Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jul 22, 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.

I have been dating a wonderful, handsome, caring man for almost three years. The first two years we enjoyed a wonderful life, but lived separately. About three months ago we decided to move in with each other, two weeks after we moved in together, his son's mother fell into a near coma due to drinking. My boyfriends son (who is 8) is now with us permanently and will probably be for a long time. My issue here is that I am now a mom and wife without the badge. My boyfriend has said he's "just not there yet" when it comes to marriage and that he would only marry me at this point to make me happy. I feel kinda duped and stuck now that I am living with him and his child and he doesn't see us getting married. Meanwhile, I am very successful professionally, still quite young (30), and a complete catch! How can he not want to marry me!? What should I do?

Your situation raises general and (heartbreakingly) specific issues. On the general front, I know that living together has become an almost standard precursor for marriage, but my concern about it is reflected in the many letters I get such as yours. That is, women (yes, it's almost always a woman) write in that it just seemed like the right time to  move in together -- living apart was time consuming and expensive  -- but then the years go by and the young woman is wondering when the question will be popped and the ring proferred. She reluctantly brings up questions of the future, which get deflected with an "I'm not ready." "Stop pressuring me." "You'll ruin the surprise." It's discouraging to see young women who are world-beaters finding their personal lives stuck in some 1950s dynamic where all the power goes to the guy.  Situations such as yours are why I advise that couples have very clear, agreed upon mutual goals and timelines before moving in.  That way neither person feels that they are in some kind of permanent probation.

As for your specific situation, you are in love with a man with a young child, and it couldn't have been a secret that this boy's mother had a serious drinking problem. So you two needed to have some serious talks about your expectations for your involvement in this child's life.  I can understand that your boyfriend feels burned by marriage, but his reluctance has huge implications for your future.  I would hate to see more disruption in a vulnerable child's life. But you are only a few months into the role of sort of stepmother in his life. You sound ambivalent about it. Additionally, if  you want marriage and children of your own, and your boyfriend just doesn't see that, better to get out now, than years down the road as your fertility becomes an ever bigger issue. This child needs lot love, security, consistency and special handling. He doesn't need a pissed-off pseudo-mother in his life. You don't necessarily have to break up with your boyfriend, but get some distance on the situation by reestablishing your own domicile.

Hi Prudence, What's the appropriate way to act / respond when your pregnant friend tells you the name she's selected from her baby? She's asked what I think, and the truth is I think she's punishing her soon-to-be child for life with such a silly moniker. But she's obviously put a lot of thought into it, and I don't think anything positive will come from me sharing my thoughts. Is it okay to tell a white lie and just say, "Ohh, how original!" And on a similar subject, what's a good way to shut down the conversation when friends start gossiping about her choice? It's sure to come up as a topic of conversation amongst our group of friends, and I don't want to take part in bashing my friend's name selection.

Is the kid going to be named South East? Red Wisteria? You're right that when people say, "We're going to name our child Nimrod Norbert," and the decision seems final, it's best just to say, "What a distinctive name!" But you indicate your friend is not simply making an announcement, she's soliciting an opinion. In that case, you can delicately proffer one.  "You'll be ruining your child's life," is not helpful. Something like, "I understand you want an original name, but I worry that your child might end up getting teased when it's time for school." Then drop it.  South East will always have to option later in life to say, "Call me Sandy."

I recently found out via Facebook that the man who bullied me when I was a teenager is running for public office. At that time he was extremely cruel and acted violently toward me. We spoke once after I graduated from high school, but I've never understood why he targeted me and he seemed to have no remorse. I'd like to make public what he did to me in order to ensure that he doesn't become an elected official. Would it be appropriate to write a letter to the editor of the local paper? I'm already planning on donating what I can to his opponent, but since I live out of town I can't work for him.

During Mitt Romney's presidential campaign one profile of him containted an ugly story about a high school hazing incident he and some other students committed against another boy in their class, who later came out as gay. There was debate about whether exploring a candidate's teenage behavior (as long as it's not criminal) is fair game as a measure of someone's character. There was also debate in this column recently about whether the cheated upon girlfriend of a candidate for state legislature should reveal his work in the pornography business.

I think people are entitled to grow and change and not have their pasts constantly tossed in their faces. But good luck with that in the Facebook era.  What you describe sounds as if it went beyond the typical high school bully jerk, especially since you mention violence. People who are  running for public office have to know that they are putting their whole lives out there for public assessment -- ask Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner.  But how much the public cares about someone's past is also proportional to the office.  If this guy is running for some local office, not very many people are going to be paying that much attention.  You could write your letter, but there's no guarantee it would run. If it does, your bully could say he's sorry if a high school classmate continues to think ill of him all these years later, he doesn't remember these incidents,  he apologizes if he behaved badly all those years ago,  and he wishes his former classmate well.  Then you are going to look like someone who never got over high school and the voters are not going to care.  Weigh carefully the cost to you of taking this public. Talk to some trusted friends about what happened and whether they think you should go ahead and reveal this your story. And if you're going to try to help get this guy's opponent elected, you could also have a confidential conversation with that person's campaign manager about why you feel so strongly your classmate shouldn't be in office. The campaign manager will be in a good position to weigh this opposition research and how useful and relevant it might be.

Dear Prudence, My parents both passed away after  engthy illnesses. I have three siblings and towards the end of my parents life, we were fortunate enough to share the responsibility of caring for them and making important decisions amicably. That being said, this is still an emotional drain on us and we are all feeling raw. My sister, "Anna" is a very nostalgic person in general and has been taking this process harder then the rest of us. This weekend we have to go through my parents house and sort items to keep, sell, donate, or toss. Here is the problem: Anna will attach a meaning and a story to every. single. thing. Then she will want to talk about the item and reminisce about our parents. Of course I expect us to do this about some sentimental items. But there is nothing sentimental about our parents toaster. Everybody grieves differently, and I do not want to hurt Anna further by snapping at her or looking cold and indifferent to her emotions. But I'm also not sure I can spend the entire time with Anna without getting frustrated, not to mention it will take us a long time to go through a household at that pace. Is this something I should just suck up or is it worth a conversation with Anna? If so, how would that conversation go?

You can respect her process of grieving by asking her to respect yours. As you all are getting ready to tackle this task, you can say to her that you know talking about the memories attached to the objects helps her, but for you it's more painful than cathartic. You can say that  to get through the house emptying, you just need to put a lid on your emotions and methodically, objectively, focus on the task at hand. Tell her that when you've sorted the objects you're keeping from the ones you're giving away, you'd be happy to discuss the memories they evoke. But when you have that conversation, you should feel free to say, "Anna, I have to stop here. I need to limit how much time I spend thinking about the past because it makes getting through the present harder."

Lately my boyfriend has taken to texting and calling my best friend for advice about me when we get in arguments. I know there is nothing suspicious going on, and their conversations are mostly brief, but I can't help but be hurt by the idea of them talking about me in such a context. I love both of them but am jealous that he feels so comfortable talking to her when we have so many communication issues ourselves. We have a son together and lots of financial stressors, so communicating is not always easy. I'm especially upset because now the person that I vent to is coming back at me with her own opinion, when it used to be nice to just have someone who'd listen. I told my boyfriend how I felt and he took it badly, saying that he had no one else to talk to who understands me. He basically threw his hands up and said, "Fine! I'll keep everything inside then. I won't talk to her since it's obviously a problem." This just made me feel worse. I'm happy that my boyfriend and best friend get along so well, but I wish he'd find his own friends to talk to. Am I right or should I just be grateful that he is seeking out advice about how to better our relationship?

You need a couple of professionals in your life. First a gynecologist who can get you on a very reliable form of birth control because you don't want to be bringing any more children into such a volatile situation. Next, you need short-term couple's counseling. I know you've got financial stress, but I'm hoping one of you has insurance that might cover say four sessions with a counselor. Someone with a masters in social work often charges less than a psychologist and can be just as helpful. Think of it as investment in your future together as a family. You two need ways to talk things out together and to respect each other's boundaries.  I agree he is violating yours and playing with some pretty volatile substances here. You also need to tell your friend that for the sake of your friendship she needs to stop being referee for your relationship because it's hurting everyone's trust.

This question breaks my heart for the boyfriend's child. This boy's mother has a serious medical trauma, and his dad's girlfriend is complaining about the living vs marriage arrangements?? Original LW, please please try to approach this with compassion. Your opportunity to provide a loving stable home for this boy should be looked at as a GIFT. Also, I would hope for everyone's sake (yours, your boyfriend's, and his son's) that you are making decisions about this relationship & cohabitation based on whether you are happy NOW and not "counting on" some future happiness. If you only see living together as a dress rehearsal for marriage, and not as a wonderful opportunity on its own merits, you have moved in together for the wrong reasons.

Yes this boy needs to be the focus of his father's life. There's a lot of work that needs to be done for a child who has suffered so much trauma. But I disagree that the letter writer should see this as an opportunity to provide a stable home for the child apart from her long-term needs. If her long-term needs conflict with those of her boyfriend's there goes the stability for the child. I think it's better for her to bow out now than disappear in a year or two.

Dear Prudence: I have an aquaintance with a child my son's age. They played together in preschool and kindergarten and she and I were friendly. But her son was not always a good playmate for mine,  so we started drifting a bit. After not seeing them for a while, I had coffee with her and she confessed that she had a fairly serious drinking problem and admitted to drinking during the day, including when she was driving. I was floored and very freaked out, as I had trusted her to drive my son and hers to things like playdates. One of these playdates included a baseball game where she told me my son had wandered off and she lost him for a minute, and then proceeded to tell me she thought he had some kind of attention disorder and that she thought he should see a neurologist (she is a doctor). Now, of course, I am wondering if she was drunk and simply lost him at the game. My dilemma is that she has been inviting me and my son out a lot lately. She has gone through rehab and is trying to put her life together, but I am so angry and alarmed at the possibility that she have been intoxicated when my son was under her care that I don't really want to see her anymore. So I have two questions: Am I just being mean and unforgiving, and how, if at all, do I explain to her why I don't want to socialize anymore?

It's kind of a miracle this woman doesn't have her own entry in the CDC's mortality and morbitity statistics. So she's a doctor who likes to drive drunk with the kids! At least she confessed to you so that you can make your own considered decision. I hope what she  made clear was that she is now sober and maintaining it. (If she was telling you she's still driving drunk, then you have an obligation to pursue this with the appropriate authorities -- school officials, her physician partners, etc.) Since your kid doesn't like her kid and since you no longer trust her, you can have a blunt talk with her. Tell her you are having a hard time getting over finding out she drove drunk with your child. Tell her that you appreciate her coming clean with you, you are very glad she's gotten help,  and you fervently hope she can stay sober. But right now your friendship needs a hiatus.

My boyfriend of three years and I are getting married in December! I am so excited!   He is perfect many in many ways. There is one thing; however, that bothers me to the point of tears the times we have discussed it. He gives 10% of his income to his church. Yes, it is a good church, hardly a cult. And, we have agreed on a "mine, yours, ours" method of family financing. So, his 10% to his church, over $8000 a year, will come out of his sole funds. This seems so foolish to me! When I ask him about it, he simply explains it as his way of thanking God. God is for free, right? I don't get it. And I really need to get some advice on how to get him to tone down his giving to a more sensible donation.

This is more than a financial question. It goes to his deepest feelings and essential values. As you say, he is not giving $8,000 to a cult or spending it on pornography. He makes a good income and tithing is one of the things that is, to him, a necessary expense in order to be a decent person. Let's say his hobby was motorcycles and he spent $8,000 on maintenance, travel, etc. You might be sobbing over the waste or you might say, "Hey, it makes him happy." It's important for couples to talk over financial issues, and good that you two are doing it. But his contribution is not putting him in debt or threatening your financial stability. Your harping on and crying about it is  emotionally manipulative. He surely thinks that you are perfect in many ways, but not  in one big one: You want to interfere with his relationship with God. Tread lightly lest you bring down unwanted wrath.

My husband and I have worn glasses since we were teens. We're now in our mid 30s and have two boys together. A few years ago, he started feeling really uncomfortable to be in glasses. He doesn't like how he looks in pictures with them. He tried contacts, and didn't like them. Last year, he went for eye laser surgery, and he has been happy with his vision and feels good about himself. Since then, once in a while he would ask me if I wanted to get the laser surgery as well. I said no. I'm comfortable with the way I am. The past few months though, he's grown more persistent in wanting me to either change to contacts or getting the surgery, because he said the glasses make my eyes look small. I'm Asian, so I think it's just how I was born. He pointed out a photo where he said I look like I was sleeping, while in fact I was smiling at the time. Prudie, how can I ask him to stop. I'm really comfortable with my glasses, and really if we have the money for the expensive laser eye surgery, I'd rather spend it on a nice family vacation. Thank you!

From the sound of your letter your husband is not Asian, so it's a bit of a shock to hear that after many years of marriage he is just discovering that Asian eyes have an epicanthic fold. If a co-worker repeatedly pointed out to his interesting observations about the size of your eyes, or that when you smile your eyes make it look like you're sleeping, you'd probably be marching over to HR.  It's great that your husband is happy with his change. But pressuring one's spouse to have elective surgery for cosmetic reasons is a very dangerous game.  Tell him the conversation about your eyes is closed.  And if his commentary won't stop (and are the kids hearing any of this?) tell him you two need outside help.

Also please seek counseling for yourself. I got the impression from your letter that you are delighting in a sort of vengeance that this opportunity presents. If your vengeance is derailed by a community that shrugs their shoulders to your account, then you might feel even less empowered by this bully. Work on finding a sense of peace within yourself that does not depend on what happens in this election.

Excellent point.  A terrible wrong was done to the letter writer, and my colleague Emily Bazelon, in her superb book on bullying, Sticks and Stones, documents the effects of this kind of trauma. But seeking revenge will possibly backfire. I agree the letter writer should seek  personal healing. 

I think you missed a broader point. This couple needs to have some serious pre-marriage counseling to address their clearly different religious views. Most people who tithe (which literally means to give one tenth) do so based upon strongly held religious beliefs. The LW evidently believes those beliefs are "foolish." This seems like a recipe for disaster.

An excellent point. You're right, this is not just a financial issue but a matter of belief, and her dismissal of his deeply held views is concerning.

I have a good friend who insists on calling my house at 8am and waking up the entire family. I've told her that my younger children are not up that early, and I've directly told her that I can not talk on the phone before 9. When she calls this early, I never, ever answer the phone, because I don't want to reinforce the behavior. But honestly, I'm tired of it (we returned from a vacation late last night and were trying to sleep in this morning when she called at 8 sharp.) I don't know what more I can say, since I've told her not to call this early, and I can't really turn off the phone because I have elderly parents. Suggestions? I'm about to snap.

If she's calling on a cell phone, not a landline, can you block her call? More important, though, is the question of why your friend is such a blockhead. You told her you won't answer until 9:00, you don't pick up so there's no reward for her in calling, and you berate her when she does it. You don't mention her other sterling qualities, but unless she's slipped a psychological gear, a good friend just doesn't deliberately set out to awaken and enrage those closest to her.  Maybe it's time for a time out on this relationship. Tell her you don't know what else to say, but if this behavior doesn't stop, your friendship is going to go on a serious break.

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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