Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Aug 05, 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 on this glorious day. 

Prudence, I am 27-years-old and engaged to an amazing guy. When I was a little girl, my dad was involved in a really bad accident and was burned over a large portion of his body. He lost part of one limb and has some serious disfigurement. He has been a great dad and I never think about it. A few weeks ago, my fiancee started acting strange when we talked about the wedding. I asked him what was up and he avoided the question. Then his mom called me out of the blue and told me that she didn't think that my dad should come to the wedding. She thinks that he will upset the guests and "traumatize" any children who might be there. She is suggesting that we have a private family ceremony before the big blowout. I got upset and my mom asked why. When I told her, she said that she and my dad understand, which only makes me feel worse. Maybe my future MIL has a point, but I would really rather disinvite HER than my dad. -L.T.

Your fiance is not so amazing if in response to his mother's outrageous, sickening request he didn't immediately say to her, "Mom, Elise's dad is a great person. That he has overcome a terrible trauma makes me admire him even more. You need to permanently drop this. He'll not only be there, he'll walk her down the aisle, and I don't want to hear another negative word about him." Instead, he has weasled around, and presumably didn't tell his mother not to make her despicable request to you -- he surely knew what she was up to and didn't even have the courage to warn you. Instead of responding to his mother, you need to talk this through with you fiance. He should be the one to respond to his mother about this, and it's not to late for him to make clear she is totally out of line.  How he handles this will tell you if he's worthy of becoming a member of your family.  And I hope you tell your parents that if they are not both at the wedding and treated as guests of honor,  you won't be there, either.

Dear Prudie, I am starting a promising relationship ith an awesome woman, but there's a problem: she has a chihuahua with such severe separation anxiety that (she says) they must be together 24/7. Otherwise the dog will chew off its paw. She largely works from home and has a large purse and takes the dog everywhere, including places it clearly is not allowed, e.g., food stores, restaurants, movies and the Kennedy Center. I know some people are nuts about their pets, but this seems extreme. I bought a pair of fall opera tickets for $300 and plan to take my mother for fear we would be asked to leave if the dog was discovered. There does not eem to be room for compromise and I know if she had to choose between me nd the dog, she'd choose the dog. Is there any hope for this relationship or should I just move on?

Occasionally you see dogs wearing a vest that declares they are "emotional assistance" service dogs for their owner. Your girlfriend should be wearing a vest declaring she's an emotional assistance human for her chihuahua. Just think, if you forced your girlfriend to out on four dates without Pepe, he would in short order be a dog without paws. This should go you pause about what you're getting into. You're actually the one I'm concerned about here. You knew your girlfriend was a nut on the first date when she started dropping table scraps into her Louis Vuitton. I can't imagine how you decided there was a promising future for you being  part of a defunct Taco Bell ad campaign.  The opera date is not until the fall. Before you ask Mom, expand your social horizons and see if you can't find a woman  to accompany you who can leave her four-legged love behind for an evening.

A few days ago I received a letter at work from the wife of a co-worker asking me to leave her husband alone. She wrote: "My husband, XXX, has told me all about his relationship with you and how every time he tries to break things off you find a way to hold onto him. He says he is too weak to let you go, so you must be the one to end things for the sake of our children and the sake of our marriage. He believes he loves you but I know him better than he knows himself. Please back off, I'm begging you."  The problem is I barely know her husband. We are co-workers, but are not even in the same department. I was introduced to him and his wife at a company function about six weeks ago and at that time had the only conversation I've ever had with him (and his wife was present). Should I ask my co-worker why he told his wife we're having an affair? Should I respond to his wife and tell her I have no idea what she's talking about? I have been with this company for less than a year so I hesitate to seem like I'm going to be trouble, but as the workplace is the only link between me and my co-worker, should I let HR intervene for me? I am pretty skeeved out by this whole situation. What should I do? Signed, NOT the Mistress

This sounds like the opening scene for one of those workplace sexual intrigue movies starring Michael Douglas. Let's hope your experience doesn't become a full-length drama. What happened is bizarre and disturbing and your should make a copy of this letter and walk it over to the desk of your supposed paramour. Don't ask him why this would happen. Tell him you have no idea what the wife is talking about, but if this note reflects some misinformation he has conveyed to her, he needs to clarify it immediately. I'm going to guess that this guy is having an affair with someone at the office, the wife hasn't been able to pinpoint who, and after meeting you decided you were the culprit. Alternatively, if he didn't want her to know who his girlfriend really was, maybe he mentioned your name to get his wife off the scent -- which would be idiotic,  but perhaps this marriage is not based on the highest-level functioning. Let's hope the husband takes care of this and the letter is the last you hear from the wife. But if it isn't, and you become the object of a harassment campaign, then document all of this and take it to HR. HR is where great movie plots go to die.

I was in an relationship for six years with a man who was abusive to me. I finally got out of it over a year ago and I'm doing really well. I just severed the last of my ties to this man (joint property), and thought I was DONE. However, I recently learned that he is now sleeping with one of his grad students (and thinks he's "in love" ). I don't want to be together with him again (never in a million years!), but I am experiencing such anger over this new "relationship" of his. He was never able to acknowledge that he was abusive to me, and now that he's with this new young thing (there's a 25 year age difference), I'm sure he never will. He probably thinks it was all my fault and this new affair is proof of that. There is a wrinkle: He teaches ethics. Ethics! Like, "Don't have sex with your students" kind of ethics! I want to contact his department chair with the information of his relationship. Yet, even though he was horrible to me, I think it might be wrong to do so. On the other hand, what he's doing is wrong, and I want him to pay for it. Thoughts?

Your ex sounds like an expert on situational ethics.  He is obviously a bad guy, but this letter proves you are not over him. You're right that what he's doing surely violates his school's code of conduct, but if he's so brazen that you have gotten wind of his relationship with his student, surely it will become widely known on campus.  (I think this is different from the letter of a few weeks ago when an ex wife discovered her husband, who had a string of inappropriate relationships wth high school students, was now teaching at a boarding school.) What you do is nothing. Be glad you finally got the wherewithal to end a terrible relationship.  If you focus on getting him to pay for the past, you will never be free in the present.

Hi. My wife and I have twin 7-year old boys ("Bruce" and "Clark"). Clark is intellectually disabled (can walk, and talk, but about at the level of a 1.5 year old) while Bruce is not disabled in any way. They're both great kids and we love them to death. However, unsurprisingly, Clark gets a lot more attention from grown-ups than Bruce does. Clark is a charming kid with a great smile, but more than that, he elicits a lot of sympathy from parents, teachers, and friends because of his disability. Bruce has started to notice this and begun to feel neglected -- Recently Clark won "best camper" and "most respectful" at their Summer camp while Bruce has not won anything, leaving him a little dejected. We work hard to make both kids feel loved equally and give Bruce lots of individual attention and special time together, but others are sometimes not so attentive to him. Is there a way that we can politely remind people that we have another son and direct some of their attention to Bruce?

This is a very difficult situation and as the years go on Bruce is going to have to deal with a myriad of emotions about his brother, including likely a sense of survivor's guilt. At 7 years-old Bruce is old enough to understand that his brother has severe limitations and that some people will respond rudely to him, and some kindly. You can talk to Bruce about the fact that you appreciate when people try to include Bruce in things, because sadly, not everyone is going to be comfortable around someone who is intellectually disabled. You can also be honest with Bruce and say that sometimes it may seem unfair that Clark is getting more attention than he is and that feeling a little jealous is totally normal. But talk to him about how things are never totally equal between people. Clark may get some more attention from adults because he needs extra help. But you can tell him that there are so many things that he can do now and more to come in the future that Clark just  won't be able to do.  If you're with other people and there is a graceful way to shift the conversation to Bruce, "Oh, Bruce tell The Smiths how much you liked archery!" that's fine. But don't make things more awkward for everyone by being heavy-handed about this. The most important thing you can do is to make Bruce feel that he can talk out complicated feelings with you without being rebuked or judged.

Go straight to HR. Period. This is as creepy a scenario as I can imagine. Something is wrong with this dude and she needs to immediately distance herself. Of course, in the movie, the HR director is the one having the affair with the man and the letter writer is drawn into something even deeper... Poor letter writer.

I like your plot twist. Sure, she could go directly to HR, but in most cases people are encouraged to first deal directly with a problem with a fellow employee. She barely knows this guy and he does not supervise her. If the wife was on a fishing expedition, when he sees the letter he might apologize to his colleague and say he will straighten this out at home, and that's the last the letter writer hears about it.  I really do think she has to see if this can be handled first without bringing in the company.

I married the son of close family friends four years ago. We grew up together, and our parents were thrilled when we fell in love and got engaged. Our marriage was a happy one; then he told me he impregnated another woman. My heart is broken. We are divorcing, my choice, not his. We don't have kids, so the logistics of the divorce will at least be easy. Telling our families not so much. I feel psychically ill when I think about telling my parents I am divorcing my husband and why. I feel so humiliated and hurt by his affair, I barely want to acknowledge it myself. What's a good start for telling them?

Soon there will be a bundle of evidence as to why your marriage has come asunder. This is not a judgment on you, it's a painful and complicated situation and you have made the best choice for your future. So hold your head up and tell your nearest and dearest that you have sad news, but you and Donald are divorcing. Explain to your parents he had an affair and his girlfriend is pregnant, and that's the end for you.  It's his responsibility to let his parents know they're about to be grandparents.  Think about seeing a therapist just to help you sort out the end of your marriage and help you work through the loss. It sounds as if you are making a wise choice, one that I hope leads you in time to a new love.

For the past three months I have nannied for the "Smith" family. Mr. Smith has a seven-year-old son from his first marriage (Jack), and Mrs. Smith is pregnant and has two daughters from her first marriage. This weekend I arrived fifteen minutes early for my shift. I found Jack strapped into Mrs. Smith's Prius. The windows were rolled down, but the car was still very warm. Jack told me that he misbehaved on an earlier outing, and when they arrived home he was crying. Mrs. Smith left him in the car as punishment. I took Jack from the car and knocked on the door; when Mrs. Smith answered, she explained that Jack had been throwing a tantrum for over thirty minutes and that she left him in the car to let him calm down. They had only been home for ten or fifteen minutes by the time I arrived. I told her it made me uncomfortable that she left a child in a car on a hot day, even if the windows were rolled down. Mrs. Smith listened to me and later that night, after I went home, Mr. Smith called me to tell me his wife had made a mistake based on stress from Jack's outburst and her pregnancy. To them, the matter is closed. I still feel something's not right and that I'm letting Jack down by dropping this. I've known Mrs. Smith to be short tempered with Jack, who is an admittedly high-strung child. Am I being paranoid? Should I keep nannying and chalk this up to a mistake?

Oh, how wonderful that these people are bringing another child into a volatile, out-of-control family situation. Leaving a 7 year-old strapped into a car unsupervised is the kind of thing that rightly gets people arrested.  For now, I think you should call the 211 hotline and discuss what happened.  This is not a government reporting number, but a referral line for to help people sort out whether to call government agencies.  The  Smiths sound like less than ideal parents, but obviously she copped to her husband about what she did, and he let you know she recognizes what she did was totally wrong and it won't happen again. But it sounds as if Jack needs gentle, compassionate handling, which he's not getting. You are obviously a force for good in Jack's life. If you want to continue being the Smith's nanny, keep your eyes open and  keep speaking up for him. And if you ever see a replay of anything like the left-in-the-car incident, do not hesitate to call 911.

I am the son of a man who was severely burned in an accident in 2001. I have to say that I would not give the fiance nearly as much slack as you suggest. This guy actually allowed his mother to suggest that the father of the bride be excluded from the wedding because he was severely burned! Unless there is a really good explanation for his actions, he deserves a swift kick in the rear. For folks who are not aware, many burn victims are ashamed of their scars. The shame is so pervasive, that many burn victims' support groups include the word "moonlight" in them, referring to some victims' reluctance to go out of the house except at night. A man who would allow his future father in law to be shamed to the point of not being able to attend his daughter's wedding is pretty despicable in my book.

The letter writer has to talk directly to her fiance about his mother's request. I think she should give him the chance to step up and demonstrate his character. If it turns out the fiance can't confront his mother about her behavior, the letter writer has a wedding to cancel.

Carly's Voice is a great book I listened to on my commute, about a girl with autism. She is also a twin. Told mostly from her dad's point of view, I found it quite insightful.

Thanks for this suggestion. And others are saying that it might help if Clark and Bruce went to different camps or were signed up for different activities so that they are known as individuals and not just as "the twins."

Parenting my four-year-old daughter has had its challenges and my husband and I have thus far handled things pretty well. There is one thing has me questioning myself on an at least weekly basis. She has discovered that it "tickles" when she touches herself. Initially my reaction was "Yeah, it does, but that is something that we don't do around other people. If you feel like you need to do that then you should do it in your room, alone." I stressed that it isn't something that is polite to talk about with other people and that she is the only person that can touch her like that (aside from being washed). Today my 18-month-old boy grabbed his penis as I was changing him and started laughing to which my older daughter said "you shouldn't do that out here, if you want to do that go to your room!" I've been struggling with the fact that when she's old enough she will realize that obviously I knew what was going on. I want her to be comfortable with her body and refuse to shame her, but can't exactly explain (nor would I want to) sex and all that it encompasses. Is there a way I can handle this so later down the line she isn't ashamed? It's come up enough and her memory is such that she can recall conversations we've had months out. Am I doing this right? I also don't want her talking to her friends at pre-k about this obviously sensitive topic.

It sounds as if you're handling their handling quite well, but that  you should do it with less anxiety and more humor. Come, on, the scene your describe of your children's discovery of self-delight is pretty hilarious. Laughing at your kids' antics is one of the great things that buffers the challenges of being a parent. I think you need to be very low-key about this. I agree that telling your daughter "tickling" is an activity for when she's at home and in her room is fine.  When her toddler brother is laughing with joy over his amazing appendage and she wants to send him to his room, you can tell her that he's so little he just doesn't understand what he's doing. But that she's right, that some things are private. As for nursery school, please  don't worry about censoring her conversations. Maybe this will never come up. Maybe she will impart life-changing advice.  If someday word comes back to you that she's the bunny's class's Dan Savage,  I hope all the adults will have a good laugh.

Prudie, I'm not sure I agree. Leaving a child in a car with the windows rolled down as a response to a tantrum seems a little extreme, maybe, but not abusive. Surely you've been left at your wit's end by a 30-minute screaming tantrum (and of a 7-year-old, who really should know better)? We have such a knee-jerk reaction in this country to "kids being left in cars," even for five minutes when running a quick errand. I think the nanny was right to speak up to the parents, but the parents owned up to their mistake. You think one parenting mistake gives someone the right to potentially report you to child services? Being short-tempered is not a reason to potentially remove a child from a home. Not every parent is "gentle and compassionate" at all times in our lives, and we're not necessarily bad parents even so. Good for these parents for recognizing a weakness they have in their own personalities and hiring a nanny to complement their parenting style.

The nanny says she went to the closed front door and the mother said 7 year-old Jack had been left in the car alone and unsupervised for about 15 minutes. In that time he could have undone his seatbelt and gotten himself out of the car and into the street. Someone creepy could have driven by. Someone concerned could have parked, seen that the child had been left alone, and called the police.  I didn't say the nanny should report this, but that she should talk to some people about this incident and what's going on with Jack. Yes, it's a good sign that the parents' acknowledged this significant lapse. But no, I cannot imagine leaving an hysterical 7 year-old in the car on a hot day while I went in the house to cool myself off.

How can I tell when to give up on a friendship? I'm at that age where many of my friends have babies or small children, and we don't (yet). Some of these friends have done a great job "staying in touch," e.g. we still hang out when they can get a sitter, or we'll make kid-friendly plans so they can come. However, some friends with kids just drop off the face of the planet, despite our continued invitations to do stuff. I know getting a good sitter is tough. But, how do I tell the difference between that vs. them just not wanting to hang out anymore?

Parents of small children, you need a break from toddler masturbation, so get back in touch with your childless friends! I agree that this is a difficult one to sort out because some people go so down the rabbit hole in trying to juggle domestic and work life that social life just gets squeezed out. I like the solution some friends of yours have; suggesting you tag along to the playground, etc. and catch up while the kids play. So try that with the people you miss you can't seem to connect with. If they just never take the bait, then it's too bad for them that there's not enough room in their lives for adult time.

I am the mother of an only child and am growing beyond weary of the derisive commentary (intentional or otherwise) with which we find ourselves constantly bombarded. Sure, he's around adults a lot, but other than that, he's a pretty normal kid who demonstrates no more or less brattiness than his multi-sibling counterparts. How do I tactfully address it when people say things attributing pretty much everything he ever does wrong to his being an only child?

I'm the mother of an only and in more than 17 years only a very few people have mentioned this as a reflection of her personality, and that's always been a kind of back-handed compliment --"She's better at sharing than most only children".  There's something off if your family or social circle is "constantly bombarding" you with negative messages about your son.  You need to look at who is articulating these messages and shut them down. (If your son has behavioral problems that need addressing, address them.) Look up a few of the studies that show there is virtually no difference between onlies and people with siblings.  Then when you hear the "only child" litany, calmly say that the facts are that onlies are just like everyone else.

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: