are in a difficult and complicated situation. As I've noted often, heavy drinking is so destructive, especially to young people. It is possible that your friend is acting as if nothing happened because he can't remember what happened. Consuming a large volume of alcohol can knock out one's working memory. So people act as if they are in control of their actions, but their brain is not recording any of it, and in the morning they have no idea what they did.

What your friend did is horrible and inexcusable. But it sounds as if you think this is wholely out of character. It could be a combination of despair and booze had him doing things he never would normally do.  But you also can't act as if it didn't happen. He needs to know what he did, acknowledge it, and apologize. The school counseling office is a possible resource, but I'm concerned about a counselor feeling this must be reported, and you might not want that to happen to your friend.  Again, I'm not excusing what he did, but he is in the middle of an unfolding tragedy. He himself needs serious counseling. It could be that your parents can intervene for both of you. They must have warm feelings toward this boy, so they could talk to someone to help make sure your friend is getting help. If you feel you need it, they could get you a counselor so that you have an objective person to help you sort through what happened and figure out whether you can continue your friendship. Your friend did something awful to you, but he is a young person whose life is falling apart.

At our wedding, many of our relatives and friends opted to give us cash gifts. The problem is that my brother stole most of the money at the wedding. The police are involved and we have painfully discovered he has debts and a gambling problem. Although we are no longer speaking, I still love my brother and I don't wish to advertise his personal demons to everybody else. But I find myself completely stuck when it comes to writing thank you notes. I am pretty certain some of our guests gaves very generously, warranting more than a generic "thank you for your presence and your present" - but I have no way of finding out who and how much. I really want to do the right thing and express my gratitude, but how?

You're right that the thank you note is not the place to explain the money went in your brother's pocket and instead of going to your towels it's gone to the craps table. But you can still write a heartfelt notes without knowing exactly how much your brother stole. You say something like, "We are so appreciative of  your generosity. We are looking forward to setting up our new household and your gift is going to help get us there. It meant so much to see you on our happy day and..."  It could be that eventually word gets out about your brother and what he did. If people start asking you if their gift was stolen, you can just say, "This is such a sad and painful thing, I appreciate your understanding that I don't want to go into it."

Hi Prudie, I am a single dad. My late wife left me with our only child. My four year old daughter is terrified of dogs, particularly large ones. Favorite relatives have just gotten a puppy that will be very large. She has begun to protest visiting. It doesn't help that my family members refuse to crate the animal. They are saying that the puppy needs to learn to greet people. They do supervise very closely, but that doesn't help my daughter become less afraid. When I said that we wouldn't be visiting anymore, they said they understood and would see us at our house or a restaurant. Complicating the matter is that these relatives are my daughter's guardians and my go to babysitters. It worries me that they didn't think ahead about her fear before getting the pet and that they refuse to put my daughter above it. They will probably be reasonable about the guardianship and babysitting not working for me, but where does that leave my family? Am I being unreasonable, or are they being unkind? My little girl's fear isn't a matter of just not being used to animals. She is utterly terrified just seeing the puppy at the door on a leash. Signed, Daddy to a TWO-legged baby

Your daughter's early life has been marked by profound loss.  Lots of kids are scared of dogs, but it may be that your daughter's terror is somehow connected in her young mind with the disappearance of her mother. Your family members are being insensitive and obtuse by not making sure your daughter is at ease in their home. All dogs need crates and the relatives with a new puppy have to teach it how to sleep quietly in one. If they won't, they are irresponsible in every way. It's remarkable they would prefer to lose a close connection with your daughter rather than make the puppy take a nap.  I'm afraid you need a new set of go-to sitters. But for now, don't worry about changing guardianship. That's something you can think about more deliberately.  Over time, you do want to figure out how to help your daughter get over her fear of dogs. If you know people with calm, gentle ones, you and your daughter can visit, and perhaps while she looks on from a comfortable distance, she can see you sitting with and petting the dog. That might allow her to move in closer on her own schedule. 

I am an atheist, and my wonderful fiance considers himself "spiritual but not religious." This is not at all a problem in our relationship, and neither of us want to get married in a church or even mention God in our ceremony, but we are afraid that our families will be offended by this. Particularly, both of our mothers' sides of the families are deeply religious. I feel like it's an exercise in futility to explain my beliefs to my grandparents and/or my fiance's mother. They are all elderly, and I think at best a discussion of my fiance's and my lack of religious inclination would benefit no one, and at worst would create animosity toward us. So what do we do? I would feel disingenuous incorporating religion into the wedding, and getting married in a church like my family undoubtedly expects me to do would be even worse. Should we suck it up and pretend we're religious for our families' benefit? Attempt to explain our situation and likely create tension and sadness for some of our elderly guests? I feel like there's no way to win here, and it's causing stress in an otherwise joyous time of life.

The way to win is to recognize that if you're old enough to get married, you're old enough to do it in the way that makes you happy.  Let's hope your adult relatives are adult enough to behave well whatever the ceremony consists of,  and to have arrived at the knowledge that you can't control other people, especially as concerns their religious beliefs. How other people act is up to them. You don't need to explain or defend yourself at all. On the other hand, if you want to avoid the whole thing, you and your fiance could have a totally private ceremony, then you can follow it with a celebration to which all are invited. No one has to explain -- or seek approval  -- for such personal decisions. 

Wife and I have custody of my stepson as well as an eight- month-old. The 3-year-old is a typical 3-year-old...too rough and too loud with the baby, beginning to talk back, question why on everything, be bossy, not listen...and he's definitely jealous of the baby. I try to make time to play with just him, but I'm also aware that the baby gets most of my attention, well, because he's a baby. Throw in discipline and my stepson thinks I'm "grumpy all the time" and "I don't like him." Any thoughts or advice?

Please get some parenting classes and read Your Three-Year-Old and Between Parent and Child. These books will help you get into the mind of your stepson and see what motivates his behavior and how you can shape yours to have a happier kid and better relationship. Sure, a 3 year-old needs guidance, but if most of it is in the form of discipline, there's something wrong. You sound as if you're trying to say you understand your stepson is only a toddler, but what comes across is that you don't like him very much. Think of things from his perspective. In three short years his father has disappeared (if he ever knew him) his mother has married someone else, and now he has a new sibling. That's a lot to absorb, and your job as his father is to help make him feel secure and loved, not let him know that you find him utterly exasperating.

Having been single for a few months now, my colleagues have been trying to set me up with various guys. Recently at a company-sponsored dinner they suggested a guy in the office who I don't know, but is not really good looking. I assumed they were joking and laughed, declaring I would never sleep with someone who looked like him. I followed that up saying I could not imagine any woman sleeping with him. A woman at the end of the table who had been listening in, gave me a strange look and got up and left. I didn't think anything until the next day someone told me that she was the wife of the man I was talking about. I am mortified and am thinking of a way to apologize. Should I call her? Call him? Send her a note saying "you obviously DO sleep with him!" ? please help me dig myself out of this.

So your colleagues suggested fixing you up with a married man whose wife was sitting at the table. You replied by saying of a co-worker, "Blech! Who would be desperate enough to sleep with him!" Probably sending a note to the wife saying, "I don't know how you do it, but I understand you are willing to sleep with Reginald even though I find him repulsive" will not ameliorate this situation. This whole thing is complicated by the fact that you don't know whether your co-worker knows of your insult. It's possible his wife told him. Or she might just have decided to shield him from the unpleasant remark. She also might not even know your name. If you were sure he'd heard, you could simply say to him, "I'm mortified at what a jerk I can be sometimes. I apologize."  But if he doesn't know, that would be a mystifying and disturbing declaration. So I think this is one of those situations that you file under: Lesson Learned, Big Time.

I recently started sitting my 3 year old grandson. There were days when it seemed like we were clashing and he was ignoring me all day. Last week, it occurred to me that our clashes are because he is bored, much like a smart student not being challenged in class becomes bored and disruptive. After that thought, I worked hard at being less, NO, and letting him explore and learn with supervision. He and I have both been happier.

Lovely! I agree that the stepfather can do a lot to make his stepson happier, which will make the entire family happier.

Let me start, Dear Prudence, by saying I'm not a prude. That said, I am so offended by some "art" a co-worker put up in our "office". We work in an open concept space shared by about a dozen employees. He's with "hip" team, which is why I suppose they put up with it and haven't complained. Fortunately, I'm at the other end of the office and don't have to regularly view it, but when I do, my goodness -- it's bad and doesn't belong anywhere near a workplace. And before you or someone else says it may just be a matter of taste, you will have to trust me -- it isn't. We are a small company and don't have an HR department. If I speak up, I will surely be marked. Do I just close my eyes when I pass by?

If there is a pornographic piece of art hanging in your office, I can't believe you are the only person to find it objectionable. Hip your office may be, but if clients ever come by, your art curator may be seriously turning off people who conclude the sensibility of your workplace is not for them. This is the kind of thing you might broach in a casual way with people you think are like-minded. "You know that picture down the hall of the copulating couple. I don't think it belongs in an office. What do you think?" Then a couple of you might go to the head of the hipsters and explain they need art that's less edgy, because the picture they have up belongs in a private setting.  If that doesn't take care of it, only you know the dynamics of the office well enough to decide if it's better for your career to just avert your gaze. 

The dad should contact his local kennel club about a visit with a certified therapy or companion dog. Those dogs are trained to be particularly calm and gentle and could help his daughter get over her fear.

Good advice. And the handlers of these dogs should have an understanding of how to deal gently with a terrified little girl.

I am an adult and my parents were divorced more than ten years ago because my father had an affair with another woman. He and this woman eventually married and their relationship has been fraught with blow-out fights, distrust, and dysfunction ever since. In the past, she has thrown things at him (without actually hitting him, luckily) and verbally abused him but, since I haven't actually witnessed these events, I do not know whether she is the only one behaving badly or if my dad is also guilty of this abusive behavior. Most recently, I have learned third-hand that my stepmother attempted to run my father over with a car ostensibly because of a disagreement about what to do with the money from the sale of a property that they co-own. My father did not involve the police when this incident occurred as he likely should have. This latest drama seems to cross a line where I no longer feel that we can just stand by and allow this to continue. But, at the same time, he is an adult of substantial means who could, if he chose to, leave the relationship at any time. How can I best help my dad?

You're right, we don't know if this is a mutual dance of violence, but men can be victims of domestic abuse and if he's being run over by a car driven by his wife, your father is one. I suggest you call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Talk to the people there about how you might intervene. At the very least, you should get your father alone, say you've heard of the escalating violence, and you are concerned for his well-being. It's likely he will dismiss what you say, but sometimes the voice of a trusted person will make someone see their situation in a new light. But you also have to accept that he may be so deep into a destructive pattern, that he's more committed to playing it out than being healthy.

My boyfriend is well off and very generous. He is always the first to pick up a check or treat friends to events. The trouble is, most of these generous offerings are actually "tests." If a bill comes for dinner and a fight ensues over who wants to pay and he wins, he later complains that the other party should have not let that happen. I have told him that he should stop expecting others to pay because he set the precedent already. Obviously, he disagrees. I guess he thinks other people should read his mind. Of course every one of our friends thinks he is awesome, but they don't know what is REALLY behind his generosity. Any thoughts?

Usually someone this passive-aggressive does not limit it to a single circumstance.  The next time this little game happens and he complains to you later tell him, "Harry, if you don't want to pick up the check, don't do it. When you reach for it and insist it's yours, other people aren't supposed to knock you in the head with the wine bottle in order to pay it. You're being unfair to make this a test. Let's just split the check from now on." Be prepared, however, for your boyfriend to find you are failing his little internal test of whether you're a supportive girlfriend.

Dear Prudence, Last weekend my neice showed me an article online about a mother who was beaten up by an intruder while her young daughter was present. The website showed still shots of the act. One one of the pictures, the little girl us cover her face with a pillow. This horrific incident was all caught on a nanny cam in the home. Well, when I told my husband about this article, he told me that he had already read it himself and also watched the video. Prudie! When I read the article myself, I did see the YouTube window but could not watch such a horrific act. I'm completely disturbed that my husband not only chose to watch thie video in its entirety but also, feels no shame. I don't know. Just the thought of watching a young girl in the room while her mom is getting beaten up makes me sick. Do I just need to get over this?

A little while ago a video went around of a gruesome leg injury suffered by basketball player Kevin Ware. (Who I'm glad to see has recovered and is playing again.) I am so happy I never clicked on it, but I don't condemn the  endless number of people did. Like you, I am disturbed by the distribution of a nanny cam video of a woman being assaulted while her child looks on. But people aren't monsters for clicking on something awful that's there tantalizing them -- think of rubberneckers at a car accident. I don't fault your husband.  If you were to discover he enjoyed the video and watched it obsessively, then you might start packing. But if he clicked out of curiosity and is simply getting on with his life, you need to accept the fact that different people have different tolerances for such things.

I have a strong suspicion that a woman in my office is the victim of domestic abuse. She came in to work with a black eye last week and an overly detailed "I'm soooo clumsy" story. My co-worker's boyfriend also works for our company indirectly as a contractor and has a sterling reputation in our office. I am friends with the ex-wife of her current boyfriend and my co-worker was the reason for the separation. My co-worker knows that I am friendly with his ex-wife, but doesn't know the extent of our friendship and that I know all about his past history of physical abuse (injuries from one brawl in his previous relationship resulted in a doctor visit). Knowing the details of his previous relationship, I personally don't think that this will escalate in anything more than a few black eyes/bruises. Her boyfriend doesn't seem like the deadly violent type, just a guy with some serious control issues. However, I am concerned because my co-worker has a very young child and this is not a healthy environment. Do I have any obligation to report this to the authorities or say anything to someone? If I happen to be wrong about my suspicions, I don't want this to come back on me and be seen as a troublemaker or gossip.

How comforting to think that this guy probably won't kill her, he'll just cause some bruises and maybe a broken bone or two. Since you know for a fact he has been violent toward his ex-wife, I concur you're  on to something about the black eye not being a matter of walking into the bathroom door. Again, I suggest calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline. They will have good advice for you about whether to approach your co-worker, or just report your suspicions directly to the police. That's something you should be able to do anonymously.  It is alarming there is a child involved in this mess, and there should be intervention before it escalates into tragedy.

Thanks, everyone. Have a great 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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