Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Dec 03, 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 takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

My boyfriend warned me ahead of time that his family was a handful, but nothing could of prepared me for Thanksgiving. N-words and gay slurs and an uncle who referred to Secretary Clinton by the worst word towards women imaginable. I am not trying to be a snob, but I can't comprehend raising a child around these people. Although we are in med school a thousand miles away, we are thinking about settling down near his hometown. I talked to him about the outright bigotry his family embraces, and he is both embarassed and also non-apologetic - I shouldn't judge them for, amongst other things, referring to our President in a manner that you wouldn't even publish. He's a great, decent guy, but his family is not one I would want to be a part of, and I'm having a hard time reconciling the two.

Even if one's family is composed of the rudest, crudest racists and misogynists, it can be a big leap to ask someone to write off them off.  Fortunately, your boyfriend ended up being nothing like these people. He's embarrassed by them. But he also feels some instinctive sense of loyalty to the people who raised him, and whom he knows in a more complicated way than you possibly could. I can understand your wanting him to denounce these idiots wholesale, but you should be able see how that might have felt presumptuous to him.  You say he's your boyfriend, not yet your fiance. So it seems premature to start dictating that you want to limit the exposure of your non-existent children to them.  You have made your understandable shock clear, so now you should back off. Let him spend some time considering what it must have been like to see his loved ones through your eyes. That will be more powerful that your trying to get him to  sever ties with the only family he has.

Dear Prudence, I am engaged to a wonderful man, and we know we want children in a few years. But he recently told me that he is vehemently against circumcision. It's not for religious reasons--he is circumcised and believes that it caused him a lot of physical pain in adolesence. I, on the other hand, am for it. I believe the new research saying that it can help protect against HIV, HPV and herpes and the old research saying that it can lower UTI's and possibly reduce cancer. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics says the benefits outweigh the risks. But my fiance thinks that all of these studies are just created by doctors looking to get a little extra money from the circumcisions they'll perform. I love him dearly, but I feel like this might be a deal breaker for since it affects the well being of a child, no matter which side of the argument you fall on. We can't just go through life hoping we'll have a daughter. Confused Potential Mother

All the things you say are true, and I'm Jewish, so  a big believer in circumcision.  I'm also wondering what the "physical pain in adolescence" caused by circumcision was. I'm guessing it had something to do with beating his member raw, which would surely have happened even if he'd had a foreskin. However, billions of men have not been circumcised and are fine. And plenty of circumcised men have the STDs you list.  What's concerning is that your boyfriend asserts there's a conspiracy to snip. Surely he doesn't really think doctors are buying that vacation home on the proceeds of removing foreskins. This is one of those issues on which there's no compromise, so one of you has to bend. If you feel this impasse exposes part of his character that you find disturbing, then it's possible you need to reconsider marrying him. But maybe this is just one of those quirks married people have to accept in each other. I think you should suggest talking this over with a neutral party.  It would be a shame to let such a little thing ruin a future that could be wonderful.

Dear Prudie, My boyfriend "Nick" and I have a holiday tradition where I dress up as Mrs. Clause and he dresses up as Santa and we role play. My costume is from an adult shop and is very suggestive while his is just a regular Santa suit. The thing is this year he has decided to volunteer for a well known charity standing on the street dressed as Santa to collect donations from passers by, and he wants to use our role play suit! I told him I want him to get a different suit for his charity work, and reserve the other one for its own special purpose, but he's been dismissive of the idea, saying a proper Santa suit is expensive and that he doesn't want to spend the money unnecessarily. I'm considering just going and buying him one myself, but I don't want to seem pushy. Would I be over the line in insisting he doesn't use his naughty suit to be nice for charity?

As I understand it, you don't want him wearing his plain old Santa suit because when you see it it says to you, "It's sexy time!" However, that connection will not be made by any of the people dropping quarters into his can.  This erotic clause you cite for wanting him to spend money for a new Mr. Claus suit is ridiculous. Be nice and drop your objection.

My oldest dearest friend remarried a verbally abusive jerk. He blows up at her for minor offenses and curses at her, breaks furniture, disappears for hours, and freaks out if she talks with her ex-husband (the father of her children) too much. Her ex-husband does not know how serious the verbal abuse has become or how much has occurred in front of their kids. I don't know if my friend has told her kids not to reveal to their dad how their stepdad treats her, but for some reason, they don't say anything to him. I know they're scared of their stepdad, because they have told my son that, and my friend has admitted that. She's worried her ex-husband will freak out if she tells him how her current husband treats her. I don't think she understands why her husband verbally abuses her, and she thinks it will stop somehow. I know my friend loves her husband and wants their marriage to work. I feel like I'm failing her kids by not giving her ex-husband a heads up. What should I do?

To use the old frog in boiling water analogy, sometimes the person in a dangerous situation will no longer recoginze it because the abuse escalates gradually. Your friend is living with a violent man who is increasingly out of control. Why she loves this creep is for her to figure out, preferably with the help of a therapist, but she has to recognize the situation for what it is. I think you should take her out (let's hope her husband allows it) and lay out how concerned you are for her and her kids.  You can tell her you understand that her ex would freak out to find out what's going on in the home, but that is a good indication of why he should know. He surely would want to protect his kids. Tell her you're worried she's so deep into this bad scene that she's incapable of telling the ex, so you're going to. And tell her to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help her get a start in getting out: 800-799-SAFE.

My friend from school is being abused at home, where she lives with her Grandparents and her mother. I've known for a few months that her Grandma calls her names, and makes fun of her, but I thought very little of it because they were only words. Recently though, her Grandma has become more and more violent, to the extent of burning her personal belongings, and burning her with cigarettes. I want to call Social Services, but I am afraid they will take her away and put her up for adoption, in which case I may never see her again, or they will investigate, decide itâ'snot abuse, and then it will make things worse for her. Also, she has confided to me that she doesn' want to leave, just kill herself. I am very afraid for her well being, but I'm afraid to lose her. What should I do?

What a tragic situation and  of course your friend is terrified to stay and more terrified of what would happen if she left. However, this girl is in imminent danger. Her grandmother has committed crimes against her that should be prosecuted.  Please tell your parents, and together you should all go to the principal of the school right away to get started on getting this girl safe.

I own and live in a semi-attached house in a large city. The house adjacent to me is owned by an landlord and rented out. The tenants and I share the wall between our master bedrooms. In a nutshell, I hear EVERY MINUTE of their intimate encounters. I'm in no way asking how to get them to stop. They are consenting adults and can be as intimate as they wish. My question is what to do about being woken up several times a week by their cries of ecstasy. I have so far been able to resist knocking my knuckles on the wall to alert them to their racket, but I'm an early riser and am really not interested in learning on a 4-or-5-night-a-week basis how good the male partner is. Please advise.

These people can be identified the smiles on their faces and the bags under their eyes. You own, they rent. So you're the one who's going to have to invest in the sound proofing. Get a consultant and find out what can be done on your end to muffle the joy. Once you do that, if you still can hear the blow by blow, you need to go over and have a conversation with them. You can say that unfortunately the walls between your homes aren't  thick enough, and that the sound between the bedrooms leaks through. You can say you've mitigated this as much as you can, but for their privacy, and your sleep, and if they could keep it down (per Bill Clinton, you don't have to specify what "it" is) you'd all be more comfortable.

I am a single, successful career woman who has been dating a wonderful, charming man for the past two years. With the holidays approaching I have a problem - my boyfriend would like to be included in my family events. However, my parents and siblings absolutely abhor my boyfriend. They disapprove of our significant age gap, his divorce, his behavior based on meeting him once at a party, where, in their opinion, he drank too much. They consider him a cheap, womanizing drunk who is taking advantage of me. At Thanksgiving he wondered whether I would like to have him accompany me to family dinner. Now with Christmas looming - how am I going to tell my atheist boyfriend that my family will have a fit if he shows up for midnight mass?

This is the season of people behaving abominably. It's time you did some truth-telling to both sides. You have to let your boyfriend know that you've been struggling with your family's disapproval of him. Explain they dislike the age difference between you and his divorce. Tell them they have always been hyper-judgmental and you are having a very hard time dealing with their negative remarks about him. Then you tell your family that you have been in love with a fine man for two years who is a permanent part of your life.  If they want you to part of theirs, it's time they behaved with the true spirit of the season and welcomed him into their homes. If they refuse, then you should say you are going to have to start a new tradition of being with kind and loving people for the holidays. So you and your boyfriend will be celebrating Christmas together away from them.

I don't think the OP is wrong for considering her future with boyfriend. It doesn't sound like the boyfriend is willing to limit contact with his family, so these folks are going to present quite a problem in the future, should the OP and boyfriend marry. Certainly all the letters you receive from people having in-law problems should be a flashing red warning to your readers about how important it is to choose your partner carefully. OP is right to be concerned, and I would advise her to hold off on making future plans with her boyfriend unless/until the issues can be discussed and resolved to her satisfaction.

Sure I see you could make the  argument that she should get out now if this is his family and he's not ready to call them out on what they are. However, few family relationships come with such an easy on-off switch.  He could be thinking, "Well I grew up with these people, and I'm nothing like them. I'm not ready to sever relations with them because of fear of exposing our not-yet-conceived children to their grandparents."  It's no defense of his family to say that he might have understandably started feeling defensive because she was asking him to see them only as an outsider would.  Now that he's introduced her to them, it's opened up a conversation between them. I don't think it's time for an ultimatum.

I am in my mid-twenties and no longer live at home, but am very close to my parents. Last year, I found out that my father is cheating on my mother. I discovered this when I used the family computer and he had left a secret email open with emails only from one person with a rather salacious name. I confronted him about this and he told me that the reason he had cheated on my mother was that they hadn't had sex in over a decade. He claims that he is no longer seeing the other woman and they are now "just friends" (Yeah, right). I don't know if any of this is true, but the only person I could ask is my mother and then she would know. Other than this, my parents appear to have a happy marriage and have a lot of fun together. I understand that married couples sometimes become better friends than lovers, and if both of my parents are happy, who am I to judge? My dad told me he would tell my mom about the affair if I wanted him to, but thus far I have decided to pretend I never found out. Am I a coward? What should I do? My biggest fear is that my mother will find out what I know and hate me for not telling her.

It's not cowardly to decide to stay out of your parents' marriage. It's too bad your father decided to spill. It would have been much better if he'd said you snooped into something private and he was not going to discuss this with you.  If what your father says is true and he and your mother no longer have sex -- -- and I bet you don't want to explore this assertion further -- then  your mother is not in any danger from an STD. If your parents are just happy companions and not lovers, your  mother may not want to know how your father deals with his sex drive.  Tell your father you're sorry you found out and that decisions about his marriage are for him to make.

I just found out that I'm pregnant yesterday. Tomorrow, the next night and several nights next week I'm getting together to celebrate the holidays with different groups of friends. Tomorrow night we are going out for sushi and cocktails, except sushi and cocktails are now off limits. I can order veggie or shrimp sushi (which is cooked) and a sparkling water with cranberry juice, but I'm just afraid that I have no poker face and some close friends might be looking for clues. Do you have any recommendations for how to behave?

Congratulations! I agree that it's possible these clues will lead to a round of questions along the lines of, "Do you have good news?" But since it's so early and you're not ready to tell, you can just say that your stomach's been unsettled lately, so you're taking it easy on the booze and raw food.  And when you feel ready to tell, you'll have some friends saying, "I knew it that night you ordered cooked sushi!"

Dear Prudie, My sister's husband "Ben" cheated on her with one of her best friends, "Kelly". Apparently the affair has been going on for years and Kelly's six-year- old son is the result of this relationship (what was a shock to everyone, expecially to Kelly's husband) Since the affair got public my BIL and Kelly have left their spouses and started living together. My sister is devasted, but keeps saying she still loves Ben and wants to win him back. Ben used to work for my family's company, but has left his job and has been struggling financially since. In a desperate attempt to save her marriage, my sister has been giving Ben expensive gifts and even significant amounts of money from time to time. How can I make her come to her senses? She refuses to get a divorce! Ben is a scumbag and she deserves much better! I understand that she still has feelings for him and that maybe she is afraid of being single after so many years, but Ben is not worth her effort and humiliation. Please help.

Ah, love, that all purpose excuse for being treating like crap. You have to accept that some people can't be helped. What you can do is reflect reality back to her. When she starts going on about how much she misses him, you can say, "Sure, it's hard to end a marriage. But he's now living with the mother of his child, so things don't look too promising." Eventually tell her you just can't be a sounding board about Ben. Say he's treated her so terribly that it's too painful for you to hear her strategies for getting him back.

Please please please, Prudie, ask the friend to talk to an expert BEFORE telling the ex-husband -- there's no guarantee that is the best thing to do (for all we know, the ex may have his own anger issues, which would only make the situation more dangerous). And even if it is the right thing to do, everything needs to be handled carefully to keep the friend and her kids as safe as possible. This is a job for expert guidance, not well-meaning ultimatums.

Thanks, it's a good idea for the friend to call the domestic abuse hotline, describe the situation, and get a read on what course to take.

Cigarette burns are serious abuse, and this kind of physical violence usually only escalates. Please call Social Services TODAY. You can remain anonymous, Social Services will investigate and they will take this complaint very seriously.

Good point.  I hope this letter writer can get her parents involved in this -- this is too much for a teenager to handle alone. The parents could then call social services. I also think all of them should go to the principal immediately. It's important for people who know the abused girl to be alerted so that she is not simply descended on by strangers.

My husband comes from a very conservative and strict family and I've learned to keep my opinions to myself and be on my very best behavior around them. We see them only once or twice a year, so it's not too hard to do. A few years ago, my husbands grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He too was a very reserved man, with great respect from the community and well honored by his family. However, with his diagnosis he has become a bit indecent. It started with a few stroke on the arm and legs two years ago, but at the most recent Thanksgiving, he grabbed my chest while we were passing in the hallway. I'm the only female in the family under 40, so I don't have other "peers" to "compare notes". Is this kind of thing usual? Should I say anything to anyone? Especially to my very conservative in-laws? I'm not sure whether to brush it off as I don't feel necessarily assaulted, but it does still make me squirm.

Tell me there's someone with in-laws who aren't horrible! What joy to be constantly on your "best behavior" around these judgmental, superior people. You need to tell your husband and your in-laws that because of Grandpa's illness he has started grabbing you.  Explain you understand it's a result of his losing his faculties, but you would appreciate if people could keep an eye on him so that he's kept away from you. Maybe your in-laws will get a lesson in thinking they have all the answers. 

Hi Prudie, I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my boyfriend's family, and we all stayed at his brother's home. His brother and sister-in-law became very adamant - even though we were sleeping in separate places already - that we not have sex while we were visiting. My boyfriend and I had already assumed this, since it was a family weekend and a very small home; besides, by having separate sleeping spaces this was implied. When they made this request, we said it was an inappropriate and unwelcoming question, and that it implied a value judgement about our characters. This disagreement led to a whole weekend of unpleasantness and conflict, and the hosts kept bringing it up with us. It got so bad that my boyfriend and I had to leave and stay at a hotel. Are we overreacting in saying that our sex lives are none of their business, or is this an appropriate house rule to set when you have guests?

Nope, all in-laws are crazy. Maybe this was a veiled invitation: "Hey, we expect not to hear you having sex in our house. And if we do hear you, we'll be forced to enter the room to check out what's going on." Unless you're dead broke, staying with these ridiculous people is not worth it. From now on, book a hotel for the entire stay.

My girlfriend's parents have always been wary of me. I'm not a Christian (she and they are), I'm 40 (she's 25), I'm divorced and a father, and she and I have struggled over my close relationship with my ex-wife. Their friends have sometimes been more open about their disapproval of me and their belief that my girlfriend could do better. What speaks in my favor is how happy I make my girlfriend and how well I treat her. I believe her parents respect me for that. I want to marry my girlfriend, and I'm wondering whether or not I should ask her dad for her hand in marriage. I think it's an archaic practice, but I know it matters to him. Amongst my girlfriend's family and their close friends, the story of how a man asked a father for his fiancee's hand in marriage is almost as important as the engagement story. I'm trying to get over what I feel - that it's sort of ridiculous to ask a man's permission to marry his grown financially independent daughter - and trying show my (hopeful)-future-in-laws that I'll be a good husband to their daughter.

I'm wondering if during your courtship with your girlfriend you've noticed you've been excluded from holiday gatherings. If so, and you're the boyfriend of the previous letter writer, I've got news for you: her parents can't stand you.  From what you've laid out here, it doesn't sound to me as if marrying this young woman sounds like such a good idea. You don't share religious views, which are important to her. Her family doesn't like you and you're intimidated by them. You're considerably older, you have kids, and most important, she doesn't like that you remain close to your ex, the mother of her children. That is a serious problem that will only escalate once you marry and especially if you have children together. It could be that you really enjoy having a much younger girlfriend. But maybe she's not actually ready to step up and take on the responsibility of helping you raise your children.  I know you weren't asking me for approval for her hand, but I'm not giving it, either.

Dear Prudence, I'm a childless mid-thirties woman living in a downtown one-bedroom condo. I'm having a casual holiday get-together soon at my home, and my boyfriend and I are a bit at odds over invitations. I am not comfortable with having children over. That may seem terribly scrooge-like to some, but my place is small, I prefer an adult vibe for my events, and the thought of sticky hands and shrieking after 48 hours of cooking and cleaning is more than I can handle. Is it OK to issue adults-only invitations? Is it better not to invite parents at all? I completely understand someone not wanting to get a babysitter, and I'd be happy to meet with the kids in a restaurant or someone else's home, but what's the correct etiquette for my own home? None of the potential guests are relatives; they're my boyfriends' friends, and we don't live together. Thanks.

Yes, you're entitled to have an adults-only party. So make it a "Holiday Cocktail" event at an time, say 7-9, that makes it clear children aren't welcome. Many parents will enjoy getting a babysitter and getting out. The ones that won't should send their regrets.

My boyfriend recently asked my parents for approval to marry me. My mother was so excited, she decided to fill me in on the happy news. While it came as no surprise to me, I still informed my mother that it's not protocol for parents to tell their daughter about this sort of thing. After that I let it go. Meanwhile, other family and friends who have heard about the story are mortified and have chastised my mother for not keeping this a secret. My mother is now upset and keeps trying to defend her actions. What is the proper etiquette?

So a future mother-in-law actually likes the guy her daughter is going to marry and now everyone is piling on her for spoiling the secret.  Tell everyone to back off and tell your mother you're sorry she's getting so much blow-back. Look, I dislike the whole business of it being totally up to the man to decide when two people are getting married. I'm assuming  the proposal didn't come as a total shock and that you two had had conversations along the way that you wanted to spend your lives together.

My son's 2nd grade class is having a "Holiday Month" where they learn about Christmas, Kwanzaa, Chanukah, Ramadan, and other holidays during December. One of the mothers is threatening to sue. She claims that since we live in a Christian country, only Christmas should be taught. She attended the Christmas session last week and said some unbelievably anti-Semitic and and racist comments in front of the kids. Some of the kids were in tears. The Principal called it a free speech issue and is considering cancelling the rest of the Holiday Month to avoid a lawsuit. He more or less agreed with her that Christmas should be the only holiday discussed. I live in a suburb to a major city in the South, so I've seen this before, but I'm puzzled as to what I can do.

I hope there are some not insane people on the PTA and that a group of you can get together and discuss this rationally with the principal.  If not, take this up with the superintendant.  Racism and anti-Semitism at an elementary school is not a free speech issue. It's something that has to be attended to before the principal allows this to become a school principle.

Thanks everyone.  It may be time to start planning that holiday get-away on a desert island.

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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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