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. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Polar-Opposite Families: I’m totally in love with a beautiful woman and plan on spending the rest of my days at her side. The problem? Our families couldn’t be more different! Me: upper-middle-class Jew from a liberal background, highly educated relatives who are very tolerant and level-headed but very proud of their traditions. Her: family of lower-middle-class Catholics with poor educations, very conservative and close-minded, with a penchant for saying alarmingly inappropriate things about Jews and other minorities in my presence.
Personally, my girlfriend’s family’s behavior isn’t such a big deal to me, as I am completely secular (more like atheistic) and am very laid back. I don’t take offense, because I know I’ll only be seeing these people on major holidays and other such family events, where I’ll just grin and bear it until we two escape back to our comfortable insularity from them.
My problem is how to mingle the families when (and if) we decide to. They’ll have to meet sometime, and I’m increasingly worried that it’s going to turn ugly once each side figures out where the other stands. My parents will behave just as I do, but some of my relatives will take exception to anything anti-Semitic or bigoted, and I know it’s only a matter of time (likely a matter of minutes) until one of her family members says something off-color. Likewise, any discussion of politics, social issues, money, or really anything else adults talk about is pretty much guaranteed to spark a melee. Talking to her family about their comments is completely out of the question for reasons I will not go into (but you can probably guess, given your advice-column experience), and I don’t feel it’s fair to penalize my own family for being the more tolerant of the two.
A: How wonderfully open-minded and tolerant of you to consider marrying a woman who comes from such a bunch of knuckle-draggers.Here’s what I’ve learned from this letter: You and your family are enlightened and educated. Your girlfriend is beautiful. Her family is a bunch of dumb, racist buffoons.You may be exactly on the money, but I’m wondering if your girlfriend is as appalled by her family as you are, or whether there are things about them she abhors as well as things about them she loves. Does she share your view that your contact with them will be limited to a quick holiday hello, long enough for you to becalled a Christ killer as you head for the door? I am not defending racists and anti-Semites. But I’m wondering if in between their rants, they ever say anything that qualifies them as decent people in your eyes.
You can decide to ignore their remarks, challenge them, or explain you can no longer listen to them and leave. You can let your educated,enlightened family make their own decisions about how to respond. You and your girlfriend can talk about strategies to make these visits more comfortable. Maybe she can remind her family that you are Jewish, and it would helpful if they could cut down on the insults.Again, I’m not defending bigots, but maybe you can work on sounding like less of a snob.
Dear Prudence: My Girlfriend’s Most Annoying Habit
Q.My Boyfriend’s Mother: I’ve been dating a wonderful guy for about a year. He’s very close to his parents, visiting them at least once a month (we live a five-hour drive away) and traveling with them on vacations. He and I had discussed traveling abroad together for our first trip, and he recently told me that his parents would coincidentally like to travel to the same area and that we could go together. I like his parents and have spent quite a lot of time with them in the past year, but I can’t imagine traveling with my boyfriend’s parents abroad for my only remaining vacation time. We have already traveled with them twice over long weekends. The primary guilt-inducing factor is that his dad has an illness akin to Parkinson’s, which will only get worse with time. His health has been getting worse steadily, and he may be confined to a wheelchair in a year. He has described his mom as having a “strong personality,” meaning that she won’t take “no” for an answer, and I have to agree. How do I set (and possibly help my boyfriend set) healthy boundaries with his parents? Did I mention that we’re both over the age of 30?
A: It’s lovely that your boyfriend is close to his parents and that you are sensitive to the fact that his father has a progressive illness that is going to take away some of his independence. However, all this doesn’t mean that you two aren’t entitled to your own independent vacation or that going on one means he’s a bad son.Yes, your boyfriend needs to have better boundaries. It’s discouraging that he’s explained to you that his mother won’t take no for an answer, so you must comply with her demands.But that’s where he’s at, so all you can do is set better boundaries for yourself.Explain that you care about his parents, enjoy spending time with them, and understand the difficulties of his father’s health. However,it’s totally fair for you two to vacation by yourselves, and that’s what you want your overseas trip to be.If he says he can’t go without his parents, then try without rancor to explain that you two will be better off taking separate vacations.It will be illuminating to see if he’d rather say no to you or to Mom.
Q.Unsure How To Respond to “I’m Fat” Comments: I work in luxury retail, and many of my clients are older and fuller-figured women. I’m naturally very thin. Often these women make comments to me like “You’re so skinny, I wish I had your figure. Look how fat I’ve gotten!” or “Aren’t these varicose veins horrible?” or “You must not eat, you’re so thin.” I’m not complaining that I’m skinny, but these comments make me uncomfortable and unsure how to respond. I usually either smile and change the subject or ignore it completely. What I want to say is “Keep it to yourself, lady!” but obviously that wouldn’t go over too well. Is there a better way to handle these awkward situations?
A: These remarks are the older woman’s way of making light of the depredations of time, especially when confronted with a vision of what used to be.You need a bunch of reassuring, more or less sincere responses if you want to make the sale.So here are some answers for the situations you present: “Actually, you look great. This suit shows off how small your waist is.” “Your legs are terrific, and if you’re concerned about your veins, a taupe or smoky-colored hose would work well with this dress and give youa touch coverage.” “I do eat—I’m lucky I just burn it up. My mother tells me I should be sure to enjoy these high metabolism years!”
Q. Reston, Va.: I have a 30-ish sibling with a health issue that has prevented him from working for the past four years. My parents support him—his own townhouse, car, new clothes, food, medicine, etc. They do everything for him (laundry, groceries, errands, etc.) Although his illness is real, he also spends a lot of time on his social life (out on the weekends, going to bars, etc.) and dates. In contrast, my wife and I (who live 10 minutes away) are trying very hard to stay afloat in this economy with small children, a house we paid for on our own, cars we paid for on our own, etc. We don’t receive much help (even babysitting). I can’t help but feel as though I am penalized for being functional, and I feel a great deal of animosity toward my family. Now, my parents are starting to ask me to help out my “poor” brother more, when my own family is already stretched incredibly thin for time/money. If it were up to me, I’d tell my brother to start acting like an adult and do more for himself. My parents would be horrified and upset. Any advice for getting through this tactfully?
A: If your brother is capable of hanging out at bars and going out on dates, I’m wondering why he’s not capable of doing his own laundry and getting his own groceries.It sounds as if despite his real problems, your parents are only exacerbating his dependency. They’re probably worried aboutwhen they’re no longer around and are trying to line you up to fill in for them.
You need to have a talk with your parents about the present and the future. Explain that despite his illness, it would be beneficial for the entire family if your brother took more responsibility for himself. You can say you love your brother, but you don’t have the financial or emotional resources to take care of him, and you in fact think more energy needs to go into helping him be a productive member of society. If they don’t want to hear your message, that’s their business. But you need to make sure they hear yours that you can’t take him on.
Q. Bad Parenting: Is it ever OK to say something to a parent who is mistreating their child? My daughter is in a dance class, and I see the same parent every week waiting for her boyfriend’s child. As she waits with her own 2-½-year-old, I have seen her push the child to the ground for stepping on her purse, whack her in the head after being hit by the child (she then told her, “It’s not OK to hit”), put her in time-out for crying (after she yelled at her for being fidgety), etc. I feel uncomfortable being in the same room while this is going on and not saying anything about it, but at the same time I realize that anything I say will probably not go over well. My daughter has been in the class for two years, this parent is a newcomer, and I don’t plan on leaving just because of this parent’s behavior. Any suggestions?
A: Sadly, some variation of your letter comes up often in this chat.Yes, you should speak up.If this is how this woman acts in public, just imagine what goes on in private. Next time you see her strike out, go sit next to her and gently say something like, “Believe me, I know 2-year-olds can be exasperating, but really they can’t help themselves. I’m concerned that you’re overreacting to your child’s behavior.”I’m sure you’re right that she’ll probably verbally strike out at you, but she needs to hear that her behavior is not all right. And I think you should also talk to the heads of the school and say that you have seen weeks of alarming behavior from this parent toward her toddler, and you would like their help by either reporting her themselves to the local social services agency or giving you the information to do so.I know that calling protective services is bringing out the bazookas, but this mother is physically, verbally, and emotionally abusing her child.
Q. Toddler Trouble: My husband is having a rough time connecting with our 2-year-old. He feels like he’s not cut out for parenting. He loves her dearly, but as we all know, 2-year-olds are a handful, and his patience is limited. I explained to him that feeling this way—like he was not cut out for parenting—does not make him a bad person and that he may find later stages of her development will be easier on him. When her verbal skills and comprehension are better, when they can do something without her throwing a fit when it’s over, etc., he may enjoy their one-on-one time more. I was wondering if you had any other pieces of advice I might be able to share with him. I know these feelings are hard on him.
A: It’s great that your husband feels able to talk to you about this, and that you are so understanding. I absolutely agree with you that for some parents, despite feelings of overwhelming love, the early years are a kind of slow-motion torture.I also agree when your daughter is able to run to your husband and say, “I love you, Daddy!”things will improve.For now,suggest that he do things that are easy. On weekends he can take her to a park, put her in the sandbox, and he can read the paper and fiddle with his phone while he keeps an eye on her. Or let him be the person to read her the bedtime story. Also, encourage him to roughhouse.Fathers play differently with their kids than mothers. When my daughter was little, she couldn’t wait for her father to come home so they could “wrestle” on the floor—there was great glee when she “won” their matches.
I got a letter exactly about this a few years ago from a father of a 2-year-old daughter. I suggested things would get better when she got more verbal and physically able. Three years later, he wrote to me and said it was all true—that now the best part of his day was coming home to his 5-year-old girl.
Q. Green-Card Marriage: The husband of a colleague of mine recently left her 10 days after becoming a citizen. They have been married almost three years. He returned to his native country (where he has a girlfriend) but is planning on coming back to the Unite States. Her sister is telling her that she should rat him out to the federal government, but she is feeling hurt and used. Still, it seems illegal on his part. Any thoughts?
A: If he just became a citizen, they must have had an immigration lawyer.This woman should contact the lawyer and explain what happened and find out what her options are for ratting out this rat. If the marriage was a sham in order to gain citizenship under false pretenses, then why shouldn’t he get caught?
Q. Online Dating Sites and Sexuality: My very dear, best friend and I have a pretty close relationship: We talk on the phone at least once a day and get coffee/dinner a few times a week. Recently I was looking around on a free dating site, and lo and behold, I come across a profile that sounds, to a T, exactly like my friend. I look further, and it’s completely obvious (pictures, quotes, etc.) that it is him. This profile lists his orientation as “bisexual.” This would be news to me (as far as I know, he is straight) but not bad news! I suppose, more than anything, I am upset that he hasn’t told me: I’d supposed our friendship close enough for such revelations.
My dilemma is: How do I go about asking him about this? Or do I even ask him? I found the profile, quite legitimately—no snooping or stalking involved. The site “matched” us, so I peeked at the profile. He obviously isn’t ready to discuss this with me, and I don’t want to force a conversation he doesn’t want to have. But I would like to know what’s going on. Should I send him a message on the site: “Hey! Didn’t know you were on here too!”? Or bring it up in person? Or let it go until he decides the time is right?
A: Not only are you best friends, even your dating site’s algorithm thinks you’d make a good pair, so there’s no reason not to let him know that the computer matched you up. That you’ve seen his profile shouldn’t come as a shock to him, since, presumably, he’s been sent yours. It would be perfectly natural for you to then say, “I didn’t know your favorite color was turquoise or that you were bi!” After that, it’s up to him to talk about this or let you know this is a part of his life he doesn’t want to share.
Q. Family: I can see why you called Polar a bit snobby, but—what do you do in those situations? Older members of my family say similar things about Jewish people, and I’m ashamed to say I reacted by making a horrible scene once because I just wasn’t sure what to do. Do you have any recommendations for those of us who love our families dearly but simply can’t stand to see those we love constantly called names?
A: There are many ways to react to this. If the repulsive comments are confined to the older generation, you can roll your eyes and say to yourself, “And I won’t be giving a eulogy at your funeral.” If the only topic of discussion at your family events is other racial and religious groups, you can say, “Could we agree to talk about something else during dinner, please? Did anyone see the Cowboys game?”If the bigotry gets too thick, you can always say, “I’m sorry, this kind of talk upsets me so much it ruins my meal. I’ll see you all another time.”
Q. Re: Green Card Marriage: The husband’s attorney can’t tell his wife how to get back at her husband using the legal system. It’s a conflict of interest. She should consult her own divorce attorney.
A: Thanks. I’m wrong, you’re right. And let’s hope the rat gets what he deserves.
Q.Re: Polar-Opposite Families: Did my husband write this question?! Seriously, I found myself in the same situation, coming from a lower-class Catholic family marring a Jewish guy from an upper-middle-class, liberal family. Although both families are huge and filled with their share of the opinionated, everything went off without a hitch. I didn’t get a single negative comment about my choice of mate, our choice of a mixed-religion ceremony (priest and rabbi), or our politics. And I was so scared! I think the writer should remember that most people have an innate fear of looking like a bigoted fool in front of complete strangers (especially strangers that might consider them “below them”), and that fear will go a long way in promoting good behavior. Also—and this might take some time—knowing that so-and-so, who is so great and funny and makes my loved one so happy, is a Jew or a Catholic or a raging liberal can go a long way towards tempering the rhetoric on each side. I think most people are reasonable; they just fear what they don’t know.
A: I doubt this is from your husband since you don’t mention your husband has always made it clear your family is a bunch of dumb buffoons.However, it should be reassuring to the man who did write the letter that even people who lack the kind of college degrees his family has can behave decently on occasion.
Q. His Ex-Wife Lied About Paternity! My husband and I got married recently. When we first started dating, I was introduced to his 4-year-old son, who is autistic. I accepted that we would have him every other weekend and got along extremely well with him. But there was always something that bothered me. I’m not a geneticist, but I could tell that certain features the son has were highly improbable from what his parents look like. This thought was magnified by the fact that his ex-wife had coerced him into having sex, and they’d only had sex once for her to get pregnant. I know it’s possible, but the way he told the story made me think she was trying to trick him into knocking her up. (I later found a huge box of ovulation trackers in her old bathroom.) He confided in me that he was not sure the son was his. He was 99 percent sure but had that little bit of a doubt. Well … I suggested he take a paternity test so that he could put the worry out of his mind. He put it off and off until about a month before we got married and only did it cause I brought it up again. Turns out, he is not the father. He was devastated, of course, but took it a lot better than I thought he would. I feel tremendously guilty because I am relieved. Not because he is going to de-establish paternity (he is not; he plans to continue being a father to the child), but because it lowers the risk of our future children being autistic. (From what I have read, having one child with autism means having another is five times more likely than normal.)
I feel horrible for having suggested the test in the first place, because my now husband is sad about it, and I also feel guilty for being secretly happy about it. I did not tell him how I feel because I don’t want to hurt him further … but I also hate keeping this from him. Should I be honest or just try to deal with my own feelings alone?
A: You pointed out that just by looking at his son, it was obvious he wasn’t the father, andyou pushed him into take a paternity test. So it’s probably quite self-evident that you are happy this child isn’t biologically his. You don’t have to shout—“I’m so glad I’m right! I couldn’t be more relieved!”What’s actually important, however, is that this boy is still your stepson and will always be your husband’s son.What matters is providing him with the most supportive, loving home possible and forgetting about his DNA.
Q.Polar: Gee Prudie, you seem REALLY defensive on behalf of Polar’s girlfriend’s family. I don’t see the words “dumb buffoons” anywhere in his letter. What gives?
A: I’m Jewish, but I thought his letter was dripping with condescension.Could it really be true that his girlfriend’s entire uneducated clan spends all their time making bigoted remarks? There certainly are terribly destructive and dysfunctional families that must be avoided. But that wasn’t what this letter described. I find it hard to believe that despite his girlfriend’s family’s“lower-class” jobs and lack of college education, this guy can’t find some common ground with someone there.
Q. Response to Bigotry: I disagree with your advice regarding how to handle bigoted comments by family members. Why shouldn’t you express your disapproval in a polite but firm way? And would your answer change if there were younger people present? I can’t imagine staying silent while someone makes racist comments in the presence of children or adolescents. It’s not snobbery to object to bigotry and intolerance. The original poster said that his fiancee’s family made racist comments in his presence, meaning that they weren’t restrained by the presence of an outsider. What does his fiancee do when her family makes these comments? What does she think about their opinions and behavior?
A: I did say he and his family were free to decide to do any number of things, from register an objection, to ignore it, to leave.I agree saying, “Excuse me, but I find that remark offensive” is a good way to go.
Q. Tipped Way Too Much—Without Knowing It: Any thoughts on this situation? I hosted a baby shower for a friend at a restaurant over the weekend, and in the rush to settle the bill at the end of the event, I didn’t realize that gratuity had already been added to the initial total. I then tipped another 20 percent based on an amount that already included a hefty gratuity. This was an expensive event, so we’re talking about a fairly large total, with the tip total alone now a disproportionate part of that. Is there any point in contacting the restaurant to see if there’s anything they can do, or is that completely tactless? I know I should have reviewed the bill more carefully, but I also feel like they should have pointed out that gratuity was included.
A: For large parties, restaurants usually add an 18 percent tip. So with your generous addition, you were tipping close to 40 percent of the bill.It could be just that as you didn’t note the tip had been added, the restaurant didn’t see you double-tipped until you left. But there’s nothing tactless about contacting the restaurant and explaining that when you got home, you realized you accidentally double-tipped. You can say while the service was excellent, you hadn’t budgeted for a 40 percent gratuity and want to redo the bill to reflect only the tip the restaurant added. They should be gracious about this, and you shouldn’t hear any gratuitous remarks.
Q. RE: Polar-Opposite Families: I think the writer should read Pride and Prejudice. I seem to recall Mr. Darcy had similar complaints when he first proposed to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. In the end, both families displayed their share of cringe-worthy behavior.
A: Reading Pride and Prejudice is always a good idea. Thanks for the excellent suggestion.
Have a great week, everyone, even if you are seeing your in-laws.