Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Nov 11, 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.

I am currently in marriage counseling with my wife after she discovered my three-year long relationship with another woman. After a lot of soul searching, I truly want to make the marriage work and ended my affair with "Sandy" for good. The problem we have is Sandy's son, "John." Sandy has been a single mother most of her life and I am the only father figure he's known. John and I developed a bond over the years and I feel as though it would be cruel to cut him out of my life because I am no longer in a relationship with his mother. My wife is adamant that she won't stay in the marriage if I maintain any ties with either John or Sandy. I feel disappointed in her for not having the compassion to see John is the innocent victim here who needs my ongoing support. I've previously promised John I would always be a part of his life and I don't want to go back on that. Shoudn't my wife be more understanding of a child's needs?

I wonder if you and Sandy thought about how cruel it was to John to lead him to think that all of you were a happy (if strangely occasional) family during the years you were illicitly getting together.  So now John is collateral damage.  Here's a rule for cheating: Have sex with your lover, and leave the kids out of it. Instead Sandy allowed you to be a surrogate father for her son, all the while surely thinking your emotional tie to him would draw you closer to her. You apparently were unable to imagine the likely scenario that your wife would stumble on your secret, and so promised John you would always care for him. Poor John that two such deluded people are his mother and "father."

Now you say your wife is the villain in this drama because her terms for continuing the marriage include severing all relations with Sandy and her son.  You say your wife has no compassion for the boy, so I'll take your word that she she hasn't expressed sorrow for him and  doesn't seem to care that your disappearance will be a devastating blow. You need to understand that upon discovering the depths of your perfidy, your wife understandably is not feeling that expansive toward Sandy and her child. You don't mention whether you have children of your own, but if you do, even if they're grown, she may be more concerned about her own family. But you're in counseling, and these kinds of dilemmas are what this forum is for. You may have done a lot of soul searching and realized you would prefer to stay with your wife. But if her terms for repairing your marriage are unacceptable to you, then you've got a serious dilemma. I can see both your and her points of view here, and no matter what happens John gets hurt. You seem naive in the extreme if you are planning to have a continuing relationship with John and none with Sandy. But you need to explore in therapy how you do the least damage to John, who is a wholly innocent party. If your wife says any contact at all would end your marriage, then you  have to figure out if disappearing forever from John's life is a condition you're not willing to meet. 

Dear Prudence -- my husband and I have been married a little over a year and have lived together for the past three years. We're in love, get along great, and it's a no-drama relationship. His behavior towards my (now our) dog puzzles me though. He constantly says how much he loves the dog, looks at pictures of the dog on his phone, and jokes that if we ever divorced, he'd steal the dog from me. I find his attachment to the dog a little odd. Is this just a quirkly thing and a sign he's going to be a great doting dad to our future children? Or should I be concerned of some sort of underlying issue?

I'm sure my husband has more pictures of our cavalier on his phone than of me. For one thing, she's more photogenic. (I know I have more pictures of our spaniel  than of my teenage daughter if only because the spaniel lets me take them.) In the evening, when my husband is sprawled out on the couch the dog is usually curled up on his chest and he is murmuring tender endearments to her. He and I joke about who would get her if we ever split. [Note to husband: Me.] Your husband is a petophile, but this is a generally harmless condition, and unless you're concerned his behavior is pathological, or you're feeling jealous and you're sure you're not being irrational, I would just accept that you're married to a tender, doting guy.

Prudie, you often tell people who are concerned about strange behaviors to have the family member see a doctor for a complete work up. How do you suggest getting that person to actually see the doctor? In recent years, my dad's temper has become unpredictable and intense; logic is out the window (a note to a burglar on the fire box that there isn't anything of value in it so please leave it) and most recently, that he'll no longer wear anything the color of a rival sports team (down to no blue dress shirts). If I suggested he see a doctor, he'd either laugh it off or become irate - neither option resulting in his making a doctors appt. Any ideas? I truly think there is something wrong unless all old men are this grumpy.

I just make the suggestions, then I leave the hard part up to the letter writers. Of course I know that saying, "This is an alarming change in behavior and your loved one needs to see a doctor," almost certainly means the loved one says, "There's nothing wrong with me. I'm not going to a doctor just because I refuse to wear blue like any other Red Sox fan." My first suggestion is to call the doctor and explain what's going on. Before people get all crazed about that violating HIPAA privacy rules, it is fine for family members to disclose their concerns to a doctor, it's the doctor who is bound by confidentiality. Then the doctor should help you come up with a plan. It could be that instead of waiting for your father to take action, you just have to be decisive: "Dad, it's been two years since  your last check up. You need to get your blood pressure checked and your medications adjusted, so I made an appointment for you with Doctor Martin for next Wednesday, and I will take you." It's also possible you could have the doctor call your father and say that her charts indicate he needs to get some basic tests and he would listen to a direct "order." I'd love to hear from readers who have successfully managed to convince a recalcitrant loved one get a check up.

My husband has been having trouble sustaining an erection for over a year now. It only happens sometimes, but lately it has been more and more frequent. I have tried to be calm, loving, supportive, etc about it, and not to get upset. A few nights ago, though, I burst into tears and asked him why he hasn't seen a doctor to try to get to the bottom of this. I said that I was too young (30) to live like this. He immediately agreed and made an appointment for a few days from now. Last night, it happened again, and I got upset. I feel like I can't put on an act of loving support anymore, although I know this is supposed to be one of the most important things a wife can do in this situation. We haven't successfully had sex in around three weeks. Since he has gotten a clean bill of health on a recent physical, I feel that the problem is related to stress in his job, and I feel sure my reaction has multiplied the problem. Can you think of anything I can do to offset the damage I have done? I think I have really hurt his feelings and made him feel small (no pun intended), but it's hard to just stifle all my emotions on this topic anymore.

It's true that a wife bursting into tears and announcing, "I can't live like this!" over the flaccid condition of her husband's penis is likely to make him limp away in defeat. The good news is there's nothing physically wrong, the bad news is that he is probably in a downward psychological spiral. Instead of enjoying sex, when he approaches you his brain just goes on autopilot with the alarming question, "What if I can't keep it up? What if I can't keep it up?"  You two need to be able to talk about this, but the conversation should take place out of bed. Tell him you're thrilled he's physically fine, apologize for making a scene and compounding the problem, then tell him you're confident you two can get your love life back on track.  Surely, if you husband watches sports, he's seen the endless ads showing that the majority of handsome, virile middle-aged men have erectile dysfunction.  But there are pills to solve this! Your husband should go back to the doctor and ask for a presription.  Then you should read some books about sex and how couples restore good sexual functioning. Maybe the first few times he tries the pills you don't have intercourse, you just enjoy each other and he get to feel more confident about his erection. I have every confidence that soon you two will be staring at each other in that come hither way of the people in the ads, and my only suggestion is that you not soak too long in those separate bathtubs.

Ha, I love it. That sounds exactly like my husband. It's our dog, we got it when we moved in together, but I'm the one who picked him out. I swear the greatest gift I ever gave my husband was the ability to meet this dog. We have a daughter and we often joke that no one would know we have a kid by the way we fawn over this little guy.

But I don't want to get a letter from your daughter saying "My parents love the dog more than they love me!" Of course, if I did get that letter I'd worry it was written by my daughter. And I would tell her I'd have more pictures of her in my phone if she would  just let me take them!

In honor of today being Veteran's Day, I would like your opinion on a very touchy subject in my family. My husband served eight years in the Army Reserves. He was never called to active duty, but came close twice. He prepared like any other soldier would, but was just never called. My husband's brother was called for duty and did serve overseas. A few years ago, on Veteran's Day, my mother-in-law decided to thank just my brother-in-law, not her other son. She said that my husband is NOT a veteran. In my opinion, if anyone joins the army and is honorably discharged, they are a veteran. Where do you stand?

Thank you for noting it's Veteran's Day and that we are all in the debt of our brave men and women who have served.

I just did a quick check and according to this government website to be considered a veteran one has to have been engaged in active duty, which would make your husband not a veteran. However, this is a ridiculous discussion for a family to be having and a silly grudge for anyone involved to hold onto. If your mother-in-law refuses to thank one son for being in the Reserves for eight years, then as his wife, you should thank him. But if one is thinking today of our veterans, their sacrifice, and the pain many of them and their families will always endure, please let that help put this ridiculous tiff into perspective.

Prudie, I think you misread the timeline here . . . I don't think he's even had the appointment yet (it says "a few days from NOW"). Your suggestions are good but for now this woman needs to cool it and get some perspective. A few weeks without intercourse ins't going to kill anyone.

Thanks for the clarification that his last check up was fine, but he's now going to a doc for a dick check. Assuming everything also checks out, then he should get the pills and have some fun. I'm sure the wife's desparate lament that it's been three whole weeks! and she can't live like this, got a lot of chuckles from harried, exhausted middle-aged people.

The fact is, that at some point, the parents and children switch roles. It's hard to recognize when this should happen, and awfully hard to carry it out. But when you spend time worrying about whether Mom or Dad will be hurt or offended by your efforts to keep them safe, then you've spent too much time thinking about it already. My husband treats his mother like he did our son when our son was a toddler. Tell the parent(s) firmly what is happening, and do it. It took me a while to do that with my own parents because my mother is excellent at turning herself into a victim and my father aids and abets that on her behalf. Once I stopped feeling bad about their folie a deux, things improved immeasurably. Now I just have to persuade my sibs that our parents are the kids and vice versa.

I agree that being firm and confident about basic issues of health and safety is a good idea. And sometimes when dementia or other mental diminishment is involved the parent simply isn't in a condition to make decisions about him or herself. But just because people are old does not mean they are mentally equivalent to toddlers. Every situation has to be handled individually, and goal should always be to keep the dignity of an elder adult intact.

My wife is a successful full-time writer. As far as I can tell, she hates it. She complains about the instability, isolation and loneliness, but she also hates the competition, fame and media attention. She struggles with deadlines and self-motivation. She sometimes gets so caught up in her work that she can't sleep and forgets to eat or shower. She says "I hate writing" and "I hate this so much" all the time. If it were any other job, I'd tell her to quit and find something else that makes her happy. I'd be fine with supporting her financially while she went back to school. It would be tight, but not impossible. However, several other writers (and their spouses) tell me her angst is totally normal, and just part of being an "artist." They also emphasize how rare her level of success is, and say she'd regret "throwing it away." Some of them even claim she's so talented it would be a loss to the world. I like her stuff, but this seems hyperbolic. I'd rather she were happy! Prudie, since you're also a writer who works from home, are they right? Is her misery normal? Or should I encourage her to change fields?

I was wondering which husband of my successful writer friends wrote this. I know they all joke about how much fun it is to live with someone in the midst of a big assignment. You left out complaints like, "Why did I ever think this story would be a good idea?" "I can't do it, I have nothing. I don't even have a lede." Unfortunately for the writer's loved ones (and the writer) this sounds pretty normal.  But I don't like the idea of this being the burden of being an "artist." Surely there are superb teachers who carp at every pile of homework to be corrected, or successful contractors who cavil at every check-out linie at Home Depot.  There are parts of every job that are unpleasant. But as the great Nora Ephron said about her profession, "The hardest part about writing is writing." Maybe it's possible your wife would be happier as a lawyer. But I think you'd just end up wanting to move to a motel while she was preparing a brief. All this doesn't mean that it doesn't wear on you. So with some understanding and humor talk to your wife about this. Explain because you love her, it's hard to hear her sounding so miserable. Say if she wants a change of profession, you will support it. But you strongly feel that this is what being a writer is, and what living with a writer means. Tell her you for your own psychological health, you have to put a limit to how much you can bear of her process. Say you will listen,  but you can't take more than 20 minutes a day of her misery mantra. After that, you can tell her she's welcome to join you for a walk, or a TV break, but you can't endlessly hear about the terrible price of her success.

All reservists have some active duty - their initial training, and then their "active duty for training" (ACDUTRA) thereafter. The definition of "veteran" changes depending on what VA benefit one is going for. But thanks go to all who sign up, and reservists do. Signed, veterans' benefits lawyer for seven years

I agree thanks to all. I quickly looked at a couple of government sites about who is defined as a veteran and they noted a requirement of  "active duty." But thank you for the clarification that while qualifying for benefits may have a narrower definition, everyone who signs up should be honored today.

My sister is very ill, and the hope for meaningful, long-term recovery is questionable at best. The past few days, in particular, have been rough. I know its irrational, but I'm having a hard time responding politely when someone, such as a coworker or a store clerk, says "how are you?" or "have a nice day!" I'm normally a very cheerful person and love to respond enthusiastically to such social niceties, but right now, it is irritating me to no end when someone says such things to me. I know that I am resigned to participate in this mass cultural ritual, so I'm not even sure what my question to you is. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom that would be helpful to me?

That clerk or co-worker also may be struggling with something terrible in their personal lives, but for the sake of getting through the day it can help to hold onto the social niceties. You are going through something awful, so don't beat yourself up over not being able to be your usual cheery self. But you don't want to explain this to a clerk, so a simple, "I'm hanging in there," will cover your social obligations. As far as co-workers are concerned, it all depends on how close you are to them and how much you want to talk about. It could be it would be helpful for you to explain to a few people what is going on, and that you just aren't yourself these days.  But once the word spreads, you have to be ready for concerned colleagues to ask you how you are doing or express their sorrow at your sister's situation.

It'd be good to encourage her to find a writer's group that'll be better equipped to deal with hearing about her feelings.

I'm kind of doubting struggling writers would be very sympathetic to the struggles of a writer who complains about the burdens of her celebrity.

Prudie, I think there's probably more going on in that family than this letter lets on. The LW's MIL probably favors the one son over the other, and the non-favored son's wife sees it clearly. Splitting hairs over which of her sons is and is not a veteran sounds suspiciously like there's one standard in that family for the LW's husband, and one for everyone else.

I agree it's such a strangely invidious comparison that it's hard to believe this is the sole example. But in any case, the wife should forget about the mother-in-law and honor her husband and all the others who have worn our uniform.

I have been divorced from my ex for 11 years and we have a hard won positive relationship and co-parent our two teenaged daughters beautifully. He recently called to let me know that he has been dating someone for a month and he wanted me to hear from him who it is. Turns out, it is one of my sister's close friends. We chatted about what a nice girl the new date is and rang off. I immediately called my sis with the 'scoop' (what a small world!) only to have her tell me (begrudgingly) it was she who set them up! She sees no problem at all with this decision. I am flummoxed...especially after she explained that she called the friend to see if it was OK for MY ex to call....and never thought to call me? Speechless

I agree that your sister should have been the one to give you a heads up. You need to tell her you were hurt to hear this in such a round-about way and you wish she had told you directly. But I'm wondering what would have happened if she had. If you would have said, "I agree that Samantha and Jeff would hit it off, and you should suggest it," that's one thing. If she knew you would have said, "Let me get this straight. You want to fix up Samantha with my ex husband? That is the most disloyal thing I've ever heard," then you can understand why she didn't want to tell you. So I'm not clear whether your problem is that she didn't warn you herself, or she had the audacity to consider your husband an eligible bachelor. If it's the latter, then I think you should let go of the idea that's it's disloyal for your sister to fix him up. I would hope that if you're still single and someone in your ex husband's family thought they had a guy for you, they would feel free to make the introduction.

Thank you all. And thank you today, and every day, to those who have served and those who continue to defend.

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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