Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

May 20, 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.

Hi Prudie, Love your column. I have a bit of a dilemma that has left me puzzled. I recently had drunken-sex with a longtime friend of the past five years. What started out as us spending the day having drinks with a group of friends, turned into us having emotional, drunken sex in her bed. Prudie, this girl is my best friend, and we talk/text/message all day throughout our workday. The problem is while I am very much mentally attracted to her, I don't necessarily know if the physical attraction is there, and she feels the same way. She really understands me, as a man, very well, and I her. The question is can this work as a relationship? Can you be so mentally attracted to someone, but not necessarily physically attracted to them and have a successful relationship? I feel like if I don't give it a shot with her, I'll never find someone who is so compatible with me personality-wise. Thanks P. 

If the only  circumstances under which you two can imagine completing the act is if you're both so inebriated you'd stumble into bed with anyone, then turning this friendship into a romance sounds as if it won't make your hearts swell, just your livers.  There's generally a reason a highly  compatable man and woman have mutually decided not to make the relationship physical. But humans are endlessly surprising and there are couples  who've known each other platonically for years who then get simultaneously sprinkled with pixie dust and realize they each are "the one."  Both of you seem puzzled and slightly embarrassed by recent events, but you are good enough friends to be able to talk about it. I suggest dinner at a nice restaurant and just enough wine to set a mood, but not so much that the mood is "I'm about to black out." You two need to address whether you're both more comfortable in the friend zone or whether it turns out Harry has met Sally.

My fiance is amazing-he's kind, smart, funny, responsible. His mother, however is not. She has undiagnosed psychiatric issues (she refuses to see anyone), and has gotten worse in recent years since she retired. She's managed to push everyone in her life away, except for her husband and sometimes her son and daughter. For the first year and a half we were together she left me alone for the most part, but lately she's started saying terrible things about me to my fiance - i.e. she knew I didn't like her because I kiss the side of her head rather than her face when I hug her), that love is blind, and that my family and I (culturally Jewish, but agnostics) ram religion down her throat. He stands up for me completely, and honestly, he gets it from her way worse than I, but how do I spend time with her without feeling totally awkward? I know she has serious issues, but I have a hard time being in the same room with her without wanting to run away. We want to have kids in a couple of years, which I know will bring her around even more.

Limits, limits, limits. First of all your fiance should have a serious discussion with both his parents in which he says he is concerned about his mother's increasing isolation and evident unhappiness and that he thinks a professional could help her. I'm assuming this will induce from Mom something along the lines of, "You think I'm crazy? This comes from that girlfriend of yours doesn't it? Well, here's some news, she's the crazy one!"  I'll also guess that Dad will do his enabling shtick to get her to calm down. But this conversation will at least have laid the groundwork for the second set of steps, which is to explain that there are certain types of behavior you both will no longer put up with.  Your fiance should say to his mother that she had made some groundless and hurtful accusations to him and to you, and that neither of you  want to hear it anymore.  He should explain  if she starts down that road you both will end the phone conversation, or the visit. Then do it! When Mom starts on her cuckoo-talk, you both should have a signal that you give each other, then you get up -- even if it's in the middle of a meal -- and say, "Sorry, this is the kind of unpleasantness we were talking about. We'll see you another time."  You cannot change his mother, but you can change how you interact with her. And if she realizes she's not going to get away with it, she might even start reining it in.

When I was 8 and my cousin 5, I would "reenact" kissing scenes from movies with him, clinchy embraces and mushy open-mouthed kisses. When I was home visiting from college several years ago, he cornered me and said "I remember what you did to me" in a tone that stopped just short of accusing me of molestation. We're now adults with kids, and I constantly avoid him and family gatherings. I'm not sure how to address this with him. Was this kids playing doctor, or am I some sort of creep?

Only you know if this was the kind of exploratory play many kids engage in or whether you were forcing him into your games against his will. However, you were both in the single digits, and if nothing more happened than these kisses, they may be an uncomfortable, even disgusting memory to your cousin, but it just doesn't seem helpful to cast this childhood play as abuse. You say since your cousin's words with you when you were in college, you have avoided "him and family gatherings." I'm hoping this was a typo and you meant, "him at family gatherings." If you've made yourself a permanent outcast that seems way too harsh a punishment for some childhood kisses.  Since all the events you describe took place years ago -- both the kisses and the confrontation -- I think you should stop acting as if you are scum. Go to family gatherings and be friendly to your cousin. If he remains aloof, take him aside and say you want to try to clear the air.  You should certainly apologize for making him miserable when you were children and say his words to you years ago have haunted you. Maybe that will be enough for him to consider letting it go.

Ever since my wife's transplant surgery three years ago, she has become extremely paranoid about germs and getting sick. She now refuses to let me share food or drink with our friends due to fear of 'double dipping' or backwash. We used to go out and order a variety of meals to share, but now my wife and I ask for extra plates and take small portions to sample before anyone else touches their meal. A few weeks ago I went out to a new restaurant with friends. My wife skipped because one of our friends was just recovering from a cold. I took the opportunity to cut loose and share in our friends' beer samplers and the variety of foods off each others plates. The next day I woke up with a tickle in my throat, but managed to fight off any infection. My wife, however, caught a cold, which turned into a severe respiratory infection and landed her in the hospital. I can't say 100% I'm to blame, but I feel guilty that I ignored her concerns and now she's sick. I've learned my lesson, but I don't know wether to come clean to my wife or not. My friends say no - that if I tell her, it will just fuel her paranoia. But I'm worried she'll start looking for new causes of what made her sick if I don't reveal it was what she had originally been worried about all along!  

I cannot speak to the level of isolation your wife needs to be safe. That's a medical question and it needs addressing with your wife's doctor. But unless she goes around in a surgical mask and gloves (and even if she does) there's no way for her to remove herself from the world of germs, because that's the medium in which we all swim.  I did a quick search and generally viral illnesses like colds usually take about two days to appear, but some can be  faster moving.  But your sequence of events could simply mean that something was going around and both you and your wife caught it independent of your friend.  The dinner and its aftermath are not going to attract the notice of the CDC, so you actually don't know where you, or your wife, picked up the germs.  If you confess, it will get you tagged as your family's Typhoid Mary for no good reason.  Instead of confessing,  I urge you both to sit down with your wife's doctor and get some clarification about what steps are necessary to keep your wife healthy.

My daughter is divorcing her abusive husband of two years. Two weeks ago he attacked her viciously, breaking her nose and her arm. Her bruises have healed, but her broken limb has not, and as such, my daughter does not want to see her half-siblings. I remarried ten years ago and have an eight-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. Both know and love their soon-to-be former brother-in-law, because until recently, no one in our family knew about the abuse. My daughter is still very much ashamed of being abused and does not know how to explain what happened to her to her little brother and her little sister. My kids miss their big sister and have been asking about her and her husband. My wife and I want to respect my daughter's need to process the divorce in her own way, but we want to encourage her to come around our house and see her half-siblings. That said, we have no idea how to explain the divorce or the abuse to them.

Thank goodness your daughter has gotten out. It's terrible that this relationship has left her both with broken bones and a damaged psyche. She should not be the one carrying a burden of shame, her monstrous husband should be. Please encourage your daughter to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−SAFE(7233), to get advice on finding a therapist or group where she can talk about what happened. Your youngest children are very young, so they need to be told in an age-appropriate way why brother-in-law Voldemort won't be around anymore.  It doesn't make sense to lie because they've already figured out something strange is up.  I think they should be told that you have sad news for them. While Voldemort seems like a nice man, he actually was very mean to their sister, and unfortunately he hurt her, so they have to get a divorce and Voldemort won't be around anymore.  Then answer their questions honestly, but succinctly. I hope your eldest will realize she has nothing to hide and her loving family will be a source of shelter. 

I've been with my boyfriend six months now, and he's very attentive and thoughtful. He has a great sense of humor and we click on several levels. The problems begin when we are in a group of friends. He either sits silent for hours or gets into loud disagreements with anyone on virtually any subject. I have brought this up to him many times, but he doesn't see a problem. He says if he agrees with the conversation he keeps quiet and listens, but if he disagrees he has to argue. He thinks consensus is boring and looks forward to these battles. Meanwhile all my friends just think he is a jerk. What do I do?

Your new guy has given your friends sufficient evidence to draw what seems like a very reasonable conclusion. Unless you intend to just click with him in private, each time you two socialize you've got to expect he's going to either act colossally bored or be obnoxiously belligerent. If outside of your circle of two he acts like a jerk, then that's what he is.

I am the mother of 14-month fraternal twin girls who look nothing alike. When we are out and about, everyone loves to interact with them, which I don't mind at all. But often, these strangers will ask if the twins are "natural." My twins were conceived through IVF after miscarriages, and I feel strongly that I (and they when they are older) shouldn't be ashamed of that. Part of me thinks that I should tell people this and try to break down the stigma surrounding fertility treatments. But it's such a rude question, and the term "natural" is offensive! I'm sure they don't realize they are implying that my daughters are "unnatural," but I never know how to react. Certainly the twins don't understand any of this now, but I think my answer becomes even more important as they get older. How should I deal with this question?

You could reply, "I actually don't know any unnatural children." If this doesn't end the inquiries, then you say, "I don't discuss my family with strangers," and move on.

The children also absolutely must be told, because they need to know that their BIL isn't a safe person to be around. If he were ever to show up and try to pick them up from school, say, or at the house, they need to know not to go with him.

Good point, thanks for mentioning this.

I'm a junior attorney in my late 20s. I work in a busy office that prides itself on work-life balance, and many of my coworkers have young children. Often, these coworkers leave at 4:30 or 5 on the dot to pick up their kids or attend their events, leaving me to stay late (up to several hours) to finish up work that needs to be done. It's frustrating- just because I don't have kids, doesn't mean I don't have a life outside of work. What's weirder is that these coworkers often acknowledge that they're being unfair, but state that "when" I have kids I'll get to leave early too. Because I plan to remain childfree, at least for the foreseeable future, this is less than encouraging advice! How can I draw boundaries in this situation without seeming unreasonable? I love my job otherwise, and these people are all genuinely nice, they just seem to have a blind spot when it comes to this issue.

It's great that your company is sensitive to the needs of parents, but not if their family needs become your work burden. You say that because they leave early, they leave you to pick up their slack. That's simply unfair and you need to bring this up with a supervisor by way of "clarifying" how duties are divided. Keep in mind that like Sheryl Sandberg, many hard-working people leave the office early for family dinners, then once the kids are in bed they return to the computer to finish the work day. It might well be that the parents do some shifting of duties outside your sight. So tread carefully when you explore whether you're getting short shrift.

I've been having an affair for a month with my best friend's husband. My husband figured out something was going on almost immediately, but instead of confronting me he let it go on. Finally, when he said something two days ago, and we ended up having a big confrontation. He says he loves me, forgives me. and wants our marriage to be fixed. When the affair started, my lover and I agreed we would never leave our spouses because we both have kids. My husband wants to keep it all secret (as do we of course) because he doesn't want my lover's wife to be hurt. My husband doesn't realize that I am still communicating with my lover, but I just can't let it go. We both are in love, but know that we can't financially or emotionally afford to divorce.  He doesn't want to let me go, but he says he can't leave his wife. Are we crazy to keep hanging on and hope that we can continue our secret relationship?

Your beautiful love story has so moved me that I find it hard not to hope you two crazy kids get what you deserve. Of course, what you deserve is to each be kicked to the curb, but that will cause endless anguish, and emotional and financial devastation to your two families.  It could be once your best friend (BFF!) figures out what's going on, she will not be so understanding as your husband and all the unpleasant consequences you are trying to avoid will come raining down on you. You and your lover have both betrayed everyone in your lives. Stop it now and try to salvage your marriages.

Welcome to life in a law firm. You have just begun your career, and you have to "put your bones in" before you can enjoy some of those perks. It's just the way it goes. Sorry. Think about using this to your advantage: be proactive, work hard for a couple of years, and show your partners that you are a great asset!

I wondered about this. Is this just something this young lawyer should suck up? I know brutal hours are expected in the law. But does that also mean that your collegues are regularly allowed to tell you to finish up work they've left hanging?

I'm about to take on the long-delayed task of writing my will. My only relatives are two younger sisters. One of them is financially comfortable, and the other, "Barbara," is low-earning and has virtually no retirement savings. She's sometimes very nasty to me. We're all middle-aged. I want to leave my money to charity. Is it ethical for me to not include Barbara in my will?

You can do whatever you like with your money.  I had a recent letter from a woman who came upon her mother's will and discovered that it provided far more generously for her half-sister than herself. I said that except in special circumstances, parents should divide estates evenly.  This is less of an imperative regarding other family members. But if you do feel moved to leave part of your estate to your sisters, make those shares equal, just for the sake of not creating ill will between them. But if you equally want to leave them nothing, feel free to give your money  to what you see as a more worthy cause.

Prudie, I don't much like my family. The dynamic has dictated that I'm the one that gets teased and picked on more than everyone else; I guess I make an easy target and the expectation is that I'm supposed to smile and take it. If this were an occasional, gentle thing, it wouldn't be so bad, but it feels incessant and and mean-spirited. The worst part is that when I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with PTSD and I recently found out that when some members of my family talk about me to people I don't know, they describe me as "the crazy one." This is beyond hurtful, it's callous and offensive and I have no idea what to do with any of it. Any past attempt to get them to stop, or to tone it down is met with derision, "It's so typical that you're being unfun right now," etc but I'm tired of bearing the brunt of everyone else's meanness. I'm in my late twenties, and this is coming from my siblings and their spouses. My parents aren't going to make it stop, and it's humiliating that at my age, I might need parental intervention. I don't know if I should cut and run or grin and bear it.

Sadly sometimes families, which should be places of solace, are the source of pain. It's very ugly when one person becomes the family goat, but there's no reason you should endure taunts and derision. Yes, it may be that you are particularly sensitive in a family that requires a thick skin. But if your family treats you in ways you would never accept from friends or co-workers, then you have to do something. As with the crazy mother-in-law in the previous letter,  at the next gathering when the teasing starts, say calmly and cooly, "I'm not in the mood for ribbing today, so I'd appreciate not getting any." This may open floodgates of derision. If so, quietly get up, get your things, and bid everyone adieu. If you make it clear what your boundaries are, either your family will start to honor them, or you will stop honoring them with your presence.

I'm an attorney and a parent, and I have to leave on time every day to pick my kid up from daycare. I do indeed pick up my work again as soon as he is in bed, almost every night. She didn't say that she was doing their work, she just said that she is staying late to work. That is her choice. If you decide that leaving work at 5:00 pm every day is a priority, to make dinner or hang out with friends or go to yoga or whatever, you can rearrange your work schedule to make it happen. And if work doesn't let you do it, then I agree, that's not acceptable.

Great advice.  If the workplace believes in flexibility, it should be for all.  Of course there is also the hierarchical issue of being a junior attorney, and that perhaps flexible hours are seen as something you earn.

Our stepbrother is 28 and lives out of state with his long-term, 23-year-old girlfriend. The gf has made several trips to visit our family. We all thought this was a serious relationship that would lead to marriage. Two years ago, the stepbrother slept with another girl and told us about it.We didn't get involved, but convinced ourselves that he had stopped cheating. Now, he's doing it again. Two weeks ago, he brought another girl to a family function and she hung out with all of us. Our sister confronted him privately about it, and he said he has at least four other girls on the side and this is just how men are. His girlfriend does not know. We obviously don't want to condone the cheating and we really like his girlfriend, but we also don't want to poke our noses in and create a family rift. What, if any, obligation do we have to alert his girlfriend? 

Since he's been open, even blatant about his cheating, none of you are obligated to keep his secrets. What concerns me is that he's potentially endangering the health of a very young, likely innocent girl. I think in this case it would be fine for one of you to say to the girlfriend that you were concerned when brother brought another young woman to a recent family function. Then it's up to her to get the truth.

Consider leaving Barbara a bit and your other sister a bit as well. You can leave 80% of your assets to charity, but if you give each sister something, you'll feel more at peace during your life and you will leave a more generous legacy (odd to say that leaving less to charity is generous).

I think this is a good point and a good compromise.  And ultimately the difficult, potentially destitute sister is going to be in need of charity.

This reminds me of the questions I sometimes receive when out and about with my daughers. They're a few months apart, and one is adopted from overseas. Instead of natural vs. unnatural, I get the "is that her real sister". My favorite response is to have her pinch herself (lightly) then say, "Yep, I'm real...and her sister". That usually works. Don't get me started on the occasions when someone has asked how much she cost. (I always replay...cheaper than you think...they were having a sale that week).

Great! You are putting those people in their place and also showing your girls you are comfortable with this  and giving them the tools to handle adoption questions with humor and aplomb.

Or leave. Just decide something, make a commitment either way and carry it through to the nth degree. I was the casual (as opposed to "best") friend in this story, and I can't tell you the horrible heartbreak and damage created by this sort of stupid, selfish dithering. And, yes, in the end, it hurts the kids, too. If you don't have the decency to treat your spouse and friend right, at least create a life that is as least damaging as possible for the kids. My kids and I are OK now; my ex-husband's now divorced girlfriend and her two young children aren't making out so well.

It would be best for the cheaters to snap to and try to avoid creating more heartache all around. But this pair sounds pretty determined to ruin a lot of lives.

Thanks, everyone. Have a great Memorial Day and I will talk to you next Tuesday, May 28 at noon.

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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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