Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Feb 25, 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, everyone. Let's go.

Three months ago, the woman who was having an affair with my husband died suddenly from an accident. I found out about the affair only two days after her funeral. I thought she was simply a coworker and I was wondering why my husband was so disturbed and emotional. He quit his job, saying it was too traumatic to go to work. She was in the early weeks of pregnancy when she died and my husband doesn't know whether he or her husband was the father. So, on top of everything, he's also grieving for a baby which may or may not have been his. I find it extremely difficult to be emotionally supportive when he wakes up at 3am crying and trembling - yet I don't have the heart to yell at him like I want to. He says she's dead, so there's no reason for me to feel jealous or threatened, and asks for my understanding as he grieves. We've barely talked these last weeks because I don't know how to respond to my husband when he cries and says he misses her and wishes she were here, then also how much he loves me and that he never intended to leave me. I asked him to visit a marriage therapist together and he said he's "not ready" to work on our marriage, and thinks he needs to see a grief therapist instead. Do I need to give him time to mourn the loss of his mistress? Or should I demand he focus on our marriage?

You cannot impose a schedule on someone else's grief. So I think you should let your husband fully experience his -- alone. If you are being asked to be an understanding  source of solace while he mourns the loss of his mistress, a woman who was possibly the mother of his child, then that is an emotional burden that's simply outside the bounds of what one spouse can ask of another. He's told you flat out he can't work on his marriage because he's too torn up about the death of the woman he loved.  So I think you should tell him to move out while you each figure out what you want out of your marriage and life.  In addition, I hope he is independently wealthy, or has fantastically in-demand professional skills,  because quitting his job over her death indicates he's gone off the deep end.  I can't imagine how he's going to explain that departure to potential employers.  Of course you're reeling over these events, so if he won't see a counselor with you, consider going alone.  And you've left us all wondering: Does the grieving widower have any idea what his wife was up to?

Dear Prudence - My cousin and I are both in our 40s and grew up together. We live a good distance away, but every few months, my work takes me near her house and I'll visit and stay overnight. Her two children, who are their early teens, are horrible to her. In the few hours I'm there, they insult her looks, her cooking, her intelligence. First it was the older one, and now her younger sister is doing the same. It seems like anything that comes of out of my cousin's mouth warrants a snide retort from one child or the other. Her husband is part (or the cause) of the problem. He says nothing when they make their comments and occasionally will "joke" along the same lines. Sometimes I will wade in with a neutral comment like "I think dinner is great. If you don't like it, why you try cooking next time?" but that's it. She says nothing to defend herself; occasionally she might protest with a "that's not nice" but it's very mild. I can tell, though, that she's hurt by these remarks. My cousin is a quiet and kind person who has never had a bad word to say about anyone. I am appalled by this developing dynamic. I know teenagers can be trying, but this behavior seems off the charts compared to other kids I've known.  I really want to say something to these children, not just for my cousin's sake, but also because they're becoming very mean girls. I feel they're now old enough to be addressed as the young women they're becoming and understand the implications of their actions. But, is it my place (as a family member) and what would I say if I did take them aside?

I think you should first talk to your cousin. It's true that most teenagers will test the boundaries of civility and the safest place for them to do it is in their home. But in their home the adults are supposed to explain what is and isn't acceptable behavior.  Given the husband's contribution, it also sounds as if a malicious family dynamic is at play here: Martyr mom does everything for us, and in exchange she earns our contempt. Next time you know you'll be in town, tell your cousin she needs a night off and you'd like to take her out to a restaurant for a chance to get some adult time. Then tell her gently but firmly what you've observed. She may be too sunk into this mess  to act, but sometimes an outsider's perpsective can suddenly shine a mirror on a situation. Then next time you do eat at their house, you should feel free to be more direct to the girls.  When they insult their mother, in a neutral tone say, "That's a rude thing to say. Your mother is my friend, so just as I hope you would stick up for a friend who was being treated terribly, I'm going to ask you to stop insulting her."

My boyfriend has an intense irrational fear of accidentally becoming a father to the extent that he refuses to have sex with me even though we use two forms of birth control! When we first got together we had a great sex life, but he claims that back then the newness of the relationship was so exciting that it outweighed any anxieties he had about unplanned pregnancy. We've been together now for almost three years and our sex life has now dwindled to celibacy for both. I love my boyfriend and I understand that sometimes people have irrational fears, but I can't continue on in a sexless relationship! We are both struggling financially (which is certainly one of the factors for not wanting children right now), so we cannot afford couples therapy or individual therapy. I don't know what to do at this point, please help! Sincerely, Involuntarily Abstinent

I understand money is tight and you two can't afford counseling. So I suggest working with the tools you must have at your disposal. I assume each of you already has a couple of suitcases and duffle bags. So depending on how you want this go, either you pack up your stuff, or you tell him to pack up his stuff, and you say you're through. You can explain that you've done some research and to your knowledge there are no co-ed monastaries, and you're no longer interested in being part of this experiment in celibate living.

Dear Prudence, My husband and I have been married six months. All is well and we have no real complaints. But he does have this annoying little trait that I am wondering if I am just being nit-picky or if I actually have ground to stand on. I will accept whatever decision you put forth. My husband is southern and calls every woman "sweetheart" or "sweety." This only happened a few times when dating to an occasional waitress, but now I see that he does it with longtime friends, other men's wives, and co-workers. It grates me that he does this and doesn't even give me a different pet name. I ask him to stop but he says that's how he's been his whole life. Is this a marriage compromise that I should just let go? -Newlywed Nick Name

I live in Maryland, the land of "Hon," and I enjoy those infrequent occasions when someone calls me that, though it's almost always from other women and in a retail setting.  However, I don't care where your husband is from, calling every woman in his path "Sweetheart" is both inappropriate and grating.  Believe me, at his office the other women have discussed in the coffee room how uncomfortable his pet name make him.  Since you say he's from the South, but it sounds like he's not in the South, he needs to stop shpritzing "sweethearts" everywhere. Even in the South, I can't imagine a young guy in the office expects to get away with calling his female colleagues "Sweetheart." If he wants to see how his presumed courtliness can be misunderstood by the wider world, have him read the stories about the "Sweetheart" filled emails between retiring Gen. John Allen and socialite Jill Kelley.

Dear Prudie, My husband has a pretty good life. He was raised by nice parents, enjoys good physical health, has a job he likes, we have a happy marriage, he has friends and, as far as I know, has never been the victim of any kind of serious crime or trauma. Nevertheless, he wakes up, at a minimum, of one night a week screaming, thrashing, and terrified. It's as if he has PTSD. With our first child expected in a few months, these night terrors have become an almost every night occurrence, and it's fraying my nerves and causing me to lose sleep. I'm worried about him, although during the day he's one of the happiest people I've ever met. It would seem odd to tell a therapist, "I'm happy and have no real problems, but I have night terrors." Any advice would be appreciated.

I doubt he needs a therapist, but he certainly needs an  M.D. First he needs to check in with his internist and explain what's going on.  Then if a further diagnosis is needed, he needs to see a sleep specialist. It surely sounds as if he has some kind of sleep disorder and  likely it's treatable. Convince him to do this right way before the baby comes and his crying and thrashing is just part of the general background noise.

I am a survivor of childhood sexual trauma and I have come to terms with my past and am a happy, successful and healthy person today. The problem is that when I was a teenager, I coped with the trauma by cutting my arms and wrists and now as a professional in my late 20s, I still have ugly scars that were obviously self-inflicted. Obviously, no one can wear long sleeves year-round so I do show my arms sometimes. Some people don't seem to notice, while some people stare but say nothing. A small few will ask me how I got them and I usually mumble something about it being a long story, which is usually met with a quizzical or pitying look. I am wondering if you could help me come up with a one line explanation that will let people know it's not their business and that I am fine and sane and don't need their pity. I'm worried that my scars make people doubt my professional abilities or worse, question my sanity! Thank you.

How wonderful that you have been able to sail forth into a happy, productive life. I hope you can personally see these scars as a kind of badge of honor representing how far you've come.  It's good that only a handful of people actually ask about this. What you say to deflect is in someways less important than the way you say it. You've got to be totally comfortable with the subject, so when you dismiss it, you don't leave the misleading impression that you are troubled. Of course, no one should ask -- but as my mailbox amply proves, they will. I think you can say something like, "Oh, it's  from a long time ago and fortunately I'm fine." Do it with a smile and convey that with that with your answer the topic is closed. If the interlocutor presses on, then say, "I'd rather not go into it. Thanks."

Readers, I get the question of cutting scars fairly often. I'm wondering if anyone knows of effective cosmetic treatment for this so that the problem is physically ameliorated.

Dear Prudie, I have three sons in their late 20's and early 30's. The oldest is married with a young child and my youngest is engaged. Since it has been quite some time since I went through these rituals, I expected them to change. I just didn't expect them to change quite this much. What used to be nice, simple ceremonies have turned into much longer events. My son and daughter-in-law had professional engagement photos taken, numerous bridal showers, a wedding followed by a reception, professional maternity photos taken, a "gender revealing party," a baptism, professional family portraits, and a first birthday party. Frankly, I think this is celebration overload and, in its own way, detracts from the seriousness of these events. I miss the days of one bridal shower, a ceremony in a church, and cake in the church basement. I know how delicate the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship can be, so I have not said a word about these events and attended them all graciously. But the thought of going through this number of events for two more kids is exhausting. Is this just the trend of celebrations now and I should go along with it? How do I graciously be a part of their lives while inwardly cringing at another over-the-top celebration?

Your answer is contained in your question. You just graciously celebrate while inwardly cringing. I agree with you, Mom, that a return to contained and modest celebrations is to be much hoped for.  This is the second letter I've gotten about the amazing development of the awful gender-reveal party. As I previously asked, what's next, the baby-making party?  You have to accept that the days of the DIY wedding are gone. But I agree that turning marriage into the Normandy Invasion (actually, that took less time to plan and launch than most weddings) is an absurd waste of time and money.  Let's face it, usually the bride/mother is the driver behind these events, so as a mother of sons, you want to preserve your relationship with your offspring and their wives. So slap on a smile and be grateful to be included.

As a born and raised southern I can confirm that terms of endearment are often used in casual conversation for both friends and strangers (of both genders). No one means anything offensive by it, its a common way people talk here. I do think it's highly inappropriate for her husband to speak to coworkers in that manner.

Yep, but he's not in the South. And if he doesn't know it's a no-no to call his female co-workers that, someone needs to enlighten him.

Dear Prudence, I am in a long term relationship with a wonderful and sensitive man. Recently we became engaged and are planning on getting married in the summer. My fiance and I have always had an open relationship and explored our sexual interests. However, since getting engaged, my fiance no longer likes to participate in my sexual interests. He says since we are getting married now, we should put our youthful fantasies behind us and be responsible. He says he cannot do such things with the woman he will be marrying and who will be the mother of his children. Although I love my fiance very much, how do I make him understand that I need more than a vanilla future with him.

If you two don't figure out how to make each other happy in bed, then I'm afraid the flavor is going to be rocky road. First of all, two people can have a wild and satisfying sex life together, so if your fiance wants to rein it in, it doesn't mean missionary position in a dark bedroom. On the other hand if you for you to be satisfied requires the services of  people you're not married to, then you two might be at an impasse. Since you both are sexually adventuresome, talking about sex should come easily to you. So thoroughly explore what you each see as sexual expression inside of a marriage.  As a shift in perspective try thinking of having sex with only your fiance as an exciting new adventure instead of a dreary limitation.

I used to have a boss, in his mid-thirties, who would ALWAYS wink at people. It was stupid, annoying and creepy and I guarantee that the LW's husband is the target of justifiably snarky comments when he's not in the room. She needs to tell him to knock it off.

I agree that the husband is annoying his co-workers.

My husband's sister thrives on being a passive-aggressive, attention-hogging know-it-all. I've always managed to be civil to her and praise her ideas to get her to shut up about lecturing me on what foods I should buy, etc. I announced my pregnancy to both families at 20 weeks. I received a scathing e-mail from my sister-in-law recently demanding to know why I wouldn't tell "her family" for 20 weeks. My exact response was, "Don't I have the right to choose when to announce my pregnancy? Both families were told at the same time." She answered back, "Well, whatever." Since then, my husband's family has been distancing themselves from me. My husband says I should apologize and just let his sister's comment go. But I'm tired of being grilled about all of our life choices and the timing of revealing them. Do I actually owe this brat an apology?

Thank you for simply revealing your pregnancy, and not having a gender reveal party. Before the baby comes you and your husband need to get on the same page as far as dealing with his family is concerned.  It could be that your husband's sister has some sort of personality disorder so everyone tiptoes around her in order to try and  keep the peace. That means she sets the family tone, which only encourages her worst qualities. If kowtowing to the sister is the primary  family dynamic, then you two need to stop bowing and start standing up for yourselves. Tell your husband you are happy to apologize when you're in the wrong. But in dealing with his sister, everyone else is always in the wrong, and in this case you have nothing to be sorry for. Tell him you understand there are difficulties and sensitivities with his family, but now that you've got a baby coming, it's more important than ever to set some standard for how people treat each other.  If he can't see your point of view, a few sessions with a therapist to help you two hash out these in-law issues would be a good investment.

It's not always the bride who want this huge lavish event. I may be one of few, but I didn't have a bridal shower. We didn't want a religious wedding that could take longer, but my mother in law demanded it. My mother and I aren't close so I didn't give in to what she wanted, however, I wanted to make my mother in law happy so we caved to whatever she wanted. My husband and I both agree that the wedding is actually about the parents of the groom and bride, and not the actual couple getting married. Please know that the bride may just be railroaded into doing what someone else wants.

Ah, no, the wedding is about the couple getting married. It's true that people who foot the bill, can make demands. But if you are being railroaded into doing things you don't want to do, then you say no and decline the money. I hope you and your husband can start standing up for yourselves now, before you come to the conclusion that raising your children is really about what the grandparents want.

I just found out that a friend of the family passed away over the weekend. She was close to my mom, but was generally a pretty difficult woman to get along with. during the past several months, I urged my mom to distance herself because (from MY perspective) the friendship wasn't mutually beneficial. This woman always borrowed money, sucked us in to HER family's drama, and showed up unnanounced with a new crisis every month. My father has been ill and my mom was stretched thin, so I just suggested she step back from this friendship so she could concentrate on herself for once. Now, I find out that the woman is gone, and I feel terrible for all parties involved. The woman was estrangeged from her family so I wonder if she died alone? Was she in pain? Was there some comfort my mom could have given her the past few weeks? I just feel like a bad daughter for interfering with my mom's friendship.

You were giving your mother very reasonable advice, which was hers to take or not. If you feel you dictated your mother's decision,  then your mother has a serious problem in standing up to people that she needs to address. Your mother's friend sounds like a sad, disturbed person who was draining your mother dry. I think you gave your mother good advice.  There are some people who just can't be helping, and trying to help them comes at great cost.  Comfort your mother by telling her that she was a very good friend for a long time, and there wasn't going to be anything she could have done to change this woman's unhappy end.

Dear Prudence, I have a relative who has four children, ten and under, and is pregnant with her fifth baby. Three of the children have mild developmental delays or behavioral issues. Overall, though, they are well behaved and cared for. The problem is her house. Dishes are put away with food still stuck to them, floors aren't cleaned and are cluttered with toys and other objects so that pathways are created from room to room. Sometimes beds don't have sheets or blankets. The worst is the bathrooms. Soap is rarely present, and one of her children draws on the walls with her own feces-and then she leaves it for weeks! Last time a relative visited, there was even what looked like dried blood on the walls. As I said, the children are generally well cared for, so I don't want to call social services. But we can't help feeling like we need to intervene. It's surely not healthy for a newborn to enter that house! She doesn't get much help with the children from her husband, so I know she must be tired and overwhelmed, but how can we help her realize a cleaner house is necessary? We don't live nearby, and the relatives that do are not willing to clean for her when the mess just returns a few days later. Is there anything we can do? Hoping for Cleanliness

I'm going to have to disagree with you that the children are being well cared for.  A house with dried feces and blood on the walls, no sheets on the bed, etc. is not a place where children -- especially those with special needs -- are getting sufficient attention. The fact that this woman would go ahead and have a fifth pregnancy under these circumstances indicates just how unable she is to make healthy decisions for her family.  You should call the Child Help Hotline, 1-800-4ACHILD for some advice on where to turn. This service should be able to help you evaluate whether CPS or some other agency should be called in. 

I was raised in a household like this, and sadly, this is the norm for these girls. I imagine they are encouraged to speak to their mother harshly, and sadly, it becomes a bonding point with their father. They will be mortified when they become adults and look back at this. I can still remember standing up to my father in my 20s when he tried to get me to "join in" in ridiculing my mother. Hopefully, the LW can have an impact now, so these girls will not have a lot of regret later in life.

It's good to hear from someone who has lived this ugly dynamic, and was able to change it. Good for you for seeing that "bonding" time with Dad was part of playing out a pattern destructive  to everyone.  It may be that the teenagers don't want to hear this message now.  But if they are essentially decent people, it will echo.

Hi Prudie, I am a medical librarian who loves your column. I just did a very quick search and found this article about a laser procedure that seems to have worked. 

Thank you.

Hi Prudie, I am someone who, like the previous writer, has countless scars all over my body. A few years ago, someone told me about a product, Mederma, that lessens the appearance of scars. I used it religiously, and while my scars haven't vanished, they've greatly diminished. I also use moisturizers on a regular basis, since I've found that scars are more noticeable when my skin is dry.

More advice, thanks.

My MIL threw a fit, berating my fiancee the afternoon after her premature C-section due to complications and high blood pressure. Nurses came running as alarms went off, I returned to the room to find my fiancee crying and I ended up having to kick MIL out of the room and call security. I went out in the hall to ask her if she wanted to have a civil conversation and she was on the phone. I touched elbow and she told her husband I was "laying my hands on her". I told her not to bother coming back to the hospital. Since then her story has escalated to me "laying hands on her three times and pushing her. My fiancee is an only child, loves her parents in spite of years long strained relationship. What's a new husband to do? I don't want this woman around my child, her mental health is obviously questionable at best.

It does sound as if your mother-in-law to be has some serious problems. These will be compounded by the fact that your fiancee is still enmeshed with her and can't stand up to her.  Right now is not the time to hash this out.  You've been through a scary medical event, and I hope everyone is okay.  Once you two are more settled in to parenthood, you need to explain to your fiancee that her mother is giving a totally incorrect account of the events at the hospital. You can say her behavior during the entire medical crisis was alarming and destructive.  Tell your wife-to-be that you understand the bond between mother and child, but that now that you are parents yourselves, you need to make sure a mother-in-law with an explosive temper doesn't cause problems.  Broken record today, but some counseling for drawing boundaries might be helpful for your wife, and she migh be more willing to go if it was something you did together.

Dear Prudence, My husband of three years moved out last week and has no interest in reconciliation. I work in a large office where most people have known me through my entire relationship with my husband (seven years). We were very much in love, so this will come as a shock to everyone - it was a shock to me! I have continued going to work because I don't want to sit at home and cry, but I'm not ready to tell anyone, but my closest friends. What do I say when people ask me how Jim is doing? And when I am ready, how do I tell my co-workers and clients? I don't want to be an object of pity. -Missing my husband

How wrenching, and I hope you do turn to your family and friends who will support you through this tough time. You tell as much as you're ready. When people say, "How's Jim?" if all you want to say is, "He's fine, thanks," then so be it. As you get more used to the break, you can add down the road, "Sadly, he and I have separated. But we're both doing okay." If people ask follow-ups and you don't want to answer, a simple, "It's a painful subject to talk about. Thanks for understanding," should do it.

Dear Prudence, Due to the economy and the price of real estate in our area, my husband, myself and our almost four-year-old child are currently living with my parents, renting their basement while we save up for a down payment for a place of our own. While it's not an ideal situation, (there's no kitchen or shower, so we have to share theirs), we get along pretty well for the most part. Right now we're debating having another child. Both my husband and I have agreed that if we don't have another child in the next two years or so, we're probably not going to try for one after that point. Here's where we disagree though: my husband thinks we should just start trying and see what happens. I think, since we're technically living with my parents we should ask for their blessing before we start trying. Who's right? Sincerely, Do I Need To Ask My Parents Permission To Have Another Baby?

Oh, goodness, this is way too close to the baby-making party!  If you start this conversation, I assume once your parents understand exactly what you're asking, they'd run screaming from the room. We are experiencing a birth dearth in this country because so many people of childbearing age are in your situation. But it sounds as if you're both employed and making good financial choices. Sometimes there's no ideal time to have a child, but it's the right thing to do anyway. But this is a private matter between you and your husband. After the baby comes, you can discuss with your parents whether they want to provide baby sitting services. But you  do not need their permission for baby making.

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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