Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Sep 23, 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 afternoone, everyone. I looke forward to your questions.

Dear Prudence, Recently, my husband and I were arguing over something trivial, but it escalated and I suddenly found myself spinning out of control. I started screaming at the top of my lungs, slamming doors--basically throwing a tantrum like a child. I felt like something snapped inside me. Nothing like this has happened to me before. I was so loud that a neighbor called the police, which was humiliating, and now I'm concerned that everyone on the block thinks I'm being abused (or am abusive myself). I am under a lot of professional and personal stress (pressure at work, a major change in my husband's job,  change in income, and a recent death in the family), and I know this is the source of my "episode." I'm looking for a therapist to help me work through what happened and figure out how to prevent it from happening again. But I'm having trouble getting over my sense of humiliation. Every time I pull into the driveway, I pray I won't see any of our neighbors. I won't know what to do the first time I run into someone from the block--do I acknowledge what happened? Apologize? 

You lost it. It was embarrassing and humilating,  and you shocked yourself, your husband, and the neighbors. But for goodness sake, this sounds like a one-time event and you deserve to give yourself a pass. Everyone's had those moments when it all just seems like too much and you lose your emotional stability.  Keep in mind you didn't strike out physically at your husband, and the door's feelings were not hurt. I agree it was all a sign that you need help working through all that's going on, but put this incident in perspective. It's not like you have to join Door Slammers Anonymous. Your chagrin will probably be prevetive of future incidents,  but you are in distress and talking to a neutral party should give you some relief.  I hope you soon run into a neighbor because what you do is act as if nothing happened. If someone asks you about it -- and chances are no one will -- just say, "Oh, dear, it was one of those things best forgotten. So how's your son enjoying college?"

Ever since my daughter got married our relationship has deteriorated substantially. She and her husband are animal lovers -- four to six cats and a dog in the house all day and night. They brought the dog to my 86-year-old dad's house and he made them keep it in the garage because we are all allergic. My son in law "will never cross their doorstep again" - it has been down hill ever since. He spends all the holidays at his mother's and wants us to come there instead of spending it with my folks. Now my daughter is pregnant and I can't even spend time in their home without choking up and getting itchy. What is the best way to approach this and keep the peace?

Your unallergic daughter may be overreacting to her inability to have childhood pets. But it's most unfortunate  these two adults act as if they don't understand you can't bring your own pet to the home of a person who can't breath when exposed to dander.  Based on the "never cross the doorstep" remark your son-in-law sounds like quite the jerk. But your daughter married him, is starting a family with him, and this new behavior is a test that's rigged towards making you flunk. So do your best to figure out how to finesse the trick questions. With as much patience and lightness as you can, you deal with the issues one by one. "Courtney, I'm so glad you can finally have the animals you always wanted, but I can't be in the house with them, Sweetie, so it would be easier if you could visit at my place. I'm so excited about the baby and I can't wait to see you!"  You say that you understand now that she's married that holidays get divided, so you want to figure out a way that makes everyone happy. I think this year you should accept the invitiation to the son-in-law's family home. You can explain that perhaps you have to come by only for dessert because you need to spend most of the day with your parents. Or maybe you go for dinner and convince your daughter and son-in-law to come to your folks for dessert. Of course it would be easier if you could just call them out on their unreasonableness, but I think that will only cause the unreasonableness to escalate. Do some jujitsu by acknowledging the important place the animals have in their lives and saying you want to work around that.

I gave my friend a loan when she started a very promising business. Then recently she was diagnosed with cancer. I know I sound completely heartless but I really, really need her to pay me back. How can I approach this with her?

I think you forgot the rule that said never loan money to friends or family that you are not able to write off entirely. Of course all new businesses are promising -- you wouldn't invest in a business that seemed certain to fail. But now the person who is probably the sole proprietor is dealing with a serious illness, so I'm assuming the business is ailing, too. It just might be that no matter how much you need this money, and fast, that she simply doesn't have the funds to give you. I hope you did some paper work to outline the terms of the loan and a repayment schedule. However, it sounds like you didn't.  You say she was recently diagnosed with cancer, so it would hard to think of a worse time for you to come calling asking for a check. Let the poor woman find out her prognosis and treatment plan. Maybe if things aren't so bad and she can continue to work during her treatment, in a few months -- after you have been sufficiently helpful and attentive to a sick friend -- you can delicately broach this topic. If however she is heading toward a siege of surgery, hospitalization, and tough chemo, then it looks like tough luck for you.

Dear Prudence, My brother-in-law weighs at least 400 pounds and seems to gain more each time I see him. A few months ago, following a holiday dinner, we realized that he had broken the chair that he was seated in. The joints on the chair were falling apart and required a $150 repair. At another relative's house we realized he avoided sitting in most of the chairs there because he was obviously nervous about their ability to withstand his weight. Prudie, now this years holidays are approaching and I'm not sure what to do when I extend invitations. Should I, A) Not invite these members of our close family (awkward!) B) Invite them and then suck it up when I have to pay another $150 to repair the chair again, or worse, have the chair collapse on the floor, risking injury to my brother-in-law or C) Have an awkward conversation before I extend the invitation and confess that I don't know what to do about this situation (though I can't imagine actually bringing this embarrassing topic up)? Different family members, including my husband, have tried to bring up the topic of weight and health in a positive way but my brother in law was not receptive. On top of this, my husband and I are very fit so if we bring up a weight problem it seems like we're being judgmental. My husband and his brother have not talked for years at a time following past disagreements over other topics, which have since been resolved. At the moment, we're still a close, mostly happy family but I'm afraid we'll start an ugly feud if we never invite them over for a celebration because of this weight issue. Help! Signed, Trying not to sit in judgement

You don't say, "Harry, this year we rented a forklift, so you'll be sitting it in outside in the yard, but we'll bring you plate of turkey and stuffing." Your brother-in-law is so morbidly obese that you must recognize that in due course he could eat himself to death. That will put in perspective the problem of chair repair. You invite him then you go to a furniture rental store and explain your needs. If an appropriate chair rental is costly, maybe everyone in the family can quietly chip in so that Harry feels welcome and confident when he takes a load off. I assure you Harry knows how big he is, so while you can discuss the size of the turkey, do not mention the size of Harry. Your brother-in-law is suffering, so what a good lesson it will be for the children when they see everyone treating him like a welcome guest.

When my wife and I were married, my brother's girlfriend caused quite a scene at our wedding by yelling at my brother and dramatically storming out of our reception, only to return and do it all over again. My wife and I were embarrassed and upset that she would behave like this in front of our friends and families. Since this time, we have not spoken with the girlfriend and my brother said it was a minor fight and couldn't understand why she got so upset. My wife still holds a grudge against this woman and says that she will not speak with her until she gives us an apology. My family is attending Thanksgiving this year at the home of my brother and his girlfriend and an invitation has been extended to us as well. My wife would like to address the issue prior to attending Thanksgiving but at this point, I think it is best left alone and ignored. Am I wrong for wanting my wife to drop the issue?

As I mentioned, almost everyone has lost it at one time or another, but it's best if that time isn't at the wedding of your boyfriend's brother.  It's probably a good bet this scene was fueled by an excess of champagne punch, and it's possible  the girlfriend only has fragmentary memories of her outburst. As I've noted many times, these events don't ruin weddings, they instead are like goodie bags for the guests -- a treat to chew over during the ride home.  You don't say you are just returning home from the honeymoon, so this grudge and lack of apology sounds like a long-running stand-off. Of course the girlfriend should apologize, but she hasn't and likely won't. I hope your wife has learned demanding an apology rarely results in a sincere one.  If your wife refuses to go to Thanksgiving, or spends the day seething while everyone is enjoying the pumpkin pie, then she's the person making the scene. I agree with you that Thanksgiving should be a new start, you both should go and act as if you're happy to be there.

Hi! I find that people are repeatedly asking me an awkward question that I don't really want to answer. I'm 18, and I used to cut myself. I stopped about six months ago, determined to go to college in a better mental state. I have my depression generally under control now, but I still have scars all over my arms and some on my legs. For a while, I just wore long sleeves and pants, but the summer was too hot so I dressed normally again. However, with that, people (strangers, friends, family members) started asking what the scars were from. I usually just mutter "nothing" and change the subject. I can't really lie (because of the obvious pattern) but I also don't want to have a discussion about it. Particularly with my friends and family, who would be quite disappointed with me if they knew about my history of depression (they see me as happy, smart and talented), even though it's already in my past. How should I respond in the future when people ask me about my scars?

Good for you for dealing with your problems. I hope you've gotten professional help from someone with experience with teens, cutting, and depression.  This is a big thing to tackle on your own and being able to touch base with an understanding adult (who is not a member of your family) could be a big relief for you.  I'm also concerned about your need to put on a happy face for everyone around you. Of course they would be distressed to know that you have dealt with emotional troubles -- but you would be surprised by how many of them would be able to say to you, "I understand because I've been there." You can be smart, talented, and even happy, yet also struggle at times with difficult feelings.

I've gotten many questions over the years from people dealing with scars. I think what you say depends on the circumstances, your relationship to the person, even your mood at the moment.  What you went through is nothing to be ashamed of and if you want to tell a few intimates that you cut yourself but fortunately have been able to stop, then you should not bear the burden of feeling this is your terrible secret. For people you know but don't want to discuss this with you can say something like, "Thanks for your concern. It's something I've dealt with so I'd rather not go into it." As for strangers, feel free to just walk away.

I've noticed that whenever you need to make up a fictional female name, you always pick "Courtney." What's up with that? Just curious!

I used to reflexively write, "Denise" and I once got a funny letter from a Denise asking what a Denise ever did to me. Good point that I need a name book by my computer. I like Courtney because I don't know any and it's a likely name of a person in her twenties, the way Susan is Courtney's mother, Dorothy is her grandmother, and Myrna is her great-grandmother.

Put it in perspective and be glad you are healthy. Remember that freinds help sick freinds and know she'll need that money for chemo while you are healthy and comfortable and pain free. Forget the money and ask what else you can do to help this friend, take her to the doctor, hold her hand, fix her food, clean her house and then go home and thank your lucky stars for your health.

Thank you, nicely put.  And another reader wondered if the payback has something to do with worries the friend might not make it -- if so, blech.

Dear Prudence, My father and his former wife split up three years ago. She was my step-mother all through my teens, though more like an older sister than a mother, and we remain friends. My father and she have been locked in an expensive, pointless custody battle over where their three children will spend birthdays and school holidays for two years. So when I announced I was getting married, my father said he would only come if my stepmother was not invited. We then discussed having a separate party for his side of the family instead, which was his idea that I eventually agreed to so I could celebrate with them both. Months go by, and he can't find the time for a separate party, so today one month until the wedding I get a message from him asking me to dis-invite my stepmother so that he can come to my wedding. Now, he's clearly out of line, but he's also my dad and "technically" family. Can I tell him he missed his chance, or should I try to accommodate him again?

With this portrait I am not puzzled that your father and stepmother are getting divorced, but I'm left to wonder why she married him in the first place. I just hope your father is not the selfish jerk he appears here, more concerned with manipulating those close to him than looking out for the happiness of his children. I think the "one side of the family" celebration is ridiculous and I'm glad it's cratering. You tell your father that no one is getting dis-invited. You explain it's your wedding so it would mean a lot to you to have him there. Then you say that if declines to come, he will be missed.

Dear Prudence, my husband and I found out a few weeks ago that we were expecting our first child. Last Friday, at our first ultrasound, we learned our baby likely will not survive, and that I will miscarry soon. We are devastated. Because we're in our late 30s, we didn't tell family we've been trying (we didn't want to get hopes up). Now that we're facing a sad and difficult loss, I'd like to tell my parents -- we see them several times a week, and they may intuit that something's wrong. Plus, I kind of just need my mom right now. Here is the problem: My mother's sister and father both have end-stage cancer and have only weeks to live. My mother is their primary care-giver and is emotionally and physically exhausted. I don't want to add one more loss to her life right now. The rational part of me thinks my husband and I should handle our loss on our own, sparing my parents additional sadness in what is already an incredibly sad time in our family. Is that a good reason for not telling them? My husband wants to follow my lead on this, but emotionally I can't tell up from down right now.

What an agonizing situation and I'm sorry you are going through this. Of course this is the time you want the solace of your mother. Yes, she is probably at the breaking point, but you sound like a sensitive, caring person and ultimately your mother would probably feel worse that you felt you couldn't confide in her during this difficult time.  You see her a lot, so I think you should speak up. Sit on the couch next to her, take her hand and say you don't want to add to her burdens but she's your mother and you have to tell her. Then explain what's going on. Yes, you'll both fall on each other and cry, but those will be the kinds of tears that are needed at a time like this.  You say your mother is the primary care-taker of a dying sister and father. I know you've got enough to deal with right now, but perhaps you can talk to your father about getting some respite relief for your mother, about bringing in some outside help for your aunt and grandfather.  I know you'll mother will want to be there for you, but a person can only be stretched so many way. And please talk to your doctor about support groups for people who have been in your situation -- you could benefit from being able to talk to others who truly understand.

My wife's middle sister died of breast cancer at an early age in 2001. This summer, her older sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through a double mastectomy. On the advice of her gynecologist, my wife met with an oncologist and a geneticist to see what precautions she should take. There is a gene test available (BRCA) to determine if the breast cancer is hereditary. However, the geneticist said that it would only be useful if the sister with breast cancer had the test first. This is where the problem lies: my wife and her sister are completely estranged and have been for years. It is a situation beyond repair due to the older sister's treatment of my wife. My wife made one attempt to ask about the test and was rebuffed with a statement that the older sister's insurance wouldn't pay for the test. This is basically a red herring as the cost of the test would be well within her means without question. The question is does my wife just give up on pursuing this? We have a daughter, the older sister has a daughter, and the middle sister had two daughters who would also be impacted by the test results.

I understand that it's helpful to trace a gene through the family, but the middle sister is gone, and the older sister won't take the test. I don't know why this means it's useless for your wife to get it. Either your wife has the gene or she doesn't. Let's say there was no older sister in the family. Your wife would still have a first degree relative who died young of breast cancer, so  it would be perfectly reasonable for your wife to want to know if she herself carried a BRCA gene.  I suggest your wife get this all clarified with the geneticist, or simply go see a new geneticist and explain why she wants the test. When she gives her history, when the question of whether the older sister is positive for BRCA comes up,  your wife can explain her sister does not want to find out.

Dear Prudie, My husband and I visited our 23-year-old daughter at her apartment in another city, about two hours from us. We had brought some things from home for her to have (a used but thoroughly clean oriental rug and a wood furniture with shelves). She was very appreciative and invited us out to lunch as a thank you. Lunch cost about $50-$55 at a lovely sit-down restaurant nearby - her choice. I was grateful, and easily accepted her invitation. My husband (and her dad) completely disagreed, tried at first to dissuade her then tried to share an entree. Our daughter encouraged him to have his own and said that the entrees there would be too small to share. He did order his own plate, but told me the next day that I should not have encouraged her to take us out. How do you see it? Signed, Confused and Contrite? Mom

For you, your daughter was a young woman who was delighting you with her embrace of the responsibilities of adulthood. To her father this day was a reminder that his baby will always be his baby. (There may also have been his economic perspective that if she spends the $50 on you two, he'll just be hit up for it later.) I agree that Dad should have let your daughter feel like a grown up and not been silly about the entree. But carrying on this beef over how much beef was ordered is also silly.  I think you should go to your husband and acknowledge it's both wonderful and difficult to see that your little girl is launched. Tell him coming to terms with is something you two are going to struggle with for a while and in your own ways. 

I once had a professor who would reflexively use the name "Stacy" for a generic female and then mutter, to a room full of students born in the 80s, "That's such an 80s name." The Stacies in the room - and there always was at least one - got a good laugh out of it.

I'll add this to my repetoire! But a quick look at a reference confirms my sense that Stacy is such a 70s name.

FWIW, I wanted to have the test as well (two sisters with breast cancer), and my doctor also said that my surviving sister was the one who needed to be tested. I don't know why. Maybe another reader or medical professional will know.

Another reader said all this may have something to do with insurance. You might need confirmation that a close relative has the mutuation in order to get the test covered. This explanation makes sense in the nonsensical way of our health care system. It would be a shame if one dead sister and one sick sister was not enough to justify a third sister getting the information she needed to make crucial decisions about her life without having to pay entirely out of pocket.

Hi Prudie, My father-in-law has either been homeless, or near it, for the entirety of my relationship with his son. This is of his own volition-- he is opinionated and difficult and he gets fired from every job he manages to obtain, and evicted from every house he lives in. For the past two years, every time he comes to visit, he brings food with him. My BIL and SIL give him a monthly allowance, and in addition to this, it came to light about six months ago that a lot of this food is actually coming from the Food Bank. He goes and takes baskets and baskets of food, and then promptly brings it to our home. My husband says he's spoken to him about it repeatedly, but then some days I will come home and there will be bundles of food left on our doorstep. It bothers me that he buys food for us with money he took from my BIL, but even worse is that he's taking it from the people who genuinely need this food! We are not starving, we are rather well off. Help! I'm at my wits end and have no idea how to get him to stop!

It would be good if your family could get your father some serious mental health treatment. It could be with with the proper medication he could function a lot better.  I understand your distress at the gifts but they're not not important in the grand scheme. Sadly, your father's husband is mentally ill, and leaving you food makes him feel better, so let it be.

My husband and I are both in our late 30's and neither of us have tattoos. My mother-in-law unexpectedly passed away about seven months ago, and now my husband wants a tattoo in her memory. While I respect and love how close he was to his mom, who was an amazing woman, I think tattoos are ugly! As much as I love her, I don't want to see her name on his chest every time we make love. I understand his heartbreak over this loss (I too am heartbroken) but am I being cold hearted to not want him to get the tattoo? Signed, Inkless

You make a really powerful case for not noting in ink the passing of a loved one. Having to think about Barbara every time you are trying to get in the mood is going to be a turnoff. And there's something a little pathetic about a man in his thirties with his mother's name plastered across his chest. He is mourning now, he will never forget his mother, but in years to come thoughts of her will come and go. There's something artificial about having to think about your mother every time you step out of the shower and dry off your chest. There are so many more meaningful ways he can honor her. Surely this lovely woman believed in some good causes and your husband could make a donation in her memory. How much better to do something worthy in her name than getting it inscribed on his chest.

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week. And check out Slate's redesigned website!

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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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