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: I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. One holiday down, two to go!
Q. Christmas Gifts: My husband and I are traveling across the country to spend Christmas with his family. We suggested to the rest of the family that we draw names so that each adult gives and receives one thoughtful, nice gift. (Children would get as many gifts as people are willing to give.) Our suggestion was summarily rejected. The family is now hounding us to tell them what we want. In the past, we have requested donations to charity to be made in our names, only to open something we don’t need or want on Christmas. Now everyone is sending out wish lists. Most are asking for money for X or gift cards for Y or Z. I just don’t see the point in exchanging gift cards or cash. (Incidentally, X and the items sold at Y and Z are luxury items. This is not an issue of people discreetly asking for money for groceries and diapers.) Are we being Scrooges here? Should we just pass out gift cards on Christmas? My husband and I are truly blessed, and there’s nothing we need. Is it OK to ask for cash to cover some of the cost of our plane tickets or the cost of these gift cards?
A: What a beautiful tradition—everyone sends around a list of how much money they want from each other. It might be more efficient to throw all your wallets around the tree, and each of you take from someone else’s billfold the amount you designated on your “wish list.” I agree with you that better yet would be to put a lid on this and have the adults agree to one gift each. But just because your husband’s family won’t go along, doesn’t mean you have to. Politely let them know that you’re going to go ahead and get gifts for the kids but are going to withdraw from the adult round-robin. Don’t ask to have your expenses covered, instead explain you’re lucky enough to have nothing on your wish list and you understand that from now on, Santa is going to pass you by.
Dear Prudence: Pugilistic Partners
Q. Short-Skirted Cousin: It seems we see the worst in our extended family members during the holidays. I’m concerned by my younger cousin “Elle’s” appearance. Elle is in her early 20s and about 5-feet-9. She has been active in sports since grade school, which has made her legs very muscular. She has been self-conscious about this since high school, so she won’t wear pants because she feels they emphasize the size of her muscles. For dinner she wore a tight, short dress and an open sweater. The hem was a good number of inches above the knee, meaning when she sat down her underwear (which I hope she was wearing) was in danger of making an appearance. She wore no tights or leggings. I really wanted to say something to my aunt and cousin but kept my mouth shut. At the moment my aunt and her family are going through familial and employment issues that have set the entire family on edge. The tension at dinner was very thick. This, I feel, may be the cause behind Elle’s questionable dress and behavior. I am concerned that the way she is presenting herself may get her in a spot she will not be able to get out of. Should I talk to my aunt about my concerns for Elle?
A: Let me clarify something for you. Women who think they have bad legs know that wearing the shortest possible skirt is not an effective way to camouflage this feature. I have the strong suspicion that tall, athletic Elle is proud of her body and likes showing it off. If the tension at the table was thicker than the mashed yams, it’s unlikely it was over Elle’s revealing outfit. And if you look around you, you will see many young women wearing short skirts and low-cut tops who make their way unmolested through the day. It was good you held your tongue about her appearance. No matter what “Elle” wears at Christmas, continue to do so.
Q. Friend Making a Big Mistake: A close friend has spent the last six months relying on me for advice on getting out of an emotionally and physically abusive relationship (which I’ve witnessed). They own a home together, and I have helped her identify options to maintain ownership of the home while ending the relationship. Her boyfriend has threatened her throughout this process and started bringing home other women as he and my friend started sleeping in separate rooms. Two weeks ago his mother was in an accident, and my friend felt bad and helped him through the hard times following. Thanksgiving Day, I received a text message from my friend exclaiming her excitement over getting engaged. I couldn’t even muster a reply. I love my friend, but I can’t be supportive of this union. What should I do?
A: I hope your friend understood your silence was the only response you could come up with to this appalling news. At this point, you can simply continue your silence—she may now be writing you off as “unsupportive.” It’s up to you whether to initiate a conversation about what a mistake she is making. But if she gets in touch with you about her exciting wedding plans, then you have to speak. Simply tell her that you’re worried for her physical and emotional safety when she’s with this man, and you’ve done everything you can to help her get out of this relationship. Unless she does so, you can’t be part of her life.
Q. Severely Ill Mentor—Proper Etiquette: One of my former mentors, who lives nearby, has suddenly become ill with a severe form of cancer. She is undergoing chemo, but there is a chance that it may not be successful. I want to be helpful, but I don’t know the rest of her family very well and was only in occasional contact with her. What is the best way to tactfully extend an offer of help and send well wishes without getting in the way?
A: First of all, send a letter. Someone going through chemo may not have the strength to talk on the phone, but she will surely appreciate hearing your good wishes and knowing what she has meant to you. Even though you don’t know her family well, contact one of them and ask if they are organizing food drop-offs or if you can help with trips to the hospital. If they haven’t done so, the family might want to set up an online account at a site like Lotsa Helping Hands that allows people to volunteer for duties and lets friends and family know how the patient is doing. You might also want to contact other people you know have been helped by your mentor. Perhaps all of you could put together an album with photos and text as a tribute. You already are sensitive to not wanting to be in the way, but you don’t want to be so diffident that you lose the chance to let her know she is loved.
Q. Takoma: My wife told me that I was to say something to her if she “got fat.” Of course, I now find myself in the position of having to say something about her weight, as she has gotten, well, fat. And it is not because of the kids, because she lost all the weight from having kids. She just has kind of let herself go over the past few years. Here is my problem. While I know she told me to say something to her if she got big … I am not touching the subject with a 10 foot pole. No way. Don’t know what I am supposed to do here. It is obviously bothering her (she says things in passing about her clothes and things that make it clear she knows she has an issue), but I don’t see how I mention it without cause all manner of household ugliness.
A: Did she also tell you to point out to her, as the years go by, if you notice she is also getting old? Getting fat is a condition that generally the person experiencing it is well aware of. Since your wife is mentioning that her clothes no longer fit, it sounds as if the secret is out. What is concerning is that she has piled on a lot of weight in a short time and is not happy about it. So the next time she brings it up, take the opportunity to say you hear that she’s worried about the shape she’s in and think she should talk to a doctor to find out if something medical is going on. Then, while emphasizing you love her at any size, suggest the two of you look at the way you’re eating to see if you can make any changes there. And then say you’d be happy to go to the gym with her, or start walking or jogging because you both could use more regular exercise.
Q. Bad-Gift-Giving Boyfriend: I am dating an absolutely wonderful man. His one drawback—he’s not the best gift-giver. His gifts are by no means cheap or not nice gifts—they just don’t fit my personality at all. I have gently urged him to consult my girlfriends and sisters (instead of his friends and family) when he comes up with what he thinks is a fabulous gift, but to no avail. I have a few inklings of what he may be getting me for a gift this holiday season, and it’s the complete opposite of what I would want or would ask for. He is really excited about whatever it is and I cannot crush his spirit—I appreciate his enthusiasm and the amount of time and thought that he’s put into this. Do I just keep my mouth shut and be grateful that I’ve found a wonderful person or do I try to be less than subtle in urging him to consult my friends the next time he wants to buy me a gift?
A: Beyond your birthday and Christmas, how many times a year is your beloved screwing up the gift-giving? I wish you had given some detail about his perverse gifts—you hint you would love earrings and he gives you a chainsaw? Since you know he has already bought you an expensive, inappropriate gift, just thank him for it. Then after the holidays are over, as Valentine’s Day is approaching, for example, explain that you’re not into surprise gifts and you’d rather talk to each other about what to get each other. Forget giving him homework assignments with your friends—just hash it out directly with him. And there’s always the solution my husband and I have arrived at: “Happy birthday! Do you want anything for a gift? No? Good!”
Q. Re: Christmas Gifts: We did something similar this year. We decided to only buy for the children in the family and told the adults this. Some were happy to go along and others were “outraged” that we were taking the “joy” out of Christmas, but we stood our ground. I told the one relative who was the most upset that this would be the best Christmas present she could give me. Between a family illness and long work hours, I don’t have the energy for shopping, wrapping, and mailing this year. When she asked how I would feel if we received gifts this year, I was honest—disappointed that someone would not respect our wishes, but I would take the gift in the spirit it was given—with love and kindness and would send a thank you after the holiday. I haven’t heard anything since and plan to enjoy my no-gift Christmas!
A: Sounds like an excellent plan.
Q. Holidays in Separate-ville: I recently discovered that my husband of many years is having a relationship with another woman. We’re trying to work things out, but I’m struggling with how to handle the holidays in a way that’s as normal as possible for our elementary-school kids but doesn’t ask me to lie about where we are in our relationship. Do we go to everything together and barely talk? Do we go to everything together and pretend life is normal? Do we go our separate ways and hope that the kids will still have a reasonably normal and fun holiday? Any advice is welcome in this mess.
A: The kids already know everything is not all right, no matter what kind of face you think you are putting on things. Since you say you’re trying to “work things out,” I hope this means you have a counselor, and how to get the children through this is something you should be discussing with your therapist. Pretending nothing is wrong is not going to fool anyone, but what you say to the kids should be aimed at their level of understanding. You want to try to reassure them that despite the problems you and their dad are having, they are not the cause, and both of you love them. You also have to let them know that they can talk to you about their concerns, sadness, or worries, and even if you don’t always have the answer, you are always available to talk.
Q. Sibling Forgets Nephew’s Birthday: How do you handle the fact that one of your siblings forgot your son’s birthday? More than a week passed, and when he called to say “hi,” he did not realize he had forgotten until I reminded him. Our parents still make excuses for him, saying that he was traveling or there were time zone differences. My spouse is upset because this is not the first slight by my brother and his wife. After all, how hard is it to send a card or make a short call to make a little kid feel special? How do you handle dealing with the brother, my spouse, and the “see no-wrong” parents?
A: Now that Christmas is coming up, you could send your brother an appointment calendar, and on it you could circle all your important dates—birthdays, anniversary—and include thoughtful suggestions for gifts. Or, you could accept that some people just aren’t good about this kind of stuff. (I will note that often these people have a Y chromosome.) Surely, a big enough deal was made about your son’s birthday that he didn’t spend the day sitting morosely saying, “But Uncle Charlie didn’t call.” I’ll bet he made no note whatsoever of Uncle Charlie’s forgetfulness. So instead of poisoning a whole bunch of relationships over this insignificant oversight, just let it go.
Q. Marriage: I’m a young professional man who has been married for more than five years. Throughout those five years, my marriage has taken a beating! My wife is a fiery girl, and her passion is one of the things that really drew me to her. However, since relatively early in our marriage, and increasingly lately, she settles disputes with me by losing her temper and lashing out physically—throwing objects, slapping, kicking, and even punching me in the face. While I’m an outgoing person, I tend to be very emotionally even-keeled and have never lost my temper or struck back. I admit, I’m as stubborn as they come, and she says this is the reason for her behavior. The thing is, it’s literally driven me out of love. She says its normal for a woman to hit her husband, and most husbands wouldn’t make a deal of it. My close friends say its time for me to leave. I really want to give counseling a chance, but I feel like I’ve already given up hope. How much time should I give her?
A: How long will it take you to pack? Your wife is endangering your life, so her time has run out—and running out is what you should be doing.
Q. Getting Fat: My husband handled breaking the news to me this way: “Honey, your boobs have gotten bigger.” I was able to fill in the rest of the blanks myself.
A: Was this said as a complaint? Wasn’t your inability to zip up your clothes a tip-off? When he let you know, did you lose the weight?
Q. Xmas Gifts: My brother has two kids, one 13 and one 16. I’ve always gotten them Christmas gifts. They never thank me. Last year, I put quite a bit of thought into their gifts and wrapped them and sent them, and no one replied, not even my brother or his wife. All of them are even on my Facebook page, so it wouldn’t be hard to just type out “thanks.” I’ve e-mailed and called before to the parents and the kids to see if they received the gifts and if they liked them. I usually get an, “Oh yeah, thanks.” I feel upset, and I don’t know if I’m just being sensitive or if I have a right to feel this way. I also don’t know what to do about this year. I thought about buying donation gift cards—the kids can go to the Web site and choose what charity the gift card goes to. I mean, I want to get them something. I don’t know how to handle this situation.
A: Why should you get them something? For years now they have demonstrated that your time, money, and effort is so meaningless to them that they can’t be bothered to even politely answer a direct question as to whether they enjoyed the gift. It’s your choice whether to explain that you’re not sending gifts this year because you realize they don’t like what you pick out, or to just let the empty place under the tree speak for you.
Q. Re: Bad-Gift-Giving Boyfriend: My significant other and I no longer give each other gifts for any occasions. We go out for dinner to celebrate, and that’s it.
A: Good solution.
Q. Friend of Abuse Victim: Please don’t advise friends of those in abusive relationships to issue ultimatums like, “Unless you dump the louse, I can’t be part of your life.” On average, an abused partner has to leave and return to the abuser four to seven times before they finally get away for good. In the meantime, they experience extreme physical and emotional isolation from friends and loved ones who either don’t know what’s going on or lose patience with them for “not protecting themselves.” The letter writer should continue to be a supportive presence to her friend, refer her to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call the hotline herself for advice on how to deal with the situation, and continue to make sure her friend knows that the type of treatment she receives and the roller coaster of highs and lows in the relationship are not “normal.”
A: I agree with you about referring her to an abuse hotline. But I can also understand friends, who have spent hour upon hour counseling, hand-holding, and encouraging, finally getting fed up and feeling their “help” is just part of the victim’s cycle of destructive behavior. The letter writer just went through six months of doing everything she could to extract her friend, who now announces she’s engaged. I don’t think it’s the friend’s responsibility to be on call through the inevitable coming nightmare.
Q. Getting Fat Redux: He said it as a compliment, but it gently let me know that, yes, I had put on a few pounds and, yes, it was noticeable. But on the bright side, my boobs have gotten bigger! I realized I had put on some weight but just hadn’t done anything about it. It was a gentle nudge that now might be a good time to start, rather than waiting for it to get out of control.
A: Thanks for the follow-up. Often I hear from spouses who haven’t said anything along the way and are writing to me about how they can gently point out that their loved one needs to lose, oh, about 100 pounds.
Q. Regarding Niece/Nephew Birthdays: I have two kids, but I know my kids are NOT the most important thing in other people’s lives (even my siblings). I don’t expect them to know my kids’ birthdays. If they call, great. If they send a card, super.
A: But where’s the outrage, the score-keeping, the simmering tension that will explode like a supernova at the next family gathering? These are family traditions you are failing to uphold!
Q. Gifts for Just Kids: My family and in-laws have started a thing now where we are only supposed to buy gifts for the kids at the holidays. I don’t have a problem per se with it, except my wife and I are the only ones without kids, so no one gives us anything. It seems a bit unfair. Any advice on how to handle this? We don’t see it as very fair to us.
A: There’s a good reason for having kids—you finally get your share of the Christmas loot! Your family gives gifts to the kids. You’re adults. Unless you want someone to pick up something for you at Toys R Us, just enjoy the fact that you all get to celebrate the holiday together.
Q. Flower-Giving Etiquette: My husband works in a small office consisting of just himself, his boss, and a female co-worker. The female co-worker’s birthday is coming up soon, and my husband mentioned that he is planning to buy her flowers as a gift. He knows her favorite flowers because she often buys bouquets to brighten up the office. I’m sure he only intends for it to be a nice gesture and for her to keep them in the office. But I’m wondering, is this an appropriate gift for him to be giving a married woman? They are friends, and I know that there is nothing romantic going on between them, but is that what a gift of flowers from a man to a woman implies? It doesn’t bother me, but I’m worried she or his boss might get the wrong idea.
A: You have no concerns about any hidden meaning behind this gesture, his co-worker loves flowers, and in this tiny office, it would be odd not to acknowledge a birthday. Your husband’s gift sounds thoughtful and appropriate, and you shouldn’t worry about it.
Q. Over-Apologizing Friend: I have a friend who apologizes for days over slights both real and imagined—we were recently talking about post-partum weight loss with a group of friends, and after we moved on to a new topic, she repeatedly interrupted to say that she hoped I didn’t think she meant I was fat. She also called twice more and sent an e-mail. It makes things awkward, and I find myself having to constantly reach out and reassure her that I’m not mad, which then makes me annoyed. Is there a way to kindly tell her no offense was taken, and now it’s time to drop it?
A: Of course, when you tell her she over-apologizes she will abjectly apologize for over-apologizing, and you will say it’s not that big a deal and … arghhh. Sit down with your friend, tell her you want to say something to her that’s going to make her want to apologize, but you want her to bite her tongue. Then gently explain that she obviously gets very anxious when she thinks she has offended someone, but the stream of apologies is actually worse than anything she might have said to set it off. Tell her that these kinds of habits can be hard to break, and if she can’t stop on her own, a cognitive behavioral therapist should be able to help her reduce her desire to flagellate herself.
Emily Yoffe writes: Thanks, everyone. I guess ‘tis the beginning of the season to be really annoyed at what Santa is, or isn’t, bringing.