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 writes: Good afternoon.Let’s get to it.
Q. Incomplete Family Picture: My husband and I have been married a little over a year. My mother-in-law recently decided to display a “family picture” taken at our wedding in her house but chose one without me in it. (The photographer took the same picture with all of us as well.) I found this incredibly hurtful, especially because this is the only picture from our wedding day she chose to put out. When I approached her about how hurt I was, she brushed me off by saying that she hadn’t yet found a frame she liked for the picture of my husband and I that she ordered. My problem isn’t that it’s the only picture she has out but that I am excluded from the family picture on the day I supposedly became a part of their family. Am I overreacting, as my husband claims, or do I have a right to an explanation and possibly a replacement photo?
A: You already voiced your objection to the photo, and your mother-in-law said there’s one of you and your husband she’s planning to put on display.What’s your plan now:staple a photo of yourself into the “family” photo, take the family photo off the wall and substitute one of you, boycott your mother-in-law’s home until she displays your likeness?You’ve only been married a year. Presumably, you have decades ahead of interacting with your in-laws, so don’t poison things out of oversensitivity. Your mother has a right to display whatever photos she likes in her own home.Take your husband’s advice and drop it.
Q. Vacation With the In-Laws: My husband and I have had a rough year—changes in my career, buying a new house—and had to cancel our plans for vacation earlier this summer. We decided that we’ll visit his parents down South the week of my birthday late next month. His parents are wonderful people, and staying at their home is like staying at a resort—private pool, three golf courses to choose from, and the beach nearby. About two months ago, his brother and his wife started visiting us every Sunday, for hours on end—sometimes leaving at midnight. While his brother is really funny and his wife is really sweet, I have nothing in common with these people other than a last name, entertaining them has become a chore (afternoon visits should never exceed the length of a typical workday), and my weekends have been hijacked because of their now-expected visits. Well, they caught wind of our vacation plans, and they want to join us. My husband told them, “We’ll see,” but now they have it in their heads that we are definitely driving together (12-plus-hour trip down), and told the parents. When I explained to my husband that we need alone time—we need this to reconnect and relax, he was completely with me, but he refuses to tell his brother that we want to go by ourselves because he thinks it’s a jerk move and it will anger his brother and their parents. Honestly, I can’t bring myself to go on this much-needed vacation. (I haven’t taken time off since last Christmas, and it was an entire week with the in-laws!) Do I make up an excuse to stay home? Was it really that horrible of me to ask my husband to tell his brother no? Do I suck it up and go?
A: Has anyone in your family heard of the hospitality industry? That’s where you pay other people to whom you aren’t related to provide you with rooms, food, and entertainment. It’s fine that your idea of a vacation is hanging with the in-laws, but that means you’re not really in a position to decide which in-laws are going to hang with you. If you don’t want to see your brother- and sister-in-law, then find the money to go somewhere else or have a staycation. And speaking of in-laws and hospitality, what’s up with your brother- and sister-in-law? They sound wacky, but you sound just as wacky in your inability to say, “We can’t do Sunday open house anymore. We love seeing you, but we’ll have to do it at a mutually convenient time, and I’m afraid we’re tied up for the rest of the summer.” If they show up anyway, greet them at the door and say, “I’m sorry, we were just on our way out. We’ll let you know next time we have a free weekend.”
Q. Not How I See Love: We’ve been married for almost two years. My husband has refused to be intimate with me this year, tells me that he thinks I’d be an incompetent parent were we to have children, and that he loves me and wants us to stay married. I’m being jerked around, right?
A: He’s really intent on making sure that you never get to display your lousy parenting skills by refusing to be intimate with you.If this is a sudden change in personality, your husband should have a complete medical checkup to see if he’s suffering from a physical or mental illness. If this is just the way he usually is, only more so,why prolong your suffering? If he’s always treated you this way, your marriage seems built on his sadistic manipulation of you.
Q. Wedding Etiquette—Vegetarian:My cousin invited me to her wedding. The RSVP card does not include a space to indicate dietary restrictions. I know she knows I am a vegetarian, but I know in the hectic wedding planning phase, sometimes these things get dropped. Should I write it on the RSVP or mention it to her? Is that considered rude? Thank you!
A: Your cousin is a bride, not a nutritionist. She doesn’t want to get RSVP cards informing her that people are on sodium-restricted diets, don’t eat gluten, or are vegetarians.At the wedding, before you get served, you can tell the waiter that you’d like a plate without the steak. Then plan to eat the salad and keep your food needs to yourself.
Q. Bridezillas: I’m in my early 40s, so I’ve already gone through the main wave of my friends’ weddings. Things sure have changed. I was recently invited to a wedding and here’s the list of events: 1) “Congratlure” party (a pre-bachelor party a week after the engagement) 2)bachelor party, 3) bachelorette party, 4) engagement party, 5) bachelor/bachelorette combined party, 6) wedding shower, and finally 7) wedding reception. It’s been made very clear (even explicitly in each invite) that cash or gifts are expected at each event. That means my wife and I would have to pony up for seven gifts. I’m trying to determine what is most ridiculous, that someone would throw so many parties or that they actually request gifts. Is this outrageous, or has it become the norm?
A: It’s outrageous, and it’s become the norm. Maybe our economic meltdown was actually fueled by people taking out second and third mortgagesbecause all their friends were getting married and they felt obligated to give seven gifts.These people can invite you to a “Build Jason and Megan a vacation home” party, but you don’t have to go.If you choose to attend the wedding, don’t feel pressured to pony up anything more than you can afford.
Q. Height and Confidence: I’m a mid-20s male who is about 5-feet-5-inches. My height was never an issue or a confidence problem until I started going out to the bars in college. I’m a pretty outgoing guy, but [in] places like that I feel dwarfed. I’m considering buying some shoes or insoles that boost my height a bit. Is this dumb or should I go for it?
A: Wouldn’t Nicolas Sarkozy be more appealing if he didn’t wear those silly high heels, stand on his toes in group photos, and bring his own lectern with him? You say you are a confident, outgoing guy. That is attractive. What is unattractive is showing you’re insecure about something that’s trivial that you can’t do anything about, anyway. Forget the lifts, and look for a woman who appreciates that good things can come in smallish packages.
Q. Back in the Closet? I am a full-time intern at a great company that I would like to work for after graduation. The team seems to like me as much as I like them, and it seems almost certain I will be seeing more of them in future. At a recent company outing, my colleagues began talking about their personal relationships and the conversation quickly turned to me. In a moment of panic, I began to describe my long-term relationship with my college boyfriend, who in reality is my girlfriend. I didn’t mean to permanently shove myself back in closet, especially since I have been out to friends and family for many years. Now my co-workers are asking me to invite my boyfriend to company events so they can meet the lucky guy. I know they would accept me if I were to be honest about my sexuality, but I’m afraid of permanently being labeled a liar by a team I really respect. Should I be upfront and admit to my girlfriend or continue this charade as long as possible?
A: Drop the charade.On one hand, one’s personal life is no one else’s business. If you didn’t want to discuss your romantic status—gay or straight—you were free to finesse the question.But since it sounds as if there will be events at which spouses and S.O.s are invited, you should proudly include your longtime love. Before the event, just say to a few people that you’re sorry aboutmisleading them about your partner.Explain you are in a long-term relationship with your college sweetheart, and her name is Rachel.
Q. “Family” Picture: I think the answer depends on who is (and isn’t) in the “family picture” being displayed. If the only people in it are the mother-in-law, her husband, and their children (sans spouses), then she should drop it. This isn’t a family photo as much as it is a picture of her husband and children. My in-laws have a picture of them and their two daughters taken at our wedding. If the picture has other nonblood relatives, then this shouldn’t be dropped. The questions should be asked why the new husband isn’t sticking up for his wife.
A: I agree that if it’s a lovely portrait of the husband’s immediate family, then it’s truly just a family photo and the daughter-in-law should understand that. The new daughter-in-law doesn’t say that she feels unwelcome or disliked by her mother-in-law, just that this portrait offends her.But whatever the underlying vibe, choosing this as an issue to fight over is a loser. The mother is entitled to display whatever photos she likes in her home.
Q. More on Menus: I agree with you completely on the wedding meal issue. But what about nonweddings? I’ve been to several events for work which have either been put on by co-workers, who know that I am allergic to nuts, or at big conferences, where I’ve indicated I can’t have nuts on the forms, where nonetheless the desserts all had them. Am I being petty if I’m saddened that while everyone else is chowing down on pecan pie, I’m eating nothing or chowing down on a soggy, dejected fruit plate dredged up from the bowels of the hotel kitchen? I don’t want to be rude, but it seems to me that dessert is part of a meal, not an extra thing. Any suggestions, including getting my head out of my rear if I’m just being petty here?
A: My keyboard is all wet with tears over the idea of someone having to skip dessert or having to make do with a “dejected” plate of fruit. The horror!Since you’re employed, I’m betting that if after a meal at a conference, you still feel the need for dessert, you can buy yourself a scoop of nut-free Ben & Jerry’s.Yes, you’re being petty.
Q. Wedding Guest Vegetarian: I actually disagree with your response to the vegetarian wedding guest. I got married last year and did my best to remember food allergies, vegetarians, etc., and ensured that they received veggie meals. I would have thought nothing of it if a guest had sent me back a response card letting me know he/she needed a vegetarian option. What the bride chooses do to when she receives that response, however, is up to her, but it should be very easy to have a vegetarian meal created. Most places have come to expect food allergies and such, so I’d be surprised if it was a big issue.
A: You are a very thoughtful, unharried bride.However, this is ONE meal out of a guest’s life,so I think it’s just best for guests to not make an issue of their personal needs.
Q. Broken-Hearted: After seven years, she broke up with me last year—but it didn’t take. We kept seeing each other, then when she wanted to, we became friends with benefits. Meanwhile, periodically, she’d remind me that she’s not “in love” with me, that she’s single and “open to possibilities” but meanwhile isn’t seeing anybody else, is going away for long weekends with me, etc. Last week after an especially amorous weekend away, I told her that to me, it feels like nothing’s changed from when we were together, but she once again told me she’s single, etc. She said we should stop sleeping together, but she still wants to see me a couple of times a week as friends, which is what we’d pretty much been doing anyway. Prudie, I love this woman and the thought of her with somebody else makes me insane. Yet I know I’m living on crumbs. What am I going to do?
A: She wants to find someone else; she hasn’t so far, so she’s using you to scratch her sexual itch in the meantime.If you refuse to sleep with her, she says she still wants to use you as emotional ballast while she finds someone more exciting.Tell her you wish her the best on her search for love, that you’re going to start searching yourself, and your conclusion is you shouldn’t have contact with each other anymore.
Q. Lesbian in the Office: I agree with your advice. I’m a lesbian working in an international corporation, and I “look straight,” so sometimes it feels like I’m constantly coming out to new colleagues. Sometimes, of course, it never comes up, but if I’m going to be working with people for a while, I don’t make an announcement—I just don’t hide who I am and who my partner is. I would think that straight colleagues could understand why someone would lie about her sexuality at a company event. I would hope they would feel flattered that she wants them to get to know her better by telling them the truth.
A: And I agree with you. I think everyone will understand that a young woman caught in an awkward moment told a minor fib.She shouldn’t be defensive about explaining her situation. I’ll bet everyone will be welcoming of her partner.
Q. Soda Snobs: Our office has a cafeteria in the basement, and my co-workers and I usually go down and buy breakfast from the cafeteria and bring it upstairs to our office to eat at our desks every day. One co-worker routinely gets a soda with breakfast and will pop down to the cafeteria throughout the day to refill his/her cup without paying. My co-workers and I think that this person is not entitled to a free refill once you leave the cafeteria premises. The co-worker thinks it is fine since the cup has been paid for. Is this co-worker stealing, or are we being too sensitive?
A: This is between your colleague and the cafeteria personnel. It’s up to them to explain their policies. Surely you have more pressing issues to deal with at work.
Q. Etiquette, Politics, War: I’m in my mid-20s, and lately I’ve been meeting more and more people my age who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Finding out about their time in the military is usually something that happens when I’m just getting to know them, and not knowing much about their backgrounds makes it difficult for me to find an appropriate thing to say. I’m not a supporter of these wars, but I have a great deal of respect for the people who decided, whether out of economic necessity or personal conviction, to enlist. These men and women have been through a lot and deserve more than an awkward “Oh” when they tell me that they’re veterans—I’m just not sure what the appropriate response is. What to say?
A: “Thank you for your service.”
Q. Child Late in the Game: My wife and I have several children. We both thought that we were done, but now we’re expecting again—six years after our last child was born. We’re not spring chickens, either. I know that this child deserves all of the love and enthusiasm that I gave each of the others, but right now I keep coming back to the fact that we’ve got to relive all the hassles of a little one. Any advice on how to get my good father attitude up and running again?
A: Congratulations! Of course you’re dreading the sleepless nights, the diapers, another college tuition, etc. But think of all the firsts ahead of you: first smile, first tooth, first word, first step. There is no better feeling than carrying your child and feeling his or her sleeping head nestled on your shoulder. And surely the older kids will be excited to have a baby in the house, and some are old enough to give substantial help. This last (!) one will have older and creakier, but mellower and more mature parents—how lucky for all of you.
Q. Maybe We Are Being Petty: But having a dietary restriction is not fun. What is worse is when the entire world poisons us (because we will get over it because they have decided it’s not that big of a problem) or acts like our restriction is their nuisance. I am not disagreeing with your advice, but your delivery feels a bit insensitive to those of us with legitimate issues. This issue isn’t always about being left out; it’s the horrid attitudes we get when we are forced to leave the house for food. I actually had a waiter publically humiliate me for politely asking about what was in a dish … no one asks for that.
A: You should have spoken to management about that waiter. Of course, having a food restriction is no fun, and no one should be berated or humiliated for that. There are some situations (dinner you’re paying for at a restaurant) where you should of course have your needs met. There are others in which the person with the allergy should have a strategy for getting enough to eat without imposing on the hosts—and I think a wedding is one of those occasions.
Q. Special Meal: I recently attended my best friend’s wedding. She knows perfectly well that I only eat filet mignon, yet she served only meatballs. While the California sparkling wine was tasty, she knows that I only drink French champagne. And for dessert, she only served white cake and milk chocolate truffles knowing again that I prefer dark chocolate. Should I tell her how disappointed I am or let it go in consideration of our 30-year friendship?
A: How could you let something like this go? The friendship is obviously kaput!
Q. Roommate Drama: I live in an apartment with three other girls, all of whom I get along with wonderfully but who do not always get along with one another. Lately, it seems that there is constant tension in the apartment over some petty disagreement or action, and we seem to be having monthly sessions of yelling and then “crying it out,” only to have the same problems repeat over and over again. Since I get along with all of my roommates, I often hear complaints from one person about the others. At first, I would try to offer advice, help them see the other’s perspective, and suggest that they speak with the other person as an adult, but I’m tired of playing the peacekeeper! We used to all be close friends, but now I feel like we’re barely tolerable roommates. How do I help these girls grow up and address petty differences before they balloon into big issues? P.S. Our lease is until May, so moving out is not an option.
A: My advice is for you to stop giving advice. For example, when Courtney comes to you distraught that Brittany is hogging the bathroom counter, instead of playing resident adviser in the dorm, just say, “I’m sorry, all of you are going to have to work it out yourselves.” Then do your best to stay out of it. This might mean spending more time alone in your room or taking long walks when “the girls” get into pillow fights.
Emily Yoffe Writes: I’m going to take my own advice and stop giving advice (for now!). Thanks, everyone, and talk to you next week.