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. Isn’t it wonderful to see the first crocuses?
Q. Colleague: I was given the job of cleaning out the office of a colleague who died suddenly and unexpectedly. I came across very affectionate letters from a man who was not her husband. I can’t bring this up to other co-workers, and I can’t send them to her husband like the other notes and cards I’ve found. I think I should shred them, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I keep imagining this man out there mourning in secret because she’s gone. I’m tempted to mail them all to him, but not knowing who might intercept them on his end stops me. They’re in a pile on my desk now and I don’t know what to do.
A: Let this be a warning to anyone with a secret stash of letters in the desk that would change everyone’s understanding of you if you suddenly were gone. If you are able to track the man down at his place of work, give him a call and explain that you’d be happy to return the letters to him or that you will dispose of them if he prefer. Reassure him that no one else will know what you found. Your late colleague is very lucky this sad task fell to you.
Q. Long-Distance Guilt: My best friend of 12 years moved to the West Coast to complete a two-year degree, leaving me and another of my closest friends, her fiance, behind. They are a fabulous couple, and the distance has not hurt their relationship—they call and visit each other frequently. In the last year, however, I’ve found myself increasingly attached to her fiance. Until she moved away, we always functioned more or less as a trio, and I never felt any attraction to him at all. Now I feel guilty all the time, overanalyzing every interaction for signs of reciprocation—which is the last thing I want. We work in the same department, and do volunteer work together, so I can’t really avoid him. Also, he really is a great friend, and I don’t have any other close friends in the city. I’ve been ignoring the issue for almost a year without luck. So my question is: Should I get this off my chest to them (her? him? both?), or will that just make things even worse?
A: You say you’re increasingly “attached” to your best friend’s fiance. Although you sound like a barnacle, I assume you meant to write, “attracted.” But your slip of the fingers is illuminating. You need to quietly start unattaching yourself from the boyfriend of someone else. Imagine that you go ahead and get your feelings off your chest: “Diane, Nick, I just wanted both of you to know that I fantasize about Nick constantly, and now that you’re out of sight, Diane, I can’t help but imagine myself stepping up and becoming Nick’s fiance.” How’s that going to go? Since you work with Nick and volunteer with him, sure, you can’t help but spend time with him. What you can do, however, is start building your own network of friends. Surely you recognize that the Three Musketeers are going to have to disband someday. (You’d probably like Diane to be the one to drop out.) Nick has given you no sign that he’s the slightest bit romantically or sexually interested in you. That’s good news. Trying to move in on your best friend’s fiance is a plot development best left for the next Anne Hathaway movie.
Q. Embarrassed at a Party: I recently attended a party where I knew only the hosts (a wonderful couple). Someone at the party told an incredible story about meeting and subsequently befriending a major political figure. I was suitably impressed, and asked if he’d gotten a picture with this person when they last saw one another. The storyteller nicely said he had not, and another person listening to the story blurted out “Of course not! That would have been pretty hokey!” I was terribly embarrassed, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve never considered myself to be a rube, but now I feel very foolish. How do I stop thinking about this?
A: If what the other guest said is true then just about every office in Washington is going to have to be declared the land of the hokey, because usually there’s a brag wall in which one prominent person has grip-and-grin pictures of him or herself with other, more prominent people. The guest who blurted out the remark about your hokiness was being slightly rude. However, if everyone who blurted out something thoughtless, and everyone who felt they’d made an unsophisticated observation were to go around in a state of self-mortification, we’d all be babbling in the corner about how awful we are. You stop thinking about this by recognizing the other guest should be saying to him or herself, “Wow, I sounded like a jerk.” But most of all you recognize you’re big enough to just let it go.
Q. Strangers at a Funeral?: I’m a high schooler that just moved into a neighborhood that’s right by a funeral home. Some of the more popular kids who think they’re goth in the ‘80s sense brag about going to funerals for people they don’t even know. One of them wants me to go to the next one they’re going to crash but I’m really not sure if I should do it. What I would like to know is, just how wrong is it? Is it wrong at all?
A: Imagine you’re at your grandmother’s funeral and suddenly from the back you hear giggling. You turn around and a bunch of high-school students are in the back treating this event as if they are in a reality show called, “Crash This Funeral.” (Or maybe they’re part of the youth group of the Westboro Baptist Church.) It’s wrong. You don’t go. And it would be a good test of your social skills to calmly convey to the popular kids (why is popular so often a synonym for jackass?) that intruding on a family’s grief is just not fun.
Q. Mentally Ill Brother-In-Law Hurting My Baby: My husband has an adult brother who is mentally disabled. He has the mental capacity of a young child. Although “Thomas” adores my baby daughter, I’m getting increasingly worried about how he handles her. The other day I caught him bouncing her so hard she was almost up in the air. He doesn’t understand babies are fragile, and shakes her as a way of playing. Generally he is OK but every now and then he will rough-handle my little girl without understanding that it has the potential to cause harm. I feel freaked out every time he holds her. My husband just says he will keep an eye on him, and my in-laws think I’m being insensitive to their son’s disability. Am I wrong to ban Thomas from holding my baby?
A: If Thomas accidentally hurts your daughter, it can happen in a split second and all the family members who are “keeping an eye out” can do is watch as disaster happens. It’s wonderful that the family is attentive to Thomas’ feelings and wants him to enjoy being an uncle. However, it does no one any favors to not recognize people’s limitations. You wouldn’t ask a beloved grandparent with Alzheimer’s to baby-sit, for example. Your daughter’s safety is paramount. You simply have to explain that you’re glad Thomas adores his niece, and you look forward to him being part of her life, but she’s not safe when he holds her, so that has to stop. If that means you risk hurt feelings, so be it. Your husband and his family need a understand recognizing reality is not insensitivity.
Q. Stepmother Young Enough To Be My Daughter: Dear Prudence: After my father’s third wife passed away last year, he pursued several young “mail-order brides” from Eastern Europe and Asia that he met online. He “courted” one, visited her several times in her home country, and set her up in an apartment there. He later brought her to the United States then married this lady from a completely different culture nearly 45 years younger. She is young enough to be my daughter. He feels he deserves to be happy—and I want him to be—but he is driving a wedge deeper into an already estranged relationship because of his obsession with making her happy. The final straw came when I asked for his help through hard times and he didn’t come through. He rarely has. It seems little can be salvaged from my relationship with him. What moral obligations do I have? Signed: Mail-Order Stepdaughter
A: Your father’s on his fourth wife. He ordered her up online. What more do you need to know about this guy? If your father is not breaking the law and your new stepmother is not underage, I’m not sure what moral obligation you’re talking about. You believe he has a moral obligation to help you out financially. It would have been nice if he’d decided to discharge it, but he was too busy charging gifts for Ludmilla to be bothered to help you. If you’re wondering if you have a moral obligation to look out for him as he gets even deeper into old age, feel free to say, “Ludmilla, the Depends are generally next to the feminine care products.”
Q. Family Members: My sister owes me money and now she does not even pick up her phone or e-mail. Should I just go to her house and ask for the money? I set up an arrangement for payback and she agreed … it is not that much money, but this is becoming very awkward.
A: So when, or if, she opens the door, are you going to dash in and run off with the television in lieu of a check? She borrowed money from you because she’s broke. She’s still broke; that’s why she can’t pay it back. If you loan money to someone with financial troubles, you should only do so if you can afford to never see that money again, because there’s a strong likelihood you never will. You even say it’s a small amount of money, so why are you trying to destroy your relationship over it? I think you should send another e-mail saying, “I want to apologize for turning into a collection agency. I know times are tough, so let’s forget about paying back the money for now. I love you and our relationship is more important than a few bucks.”
Q. First Crocuses: Crocuses are the Chicken Littles of spring—it doesn’t start until the daffodils sing.
A: But I love those little spots of color that lift your spirits and say, “Allergy season is coming!”
Q. Physical Abuse at Work: Dear Prudie, I’m a caregiver for adults with developmental disabilities. For almost a year now, I’ve been working with a client who has many self-injurious and physically assaultive behaviors. I have just recently started a new shift where I work with her during the day, which is when she exhibits most of her behaviors. I hate it! Almost every day I’m getting hit, kicked, scratched, hair pulled, bitten, or possibly all of the above, just because I’m trying to help her out with toileting, changing, etc. On top of all this, she has an extremely demanding mother who makes my co-workers and me feel like idiots even though we’re taking care of her daughter. Anyway, the point of this is … although I feel embarrassed to admit it, sometimes when my client is beating me up, my natural instinct is to fight back. Should I find a way to remove myself from this situation immediately? The problem is that no one wants to work in this client’s home (she only has three of us that work there daily for morning, evening, and overnight shifts), so my boss would have to hire a new person that I’d have to train before I could leave. I’m afraid to admit to my boss or anyone else at my company that when she hits me, I want to hit her back. I don’t want to be fired over something that I’m feeling, even though I truly believe I could never raise my hand in defense against her. I’m sorry for the drawn-out question, but please help. Thank you.
A: Please talk to your boss about your need to leave this assignment. You do not have to say you are restraining an impulse to hit back, you just have to explain that the level of assault you are enduring has become too much and you feel physically endangered. I understand that your job requires you to sometimes have to deal with a violent person, but your safety and well-being is paramount. Surely you feel guilty and unprofessional for having these impulses, but they are normal. It speaks highly of your professionalism that you have never acted on them, and you are concerned about how to proceed. It sounds as if this young woman needs some further medical oversight—there are medications that may help keep her calmer and less agitated. And perhaps a case worker could set up some meetings for the mother and the caregivers, providing guidance that will help everyone get along better. You’re doing difficult, important work. Do not feel guilty about recognizing you are only human, but do get the assistance you deserve.
Q. Dietary Restrictions and Dating: Dear Prudence, I have just entered the world of online dating, and I was wondering how to handle the topic of my dietary restrictions. I’m gluten intolerant (I can’t eat wheat, rye, or barley or any by-products thereof) with other food sensitivities, and as such, I have to resort to being “that person”: the person who has to bother the waitstaff about how everything is cooked, what sauces they use, and ask them to check the ingredients in the salad dressing. I detest having to do this, but it is necessary because I get very ill (for several days) if I don’t. I’m very polite when I do this, and I try not to be too much of a bother, but I often see people at another table rolling their eyes at me. I would like to get your thoughts on how best to handle this in the world of online dating. I know it isn’t something I would want to put on my online profile, “Oh, by the way, I can’t eat this, this, this, and that,” but I don’t want to end up going to a restaurant and not being able to eat anything or alert him that there is an issue by giving the waitress the third degree. What do you think? Signed: That Girl
A: Unless you are on a gluten-intolerance dating site (and if there isn’t one, there should be), you don’t have to disclose your dietary restrictions in your profile. What you should do is be familiar with a bunch of restaurants that are able to accommodate the gluten-intolerant. Then, when you make a connection with someone and you two are talking about where to go to eat, you can list these restaurants. When you get there, you can mention to your date in a low-key way that you have food restrictions. If you’re relaxed about it, you should put him at ease. And if he only wants to date people who can break bread with him, better to know that early.
Q. Patriarchal Papa: When my mother died, I had a quilt made from her clothes for my dad. He loved the quilt, swore he’d cherish it for the rest of his life, and promised he’d pass it on to me later. Dad went back to the Mormon religion he was raised in after mom died and found a new wife through a LDS singles Web site (whom he knew for less than a week before marrying, although they did chat for five weeks online). The new wife has been on a campaign to get rid of any mementos of my mother still around, including the quilt. So Dad calls me up yesterday and informs me that he plans on giving my sister (for her 50th birthday) either the quilt or an afghan that my mother had started and new wife finished, but wanted to know my thoughts. I told him that I’d like the quilt, as promised. He agreed, but with a catch. I need to stop living in sin and marry my boyfriend of three years before he’ll give me the quilt. He then launched into this diatribe about how he’s sticking to the commitment that he made to the new wife and that until I’m married, I’m not worthy of having the quilt because I obviously don’t respect myself enough to demand that my boyfriend show me the same respect the he showed his new wife, by marrying me and honoring the commitment we feel for each other because that is just what adults do. Needless to say, I was stunned by his remarks and incredibly hurt by them. I’m 42 and have been happily divorced for 13 years. Marriage is many things, but it is not a barometer of personal worth or respect! I was so insulted by all the things said and implied by his comments. How do I respond?
A: And we wonder why “stepmother” so often comes with bad connotations. I think it’s sickening when the new spouse tries to eradicate all traces of the late one, particularly when there are children involved. It’s a shame your father is not able to stand up to this woman, but you are probably going to have to start accepting that she calls the shots and your relationship with him is going to be altered. As far as the quilt is concerned, if you have a good enough relationship with your sister, you could ask her to request it with the intent of passing it on to you. As far as your father is concerned, you need to say to him that you respect his new-found commitment to his religion, but you’re his daughter, so you hope he would in turn show you the kind of love parents and children share. Explain that you two have to agree to disagree about certain things, but one thing you have to agree on is that you will treat each other with respect.
Q: How Rude Would I Be?: How rude would I be if I were to offer the woman sitting behind me on the metro with a nonstop running nose, a tissue? This was not dainty sniffling, but intense snorting with almost every breath. It was unbearable to listen to. I can only imagine how she felt. But I wouldn’t want to embarrass her, either.
A: She’s already embarrassing herself and repelling everyone forced to share the car with her. Quietly offering a tissue and saying, “I have some extras if you need one,” is fine. If she responds with soggy, dismissive snort, don’t take it personally, but feel free to move to the less liquid end of the car.
Q. Colleague: If there is any reason to suspect that the colleague and this man were intimate, then the husband should be told so that he can be tested for any sexually transmitted diseases.
A: This is in response to the co-worker cleaning out the desk of the colleague who died suddenly. I’m afraid I have to disagree. There are some things that are just better left unsaid. One of them is, “I’m so sorry for your loss, and I have a strong reason to believe you need a full screening for STDs.”
Q. From Fort Wayne, Ind.: Dear Prudence, My in-laws have apparently come to the conclusion that our (otherwise healthy) 11-year-old Lab mix is not long for this world. They have both made comments about how “he’s not going to be with you much longer,” “you sure will miss him when he’s gone,” and asking our school-age kids whether we intend to get another dog once he’s gone! This is all despite the fact that the vet has given him a clean bill of health recently and even noted that he’s aging very well.
I feel like we’re in a Monty Python skit when they’re around … if the dog could talk, he’d say, “I’m not dead yet!!” How do I gently tell my in-laws to knock it off?
A: You could start saying to them, “Have you thought about your funeral plans?” “I’ve always admired your dining room table, can we have it when you die?” “The kids are going to miss their Grammy and Grampy so much when you’re gone.”
Don’t worry about being so gentle that they don’t hear what you’re saying. Tell them your Lab is in great shape, it’s likely your dog has many more healthy years ahead of him, and that it’s extremely upsetting to the kids for them to talk about their pet’s death. That means you don’t want to have any more conversations about this subject.
Q. Colleague: Are you serious? This colleague of a co-worker was given the responsibility to clean out a desk, not be the executor of this woman’s estate, or to make decisions about that person’s life. By moral law (and actual law) those personal items are the property of her estate, and should be passed on to the husband (or whoever is the rightful next of kin) so that they can do with them what they will. This woman has no right to interfere with someone else’s affairs like this.
A: The woman died suddenly and unexpectedly. Let’s assume had she known she was going to die, she never would have left these letters in her desk. (They’re in her office, not her home presumably for a reason.) The colleague is simply contacting the writer of the letters asking if he’d like them back. I think that’s a kindness, and yes, I’m serious about that.
Emily Yoffe: Thank you, everyone. Let’s hope for daffodils next week.