Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Mar 17, 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. Snow, yes, snow.

Dear Prudie, My husband and I will celebrate our seventh anniversary this year. We have two children, 4 years and six months old. About a year and a half ago, after the threat of divorce, my husband joined AA and has been sober since. In my opinion, AA has taken over his life, to the point I see him less now that he is sober than when he was drunk. He goes to meetings once to twice daily, and several times on the weekends. We both work full time, and I pick up the kids make dinner, get them ready for bed and get the kitchen cleaned by the time he walks in the door at night (about 8 p.m.). He has been asked to be a part of regional representation for AA, which is going to take up more of his time. I feel horrible when I say anything, since I complained when he was drunk, and now I am complaining when he was sober, but I am exhausted! I feel like he needs to be part of our family, and his kids and I are suffering now for his sobriety. Do I have a reasonable beef, or should I just suck it up for sobriety? I'd go to an AlAnon meeting, but I sure as hell don't have the spare time. AA Wife

Let's stipulate that your husband has an addictive personality, and being hooked on AA is a healthy alternative to liquor. His abstinence is quite new, so it's really important that he gets gratification from it and creates habits of mind and behavior that make being sober rewarding. It seems that he has found that with the fellowship that AA brings. But you have a legitimate beef that if in order for him to do this, he has virtually abandoned his own family to attend to his new one at AA. I don't know enough about the rules of AA to be certain this suggestion is kosher, but perhaps you and he could get together with his sponsor to discuss how your husband can be with his family and and attend to his sobriety. If talking to the sponsor is not an option, then it is time for you two to see a counselor who has expertise in addiction issues. You are in practical effect a single mother. You need to tell him you don't want to legally become one, so you both need to figure out how you can meet the needs of yourselves, each other, and your children.

Dear Prudie, I recently went on vacation to Italy with two girlfriends from college. We had a great time and ate lots of pasta and gelato, but one thing really put a damper on my enjoyment: smart phones. I completely understand the need to call and check in with loved ones - I did it myself - and hey, I can even get onboard with a quick Facebook update here and there. But my experience with these ladies was mind-boggling. Every time we went to a restaurant, they would immediately ask about wifi and then disappear for the rest of the meal. One would occasionally look up and say, "Sorry, I know I'm being anti-social," but then she would keep on doing whatever she was doing behind her screen. One of them forgot her phone charger and it's the only reason I actually got to interact with her after the first day (when she had depleted her phone's charge by uploading pictures to Facebook). The kicker was our last night, when we went out to a popular spot for drinks: cute Italian men approached us left and right while one girl spent the entire night swiping on Tinder and complaining about her lack of a boyfriend. I don't have a Facebook (or any site), so I'm wary of becoming 'that friend' who just as obnoxiously pooh-poohs social networking, but enough is enough! Should I just silently doodle on my napkin (what I ended up doing in Italy) the next time this sort of thing happens? What's your advice, Prudie? -Disconnected

I want to see this movie. A young Marcello Mastroianni comes sauntering to a table of  young American women, and the one complaining most about not having a guy doesn't even make eye contact with Marcello because her nose is buried in her dating app. What you experienced is a question beyond etiquette. There is no doubt the world behind the touch screen has become more vivid and compelling to millions of people than anything happening in their lives. But if they looked up and told you what kept them so intent upon the screen, they'd have to admit it was mostly a bunch of banal texts, games, and useless news alerts. It's one thing to zone out with your phone on the subway. It's another to miss Italy because you're playing Flappy Bird.  The next time you're out to dinner with your gang and this happens, speak up. Say you understand how hard it is to break away from the phone because it's hard for you, too. But you'd like to institute a no-phone rule when you're socializing. That means they're in your purses and off.  If it turns out your friends would socialize in the virtual world while they're with you, it's time to get a new group of friends.

Dear Prudie, I work in a typical cube-farm within a small department for a non-profit organization. A cube-mate of mine coughs and clears her throat... ALL. THE. TIME. It gets so bad that I look forward to when she takes her hour lunch so that I can have some respite from the constant hacking. Our department unfortunately requires constant phone interaction, so wearing noise-canceling headphones or listening to music is not really an option. I feel bad because she is an older lady with a lot of health problems, but may patience is wearing thin and she is driving me up the wall. Please help.

It's true that erratic but repetitive noises can shatter one's focus. Sure you try to concentrate and shut out the respiratory tract troubles of your colleauge, but the endless hacking just makes you feel like you're caught in a tidal wave of phlegm. I don't think there's much point in asking Muriel to keep it down -- she can't. She's suffering and would surely love not to feel the way she does. Instead, take this to a supervisor and being oh, so sensitive. Explain you have tremendous empathy for your co-worker's health problems, but that she has a chronic condition and unfortunately there is no way to baffle the noise which is constantly breaking your concentration. Ask if there's the possibility of a new office configuration -- maybe you can be moved, maybe Muriel can.

Hello Prudence! I am a young man who recently went off to college about 2 hours from my father's house. After about 6 months I can honestly say I love my college and I am doing fantastic, but I got off to a bit of a rocky start. I became very anxious and sad after moving into the dorms and I began to nervously clean my body. I cleaned my body until it was quite raw and then went and saw a physician at the student health center. They directed me to the school psychiatrist and to the counselling center. I was diagnosed with OCD and my fifth Major Depressive Episode. After completing 16 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy and trying several antidepressants, I am doing quite well. I have made friends on and off campus and I am succeeding academically. The thing is, my family is very "holistic" in the sense that they do not approve of medical interventions at all. (They are not even treating my stepmothers declining bone density seriously) They are very opposed to antidepressants and mental/behavior health care in general. I am 22 and I think I am old enough to keep this from them. It is my health and I can use what tools I think are necessary to maintain it, right? I mean, after five diagnoses of MDD, I don't think it will go away.

How gratifying to hear that you recognized you had a problem, sought help, and it worked! You absolutely don't owe your family any explanation about this aspect of your life. Sure, it would be great if you had loved ones who wanted to understand your diagnosis and support your recovery, but you don't. They may be lovely people in other ways, but part of your maturation process has been to recognize their limitations and instead seek crucial assistance.  So keep it up, keep it private, and don't feel you're keeping something from them they deserve to know. You simply are growing up and taking responsibility for your own health.

Bad advice Prudie--this woman should get herself to meetings of al-anon ASAP. Al anon is for friends and families of alcoholics and problem drinkers, whether or not the alcoholic is in treatment or attending meeting themselves. She is experiencing a common dynamic, and will get the support and advice she needs from others who have lived the same issues.

Sure, Al Anon is a great idea, but she has to hire a babysitter to go because her husband isn't home long enough for her to attend a meeting. Al Anon will give her support and ideas, but in the end she and her husband have to talk and come to some understanding. I'm suggesting they do that right now.

I work for a college, in the Admissions Office. My day consists of answering calls for 8 hours, to inform applicants on their application status, verify receipt of documents, and explain the admissions process. The job is very stressful and the people who call are usually always rude. If they can't understand something we have said, they never say "excuse me" or "Im sorry" Its always "What!" These aren't just the students, its the parents. It seems like no one has phone manners anymore. I always try to maintain a polite composure, and assist the caller the best I can, however the minute I say something they don't like, they want to take my name down, and talk to my supervisor. I hate this job, but leaving isn't an option. The pay is decent and the benefits are good. However, I really am starting to hate people in general. I get satisfaction, when a rude applicant calls for an update, and I see that they have been rejected. I can't tell them their decision, they have to wait for their letter, though. I feel no empathy, when they call crying or upset because they didn't get in. I hate that I have become this way, but I feel, that I have been driven to it. I have worked some really stressful jobs, but this takes the cake. Any suggestions?

Soon your college will release all their acceptance and rejection letters, and after you deal with a next wave of outrage, all will be quiet for months. My daughter is a high school senior, and it's bizarre me to think of people  calling an admissions office, letting their caller I.D. be seen, then acting rudely to the representative. (Note: Being rude to people on the other end of the phone is not acceptable even if you aren't trying to get your kid into their college.) So, yes, you should take secret gratification in knowing that some of the most obnoxious will not be at the accepted students celebration. You are stressed by your job, but keep in mind that the people who are calling you are also in extremis. I'm sure you've been in an emergency room, so you have to adopt the unflappable, I've-seen-it-all attitude of the people who work there. Just think, if you manage to stay calm and centered, you may be able to talk some of these loons back to equanimity. Even if you can't, these interactions surely are fairly brief. But if your job is undermining your mental health, start exploring other prospects at your college -- working in the archives, groundskeeping, assisting the deans -- anything that will keep you far from the madding crowd.

I have the following rule with some of my friends when we go out for dinner or drinks: the first one to start playing with their phone, picks up the drink tab for everyone! The phones are sure to stay hidden

Love it! And I admire than you can get buy in from the addicted.

My parents divorced nearly 30 years ago and only maintained a relationship because of the kids. Recently, my mother passed away and, in going through her things, it was quite a surprise to discover many cards and letters from my dad to her. I've only looked at the ones that can't avoid being seen (notes written on a flat sheet of paper, e.g.), and have very little interest in going through them myself. Do I give the stack of old memorabilia back to my dad? I think sometimes encountering an old version of yourself can be both pleasant and useful; however, my parents were so ill-matched and very few positive feelings remained on either side. Thoughts?

Ask him. Tell him your asking doesn't imply he should answer one way or another. He may want a look at his former self, or he may not want to be reminded of happier (then much unhappier) times. If he doesn't want the letters, even if you aren't up to reading them, you should store them safely. Such family history can be fascinating to future generations who have less emotional stake in how it all turned out.

I'm a man who got raped by a woman. I will spare you the details, but it genuinely was rape, if you accept that that's possible. No one else was present, and I did not report it. I have tried to stay away from her since then, but now, nine months later, she is about to give birth. I'm inclined to stay far away from this, but is that right? The child will still need a father. If the child is in fact mine and I do "claim" him/her, I know I'll be responsible for child support. And even if I don't, there's still a chance I could have to pay child support. Reporting what happened is probably out of the question now since it would seem like I was just trying to weasel out of my responsibilities.

You are raising a bunch legal questions. I'm not even clear whether this woman has let you know she's gestating her child, or whether you've heard of her pregnancy through the grapevine. You need to talk to a lawyer about your allegations, what you do now, and what's ahead.

Dear Prudie, I provide weekly home health services to toddlers and moms. I have a very comfortable professional relationship with them. We usually address each other by first name. One darling woman always addresses my coworker and I as 'Miss' followed by our first names. I think it's lovely, but now I feel rude when I address her only by first name. Should I start calling her 'Miss' as well, or is it weird since I have already known her 5 months? She's only a few years older than I am, but she's such a gracious client. As a side note, there haven't been much times that I've had to directly use her name in this time.

"Miss Sally" is a delightful Southern tradition that allows one to be both respectful and intimate. However, you are comfortably on a first name basis with your clients and saying "Miss" is not natural for you. So, no,  you don't need to echo this client when talking to her. Feel free to simply call her by her first name.

I recently celebrated a milestone birthday for which my wife had commissioned a work of art to commemorate. The artist is a cousin who works in mixed media and has a notable regional reputation. I love and deeply respect him and his work, but I've never really "got" it. He uses found and recycled materials collaged together.  I was horrified to discover that I find the portrait extremely unflattering and troubling. I was shocked to think that my cousin saw me this way. Friends who have seen it have also found it ugly and strangely dark-- parts of this collage have my age wrong and imply that I have struggled with obesity and depression. I believe I have responded to the gift appropriately with many thanks and appreciation, but I'm not sure how I am to live with this art in my home. My wife has hung it in a prominent place that I must pass scores of time a day. I'm not sure how to even start the conversation. The additional wrinkle is that a gallery has contacted me asking to include the piece in an upcoming exhibition. I'd rather not have this depiction of me in public. How should I handle this horrible mess? Signed: Not a Dorian Grey

Be glad that your cousin was not Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon.  Although I suppose if either was your cousin, while you'd be portrayed as mad and wattled, the portrait would be worth millions.  First of all, you say you don't get your cousin's work, which I assume means he does portraits which are far not conventional and not flattering. So accept he is not picking you out as an object of derision, he's using you as a canvas on which to express his artistic vision.  I think the new wrinkle about the exhibition is a godsend. At least it allows you to temporarity get the wrinkled mess that supposed to be you out of the house! Do not be concerned that people will think this is an accurate depiction of you.  You should be sure to attend the gallery opening and have lot of photos snapped standing next to your "likeness." This will only serve to make you look happy, slender, and youthful.  If you're lucky, someone will insist they have to buy the painting and you will have to convince your wife that this art lover must be appeased.  But if you take the canvas home, tell your wife that as thoughtful and loving as this gift was, every time you walk by the portrait you feel you need to lose 50 pounds and start taking Paxil. Ask if you can at the least move it to the guest room so you don't have to look at it daily. That will have the added benefit that anyone who's considering overstaying their welcome will see you staring down at them looking miserable and want to pack their bags.

Hi Prudie, A new co-worker just started at our company. He is the boyfriend of the boss's son. The boss's son also works at the same company in a different division and is extremely closeted at work. Everyone in the office already knows this new guy's past and no one cares that he is gay or dating the boss's kid (I broke everyone in when I came out at work). However, when asked about his connection to the boss, this person states they are a good friend of the boss's other kid. While this person isn't being dishonest, I feel terrible knowing everyone is whispering behind this new person's back. I would like to let him know that everyone already knows about his past without coming across as a gossip or being weird. Should I let him know, or let him find out on his own?

Stay out of it. The issue for the new guy may have far less to do with being gay than nepotism. He may be saying he's just a friend of the other son (which surely he is) so that people don't cluck, "Oh, he got the job because of his romantic involvement." As you know, people will gossip and eventually it may come back to the new guy that everyone knows he's the partner of the boss's son. But I don't see anything in it for you by pointing this out to him.

My sister Julia recently told our family that she and her husband Jake are in a polyamorous triad with their best friend Tony. The three of them have been together for as long as Julia has been with Jake (seven years) and all of their friends know that, essentially, Tony is Julia's other husband. They decided not to tell our more traditional family (with the exception of our brother) until Julia became pregnant, as she is now. She does not know whether the child is Jake's or Tony's, but both men plan to raise the child equally. Our brother claims they're an amazing couple and that Julia has never been this happy. My parents, my husband, and I are more realistic and feel queasy about the arrangement. I cannot imagine how their child will feel, growing up with half-siblings (Julia plans to have children by both men) and with their mom sleeping with two men. I don't know how they will provide the children of this "marriage" with stability. My husband doesn't want Tony around our children, even though Julia has asked that we now treat him as her husband in addition to Jake. I love Julia but am nauseated by her lifestyle choice. I think eventually it will end disastrously. How can I support this?

You don't have to "support" it, you just have to act like a decent person. Jake, Julia, and Tony are a threesome.  Your sister is not asking for you advice or approval, she is just asking to be treated politiely.  You don't have to say any more to your kids other than Uncle Tony is Aunt Julia and Uncle Jake's good friend. Kids are remarkably flexible about these things. I fail to see how having Uncle Tony -- presuming he's a good guy -- come along on visits will harm your children in any way. If your kids have questions you answer them honestly in an age appropriate way. Which will mostly consist of, "The three of them are really close friends. I agree it's kind of unusual, but they are happy all living together."  Julia is pregnant so she's the one who should be dealing with nausea.  Eat a couple of crackers, settle your stomach, and welcome this new addition to the family.

My husband and I have been married for 13 years we have two children 20 and 9 and I haves struggled to have children. I tried for many years after the birth of my 9 year old to conceive again. After many failed attempts and will all my reproductive issues we decided 4 years ago that we would adopt. We went through CPS in our state and have been on a waiting list for over 4 years. My husband was very detailed in what kind of child he wanted and I feel like it held us back into bringing a child into our home sooner. I am now facing a hysterectomy due to my reproductive issues and while I am sad about that, I accept the reality. My husband has just told me that he does not want to adopt. I am devastated, I feel duped and so disappointed. I feel like walking out I can't even look at him in the eye. He is adamant that he is not going to change his mind and he wouldn't even reconsider it even for my sake. I am at a loss at what to do.

As you know, many of the children in foster care who desperately need homes come with the kind of  problems to be expected in children who have had to be removed from their families. I'm assuming your husband has been saying to the social workers that he does not want a child with considerable learning or behavioral issues.  So no wonder your four year wait has been fruitless. It turns out you two have drifted very far apart on what you want. But I don't see how walking out improves your life. Even though you have accepted your infertility issues, a hysterectomy puts an end to the thought that a "miracle" might happen, so you are in a particularly delicate, vulnerable state.  Sorry I don't have anything more original to say than that since you two are barely speaking, as a couple you need to see a counselor. You need to address your issues of loss, your husband has to come clean with what he wants. You both need to figure out how to understand each other and repair your marriage. I understand you feel there is a hole in your life where a new child should be. But don't let that blind you to the needs of your 9 year-old who surely knows Mom and Dad are very unhappy and who is suffering because of this.

Divorce and remarriage often result in far more "bizarre" outcomes than the one she is describing.

Great point!

Thanks, everyone. Have a good 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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