Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Mar 18, 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. I look forward to your questions.

Nearly a decade ago, in the midst of a very long relationship, I had a brief affair with a woman I'll call B. B and I fell for each other fast and hard but after a few months she got tired of waiting for me to end my relationship with my then girlfriend and broke things off. Through the years, B and I kept in intermittent contact. I ultimately decided to leave my ex even though I knew a relationship with B wasn't possible at the time. It's now about a decade later and I have been in a relationship with my current girlfriend (A) for almost four years. Having been a serial cheater in my past relationships, I made a commitment to A and myself that I would never cheat again. Though I had given up hope of a relationship with B long ago, she still has a special place in my heart and we have spoken from time to time. A couple of weeks ago, B sent me an email that simply said "I miss you." I did not respond. I'm happy in my current relationship and don't want to jeopardize it, however, the"what ifs" have been nagging me ever since I read B's email. B's always been "the one that got away."The slightest thought that she may still be interested has made me question a lot of things about my life and happiness. My girlfriend and I have a house (in my name), pets, we share finances, and speak regularly about having children and getting married. Am I being completely idiotic for entertaining the thought of leaving and starting something with B, a woman that lives three time zones away that I can't seem to get over?  -Haunted

B remains that dazzling "what if" because you two never got past that thrilling stage of going at each other like ferrets in heat. By your own admission you get chronically itchy once things get too domestic and go lookin for the buzz that only a new relationship, preferably an illicit one, can offer. If you were to make  B the main act in your life, believe me you'd find yourself inextricably drawn to  X,Y, and Z.  You decided to reform and make a committment. Then a test arrived in the form of an email from B. Since you've remained friends with her, write back. Say it was nice to hear from her, but you are in a very happy relationship that you hope will go the distance. Say you will always think fondly of her, but you two have to remain to each other the ones that got away.  Then end the correspondence.  Put all your focus on a single letter of the alphabet; in this case it's easy to remember because it's A.

Hi Prudie My sister-in-law recently announced her wedding date and it is three days before my due date for our first child. She knew that was my due date, as we discussed it as a family not too long ago. We would have to travel about three hours to get to the venue she selected and this makes me nervous. My MIL suggested that I "play it by ear" and that if I feel fine I can go, if not my husband can attend solo. I am really upset, because I feel that is too close to my due date for me to travel three hours from my doctor. I also am afraid of going into labor and my husband missing the birth altogether. The elephant in the room is why she would schedule her wedding right on top of my due date. What should I do about this situation?

By the time the wedding roles around you may look like the elephant in the room, but please stop dwelling on why your sister-in-law has chosen such an unfelicitious date to get married.  Life happens -- in your case a new life will happening just as she says, "I do." It's very possible neither you nor your husband will be able to attend the ceremony because you'll be in labor or have just delivered.  So, first of all, discuss this with your obstetrician. She or he will give you a general reading about the date and the distance and advisability of your attending. Then respond to the invitation accordingly. If you two end up declining, so be it. If your sister-in-law then becomes an elephant on a rampage, she will be making the choice to ruin her own special day.

Ten years ago a friend who I've known for 14 years told me her husband beats her. Through the years she's continued to keep me updated but in the past few months she's started texting me pictures of the abuse. He's her high school sweetheart, they don't have any kids and he's now the sole provider (which wasn't always the case). The thing is she won't leave him because she doesn't want to leave her pets. I've tried to get her to leave repeatedly, but don't know what to do. I have these pictures, but no proof that he committed these acts because she won't put his name on them, something that I gently suggested she should do for evidence or the police can't prosecute him. I toss and turn, at night worrying that one day I'm going to get a phone call telling me he killed her. What can I do?

Over and over my in-box demonstrates that some people just don't want to be helped. Yes, she's reaching out to you as a kind of lifeline. Then she comes up with a load of excuses for why she can't flee from someone who assaults her. I think you should tell her that since she's told you about what's going on, and provided you with evidence of her husband's criminality, you feel compelled to take action. Tell her you wanted to give her a heads up that you're going to look into reporting this abuse. First call this domestic abuse hotline: 800-799-SAFE (  and explain to them what's going on. You need to get a reading about how to safely get her out, so you don't want to call the police without getting advice on how to help someone who won't report her abuse.  Let's hope your phone call will be the start of making sure you never get the phone call you dread.

Dear Prudence, My older brother has been treated like a king his entire life, both by my parents and one grandparent. We joke now about how my brother used to go on long weekend stays with my grandmother and come back with armfuls of toys and games, and I was never invited on such occasions and never allowed to share in his good fortune. (I can tell you that I wasn't laughing back then, and even the laughter now is twinged with a little bitterness.) To my parents, he is like the prodigal son who goes off, screws up, comes back, and the parents hold a party in his honor, except he's now done this multiple times, and my parents have had to "bail him out" for almost $100K over the years, meanwhile, they wouldn't help me with anything, not even college.  My parents say it's because I was the responsible one: I didn't "need" it, so I didn't get it. I know that the thought is that since I did it on my own, I would feel more pride in my accomplishments, but I honestly don't. I constantly wonder why everything in my life has had to be so difficult while he has been skating through. How do I just get over this? I'm angry and bitter and I'm tired of being this way.

I completely understand your bitterness at this unequal treatment, but look where's it's landed your brother. He's one of life's screw-ups. He's always been indulged and now he's apparently incapable of making his way in the world.  There's no excuse for the ugly family dynamic of one child being the golden one and the other the goat.  But as you demonstrate, sometimes the unfavored child comes out on top. You've worked hard for everything you've gotten; you were responsible for your own education, and now you've made your way in the world and don't need bailing out.  Your family failed you, but you have succeeded in life. The best thing for you may be to put in place severe limits on your interactions with your family so that you enjoy what you've accomplished without constantly renewing the bitter taste they leave in your mouth. And since you cannot fully enjoy your own life, seek out a counselor who has a special interest in childhood neglect and abuse.

Dear Prudence, I work in the IT department of an insurance company. When I first started here, there was a temp employee in the HR dept about a year older then me (we're both in our mid 20's). We hit it off really well and dated for about a year. At the start of the relationship, we agreed that if anything ever happend to us she would leave since she was just a temp, and this was my dream job. Well, fast forward about a year after that conversation and she broke up with me because she found interest in some one else. Now she's still working here and they offered her a full time job! She told me she's thinking of taking the job because she can't find work anywhere else.  Not only that, but it didn't work out with the guy she left me for and she wants to try and work things out. I want nothing to do with her. I've told her several times I want her to just leave me alone, but she keeps calling and emailing me! I can't ignore her, because I'm the main helpdesk support person, so if she actually has a computer problem I have to help her. What can I do to get out of this mess??

If you're being sexually harassed by a fellow employees, obviously you should take this complaint to Human Resources. Oh, sorry, your harasser is in HR department. Well, at least she'll have first-hand experience with the kinds of incidents she'll be expected to help mediate.  You need to send her an email that's curt and pointed. Say that you are happy she has found full-time employment at your company, but that your personal relationship is over. Say there it no chance it will  be revived, and for the sake of you both being comfortable at work, she needs to stop calling and emailing you about getting back together.  If she keeps at it, and you feel you can't just ignore her, then print out your email chain and take it to her supervisor. Say you've got a real dilemma: What do you do when someone in HR won't leave you alone?

My boyfriend and I have been together for six years and have a beautiful child. We're both done with college, have great jobs and are great parents. We also have a fantastic sex life. We talk about marriage and more children. Recently, a recurring argument landed us in couples therapy. One session was great and helped offer a mutually agreed upon solution. We went to another session to talk through some things in a "pre-marital counseling" fashion even though we are not engaged. There he informed me he's "not ready for marriage yet" but that this "doesn't mean I don't love you or want to marry you in the future."  That was news to me and we have decided to go into it at our next counseling session. However, I want to pack me and my son up, go to my mothers and end this relationship. I am willing to go to the counseling session still, but I'm unwilling to put any more time into a relationship that clearly is just spinning its wheels. When I told him he got upset and said "I don't want to lose you." And I said that I wanted to be married. He asked if I was giving him an ultimatum. That wasn't my intention, but I realize in retrospect that I was. Is that fair of me? 

Although it makes me sound as if I miss the days when I had a pet Triceratops, to me the "not ready for marriage" discussion is trumped by the arrival of one's child.  I agree with the researchers who have published a recent study called Knot Yet from the National Marriage Project about how the normal life script of marriage followed by children has been thrown out by a growing segment of our population. So here you both are raising a child. But now you're  finding out your boyfriend is iffy about the marriage thing, and you're considering taking your kid and walking.  Whether or not you two abandon your relationship, don't abandon your therapist just yet.  It's good you're addressing these issues, and in the therapist's office you can find out what marriage means to each of you and why your boyfriend is so frightened of it.  It may be the "lifetime committment" aspect terrifies him. If so, he really needs to think about what being a father means.  Blowing things up out of hurt or pique will do no good for any of the three of you. It's fair that you're angry,  but try to deal as calmly and openly as possible with these issues. You list all the ways you two have a strong foundation, so your goal should be to not undermine what you've already built.

My husband was in a similar situation. One piece of advice for you is to make sure brother is well taken care of in your parents will. I know that sounds odd, but he's been supported his entire life. If you're the only one left in the end, guess who he's going to expect to support him. Fortunately, my husband talked to his parents ahead of time and they had the foresight to ensure that a trust was set up before my husbands parents passed and it gives brother some income each month. He still comes to us occassionally and my husband doesn't have too much trouble saying - you'll have the money in a week or two weeks, you need to figure out how to get by until then. We may give him food, but we never give him cash!

It's one thing if a sibling has some kind of disability which makes it impossible for him to care for himself. It's another if a brother is just a spoiled jerk. In that case, I don't think the letter writer should be pushing to be cut out of the parents' will.  Sure, the brother may have been trained that some family member will always bail him out, but once the parents are gone, the letter writer has no obligation to throw money on that sinking ship.

Having just booked a wedding date, you have no idea how easy or hard it was, especially considering she had less than nine months. Most vendors are booked solid a year out and she might have only had the date you were due or to wait several months-- and who knows what those dates conflict with (other weddings, other due dates, work schedules). We have five babies due the week of our wedding who are invited-- it is far from ideal, but there were only three weekends in an 18 month period that were open when we booked.

Exactly, instead of taking it as a personal affront, just accept that the conflicting dates are one of those things.

Dear Prudence, My boyfriend of a year-and-a-half is amazing. He is intelligent, caring, thoughtful, creative, and does everything he can to support me and help me succeed. We have a fantastic relationship, except for one thing: my parents hate him because he is 37 and I am. I am 21. I understand that this is a large age gap and may be difficult to process for my overprotective parents. I knew it would be difficult for them, so I told them about it immediately and introduced him to them once we decided to start dating. Since that meeting, they exploded at me about it once, and now barely mention him except to make disparaging remarks. We both work at the same place while we are both working toward bachelor's degrees. He will be graduating in May, and plans to continue with graduate school as soon as I graduate next year. We have discussed it at length and have decided we are ready to move in together over the summer. Now my problem is how to tell my parents that I'm moving in with someone they hate. Prudie, I hate confrontation and it took so long to get over the last blow-up I had with my parents. I don't even know where to begin to prepare myself for this. I am completely in love with my boyfriend and if they would just give him a chance I know they would love him too. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this situation?

Your problem is that you're so tied into  needing your parents' approval. This tells me that you  aren't ready, at age 21, to move in with a much older man.  Sure, your parents are being rude and unfair, but they disapprove of their baby's choice. I'm rather convervative about people moving in together. Not because I think unmarried partners shouldn't have lots of sex, but because it prematurely puts pressure on a relationship that may not be ready for this kind of de facto committment. You met this guy when you were still in college, and now you're planning to sign a lease with him even as you struggle with getting your mother and father to embrace your relationship. Of course it's painful at any age to have your parents dislike your partner. But when you are more mature, you have a different perspective on your parents' role in your life.  I suggest you and your boyfriend continue  keep separate domiciles for a whole lot of reasons, only one of which is your relationship with your overprotective parents.

Dear Prudence, I have been dating my girlfriend for three years, and I am mostly sure that this is the woman I will marry, except for one thing. The only thing we have any real disagreements about is our cat. She thinks it is just fine to kiss it right on the nose, repeatedly. She basically kisses it, and makes this "om nom nom" noise while doing so. I think it's gross, and she thinks my reaction is funny. I honestly feel ill when she does this, and can't stand the thought of kissing her afterwards unless she washes up first. She thinks that makes me a loon. And yet, I can't help the ick factor. She has begun to wonder why we aren't engaged yet, and while it is quite true that I don't want to deal with wedding plans until I am done with grad school, the really big reason to me is I can't decide if this is a deal breaker, or if I am being overly squeamish. So, please tell me, am I overreacting, or is she just being gross?

I understand your bafflement and distress. When kissing one's pets on the nose, the sound one makes should not be "om nom nom" but "num, num, noo." Everyone knows that.  I would feel better about your objection if you then said that your girlfriend suffers from constant bouts of feline-related flu. But it sounds as if she's just fine. This is no deal-breaker but one of   life's little quirks that requires partners to indulge each other.  So while you roll your eyes at her cat kisses, you don't try to stop them. And while she rolls her eyes at your hygiene commands, she rinses with mouth wash. This should make all three of you purr with contentment.

Dear Prudie, My brother married a girl he barely knew after a whirlwind courtship. It's been three years and they seem to be adjusting well to married life. But lately I've discovered that Marie likes to buy and wear the same clothes that I do. I recently bought a new winter coat, and she scoured the stores to find the same one, and purchased it in a different color. She's also done the same thing when I bought a new pair of boots. She's much taller and slimmer than I am, so most clothes do look better on her anyway. How do I tell her to not copy my clothing choices?

What you do is silently accept that this flattering commentary.  She thinks you have great taste and on two (imagaine that, two!) occasions she's bought clothes she's seen first on you.  As the Bible has noted, coats can come in many colors. I simply cannot imagine the circumstances under which you life would be impinged by your sister-in-law showing up with the same model in a different shade. Stop dwelling on her "superior" height and build, and just try to build a lovely relationship with a woman who admires your fashion sense.

I admit, I don't understand how someone could have a kid and not be ready for marriage. Marriage is FAR less of a commitment than a kid. If the marriage doesn't work out, people divorce and never have to see each other ever again. If you have a kid (and both are presumably caring parents) that's a permanent connection. You're going to have to see your kid's other parent in most circumstances. But you hear this over and over again. Why?

Sadly, marriage and child-bearing have become decoupled. Of course there are rotten parents who are married (just read this column) and marvelous parents who are doing it solo. But as a society, we are losing the sense that one first finds a suitable life partner, commits, then has children.  This trend toward thinking marriage is a scarier commitment than childbearing is one of the reasons for the increasing inequality in our society.  People with college degrees are far more likely to follow the old-fashioned sequence, to the benefit of their offspring.

Dear Prudence, Recently my younger sister got married, and it was a miserable experience for the whole family. Calling her a bridezilla would be an understatement. I made a reception toast at her request. My speech emphasized her true personality - how she walks to the beat of her own drum, and despite facing pushback from conservative parents, was able to make herself successful, independent, and find true love. I earnestly concluded with how happy the family is for her. However, she took this as an affront. She ceased all communications with me, but she emailed my husband telling him that she is extremely insulted. She claimed that her in-laws and friends' parents are offering their condolences for the mean-spirited speech by her wicked sister, and that she goes to bed every night hoping to wake up with no memory of the horrible wedding. Prudie, I'm at a loss. She isolated and demonized so many family members, and now she's turned my admiration into an insult. I want to reach out to her, but I didn't do anything wrong. How can I convince her that her perception of the speech is wrong? Signed Burnt Toast

Since you say your sister has a history of isolating and demonizing family members your sister may be a headcase. Or it could be that in order to live her own life, she had to break away from her repressive family. But I do pause when I read about a toast that celebrated someone's "true" personality. Much better to be dully conventional in your praise than to enumerate the personality traits of the guest of honor that apparently have caused much conflict with the other family members present. Presumably your conservative parents and other relatives had to listen to how your sister pushed back against their most deeply held beliefs, and that may have been terribly embarrassing for everyone. But instead of talking to you about how your toast caused her discomfort, she's turned this into a family-wide spectacle.  Email your sister and offer your apologies. Even if you think you did nothing wrong, your toast went over badly, and that deserves a mea culpa. Say you only meant to celebrate what you find most admirable in her, but you see now that you took the wrong tack. Say that you know from what you heard from the other guests that everyone had a great time at the wedding and were very happy for her. Write that you  hope she can forgive some unintentionally ill-considered remarks, because you want to share in the beginning of this joyous phase of her life.

The friend with the husband who beats her doesn't want to leave because she doesn't want to leave her pets. Probably she is afraid that her husband will abuse them after she leaves in retaliation, and probably he will. The poster could ask the hotline if there are steps she can take to protect the pets and/or to take them with her.

Yes, that's definitely part of the question. But the abuse has been going on for a decade  so there's a lot more to this dynamic than worrying about the pets.

Thanks, everyone.  Time to kiss the dog on the nose for being so patient during the chat. 

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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