Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Nov 04, 2013

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Dear Prudence, I did something bad. Two years ago my BIL died suddenly. Needless to say my in-laws were completely devastated, and my MIL was put on sedation for a few weeks. My husband's pushy cousin stepped in and took over a lot of the decisions being made. One of them was to place his beautiful guitar that his mother had given him in the coffin to be buried with him. I didn't feel it was my place to speak up, but I thought it was a stupid thing to do. After the visitation at the funeral home I said to an attendant that I thought it was awful that they were going to bury such a valuable object. Since it was to be a closed casket funeral he offered to take the guitar out and set it aside before the coffin was sealed, and I agreed. Later he gave it to me and I brought it home and hid it. Now all this time later my MIL often bemoans the fact that we did such a dumb thing, and says how much she wishes she could have the guitar back to remember her son by. If I speak up and tell what I did, everyone in the family is going to be furious at me, including my husband. I would feel terrible selling it so it remains hidden. Should I face the music and give it back?

You did something good. Yes, it was deceptive, and by those lights there are some people who would say ergo, it was bad. But you weren't going against your mother-in-law's express wish -- even if now she were regretting it. You were stepping up to prevent the pushy cousin from pushing her emotional agenda into your brother-in-law's coffin.  So you conspired with a morturary attendant to consider your family's long-term emotional interests and rescue this dear object. Your mother-in-law will always mourn her son's premature death.  But surely it will strike some celestial chord in her to have returned this instrument held in the hands of her beloved son.  To make this happen, first you have to tell your husband. Don't cast this story as one of your wrongdoing. Say that in the moment you acted because you thought his cousin was making a terrible decision. Tell him that having rescued the guitar you've been unable to know what to do with it, but it's been so painful to hear your mother wish she could hold it again. Explain you've just been too embarrassed to let her know she could. Say it would mean the world to you if he would tell her what happened and give the guitar to her. I'm guessing she will be eternally grateful to you.

We live within a five minute driving distance to my MIL. This has never caused an issue, until my FIL passed away unexpectedly some time ago. Since then, my husband has started sleeping at his mother's place. She lives in a small studio apartment with one double bed so I'm guessing they both sleep on the same bed, too. He comes over to our place to collect his clothes. Whenever I try talking to him, he says he doesn't like the arrangement either, but I'm far too individualistic and selfish. He says I should try harder to look after his widowed, elderly mother, but when I go to her place she largely ignores me and obviously doesn't like my company. Is this a normal situation for a worried son to look after his grieving mother? Or am I missing something here?

If your husband were 5 years-old and his father died suddenly, it would make perfect sense that he would feel safer sleeping next to his mother. But this kind of thing is for sons who still sleep with teddy bears, not wives. You're father-in-law is gone, but apparently so is your marriage. Either your husband prefers to bunk with Mommy, or he's telling you he's there while he's actually spending the night somewhere else. Your attempts to discuss this outlandish arrangement are met with rude rebuffs. I think it's time for you two to discuss your living arrangements with a professional. If you choose to try a therapist first, I suggest you also put a divorce lawyer on retainer.

Dear Prudence, My brother and his wife have been trying to have a child for several years to no avail. They've made every reasonable attempt but are both heartbroken when the results are negative. I am a single woman in my 30s who never wanted children of her own. However, last month I discovered that I am pregnant. As I considered my options, I thought about whether my brother and his wife would be interested in adopting my child. The father is a healthy, intelligent individual who is also not interested in parenting this child, and while I could look forward to being Auntie Velma, I find myself averse to taking on the role of Mommy. Is this a reasonable offer to make to my bro/SIL? And how would I broach the subject?

Once upon a time, it was fairly common for an unmarried pregnant woman to give her child to other family members to raise. Thus singer Bobby Darin was brought up thinking his grandmother was his mother and was told his biological mother was his sister. Your case would  be vastly different, but it is loaded with potential complications. One is the possibility that you might find yourself feeling differently after the birth. However, once the baby arrives you could be more certain than ever that placing your child with loving people would be the best thing you could do for everyone. Your idea could bring great happiness to all of you, but it does have to be handled delicately. I think you should first explore this with a therapist or other professional  who specializes in adoption issues so that you have an objective person to help you think this through and figure out how to broach this with your brother and his wife if you decide to go ahead. If they love the idea, then you all need legal represenation,  not because you don't trust each other, but because it's important to make sure everyone's interests are looked after.

Dear Prudence, About three weeks ago, my almost 6-year-old son started coming home from school/after-care with wet underwear and pants. This happened three times. He did not smell nor was it noticeable from the outside, so I did not realize it until we were already at home. He told me that he forgot to go to the bathroom and had an accident. I thought maybe he didn't want to ask to use the bathroom at his after-care program. So I reassured him that it was ok to ask, and I spoke to the director who said she would remind him as well. Then, this past weekend at home, he also had three accidents despite having free reign of the bathroom and me reminding him. He is remaining dry at night. He has not had any other changes in behavior, sleep, or eating. However, I am now concerned that he may have been sexually abused. Can you please help me allay my fears? What should I do from here? I hope I am over-reacting, but this daytime wetting is new. He was potty-trained at age three! Thank you.

I agree a change in behavior this dramatic is concerning, but don't jump to the worse case scenario. There might be many other things going on: maybe your son was bullied in the bathroom, maybe a teacher humiliated him when he had to go, maybe he's embarrassed if he has to move his bowels, etc. etc.  But you need to have a quiet conversation with him in which you make clear you are not mad, you aren't even concerned about the wet clothes. You are wondering if something is bothering him.  Here is some guidance from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network about how to gently begin this conversation.  I also think this should be brought up with his pediatrician. Describe what's happening, explain your concerns, and make an appointment for your son to get an examination and a talk with a doctor he trusts.

I am in my early 30s and have been dating a wonderful man for the past six months. He is successful, generous, and funny. He absolutely adores me and we share the same values and beliefs. However, he has very little relationship and sexual experience. He didn't date much when he was younger, instead focusing on his career. I am an extremely sexual and passionate person, and have a ton of past relationship experience. Sex in the beginning is always so exciting because it's new, but now it's become vanilla, and when I try a bit of coaching it becomes awkward. He also asks for my permission to do things or won't do things until I initiate them, where I'm used to, and enjoy, a man taking charge. (And yes I have told him this.) I'm getting to the point where I dread the bland sex I know will be coming, and it's so frustrating because besides this factor he is everything I could want in a partner. I've dated lots of men where the sexual capability was excellent, but our relationship compatibility was not. I have found such a great man - but our sex life is killing it for me. Is there anything I can do at this point? Or is this the beginning of the end?

Imagine yourself five years down the road, having a weekly scoop of vanilla (or maybe not that often) but afterward feeling understood and adored. Only you can decide if that trade-off makes you imagine a contented future, or on in which you're frantically searching Craigslist for guy who offers no variations on vanilla, just fifty shades of gray.  You say your boyfriend spent his youth focusing on his career, not sex. But there are many successful people whose professional ambitions never got in the way of their sexual ones. There's a reason you spent your free time exploring between the sheets -- your libido demanded it. Your boyfriend's libido sounds like it limps along, polite and undemanding. There are many women who would ecstatic with such a situation, but you are not one of them. You offered this guy a sexual awakening, and he's let you know he prefers to catch a nap.  I know your experience tells you that the great lovers are lousy people and vice versa, but that's just not true. If you have to keep taking charge to try to get him to take charge, it's pretty clear you two simply lack a spark.

I don't understand why everyone would be furious (except perhaps husband's cousin, whose idea it was), but if the LW really thinks that, it might be nice for the guitar to mysteriously appear on the doorstep on the anniversary of her brother-in-law's death, a "gift" from a mysterious source.

Arghhh, no! What a gut-wrenching discover that would be, one that would possibly send the mother-in-law to some charlatan for a seance, or feeling horribly manipulated by someone with malign motives.  I agree that I don't think people will be furious. Yes, she should have spoken up sooner when the mother-in-law started expressing remorse about the guitar. But better to be honest now and straight-forwardly return it.

My best friend has found herself unexpectedly single halfway through her pregnancy (boyfriend ran off with somebody else). She is heartbroken and I've been doing everything I can to support her. She has now asked me if I can be there for her during delivery. The problem is, I was a support person when my sister gave birth and I felt like vomiting and fainting the whole time. I am still traumatized by the memory of the birth, there was nothing magical or sentimental about it for me. I couldn't think of a nice way of telling my best friend I would rather be knocked unconscious with a brick, so made the mistake of saying yes. Is there a way I can back out of my obligations without hurting her feelings, or am I now stuck as a horrified audience to her baby's birth?

It will not be supportive if during the big event you faint and crack your head, thus requiring medical support of your own. Your friend may have asked you not only because you two are close, but because she knows you've assisted a pregnant woman before.  She just doesn't know you've never stopped reliving the horror. All this still mean you  can be the person to bring your friend to the hospital and be there to hold her hand as labor progresses.  But you have to let her know that when the big reveal gets underway, you need to be in the waiting room, for the benefit of everyone.  Tell her if she wants to ask someone else to stand by her, you totally understand. Also suggest she look into hiring a doula, someone who is trained specifically to provide the kind of support  you can't because you would be breathing into a paper bag with your head between your legs.

This is a ridiculous confession. I don't remember what age I was but once out with my mother when she flushed the toilet it overflowed. This scared me and for a long time I was afraid of using public toilets. (I never confessed this to anyone). When I started kindergarten (1/2 day) I tried to hold it until I got home. I was not always successful and so had a series of wetting my pants. I think my mother talked to the teacher as somehow I was encouraged to use the kindergarten's bathroom. So for the concerned mother she should be concerned, but it might be something stupid.

Thank you for this. That's why I'm saying the mother shouldn't jump to the worst conclusion. You have perfectly explicated the mind of the young child. There are so many things that could be going on at school that is making her son fearful of going to the bathroom. Let's hope if she starts a gentle, warm, totally understanding conversation, he can tell her what's bothering her -- and let's hope it's something silly like this.

Dear Prudence, My mother is a mentally-ill, abusive alcholic. Six months ago, she assaulted me in a drunken rage when I took her car keys, and then she blamed me for the altercation. After a lot of soul-searching, I decided it was best for me to not have any contact with her. I wasn't badly hurt (scratched and bruised) but I'm tired of being her victim. Since our estrangement is so recent, I'm still trying to navigate its impact. It hasn't been easy but I've been mostly okay. However, a family member has recently died and I'm at a loss. I'd like to attend the funeral but I am concerned that my mother will either try to start an argument with me or try to force a reconciliation. I don't know if I'd be able to handle either situation well at this point. Funerals are difficult enough; I don't want my issues with my mother to make it worse. Of course, if I don't attend, that could upset my non-estranged family members as well. Is it best to stay home and mourn privately? Should I sit in the back and be as unobtrusive as possible? I'm having trouble determing what's right in this situation.

You have made the healthy decision for you -- although I am fearful of innocent people on the road if there is no one to stop your alcoholic mother from getting behind the wheel. But having decided to cut off relations with your mother  does not mean that you are now the family pariah. I assume others have observed your mother's behavior and know what you're up against.  If other family members know you've estranged yourself from her, some will tell you, "But she's your mother, you can't just cut her off!"  In that case be firm and brief and say as painful as things are, this is better for everyone. As far as the funeral is concerned please go. I hope you have someone in the family you trust you can look out for you and intervene if your mother starts making a scene. If your mother approaches you, just tell her you're both there to mourn and this is not the time to talk. If your mother starts to explode, the designated mourner should pull her away.  You have made a painful decision, but it is the right one for you, so don't be defensive. 

Why not at least try sex therapy? Great guys don't just grow on trees. That said, I'll second the statement that great guys who are great in the sack do exist and are worth the wait.

Great guys aren't easy to find, and yes, she could try sex therapy. But this sounds to me like a fundamental incompatibility. I doubt her diffident milquetoast is going to turn into a Viking no matter how many homework exercises a therapist suggests.

Dear Prudence, I have a doctor who I adore and respect. She's helped me through difficult times over the eight years I've been seeing her. She always makes time for urgent same-day appointments even if her calendar is packed, and her office staff is exceptional. Unfortunately, Dr. Amazing stopped taking insurance some years ago, and my health insurance company is reimbursing less and less of out-of-network costs as the years go by. In short, I can no longer afford to see her. I'm wondering about the etiquette of breaking up with your doctor. Like any respectable breakup, I'd like to do it in person - maybe with flowers! - but my husband thinks that's over the top. Should I just send a note explaining? Move on without saying anything? I miss her already!

I don't think you want to book an appointment you have to pay for out of pocket to explain that you're leaving. But you could ask to speak to her on the phone, or even write a heartfelt letter. I'm sure your doctor will appreciate hearing how much you have meant to her, and that your decision is purely financial. I also think flowers are a lovely gesture. Doctors hear a lot of complaints, but it would be meaningful for her to get a symbol of your gratitude. And do not be afraid to send her the list of names of doctors who take your insurance and ask her advice on who you should see.

I am a college freshman. My roommate Maggie does not use deodorant and has pretty strong BO. If she walks past me, I get a pungent whiff. Our tiny dorm room always smells of her. My friends don't like spending time in there, and neither do I. I have read stories where people mistake another person's smelliness for uncleanliness when in fact the person had a medical condition. I am hesitant to talk to Maggie because I don't want to be rude if she can't help her smell and because she's an adult. As much as I would like to, I can't make her wear deodorant. How should I broach this subject with her?

I can understand how difficult it is to find yourself a young person living with a stranger and  not knowing how to clear the air. But enough of this miasma.  I'm doubting your roommate has one of those sad, rare conditions that make them exude offensive odors. She may just never have gotten basic lessons in hygiene.   It's also possible that now that she's responsible for her own laundry, she's not doing it. But living with this funk is going to put you in a funk, so you have to address this. Start by talking this out with your resident advisor. You could ask her if she would be the one to take this up with your roommate, since people other than you have noticed the odor. If she won't, she should be able to help you with strategies for discussing this. If you have to have the talk yourself, you do it as straightforwardly as possible, say you know this is an awkward conversation, but she needs to attend to her personal hygiene because it's easy to take care of and something like this shouldn't be getting in her way in life. Suggest she try changing her deodorant, showering daily, and making sure her clothes are clean. If this doesn't send a fresh breeze through the room, this is a fair complaint to take to an administrator.

My son stopped using the bathroom at school (and refused to drink liquids) because the older kids convinced the little ones the boys' bathroom was haunted. So, yes, there are a lot of reasons he might not be going at school. (He could also have a urinary tract infection or something medical. So a visit to the doctor is the first stop!)

Another possibility given the close to Halloween timing!

I love my husband (isn't that how these always start?), but he has one bad habit I can't seem to break. He doesn't brush his teeth before coming to bed. He's a once daily in-the-morning brusher. He goes to the dentist twice a year and always has a clean bill of oral health, but I'm tired of being in bed with his foul breath. Obviously this curtails snuggling and sex. I've told him more brushing means more hanky panky, but not even that was enough to convince him. Should I just give up?

When a husband's dislike of toothbrushing trumps his ability to have sex, you do have to wonder about his hygiene and his libido. When you're not heading for bed, you need to have another discussion about this. Tell him that like anyone else, his mouth is full of bacteria and food odors by the end of the day. Say that you are simply asking him to take the two minutes necessary to come to bed with fresh breath so that you both enjoy each other's company more. Explain you just can't kiss him at the end of the day when you can smell his lunch on his breath. If he doesn't care enough about you, or his own self-interest, to break this habit, suggest some sort-term counseling because you can't go through life holding your breath in bed.

This morning, as I returned from a weekend trip out of town, my boyfriend of three years sat me down and confessed that the previous night, he had gotten drunk and had sex with his boss (tomorrow is actually the woman's last day as his boss- she recently accepted a position elsewhere). Obviously, I am devastated. We love each other tremendously, and had recently started discussing marriage. To make matters worse, this is not the first time he's done something like this. A little over two years ago, he drunkenly made out with a mutual friend. Further complicating the situation is the fact that four years ago, I actually got drunk and cheated on my first serious boyfriend, so I guess i can empathize. I know that the drinking is a problem. For both of us. But beyond that, I don't know what comes next. I don't know how to move past this. I don't know if I want to leave him, but I don't know if I can stay.

You acknowledge you both have a relationship problem with the bottle. That is the first thing that must be addressed, whatever you decide about whether your romantic relationship can survive. I suggest that together, or separately, you go to AA, or find some other program at which you can figure out what needs to happen with your drinking, from abstinence to better control. Until then, I don't see how you stop the pattern of alcohol-fueled bad behavior and regrets.

My best friend, who I love dearly got married last year and I arranged all the trimmings - bridal showers, stagette, bridesmaids weekend and afterparty. I was happy to do it for her as she has been very supportive of me over the years. However, she just announced that she is pregnant, and made it clear that she expects the same level of social planning for this life event - gender reveal, shower, mommy spa day etc. The problem is I'm still paying for the events from the wedding, and working two jobs does not leave much time for planning elaborate parties and weekends away. How do I tell her I can't be her event planner?

I'm surprised your friend was able to get pregnant, given that she seems to think the celebrations should never have ended. When you're still paying off someone else's wedding bills a year later, you've been taken advantage of. I've weighed in on my distate for the gender reveal parties and all the endless, expensive hoopla surrounding life's milestones. So you need to reveal a simple truth to your friend about her expectations now that she's expecting: Sister, you're on your own.

Maybe buying him some mouthwash to gargle at night will help?

Gargling would help, and I agree she should get a bottle and put in by the sink. But that's not a substitute for brushing, which is brief and basic.

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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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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