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! I’m looking forward to your questions.
Baltimore: I don’t know if this is a better question for you or a psychologist. I moved in with my girlfriend in September. It’s been nice having a space of our own. We both really like cats and have talked about getting a cat from the beginning, and last week we finally did. Now that we have her, though, I don’t want her. I feel sincerely miserable. It was the first time I haven’t had pets and I enjoyed having a clean, quiet space that was our own. It’s not the cat’s fault at all; she’s an extremely nice cat and has been fairly unobtrusive.
I feel trapped. My girlfriend knows how I feel but really wants a cat, and now that we have one, I’m afraid of making her unhappy and resentful by giving it back. I’m not sure if I’d deeply regret it or not, either. I think I’d feel horribly guilty giving this animal a home and then rejecting it. (We got it from a shelter.) I also fear judgment from friends and family who have already heard about the cat. I have mild allergies and also miss getting to sleep without being woken up. It’s a small apartment, so locking her out of the bedroom does nothing. I appreciate any advice. Thank you.
Emily Yoffe: It’s been a week, for goodness’ sake! If after a week everyone returned the disruptive, small creature they thought would bring such joy, no one would keep their babies, and we would have died out as a species. I got a new puppy (that makes two cats and two dogs, and, yes, I’m insane!) three weeks ago, and she’s darling and sweet and also likes to do her day’s pooping from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Then she likes to get up early. But she will settle down, and so will your cat if you give her a chance. Since it’s only been a week, she may be having her doubts about you, but she’s wisely reserving judgment. If she’s bothering you at night, have an extended, vigorous play session a couple of hours before bedtime to wear her out. The cat is probably alone all day; cats are somewhat nocturnal, and she thinks the evening hours are time for fun. Having fun with her will be fun, and a tired pet is a good pet. And what’s with the allergies? You’re not very convincing that you just discovered them. If you knew you had a mild cat allergy beforehand, I’m not very sympathetic. (Are you sure it’s not just the pollen?) You may be allergic to the decision you just made. So accept that a new pet means a lot of adjustment and give her a chance. If you do, a year from now you probably won’t be able to imagine life without her.
Boston: My ex is dating a friend of mine. The ex is admittedly attracted to pubescent girls (11-14 years old)—though he swears he hasn’t and wouldn’t act on the attraction. I am sure he has never told this to anyone else. My friend he is dating has an 11-year-old daughter. Do I have to say something to my friend?
Emily Yoffe: Is this the reason the guy is your ex? There’s a certain privilege attached to the intimate exchanges of a couple that should last even after the affair ends. However, I think there’s a more compelling need here to alert your friend that there are some ugly subterranean depths to her new beau that she will probably never hear about from him. You will want to couch this by saying you have nothing but best wishes for her, and you have no problem with them being involved. But given that she has a young daughter in the house, she needs to be extra vigilant with this boyfriend.
Wedding registries: I will be attending the second wedding/marriage for an acquaintance. I’ve looked at her registry and all that she has listed are the top name brands for the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom listed for $200 or $300. This seems greedy to me, especially for a second marriage. She’s still pretty young, although not young enough to have her guests stock her new home from top to bottom with only really expensive items. Is this how wedding registries are now? Also, what is the etiquette for a second wedding? I didn’t think people did a registry because they already probably have a lot of stuff from the first time. I thought I should also add that it is a destination wedding, so she is already asking people to travel and cover the expenses of a destination wedding. This seems excessive, selfish and garish. Am I out of line?
Emily Yoffe: You surely will save the cost of an expensive trip to attend her wedding because you will be busy installing the Jacuzzi you just purchased for her. Your acquaintance, having hauled in the Cuisinart, etc., the first time has decided this time to cleverly move onto having her friends foot her remodeling. Don’t get sucked in. While many people will be moved to acknowledge a remarriage with a gift, I agree it’s greedy to register a second time around. This is the kind of occasion people can acknowledge, if they care to, with more modest offerings such as a lovely picture frame or cookbook.
Philadelphia: How do you respond to someone who says, essentially, why didn’t my spouse and I get invited to your recent dinner party? This person saw comments on Facebook regarding said event and now apparently demands to know why they weren’t invited. For background information, they’ve been guests in my home before, but this time I just didn’t have the space available for people I now consider acquaintances largely because they never do the inviting or planning of events but instead appear to expect an invitation to what others are hosting.
Emily Yoffe: You can say you look forward to having them over another time, while silently saying to yourself, “Hey, cretins, you’re never coming over again because, first of all, you never reciprocate, and now you’re monitoring my social life and demanding to be included in my events!” Your friends are boors, but this raises a delicate issue about Facebook. If you belong to a social network in which all your friends can monitor your doings, it’s incumbent upon you and others not to “talk” in front of everyone about social events only a few people are invited to.
Chicago: My best friend is getting married soon. He confessed to me that he and his fiancee decided not to sleep together until they got married. I am sort of amazed he hasn’t told me until now—not to mention that I have to give him credit for almost two years of celibacy. Why do I feel like he’s making a big mistake? For the record, his fiancee is great and they seem to be very happy.
Emily Yoffe: I’m sort of amazed he told you this at all. And what were you supposed to be doing all this time, hoisting a beer to another month of his not getting any?
I wouldn’t worry about it. Over the course of human history, it has been the norm that the young couple gets hitched and then figures out afterward what to do in bed. Obviously, it tends to work out.
Fairfax, Va.: I’m not from the Washington, D.C., area and have encountered a style of introduction—upon moving to Northern Virginia—in which people first say their name, then they say their age. I’ve never given out my age during an introduction and consider it rude to push it to the front. If people become friends, then they will pick up each others’ age, at least that is how I feel. It happened again this past weekend with a perky: “Hi my name is Seth, and I am 29 years old”. Uggg. So do I tell them my age? Do I need to rethink how I am reacting to this?
Emily Yoffe: They don’t also tell you their stand on the Confederate flag, do they? I also live in the area, and now that I have GPS, I have even ventured into Virginia, and I’ve never encountered this. I find this hard to believe since people stop telling you their age at introduction somewhere around 5 and a half years old. So just ignore it—unless you want to go the Borat route and say, “You have a much older look.”
Los Angeles: My stepdad acts like a child! If he doesn’t like something or someone, he makes it known, and often in an uncomfortable and rude way. He will mumble things under his breath, punch the wall, or refuse to attend a family dinner if he knows someone he dislikes is attending (i.e., sister’s boyfriend). Now, due to an altercation that happened between those two, my sister and my mother haven’t spoken for almost 4 months now! My mother continues to defend my stepdad’s childish behavior for that and any other times he’s out of line. How to I help her to realize that his behavior is NOT acceptable?
Emily Yoffe: Your mother has made what sounds like a horrendous choice, but it’s her choice, and she’s sticking with it. You probably can’t get her to see that his behavior is unacceptable. What you can do is not accept it. Tell her as calmly as you can that you have tried getting along with her husband, but that has become impossible. Tell her you love her, but the two of you will have to find a way to see each other without her spouse. If she wants to cut you out of her life, too, then that is her sad and further horrendous choice to make.
Chicago: I’m about midway through my first pregnancy and definitely sporting the baby bump. Today I had my first unsolicited belly touching by an elderly co-worker, which made me uncomfortable enough to want to avoid other such belly rubbings. I’m not a super social person, and while I have been open in talking about the pregnancy, I totally didn’t expect, but clearly should have, the belly touching by other people. Is there a nice way to deflect or discourage this? I just can’t imagine why people would think it’s OK to randomly touch someone else’s pregnant belly. Had she asked, it would have been one thing, but I feel like the sneak attack as I walked into the office is totally different.
Emily Yoffe: I dealt with this in a column a while back and said that when I was pregnant I had lovely experiences with other women, including strangers (hands off, men!), touching my belly and sharing their pregnancy stories. I added that this is a problem that will shortly take care of itself—although the next iteration will be people wanting to touch your baby. The responses ran along the lines of, “Oh, so you think women should be assaulted by strangers just because they’re pregnant!” so I understand I have a minority view here. So, go ahead and step back, or take off the offender’s hand and say, “Sorry, I’m just not the touchy type.” But since the touch lasts just a moment, is it really so bad?
Alexandria, Va.: How do I deal with a manager who is hostile? I don’t know why she doesn’t like me. She’s not even MY manager, really. But she asks a lot of me, and she is almost constantly rude to me. A job well done is the minimum acceptable for her—it gets a grunt. A clarification question gets withering glares and cruel condescension. A mistake elicits profanity and pounding on tables. She treats many other people this way, but not all. She has her favorites. For the rest of us, she doesn’t even say “Hello” or “Thank you.” Other than going to human resources (which I hesitate to do because it has turned out to be a bad tactic for others in my company), what can I do? This woman is much older than me and many pay grades above me, and does NOT respect dissent.
Emily Yoffe: The question of how do I deal with a wacky, nasty, irrational, hostile boss is as vexing, but perhaps ultimately more soluble, than, “How do I get my spouse to lose weight?” There is no easy fix. As you’ve mentioned, others have tried through HR and run up against institutional inertia or even hostility. It’s clear you’re not going to change her, but since she isn’t your immediate supervisor, can you enlist your supervisor to reduce your interaction with her, i.e., “Denise has requested that I work on her project, but I’m concerned it will take me away from the work we have.” Can you try to go to a Zen place and accept the workplace is filled with such defective people, it’s not personal, and keep things crisp and brief with her? And the “ultimate” solution, of course, is to look for another job or a transfer to a department that will keep you from crossing her path. Which I understand in this economy may be as likely as figuring out a way to get your spouse to lose weight. Readers, any suggestions?
New York, N.Y.: The other night I was watching a show about unplanned pregnancies with my girlfriend of two years when one of us brought up the strictly hypothetical question of what would happen if she got pregnant. It’s probably something we should have talked about already, but we hadn’t, and it turned out we were on very different pages. I’ve long known she is pro-life and I respect that, but I said that for the sake of the (nonexistent) child, it would be best to find an adoptive family. I’m unemployed right now in a terrible economy, and I would be worried about my ability to provide for an unplanned baby. She seemed stunned. She had assumed (assumed!) that we would simply move back to her hometown in Ohio, get married, and raise the child with her parents’ help, or however. Tension ensued. We are very careful about birth control and an accidental pregnancy is unlikely, but the “what if” discussion has exposed a major rift on a rather large topic. It was an uncomfortable talk that’s still lingering in my mind. How big of a deal is something like this in the grand scheme?
Emily Yoffe: Are you saying you assumed, because you don’t have a job, that your pro-life girlfriend would get an abortion? Or that she would place the child for adoption? Either way, your assumptions are as presumptuous as you imply your girlfriend’s are. This easy solution here is to be scrupulous—using two methods if necessary—of birth control. Do that, and you bring down to about a 1 percent chance the need to have to deal with his.
Anonymous: A lovely coworker is studying to join my profession. I am happy to help when I can, but how do I answer this co-worker’s repeated e-mails and calls during the week where the class questions and homework (with answer space blank) are given to me? The implication is that I will fill in the responses with my professional knowledge, I guess. Part of me wants to help; the other part wants to be snarky and say, “Hey, the rest of us got through school on our own!”
Emily Yoffe: You can e-mail back, “I’m sorry, the homework is blank, so I don’t have anything to respond to.” If the co-worker explains he/she was expecting you to provide the answer, then you can say, “I’m happy to provide insights occasionally, but obviously you’ll want to do the work yourself so you’ll have the skills you need.”
Mean Boss-ville: This is easier said than done, but if you have questions, use flattery to get a nonhostile answer. Instead of, “Can you clarify A,B, and C” try, “Linda, can I get your expertise on A, B, and C.” Killing hostility with kindness, even false kindness, has worked for me. That said, don’t be completely fake. Just be polite, upbeat, and willing to give out a compliment or two, albeit seemingly undeserved.
Emily Yoffe: Good advice!
Arlington: I will be attending a high-school reunion soon—25th. My husband and I do not have children—by choice. People always ask if we have children—I say no—and then they ask questions—Why not? Why did you get married then? You don’t like children? People have also made comments such as, “You really have to give up being selfish once you have kids.” How can I best deflect these rude questions and comments?
Emily Yoffe: Maybe you could respond, “Why did you get so fat?” “Were you sad to lose your hair?” “I always thought you would make more of your life than you have.”
No, don’t do that. However, you could sigh and say, “We’re very happy with our lives, thanks, let’s not talk about our reproductive choices. So, have you seen the captain of the football team?”
No Town, USA: I have done an awful thing. I logged into my boyfriend’s e-mail and read some of his mail. I read a letter from an old girlfriend asking about his “in a relationship” status on Facebook. His response about our relationship was less than flattering. Stating that he only dates me because it is “convenient” and I am “persistent,” and that there is no future in our relationship. We have been dating for over two and a half years. “I love yous” have been exchanged, etc. I also found evidence of the boyfriend involved in dating websites.
Obviously I did something wrong, but I do not see how our relationship can continue after knowing how he really feels. How do I approach him? What do I say? I am so mixed up, I don’t know what to do, and he has noticed that my behavior toward him is changing. I am not as warm and friendly as usual. He keeps asking if something is wrong.
Emily Yoffe: Yeah, yeah, what you did was awful. But your boyfriend is awfuler! I strongly believe that partners in a relationship are entitled to their privacy. However, people are more entitled not to be in rotten relationships in which their partner is either diddling them along or thinks it’s OK to badmouth the current love to an ex.
Just be forthright and tell what you did. Apologize and say you have no excuse, but the subject of the discussion you need to have now is that he obviously doesn’t want to be in this relationship.
Shepherd Park, D.C.: I had a similar experience to the pregnant woman’s unsolicited belly-rub the other day: As I was waiting to donate blood, an aide to the big boss came over to let me know that Boss would be going ahead of those of us waiting. No problem—she’s a busy woman. But as the aide—an older woman—is standing behind my chair telling me this, she’s rubbing my back. Apart from saying, “Get your paws off me, old woman,” how do I let someone know that I don’t care for being touched by strangers? I think I managed to say “Please don’t do that”, but she didn’t seem to hear me. And why would someone do that? (If it matters, I’m a 50-year-old woman myself.)
Emily Yoffe: Can she come over and rub my back? She probably did it because she thought it would be a nice gesture to calm you down before you had a needle stuck in your vein. She clearly was wrong. An, “Oh, thanks, I’m not a back rub person” should do it, although it seems unlikely that in normal circumstances she’ll move in for another rub.
Buffalo, N.Y.: When I was first pregnant 33 years ago, a lovely woman from another culture approached me and asked, “May I touch your belly?” I was surprised and said yes, and she did and said, “Blessings on you and your child.” It was so nice! Now I ASK pregnant women I know (never strangers) whether I can touch their belly and do the same.
Emily Yoffe: Thank you. You’re the second reader I’ve ever heard from on this issue not to think of the touch as an assault, although the asking first may be key. What a sweet encounter!
Childless by choice: I generally answer the “Do you have kids?” query with a cheerful, “No, just cats.” I think people are so surprised by the non sequitur that they generally forget to follow up with the rude, “Why not?” questions.
Emily Yoffe: Good one. But my mail does indicate many people won’t stop until they’ve gotten a complete moral and gynecological history.
Seattle: What’s the protocol when you’ve just found out you’re pregnant and want to share the good news with parents? While both sets of soon-to-be grandparents will be ecstatic, one set can keep a secret, and one set cannot (no, even having a sit-down talk with them about the need to keep quiet doesn’t guarantee that they won’t blab to others). We’d like to share our joy and have support right now, but we’re unsure what to do. We have to wait and tell them all at the same time, right?
Emily Yoffe: Tell when you’re ready not to keep it a secret anymore. Yes, you should be able to tell who you want, when you want. But if one set of parents finds out the other heard two months earlier, that’s going to cause a lot of unnecessary bad feeling about a wonderful event.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. And I hope all of you get touched only by people you want to touch you.