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. Let’s get to it.
Q. Cheated and Feeling So Guilty!: My husband and I were married for nearly a year. A past friend came into my life, and we went out for drinks. He and I ended up sleeping together that night. Ever since, I have been guilt-ridden. I will not ever let it happen again, I have not seen this friend again, and I even told him that I felt such guilt that I can’t talk to him any longer. My husband is a wonderful man who is attentive, sweet, and an all around great person to be with. My motives for cheating? Frankly, there are none. There were times just before the “one night stand” took place where I did feel lonely. Not for lack of lovemaking, because we are pretty into being together. But we have children, children who, like any other, demand our time. My husband works more than one job and helps tend to the kids, and at times I am not only bored, and lonely, but I also feel like I don’t have any personal time with him. Someone else spending personal time with me … it made me feel wanted. I know this is wrong. Trust me, my guilt has me totally consumed. I plan on telling my husband the truth, because he deserves that. I’m hoping to save my marriage, because I know what a big mistake I have made, and I love my husband more than anything. My questions are: How do I bring it up? And how do I let him know that I am so sorry for what I have done. I feel like the worst person in the world.
A: Marriages require honesty, but after having gotten many letters about the fallout of a confession of a one-night stand, I’ve become somewhat skeptical about the usefulness of this revelation. I’m talking here about the situation in which one partner cheats one time, is consumed by guilt, and realizes this is something he or she never intends to do again. I’ll also add the caveat that protection was used so there’s minimal chance of passing on an STD to one’s spouse. It’s understandable the straying party wants the catharsis and absolution of confessing. And in the absence of owning up, there remains a chance that the cheated-upon partner could stumble on this information. But ultimately, as I’ve heard, the revelation can cause more pain to the spouse hearing the confession than it’s worth. The entire foundation of the marriage ends up being shaken, and for what? An incident that was stupid and won’t happen again.
You made a terrible mistake, so my advice is to do some deep soul-searching (as you are) and make sure you never get yourself in this situation again. Recommit to appreciating the loving, hard-working man you have.
Q. I Don’t Want To Talk About It: I am a suburban stay-at-home mom in my mid-30s. For the last year, I have been dealing with some medical issues that have severely affected my lifestyle. My doctor has sent me to specialist after specialist, and each has turned out to be a dead end. I have a loving community of friends who have been kind and helpful—watching my children while I go to appointments, bringing dinner when I’m too exhausted to cook, etc. I’m very blessed. The problem is, whenever I see my friends, all they want to talk about is my health. I don’t want to lie to them, but it’s very discouraging to rehash failure after failure in finding out what’s wrong. I know they mean well, but I wish they would just drop the subject. Can you help me figure out a nice way to say, “When I know, you’ll know?” Thanks.
A: My husband and I were just visiting a dear friend with a dreadful diagnosis. We asked after his health, he answered briefly, then asked what was up with us. We ended up spending 90 minutes talking about our kids, schools, Tiger Mothers, cyberwarfare, everything but his illness and prognosis because it was clear he wanted a break from dwelling on it.
There’s nothing wrong with your friends asking after your health, and people worry they will seem selfish and insensitive by not focusing on you and your troubles. But you can lead the conversation by saying, “Thanks for asking, but I’m so sick of thinking about this illness. Tell me what’s happening with you. Have you been reading all the commentary about that Tiger Mother book? Have you seen True Grit—do you recommend it?” People will be relieved to have permission from you to move on to other topics, and you will be relieved to enjoy your friends’ company and forget about your own situation.
Q. Helping Raise Racist Children: I’m just the nanny but I’ve discovered that the children that I am taking care of are racist and they are being taught these values by their mother. In caring for a 7- and 9-year-old, I’ve been told, particularly by the younger child, how their mother will not let them watch the Princess and the Frog since the princess is African-American. I learned this during a conversation after I brought over the movie Hairspray. I was told by the kids that they aren’t allowed to watch shows or movies with people of other races because of how they treat their mother. I was appalled by what came out of the children’s mouths and shocked as they live in a very diverse setting. Prudie, the mother has not said anything to me about my values, but I’m sure that conversation is coming soon. I refuse to extend their mother’s teachings to the children, yet as a nanny, am I in the position to say otherwise? Should I give her my two weeks’ notice because I don’t agree with her values?
A: You need to have a non-confrontational, but direct talk with the mother. Without making it sound as if the kids are tattling on her, say that you’ve heard some things from them that concern you. Specifically that they aren’t allowed to watch movies which feature black characters. Then let her reply. It’s possible these children are distorting what the mother said. But if what you hear from her makes you realize you are supposed to adhere to racist guidelines in helping to raise her kids, then yes, you need to tell her that you simply can’t participate in such an endeavor, and it would be best if you found another employer.
Q. Panic Attacks: If you were starting the adoption process and started having killer panic attacks, and you never had panic attacks before in your life, would you take that as a sign that adoption is not for you? Until now I really thought I wanted this.
A: It’s not some mystical sign from the beyond alerting you not to follow this path. It is a perfectly natural response to a stressful undertaking that requires a lifetime commitment. Fortunately, when you enter the adoption process, there should be plenty of support, from the social worker you hire, to the other parents who have worked with your agency. So use these resources to explore your anxiety. Sure, you might discover you don’t actually want to proceed with the adoption. But you might also discover that many other happy adoptive parents have had feelings such as yours, and they can help you work through them.
Q. Adult Child Driving Her Parents Broke and Berserk: Our adult daughter has never found her niche in life, and now she wants us to be understanding and fiscally supportive while she realigns her life—again. We would like to get serious about retirement fund building and enjoy a little empty-nest peace. How do we set limits without severing ties?
A: You’re all adults, and two of you are older adults with limited time to prepare yourself for when you’re no longer working. It sounds unlikely this latest realignment is likely to result in the kind of certain material success that would allow your daughter to financially look after you in your senior years. So just tell her that you want to support and encourage her in her new undertaking (well, only if you actually think it makes sense) but you are unable to do so financially because you don’t want to end up being dependent on her.
Q. Crush on My Older Boss: I have been happily married for 10 years to a man I adore and would never want to hurt. But I find myself extremely attracted to my boss, who is old enough to be my father, is married (seemingly happily), and has grown children (whom he adores). In the more than 10 years that I have been with my husband, I have never been interested in another man, but now I find myself overwhelmed by my feelings for my boss and worried that I might do something really stupid. I think my husband suspects my crush but seems satisfied with my comments that my boss is old—and therefore unattractive to me. My boss has never done or said anything inappropriate—in fact, he is careful not to create inappropriate situations—but I can tell he’s attracted to me. If my boss were a lesser man, I’d be asking your advice on how to deal with a boss I’m having sex with. We work very closely together and travel together. Is there anything that I can do (apart from quitting my job) to deal with these inappropriate and dangerous feelings? Should I talk to my husband about my feelings? I hate keeping this secret from him, but he seems like the last person to ask for advice. He’s having problems at work and his self-esteem is at an all-time low. (I think he’s depressed, and I have been trying to get him help.) I’ve never kept anything from him before, but I don’t want to hurt him. Any advice?
A: How do you imagine bringing this up: “Hey, honey, I’ve got a problem, too. I’m way more attracted to my boss than to you. I can tell he has the hots for me, too. What should I do about it?” You’ve been married for a decade and your husband feels lousy about himself, and your dashing, successful older boss, with whom you just click seems more and more alluring. I bet that your boss is attracted to you, but I’m hoping he values his family and career more highly than you value yours right now, so he has no plans to jeopardize either by giving in to temptation. But let’s say he’s willing, do you really want to end up like the letter writer above, confessing to a stupid assignation?
Hopping into bed with the boss has appeal as a kind of answer to the depressing problem of a depressed spouse. But it’s no answer. It would cause a kind of explosive mess that you would look back on with great regret. Accept that life is sometimes painful and difficult, and that working through it is a test of your character. You deserve to talk this through with someone. That person is not your spouse, but a therapist.
Q. Family Trouble: I’m in some serious need of advice here. My brother was just arrested for the 11th time in six months for drug abuse. This time also involved his junkie girlfriend, their two young sons, and a domestic violence charge. This is the first time my nephews have been directly involved in the charges that their parents have earned, so it’s the first time that CPS has been involved. Now, here’s where my problem comes in. For the time being, I’m responsible for the boys, but I know the time is coming when I’m going to have to return the boys to their father and mother. My brother and I grew up in a drug infested, abusive, and altogether neglectful household … and now I’m watching him put those children through the same thing. The oldest begs me to keep him with me, asking if he can stay with me always. He’s angry at his parents for the things they do … and he’s only 5. How do I send them back to this life when the court order comes? And what do I tell them? I know what’s best for the boys is for me to act positive, but the idea of them having to go back into that home disgusts me. I may know how bad it is … but my word won’t mean much against the parents if it ever went to court. So I fear those children will be stuck in a never-ending cycle—in and out of that awful home. There’s nothing I can do, is there?
A: What a heartbreak. Obviously, there are complicated legal issues here, but I’m not sure why you are so positive these children are about to be returned to a disastrously abusive situation. I think you’re asking me if it’s worth it for you to step up and try to get permanent custody of those children. I know that is no easy decision, but if you’re up for it, it sounds as if it would be salvation for these children.
Q. I Love You, But: My best friend is getting married later this year and I am beyond thrilled and honored to be a part of her wedding. She has chosen to get married in a city that will require a few days of travel for me and my family, but we’re excited to make the trip and my husband and I have already started budgeting for hotels, gas, and meals, as well as the cost of the dress and gift. The problem is that lately talk has centered over a bachelorette party. The plan the bride favors is one that will be prohibitively expensive for me. (I have been out of work and while my husband makes a good salary, we are paying down thousands of dollars of debt accrued in grad school.) From what I’ve ascertained, the attitude appears to already be that the plan is really not that expensive and thus should be doable for everyone invited. I can sense that when I say I can’t go, I’m going to get a lot of flak for it. Any idea on how to soften the blow, or should I just be honest and not worry about the effect?
A: If your friend’s celebration requires you to delay repaying your own debts because of steep financial obligations incurred by her celebration, then I think you should rethink the whole thing. If “budgeting” for the dress and gift is worth it to you, then do it. But if you can’t afford to attend (or pick up the tab) for the bachelorette party—which I’m sure will be in addition to multiple showers and the wedding reception itself—then don’t go. You say, “I’m sorry Nicole, I wish I could be there, but we just can’t afford it.” You can repeat it once or twice, but after that, say there’s no point discussing it. If that harms your friendship, then she’s not much of a friend.
Q. My Stubborn Husband: I have been married to my husband for almost six years, and while he has many good traits, he (of course) has a couple that bother me tremendously . He has some of the worst hygiene/cleanliness habits I’ve ever seen, such as almost never brushing his teeth, body odor, etc., and his overall cleanliness around the house makes me cringe when someone wants to drop by. He was overweight when I married him, but he’s gained an astonishing amount of weight lately as well. I’ve tried everything I know, from trying to be a good example to gentle reminding to having serious conversations about it. He wants to have children relatively soon, but I don’t want my kids to pick up on his bad habits. I love my husband—how can I help my husband help himself (and our kids down the line)?
A: It’s time for a physical and mental health evaluation. Not attending to hygiene basics can be a read flag for certain mental health conditions. Over the six years you’ve been together, he has been on a steep decline in attending to the basics that one can rightly expect of a spouse. Try to imagine yourself a few years down the road raising children in squalor while you watch your husband destroy his health due to morbid obesity. Sure, you love him, but you have to tell him that unless he addresses what is wrong, having children is on hold and your marriage is in jeopardy.
Q. Wedding Etiquette: I was invited to a good friend’s wedding as was another one of my friends. My friend’s invitation included her live-in boyfriend. My invitation said nothing about bringing a guest. I found this rather rude, but do not want to make a big deal of it. What is the etiquette as far as wedding guest invitations are concerned, and am I justified in being a bit put off by this?
A: No, you’re not. If someone has a significant other, the other should be invited to an event such as a wedding. You don’t have one. So instead of wanting to bring a random date, enjoy the fact that weddings are a famously fertile ground for scouting other singles with significant potential.
Q. Death: Elderly couple next door, one in poor health. Neighbors chat with them over the fence, try to help out by shoveling walks, etc., but generally do not get involved with their lives. Hearse arrives and departs, obviously the one in poor health has passed away. How and when does one inquire about plans for a funeral (so that flowers and cards can be sent, etc.) or to express condolences? What if a notice never appears in the newspaper (not uncommon as the family has to pay for a notice)—in which case you’re not even sure which of the two passed away?
A: You go up to the door, knock on it, and say you wanted to check in with your neighbors to see if everything is all right. Obviously, it isn’t, and presumably you will be told there has been a death. Then you express your condolences, and later you bring by some food (something that can be frozen) for the survivor. You alert others in the neighborhood so all of you can figure out how to help an elderly widow or widower in his or her time of grief.
Q. Cheating, Comment Not Question: As a male who twice has been cheated upon, once after a 25-year marriage and again after a six-year live together relationship, the emotional results for me were as destructive as anything could be. Don’t confess and don’t do it. I was on meds over a year and am still recovering. For me, and some other men I know, the emotional hit is PTSD. If you feel you have to cheat, don’t, and instead discuss separation and divorce. You may feel guilty about having cheated, but that will pale when compared to the emotional hit your spouse or significant other will take.
A: I’m not going to say never confess to cheating—the circumstances are too varied to make such a blanket generalization. But here is a powerful cri de coeur from someone who wishes he’d never been told.
Q. Bad, Bad Boyfriend?: Is it EVER appropriate to tell a friend that her (relatively) new boyfriend is showing signs of being a possessive, controlling stalkerific freak? I’ve known her for over 30 years, and she’s a smart woman—but after her last relationship collapsed, she is totally digging the unending attention of this man, a man who emailed me before I ever even met him demanding to know who a mutual male friend is. I’d rather have her hate me for warning her against this guy’s giganimous red flags than have her hate me later for not saying anything at all.
A: Tell, tell, tell! A strange man contacted you to check up on your friend because she knows someone of the opposite sex? Eek! If your friend doesn’t want to listen, that’s her decision, but you have to let her know you’re seriously alarmed.
Q. Roommate Headed To Law School—and a Lifetime of Debt?: My roommate and I have lived together for a year and a half and are very good friends. Recently, she’s been preparing to take her LSAT and enter law school—something she’s long dreamed of doing. She has several lawyers in her family, all of whom have done very well at it. However, I’m sure you’ve seen the recent blizzard of articles regarding poor job prospects and mountains of debt for new J.D.s. I’m certain that my roommate hasn’t seen these articles, as we talk about nearly everything, and she is prone to fretting when worried. Both for her own good and for my financial health, should I bring this up to her? If so, how?
A: I’m assuming you’re not planning on being roommates with your friend for all eternity, so her long-term financial situation probably won’t be your concern. You’re right, there is a glut of lawyers. It makes sense for anyone contemplating law school to make sure he or she has a passion for the profession. Your friend would have to consciously be avoiding stories about unemployed law school graduates if she knows nothing about this. But perhaps, since you say she is a worrier, she doesn’t want to dwell on what the world will look like three or more years from now when she graduates. She wants to be a lawyer, so there’s no reason for you to fill her with your doubts.
Q. Brides and Finances: Why do brides think their friends should put their lives in hock to pay for someone else’s wedding? When I got married in 2001, I promised all my bridesmaids (mostly close family) that I’d keep their expenses down as much as possible, and I kept that promise by choosing bridesmaids dresses (actually, skirts and tops that looked like dresses) that cost $140 each. (I even ended up paying for two of the dresses because two of my bridesmaids were students at the time.) I didn’t make them wear expensive dyed-to-match shoes, and I paid for the hotel accommodations for the one bridesmaid who had to travel. It’s not that hard, you just have to realize that your bridesmaids are the ones doing you a favor, not the other way around. The best thing about being in your 30s is not being asked to be in any more weddings. Gah. Brides today!
A: I’m going to have your wedding license pulled! You obviously did not understand that your wedding was a coronation, inauguration, space shot, and Apple product launch all in one. Nothing else mattered except your day, and everyone should have gone broke making sure you got just what you wanted.
Q. Neighbors, Part II: Similar situation, except my neighbors are relatively young (late 40s, early 50s) and one of them has just been told her cancer is now terminal. They have a high-school-age daughter. The whole situation is so sad, what can I do for them?
A: Find out if they would like dinners brought over several times a week, then help organize friends and neighbors to do that. Ask if they need errands run, or if you can take the ill person to the hospital. See if you can take the daughter to her lessons or pitch in for other carpool situations. Visit, if they are up for it.
Q: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next Monday.
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