Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

May 19, 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.

My new husband and I enjoy very rough sex. Unfortunately - in spite of efforts to keep quiet - my 12 year old daughter overheard us. I got called in for a private meeting with her teacher outside of school hours. She told me my daughter heard her stepfather slapping me and was extremely upset. I was completely taken aback, not to mention embarrassed beyond belief, and couldn't think of anything other than mutter that I was fine and everything was fine at home. Of course, this only made the teacher believe I was trying to cover up the "abuse" and told me repeatedly she was there to help when I was ready. I know I can't just let my daughter continue believing her mother is being abused, and I really don't want this kind teacher to be concerned over a complete misunderstanding. However I just don't know how to begin. Please help.

I've got to admire your daughter's self-possession and crisis management skills; that was a very difficult decision for her to make. She must have considered going to you, but then concluded that if you were being abused, you likely you would cover up for your husband. So instead of squirming every night about what was going on in your bedroom, she went to a smart place for help.  Now it's time for an honest, if succinct, conversation with your daughter. You should praise her for her concern for you and for making a tough choice. Tell her that your were surprised and embarrassed at the meeting -- which is not her fault! -- so you weren't as articulate as you wished you had been. Say that you understand what she heard worried her, and it's your responsibility for not being more discreet. But explain to her that everything that is going on is totally consensual, you love her stepfather, and you are not being hurt in any way.  Tell her that now that you've aired this, you hope she will feel free to come to you with anything that worries her. You then can call the teacher and say that because you were taken aback at the meeting you were not as articulate as would have liked, but suffice it to say everything that's going on in your home is between consenting adults and your daughter now understands that.  Then get some sound-proofing, or a sound machine for when you and your husband have noisy nocturnal pleasures.

My husband's sister "Beth,"her husband "Eric," and their 2-year-old daughter recently came into town. Eric and I have never seen eye-to-eye, but we are civil. After hosting a big family party in our sun room, everyone went to bed. Eric offered to help me clean up, which I agreed to. Initially, he complimented my outfit and hair, which I thanked him for. Then, he implied that Beth no longer has sex with him. I wasn't positive if that was what he meant, so I chose not to say anything further. That was when he mentioned that he had always thought that I was beautiful, then laughed as he mentioned that "no one" would hear us if we had sex together out in the sun room. Thinking that he was drunk, I said, "Well, we're both married, and your wife is probably waiting for you in the guest room." He answered, "I've already had to have a little fun on the side." I turned around to leave and found him standing with everything on display. I didn't say anything, just hurried into the house and went to bed. I avoided them until they left, then asked my husband what he and Eric drank; he told me that Eric was completely sober. I didn't mention what happened. While I know my husband would side with me if I came forward, I know it could rip him apart from the rest of the family. But I'm also scared that if I keep quiet, Eric might tell the family that I came onto him, which could be even more damaging. What should I do?

Eric has an unusual perspective on how to warm up chilly in-law relations. He's deeply sick, but I don't understand why you didn't immediately tell your husband about this. I would hope he would side with you! Your husband's family must have some strange dynamics if you were more concerned about the news that Eric exposed himself to would ruin their  July 4th picnic than the fact that people need to know that Eric is an out-of-control creep. Yes, it would be terrible for your sister-in-law to find out that she has a toddler by a pervert, but Eric's behavior needs to be exposed.  Someone who would do this with his family sleeping a few feet away is someone potentially headed toward needing the services of a criminal defense attorney. Please tell your husband immediately, then you two can  figure out how to tell his sister.  If this results in you and your husband being ostracized, then that might be a blessing.

My wife and my teenage nephew seem to have gotten quite close. They have given each other backrubs and foot-rubs. My sister is a good, involved, and seemingly affectionate mother, so it's not as if my wife is filling some void. Am I just being paranoid, or could there be something bad developing? I'm not sure how to broach this with my wife or my sister.

This chat is developing into a modern dress version of Game of Thrones. Even if your nephew is interested in becoming a massage therapist, the person he practices on should not be his auntie. It's hard to imagine a teenage boy not squirming with embarrassment if his aunt picked up his foot and started rubbing it. Sure some families are more touchy (in both senses) than others.  In n yours it could be perfectly normal for one family member to massage the shoulders of another. And the feet of children can be irresistible for tickling or rubbing. But when the kids get to be teenagers, things get way more hands-off. You are there, you've seen how your wife and nephew behave, and it's freaking you out. So tell your wife about your concerns, ask what's going on, and keep an eye open at that July 4th family gathering.

My sister and the love of her life are going to get married this winter. Our whole family is very happy about it, especially my mom. When my parents got married more than 20 years ago there was not much money. Everything was nice and happ,  but nowhere near the dream wedding my mom always wanted. The familys financial situation has improved significantly since then and it seems my mother finally wants the wedding of her dreams - even if it's not actually hers. My parents are paying for everything, but my mom wants everything her way. My sister, who has a soft heart is willing to let her have it her way. The future son-in-law is another story. He wants no part of what he calls "a Ken and Barbie nightmare " and thinks a wedding should first of all reflect bride and groom. He even went so far as to offer to pay all the bills out of his own pocket. Mom is furious, but he won't back down. My poor sister is so upset about all of this, she's considering canceling the whole wedding. I would be grateful for any suggestions to solve this mess and give my sister a wedding that doesn't give her nightmares for years to come.

There are great lessons her for your sister and her husband. One, if you're old enough to get married, you're old enough to tell your mother, "Thanks, but no thanks." Two, if someone is picking up the tab, they get to be in control. Three, if a bride is choosing between making her unreasonable mother happy and mollifying her groom, she needs to refocus her priorities.

It's lovely if a couple's parents can help them with wedding expenses, but not if the cost is that they are treated like pawns at their own event. Because people are getting married later, it's increasingly common for the couple to pay for their own wedding, which I think is a good trend. Your sister may be soft-hearted, but she's going to seem soft-headed if she can't grow up enough to separate from her mother to be in charge of her own wedding. You can tell your sister you're sorry to see her so miserable and help her in coming up with a road map for dealing with mom, taking charge, or eloping. But you don't want to take over the job of imposing your own wishes on her. You want to support her in recognizing that she's a grown up, and needs to start acting like one.

Dear Prudence: I'm an 18-year-old high school senior. I've dated around like most kids my age, but I've always had a thing for older women. One woman in particular is my calculus teacher. She's single, 31, personable and smoking hot. She knows I have a thing for her and has made it obvious that the feeling's mutual. She's smart enough not to get involved with a student, but did tell me that if I still feel the same way about her after I graduate, then I should contact her. My friends feel this is crazy and that I should date girls my own age. I don't see a problem. Even if it just turns out to be a summer fling, I'm comfortable letting it go in whatever direction it takes us. Do you agree with my friends, or do you think there's no problem in me seeing her after I graduate?

If a teacher is coming on to you and offering a sexual relationship once you get a diploma, then the person you should be contacting is the principal. You may have a thing for older women, but this little dance you and the calculus teacher are doing was either initiated or escalated by her. This makes her a sexual predator, and even though you're 18 and haven't consummated this flirtation, this pas de deux started while you were still a student of hers.  So anything that happens between you two after graduation could be a prosecutable offense. If you get involved and your friends start talking, and it gets back to the school administration, your teacher could be using her math skills to calculate her sentence.  Frankly, I hope one of your friends reports this now, because this teacher may be someone who ends up targeting students more vulnerable than you. In the meantime, do your homework, finish the year, and drop the student-teacher conferences.

My friends and I went to undergrad in a small college town and have since all moved on to different cities across the U.S. Occasionally, we'll travel to see each other and the time spent is a great way to strengthen the friendship bond that gets lost sometimes due to distance and just life in general. In previous years, it made good financial sense to extend our 'weekend' visits to Thursday through Monday morning because those flights tend to be cheaper than weekend fares. This was a perfect set up while single and living alone. But, now that I'm married and have two toddlers at home, this is more than a notion when it comes to hosting house guests. I absolutely love the opportunity to spend time with friends, but desperately need to at least have my Sunday afternoons or early evenings to get prepared for the week. Continuing the hosting gig throws things into a bit of a tailspin, and I'm left feeling guilty that I'm doing a shoddy job of both taking care of my 'home' responsibilities and being a good host. Is there any way that I can impress upon friends coming to visit that staying until Monday morning really isn't the best idea anymore without causing hurt feelings?

If you're at the age that  you have small children underfoot, I'm surprised that your college friends themselves don't need to get out of town on Sunday in order to be at work on Monday.  You handle this by telling them you're excited about the visit and you look forward to catching up Thursday through Sunday morning. If they say they need to stay until Monday you say that you can refer them to some low cost motel options for that last night, but you've got to attend to other stuff starting at Sunday noon. If this loses you your friendships, then I hope you are finding a community of people whose company you enjoy -- but who know when to leave -- where you are. 

Hi Prudie, I forgot to add: my concern stems from the fact that Eric is a professing Christian and takes every opportunity to bring up his piousness, and my in-laws adore him. Meanwhile, I am the liberal atheist. I get the impression that most of the in-laws tolerate me and are likely not to believe the accusation anyway. Not because they want to protect an obviously troubled person, but because they believe his act. I have decided to tell my husband regardless and hopefully Beth will leave this guy. If not, I've washed my hands of the situation. Thanks for your clear-headed advice, Prudie!

Maybe the believers in your family lack an interest in the news. Because they might have noted a few examples over the years of pious people who use their religion as the means to gain trust and do horrible things. I'm glad you're going to tell your husband. Beth also needs to know. Let's hope your in-laws apply some secular sense to this mess and don't just conclude you're Satan.

I attended a casual friend's BBQ over the weekend and struck up a conversation with "Campbell," a person obviously born female but very butch. During the course if our conversation, I very quickly asked what pronoun Campbell would prefer me to use when referencing her. I thought I was being aware and polite in case she identified as something else, but she got huffy and almost yelled, "Don't I look like a woman?" She then abruptly ended our convo, and I could tell she was whispering about me for the rest of the night.

If you meet someone at a party, when in conversation with this person it just does not come up that you refer to them in the third person singular.  Unless the person specifically makes a reference to how he or she identifies on the gender spectrum, you don't bring it up.  When referring later to someone whose gender may be ambiguous, you can ask a mutual friend. Or you can just say, "I met Campbell and had a really interesting talk with her." Then if you don't get corrected, you will know which pronoun to use.

"Teenager" represents a very broad range. Behaviors that may be termed borderline affectionate with a young-looking 13-yr old will be totally inappropriate with a old-looking 19-yr old, no?

No.  Now that you describe it, it's more creepy to imagine back rubs between an aunt and her young-looking 13 year-old nephew, and more provocative to envision them between aunt and hunky 19 year-old.

I have recently started a new job at the online office of a retailer. This afternoon I got roped into being in some product photos which will be displayed in a shop window. I hate the photos. They're so embarrassing - I'm not wearing any make up, it's hot today and I'm all dishevelled at this point in the afternoon. Everyone had laughed at the pictures afterwards and now I really don't want them to be used in the shop windows, and possibly online. I'm new here and don't want to be seen as "not a team player" but I emailed the graphic artist and said I wasn't happy about them and was embarrassed and she said she "doesn't have time for this now" I didn't have time to go and waste half an hour being in photos. I am a marketing assistant not a very moody and entitled model and I don't want them to be used! Should I push it?

Marilyn Monroe used to require approval for her photos and famously would go through the contact sheets and put an X over any she didn't like. But before you were roped into this, you failed to negotiate this clause. I understand your distress, and what's even sillier is that this company would want someone who looks sweaty, unhappy, and disheveled promoting their product. You tried to get this corrected, and got major push-back. You're also the new, low person on the totem pole. So let this go. The bosses may have chosen you because even in your less than Vogue-ready state, you were the best-looking amateur model they had. You will not be identified by name and this will just not be a big deal. And if  your appearance is as appalling as you say, then your marketing people aren't very savvy, unless they are  selling hang-over remedies.

Or just tell your friends that after Sunday breakfast, they are welcome to hang out but are on their own as you need to do chores and get ready for work. This only works if you are able to treat them like family and not guests.

Lots of people are arguing for a non-hostess Sunday afternoon -- that is the guest is told nicely to fend for herself.  Ideally, the relationship with old friends should be of the sort that the hostess carves out chunks of time to catch up, then explains there will be other times she's tied up with family duties and the visitor can attend to herself.  But it's also fair enough that if the hostess wants the visit to end Sunday morning, that's when it should end and there should be no hard feelings. 

My sister and I are new college grads just starting out. We've decided to be roommates in order to move out of our mom's house and get started. The both of us are used to being around each other obviously and have experience running a household together. My mother was very sick when I was starting out in college. People generally think I exaggerate when I say we ran the household for almost two years. But our friends think it's somewhat weird for sisters to be roommates out in 'the real world.' Personally I couldn't think of a better roommate. I know I can rely on her and she feels the same about me. Is this really so weird for sisters to be roommates?

What a strange pass we've come to when two sisters who love each other, get along great, and have been through a lot together decide to pool their resources and their friends are disparage them for this. Please don't pay any attention to them and shut down the conversation.  And if  they don't want to let it go, work on expanding your circle of friends.

This was a subplot in a movie years ago called in In and Out, in which a man is afraid to disappoint his family by coming out as gay - in part because his mother never had her dream wedding and was pouring all of her wedding dreams into planning his wedding. The movie ends, of course, with a gorgeous ceremony - the man comes out and his mother and father renew their vows by having the wedding of her dreams. That sounds like a perfect solution for this couple.

Not to me. I've mentioned before that vow renewals often end up being a prelude to a divorce, so I'm dubious about them. But if a couple wants to have one,  I think it should be kept small. I can't image why anyone wants to see a long-married couple pretend to marry each other again. This is why we have the event known as an anniversary party. I guess I should just be grateful that people aren't interesting in re-enacting their proms.

Does that writer also ask fat women if they're pregnant? Really, you don't need to know all information about everyone you meet at a party!

Great point!

Hi Prudie! A few years ago, my stepbrother, who is in his 30s, got the horrible diagnosis of a brain tumor. Luckily, after chemo and radiation, he has gotten a clean bill of health. The problem is, ever since, his personality has become one of a grumpy old man. While he has always been stubborn, now he is utterly unmovable. When we are all together, for example, we have to be on HIS schedule. He likes to get up around 4-5 am(!) and go to bed at 7 pm. When he is ready to eat, he eats, without consulting anyone else. We only go places where HE wants to go, and if he doesn't like our plans he gets bent out of shape. He mumbles and talks to himself constantly, which is really annoying. My stepfather completely defers to him, and gets upset when the rest of us (my mom, my other stepbrother and I) balk at being forced onto this ridiculous schedule. It is getting to the point that I try to avoid being around my family. I love my stepbrother, but he is REALLY difficult to be around, and I can't imagine he is enjoying life too much either. What should I do?

This sounds sad and awful, but it's very likely these painful personality changes are a result of your stepbrother's disease and treatment. I urge your family to see if you can arrange to talk about this with your stepbrother's doctors. There may be things that can be done to address some of the side effects he's experiencing. Or you may all have to understand how to deal with these changes in him.  Your stepfather is dealing with a lot of fear and grief, so all of you need to be sensitive to that. And once the medical issues are addressed, a social worker could help your family come up with strategies to help your stepbrother better integrate back into your family and for all of you to function better as a unit.

I am out of work and aggressively looking. My issue is that so many "helpful" people want to talk about this again and again, asking, "have you found a job yet?" It's horribly depressing to be out of work, and makes me feel worse when people keep asking. My husband thinks I should have a snarky response prepared like, "yeah, I'm just not telling anyone about it." What say you?

It's one thing if they are saying, "Have your unemployment benefits run out?" "You on food stamps yet?" "Have you heard how impossible it is for the long-term unemployed to ever get hired?" It's another if they're just inquiring because they care, but you find it stings because you don't have good news. However, giving a snarky response is your worst strategy. Turn these concerned people into job search engines. Tell them that you're still looking, and then ask if they know anyone in your line of work who you could talk to. I did a story a couple of years ago on how people out of work for a long time got their jobs. Many of them had success stories out of following every possible lead, no matter how tenuous, such as contacting that friend of a friend.

Just to give you some perspective, I live in South America, and living with one's sibling (whether of the same sex or opposite sex) is totally normal--in fact, probably even more common than living with a friend. So don't change a thing!

Interesting, thanks. And two young adults who aren't having to live in their parents' home is to be celebrated!

Thanks, everyone. Have a great week.  Next week's chat will be on Tuesday because of Memorial Day.

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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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