Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Dec 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 afternoon, I look forward to your questions. And   best wishes to everyone for a beautiful Christmas day, and good luck to those still prowling the malls.

Dear Prudence, I'm a single woman in my early twenties, and I have recently begun a relationship with a man who is incredibly thoughtful and kind. He goes out of his way to do things for me, and is constantly complimenting me. The compliments are actually getting to be too much. Every conversation turns into a list of reminders of how attracted he is to me, how much fun he thinks I am, and things he wants to do with me in the future. Sometimes, it feels like we can't have a normal conversation. I found it sweet in the beginning, but now it's starting to get a little annoying. I find it a bit overwhelming and he's moving a little too fast for me. I like him and want to keep seeing him, so I've asked him to tone it down and slow it down a little, but he insists this *is* toned down. Sometimes I laugh it off and say, "Oh, stop!" but I think it actually encourages him. I know I should feel lucky to have a man who is so smitten by me. Is there a way to kindly encourage him to tone down the compliments, or am I being too hard on him? Should I bite my tongue and be grateful I have such a wonderful man? Sincerely, Spoiled

Sneaker alert! By that I mean put them on and start running in the opposite direction. It would seem that having a man who is so smitten that he can't stop listing your glories sounds ideal. But as you are seeing, it's cringe-making. You may know you're great, but you also know the many ways you're not great. So hearing a constant recital of your magnificence has the perverse result of giving you the creepy crawlies. Also disturbing is all the future talk. The beginning of a relationship is a time to concentrate on the present. If that works out, after a sufficient amount of time, then you start discussing if your future involves it becoming a mutual enterprise.  But he's way too invested in locking you into his vision of it. You're really young, and you're writing to me about your discomfort with a new relationship. So my answer is for you to say to him, "I've enjoyed your company, but I'm just not ready for something serious, so we need to stop seeing each other." With a guy like this, be prepared for  a lot of begging and drama -- which should further show how right you will be to break it off decisively.

Dear Prudie,  I'll be spending New Year with my boyfriend of two and a half years. While this would normally be lovely, I'm not looking forward to it. I feel bummed out by it. We'll be at his parent's, which is out in the sticks and he has visitation with his daughter for the holidays first time since she was a baby. I'm conflicted. On one hand this should be about the time he spends with his daughter and she with her grandparents. On the other hand I cannot stand the way he rewards/gives in to her tantrums and end up angry and isolating myself. I'm also 27 and feeling a little resentful that for the second year in a row my New Years, which should be fun and carefree, is dictated by his family plans. Even if I did ditch them, which is essentially what I'd be doing, that also feels terrible and it's not like I have many other friends or options. I'm not sure what to do or how to manage conflicting feelings of guilt & resentment. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.  -Conflicted.

All your boyfriend needs is a girlfriend throwing a tantrum to trump his daughter's. When you got together with him, you knew he came with a child. Apparently she doesn't come very close very often, if he doesn't get to spend that much time with her. It's no surprise that a child who bounces between two young, unprepared parents (and a girlfriend who resents her) has behavior problems. Put your concerns about  your New Year's plans aside and have a talk with your boyfriend about giving his girl a good foundation. Suggest he enroll in a parenting class so he better knows how to meet her needs and handle her emotions. If you're planning on sticking around, you should go to the class with him. You also need some work on handling your own emotions. You're angry that your choices are go to the sticks for a dull family celebration, or stay home stewing because you don't have any other friends. That is a situation of your own making. So instead of striking out at your boyfriend and his family, spend some time in reflection about what you do to get yourself so isolated, and steps you need to take to be a more contented person. How you mark New Year's is not important. What is important is what you do this new year to become someone who manages her life better. 

I'm having major surgery soon. Only my spouse, a few friends, and one family member know. I will be recovering at home for a few weeks. During that time I'd really just like to be left alone. I don't want to worry about people coming to my house which I will not be able to keep clean.. I don't need food, or any help from anyone other than my spouse. So can I just wait and tell the rest of my family after? I know everyone is well meaning, but what I feel is best for me is to be left alone.

Any person facing a medical issue is entitled to decide how she or he wants to handle it. You don't want a stream of well-meaning visitors bearing casseroles. But unless your family and co-workers are completely overbearing and will not listen, I want to counsel you to reconsider. For one thing, you say all you are going to need for recovery is your spouse. But if you are getting over major surgery, you will need help for everything from going to the bathroom, to getting a glass of water. Caretaking 24/7 is a grueling and exhausting business, and it won't be to your benefit if your spouse collapses. If you do let more people know, you can say that for you recovery means hibernating like a bear, but that you or your spouse will set up one of those on-line accounts that updates information about your condition. That way people can track how you're doing, and you will alert them about know when you're eventually up for visitors, and be able to set up a schedule (if you realize you are ready for short visits).  Consider that letting people deliver food -- in disposable containers left at an agreed upon time at the door --  might help your spouse and you. Also think about the benefits of  having someone spell your spouse so that he or she can go to the gym, a movie, or just get a break from getting you back on your feet.

Dear Prudie, Three years ago at 34, I married my wife, who I thought was 33. We both wanted children, but when this didn't happen we began consulting a fertility specialist. After she started asking questions, my wife admitted she is actually eight years older than she and led me to believe. She's 44 years old! She's willing to try massive doses of hormones to get pregnant, but I don't want her to do that for health reasons. I'm willing to consider adoption. She says, of course, that she feared I would walk away if I knew the truth, but she must have known it would come out sometime. I think I still love her, but I feel so betrayed! Any thoughts on helping us get through this?

Let's get to the most impotant issue first -- what is your wife's beauty regimine because if she convincingly looks eight years younger she's doing something right. You say you're willing to consider adoption, but I think that gets you to the wrong kind of professional. If I were you, I'd be considering the services of a lawyer. People betray their spouses all the time. But letting a husband believe you're years younger than you are -- with all the implications for child-bearing, is a grotesque deception. From now on, you're always going to wonder if anything she says is the truth.  Because you are a man, at 37 you are lucky enough to not have big worries about your fertility.  Maybe if your wife had been honest with you from the beginning, knowing her age you would have adjusted your planning and expectations for children. But she lied. So I think you need to prove her right in her assumption that when she found out the truth, you would walk away.

Yes, exactly what Prudence said. My first boyfriend was like this, complimenting everything to the point of my personal discomfort and completely disregarding my feelings when I stated how uncomfortable I was becoming. Always jumping ahead two to three steps in the relationship, like it was a cup of instant coffee. When I did break it off with him I had a very hard time getting rid of him. Speak up now and leave, he's not respecting You. He's going to complain, he's going to beg, he's going to whine, he's going to cry. He's pinning a lot of dreams on a fantasy of you, he doesn't see the real you. Harden your heart. This is not the time to be the Nice Girl.

Oh, yeah! I love your line about "instant coffee." And I agree, guys like this will take advantage of women's desire to be nice. So don't be.

I've had a close male friend that I've been secretly in love with for years. We have almost always lived in different cities and frankly, our lifestyles are fairly different to the point that I had all but discarded the idea that we could ever be in a romantic relationship. Aside from a fun week-long fling over a decade ago, we've always kept it platonic, mostly because one of us was always dating someone in the couple times a year we'd see each other. Flash forward to this year when I told him my boyfriend and I were getting married. He seemed shocked, but happy for me, came out to help me prepare for the big day and was an all around champ. After the wedding I talked to my new mother-in-law and was shocked to find out that he referred to me as "the one who got away" in his own life. What? I never went anywhere and he never said anything! I used to tell my girlfriends that he was the one I'd run away with if he ever expressed any interest. Now, two days after my wedding I'm stuck with this thought that we've been mutually and silently in love with each other for years. How did I get stuck in a bad rom-com script? And why would he say that to my new MIL of all people. (She looked at me pointedly when she told me about it later.) BTW, I love my husband dearly and we have a lovely life together. I'm not interested in leaving, nor do I regret any decision I've made. Mostly I wonder how I go on knowing there was a possibility for that other life I always dreamed of but never believed in. Do I ever say anything to him about this?

Years ago you tried each other out as romantic partners and decided to keep it platonic. Maybe this is a classic O. Henry kind of story where you were each mutually misreading the other's signals that you were The One.  But if your communication is so bad that neither of you could say, "You're the one," then you don't belong together.  I don't find it a charming plot twist that your friend confesses to your new mother-in-law (!) that you're the one who got away. Instead it is rude and passive-aggressiveness. Yes, it's possible he blurted this out to your mother-in-law after too much to drink, and by way of praising your charms. But it doesn't have that feel, does it? Presumably, he thought she would pass on this tidbit, thus putting a pall over your honeymoon. That's not something a friend does. There's a reason your dreams of this guy never became reality. As he's demonstrated, in reality he sounds kind of  manipulative. You go on by realizing that every life is full of possibilities not taken. But that thank goodness you took the one that was right for you. In keeping with his backhanded way of getting a message to you,  I think you should just act as if you never received it.

It saddens me how often a person will grow resentful of their significant other's child(ren). When I was a teenager my father's then girlfriend had issues with me, surely exacerbated by the fact that I was a fellow female. What it boils down to is jealousy, and to be jealous of a child shows some serious flaws in that person. The last thing children with divorced/separated parents need is an outsider who punishes them, however subtly or passive aggressively, simply for existing.

You said it! I hear far too often about new loves who feel the need to undermine the love their partner has for the children from a previous relationship.

My wife and I are having a disagreement. Her family has invited us to church on Christmas Eve. She is not an avid churchgoer, but she generally does attend on Christmas and Easter. I am an athiest and usually only end up in church for weddings and funerals. While I have no issues with her faith and would have no problem if she and our children wanted to attend every week, I bristle at the expectation that I attend just because "it's Christmas". If I go, I will be unhappy, though I will not be a jerk about it. If I don't go, she will be unhappy that the family is not together for that extra hour or two. Any chance of a win-win situation here?

Go. I assume you've been to high school and college graduations of family members. This is an event no one actually enjoys sitting through, but you do it because it matters to be there as a family. As I've noted before, it's good that people don't have surtitles running across their foreheads displaying what they're actually thinking during religious services. So go and enjoy the music, the pageantry, and the chance to daydream. Most imporant enjoy the good feeling you get by showing that sometimes people do things cheerfully they don't particularly want to do, because they get to be together with those they love the most.

My boyfriend and I both graduated from college 18 months ago. Since then, we both still work at the same retail store where we both had jobs throughout school, but would both like careers in our respective fields. I have been on a string of job interviews while having the chance to move to a floor management position at my current job. My boyfriend, too, recently moved to a higher position at our store but meanwhile has made no effort to look for a job in his field. He wants to move in together and get married eventually, but I told him with the money we currently make and my very inconsistent work schedule, I don't want to move in until we both have more financial stability (we both still live at home). He says he still wants a job in his major, but has done nothing in the past several months to show this. He had one interview that he was turned down from and seemed to take it personally. I have been on more interviews than I can even count and been turned down from them all, but don't let it stop me. He is so smart and could do anything he puts his mind to, and we love each other very much, but how can I get him to see that in order for us to have a decent future together, something has to change?

I know many happily married people met in college. Many met in high school! But too often I hear from people who met a wonderful person while in school, and there doesn't seem to be any reason not to continue the relationship, and then a kind of inertia sets in. That's not the way you should make life decisions. You may love your guy and being in love with him may have made your college years better. But now that you're out in the world there are clear fissures in how you each intend to meet your goals. Since you're working hard to see what's out there for you professionally, it may be time to see who else is out there for you personally. It's hard enough to manage your own launching, especially in such a lousy economy, but you don't have the bandwidth to supervise his. Especially discouraging is that  he seems to be shrinking from this task. Cut the discussions about moving in and your future, and tell him you both need to concentrate on starting your careers. If he continues to be lackadaisical about it, then you must recognize your college romance has run its course.

Dear Prudence, My husband is a self-described feminist, and has always done a share of the household chores--cooking, shopping, cleaning, and raising our two boys. Due to the terrible economy, his career has floundered, and what seemed like a temporary setback looks more permanent. He now works part time in a menial job, and understandably this makes him feel marginalized and unfulfilled. I am extremely lucky to have a demanding job that I love that can support our family if we live frugally. The question comes to the division of labor for chores. My feeling is that, as regrettable as his career issues are, he should do a larger share of the chores, since he simply has more time to do them--I'm hoping for a 70/30 split. He thinks 50/50 is the only fair way to go. When I ask him to pitch in more around the house, he takes this as a reminder of his lost career, and we can't afford to pay for extra help. I'm not asking to be met at the door with the paper and a Manhattan, but if I'm greeted after a long and stressful day with the words "What's for dinner?" one more time, I think I'll scream. What's fair here? Signed, Where is Donna Reed When You Need Her

Here's a recent article in the New York Times about a subset of successful Wall Street women who are backed up by stay-at-home husbands, some of whom have "mastered complicated cooking techniques." Now that's my idea of a non-working father! Unless you are the lucky couple in which one person happily takes on the bulk of the chores, or the two of you just naturally divide them, this is often a constant source of friction. I think the goal should be that both parties feel the division is equitable, not that there's a mathematically perfect split of labor. In your house, meals are a trigger point. He obviously doesn't like to cook, but I agree it's simply unfair for you arrive at the door, faced with a starving family, and forced to start rattling the pots and pans especially if he's been home all day. I think you would be helped by creating a cooking schedule and putting into place some basic meals. Let's say you do the weekend cooking, and even agree to do the bulk of the grocery shopping. Sit down with your husband with some cookbooks -- Mark Bittman's are a good place to start -- and find some simple recipes for delicious, manageable meals. Then he knows Monday is spaghetti, Tuesday is roast chicken and potatoes, etc. Instead of this being his dreaded chore at the end of the day, he and the boys should do it together. Measuring, chopping, stirring, are not only life skills but teach math, chemistry, and hand eye coordination.  If the boys are old enough, maybe they and your husband can watch Top Chef together, to get them to see cooking as an exciting skill. Let's hope you end up with a pair of sons who fight over who gets to the stove!

Wait, don't birthdates have to go on marriage licenses? At least in VA, we both had to show our drivers licenses and our marriage certificate has our birthdates on it. So either there's some fraud at a higher level going on here, or husband didn't read the legal document that he had to sign to get married... Not that that makes anything better...

Good point! Such a basic lie spawns all sorts of others.

Dear Prudie, I found out this year that I'm not able to have children. I'm trying to come to to terms with it and my boyfriend, who is coming to my parent's house with me for Christmas, has been incredibly supportive. The problem is my mother. She keeps talking about how we'll be bringing her grandchildren with us in a few years and keeps talking about moving so she has enough bedroom for the grandchildren to stay. I've told her about my infertility but she doesn't seem to have gotten the message. It upsets me every time she brings it up because I really wanted to have children. How should I handle mom's aggressive denial of my condition? Thanks!!

You pull Mom aside before the festivities begin and tell her that dealing with the news of your infertility is painful enough without having her act as if she doesn't understand. You say that you want Christmas to be lovely, but if she brings this up you and your boyfriend are going to have to leave early. So that means no talk of grandchildren or extra bedrooms. Then, awkward as it may be, if she starts in, you can say, "Mom, let's not discuss this at the table." If she keeps it up, you and your boyfriend need an agreed upon signal that it's time to go.

Dear Prudence, About five years ago, before the economic crisis, I worked with a wonderful woman who had three children. She and I were very close. One of her sons had leukemia, and was battling it at the time we worked together. She often brought her son to work, since he was so sick, and because of my position in the company (secretary) I had a lot of down time to entertain him. She often brought him to my desk so I could serve as office babysitter, and we played legos together on many occasions. I have many photos of him in the office and of him and his mother and brothers and sisters and with other coworkers. Many people in our small company got to know him very well. He and I had a special bond because I was going through chemotherapy myself at the time (but still working.) However, the company didn't make it through the financial crisis and we all had to seek other jobs. I never gave her these photos as her son got seriously ill and died the next year; but this year I was going back through old photos and saw them and wondered if it would be appropriate now that time has passed to send them to her. Do you think it would just stir up old hurt, or it would be appropriate to send them on? It was immensely painful to her when he died.

Excuse me if this answer contains a lot of typos because I'm crying.  I think you should send your friend a card saying how often you think of her and how much you miss working with her. Say that you were going through some photos and came across many lovely ones of her boy.  Tell her that after you had a good cry, you were happy to have the memories of his bright spirit and think of what a creative and fun child he was. Say you're enclosing some of the photos in a separate envelope. That way, she can look at them now or not. You are not stirring up old hurt  -- no one ever completely gets over losing a child. And I've heard from many people who say one of the most painful parts of going on is that people are so uncomfortable talking about this loss. You were a good friend to her then. I'm sure she'll appreciate this gesture now.

I was in a similar situation for years. My best advice to this woman is, stick with the guy you just married. He's really "the one." The guy who was distant to you for all those years acted that way because he secretly likes being distant; he likes being emotionally unavailable, and that's why he let you be "the one who got away" because some men are like that. Your life is NOT a romantic comedy. If you pursue letting him play mind games and wrecking your marriage, it won't end happily. I've been there, and I speak from experience. On the other side now with a faithful man who cares about me deeply, and I won't give the time of day to someone who messes with me and my relationship now.

This is very instructive, and an excellent warning.  Let her feel great relief that she got away.

Cook up a big batch of meals on the weekend that you can freeze and your husband can just pop them into the oven on weeknights. Also, the Crock Pot is everybody's friend!

Good advice! And preparing those meals can be a fun family time -- the boys can go through the crock pot cookbook and pick their favorites.

Last February I met Charlie, an older man, and we started dating in July. We're very happy together, but since he is older than me and works in a lucrative field, I'm still navigating how comfortable I am with him paying for things for me. Charlie loves to dine out, and he often suggests we go out to dinner at a restaurant I would never be able to afford on my own. I don't earn very much money, so I don't fight him too much when he insists on paying. I'm less comfortable letting him take me on expensive vacations. Part of it is that I don't want to be a kept woman. Charlie does treat me as his equal, but if he pays for most of what we do together, is that possible? I also worry that I will monetize our relationship if he always pays for me. Charlie tells me he loves me and doesn't put much weight behind treating me to nicer things than I could afford. I love him too. Am I over thinking a relationship that otherwise makes me very, very happy?

That he's older and settled in a lucrative career are parts of Charlie you must have found appealing. Since he's at a different stage of life than you, he wants to enjoy to fruits of his labor, and he's happy to pick up the tab for the kind of luxury you can't afford. I think that's fine, as long as you're not feeling there's a quid pro quo here. But you are also capable of returning his hospitality by making a home-cooked meal, or treating him to an afternoon at a museum. But if you start to feel that your job is to be his arm candy and you're not really in a mutual relationship, listen to that inner voice.

Oooh! I had a scenario like this. One of my husband's good friends from college got completely hammered at our reception. She made a scene on the dance floor during which I'm told (but thankfully missed seeing) there was a flash of pantiless private parts. The DJ told my mom at the end that this woman was sobbing about watching the "only man she'd ever loved" marry another that day. Confirmation that I married the right guy: he cut her off completely after that. People who do these kinds of things are selfish, and controlling. Don't give your friend a pass on bad behavior.

Great story! And at least give her credit for sparking many uproarious conversations on the ride home for the rest of your guests.

Just wanted to wish you happy holidays and all of the best in 2014!

Thank you! And I want to extend the same to all the letter writers, commenters, and readers who make this chat so much fun. And I want to also thank  Bethonie Butler, the unflappable  producer of the chat who keeps everything running so smoothly and unerringly alerts me to the juiciest letters.

P.S. We're off next Monday. Talk to you again on January 6th, 2014. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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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