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. No matter how much end-of-year stress you’re under, you can always be grateful you’re not in the Metrodome.
Q. Nightmare Scenario?: I am a man currently in a very happy relationship with a woman, “Sarah,” that has been going on for about a year. She knows that I’m bisexual, and that I have had relationships with men in my past, although I’ve only been with women for the past few years. I haven’t been too specific about this part of my life, though. After the New Year, we are planning on visiting a city where I used to live. I’ve been thinking about looking up an old friend, Scott, to have lunch. Sarah knows Scott and I are pals, but I’ve never told her that we were actually once lovers. I’m not sure what’s appropriate here. Should I tell Sarah about my onetime relationship with Scott? It seems like the right thing to do, but in my experience, women don’t react well to this sort of information. I love Sarah and don’t want to lose her. Should I have lunch with Scott? I think he will feel snubbed if I didn’t see him. If I do, should I invite Sarah? In my dreams, the three of us get along splendidly, and Scott and Sarah trade stories about my eccentricities. In my nightmares, Sarah is so freaked out by the sight of a man who used to be my lover that she dumps my ass. What should I do?
A: If you set up a lunch for the three of you, your past is going to get very specific, very fast. It’s up to you to decide whether to see Scott alone or with Sarah, but what’s crucial is that you be honest with her about who he is. If you tell Sarah you want to have lunch with an old friend, you must explain that you were romantically involved with him. If you don’t want to make your past so manifest, tell Scott you’re coming to town with a girlfriend, and although you’ve told her about your past, you don’t think it’s a good idea for all of you to get together. What you don’t want to have happen over lunch is have Sarah suddenly realize who Scott was to you when he mentions that cute little birthmark you have on your lower back.
Dear Prudence Video: My Son’s Slutty New Stepmother!
Q. Helicopter Playdates: Every time I invite a child over for a play date for any one of my sons, the parent expects to stay for the length of the visit. It makes me crazy! The whole purpose of a play date is to provide some company for my child and hopefully a few hours of relief for me so I can, say, clean the kitchen or pay the bills while keeping an eye on the children. I am not a very social person and I find these helicopter visits to be weird and very intrusive, also a pain (and because it means producing a spotless house beforehand). The last time this happened, the mother gave me a sickly smile and said, “It’s my husband’s rule that we don’t leave our child alone. But it’s all OK.” I wanted to say, “No, it’s not OK, you are married to a weirdo control freak! Get out (of your marriage) now!” Instead, what happens is, I never invite the child over again, and my sons want to know why they have no play dates. Any suggestions?
A: Who are these parents who don’t welcome an opportunity to take a walk, do some grocery shopping, read a book, or just be relieved for a few hours of caring for their kids? As you set up these dates you need to make clear you’ll watch the kids and the other mother should come back in a couple of hours. However, if every parent insists on staying, maybe you should examine whether there’s something that’s making them nervous. Do you have knives and drain cleaner in easy reach? Are you too absorbed in paying the bills and not really keeping your eye on small children who need more direct supervision? Do your boys hit their playmates? Since something weird is going on, maybe you should try to set up collective play dates for your children —outings to the playground with several boys and their parents. Whatever is really going on, it’s important to figure it out so that your kids don’t get isolated.
Q. Family Drama: A few years ago, my cousin’s wife left him for a much younger man, a student of hers while she was a professor at a community college. The younger man moved in with her and her two young kids, and she has since filed for divorce. It has been nasty! Both sides have been using the kids as pawns and trash-talking the other in their presence. I’m writing because my aunt has recently started a Facebook smear campaign against this guy, even sending lengthy letters to family members. While I feel bad for my cousin, I think it is completely inappropriate for my family to badmouth his ex wife, especially in front of the kids. How can I express my concerns to my aunt and nicely opt out of these messages? Is there such thing as Facebook slander?
A:Here’s a situation in which there’s no one to root for. I hope the community college knows about the professor’s extracurricular activities—because this should get her booted from the faculty. It’s also understandable that your cousin’s family thinks his ex is trash, but that does not allow them to trash her publicly. Doing so only demeans them and harms the children. Today’s New York Times has a story about the Facebook team devoted to monitoring uncivil behavior on the site, and your aunt’s campaign sounds like a perfect example of something they would want to block. Feel free to contact Facebook and ask that this smear be taken down. And have a discussion with your aunt in which you explain that you perfectly well understand her hatred of her former daughter-in-law, but spreading poisonous things about her will only damage the grandchildren.
Q.Staring Husband: My husband and I have been married for a year, and are compatible and happy in many ways, except that he is a huge flirt. If we are walking down the sidewalk he usually makes eye contact with attractive women and says hello. If we’re in the grocery store often when I turn to talk to him he’s looking off at something and distracted and when I turn to see what he’s doing—voila! An attractive woman. We went to the zoo recently and I felt like he was busier studying the women than the animals.
I know there are people watchers who like to see what many different types of people are doing —but that’s not it. He’s a women watcher. It has gotten to the point where we almost can’t go out together because his roaming eyes are driving me crazy. He says he’ll try to stop if it hurts me. Needless to say he hasn’t stopped and he stated recently he’s not sure if he can. I feel very confused. I know men like looking at women and that’s as far as I get in my understanding of all of this. There don’t seem to be any rules. So is my husband’s behavior something I should just give up on and accept? Or is this as disrespectful as I feel it is, and he should be trying harder to stop? Help.
A: Since you don’t say this is new behavior, I’m assuming that when you were dating you were aware that your boyfriend was drooling and tripping over his tongue every time he saw an attractive woman. I always wonder—what did you think would happen when you married him? Despite the happiness of one’s marriage, one of life’s little pleasures, for both sexes, is quietly enjoying that the world is still populated by attractive people of the opposite sex. But there are certain rules of non-engagement to this people-watching, and your husband is violating all of them. People are not supposed to exchange of meaningful glances, nor are they supposed to say hello when they see someone particularly alluring, nor are they supposed to behave so outrageously that their spouse feels too humiliated to accompany them in public.
You’ve brought it up with him and he says he can’t stop. I think you need to hash this out with a therapist. And I have the sneaking suspicion that someone willing to say hello to an attractive stranger while he’s with his wife is willing to do a lot more when his wife is not around.
Q. Grandma’s Death vs. the LSAT: Iwas the person last week who had to make a decision between taking my LSAT and going to my grandmother’s funeral. I just wanted to update you that I took my test and did very well. There was a moment during the test when my mind drifted to her funeral and melancholy began to overtake me. At that point, I noticed a scent of hairspray —the same one my grandma used for the past 60 years. I teared up, knowing that she was right there with me and she was proud of me. Afterwards, my mother called out of the blue to ask for my forgiveness and tell me she was so proud of all I had accomplished, and she merely acted the way she did because she was irrational after losing her mother. It was a wonderful act. In her own way, Grandma gave me peace of mind taking the test, and she also gave me my relationship with my mother back. I am not surprised. She always made everything look so easy. I can’t wait to see her again and tell her about my life. Thanks, Prudie, for taking my question—in her own way, when I was lost and confused, she gave me you.
A: Thank you, thank you for this wonderful update. This happy outcome is all your doing, but I’m so glad you’ve let all of us know. How nice to feel your grandmother’s spirit will be there to guide you on your new adventure, and that your mother will actually be here beside you encouraging you to reach your dream.
Q. Wedding Invitation Etiquette: I received a save-the-date card for a friend’s wedding in September. The wedding is now just over two weeks away and I have not received an invitation. The save-the-date specifically said that the invitation would follow. Normally, I wouldn’t hesitate to approach my friend about this, but the situation is slightly complicated. About two months before I got the card I interviewed for a job and was hired, unknowingly replacing my friend who was also competing for the job. I’m worried that I have been uninvited to the wedding, but then again, I don’t want to not show up when she was expecting me. What should I do?
A: It sounds as if the bride neglected to also send a save-the-job-opening card. If you have not gotten an invitation and the wedding is two weeks away, it seems pretty clear you have been struck from the guest list. However, it’s always possible the invitation got lost, so since you do have a save-the-date-card you should call or e-mail your friend and say you never received a follow-up invitation and you wanted to know if in fact you still should save the date. If she makes clear you’re not invited, simply wish her the best. If that’s the case, she is committing a serious faux pas—a save-the-date card is supposed to guarantee an invite. And if she dumped you because you had the temerity to enter the job market at the same time she did, consider yourself lucky you don’t have to buy a wedding gift for this silly person.
Q. Moochers I moved near some family members whom I did not know well. One of them attends holiday dinners at my house. As soon as the meal is over, she starts cleaning up. I always offer leftovers, but she takes whatever she wants while she is in the kitchen. She sneaks it in with whatever I invited her to take and takes the whole pile home with her. I am really annoyed. Am I too sensitive? Is this what families do? Signed, Ebenezer
A: When she heads for the kitchen you go with her and shoo her out. Explain that you like to clean up yourself and you look forward to having a second meal with your leftovers. Add that given you have so much, you will put together a goodie bag for her. Later if she starts to head toward the kitchen just say, “Marlene, you’re my guest, so I just won’t let you do any cleaning up!”
Q. Coworker Who’s an Unsafe Driver: A co-worker who does virtually all of our company driving recently was cited for driving under the influence of alcohol and must use a breath-detector device in her vehicle for the next year. She already was a distracted driver prior to that. Our employer pays for her parking pass but subsidizes the transit passes of the rest of us. The company seems to think the DUI is no big deal and employees should continue to ride in her car. I disagree. I’d like to propose our employer join a car-share membership in Zip (or something similar), but the site manager is notoriously stingy and previously has refused to consider this idea. I’m very fond of my colleague, but I don’t want to ride with her and I can’t afford to pay $200-plus a month to park near our downtown office. Any suggestions on how to bring this up with the boss? I don’t want to tell my co-worker I don’t trust her with my safety.
A: Apparently your company has never heard the phrase “legal liability.” It’s a useful one and several of you should band together and introduce it to the managers. They need to hear that even when “Mindy” is not drunk, she is an unsafe driver. She now has a DUI, which actually is a big deal, particularly for someone who is the corporate “designated driver.” All of you should say that you will not risk your lives by getting in the car with Mindy, and the company needs to find another person to transport employees. Explain that, given her record, if she injured someone while driving during the course of her company duties, it could result in a huge lawsuit against your firm. And whatever they decide, you’re in charge of your own safety, and you should refuse to drive with this menace.
Q. M.I.L. Morality: I live with my husband and mother in-law, “Maria”. Maria is 74 and unable to live alone but not in need of professional care yet. To be concise, she is a walking stereotype of the insufferable M.I.L. She is so rude so often that I have lost any love/respect/care for her that I may have had to begin with. The only thing that gets her to stop, even if briefly, is when I “talk back” or am very, very blunt. This, however, makes me feel bad for talking that way to my elder; but being polite seems to get me nowhere. My husband knows how Maria is and will talk to her about her attitude but it has no effect. Since this situation will not change anytime soon, what am I to do?
A: You have to change your situation. There is a contradiction in your assertion that Maria can’t live alone but doesn’t need professional care. A relatively healthy, mentally intact 74 year-old should be able to live alone. If she needs care, then you have to explore your other options —trading her off with relatives, finding a group living situation for her—because your marriage and your sanity is at stake. No one should have to live under a daily barrage of invective in her own home. Have a talk with your husband explaining that this situation is unsustainable, you can’t stand how Maria treats you or how you act in response, and that something has to be done.
Q. Save the Date: Is there ever an OK reason to not invite someone who got a save-the-date? I invited a friend and his girlfriend (who had become a friend) and in between the save-the-date and invite time, he very suddenly broke up with her. On her birthday. I didn’t send the invite right away because I needed to issue new ones (it had been addressed to both of them), but I kept feeling a reticence, since he had been so hurtful to her. When I ran into him he actually asked me where his invite was and I told him he was still invited, I just had not mailed the invite yet. I wound up e-mailing him the info because I was running out of time and still felt funny about inviting him, but was dealing with my confusion over the situation poorly. Bottom line: If I had been less wishy-washy about it (i.e., gone to him honestly and explained why he was not invited), would that have been an understandable scenario in which to not follow a save-the-date with an invite?
A:If in between the issuing of the save-the-date and the sending of the actual invite your friend had been convicted of a sex crime but had not yet started his sentence, then I’d say it’s OK to strike him from the list. But you don’t rescind an invitation to a friend just because he’s behaved caddishly.
Q. Helicopter Playdates: I think maybe you are jumping to conclusions about the helicopter playdates. Depending on the kids, it can be a good idea to stick around a while when you are getting to know a new family. So I would open up with the conversation with acquaintances about this, just make expectations clearer that it’s OK with you if the other parent leaves, etc. Or that next time once they’ve seen how the kids do they can leave. Maybe in some cases the other parent doesn’t want to seem rude by dropping their kid off and running errands. Also, there is nothing wrong with checking out the situation when you don’t know a family that well yet. I have seen some really weird situations crop up in playdates that I would have thought would be OK. So just talk about it and don’t judge your potential friends as weirdo control freaks. You can help put them at ease by letting them know you’ll supervise the kids and make sure they are playing safely.
A: I agree that a first time you take your child for a playdate it’s fine to hang around—maybe the entire time—to check things out. But this mother seemed to indicate every playdate involved having the mother stay for the duration. Some people are writing in saying that for pre-schoolers it’s expected that the other parent stay for the playdate. I disagree. Unless you know your child is not ready to be left at someone else’s house, one parent is perfectly capable of watching two pre-schoolers play.
Q. Together but Separate: Currently my husband and I are living apart due to his job taking him out of the country for a year. This has been difficult but we have been doing fine with modern communication. Lately, though, I find myself missing something more and wondering what other relationships would be like. I have not cheated and do not want or plan to do so, but I am concerned that when he returns it may not go back to being the same. Thoughts?
A: If you start another relationship, I agree that when you get back together things will not be the same. Let’s say your husband was overseas because he was in the military—would you act on your desires then? You two are trying to keep your marriage together under difficult circumstances. Since you’re “missing something more” I suggest you schedule a conjugal visit, rather than see who’s available locally.
Q. Re: Grandma/LSAT: Thank you for your update. Maybe it’s just the holiday season, but it sure brought a tear to my eye. It’s so nice to hear happy at the holidays! Best and warm wishes.
A: It is indeed great to hear that what was a wrenching situation ended up being resolved in the best way possible for all concerned.
Q. More on Family Drama: Thank you for your response to this. I have known several parents who have conducted nasty smear campaigns (are there any pleasant smear campaigns?) against departing daughters-in-law. Everyone who serves on a committee/plays bridge/sings in the church choir with these women—who, by the way, do not wish to be dissuaded—has to listen to the story repeated and repeated. Following the campaigns, of course, is the story of the cruel and evil former daughter-in-law who is denying them access to the grandchildren. I have given up asking how the smearer thought this would play out. Since there is no way that doesn’t cause even more carrying on.
A: Good point. Conduct a smear campaign against your child’s ex, and see how that affects your ability to see your grandchildren. Maybe it would help if people said to the smearers, “I understand your anguish, but unless you get your feelings under control, the people who are going to end up hurt the most will be your grandchildren.”
Q. Infidelity: A few months ago, I fooled around with a very close friend of mine who is married when we were both drunk (not an excuse, I know). We didn’t sleep together, but things were definitely more heated than they ever should have been. It was the first (and last) time anything like that has ever happened between us, but I feel awful about it. We have never discussed it since, but now I feel awkward whenever I talk to him, especially if his wife is around. Should I bring it up with him and clear the air? Or just pretend like it never happened? I don’t want to end our friendship over this, but I hate feeling so guilty when I am around this couple!
A: What needs to be clarified? The fact that you are both pretending it never happened means both of you wish it had never happened and have a tacit agreement that the encounter will go down the memory hole. So you kissed and rubbed up against each other. Not good, but even without the expansive Clintonian definition, it would be generally agreed you didn’t have sex. Stop feeling guilty, stop acting weird, just forget about it—and watch the alcohol consumption.
Q. More on Playdates: You may disagree as to whether it should be expected for the other parent of a preschooler to stay, but the fact is that it is expected. And it sounds like this woman is insisting that the other mother’s leave, which would be a huge red flag to anyone who didn’t know her well, since this is pretty far outside the norm.
A: OK, it’s been a decade since I had a pre-schooler, and I agree that if you don’t know the other parent at all (but then how did the playdate come about?) you would want to check out the home. And fine, the first time you may want to stay. But if after that the other mother then says, “I’d be delighted if you just dropped off Jeremy. Then you can be free to run errands or whatever. I’m fine watching the kids by myself, ” I would not then come to the conclusion she wanted me out of the house so she could perform ritual Satanic abuse.
Q. Introducing My Girlfriend: I’m a woman in a relationship with another woman. She loves my immediate family because unlike her own family, they welcome and accept her. I would love to bring her to bigger family gatherings, but I’m not sure how some members of the family would react. My parents have told me that they think I could bring her, but that I should just introduce her as my “friend” and let them figure it out. Which leads me to two questions: I’ve never brought a partner of any gender to a family gathering before, and they make it sound like you just bring them along. Is that true? I don’t remember my cousin doing anything but just bringing his girlfriends along, but it seemed everyone else in the fam knew he was seeing somebody. So do you tell the host? And if so, would I tell the host I’m bringing “a friend”? That just seems awkward, but then, I’ve never brought anyone at all before. Would I bring her to something my parents are hosting first, and play the “she’s my friend” game and let them figure it out? Or what?
A: Unless it’s well-established you are part of a couple and are expected to come as a twosome, it’s polite to tell your hosts—even at a big family gathering —that you would like to bring a friend along. Since this woman is your girlfriend, you should introduce her as such. It’s up to “some members of the family” to react like civilized adults and welcome her graciously as they would any other guest.
Q. Nice Former M.I.L.: After I dumped my ex, his mother continued to be very civil to me. I understood that it was because she wanted to see her grandson. I thought it very diplomatic of her and was happy to take my son to see her.
A: Smart (former) mother-in-law. It’s nice to hear about one!
Q. Grandma’s Hairspray: Just wanted to say that my beloved gran died in 1981 but she still pops in for a visit now and then. I can tell when she’s around (and a very comforting presence she is) by the scent of White Shoulders perfume in the air. She always wore it. No one in my house wears it—in fact, I think they don’t make it anymore.
A: You make me wish I could catch a whiff of Youth Dew and know that my grandmother is around.
Q. Grandmother’s Obsession With Weight: My daughter is a recent grad of a top 3 in the country school. She’s kind, pretty, has friends and is employed, going back to grad school. She’s a former college athlete but since school, has put on a huge amount of weight. While it’s a less than ideal situation, she’s seeking help for it. The issue is Grandmother. She’s old-school, from a certain area of the country that values looks and femininity trumps all, especially weight. She’s not at all slim herself, her kids have had eating disorders and her husband has been grossly obese for as long as I’ve known them. She’s terrible to my daughter and what she doesn’t say outright, she implies. My husband’s attempted many times to talk to her, but to no avail. We try to avoid seeing them, but during the holidays, it’ll be difficult. She always has the last word. Is there a polite way to shut her down? Sincerely, not a Belle.
A: Your daughter is an adult so she’s the one who needs to handle this situation. You can have a talk with your daughter and say that you dread hearing her grandmother’s nasty remarks and you want her to be ready to parry them. “Thank you” is an all-purpose non sequitur. Your daughter can also be more direct: “It’s good to see you Grandma. You’ve expressed your feelings about my weight many times, so I know how you feel. I’d like to enjoy the holiday, so I’d appreciate it if we don’t discuss this anymore.” If grandmother won’t stop, your daughter just needs to say, “Good to talk to you. Excuse me, I’m going to see Uncle Ed.”
Q: Still More on Playdates:
Disagree that itis expected. I’m a parent of a 4-year old, who has had plenty of playdates (at our house or friend’s house) without the extra parent present.
A. Thank you. From the stream of letters on this I was starting to feel as if I should have had an investigation opened on me because I had other pre-schoolers over to play with my child without the mother present, and did the same with my daughter.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. I hope all your playdates are properly supervised. Talk to you next week.