Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Mar 10, 2014

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.

A few months ago, I met a wonderful man through an online dating site. He is a physician and we are both middle aged. Our relationship has evolved quickly, and we have fallen in love. We spend most of our free time together. Ever since the beginning, though, he has expressed that he would like to see me lose some weight. He was quite thin himself when we met, to the point where it was unappealing (though I did not volunteer this to him). He had lost some weight after the end of his marriage, which had also involved weight issues on behalf of both parties. He has gained some weight back since we met while mine has remained the same. I am at the top end of a healthy BMI, or slightly above, and am certainly not opposed to losing a bit of weight, but I have the feeling from knowing which celebrities he idolizes that his ideal female body type is quite a bit thinner than I'd ever want to be. He keeps framing the discussion in terms of my health (generally excellent), which I think is a spurious low blow. Apart from this issue, we are extremely compatible in all areas but I feel pressured and defensive when he wants to make a 'deal' with me over losing some weight. I have tried to express my concerns but he says I am being too sensitive. Am I? 

I'll say you're defensive. I'm a stranger and already I know you're healthy, your weight is a smidge above the recommended, you're willing to lose weight, but you're worried your lover wants you to look like Sarah Jessica Parker, you resent his commentary on your body, etc. This does not sound like love.  This sounds like what happens after that first flush of infatuation starts wearing off and you begin to understand why his wife is his ex-wife. Sure, parents of teenagers say that unless the kids' grades improve their cellphone access will be curtailed. But you're a middle-aged woman. Maybe if you renege on your half of the weight loss deal, your punishment will be your boyfriend curtails your sexual activities.  What a fun situation that will be. It's almost impossible to be happy, compatible, and relaxed with someone who checks your weight every morning and monitors your every mouthful. When you rightly have objected to this surveillance, you're told you're too sensitive. (Not to mention you have issues with his body.) I say forget the eating rules and just renew your membership to OkCupid.

Dear Prudence, Every day at work, I go out with two coworkers for lunch. I am naturally quiet and shy, and I really enjoy eating lunch with them. I am not enjoying, however, the cost of these lunches. Last month, I spent over $100 on lunch! Also, eating out isn't that healthy, and I've noticed that I've started to put on some weight. I'd like to bring in a salad 2-3 times a week. We go to a mixture of fast food and sit-down restaurants, and I don't see why it would be a problem for me to bring my own salad if we go to out. Is this too gauche? The guy in our group would never pack a lunch, so not going out isn't an option. I'd like us to agree in advance that certain days of the week we'll go to fast food places so the food I pack won't go to waste. What's the best way to bring up this topic? - Brown Bagging It

I hope you're not the person at the movies watching an alternate feature on your iPad.  It's one thing to bring a special bottle of wine to a restaurant and pay a corkage fee. It's another to bring in your own food and expect the establishment to supply you with utensiles. If you spend every lunch hour with the same two people and you don't even feel comfortable enough with them to discuss alternate lunch plans, then you've got the backbone of a piece of lettuce.  Once the weather is nicer, you can suggest you all  occasionally get your own food and meet outside in a park, for example. If they aren't interested, then you've got to face the fact that a couple of days of the week you may be on your own for lunch.  Maybe you can even screw up your courage and sit with some of the other kids in the high school cafeteria -- I mean co-w0rkers in the the office's coffee room.  The problem here doesn't sound like your finances or your weight. It's that you can't imagine a life in which you don't eat lunch with these co-workers every single day of the week.

My boyfriend has described himself as a reformed "player," meaning he was sexually promiscuous in his younger days. He's pretty handsome and I still notice women looking him over when we're out in public. It makes me angry that he doesn't discourage this behavior. I guessed his password for his e-mail and looked though all of his e-mails for the past few months. I'm pretty sure he's not cheating on me, but he does have a few e-mails from women he's friendly with which make me suspicious. I check his voice mails and text messages on his phone as often as I can and haven't found a smoking gun, but I'm still worried. Should I confront him with my suspicions? I'd like to tell him that unless he can prove to me he hasn't cheated on me, we're through.

I think I know of a control-freak physician who might be available soon, and you two could monitor each other to your hearts' content.  I love the terms you want to present to your boyfriend: Prove to me you aren't doing something there is no evidence you are doing.  I think you should save you and your boyfriend a lot of trouble and just cut to the last part of your proposal. Tell him you are a compulsive snoop, you don't respect his privacy, and you can never trust him. Say that because you care about him and want to save his sanity, you two are through.

Should a stay at home mom check in with her husband about what she got done that day? My husband thinks I should give him a breakdown of how I spent my time. 9-10am, vacuumed and played with kids. 10-11am, walked dogs and kids, cooked lunch. Etc. I say, your home and kids are always happy and clean. I shouldn't have to account for my whole day. Who is right here Prudie?

Did the listserv for Control Freaks Anonymous (and their loved ones) get misdirected here today? One of the reasons I could never imagine being a lawyer is because you have to account for your time in 15 minute increments. ("11:00 am to 11:15 am, brewed tea and stared into space.") But at least that job comes with (or it used to) a compensatingly big salary.  There is something really bizarre about a husband who comes home from a day of work and actually wants to look over the time sheets of his stay-at-home wife.  I'm guessing this is not the first manifestation of unpleasant micromanaging of you.  Unless you can get him to see the lunacy of his demands, I think you two should find someone who bills by the 50 minute hour and get a professional to help your husband understand some boundaries.

Dear Prudence, After my former husband of 15 years and father of my three children committed suicide I was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy that, although not large enough to allow me to quit working, has eliminated a lifetime of financial worries. I have been fiscally responsible with the funds, but have allowed myself to work less than FT hours and take off long school breaks with my children. I don't feel guilty about doing this - I think it's what my children need as they continue to process the loss of their father and work their way through their teen years. How do I deal with questions and judgement from people who comment on "how I never seem to worry about money"?  They seem to be fishing for information and I worry that, by being vague, it is leading to people making up stories about how I was the recipient of "millions."

I think the best response is to look at your interlocutor with a bemused expression, shake your head, and excuse yourself. If people you have to deal with -- relatives, co-workers, "friends" --  really are pressing you on your financial situation, you can answer with a kind of non-sequitur: "The kids are doing as well as can be expected after their father's death. Thanks for asking." You have no obligation to explain your personal life or your financial situation to nosy jerks.

I'm a man who didn't have a girlfriend or have sex until I was well into my 30s. Now, I'm approaching 40, and am engaged to a wonderful woman with whom I have a marvelous sex life. But I keep playing over in my mind my date-less, love-less, sex-less youth. I daydream about women I was attracted to when I was younger (who are now mostly happily married wives and mothers), and imagine what it would have been like to have been their boyfriend or husband.   I imagine the interesting sex I could have had during what is for most people the most sexually fulfilling parts of their lives.  It took me a long time to realize that not all women were like my mother. How can I stop this! I want to be content in the happiness I have now, not obsess over the happiness I could have had then.

If you read the Dear Prudence archives you will see endless letters from people who had incredible sex daily during their youth and now are wandering a middle-aged sexual desert. I'm wondering if your mother is the kind of person who is chronically unhappy with her current circumstances. If so, you don't just want to avoid having a partner who is like your mother, you want to not be like her yourself.  You are someone who was able to analyze your frustrating, lonely life and take steps to improve it. This resulted in your becoming happy. So now you want to wreck that by pondering just how much larger your total happiness could be if you had lived a different life. This line of thought will only be useful if you manage to be the person who finally invents a time machine. In the absence of that, stop contemplating the might-have-beens and focus on the wonderful, marvelous now.

I found out recently that my husband has been texting with a female coworker for over a year. I knew they texted about work but now know they were texting mornings, evenings and weekends about random things. None of the texting is romantic, sexual etc. but this has really made me feel betrayed. I knew nothing about the friendship and constant contact. He frequently tells me about texts he receives from other friends but this person was never mentioned. He maintains that they are just friends and nothing was hidden from me. How do I let this go when I feel like he has lied by omission for so long.

Maybe I'm just an misanthrope, but I don't understand the thrill of an open line to exchange life's banalities.  You say your husband and his colleague are texting endless messages about their day, so it sounds like you've read the entire oeuvre. You're the one in the marriage, so you have to sort out whether your husband is just one of those people whose compulsively welded to his phone, or whether he is getting some kind of frisson by texting  messages to her such as,  "Why is the person in front of me at Starbucks always buying for the whole office?"  In these circumstances there can develop a  semi-intimacy which is not quite right, but also leaves no indictable trail, either.  Your husband is in constant contact with a female colleague and they're not discussing sales reports. I'm inferring that your question about how you let this go is one that has been imposed on you by your husband who insists there's nothing for you to be concerned about. But at the very least he owes you an honest exchange about this.  It is fair for you to say you feel blindsided that he has a seemingly close relationship with someone at work whose name he's never mentioned and with whom he stays in frequent touch during your private time.

I have three wonderful sisters. We are all married and live within about an hour of each other. I need advice on how to deal with a delicate situation involving my sister "Kim." Kim is married to a sweet lady named "Lisa." For years, we have regularly planned sister activities every few months - usually dinner or a rare weekend getaway. My issue is that Kim always brings Lisa along to these sister gatherings. Before Lisa and Kim married last year, these were always sister-only activities. None of the rest of us ever bring our husbands or kids. We always include Lisa in other social activities and I really do like her, but I miss the dynamic of sister-only time. I have talked about this with my other sisters and they agree that they would prefer that Kim didn't always bring Lisa. I feel we should discuss this with Kim, but I don't want to hurt her feelings or make it feel like we are discriminating against her and Lisa. Any advice on how to bring this up gently?

You aren't discriminating if everyone agrees to leave their spouses behind. But the complication is that while your husbands would run from an invitation to go on one of these all sisters get-togethers as if fleeing Carcosa, Kim's wife obviously sees this as a fun night with the girls. So discuss this with Kim. Tell her there's something special about the occasional sisters-only gatherings and since all of you leave your spouses behind you were hoping that Lisa would understand.  But if Kim balks, it would be better to make Lisa an honorary sister than to have the gatherings without Kim or let them wither altogether.

Be glad you didn't choose the life of a lawyer!

And think of all those unemployed law school grads who wish they could measure out their life in six-minute increments. I wonder if supervisors look at timesheets and say, "Looks like a lot of bathroom time in there. Speed up that urine stream!"

When I was a child, my father would do something that would make me incredibly uncomfortable. He would suck and nibble at my earlobe. I never said to stop because I would just freeze in my discomfort. The first time he did this there were people around. I was 6 or 7 and sitting on his lap and even then it seemed wrong, but his sister and her kids were in the room and no one said or did anything, so I thought it must be my problem. Later he started doing it when he came in my room to say goodnight. By this time my brothers and I were visiting him on weekends as my parents had split up. Every night I stayed at his house I would dread that moment. As I got older I started pretending to be asleep and holding the blankets tightly over my head. When I was 14, I stopped going to his house on weekends. I never said anything to anyone growing up because I was embarrassed and thought I'd be told I was making a big deal out of nothing (my family copes with everything through minimization and denial.) When I was 18 I told my mom about it and she treated it like it wasn't a big deal. She said she didn't remember him having some sort of ear fetish when they'd been together so there was no way it was sexual in nature and I must have just misunderstood. Then she said I should stop making a big deal out of it since I didn't even go to his house anymore. That was 15 years ago and I still freak out if my ears are touched and feel dirty and ashamed. My husband accidentally got too close last night and I broke down crying and didn't want him near me. We talked about my past and he was loving and supportive, but neither of us is sure whether or not my dad actually did anything wrong. He pointed out that my reactions are like that of someone who had been molested but when no one has touched your private areas, does it count as molestation?

Your mother confirms your father had an ear fetish, then goes on to say that this proves what he was doing wasn't sexual!  You had more insight at a 6 year-old into what was going on. You instinctively understood that you were being violated and that your father was getting some kind of sick pleasure from this.  Then, as a young teenager, you managed to find the wherewithal to protect yourself by withdrawing from your father's life. But even when you eventually told your mother why, she minimized what had happened to you. Please see a therapist to talk all this through. Not just the fact that indeed your father was molesting you -- he clearly was getting sexual stimulating from touching you against your will -- but the fact that no adults in your life listened to you or protected you from this creepy, sick transgression.  It's wonderful that you have a supportive husband who understands. I think that a good therapist will allow you to feel more comfortable in your body and in your marriage.

You read the letter too quickly - the mother said that she didn't remember the father having an ear fetish. Otherwise, I agree with what you wrote.

Yes, reading comprehension is important! Sorry about that. So, the mother can confirm that her ex-husband didn't fetishize her own adult ears. Yet she was unable to listen with them to the fact that something awful was going on whenever her daughter visited her father and that her daughter was afraid when he came into her bedroom at night.  The father was a perpetrator.  The mother was unable to support her daughter and offer help. I hope the letter writer will finally find someone who understands what she went through and will help release her from its grip. 

I just find out that my good friends daughter is having sex with her boyfriend, she is 17years old. Do I tell parents about this or keep it quiet ?

I hope that any parents of a 17 year-old, especially one  who has a boyfriend or girlfriend, has talked to their child about safe sex and birth control. Yes, it's hard to talk to people who are running in the opposite direction or have their fingers in their ears, but that kind of  talk must happen. You don't know if the parents know the kids are having sex. You don't know if the daughter is being responsible about it. Unless you have information that's more concerning than the fact that two teenagers on the verge of being legal adults are doing it, I think you should stay out of it.

Prudie, I've been getting calls from my now retired boss for about a year now. Thankfully not at home as I have a unlisted number and he didn't have my new cell phone number. But he calls me 1-2 times a month at my work numbers wanting to chat. The issue is I really don't want to talk to him. He does (thankfully) stick to just polite chat about his family and work related projects. But we've become so busy I can't carve out 20 minutes to chat. If I don't pick up he just calls around until someone else does. We've talked to our supervisors about this but it doesn't seem to do any good. I don't want to be horribly rude. I don't see how I can convey that to him without sounding like I'm being cruel to a retiree who comes across as bored and lonely.

I can understand that your supervisors feel that adults in the workplace should have the skills to politely decline to talk to someone who no longer supervises them.  If all of you actually liked the guy, why don't a group of you have lunch with him every few months. In the meantime, when he calls you can say, "Derek, you know better than anyone what the deadlines are like around here. I can't talk now. But I'll get a small group together for lunch in early spring and we'll get back to you with a date for it."

My boyfriend of more than a year and I have recently started discussing moving in together. The problem, I have two cats and he has a daughter with a minor cat allergy. The mother (several states away) has custody of the child, with the daughter visiting her father for a few weeks in the summer. I have a relative with a cat allergy who frequently stays at my home and is fine as long as I vacuum thoroughly and keep the cats out of their bedroom. I've also offered to have a professional cleaning service come before his daughter visits. He says it's not good enough and that the cats will have to go. I respect him wanted the best for his daughter. However I feel it is unfair to make me give up my cats, whom I love and have had for 10+ years and forever live in a cat-free home, just for someone who will only be affected by the cats for at most a few weeks out of the year. Am I not being sensitive to the needs of a child or is he not caring enough about my happiness?

What a tenuous relationship -- only seeing your father for a few weeks a year.  I wonder why he doesn't get to see her over Christmasas, on spring break, or long weekends, etc.  However, in anwer to your question, don't do any moving now. When the daughter comes, get your place professionally cleaned, and have her come over and see if she can stand it.  It might also be that an over-the-counter allergy medication, approved by her doctor, could get her through limited time with the cats.  But if your letter is an illustration of  your ability as a couple to try to work things out, you may permanently want to keep your own place.

Thanks, everyone. I will concentrate this week on the fact that "doesn't" doesn't mean "does."

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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