Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jul 08, 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 get going.

I've been married ten years and have two kids, ages 7 and 5. My husband is a wonderful person and things are generally good between us. Several years ago, I was a stay at home mom and became very depressed. I began drinking during the day occasionally, then that progressed to drinking alone often, and hiding it from my husband. I felt terrible about it, but had trouble stopping. During that time, I also was unfaithful to my husband which was really out of character for me. In looking back, it feels like a complete breakdown of my character and mental health. I've stopped drinking and have ended the other relationship and things are getting better in life in general. Before that period in my life, I shared all my thoughts and feelings with my husband. I miss the emotional intimacy of feeling that we knew everything about each other, but I question if telling him about what I did would simply be for my own benefit (to get it off my conscience) but cause him unnecessary pain. Is it best to just move on and try to put it behind me or to confess and try to start over from a place of honesty?

You have given me a chance to reiterate my fervent belief in honesty -- but.  The 'but' is about whether to confess an out-of-character transgression that's over and has not been repeated. The obvious reason to do so is as you state, making sure there is true openness and honesty in a relationship. The argument against is that  it offers relief for the guilt-ridden but just transfers the mantle of pain to the innocent partner. I believe the latter, and part of the penance of having violated one's marriage is living with the guilt of the violation and making sure it never happens again.  You finally recognized how destructive your behavior was globally and stopped. I do think your husband should know just how serious your drinking had become so he can support you in your sobriety. But I don't see the purpose of hurting him so long after the fact with news of your infidelity.

I've given similar advice to other letter writers and have heard back from a few. One was a married man who had seen a dominatrix on the sly, satisfied his curiosity, and wondered if he should tell his wife. I said no, and he wrote back to me, "Thank you! You rock!" In another case, I counseled a woman who had had a brief fling to  keep it from her husband. She decided to go the honesty route and it was her husband who wrote to me. He  said he was grateful to his wife for coming clean. He explained her confession resulted in lot of tears, pain, and some trips to the therapist,  , but he felt his marriage would ultimately be stronger. So there you go. I personally feel life will provide plenty of tears and pain without ginning it up. I think the most important information in your letter is that you were a secret alcoholic. Don't hide that fact, because staying sober is crucial for yourself and your family.

Dear Prudie, Several years ago my wife and my sister had a big blow up. The long story short is that everyone had been drinking (except me; I was driving), my sister said something stupid, my wife called her a childish name, and my sister proceeded to verbally and then physically assault my wife (it wasn't quite to the point of calling the cops, but close). My wife cut off all contact with her from that point on. I supported her decision -- first, because it was justified, and second, because my sister has always been a nasty bully.  My side of the family is about to embark on a series of big family events and. My sister and her family obviously will be at the celebrations. I feel like I need to attend, and it seems cruel to leave the grandchildren at home. So far the compromise is that my wife will stay home alone, and I'm under strict instruction that the kids should have no contact with my sister. But with three small children, this is far from ideal and honestly, I'm a bit concerned that showing up without my wife will raise enough questions that it will take some of the spotlight away from my parents. Should I just tell my parents that none of us can make it and we'll come later for a private celebration? Should I plead with my wife to just suck it up and attend? Help! Best, Stuck in the middle

The bully certainly wins if it means your wife can never be at a function hosted by your family and that it's virtually impossible for you and the kids to go, too.  All of you showing up is not a signal that all is forgiven. But it's way past time for your family to move to a cold peace with your sister. While your sister physcially assaulted your wife, which is inexcusable, the precipitating incident was mutual. It was an ugly scene all around, but one that should be psychologically laid to rest. At this point your wife and sister should be able to be in the same room, exchange polite "hellos," then excuse themselves to freshen their (non-alcoholic) drinks. But who's the bully now when your wife to try to dictate your ability to see your family and forbid her young kids from engaging with their relatives or even talking to their aunt -- for reasons they can't understand. This will only send the children the message that adults are strange and irrational and make them deeply uncomfortable at a time when they should be basking in familial warmth. All of you should go. Your wife should run through in her mind seeing your sister and saying, "Hi, Arlene. Hope you're well." Just being able to act normally will reduce the outsize power your sister has exerted over your family for too many years.

My husband and I have been together for over five years now. I love him with all my being, but there is just one huge issue I have with him: his breath smells horrible. I've tried both being nice and being blunt about it with him, but it just never really sinks in. He just pushes it off as me being mean to him. He grew up in a household where both of his parents have bad teeth and they never really made it a priority to keep good oral hygiene habits. I mean, he maybe brushes his teeth once a month. I realized what I was getting into when we were dating, but it's gotten to the point to where I can barely stand it. We recently had a baby and her teeth are due soon to be popping out. How can I make him realize that she will be seeing his lack of oral hygiene and may think it's okay, when it's really not? Is there a way I can show him this is not only hurting his own health, but could possibly hurt his child's way of thinking when it comes to her teeth?

Tell me you used assisted technology to produce this baby. Because I'm wondering about a woman who would be intimate with a man with overwhelming halitosis whose oral hygeine consists of a montly swipe with a toothbrush at his decaying mess. Unless his work requires him to wear a gas mask all day, his co-workers must want to. Now that you have a child, his ability to function in the world is of major importance, and being able to smell his breath from 20 feet is not a career-enhancer. I hear from so many people who despite glaring problems go ahead and marry, hoping somehow that yoking yourself to someone for life will fix a problem. But since you say his teeth were rotten and his breath stunk while you were dating, I really don't understand how you managed to exchange at kiss at "I now pronounce you husband and wife."  Your husband must be terrified of dentists, so you should research some who specialize in scared patients and who might even put someone in a twilight-state during cleaning and other procedures. You should also show him some information about how parents with dental caries can pass those germs onto their babies through kissing. You have an obligation not to create generation three of the mouth of hell.

Judging by some things she has posted on line and said to me, I think my daughter's 13 year old friend "Mary" is falling into a depression. Her mother is very controlling and expects Mary to be perfect. For example, an A- is not good enough. Mary has very low self-esteem. She seems to think that anyone who wants to spend time with her is taking pity on her. I'm worried about Mary and I'm not sure what to do. I told her the other day that if she ever needed a grown up to talk to, she could talk to me in confidence (that I would not tell her mother). She told my daughter later that night that she might have to take me up on the offer because she is really going through some things right now. I know Mary's mother and based on some previous conversations, I am afraid that anything I would bring up to her would fall on deaf ears.

Being 13 is  "going through some things" in and of itself without the insane pressure of a mother who expects perfection and sees her child not as a human being but as a shiny little bauble to flaunt to the other parents.  But intervening here is very tricky. The kind of mother you describe can do terrible harm, but it's generally not seen as abuse to have high expectations. Tiger Mother Amy Chua sold millions of books describing her formula for producing offspring who always gets A's.  If you do talk to Mary in confidence, that circumscribes your chance to talk to her mother. Since you're an acute observer of what's going on, and have plenty of evidence that Mary needs a lighter hand and more understanding, I think you should try talking to Mary's parents now. You don't mention a father, but I hope he's around and maybe you can have a gentle conversation with both parents in hopes he's more sympathetic, but perhaps has ceded the bulk of the childrearing to his more demanding spouse. Just say you know that all 13 year-olds are melodramatic -- you have one yourself -- but when you monitor your daughter's social media you've seen some things that indicate Mary feels that she is inadequate and under tremendous pressure. You can say you've never talked to Mary about this, but you know how hard it is to sometimes back off the expectations  -- we all want our children to succeed! -- but that these young teenagers can need a little room to make mistakes and learn from them. I know, I know, it probably won't make any difference, but you will have tried. Then since Mary is a friend of your daughter's (lets hope her mother lets her remain so) without even having a private session with Mary, you can in passing conversation express some of these essential points, for example, that no one is perfect and no one is always number one.

I am a rising junior in college that happens to be petite (I stand at a height of about 4ft 8"). Growing up I lived in an inclusive community, so from second grade onward, I was seldom teased and as a result, being short statured never bothered me. That is until now. Being seen as someone younger than I actually am, I fear has the ability to jeopardize any internship or job prospects I may have in store. I aspire to obtain a masters in Public Health or Health Management. I have the grades, the drive, and know I'll be capable of succeeding, yet I feel my height will continue to fuel insecurities I have even if I do land a coveted upper echelon position because I don't look like a legitimate leader. I've opted for higher pumps but even then I still only stand at about five feet. Is there anything I can do? -Coming Up Short

This is going to be a life-long issue for you, so sailing forth with confidence about your abilities, and not self-consciouness about your stature, is going to be key. One easy way to tackle your concerns is to address them as purely cosmetic issues. More than most people your age, you want to have a polished look that projects sophistication, but doesn't seem like you're trying to be Mom.  So get a stylish haircut -- lots of long hair will overwhelm you and project "girl."  Go to a cosmetics counter and learn how a light but sure hand with make up can make you look more adult. And find a personal shopper in the petite department who can help you put together the kind of professional (but still youthful) wardrobe you'd need in a workplace. Being able to look at yourself in the mirror and see a young career person reflected back can help you shed the sense you aren't measuring up.

Prudie: My wife of seven years and I have an amazing life together. It's everything I could have dreamed of growing up. However, when we're having sex, I think of everyone and anyone but her. I imagine myself with past lovers, with friends and coworkers and with women I walk by in the street. I never think of her and am pretty sure I wouldn't climax if I did. Is this normal or a problem? Do I not love her, or not love her enough? Am I destined to cheat at some point? - Mental Block

Ever see your wife close her eyes during lovemaking? If so, don't ask, "Am I Channing Tatum now?"  Thank goodness there's a hard, impenetrable case around the soft subtance that produces our thoughts, and  our sexual fantasies. There's a reason evolution did not result in subtitles being projected across our foreheads so everyone can know what's really going on in our heads.  You have a great marriage. And I think part of the reason your sex life stays so fresh is that you are able to imagine that affair with Scarlett Johansson or the woman in accounting while being faithful to your wife. Your fantasies don't mean you don't love your wife, that she's not enough for you, or that you'll cheat. They mean that you're alive. Be happy you've found a way to be a great lover and keep things fresh. 

I have been married for 45 years and have three adult children. My husband has had a secret addiction to pornography all of those years and our intimate life suffered to the point where we have not had sex since the Reagan administration. For many, many years, I had no idea what was wrong, but assumed it had to be a fault with me, that my husband didn't find me appealing enough. I am sure I don't need to tell you what that has done to me in terms of self-esteem and intimacy. There is a Berlin wall between us. I have come to accept it. My adult children wonder now at my apparent deadness of spirit and I simply say that I have my reasons. They do not need to know the truth about my husband's addiction. He is their father even though they are adults. Can you offer some counsel?

It's too bad your husband never learned the use of fantasy and ran  some of these porn tapes in his head while he continued to make love to you. I know a lot of people felt things went wrong when Ronald Reagan left office, but your husband seems to have taken to an extreme. You say it's been almost a quarter century since you and your husband had sex. But as the Bush administration became the Clinton administration became the Bush administration, with no intimacy from your husband, it's rather extraordinary you didn't decide to impeach this marraige and get out. Marriage is a partnership. Your husband profoundly withdrew from you, but you hung in and let him kill your spirit. The question is not what you tell the kids. It's what you want to do with the rest of your life.

it's all about attitude. When I was in high school, we had a government teacher who couldn't have been more than 5' tall. She also scared the bejesus out of high-school football players.

Love it! Thanks.

Last night my husband of five and a half years told me, "I used to love you." I sensed his declining affection and compassion for a couple of months now. His idea for a path forward to rebuild our relationship is to focus on doing things together. Despite this, we still get along and have a lovely life. I am hurting and can only talk to my therapist about it. Also, I want children and he doesn't want them anymore. I'll be 35 soon. Any words of advice? (Gah. Just reading this I sound like a cliche.)

If you want children, this man is seriously wasting your time. "I don't love you, I won't have children with you. Hey, let's go hiking!" Maybe he's already "hiking the Appalachian Trail" and he just doesn't have the guts to tell you there's someone else.  This is very painful and I'm glad you have a therapist. But unless there's a clear and quick committment from your husband to restore your love and consider children, don't fritter away your fertility on this dead end.

I was "Mary" growing up - if I brought home a 97, the question was, "what happened to the other three points?" If a friend's parent had talked to my parents like that, particularly my mother, it would have backfired. My mother would have come down on me and criticized me for taking "problems" outside of the family. On the other hand, I would have welcomed the ability to talk to another adult without fear that adult would go to my parents. Mothers like Mary's are extremely difficult, but I fortunately had other adults in my life. So should Mary.

Thanks for this perspective and I'm sorry you were another Mary. I only suggested the talk because lots of times no one is willing to broach things with the wrong-doers and the other mother can say in all honesty she's never discussed this with Mary -- and again, there's a chance the father needs a reality check. But once that's done, I see your point about stepping up and being a confidante for Mary. You're absolutely correct  that it does help just to hear, "This isn't right and I'm sorry you're going through this."

Tailoring is important for anyone who wants to look polished in dress clothes, but it's especially important for those of us short in stature. It's not always cheap, but some hemming, sleeve tapering, shoulder and waist adjustments, etc., can prevent you from looking like you picked up your big sister's old suit. Well-fitted clothes really, really help project a professional image.

Another really good point and a reminder of the adage, "Dress for the job you want."

Dear Prudence, I have been friends with a woman and her husband for about a year (we met through mutual friends). I recently found out, by way of reading a nonfiction book about the event, that her sister died tragically in a nightclub fire 10 years ago. My friend's name was published in the book which is how I figured it out. Anyway, I have been feeling like I should say something to let her know I care and how sorry I am for her loss. On the other hand, I know it is a sensitive subject, and she hasn't talked about it directly with me. We usually see each other at fun social events and I wouldn't want to bring something up that would cause her pain in any way. What do you think is the best way to approach this situation...should I say something or keep quiet and see if she decides to open up to me?

You've only known this woman for a little while and you generally see her at social events. It would be one thing if you had known this woman and her sister for years, and were moved to say, "I remember how much Natalie loved the Fourth of July and I really miss her." It's another to without any context or prompting from your friend reveal that you learned she suffered a terrible tragedy.  I'd keep this to yourself. If you become better friends and she mentions  her sister's death, you can say you remember that horrific fire and you're so sorry she lost her sister in it.

I had my daughter about six months ago. In my circle of friends I'm the only to have a baby, so needless to say she gets a lot of attention. One friend in particular seems to be a little obsessed with her, and it kind of freaks me and my husband out. She's constantly buying things for her, referring to herself as her Godmother (she's not, my sister is, and she knows it). She asks for pictures of her throughout the day to help get her through work, and mentions that while she's looking for a new job she would never relocate because she wants to be near my daughter. And recently when she comes over, she asks if she can wear her in my baby carrier so people will think she's her child! I appreciate that she is so supportive of us, and I know most people find their childless friends grow absent once they have a baby, but this is just a little over the top. My husband and I nervously joke about her stealing her someday. Are we right to feel a little strange about my friend's attention? Or am I just being possessive and overprotective?

My immediate response was, "Time to move, leave no forwarding address, and change all of your names," so, no, I don't think you're over-reacting. I'm hoping your friend's favorite movie is not "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle."  She's not being supportive, she's being obsessive, and she's giving me the willies. Put a stop to this now.  Don't let her drop by, when she says she's the baby's "Godmother" say, "No, you're not. My sister is." Refuse to let her wear the baby. Do not send her photos -- in fact I think you should put her in one of those Facebook corrals that limits someone to just seeing your profile. You need to take the temperature of this situation and see if you feel comfortable explaining that she's suffocating you right now and she needs to back way off, or whether she's actually somewhat unbalanced and you just want to rapidly and firmly distance yourself. Do not be drawn into whiny conversations or tearful demands. You and your husband are freaked out, so act.

Hi Prudie, My daughter happens to be 13 and has a friend very similar to the one in the OP's story. Only this girl is actually cutting herself and admitting she is very depressed and feels like she will never measure up. My daughter went to the school counselor and asked her to speak to the friend, who is 14. In this state, a person can talk to the counselor without parental notification at 14. Of course the hope is that the parents will get involved but at least for now this girl has a person she can talk to and trust who can offer some help. Maybe once school starts if nothing has changed for the girl in the OP, the daughter can go that route for her friend.

Good idea, but you don't have to put this on your daughter. If you're concerned about Mary's mental state and the pressure she's under, you can confidentially report this to the guidance counselor.  Here's hoping it helps. 

About six months ago, I decided to assume that my husband will never change, and make the decision whether to continue with our marriage based on that assumption. (He's not abusive, just unreliable in a number of ways). I didn't tell him this, I just did it. The answer was yes, it is better to stay married to him than be a single mom. That decision has been very freeing - I've stopped nagging and just acted on the assumption that I would take care of everything, so the help he provides is now a nice bonus. I've been happy, and he's been happy. But here's the problem - some time in the future, probably when our son is older or has left the nest, I think that the answer to that question will turn to "no." When that happens, I know my husband will be shocked. Do I have any obligation to let him know my thinking? We're talking 8-12 years from now, and things could change in the meantime, so my first thought is that no good would come from telling him. However, I also feel in a weird way that I'm now using him as a convenient occasional babysitter/roomate/sex partner without giving him the full picture. What are your thoughts?

The decision you have made now, while it may feel like a permanent one, may not be.  You've weighed your options and for now it is better for you and your child to stay in the marriage. But life has a way of intervening in our plans and you may find just a few years from now the burden of your marriage has become too much and you want out. It could also be that now that you've liberated yourself from trying to change your husband, your change in attitude prompts a change in him. So I don't think it's useful to begin a conversation with your spouse in which you reveal things are going to stay status quo until you get around to divorcing him sometime in the 2020's.

Last week you stated you hoped my husband appreciated what I do for his mother and the answer is yes, almost every time. And often after a week of intensive and difficult in-law care he will say on a Saturday morning "You've done so much for my folks this week, what should we do today that you'd really like to do?" But the real credit goes to my mother- in-law who was always, before illness struck, supportive, interested, non-critical and fun to be around. Now that she is ill it is her three daughters-in-law who live the closest and WANT to help with her care. A good lesson for me and my relationship with my children and their significant others. These lessons are taught from one generation to the next. Thanks for the advice Emily.

This is the letter from the daughter-in-law who takes her mother-in-law with dementia out for social events, but is worried that her once lovely m-i-l sometimes verbally strikes out at strangers because of her illness.

Thank you so much for this update and amazing tribute. I'll say this is taught from one generation to another. As Ruth said in the Bible to her mother-in-law, Naomi,  "Whither thou goest, I will go."

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.

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