Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

May 06, 2013

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

I spend a lot of time with my cousin and her amazing four-year-old daughter. We are somewhat close but we mainly spend time together because our kids get along so well. I do not agree with much of her parenting. She is not physically abusive, but is very manipulative and immature. She has given her daughter the silent treatment if angry, and shames her for not being a "big girl" if she's not reaching milestones. She demands affection in return for surprise presents. She seems to enjoy getting her daughter upset so she can be the one to console her. I'm not sure all of this seems a big deal but her daughter is really the most pleasant child who I adore and it's so painful to watch. She has tried to get me to go along, giving the silent treatment, not consoling her when upset but I refuse to do so. Sometimes she will get her daughter all riled up, then demand she calm down and then punish her if it doesn't happen. Is it totally out of line for me to say something?

Please intervene, although someone with such a punitive, manipulative approach to child-rearing would likely put you in a permanent time-out from your friendship for suggesting her parenting could be improved.  Of course you know that critiquing the way someone raises her child is a minefield, so tread accordingly.  Get together with your cousin for lunch without your kids and say that she has a remarkable child and you love spending time with both of them, but that sometimes you feel she could take a different approach with her daughter. You can hand her the book, Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott, which is a wonderful, slim volume on seeing the world through your children's eyes and gently guiding them through life. Materials available at the Gessell Institute of Child Development would also give your cousin some perspective.  Then, when you are together with your kids, and she tries to enlist you in one of her manipulative schemes, you can say, "Janis, this is the kind of thing I was mentioning. Chloe is just acting like a kid, and I don't think she deserves the silent treatment." There is a slim chance your cousin will reflect and reform. More likely, Chloe will spend years sorting out the damage done by her mother.

My husband of four years says he needs more privacy. As of right now, he has an iPad, iPhone, laptop, bank account (he refuses to share an account with me, but has one with his mom), and a tool box - all of which I am allowed no access to because they are password protected (or in the case of the tool box it's padlocked to keep me out). He says I control everything, which I don't feel is true (he holds all the money, pays all the bills, does all the grocery shopping, etc) and that he can't trust me not to go through his things because I've snooped before (in my defense, I found gay porn and dating websites on his computer). I honestly don't want to snoop anymore because I'm too afraid of what I might continue to find. While I understand every couple deserves a little privacy, I feel like my husband's whole life is private. Right now I'm so furious over this privacy situation and him not wanting get get one joint account with me that I've moved out of our bedroom and into our son's.

The tool box is a new one, but surely it's a Pandora's box full of secrets about what he likes to do with his most precious tool.  When I start reading letters such as yours -- descriptions of wholly lousy relationships -- and I get to the point where it mentions the young child, I can't help but wonder what the letter writer needed to know before concluding reproducing with this person was a poor idea.  Nothing you say about your husband sounds good, but nothing you say about yourself does either. This marriage is based on deceit, secrecy, and espionage. Good training for the CIA perhaps, but not a formula for marital satisfaction. You two are at an impasse, so there's not much more I can suggest then turning to some professionals: first a marriage counselor, then (likely) matrimonial lawyers. I hope at the least that you two are able to transcend your terrible personal dynamic and are  looking out for your son's emotional needs.

How much sympathy do you give someone who ignore's the doctor's advice? My wife had been to dozens of doctors for several health problems. In most cases, she refuses their advice, but complains when she is no better. Among her ailments, she suffers from insomnia. She has had sleep studies done and found there is no physical reason for his inability to sleep. She has been advised to stop napping during the day, spend only eight hours in bed at night and get out of bed and read a book when she can't sleep. She refuses to do them all, yet continues to complain. This has gone on for years. At what point do I get to stop playing the role of sympathetic spouse and tell her that until she tries to get better, I don't want to hear about it anymore. -- Spouse sleeping on the couch

Now would be a good time for her wake up call. If your account is correct, you've been a sympathetic, if frustrated, source of support for years. If your wife won't do the basics to address her many problems it's likely that she enjoys being mired in them and the attention she gets for her "health crises." So stop feeding the beast. Start with her sleeping problem. If she won't follow these obvious rules, then say, "Honey, I know not getting any sleep is miserable, but you're not taking the doctors' advice, so I can't talk about it anymore." It may be  that you eventually need to tell her your separate sleeping arrangements are going to be in separate domiciles.

Dear Prudence, I'm in my late twenties, living independently and about to get my first tattoo. My parents hate tattoos and I figured I just wouldn't tell them but now I'm wondering if I should. They may see it or hear about it and I don't want to hide things from them like a teenager. I also don't want to get scolded like a teenager. I'm not quite sure how they'd react, to be honest. Should I break the news? If so, how might I do it?

I often want to say to young people like you, "You may not believe it, but if everything goes right, you will eventually be as old as your parents. Imagine Mom or Dad with a turtle on their clavicle or barbed wire around their biceps." Youth is fleeting, but a tattoo forever. I have heard from many, many readers about how they love their body art, so fine. But you haven't inked up yet, and since you seem to be having some qualms, I'm here to stoke them. The other day I took a yoga class from a lovely young woman who (among other designs) had a large, dramatic black and white tattoo of a young man that looked like a photograph from the 50s. I asked her about it and it was of her grandfather. I presume he's passed on and she wanted to honor and remember him. I, too, loved my grandparents. But I am so happy that I have not had to go through life looking every single day at a photograph of one of them on my epidermis. Believe me, twenty-something, things you think you want to celebrate now, in decades to come you may be glad that you get to not think about very much. Skip the tattoo and put that money into something more worthwhile or ephemeral.

I joined a soccer team last year with my co-workers and a friend of one of my co-worker's developed a bit of a crush on me. I'm in a happy relationship, but I'll admit, I enjoyed the attention. He never really talked to me but when he'd smile, I'd smile back. Shortly after, he sent me an email asking me out and I, of course, refused flatly. He then began a Facebook message campaign, telling me we were destined to be together, if I could only see, that he's heard that my boyfriend is a loser, etc. I felt pretty guilty and talked openly to my boyfriend about this and he was very understanding and I think thought I was overreacting. I asked this guy to leave me alone and he responded angrily that I'd led him on. I blocked him from Facebook. He's sent me a few messages since, all of which I've ignored. In the meantime, he's ingratiated himself into my work circle. He attends many get-togethers and I avoid them. Soccer season is coming up and the emails have started again. My strategy has been to ignore the emails (most of which demand an apology from me) but it's making me really anxious. What can I do?

First, stop feeling guilty that you got a kick from smiling back at a mutual acquaintance who smiled at you. Creeps like this guy love to make you feel you were complicit in their campaign. You two smiled, he asked you out, you said no, and now he won't leave you alone. That's bad. Since he's keeping things at a level that probably yet doesn't rise to a stalking charge, talk about this with a lawyer. A  cease and desist request on legal letterhead that explains if he doesn't leave you alone you and your attorney will pursue recourse with the authorities, could be enough to get this guy to back off.  Let's hope so, and if not, you've laid the groundwork for escalating your complaint.

Come on Prudie. If you can't answer tattoo questions objectively then maybe you shouldn't answer them. If OP wants a tattoo but is worried about how her parents feel then I suggest she get it and either never tell them or show them when she feels ready for it. They may be disappointed but once it's inked there is nothing they can do and they'll learn to deal. My own parents survived.

I didn't corner an uninked young woman on the street and tell her that if she was thinking of getting a tattoo she should forget about it. She wrote to me, thus invited my opinion.  One's feelings about tattoos are by definition subjective.  I don't like them, and I especially am concerned that young people who get covered with them will come to regret it in decades -- yes people, you will live decades! -- to come. But I understand from the overwhelming visual evidence that my view about tattoos is becoming a minority one.

Dear Prudie, My son graduates from high school this month. There is a girl in the same school system who has severe cerebral palsy. She has been in the same schools as my son since kindergarten, and was mainstreamed into the classrooms; she even "graduated" along with the other kids in 6th grade. She is also a neighbor. Her parents are delightful, optimistic, friendly and caring neighbors. But, as graduation approaches, the talk in the store when we meet other moms is always happy talk about college choices. Even this mom happily asks about other kids. I ran into her recently, and had this happy chat, but I felt self-conscious that I didn't know how to ask about her daughter. I know there must be sadness that her daughter does not have the hopeful future that our other kids have. I want to be kind and honest when we visit. How should I handle this? Signed, Failing as a mom

I really dislike the way you put "graduated" in quotations as regards this girl's movement through school. She had participated in school all the way through and has graduated every bit as much as more typical kids. Yes, she has a disability, but I don't know, and maybe you don't either, whether college is an option for her. What you do with this mother is talk to her as if she has a child who is now moving on in life, which is what she has.  "So what's Deirdre going to be up to after high school?" is a good opening once you've given her the scoop on your son.

A colleague has left town and asked me to care for her cats, which is a terrible inconvenience as she lives really far from me. However, I said I'd do it out of guilt. I got to her place only to discover that she and her fiance live in total squalor in one room with four cats and four rats, and it smelled like urine. I later found feces on the wall. The cats themselves are well cared-for and healthy, but clearly in an unhygienic environment. Do I need to report her? What do I say when she returns - your place is disgusting and you're mistreating your cats???

I don't care how healthy the cats and the rats (!) appear to be, what you have discovered is a squalid home that I'm sure animal control would say fails to meet basic standards. Your colleague is disturbed, but usually people who live in such filth try to keep it a secret. It's weird your co-worker wanted you to see it, and frankly I can't understand how you got guilt-tripped into doing this. You have two choices, one is to call animal control now. The other is to wait until your friend comes back and speak to her first.  You have to weigh your relationship with this colleague and how blowing the whistle would affect your work life.  But I think you would be perfectly justified in reporting the situation now. If you do, just make sure if the cats are seized they are not put on euthanasia watch. You can explain to your co-worker that when you came into her place there was a terrifying rat infestation which left you unable to enter the premises to take care of the cats.

I grew up with a girl who had severe cerebral palsy. While her motor functions and speech were greatly affected her cognitive abilities were not. She went to college after high school, got her degree, and now writes a monthly article for the local newspaper. She was extremely intelligent and has proven to do so much with her life. Please advise the LW to learn a little bit more about this condition if she would like to have a comfortable discussion with the parents about the girl's plans.

Exactly. The letter writer apparently has no idea about the cognitive abilities of this girl. Other people are defending the use of quotations around the word graduation in referring to that 6th grade event as meaning it wasn't really a graduation since it was from elementary school. Okay, but the mother's point pointedly was that this child hasn't really been a functioning member of class. That seems ignorant and even rather ugly.

My husband is 27 years old and has always been a very healthy individual. However, ever since I got pregnant last fall, he is always having new health symptoms. He's had muscle twitches, tingling feet and dizziness. All of these symptoms have been checked out by doctors (some multiple times) and nothing is ever wrong with him. Yet, he keeps having these symptoms and keeps going back to the doctor. He's convinced that he has ALS or MS or something awful, and it is driving me insane! I'm going to have our baby in two months, and he keeps scaring me with all of these symptoms. Honestly, it is making me really angry because even I don't believe that there is anything wrong with him. My best guess is that he is having anxiety about the baby being born. He knows he's driving me nuts, and I know he feels bad about it. However, it makes me feel like I'm losing my partner right as we are about to become parents. Any advice you have would be much appreciated. Thanks, Wife of a Hypochondriac

If he's had tests that have ruled out MS or ALS it's concerning that he refuses to see that as good news. What you experience as hypochondria on his part, he is experiencing as illness.  (I'm giving her more of a pass than the sleepless wife because your husband's symptoms are of recent origin.) There's a recurring feature in the Washington Post health section that describes people with debilitating symptoms who go from doctor to doctor for years, being told they're fine or that they have conditions they don't have, until someone finally disagnoses their actual illness. So before you get totally fed up, just do your husband the kindness of acknowledging that something is wrong and you want to help him find out what it is.  However, you are right that dizziness can be a symptom of anxiety -- look up some research on this and show him. Don't put it in terms of,  "You're crazy and driving me crazy, so take a pill and shut up." But since he's covered all the medical bases, suggest to him that his internist, or a psychiatrist, might want to try prescribing an  anti-anxiety medication to see if that gives him relief. Since you're getting heart palpitations over your husband's symptoms, you might also benefit from letting off steam with a therapist over a limited number of sessions to help you work out strategies for dealing with your own anxieties about your marriage and parenthood. Let's hope that with the baby's arrival you're both so busy that your husband finds he forgets to focus on himself.

I have been friends with a girl for years. We grew up together and have know each other since we were kids. She moved away a few years ago and although I've tried to get in contact with her, she is dismissive and never follows up. I noticed a few months ago that she took me off of her Facebook friends list. I saw her at an Easter party and she didn't even look at me. I have no idea why she is acting like this. I feel very hurt and confused as to why she doesn't want to be friends anymore. I want to ask her for an explanation of what happened to our relationship. Should I ask her or just move on?

If you have no idea, absolutley no idea what could be going on, then accept that she's physically and emotionally out of your life. Removing you from her friends list and snubbing you at a party are pretty harsh and direct messages that she wants nothing to do with you.  Accept that friendships sometimes end, sometimes abruptly.

Prudie, you raise fair points about tattoos (and I say that as someone who has a tattoo that I don't regret but don't love, either), but you didn't actually give her the advice she was looking for. You're in your late 20s. If you're old enough to live on your own and fend for yourself, I see no reason to tell them if you decide to get the tattoo. If they find out, don't act like you were hiding anything - you're an adult. Just say something like, 'oh yes, I did get a tattoo." And move on. If they're going to throw a fit or something, just ignore it. You're an adult - if you think you're ready for a tattoo, you're ready to act independently of your parents.

Of course once you're an adult you don't need your parents' approval to get tattoos. Thanks for making that point. And also thank you for conveying that one's enthusiasm for a tattoo may wane, but the tattoo doesn't.

I have a son with cognitive disabilities who is mainstreamed. I think we should give the LW (who wrote "graduation") a break. She is asking advice about how to handle the situation. She's doing the best she can. Maybe she doesn't understand this disability, but she is obviously trying. I'm just tired of people getting up in arms when others are trying to do the right thing, and they kind of do it in an awkward way.

Thank you for this. I agree that people can be awkward around this issue and that not getting offended at every stumble is the way to go. But the letter writer has known this girl and her mother for years so by now she should have developed a much more natural, relaxed way of talking to the other mother about her child.

The rats from the filthy house sound like pet rats. They are real valid pets just like hamsters, mice, gerbils, rabbits etc. I agree she should report the house to animal control but she should see if she can find a fancy rat shelter that will take in the pet rats (yes they exist). Many people are unfairly prejudiced against pet rats and it would be a shame if animal control killed them thinking they were pests.

So the colleague pressures the letter writer to cat sit for her (which is ridiculous in itself), then it simply slips her mind to explain she's not looking to reestablish bubonic plague, she just has pet rats. If you've given someone the keys to your rat-filled household without establishing the rats are guests, you leave yourself open to having the exterminator come calling.

I'm attending a wedding next weekend where one of the other guests is a gentleman that I fired a few years ago. He was let go for not showing up for work, refusing to follow explicit directions, etc. He was given multiple written warnings in advance. However, he kept making bad choices. He and his wife (I attended their wedding prior to the firing) tend to drink a lot and get rather boisterous when they drink. Considering the open bar and the feelings of the bride and groom would want a happy event to remember, I will do my very best to avoid them. However, it is a small wedding and there won't be lots of places to hide. Any suggestions on how to keep things under control if either of the offended parties decide (after downing a few) that the reception is the correct place to air grievances?

If this guy get drunk and starts publicly berating you for firing him, then he will be making an excellent case for you decision. Do not fret about this and let it ruin the wedding.  Be cordial to this guy when you see him, engage in a few moments of small talk, then move on. If he makes a scene just say this is not the place to discuss his grievances and walk away.

Prudie, My recently-widowed mother-in-law has been visiting with us for eight weeks now from overseas. Since the death of her husband, it has been understandably difficult for her to be on her own with all of her children living far apart. I want to be a good daughter-in-law and do my part in making this part of her life enjoyable. She is extremely helpful around the house and loves spending time with her grandchildren, but she is also quite demanding when it comes to what we will do and when we will do it. When it comes to his Mother bossing me around, especially when he's not there, it is difficult for me to take. I feel like a child in my own home and it is wearing on me. I think I could handle it for maybe six weeks at a time, but she is talking now about coming to visit for three months at a time twice a year! Is there a way politely say, "I know you have no one else and you are miserable on your own, but I just can't stand having you here that long?" Or do I just need to suck it up and do what I can for her, while I still can? Signed, Mother-Out-Law'ed

I would find six days of this hard to take, let alone six weeks. It's sad that your father-in-law has died, but I hope your mother-in-law had a life that extended beyond him, because it's time for her to resume it or establish one. If another one of her children wants to take her in, fine. But her stated plan has her living with you half the year!  That's not fine and you simply have to explain to your husband that, say, a one-month visit, twice a year, is your absolute maximum and that beyond that, she has to make other arrangement for her time. This message, by the way, should be delivered to her by her son.

I am marrying a great guy (stable, open communicator, thoughtful, etc.) but as the years have gone by our sex life has gotten more and more boring. I had an, um, adventurous past and, though we've slept with the same number of people, I don't think it made him more skilled in bed, whereas it just broadened my horizons. I really know what I'm missing. To put it nicely, he's kind of a wham, bam, thank-you-ma'am sort of guy. Which is fun sometimes! But a little repetitive. He likes it three ways and three ways only. As a result, my sex drive has really plummeted. It's just not something I look forward to anymore, post-honeymoon hormones. Any advice?

If you've done everything you can to spice up your sex life and his response is, "I can't wait for Wonder Bread to return, I could eat it every day!" then you've got a problem. This is something you need to address directly with him now and you also need to give serious consideration to what you want out of life since he may not ever be able to fulfill this need. Every relationship requires compromises, and it may be that his good qualities outweigh the essential boringness of your sex. But if you are chafing between the sheets before you say "I do" then maybe you want to say, "Let's not."

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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.

Read previous Prudie chats

Like Dear Prudence on Facebook
Recent Chats
  • Next: