Click here to read a transcript of Prudie’s live weekly chat with readers at Washingtonpost.com.
I have been dating a wonderful woman for four years, and we have been discussing marriage. She is accomplished academically and successful in her career. The mutual friend who introduced us told her I was an engineer. I am in the field, but I don’t have a degree. When we met she asked about my engineering background and where I was educated. I have always been self-conscious about having never finished school and said that I had graduated from a college to which I had applied but was not accepted—and had never even visited. She exclaimed, “What a coincidence—one of my best friends graduated from there!” I eventually met Mr. Best Friend, who was thrilled that we had something in common and has talked about our mutual schooling every time we’ve seen each other since. All these years later, I haven’t had the guts to tell my girlfriend the truth. I am a loyal partner and would not normally lie to my loved one. I consider this the biggest mistake of my life. How can I clear the air? Or should I just let it go?
—A Matter of Degree
Dear A Matter,
I agree you’ve made a mistake, but at least you haven’t been practicing medicine or flying an airplane without any training a la Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can. And it’s impressive you’ve been able to keep up the patter about your “alma mater” for four years without getting caught. However, you need to tell your girlfriend. You owe her the truth, and you would want to start your marriage without this lie gnawing at you. It’s important, however, to deliver the news in the right way. I suggest you take her out for dinner and make sure you get a booth in the corner. Tell her there’s something about yourself you need to confess. Say you hope she can forgive you because you love her and this lie has been making you sick. The beauty of this introduction is that the things that will be running through her head will be along the lines of: “He’s HIV positive; he’s married; he’s impregnated a colleague; he’s a murderer; he’s a woman.” Then, when you tell her, she will be shaken up, but she’ll also be relieved. Assure her there are no other confessions you need to make. Explain you blurted out this stupid lie because when you met, you were intimidated by her accomplishments. Say you’ve regretted it ever since, and your regret has been compounded by letting this go so long. If she gets angry and accusatory, don’t make excuses. Just tell her you understand her sense of betrayal but that you hope more than anything that this won’t change your relationship, because she’s the most important thing in your life.
My husband works in an office populated by “alpha males.” They are mostly former military men now working for the government. They seem to miss their uniform and wear similar clothes in blue, gray, and brown colors. My husband stands out because he wears designer shirts in the whole spectrum of colors. He is being regularly mocked by one individual in particular for his pink-toned shirts. I’m talking about subtle stripes, something any businessman might have in his wardrobe. He has told this man several times that he doesn’t care for his opinion on his sartorial choices, but he keeps at it, and others are joining in. Their boss is a woman, and she does not “interfere with the boys joshing.” The human resources department for his company is in another state. What can he say to stop these attempts to make him uncomfortable?
—Mrs. Dapper Dan
Dear Mrs. Dapper,
Unless this escalates and the office starts to resemble the hazing-in-the-barracks segment of Full Metal Jacket, your husband needs to deal with these bully boys himself. (That you’re writing this letter indicates he could stand to work on fixing his own problems.) If he’s shown any whiny weakness in replying to these alphas, that’s the equivalent of telling the drill sergeant that push-ups make your arms sore. Your husband needs to be able to either laugh this off or shut it down. Which he decides to do depends on his personality. The next time the lead antagonist makes a snide comment about your husband’s choice of shirt, he should look at him and say in front of the group, “Greg, every morning when I’m getting dressed, I wonder what you’re going to say about my wardrobe. I’ve never had another man care so much about my clothes. But since you do, I’ll let you know next time I’m going shopping. Maybe we can get a pedicure while we’re at the mall.” Alternatively, the next time Greg makes one of his comments, your husband should wait until Greg is seated in his office, then go in and lean across the desk. He should say something like, “You’ve now made the same joke about my wardrobe about 40 times. It’s ceased to be funny and I’m asking you, for what I sincerely hope is the last time, to knock it off. Thanks.” Then he should turn crisply, military style, and leave.
I have two beautiful preschool-age daughters. My youngest was diagnosed with autism a year ago. Since the diagnosis, my mother-in-law has been treating the girls very differently, inviting only my oldest daughter to dance recitals, holiday celebrations, movies, etc. She just called to invite her on a weekend getaway. I told her no, it wouldn’t be fair to my youngest daughter. I believe she is ashamed or embarrassed by my little girl. My husband doesn’t understand how his mom can be this way. I am this close to prohibiting my in-laws from seeing the children. My youngest is going to understand soon that she is being excluded from events. I was so afraid of how strangers would treat her, and the real problem lies in the family. What should I do?
Dear Fed Up,
Your mother-in-law may be ashamed or embarrassed, but she also may just be afraid. Afraid that a child with autism is too much for her to handle, that your youngest daughter may act up in a way that leaves her baffled and helpless. Instead of getting angry, you and your husband should have an open, nonjudgmental discussion with her. Start by saying this diagnosis is painful for all of you and means a readjustment of your expectations of your family life, but that you can all agree you love your youngest and everyone wants the best for her. Allow your mother-in-law to air her concerns, and then come up with constructive ways to address them. Educating herself and getting to know other grandparents dealing with this would be particularly helpful. Direct her to the Web site of the Autism Society of America, where she can get information about autism, find a support group in her area, and get a list of books that will help her understand her granddaughter better. You might want to give her The Way I See It, by the remarkable Temple Grandin, a distinguished scientist with autism. But also don’t insist that your mother-in-law always take both girls. In any family, it’s wonderful for each child to get time alone with their parents and grandparents. Your youngest daughter, by necessity, is going to require a lot of attention and extra help from you and your husband. You will all benefit if your older daughter can enjoy some special time with her grandmother.
I’m in my early 30s and have never had what I’d call a stable, mutually beneficial relationship with a woman. Almost a year ago, I started seeing a former co-worker who I’ve known for years. She’s divorced and has two wonderful teenagers. Our relationship is unlike any others I’ve had. We both treat each other with respect and kindness; there are no wild emotional swings, abrupt, half-hearted breakups, or vindictive behavior. We enjoy being together and share similar interests. We make each other better. So why am I worried? She is very much in love with me. Yet, for whatever reason, I have not fallen in love with her. I have been honest with her about this, and for now she seems to accept this as the way things are between us. Is it wrong for me to remain in a relationship like this if it seems unlikely I will fall for her the way she’s fallen for me? Or is there a chance that my feelings for her may evolve as our relationship progresses? Her children seem to be getting attached to me as well, and I have no desire to disappoint or hurt any of them.
It’s possible you’re not in love with her because you think love requires a moody vindictiveness your girlfriend lacks. Perhaps what you need to do is rethink your notion of what love feels like. It sounds as if you’ve had your share of dramatic, deeply unsatisfying relationships that bring out the worst in you. Now you’re seeing a woman with whom you are happy, and you’re grateful for how she treats you. More than that—what a breakthrough!—you feel good about how you treat her. By your own testimony, your life’s better because of her. Unlike many single people dating someone with teenagers, you are also delighted with her kids. Excuse me for asking, but what more do you want? If you need a dose of Sturm und Drang to feel it’s real, maybe you should just enjoy faking it. In answer to your question, yes, of course, feelings can do lots of things the longer you’re together: grow, change, deepen, lessen. It would be cruel, however, for you to hold your inability to love over this good woman’s head indefinitely. So imagine breaking up with her and starting again your search for “love.” If that makes you feel lonely and sad, maybe you’ve already found it.