Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jan 21, 2014

Note to readers: Emily Yoffe will chat on Tuesday of this week due to Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. 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 I'm so excited that D.C. is getting a real snowstorm!

The guy I lost my virginity to (about 20 years ago) was not as forthcoming about certain things as my naive teenage self expected him to be. As a result, I got herpes the moment I lost my virginity. I've worked through the initial feelings of having an STI years ago and have lived very comfortably since then. I've always been completely open and careful with parters and, to my knowledge, have not passed it along to anyone. The only times I've ever taken medication for it were when I was younger, the outbreaks were more often and more severe, and I was still learning how to manage my health and be aware of my body. Now I only have one or two mild outbreaks a year, if that. I've never been on suppressive therapy until recently, at the urging of the guy I'm currently seeing.  He knew before we started dating about my "condition", and asked me if I would go on suppressive therapy in order to reduce the risk for him. Initially I was fine with this -- I completely understand his cautious attitude and I wanted to do my part to "protect" him.   However, this leaves me taking a pill twice a day, and what was for a long time just a background issue and occasional mild annoyance is now a daily presence. Am I being selfish and thoughtless for wanting to stop taking this medication, knowing that it puts somebody I care about at a greater risk? Any suggestions?

Let me start by using your experience as a public service announcement. My gynecologist told me he is seeing a startling rise in the number of young women in his practice being diagnosed with herpes.  It turns out that they think having gotten the Gardasil shot to protect them from HPV, that they are invulnerable to other STDs -- and they're not! Herpes is for life, and even if, as you've discovered, it's no more than a minor annoyance, if you were the one who didn't have it, you might have your own strong desire not to contract it. Give your boyfriend credit that he's willing to run this risk for the pleasure of being with you. I hear from many people with herpes who tell me their potential partner actually runs when they reveal this news. I also understand your lack of desire to permanently be on a systemic, suppressive medication for what is to you a very occasional and trival health problem.  Although it's the opposite of erotic, I think you two should read through all the information on this CDC website about herpes, and talk about the risks to him of simply letting you monitor your own health, and the risks to you of being on medication (for as long as you're together). Since this is a new relationship, the best compromise might be to stay on the meds and see where things go. If the romance peters out, you put away the meds. If you two become a permanent item, you revisit the question of risk.

Dear Prudence, Over lunch the other day my brother mentioned that he had taken his 2-year-old son to buy a helmet so he can ride his tricycle outside, and that my nephew's first choice was a yellow and pink helmet covered with cartoon flowers. My brother gently steered him towards a more 'manly' helmet. This provoked a lively (amiable) discussion around the table as to whether little boys should be allowed to wear pink and flowers if they so choose. My immediate response was that they should, but I suppose I can see my brother's point that allowing kids to wear anything they please might get them bullied. What's your position?

If your brother's 2 year-old daughter wanted the black helmet covered with spiders, he surely would have laughed and gotten it for her, and not pushed her to choose the princess helmet. I wish your brother had let his son pick the flowers. Maybe it reminded this little boy of  an older girl -- or female cartoon character -- he admires. Maybe he just ikes flowers. In any case, it was a great opportunity for your brother to examine his reaction to gender stereotypes and let them be damned. While he didn't, he did bring  up this incident and solicited other opinion, which is all to the good. Also good was that your brother was not either alarmed or punitive about this with his toddler. My position is that while letting his boy choose flower power would have been great, he's the father and his gentle steering was not out of line.

Dear Prudence, I recently moved to a country on the other side of the world for a few months because I wanted to expand my horizons and found a temporary job in my line of work. I don't speak the language fluently, but luckily there are many people - natives and ex-pats alike - who speak English, my native language. I love meeting people, but others' accents are unlike anything I've heard before and fairly heavy. I have to focus twice as hard during conversations and often I still don't have a clue what they're saying. This group includes people I am both working and living with. I've asked them to repeat things I don't catch, but sometimes even several repetitions won't help. Meanwhile, they seem to perfectly understand my American Midwest accent. These people have lived fascinating lives and are amazingly kind - I want to hear what they have to say and have conversations. Nevermind the language barrier, how do I overcome the accent one? -Still lost after translation

Work really hard at getting proficient in the native language so that you can be the one people are looking at perplexed. Your dilemma reminds me of what happens whenever I go to a noisy restaurant these days. Companion: "Are you doing anything this weekend?" Me: "Yes, I love Middle Eastern food, too." After the second, "I'm sorry can you say that again?" one simply has to move on and hope that a half-smile and non-commital "Hmm" is not in response to, "I've just been diagnosed with a terminal illness." Keep in mind that the longer you stay, the more your ear will become adjusted to this country's accented English. But force yourself to make conversation in your awkward new tongue -- that's what adventures like yours are for.

Dear Prudence; Recently my 30-year-old stepson moved to town. He has many issues (including alcoholism). My issue is that I can't stand the way he smells. He wears a musty, rank, cologne that lingers for hours, or even days unless we wash or deodorize any fabrics in the room. Car rides are horrible. We have politely asked him several times not to use it, and I even suggested that the mild chemotherapy I take might make me extra sensitive to smells. I bought him a different scent to try out, but to no avail. Tonight, he showed up reeking again, and I grabbed my car keys and went back to work. I'm battling a serious, chronic illness, so working extra hours is not more than a temporary solution. It seems ridiculous to be focusing on a smell, when my stepson can't manage independent living, but its nostril-popping bad. How do I deal with this without putting my husband on the defensive or becoming an evil stepmom?

If he's dousing himself with cologne before a visit it may be to cover the smell of his poor hygiene or the reek of alcohol. It could also be that this scent has permeated all his clothing and even if he's not slapping it on, his dirty clothes just permanently exude it. You're right that chemotherapy can make even the most benign smells nauseating, so you are certainly within bounds to want to keep noxious aromas out of your house. If the cologne is as bad as you say, then this is going to have global effects on your stepson's ability to make friends or find employment. This is something his father should talk to him about. Respectfully, your husband  should explain that you cannot be around scents and that you'd both appreciate if he got his outerwear dry-cleaned, he laundered his clothes, and showered before coming. If your stepson just won't do this, then your husband has to visit his son at his place or a neutral spot. Unless  your stepson freshens up, the mere sight of him is going to create a stomach-turning Pavlovian response in you.

I am a widow, aged 55. My husband of 28 years passed away in 2011 after a battle with cancer. He was a wonderful man, and the love of my life. I always had close relationship with my in-laws and I still visit quite often, even though they live in another state. I will always consider them "Mom" and "Dad." In the last six months I have begun to date again. Just recently, one relationship has started to become more serious. The gentleman I am seeing has invited me on a short trip, and I would like to go. I have not mentioned to my in-laws that I am dating again. However, now that there is a possibility of a more permanent relationship, I am at a loss as to how I broach this change in my status to them. The death of their son affected them greatly. I understand this--no parent should outlive a child. I would never do anything to hurt them, but I feel it is time for me to move on. I also know my late husband would want me to me happy. How do I tell them I am now seeing someone without breaking their hearts? --Want to be Kind

I think you should give two people who loved their son and adored you the benefit of the doubt that as bittersweet  as this news will be, the sweet will far outweigh the bitter. They will never get over their loss, but surely they also want you to live the rest of your life fully and happily. My husband was a young widower, and when he called to tell his former in-laws that we were getting married, they expressed nothing but happiness for us, despite our knowing that this would also be painful news to them -- a reminder of how much they lost.  Your husband's parents love you, and I'm betting that when you tell them, even if there are tears, there will also be joy.

I spent a semester in the UK when I was in school and had the same problem. There just were some sounds I had problems with. It did get better over time.

I love watching the British prime minister stand before parliament at question time. When those representative from Scotland start speaking, it might as well be Urdu.

My husband of 12 years has apparently taken to viewing porn on the Internet. He knows basically nothing about computers, but acquired enough skills to Google and browse pornographic sites. He is a healthy and active 70-year-old but has E.D. issues. He also doesn't know that I know what he views online. I am not sure if I should just keep quiet or tell him what I have discovered. I don't want to embarass him, as I think he will feel embarassed if his habit is discovered. He only is on the Internet when I am not in the house- so he does try to hide it. It kind of creeps me out, but on the other hand this might be something that many older men actually do, but is not talked about publicly. Any suggestions?

This sounds like a recipe for your husband contracting a virus -- on your computer. There are several issues here. One is that I believe  a married person is entitled to look at porn, as long as this hobby is not  obsessive, does not interfere with the primary relationship, and does not contain illegal content. The other is your husband's functional problem. His viewing habits are a sign that his flagging sexual ability does not mean his libido is dead. So if you're interested in physical intimacy, take the porn viewing as a good thing. Next month, watch the Superbowl with him. The advertisements that aren't for beer or trucks are about drugs to help football fans get it up. After one of these, turn to him and suggest that maybe the two of you should investigate side by side bathtubs.

If you decide to stop taking the pill, you should fully inform him. Don't be surprised if he decides to end the relationship. You're basically saying that a mild inconvenience is more important than his health. Also, you might want to check into other medication. I take the generic form of Valtrex, which is one pill a day. I've never had an outbreak in the 5 years I've had herpes, currently don't have a partner, and am STILL taking the pill.

I agree that the medication decision should not be a unilateral one. And thanks for the suggestion about looking into all the pharmaceutical alternatives. 

I'm a young professional who just started her first job. (If it matters, I'm in academia.) My boss has invited my husband and me to dinner with his family this weekend, and I don't want to make a fool of myself. Dinner parties were never part of my upbringing, but I know it's customary to bring a hostess gift, like wine. Is this something that is still appropriate? I'm also not much of a wine drinker, so I have no idea how to go about choosing a bottle. I also know he has young kids, so would it be appropriate to bring something for them, as they obviously won't partake of the wine? I just want to make a good impression.

Wine is the perfect gift. You go to a wine store, give them a price range, and they will help you find a suitable bottle. You don't need a gift for the kids. I'm also going to suggest a gift for yourself. Get a copy of Emily Post's Etiquette, and read the chapter on dinner parties. This will give you a crash course in what to expect and how to behave, and also the confidence to know that there really isn't some secret formula to this strange new ritual. I think a comprehensive etiquette book is a must-have for any young professional because life will be full of new challenges and knowing how and when to write that thank you note, etc. will help you stand out from the crowd.

You are being selfish. You yourself don't enjoy thinking of this every day. And he doesn't want to either. When something as simple as taking two pills a day can reduce the chance of you shedding the virus that day to less than 1%  it seems even more selfish. Herpes can be passed on even when you're not showing signs of an outbreak, so monitoring it will help, but it's not everything.

She is on it. It's fair for him to ask her to take it, and fair for her to think about being on medication indefinitely. I agree that staying on it now is the right thing to do, and if she's not experiencing any side effects, it's an easy choice. But it's not out of bounds to discuss this further if the relationship becomes a long-term one.

Dear Prudence, How do I keep guests within the boundaries I wish to set in my house? That is, I use my downstairs fr entertaining and I do not wish (or see the need for) any guest to go upstairs where the bedrooms are. At a recent Christmas party, I found adults upstairs looking through bookcases. I had another say "Oh, Jamie just wants to see what your daughter's room looks like..." Why do people think it is permissible to roam throughout when all the food/activity is down in the living area?

I agree people shouldn't wander around other's homes unless invited, but lots of people are happy to give house tours to guests or let them look around. In your case, close all the doors to the personal quarters and if guests start to wander upstairs, direct them to the powder room on the first floor. If you find people snooping you can gently lead them out saying, "I promised Melissa I would keep her room private."

I'm in a young relationship (just under five months). We fell hard and fast, were practically inseparable, and then circumstances led to me moving in at three months. We knew it'd be tight in his studio -- we didn't know he'd be allergic to my pet, who also has health problems that have led to our interrupted sleep. I have anger issues that were exacerbated by the lack of sleep. Instead of being supportive, he insists that my anger is the root of all our problems. Every time I have a reaction to something he says or does that goes against what I want, he points out my anger - even when I'm not reacting in anger. He used to be supportive and loving; now he's controlling and jealous. He watches my social media posts, and let's me know when he thinks I'm posting about us; it always turns into a fight. He also gets upset when male friends comment on my posts - even when they're his friends too! On top of all that, he's asked me to move out more than once, but taken it back when we made up. Is there any hope for us at all? For the record, I'm in my mid-30s and he's late 40s.

Yes, there's hope for each of you if you break up and move out. Then you both need to spend time figuring out your part in this lousy relationship, and how you can keep from making such bad, impulsive choices in the future. 

Dear Prudence, Last week, I made a stupid off-hand joke to the effect that women with ambiguous gender identities are ugly. It's not something I really believe, and I immediately regretted it as soon as it left my mouth, even though the whole room laughed. It just so happened that there was a woman in the room who rocks an androgynous look. I'd like nothing more than to apologize to her, let her know that what I said was wrong, and that I actually find her really attractive. But I can't figure out an appropriate way to do this, since I don't know her very well, and I'm afraid that bringing it up now will just hurt her feelings more. What's more, I'm not "on the market" so I'm not sure if there's a way to say "you're actually really cute" without sounding like I'm hitting on her and making her feel even more awkward (I'm a queer woman with a more feminine gender presentation). Should I let this go and just try to do better in the future? Or can you help me think of a way to make this right?

You made a joke you regret, so your apology doesn't have to be framed as a come on to the person you most obviously might have offended. You say to her, "I said something hurtful and stupid the other day about gender identities. It's not actually what I think, so I'm letting everyone know how much I regret what I said." 

Hi, Prudie. I'm 26 and recently learned that I have premature ovarian failure - it is highly unlikely that I will ever be able to have children and I have stopped all fertility treatment. As I married a year ago, we field endless questions about when we're going to have kids. My brother just had a baby. His sibling just had a baby. Going on Facebook is an endless parade of their kids from all of our relatives. Discussions are focused solely around their kids, then are turned to us. I keep saying, "We're happily child-free," but I'm losing my resolve. I'm constantly surrounded by something I'll never get to have, but I don't know how to broach the conversation with our families. I'm afraid the fertility-happy will try and tell us we just haven't been trying long enough or that God will give us a baby when he sees fit. Based on our finances and the frequency of things falling through, adoption is out of the question.

Please contact RESOLVE, the infertility support group. On their website  you will find resources for dealing with just the questions you are grappling with, and the chance to connect with others who understand exactly what you're going through.  You have gotten painful news that changes the course of your life, but you do not have to struggle through this alone.

Dear Prudence, how does one decline a wedding invitation from a formerly close friend without destroying what is left of the friendship? This friend is no stranger to bad and abusive relationships, having had several and also supporting me through a terrible marriage and divorce. The guy she is marrying is not as bad as ones in the past, but is still nasty to her, manipulative, and hypocritical. She has changed many of her long-held beliefs and attitudes to match his. She asked me for my honest opinion of him, and I brought up my concerns as gently as possible. She completely dismissed all of my concerns without taking any time to think about them. Since then, she has stopped talking to me. I received a save the date card for her wedding, so presumably I'll be invited. Part of me wants to go and be there for her, like she was for me (she was also honest with me about my ex and I didn't stop talking to her), but another part of me wants nothing to do with this wedding.

If you got a 'save the date' then yes, you'll be invited. Don't make your response simply be about the wedding. She stopped talking to you after she solicited your opinion, but this card is an opening to rekindle your friendship. So do so. Call her and tell her you were happy to hear from her and want to get together. Talk about things other than how rotten her fiance is.  You have registered your opinion about the inadvisability of this union. But since you really are concerned about her, and she helped you extract yourself from a terrible marriage, it will be better if you can be there for her and see her through if things become intolerable.

I host a lot of parties. If I don't want guests upstairs, I just put a big, pretty potted plant or two in front of the stairs. Anything large and decorative will do. No one has ever climbed over them.

Great idea! A baby gate and "Beware of Dog" sign would also work.

Dear Prudence, I met a guy, "Paul," online last summer and we went on a few dates. I wasn't interested in continuing to date him, but said we could still be friends when I let him know that. He was new in town and didn't seem to have a lot of friends and we had common interests. However, I really regret that decision. He was inappropriate to one my female friends and weirded out a couple more by being overly eager. He no longer tries to make plans with me, but has inserted himself into my friend group more and more recently by connecting more with some of the guys. I know they are all adults and can decide who to be friends with, but they don't know the back story on this guy and why I am uncomfortable with his presence in my social circle now. I regret saying we could be friends, because if I hadn't none of this would have been happening. But what do I do now? Seems he is a permanent clinger in my circle now. I'm planning to confront him about the way he has creeped some of my girlfriends out. Is that appropriate?

He makes your female friends uncomfortable and the guys in your circle don't know this. Since you introduced Paul, I think you should tell them. You can say you're not saying they should blackball him,  you just want them to know that some of the women -- including you -- are uncomfortable with him. Reiterate they are all adults and free to make their own social decisions, but you wanted them to know why some of the women don't want to be around him.

As a woman who has gone through fertility issues, along with IVF, I can say that being honest with them is the best. They will then learn to be more sensitive with their comments. Education is the best route, yes they will say some 'stupid' things, but with education it will get easier. Therapy was the best thing I ever did to get through my feelings associated with infertility. Support group was wonderful for both me and my husband. People will still say, oh you will just get pregnant one day...not in our case, only the doctors can do that. That will usually shut them up, as I will not tell them our issues, it is none of their business. I also will say if we are blessed one day with a surprise child, we will take it, but it isn't likely. I encourage the LW to seek therapy and to try to educate those around her. Also on Facebook, block those that post too much about their kids, you can always go check on them when you are in a good place.

Thank you for this. Several other women dealing with serious infertility issues have suggested being honest with the family. I agree.  I just think the letter writer needs to work through these issues first with others who have been there, and who can help her deal with the inevitable reactions. There will always be some people who don't get it. But yes, telling loved ones that there will be no "surprise" babies will help everyone move on.

Hello, I am a college educated woman who is considering a relationship with an old friend of mine. He is handsome, charming, and intelligent, and he has always been an important part of my life. The problem? He went to rehab for a cocaine addiction two years ago and briefly went to jail for possession, but he is clean now. I am an accountant and on the path to being very financially secure, but I am unattractive and awkward, so finding quality men is difficult for me. Am I crazy to consider a relationship with this awesome guy so soon after he turned his life around?

It's impossible for me to be able to tell if you are two caring but hurting people who can make life better together, or whether he's a charming manipulator who likes the idea of your steady paycheck. I'm less concerned about him than about you. You obviously are accomplished, smart, and successful, but the only things you have to say about yourself are negative. Instead of launching into a relationship with your your pal, start one with a therapist. You may indeed be socially awkward, but you can talk about ways of addressing this. Any you may indeed never make it onto the cover of Vogue -- photoshopped or not -- but a trip to a department store and appointments with a personal shopper and make up artist could do wonders for how you feel about the way you present yourself to the world.

Thanks, everyone. Have a great 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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