Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

May 12, 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.

I was so deeply in love with my husband that when we first became intimate, his unusually small male member didn't matter. Now 14 years later, I've gotten to the point of having pure hatred for him and his penis. He's never been able to satisfy me in the bedroom and it's now becoming a problem. What do I do?

Pure hatred for a spouse's body part -- especially a body part thoroughly vetted and approved -- speaks less to your spouse's shortcomings than your own. You were fully aware of the size of your husband's penis and decided to go ahead and marry him. Although this organ is noted for its variability under different conditions, its essential dimensions cannot be changed, presumably a basic biological fact of which you were aware. If you married him despite your desperate distaste for your sexual life, then you are a fool. If you find his penis less than satisfying during intercourse, a look at any sex book would show you that there are many wonderful, creative ways two partners can satisfy each other in bed. You sound as if perhaps you've come to hate your husband, but have focused all your ire on one small reason. You have several choices. You two can expand your sexual horizons with each other. You two can go to counseling (or you can go alone). Or you can conclude your love and marriage are dead, and see a lawyer to end the pain for both of you.

Hi Prudie, My boyfriend and I moved in together a few weeks ago and it's been a somewhat tricky adjustment. One problem in particular has been that he's very bothered by my habit of talking to myself. I've lived alone for many years and talking to myself is something I've just always done. I kind of see it as a way of thinking out loud. I'll sort of ask myself questions and answer them, for example, or say something like, "Guh, I don't know what I feel like having for dinner" and then say, "Maybe pasta? No..." I absolutely see how this would be annoying, and out of courtesy, I am trying my hardest to limit how much I talk to myself now that I'm not living alone, but he's taken it to a new level. He seems to think I need to talk to a psychiatrist if I'm "having conversations with myself" and he's been asking if I "hear voices." I've tried to explain that this is just a habit of thinking out loud and that it's relatively normal but he won't let it go. I think this is a fairly innocuous, but irritating habit, that he needs to accept in me as long as I work on it, just like I accept certain harmless flaws in him. I certainly don't think I should be talking to a shrink about a bad habit. What do you think?

If you walk down the street these days, it looks like everyone is "hearing voices." Okay, they are, but there is still something disconcerting about people having very animated conversations as they march along the street by themselves. So there's a technological fix for your situation:  Stick in a pair of earbuds and as you debate what to have for dinner,  tell your boyfriend that you're discussing this with your best friend.

I myself am a self talker. When my daughter was very little she would wonder who I was talking to. Later she came to ask,  "Mommy, are you talking to Dad or your editor?" I do try to keep a reasonable lid on this in front of loved ones because no one else in close quarters wants to hear someone endlessly vocalizing every stray thought.  However, the problem here is not that you have a somewhat annoying habit you realize you have to temper. It's that your boyfriend has diagnosed you as being a head case who needs medical intervention. That's quite a ratcheting up of the rhetoric, and one that makes him sounds like a nasty, judgmental prig (and he also doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to your talking to yourself).  Sure, you can be attentive to your habit, but I think you need to be more attentive to whether moving in together was a big mistake.

The hardest role I have ever had in life is proving to be the role of mother-in-law. I have two adult daughters and when I see behavior that hurts one of them on the part of their husbands, I have a very hard time biting my tongue, so I don't. This of course has led to both men not liking me. It would seem that this is one of those "keeping the peace" issues but not saying anything feels hypocritical to me. How on earth do I manage this? I want to see my grandkids. Or do I just accept the old adage that mothers in law are shrews and everyone hates theirs, period?

Last week, in "honor" of Mother's Day, I ran a piece on the worst mothers-in-law to appear in this column. Lots of people wrote to me to tell about their wonderful mothers-in-law, so I asked people to post these stories on my Facebook page. There are more than 160 tributes to these great women, and I love that this breaks the stereotype of the meddling, interfering mother-in-law.

But you are portraying yourself as a meddling, interfering mother-in-law. I don't know what you mean by your daughters being "hurt." If they have both married abusive men, that is alarming. If so, you should have a private meeting with your daughters to express your concern that they are not safe. But if by hurt you mean anything that makes your girls less than ecstatic, that is, the normal wear and tear and annoyance of marriage, then you need to bite your tongue. You  say your sons-in-law can't stand you. But you don't say if your daughters egging you on and urging you to give it to their husbands.  Or if they are embarrassed and appalled by your commentary.  You say your interference risks your being able to see your grandchildren, so it seems  your insights are not welcome by anyone. Your daughters are adults, but you sound like you're hypersensitive to their emotional state, which is not good for you or them. You don't have to accept the old adages about mothers-in-law, you just have to acknowledge you are being a lousy one, and that's it's within your power to change your behavior.

I have been divorced for three years and so far it's been pretty amicable. The reason I divorced my ex-husband didn't include sexual infidelity, but did include emotional infidelity with a teenager. I know that relationship was never consumated. However, I was just diagnosed with severe cervical dysplasia almost certainly caused by the HPV virus. Since my ex-husband and I were virgins together, I know I caught HPV from him and as a result I know that sometime in our marriage he was unfaithful. I never want to see, talk to, or have anything to do with him ever again. We share two  young adult children, and I can be civil at graduations and weddings, but no more shared holidays and I don't want him in my house. My first priority is my children, and I have always encouraged them to have a good relationship with their dad. They will soon know about my condition (it requires significant medical follow up). They will want to know why I am giving my ex the cold shoulder after years of friendliness. I simply can't bear to have anything do to with him unless it includes wielding a baseball bat. What do I tell the kids?

You tell your kids that you're going to have to have a medical procedure. You don't say, "I'm having my insides reamed out because that rat father of yours gave me an STD that he might have picked up from a teenager because he's a pervert. But remember, I'm supportive of your relationship with him." You say that you and your ex were both virgins when you married (and that he never had a sexual relationship with the teenager he was emotionally attached to). But all you have, presumably, are his assurances on both these fronts. Maybe he wasn't actually a virgin and he brought the HPV virus into your marriage. Or maybe, as you assume, he was unfaithful at some point. As long as your condition has been caught in time, you should be fine. (And this is a good time for a public service announcement: Young men and women, get that HPV vaccine!) You are divorced, so like many divorced people, you're no longer in each others' lives except as demanded by family obligations. So maintain your civility. But your are dealing with justifiable anger and pain, so please seek a counselor to discuss this and help figure out how not to knock your ex's block off at the next family graduation.

Every Mother's Day it's the same: My kids (now teens, but it was ever thus) do nothing until they are begged/nagged by my husband, then they scrawl some last-minute card out of obligation. It doesn't help that I'm not that wild about my own mother, either. I try to joke that we put the "fun" in dysfunctional, but it always makes me feel terrible, because I really do a lot for them and would like them to learn to express some appreciation. Should we just cancel the holiday? It's always an excercise in disappointment, even when I lower my expectations wayyy down.

This is both a global and specific problem. Because of your own poor relationship with your mother, you may be conveying that contempt for one's mother is an okay thing.  You have to examine how what you say and do as regards your own mother has been communicated to your kids about how they should treat you.  But it's understandable that you feel dissed by a paltry, tossed off acknowledgement of you. I think you should talk this out with your husband and then he should go to the kids and say all of you need to do a redo. He can talk about how much you love them and how much you do to make their lives better. He explains that demands gratitude and acknowledgement, and not just one day a year. Have him tell them they they are all going to take you out for a delayed Mother's Day celebration, and in the meantime, they need to compose thoughtful letters to you. Let's hope your kids will rise to this challenge. And if they won't, they you need to have a conversation with them -- not a guilt trip -- about how you are concerned that your relationship with them seems so one-way.

My mother does this. It is incredibly invasive. I don't live with her, but when we've shared a room on vacation, and she's talking, I have to disengage from whatever I'm doing, tune in to her, figure out if she's talking to me or just talking, then re-engage in whatever I was doing. By the time I've done that, she's babbling again, meaning I can't do anything ~but~ attend to her. She's said I should ignore it, but since she does sometimes want my attention, that's not a real option, just something she's thrown out pretending to be generous. Stop talking to yourself already, it's selfish.

I agree that someone in close quarters talking themselves in an animated and incessant fashion can drive one buggy. But your note seems to go beyond annoyance at your mother's habit, and into more global annoyance with your mother.  If the original letter writer produces an endless  torrent of words, that's a problem. But surely her boyfriend would have noticed this before they moved in.

My hubby and I talk to ourselves all the time. When I hear him talking I always ask " am I supposed to be listening to you?" If his answer is no I tune him out. He dies the same thing to me. You don't have the problem LW, your BF does.

This sounds like a eminently reasonable approach. Although it can be complicated when you're not talking to your spouse, but you are talking about your spouse.

Dear Prudence, Over the past year, my mother has been getting increasingly more paranoid of others taking her valuables. She talks about it constantly, although as far as I can tell, it's never happened. She's just read a lot about theft. Things reached a new height recently when she decided to install security cameras in her house, so that she can monitor the 'trustworthiness' of her maid staff and her nanny (she takes care of my two daughers part time, when I am travelling, and she employs childcare to help her out.) Two of the security cameras are in her downstairs bathrooms. The cameras are hidden, and even if they weren't, I feel this violates the privacy rights of both the nanny and the maid staff. But I don't know how to address this with my mother without making her feel upset. Should I address it with my mother or alert the nanny and the maid staff of the cameras in the bathrooms? 

Increasing paranoia with no reasonable cause behind it calls for a medical intervention. Since you and your mother are obviously close, you should talk to her about your concern that she's worried about unnecessary things and tell her you'll make a doctor's appointment for her and accompany her.  What your mother has done as far as the bathroom pee-cam is concerned is really creepy. (And maybe a lawyer can explain if filming someone in the bathroom in your own home could be illegal.) I hope at the end of the day your mother is not reviewing the tapes hoping to find the staff relieving themselves of her valuables and not just relieving themselves.  Since your mother is not capable of caring for your kids without help, it might make most sense for you to separate these functions. Arrange for your own childcare when you travel. And visit your mother with your kids when you're in town. But most important is getting to the bottom of this personality change.

OP here. I don't want to tell my kids that their dad is a cheat. I want a way to explain that he won't be coming for Christmas and stopping by the house without letting them in on the details.

It's May, so you don't have to worry about Christmas. If you are used to hosting your ex for family get togethers during the year, you can just tell your kids that you did that when they were younger because you felt it was important for them. But now you would prefer to see less of your ex, so they need to make separate arrangement to see their father. I assure you, your children don't want to know about their parents' STD status.

I'm now in my mid-twenties, and 10-15 years ago my mother probably could have described me this way. It truly took being on my own to understand how much my mom did for me. I appreciate her so much more now, and in hindsight probably shouldn't have been such a lame teenager. But, I think this year in the past few years I've been able to truly show my mom how much I appreciate everything she did, and still continues to do. I'm sure this feeling will be multiplied even more when I have my own kids.

Many teenagers tend to be lame on the gratitude to the adults in their lives front. However, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be addressed. These are important lessons for parents to impart, and teenagers can recognize the rather startling fact that their parents are people, too, and the relationship they have with them is reciprocal.

My parents are very ambitious, successful people. I was their only child, and they were determined to mold me into someone extraordinary. Instead I rebelled against their efforts and turned out very ordinary - an indifferent student, never got more than a bachelors degree, and I work a mid-level office job. I may pursue more education later, but I'm not in a hurry to do so. I'm happy with my life: I'm married to a wonderful man and we have a lovely, energetic toddler. So what do I say when my parents start in about how they wished I'd gone further in my education, wish I'd change "x" about my life, or tell horror stories about what a "difficult" child I was? At this point I don't think it's worth trying to get into an emotional conversation with them - I'd rather just gently and firmly shut it down when it starts. Any suggestions?

You don't sound ordinary to me. You completed your education, you are gainfully employed, you have a happy marriage, and a wonderful kid. This should make any parents proud and satisfied. If yours aren't, you need to shut down your tiger parents' "if only" talk. Explain to them that you want them in your life and that of your child, but you're going to have to limit that if every time you're together you hear a critique of how you're living your life.  Say that you have always done them the favor of not harping on what demanding, cold, judgmental parents they were. So you don't want to hear about your supposed failings, either. If they can't be pleasant when you're together, they're going to have to understand you will be failing to be together.

Prudie - the best advise I ever received before I married was from my best friends mother. She told me that if I didn't want my mom to dislike/hate my husband, a lot of the responsibility was on me. If my husband and I had a disagreement and I was upset, I should NOT run to my mom and tell her about it. While I would most certainly "forgive and forget" whatever small irritation it was deemed at the time to be so critical, my mom wouldn't. She might forgive him, but she would never forget it. My best friends mom was very wise and it has held me in good stead for 21+ years. My mom adored her son in law til the day she passed away.

Thanks for this. And this speaks to the fact that sometimes it is good for older people to speak up and impart their wisdom -- whether it's taken or not. What your best friend's mother told you about marriage sounds as if it was tailored to her knowledge of your own mother.  There are some mothers and daughters who can hash such things out, with the mother being able to put the information aside and not punish the son-in-law.  But I agree with your basic point that if you're old enough to get married, you're too old to run to mom every time something upsets you.

Dear Prudie: I am visiting my daughter and granddaughter out of state. I was looking forward to our mother's day outing as we do every year, but I was taken aback when I realized that my daughter had invited one of her friends and her daughter (who is a playmate of my granddaughter) to Mother's Day dinner. Additionally, the young girl was at the house on the previous day along with more friends for a sleepover so we did see her mother and visited briefly with her. I just wonder if we could have skipped the additional company during this occasion since these people live in the area and my family is able to see them much more frequently. Thank you

Maybe your daughter's friend doesn't have a mother. Maybe she doesn't have a husband, so there's no one to celebrate her. Maybe your daughter thought the two little girls would keep each other entertained while the adults talked. Yes, I can understand your feeling miffed that an outsider attended your special day. And next year, well in advance, tell your daughter that you really enjoy her friends, but you want to be able to go out just as a family. But it sounds as if you were gracious yesterday, so let that stand and let it go.

Lots of people are commenting that the woman with cervical dysplasia may not have gotten it from her husband and that while the majority of such conditions are caused by HPV, a minority are not.  In addition, while HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, people can technically be virgins and still be exposed.  The CDC is a great source of information.  Most of all: Young people need to be vaccinated.

Dear Prudence, This past January, I started dating a wonderful guy. His birthday came early on in our relationship and I knew that acknowledging the occasion was important to him. My gift to him was a handmade humorous card that he loved. As my birthday approached, I requested we not celebrate it and I kept the date a secret. Well, a friend told him. No big deal, and it seemed as if he went along with my request (I turned 49). This weekend, we went to a mother's day celebration at his brother's place. He surprised me with a cake and the whole family sang Happy Birthday. This was the first time I met his family, I was feeling uncomfortable as I had a giant cold sore on my lip. I tried, unsuccessfully to act pleased and excited. On the way home it was a disaster. He claims it was "just a cake", which turned into one of those "I always and you never" conversations. I ended up placating him and apologizing for not being appreciative enough -- without him apologizing for putting me on the spot.  His whole stance now is that I always ignore his offers of help, and don't praise him when he does something nice. I tried to open a dialogue, to no avail. Is this relationship doomed?

After all that HPV talk, thanks for switching the conversation to the herpes virus. So, your boyfriend found out that it was your birthday, and during his family's Mother's Day celebration, he was thoughtful enough to make sure a cake was there to acknowledge you. I assume the Happy Birthday song did not conclude, "Happy Birthday, Dear Jennifer, and don't kiss any of us on the lip!"  Even if you hate being the center of attention, especially when you're sporting a mouth sore, your reaction to the cake sound churlish, foolish, and ungrateful.  However, this incident has devolved into a general critique of your relationship. You say you tried to open a dialogue, but if you're doing so, you need to start not by "placating," but by sincerely apologizing for making him uncomfortable about a lovely gesture.  If he then continues to sulk in his corner and mumble about how unhappy you make him, yes, you two have considerable problems.

Hi. My kid has been taking piano lessons for years from a lovely teacher, but who does not keep even her piano studio very clean. For years, we tolerated the dust and smell (unclean cat box, I believe), since teacher also had full-time office job, and I sympathized with her for not having the time and energy to clean. Teacher is now retired from her office job over a year, and still, her piano room is dusty and smells painfully bad (it's quite gross). Can we say something to her? I fear the smell and dust must turn away potential students.

If children must hold their breath to get through the lesson, fainting from hypoxia is not going to improve their musical skills. Yes, you can tell her that she's a wonderful teacher, but the dirt and odor in her home need to be addressed -- and you fear the conditions are turning away other pupils. If she can't fix this, your child might be one of those who eventually finds a more congenial place to make beautiful music.

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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