Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Feb 27, 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.  I hope everyone's emerged from the Oscar-induced stupor.

Since we began planning our wedding three months ago, my fiance has turned into another woman: selfish, temperamental, materialistic. She expects her parents, who are approaching retirement, to bankroll most of the wedding, and she continually demands items that are beyond their means. She becomes very angry with me when we disagree on major decisions (like location, menu, the band) because this is her special day and she has been planning her dream wedding since childhood. She never behaved like this before our engagement, and a number of people have assured me it's the pressure of planning the wedding that's making her act this way. I don't think there's any excuse for her behavior and have decided to break our engagement. We have been together for three years. What's the kindest way I can end our engagement, and what should I tell others?

Every time I think I'm going to have a moratorium on impossible bride letters, some new twist comes along. I appreciate this one because we so rarely hear what the groom ends up thinking when he watches his bethrothed turns into a termagant.  I love the excuses that get offered for this behavior.  If the pressure of planning a party destroys one's equanimity and perspective, real life is going to be completely disabling.  There is also something creepy about explaining to the man you are about to marry that he's destroying the fantasy you've harborded for decades about your perfect wedding day, which was a lot more pleasant without an actual bridegroom to mess things up.  Still, I don't think you necessarily have to throw away three years of presumed happiness because of three months of hell.  But you do have to shift the conversation. Instead of squabbling about lobster ravioli as an appetizer, you need to sit your fiancee down and tell her you need to put aside the wedding planning because you're feeling the need to put aside the wedding.  Explain you understand both her dreams and her stress, but neither is justification for bankrupting her parents and treating you like dirt.  Say that you want back the person you've loved for the past three years and suggest you two see a counselor to help get back to normal.  If she simply freaks out, then the kindest thing to say is the simplest: "Courtney, I love you, but I don't love what's happening between us.  We need to stop wedding planning, because the wedding is off. "

My son is six months old and I am still breastfeeding. Occasionally, I like to have a cocktail or two so I purchased some strips that detect alcohol amounts in breast milk. After I drink, I pump my milk, test it, and discard the milk that contains alcohol. This way I can occasionally have a drink and still breastfeed safely. However, I've noticed that from perfect strangers up to my own mother there is a lot of judgment in this decision. I don't really understand why, I am not harming my baby in any way whatsoever. Both my doctor and my husband think this is perfectly fine. What should I say the next time somebody brings this up? I am tired of justifying my Manhattans.

That's a lot of micromanaging from family and and even strangers! The next time someone makes a comment about the alcohol content of your breast milk,  you should say, "I agree, so I'm going to pump it and use it to make you a delicious White Russian."

I attend a small University studying engineering. I hold traditional values and I would like to get married to a woman willing to stay home and raise our children. I am lucky enough to not have any student loans and will be able to support a wife and children on my salary. Preferably, I would like to marry a woman who has a college degree and is smart because we would match intellectually and she would provide the best environment for my children. Women I meet on campus frequently call me sexist. I never thought of myself as sexist because I have no problem whatsoever with women who work in general and I respect my fellow female students and professors. Just because I don't want my wife to work does not mean I think women in general shouldn't work. Am I sexist? Is there any way I can meet a woman who shares my values, or was I born 40 years too late?

You sound like the male equivalent of the bride in the letter above who much preferred planning her wedding without the bother of a real person to marry.  Of course we all have ideas of what our ideal life would be, then life happens and we have to -- even want to -- adjust to reality.  Yes, there are women, even well-educated ones, who would prefer to stay home with their children. But dictating these terms before you've even gotten far enough to go steady makes you sound rigid, dictatorial, and yes, sexist.  Instead of announcing your life plan for the so-far non-existent woman you plan to marry, you should just date interesting, intelligent women and find out what they want out of life.  But if you're determined to only spend time with women who meet your qualifications, go to a rally for Rick Santorum. He shares your views of women's roles, and during his Q & A ask if he can fix you up. 

My husband and I got to know a couple through our son's pre-school. Their son and our son were in the same class. "Joanie" called me constantly for 'play dates' , bbq's and dinners. I was taken aback by all the attention, but I thought she (they) was (were) just very 'social' . Within 4 months, they had invited us (me, my husband, my son) to their beach house. We agreed to go. Within 24hrs of being at the beach, 'Joanie's" husband propositioned my husband, saying " I am willing to share my wife. What about you?" My husband stated "I don't share". I also walked in on "Joanie" sitting extraordinarily close to my husband on the couch. My husband didn't relate this story until after we got home. I trust my husband. Initially, I didn't understand why my husband was so rude to them. (he can be pretty blunt) Now I don't know how to distance myself from this couple. Our sons go to the same school and we also carpool. I can't stand to be around them. Now I am more aware of how "Joanie" acts around my husband, i.e., leg flung over the arm of a chair, short shorts,etc. I am more aware of "Joanie's" husband gives me hugs that last too long...of the prying questions about our sex life. BTW, "Joanie" is a college professor and her husband is a business owner. Dear Prudence please give me words to get these people out of our lives.

Get a new car pool!  When you do, tell the Swingles that you no longer care to socialize.  After  that your interaction can be limited to nodding at them at the nursery school end-of-year party.

My husband and I have been married for eight years now. In the course of our courtship then, we spoke about how we grew up, and so forth. I expressed to him that when I was in grade school, I had won several spelling bee contests. But, was horrible at math. Absolutely hated it! Since we have gotten together, and in the course of sending out mutliple emails for business or personal, he constantly asks me how to spell something. In the beginning it was not an issue, but now it has become tedious and irritating. On top of all of this, he can be belittling when it comes to math, saying things such as, "Get your calculator out. I know how bad you are at math." If I had trouble with a word when I was young, and I asked my mother how to spell it, her response was, "Look it up in the dictionary." I had said this to him once jokingly, and became irritated with me. I'm not talking about a word occasionally. In the course of one email, he will ask three to five times per email. Four to eight emails. And, yes we have spell checker in our email. I don't want to belittle him as he does me on occasion about my math skills, but this issue is becoming extremely grating on my otherwise calm demeanor. How can I deal with this without throwing a dictionary at his head? Spelling Overload

This has been going on for eight years and he has a spellchecker?  The next time he asks you to spell a word  say, "I-M L-E-A-V-I-N-G T-H-E R-O-O-M." Then get up and go.

My daughter's fourth grade teacher is unmarried and pregnant. Although she is a fantastic educator, kids at that age are bound to ask questions and are old enough where you cannot placate them with a simple answer. I asked her teacher what she told the children about her condition. She told me that she informed them she was pregnant (she is due in June, so this was obvious) and that was it. I asked her if she planned to keep the baby. She told me that was her business alone and she is not obligated to explain her marital status or plans with her child to me or anybody else. I feel that this woman has significant exposure and influence over my child and my questions were perfectly acceptable. Should I take this to the principal or switch classrooms? My husband thinks we should drop it, but I don't want my daughter to get the impression that single motherhood is acceptable.

As long as you were asking, I'm surprised you didn't inquire as to her favorite sexual position.  Your comments were so far over the line that the teacher's proper and measured response to you indicates just how good she must be at handling unruly children.  The lesson you want to teach your daughter is that you treat everyone with respect, so you should take your husband's advice and drop this completely. 

On car rides, my husband refuses to stop for bathroom breaks between gas fill-ups. Now that I am pregnant, and he is planning a long trip next month, I have asked that he relax that rule for me, but he just says I should either hold it or wear a diaper. This doesn't seem normal to me. What can I do to convince him to allow me to take more frequent bathroom breaks on long car rides?

Before you got pregnant by him did you get any clues that your husband is a controlling nut? Is everyone writing in today married to a lunatic? What you do is say that you've come up with a more practical solution: You're staying home.

Prudie, I am having a hard time just "dropping" this. My daughter loves her teacher and is with her for a considerable amount of her day. Her teacher is somebody she looks up to, and now I am afraid my daughter is getting a bad example. I always plan to treat her teacher with respect, but that does not mean her condition does not have consequences at her job -- which is influencing young minds!

I have written at length about my concern about the consequences for society of so many children being born out of wedlock and gotten a lot of flack for it.  However, whatever the larger social discussion is, any particular woman's decision is none of your business.  More than half of births to women under 30 in this country are to unwed mothers, so if you think you're going to protect your child from this fact you are wrong.  Your daughter is only in 4th grade so she's probably hardly aware of her teacher's marital status.  If she brings it up you just tell the truth, "Miss Carson is not married. "  You seriously need to get out of this teacher's personal life before it affects your relationship with the school.

You don't "ask" anyone if you can stop to go to the bathroom! You either refuse to get into a car with him, or you go to a therapist to find out what kind of person your husband is and how he will treat your child.

Agreed.  This is the kind of father who demands the kid is toilet-trained by three months.

My husband is the legal guardian of his teenage brother. He's a typical teenager who grunts a lot and doesn't talk much, but I've always been fond of him - until now. Recently I noticed my underwear going missing from the laundry basket. I thought I was just going crazy and misplacing stuff. The other day my BIL was playing games on my cellphone and forgot to return it before going out. As I was searching for it, I found a stash of my dirty underwear hidden under his bed. I feel completely disgusted and violated. I've noticed him giving me strange looks and odd comments but shook it off as me being silly. My BIL relunctantly apologized but it's clear he doesn't understand what a violation of trust this is. I feel like I can't live with him anymore and there are relatives who would take him in if we asked. My husband is torn between his responsibility towards his brother and knowing how violated I feel. Is there anything you can suggest here?

A while ago I got a similar letter, only this one was about a father-in-law which made it so much more revolting.  If his older brother is this teenager's legal guardian, then obviously life has not been kind to your young brother-in-law. What he did is a serious violation and I can understand your desire to kick him out.  But he's only a teenager and he needs help.  Before turning his world upside down again, you need to get him some counseling -- and some group counseling for all of you would be helpful to set some boundaries and give him insight into the consequences of his actions.  Let's hope there's time to take some of the twists out of this boy's psyche.

Dear Prudie, My husband and I are fortunate to work together in a non-profit organization that we love and are extremely dedicated to. We've worked there for nearly 4 years and we've both always given the work our all. Our first child was born last year and since then, I've had to take a major step back from the work in order to care for her. I've recently begun helping my husband with the work more often, now that we've found part-time childcare. The problem is that my husband has become extremely critical of my work and how I use my time. If I don't finish a project by his deadline, he starts criticizing me and demanding to know how I've spent my time since I was assigned the project. I find myself accounting for every spare minute and justifying time spent with our daughter. By the way, he is not my boss. We have equal positions at the non-profit, but no direct supervisor at the moment. I will be heartbroken if I must quit the job I love but I'm not sure I can stand my husband's dictatorial attitudes for one more minute! Today, he told me that he liked the job much better when I was absent. I'm afraid that working together is ruining our marriage. What should I do? Sincerely, My husband is not my boss

Ah, a theme: The person who has a dream that life should be as he or she dictates it, and damn what anyone else wants out of life. I think you should show this very eloquent letter to your husband. Tell him you are so frustrated by what's happening in your marriage that you felt moved to ask for help. Having a child is a huge adjustment, and your husband hasn't made it.  He may be not only resenting that you can't concentrate full-time on your work, but that the attention that used to go to him is re-directed to your baby.  This can only be worked out if the two of you can talk without rancor about how to address each of your needs and expectations. And since it sounds as if you work for a flexible employer,  it would be most instructive if you two took turns working part-time.  Let him be the primary care-giver for a while and see how he does with deadlines.

My mother used to do the same thing, even to small children, which ended up in more than one pee accident in the car (I have since been diagnosed with a bladder problem exacerbated by years of trying to "hold it"). We took a long drving trip through California when we were teenagers, and fed her some Ex-Lax Brownies. Every time she had to stop we very rudely reminded her of her rule and complained about the delays related to stopping. After the trip we told her what we had done and asked how it felt to need to use the restroom AND get berated for it. The pee-break issue never happened again! - Not Holding It Anymore

Thanks for this fantastic anecdote.  I kind of love the idea of the pregnant wife saying, "I don't think we should even stop to eat. I've prepared some delicious brownies to keep you fueled, darling."

I'm a high school senior. Last summer I broke up with my boyfriend of 2+ years. I loved him and everything, and he's a great guy, but I just wanted out - he could be kind of overbearing and I was starting to feel smothered. I just didn't want to be tied down anymore. But now my ex-boyfriend won't leave me alone. He follows me around at school during the day, stares at me constantly, and calls me almost every night, crying. He even cornered me in the hall on Valentine's Day and gave me a poem about how his life is basically over now that we're not together. I understand he's depressed, and I feel terrible, but I'm so tired of this. I've told him many times that it's over and he needs to leave me alone, but he won't give up on me. No guy in school will come anywhere near me because of all the stupid drama, and people who know nothing about our relationship are all telling me what a heartless, horrible bitch I am for dumping him. Even my mom isn't on my side, because he got close with her while we were dating and now she talks to him all the time and constantly tells me how depressed he is and how I should be nicer to him. I know this is just high school and it'll be over soon, but I don't think I can stand another four months of this. What should I do?

Your mother is wrong, wrong, wrong.  High school romances end, and you ended yours for a very good reason.  I'm really sorry your mother is not on your side, but you have to go to the school counselor right away and report this.  No one should be harrassed and stalked as you are, and if he's making even faintly suicidal remarks some responsible adults need to get on this.  If your counselor doesn't act, pronto, go to the principal.  Your last year of high school should not be about someone else's drama.

My husband succumbed to pancreatic cancer two months ago. I am now seven months pregnant with our first child and struggling to put my life back together. Thankfully, neither money nor my family's support will be issues for me. But his family might be. My sister-in-law and father-in-law are both alcoholics. My mother-in-law left my husband's father years ago and started a second family. They all want desperately to be a part of our baby's life; but of the three, the only stable one is my MIL, and she often cruelly criticized my husband. I have been keeping them at arms' length and, for the moment, have denied their request to visit me in the hospital. Right now I'm having trouble handling the unpredictability of my FIL and SIL as well as the fights that explode when they spend too much time around my MIL. Am I being cruel? How can I navigate this situation? I do want to find a way for them to be a part of our baby's life.

I'm so sorry for your loss.  You need quiet support now for your own sake and for that of your coming baby. If your in-laws cause distress, you have to limit your interaction.  You can be honest without being cruel. Say you understand their desire to be part of the baby's life, and they will be, but right now you need a quiet space to heal.  Then, when the baby comes and they visit, have some trusted relative with you who can be your enforcer. If they start misbehaving, have them shown to the door with an explanation that the histrionics aren't good for anyone. 

Prudie, thank you for your response. When I was in the 5th grade (20-plus years ago) my teacher was pregnant. Maybe she had a husband, not sure. We had a class shower for her and I remember being very excited that she let us be a part of her home life, even just a little bit. I don't recall wondering about her private life beyond hoping that she would still be my teacher, but then again, I am the product of an "unacceptable" single mother, so maybe my view is skewed.

Exactly.  Few kids even imagine their teachers having a personal life.  I remember being that age and running into a teacher in a grocery store and being astounded that she shopped for food like anyone else.  The mother needs to stop trying to ruin her daughter's relationship with a wonderful teacher.

Dear Prudence, My brother and his wife are adopting a two year old from a foreign country. They only recently told the family after starting the adoption process and are not far from bringing her home. The little girl already has parents, but they gave her up to an orphanage because they are so poverty stricken. I am not really the type to comment or care about other people's business but this situation breaks my heart. I feel like it's wrong to take a child away from their country of origin when she has healthy, living parents. I feel like it would be in her best interests if my brother simply sponsored the child so she could live in her own culture with her biological parents. I've even considered sponsoring her myself, which wouldn't make a big dent on my monthly paycheck at all. Should I say anything to my brother, or just butt out?

Go ahead and give money to organizations that help impoverished people. As far as your brother is concerned, butt out, and shut up.  Then, after your niece arrives,  dedicate yourself to be the world's greatest aunt.

Dear Prudence, Friends of mine suffered an awful tragedy. They were pregnant with twins. The twins were born prematurely and did not survive. They lived only a few days. We live far apart and are in touch a few times throughout the year. They had called me with the joyous news of their pregnancy, but I learned of the tragedy through a shared acquaintance. I would like to get them two trees to plant in memory of their children. Do you think that this is a thoughtful gift? Or do you think this is one that would be a painful reminder of their loss?

Nothing is going to make them forget their loss.  Your gesture is a lovely one.  In addition to this memorial, also write to them to express your deepest condolences, then follow up with a phone call. 

Prudie, I think you let your own views on the roles of a husband and wife get the better of you (especially your sarcastic comment about Santorum). I would suggest that Mr. Degree look to social groups that would attract women who share his traditional values, such as at his church. There are lots of women who have decided that their children deserve their full time attention without competing with a job and they will be eager to find a husband who supports their decision. He has decided what family arrangements work best for him and is right to try to find someone who shares those values. He didn't deserve your tongue lashing.

I agree that there are fruitful places for a guy like the letter writer to look for a potential spouse.  I will not back down from my suggestion that it's best not to have completely decided views about what your non-existent spouse is going to do with her life.  As for Rick Santorum's beliefs that the way he lives is the way everyone should live, sarcasm seems like an appropriate response.

I have no idea if this applies, but... when I was in HS I had this happen to me. The guy had been borderline abusive during the relationship, and it got really scary afterwards. Please, please, please tell your HS counselor. Now. They need to know. And tell your mom that she needs to cut it out. My mom STILL talks about that guy (I'm 35), even after I told her that he had tried to break my car windows out and threw stuff at me constantly (which is a whole other post).

How can a parent not be alarmed when her daughter is being abused by a boyfriend? You are absolutely right this girl needs help, now.  She should also tell the people at the school that her mother doesn't understand what's going on, and Mom should be brought in and get an earful.

Plant the trees yourself, if you want, and tell them about it, or send a picture. Don't give them a task to accomplish at this time in their lives.

I'm assuming the letter writer was talking about organizations that plant trees in someone's honor or as a memorial, then send a card.  Of course, no one should receive a set of trees to plant.

A new coworker recently invited me to a house party. I have had trouble making friends since I moved to a new town, so I accepted. When I arrived at her house I discovered I had been invited to a "sales party."My coworker spent the evening demonstrating the benefits of a line of cosmetics and lotions she sells. I could not afford (and furthermore did not want to buy) any of her products, and I felt put on the spot when she really pressured me to buy something. I left her house on bad terms, but the next day at work she joked, "Next time, come prepared!" She wants me to come to her next party and is having trouble taking no for an answer. What should I say?

She's going to have to take it because you're not showing. "I'm sorry, I can't come" is all you should say.  You can repeat it ad naseum.  And if she makes life in the office a hassle due to her moonlighting, you can mention to human resources that people in the office are being solicited hard to support someone's other job. 

My husband and I hired a photo booth for our friends to use at our wedding. Last Saturday we received a CD with all of our guests' pictures on it. Much to our surprise, we found three strips worth of pictures showing two people engaged in a sex act. (Think Bill and Monica.) What makes things even more awkward is that these people are both married but not to one another. The two couples are good friends of my husband's, and now he feels like he's been placed in this horrifically awkward position. We think we should destroy the pictures, but do we have any obligations after that?

Part of me wants to give props to anyone flexible enough to carry off a sex act in a photo booth.  I wonder if your friends thought the flashing lights were just part of an extra-special orgasm.  Destroying the pictures is a good idea along with saying nothing.

Thanks, everyone.  Talk to you next week.

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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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