Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let’s get to it.
Charlotte, N.C.: I have been married to a wonderful woman for almost seven years. We have two preschoolers, and she is a great stay-at-home mom to them.
One issue that has been bothering me for quite some time, however, is her clothing. She has always been a casual dresser, but when we were dating and first married, she would always dress stylishly and appropriately when we went out in public.
Since she first got pregnant five years ago, she has almost exclusively worn old T-shirts, college sweatshirts, sweatpants, and mesh shorts. I have been embarrassed in restaurants where I am dressed up and she is wearing basketball shorts and a T-shirt she got for free at a minor-league baseball game. She went to Christmas Mass in jeans and a hoodie, which is actually more dressed-up than usual. She hasn’t worn earrings since our wedding.
I have tried and tried to have a calm conversation about this with her, but every time she gets very defensive and emotional and tells me she can’t find clothes her size. (She has gained a little weight since having children but is not fat.) I have told her that money isn’t an issue, that she doesn’t need to buy expensive or especially fashionable clothing, just something nice.
The final straw was when we were invited to a wedding recently. When we received the invitation, I begged her to buy a dress. Over the next six weeks, she bought nothing. Two days before, I finally convinced her to go to the mall. She was gone for eight hours and came back with clothes for the kids, but no dress. In the end, she dug up a sweater set and khakis to wear to the wedding.
Maybe the problem is me, but I can’t help but look around when we are out in public and think that I am with the worst-dressed person there. Any advice?
Emily Yoffe: Your letter could have been written by my teenage daughter, who has become quite bitter about my constant outfit of the humpback whale sweatshirt and the oversize sweatpants. Fortunately, my husband wouldn’t have written it because he doesn’t notice. You have a legitimate gripe, and your wife has fallen into a kind of fashion abyss. She doesn’t have to dress up for work, and her old, stylish wardrobe doesn’t fit, so she feels rotten when she tries on new clothes, and she hides behind her mommy slobwear.
Does she have any sense of humor? If she does, you two could watch a couple of episodes of What Not To Wear together. She will see that it’s easy to get into a cycle of looking lousy, and actually dressing attractively is a kind of joy. You should also get her a gift certificate to a department store that comes with a couple of sessions with a personal shopper. Your wife shouldn’t be let loose at the mall alone—she needs some gentle but expert guidance.
Santa Cruz, Calif.: My friend was diagnosed with a chronic illness about 15 years ago. She takes care of herself and has learned to live with her condition. She remained active and always appeared healthy. Two years ago, she discovered that she has food allergies that are the cause of her health problems. She was disappointed that she would have to live on an extremely restricted diet but hopeful that her body might recover once the allergens were out of her system.
Since she started the new diet, the results have been dramatic. She looks sick. She is underweight, pale, and always tired. She also has gastrointestinal problems which she never complained about before the diet. And she still suffers from the original condition. If I ask how her diet is going, she says she feels great and she’s happy she is no longer poisoning her body. Should I let her know what I’m observing? I don’t want to pry, but should I ask more about what kind of medical care she is getting?
Emily Yoffe: It’s possible your friend is not seeing a quack, but I would bet she is. I’d also bet she is paying a lot of money to the doctor who diagnosed her “allergies.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this doctor sold supplements or special diet food to keep her “healthy.” It is strange that people will ignore the signs that a treatment is making them worse because they want so much to believe. You could try to do some research on the doctor and the diagnosis. I’m sure you can turn up evidence that questions the supposed food allergies. But even in the absence of that, you should express your concern in a way that doesn’t make her defensive. Tell your friend that you’re simply worried that until she went on this diet, she looked and seemed robust, but now she is pale, tired, and ill, and you think it’s time she got a second opinion about the course of treatment she’s on. Then if she won’t listen, you can be reassured you’ve done what you could.
Arlington, Va.: I have been with my wife for 20 years, and we have two kids. In the last four years, she has been very cold to me and avoids me when possible, waking up at 5 a.m. and going to sleep at 9 p.m. because she’s tired. She always has a “reason” to “feel tired.” She sleeps eight hours a night, every night. Last night, for instance, I only slept four hours due to kids, office reports, and housework.
At a recent office party four women in their 20s made passes at me, including one cornering me in the elevator, where I had to tell her to back off. About every other day when I’m at lunch, some woman will come up to me and compliment me or go further like hugging. I know I’m good looking for my 40s, but this spring seems like I’m starring in someone else’s movie. And then I go home and I spend an hour trying to talk to my wife until she tells me to buzz off, and I’ll make dinner or read to the kids. I get on Facebook, and it’s one compliment after another. Is this how people get divorced?
Emily Yoffe: I think this is how people find out they’re starring in some Jim Carrey movie in which the premise is that the wife is trying to get the husband to cheat so she can take the moral high ground in the divorce. So she hires a bunch of cuties in their 20s to corner him in elevators and load his Facebook wall with come-ons. I believe you that your wife has tuned out of your marriage, but as for your irresistible animal magnetism, I say, “Come on!” After four years of being ignored by your wife, it’s time to get yourself on her appointment calendar and explain that unless she agrees to go to counseling with you, you will go directly to a divorce lawyer because your marriage has broken down. Then, if you do get divorced, do not start your dating life with the decades-younger women at your office.
Philadelphia: I could use some help in talking with my sister about my sweet and lovely 15-year-old niece. “Katie” has a beautiful body and insists on only wearing very tight clothing where her ample cleavage is revealed. Pictures on Facebook show that she is the only one in her crowd of friends who takes this style of dress to the extreme that she does. Tanks tops that are almost “belly shirts” and dresses that have dipping V-necks and spaghetti straps (no bra) are her favorites.
When asked, my sister says, “If I buy her bigger things, she won’t wear them.” When I have tried to talk to Katie, she says, “This is what I always wear—it’s comfortable” and laughs if I try to pursue the conversation further. My husband teaches high school and says frequently that he is concerned about how Katie dresses as he knows what adolescent boys are like and what they must be thinking when they see her and her gorgeous body in clothing like this.
She is on Formspring on the Internet (that horrible Web site), and I can see that most of the questions people ask or comments are about her breasts, her body, and sexual banter.
I am no prude (no offense, Prudence) but am worried about her. Do I need to relax? Try and talk to her differently?
Emily Yoffe: If only Katie wanted to trade wardrobes with the hoodie-wearing mom. It is not unusual for teenage girls to take great pleasure in the power of their suddenly womanly bodies to turn the males around them into drooling dogs. And you’re right, it’s the parents’ job to try to keep the cleavage baring to a minimum. I’m also a little surprised if Katie’s clothing is so provocative that she hasn’t been sent home from school to put on something less fashion forward and more convent-ware. But this is your niece, not your daughter. If her parents have decided not to fight this fight, then let it go. You could have a conversation with Katie explaining that dirty Internet conversations last forever. But she’s 15, so she’ll probably think you’re being an old Prude (no offense taken) and the only thing that will last forever is her figure.
Omaha, Neb.: Recently during a holiday visit to the in-laws, my wife commented about the nephews making a mess on the floor of the kitchen. Her sister, the boys’ mother, took umbrage to the comment and slapped my wife. This woman is in her 30s, as is my wife. I am not unsure how to approach the situation. Should I try to be a peacemaker or “write off” my sister-in-law as unstable and best to avoid?
Emily Yoffe: You might want to have a few stock phrases for the next time you visit. “Wow, Denise, I’m never seen such a sparkling kitchen floor!” Or, “Those boys of yours are a dream, how do you do it?” There is absolutely no excuse for the slap. None. But let’s try to examine the context here: Your sister-in-law is hosting the family, trying to feed everyone and make them happy while also looking after rambunctious boys. Then your wife offers the brilliant observation that the kitchen floor is messy. Anyone might have wanted to slap her. But what distinguishes people who are in control of themselves from those who aren’t is restraining that impulse. The slap is a bizarre thing to do, but you don’t offer any other evidence about your sister-in-law’s normal mental state. But why do you have to do anything here? This is for your wife and her sister to work out. Your wife could talk to her sister and apologize for her untoward comments but add that the slap still stings and the two of them really need to clear the air. Or, if your sister-in-law really is unstable, your wife could enlist the family to try to get her some help.
Reformed sexy dresser: I was that girl when I was 15. Now I know it was a self-esteem/depression issue. I thought guys would only like me if I wore my sexuality. Turns out, not true—and if they did, I wouldn’t want to be with them anyway!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks for the insight from someone who has been there. You’re absolutely right that such displays can be about feeling awful about yourself. I’m glad you were able to recognize this and do something about it. Let’s hope Katie does, too, before she gets herself into situations that will be emotionally scarring.
Joe (Chicago): Re: Restricted diet. If the person’s friend had a chronic illness like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, and then it turns out that she was ultimately diagnosed with celiac disease, her story wouldn’t be unusual. It’s often quite hard to figure out how to cope with a gluten-free diet, especially if you previously ate a lot of wheat-containing foods. The subsequent crappy diet (meaning not enough calories or carbohydrates) can often lead to weight loss, which itself can make people look like they’re sick.
Emily Yoffe: Good point. But it has become all the rage to declare everyone has a wheat allergy when they don’t. But anyone who is going on a “healthful” diet and ends up sicker needs to seek another medical opinion.
Sloppy stay at home mom: I think that your gift certificate advice is not going to work. She has been given carte blanche to buy whatever she wants, and she is refusing. It sounds like a control thing to me—the more he wants her to dress up, the more she refuses. It seems that there are more things going on here that her refusal to dress nicely. Maybe, for instance, she sees herself as not important now that the kids are here. (Her buying clothes for them and not her after an eight-hour shopping trip just seems sad.)
Emily Yoffe: Yes, there could be deep, dark psychological issues at work here. It could also be that when confronted with mile upon mile of clothes, she doesn’t know where to begin, shuts down, and just buys stuff for the kids. If she has a professional shopper edit her choices, let her try on different things in private, and give her guidance on what looks good, she could end up having a fashion rebirth.
Anonymous: I have a job interview coming up. It’s a pretty cool job, and I would be lucky to get it. The problem is, it is not my dream job. If I get the job and take it, I would be acknowledging to myself that attaining the dream job isn’t really possible for me. Given the economic environment, I think a part of me always knew it would be tough to break into this new field, but I guess I always had hope. Anyway, I’m just wondering if there is any way to better manage the disappointment, so that I’m not so weighed down by it when I interview and/or start working.
Emily Yoffe: And the dream job is singing Aida at the Met? Appearing on the cover of Vogue? Being secretary of state? I’m assuming from your letter you’re quite young and just entering the work force. Guess what, most people don’t start out with their dream job. Most people don’t end up there, either, if their dream is something so specific and difficult to obtain that few make it through the funnel. Yet humans are endlessly adaptable, and the healthy ones, finding that they have the opportunity for “a pretty cool job,” will grab it—especially in a world in which people are desperate to get even miserable, uncool jobs. This job may open up new worlds of possibilities you hadn’t dreamed of. If it doesn’t, doing it well will give you experience that you may be able to use in your attempt to reach your dream.
Texas: I have been dating a really great guy for several months after years of friendship, and things are going really well except for one little problem. The whole time I’ve known him, he always had a bit of an issue with bad breath, not horrible or over powering, just bad, and I never really thought that much about it. Whenever it bothered me, I’d subtlety offer him some gum or a mint—no big deal. Now that we are spending more time together and often staying the night together, I have started to doubt that he brushes his teeth on a regular basis. In fact, I have never seen him brush his teeth. Even before I noticed this pattern of nonbrushing, I once offered him a spare (new) brush at my place before we went out to grab breakfast, and he declined saying he didn’t like to brush right before eating, which I thought was a little odd but somewhat reasonable. Now that I have this worry that his mouth is a smelly cesspool for bacteria, it makes it hard for me to want to kiss him or be intimate with him, and it is starting to really damage our relationship. I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but it is starting to reach that point. He is nearly 30, and I feel like this is a little ridiculous. Is there any way I can bring this up to him? I don’t want to hurt his feelings; I just want to save our relationship from my pettiness and him from gingivitis!
Emily Yoffe: Maybe you could start wearing a surgical mask when he wants to get intimate. If you want to have a relationship with this person, you should be able to talk about the fact that he disgusts you. OK, maybe that’s not the way you present it, but if he does disgust you, you obviously aren’t going to be able to have a relationship with him. Sit him down and say that you’ve noticed he doesn’t brush his teeth, and that affects his breath and your desire to be with him. He may have some kind of phobia he needs to work on, in addition to getting a good cleaning at the dentist. Ask him to open up to you about what’s going on because you really enjoy his company, but he needs to know this is a deal breaker that has to be addressed.
Re: sexy-dressing teen: One thing that the LW should do is look for opportunities to (sincerely) compliment Katie on things other than her looks: her grades, her intelligence, her athletic accomplishments, her musical ability, an act of kindness to another, pitching in to help out, whatever it is that you truly appreciate in her. Without preaching or lecturing, remind her that there is more to her than her body. She has lots of people paying attention to her body, apparently; show her that she is valued for her other gifts as well.
Emily Yoffe: Good point!
Squish!: I have a strong aversion to crowd situations. I’m claustrophobic, I hate being bumped into or jostled, and noise makes me crazy. I avoid places like nightclubs, because they give me panic attacks. It’s not a big problem in my day-to-day life: I know which bars and restaurants are suitable for me. I time my commute to avoid crowds, etc.
So, here’s the problem: My boyfriend’s sister is coming to town this weekend, and she and her friends want to go to a restaurant that is perpetually crowded and loud, has a two-hour average wait, and doesn’t take reservations.
My boyfriend went to bat for me and told his sister that the restaurant they chose is noisy and has long waits, and suggested several alternatives in the same neighborhood. (He doesn’t care for crowds either.) No dice—she wants what she wants, which is dinner at that restaurant, at peak time on a weekend, with a large group.
At this point, would it be appropriate to simply bow out of dinner? The sister lives out of town, and I don’t see her often, so I would feel rude if I didn’t attend. On the other hand, I don’t want to go and then ruin everyone’s evening by having a panic attack, and, more selfishly, I don’t want to spend my Friday night somewhere that makes me extremely tense.
Emily Yoffe: There’s no problem here. Tell your boyfriend’s sister to have a great time, give her a key to your place, and ask her to come in quietly when she returns. You will all be happier if you don’t go. Just make sure you plan a nonclaustrophobic outing—a museum trip, a hike, a brunch—you can all enjoy together.
Clothes: Having had two children in under four years, I understand. Nothing like spending a day home with the kids, dragging out the vacuum, pre-washing with bleach, cleaning up the house, sitting in a sandbox with sticky fingers grabbing for your earrings/necklace, getting splashed by bathwater, and feeling, well, a little marginalized one hour and loving your life the next, at the end of the day. I, too, fell into the practical-not-pretty wardrobe predicament. My hair wasn’t fixed. My makeup was little more than medicated lip gloss. Wardrobe isn’t the big issue. LW needs to think a bit about what he’s expecting of his wife and the mother of his children and talk/act with her so they both know that parenting is huge but their marriage and life together is even more than that. Buying her a dress is not going to change what may need to be changed.
Emily Yoffe: Again, there may be some deep marital issues at work here, but wearing basketball shorts and a hoodie (or whatever her getup was) to a wedding transcends mere resentment of spending the day in the sandbox and doing laundry. But before this wife carves out some time for talk therapy, why not have a go a retail therapy? Sometimes making an external change can prompt an internal one.
St. Louis: My sister recently got engaged! I’m very happy for her. However, I received a phone call from her today, saying she was getting married much sooner (years earlier) than expected and was not going to have a wedding but elope. Then she told me that myself and my other two sisters “have to” plan the bachelorette party for her on a specific date in early-mid June. When I repeated her words back to her, emphasis on the “have to” part, she sounded hurt and said we should because we are her sisters. I’m a little put off by this. I thought bachelorette parties were before the wedding. But if there is to be no wedding, it seems there should be no bachelorette party. I don’t want to ruin her “big day,” but I feel pretty taken advantage of. Should I suck it up, smile, and plan the party?
Emily Yoffe: I applaud your sister’s decision to stop with the years-long wedding planning and just go off and get married. But guess what, she can’t tell people that they “have to” plan a party for her. If you and the other sisters, once you’ve gotten past your annoyance at her command, want to plan a party, then don’t do it with the feeling that your “sucking it up.” Instead, genuinely smile at doing it and revel in your not having to pay for bridesmaid dresses and listen to years of wedding-planning drama. If it’s not convenient, then tell eloping sis that after they do the deed, the rest of you will plan a big celebration this summer.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: I have a question about a recurring problem. Apparently I frequently have a sour-looking expression on my face. This is not always intentional. Sometimes, I’m in a perfectly fine mood, but apparently others don’t see it that way.
I’m fine with this, but not everyone else is. What is an appropriate response to a total stranger or classmate or co-worker who tells me to smile or to cheer up? I find this incredibly obnoxious. I’m tempted to start lying and tell these busybodies that my mother just died. That would teach them a lesson. Thoughts?
Emily Yoffe: Ignore strangers. But if people you know are constantly telling you to cheer up, then maybe you need to re-evaluate your “neutral” expression. (I say this as someone who has gone through life being told, “Smile!” although people do this less frequently once you get older and you’re always wandering around in a whale sweatshirt and sweatpants.) Maybe you could have a friend videotape you when you’re in a “fine mood” and see how it comes off. Anticipating the criticism, I know the look on anyone’s face is their own business, but there’s no reason to go through life putting people off, when a little internal facial muscle tweaking could make things so much more pleasant. (And we’re not talking here about people who have to cope with medical conditions which make it difficult to have normal facial expressions.)
Squish, Part Two: The sister is not staying with us and is booked solid for the rest of the weekend. So if I skip dinner, I’m basically bailing on seeing her at all. My boyfriend isn’t too pleased that she’s allowed for so little family time in her visit, and I’m wary of adding any more tension to the situation by refusing to attend the dinner. The sister has a bit of a difficult nature, so it’s possible my skipping on dinner will create issues.
Emily Yoffe: Oh, this is another command performance then, like, “Throw me a bachelorette party.” If she’s coming for a visit and the only slot she’s offered you is one that makes you miserable, then explain you don’t want to be a drag on her party, but a noisy, crowded scene is not your scene. Tell her that next time she visits, you look forward to coming up with a mutually enjoyable activity because you’d love to get together. If this creates issues, you will not be around to hear about them.
Seattle: Re: Restaurant with the sister: Sounds like the LW has panic disorder, which can be addressed with a professional—either doctor, psychiatrist, or both. She should learn to manage her symptoms so she doesn’t miss out on a lifetime of special events. My husband has panic disorder, and sure, it took quite a while for him to manage his symptoms (and for me to get used to them), but it’s much better than “bowing out” of every single event she’ll be uncomfortable at.
Emily Yoffe: I don’t have a panic disorder, but I would not stand in line for two hours to go to a noisy restaurant. If the letter writer’s life is severely circumscribed, then yes, she should seek help. If she’s getting along just fine by avoiding the kind of situations she can’t stand, then she should just wish visiting almost-sister-in-law a fun evening without her.
St. Paul, Minn.: Re: tooth-brushing. Same thing was true with a guy I started to date 10 years ago. I told him it was a deal breaker, and believe it or not, he changed. (We’ve been together 10 years.)
Emily Yoffe: This is astounding. Thank you for restoring my faith that people can change. And that sometimes someone missed the message that halitosis is a turnoff and when he gets it, he does something about it.
All Smiles, Ariz.: I had someone ask me why I never smiled in junior high. It really shocked me. I made more of an effort after that to smile. Twenty years later, I regularly get compliments on what a beautiful smile I have, and it doesn’t take the effort it once did. Research now shows people who smile more feel happier. It may help to make a concerted effort to smile more. In no time at all, it won’t take effort anymore.
Emily Yoffe: More easy, external changes that have brought great results! Brava.
Thanks, everyone, and I hope this week brings you plenty to smile about.