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 your questions.
Q. Embarrassing Video: I recently discovered that a friend of mine has a cell phone video of me drunkenly singing and using obscenities at a New Year’s Eve party. She also sent this to a few people who were at the party, some of whom I don’t know very well and therefore cannot trust. I think she knows that I am embarrassed by this, but not how much, because at a recent gathering, she pulled out her phone and played the video. (It seems like she thinks it’s funny, but not a big deal.) I take responsibility for my actions on New Year’s Eve, but I’d like to forget the incident. Should I ask my friend to delete the video? And what about the other people who have a copy of it? Complicating matters is the fact that I am a public school teacher and worry about my reputation and career, should this video get out. (Disclaimer: I rarely have more than one drink per week and can count on my hands the number of times in my life that I have been drunk, so I do not have a drinking problem.)
A: Sadly, more and more of us are feeling like an NPR fundraiser caught on video saying wildly stupid things. I do not like stings, but nowadays anyone in a high-profile job must consider everything he says or does in a work-related situation could end up on the Internet. However, people are still entitled to be relaxed and silly after hours among friends—especially at a New Year’s Eve party!—without having to worry about surreptitious recording devices. Your (ex?) friend is behaving abominably. But you must use all the restraint and humor you can muster to try to get her to see how potentially destructive she is being. Get together with her in person and tell her this video has been causing you great anxiety. You’re a teacher and in the world we live in, if it were to be seen by the wrong people, you fear your job could be in jeopardy. Tell her you would be forever grateful if she would delete the video and if she would ask everyone she sent it to to delete it because of the sensitivity of the situation. What a sad state we’ve come to that while celebrating with friends we have to worry that they might record and disseminate our most unguarded moments.
Dear Prudence: Ungroomed Nether Regions
Q. College-Aged Children and Divorce: My 19-year-old daughter asked me to take her and her 21-year-old brother to a warm island for spring break so we could recover as a family from my recent (4 months) divorce. She then decided that she “had” to spend the last two days of her break in another city with her father, who has just married a pregnant much younger woman. I don’t know how to handle all of the emotions this has raised in all of us. I am angry that she spoiled my one opportunity to relax with my family, and she is angry that her father hasn’t made much effort before now to incorporate her into his life and fears it will be too late once the baby arrives. We are all hurting. We are all (except the ex, who thinks life is great) in therapy, but we all live in different cities. How can I keep what’s left of my family together?
A: Your daughter did not spoil your “one opportunity” to relax with your family. You will have many more opportunities in the years to come—and you will help make sure those opportunities happen by not accusing her of betraying you and ruining your vacation.
Your husband has shattered his family and it is going to take a lot of time for all of you to heal. Life is never going to be the same, but it can be good again if you don’t let bitterness poison you, and if you don’t make your children choose between you and their father. Sure, you’d like them to declare he’s a bastard and write him out of their lives. But he’s their father, and your daughter’s actions show she’s worried that now that he’s starting a new family, he will conclude he’s done with the old. Stay in therapy, which will help all of you work through this. Be nice to yourself and your children—remember people in extremis are not at their best. Tell your daughter you enjoyed your get-away and after thinking about it, you understand why she felt she needed to see her father.
Q. Play Date Pushover: I’m a stay-at-home mom with a 3-year-old daughter. About a year ago, I met another mom who lives close by, and while we’re not best friends, we enjoy each other’s company well enough, and our daughters get along great. Unfortunately, play dates always end up being at my home, which means I’m the one providing lunch/snacks and cleaning up beforehand (and often afterwards). I’ve tried suggesting that we switch off, but something always “comes up” that makes it easier for them to come here instead. Yesterday they stayed for five hours, and relentless hints that they leave fell on deaf ears. I finally said I needed to start dinner because my husband would be home soon. She’s also asked me to watch her daughter many times over the past year while she goes to meetings, runs errands, etc. I don’t expect to be paid, but when I recently had minor surgery and asked if she could watch my daughter for an hour (I usually watch her daughter for 2-3 hours or more), she said the time I’d have to drop my daughter off was too early—she and her daughter wouldn’t be up before 10 a.m.! Our daughters really enjoy playing together, so I don’t want to end the play dates, but I’m tired of being a doormat. Hinting that we go to their house hasn’t changed anything. What should I do?
A: Find some other people whose company you enjoy who have children your daughter’s age. If you don’t want to completely drop this woman the next time she suggests getting together you can say. “We need to come over to your house this time. Does 11:00 a.m. work?” If no times works at her house, then reply, “Sorry, we’ll have to do it another time.” Or now that the weather’s getting nicer, you can meet in the park.
If you do have her over at your house and you’ve had enough, say, “Miranda, I’m afraid I have some errands to run, so I have to ask you to leave.” If she wants free babysitting say, “I’m sorry, I can’t watch Jillian today.” You’re tired of being a doormat. So brush yourself off and stop letting her walk all over you.
Q. Cheating: My parents recently visited, and my father checked his e-mail on my computer. We use the same e-mail provider, and apparently he didn’t log out. I later checked my e-mail and accidentally saw his e-mails—including the one that opened in the preview panel, which was a request for rates for “adult services.” This is obviously something I really, really wish I didn’t know. Once I realized what had happened, I immediately logged out. I’m disgusted and furious with my father. What do I do now? Tell him I know? Tell my mother?
A: You don’t actually know what your father is up to. You also don’t know what kind of accommodation your parents have with each other, if any. Sure you wish you hadn’t seen the e-mail, but even seeing it you actually know very little. I know some readers will say your mother should be alerted for the possibility of STDs. But I say this is one of those bits of information that should go in the memory hole.
Q. General Malaise: I think I am just bored with life, although I find that I am generally happy and that I am doing everything a young, responsible woman should be doing. I recently got married, we have a great puppy, we own a home, we both work full time, we go on vacations, have friends. I am well-educated, I do volunteer work, give to charities, have faith in a higher power, have a wonderful set of parents and in-laws. So, what’s wrong with me? Why do I find life so hum-drum? Believe me, I know things could be worse. But I am just finding myself going through the routine of life even though I “have it all.”
A: Maybe you became too responsible too young and are feeling you went from childhood to middle age without any of the crazy adventures your friends were having. If so, without chucking your existing life, think of ways to put more adventure into it. Maybe you want to do exotic travel on your vacation. Or maybe you can combine your volunteer work and vacation.
You could also turn on the news, take a look at what people’s lives are like in Japan or Libya, just for an example, and see if it doesn’t help you feel that you are one of the truly fortunate people on this earth.
Q. Memory Hole?: What’s that? I don’t have one. If she’s got any sort of relationship with her father, what’s wrong with simply stating, “When I went to log onto my e-mail, I found myself in your e-mail account—and I really wish I hadn’t seen what I saw.” Give him the chance to ignore your comment, reply, or give you a little insight into the human side of your dad … but I don’t see how a person stuffing down (the memory hole?!) this information will make for good future dealings with his/her father.
A: The memory hole was the chute to dispose of inconvenient documents in Orwell’s 1984. I don’t see how, “Dad, after you left I saw that you had been looking for escort services” advances her relationship with her father. Let’s say Dad says, “I wasn’t actually looking for an escort, I was just cruising a porn site and that’s the kind of spam e-mail that results.” Or he says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You must have a computer virus.” Or, “Please, I beg you, don’t tell your mother about this.” I think all of these are conversations best not had. Her father did something involving porn on her computer. Very stupid of him, but she should let it go.
Q. Jilted: What should you do when your favorite newspaper Web site does a redesign and makes chats like yours next to impossible to find?
A: Thank you for being persistent enough to have found the chat. All redesigns are works in progress. To let the designers know that you can’t find the chats send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. Neighbors Don’t Pick Up After Their Two Dogs: My husband and I live in a town house and share a backyard with the adjoining townhouse. The neighbors are a young couple with a child and two dogs. We used to have a good relationship with them but over the past year it hasn’t been very good. They let their two dogs off leash out in the backyard to do their business and because we share it, their dogs “go” on our side. The problem here is that they don’t pick it up because they sit in their house while the dogs are outside and they don’t bother coming out to pick it up. We have asked them twice so far via text message to please pick up after their dogs when they go to the bathroom on our side. It works for a while, but then they get lazy again and don’t pick it up. I am at my wit’s end and I just don’t know what else to do. I hate that I get so furious and would love to have a good relationship with them, but I can’t when they are so rude and disrespectful. If you have any tips on how to deal with this type of situation I would love to hear!
A: As Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Unless it violates some building code, you should fence off your half of the yard. Since you want to maintain good relations you can alert them that a fence is going to be installed. If you can’t build a fence then you should invite them over for drinks and say you really enjoy having them as neighbors and that you understand they want the dogs to be able to run around in the backyard. This means, however, that they have to survey your yard and pick up daily. Surely they can appreciate, you say as you refill their glasses, that’s it extremely unpleasant to have to pick up dog poop from someone else’s canine every time you want to enjoy your own backyard.
Q. Breast Cancer Secret: My husband and I just found out that his cousin (she’s in her late 30s, has two small kids) was diagnosed with breast cancer before Christmas, has since had lymph nodes and a whole breast removed, and is now waiting to find out what course of therapy is best for her. My husband’s parents are the ones who told us, even though the cousin asked them to not say anything. They live about seven hours away, so we don’t see any of them all that often. We, of course, are absolutely horrified to hear about this and now feel even worse about the lighthearted e-mails we’ve sent her about our vacation and our 2-year-old. We’re planning on visiting over Easter, and now the question is: What do we do? What do we say? We’re not supposed to know, and yet we do.
A: Do not feel guilty about being light-hearted—she knows you didn’t know. Now that it’s several months since the diagnosis and you’ll be visiting soon, you should discuss with your in-laws the code of silence. Perhaps they can go back to the cousin’s parents and explain it’s too difficult to keep this secret, especially with an Easter visit coming up. If the cousin remains adamant that her illness remain a secret, you can either pretend you don’t know, or you can pull her aside and say you heard about her diagnosis. Say you understand she doesn’t want a lot of fuss, but you had to let her know that you love her and want to do whatever you can to help.
Q. Conspiracy Love: My fiance and I are about to be married. We are both very opposite when it comes to our philosophy. I have been involved with the government for over 20 years in one capacity or another. He has always worked for himself and has never really been on his own. (He still lives with his parents.) I see the world as “bad things sometimes happen to good people” or “bad things happen to bad people.” He sees the world as if something bad happens, the U.S. government or some ruling family is behind it. For example, he believes that Charlie Sheen wasn’t always crazy and that someone targeted him to make him look crazy because he said that 9/11 was an “inside job.” He believes that the earthquake in Japan was caused by the U.S. government using a large antenna array, called HAARP, to target the Japanese and cause nuclear power to be vilified or for some other nefarious purpose. He focuses on it so much (every conversation is about subjects such as these), instead of the things he should be focusing on, that it scares me. I’ve never seen any evidence to support such philosophy, but it is out there on the Internet. I’m not sure what to do anymore. I don’t want to wake up one day with him moving us to some other place because he suspects we are being targeted for depopulation. Everything that happens is taken at less than face value and there is always an underlying plot of some kind. Not sure quite what to do.
A: Charlie Sheen is rich and famous, and crazy, but the rich and famous part helps explain why women keep marrying him. Your fiance isn’t rich and famous. So you need to call off the wedding and figure out why you were planning to marry someone who is mentally ill.
Q. Bridesmaid Woes: My best friend, who lives across the country, is getting married. Between the pre-wedding parties and the wedding (two trips), the cost is coming to $4,500. Is this normal? I love my friend dearly, but my husband and I are worried about the costs. We technically have the money, but we also have three kids and it doesn’t seem like the best use of the money. If I could cut out the shower trip, I could save about $1,200. How do I tell her I can’t make it? I’m freaking out here.
A: It is now perfectly normal for guests to be expected to spend an amount of money to attend a wedding as it used to be to throw a wedding. What you do is spend an amount that you can easily afford. In this case that might mean a small wedding gift, a shorter stay for the wedding “weekend,” and definitely missing the shower. You explain you can’t come to the shower by saying unfortunately you can’t come to the shower but you will be thinking of her.
Q. Funeral/Friendship: I had a best friend whose on and off boyfriend just committed suicide. I would openly go to the funeral and support her, or go to her house to offer my condolences, but there is a catch. I disliked her boyfriend while he was alive. He hurt her, so I would try to be a good friend and offer advice to let go and find a happier person and move on, but that never worked. Instead, he went in the middle and broke off our friendship, among other of her friendships. I still deeply care about her and want to offer my help with anything possible, but I do not know how to go about it. It was common knowledge among people that I blamed him for the loss of our friendship and did not speak kindly of him. Should I pay her a visit? Should I attend the funeral?
A: Now’s the time for a condolence note that simply expresses your sympathy for the anguish she is going through. No, “I told you he was no good” no, “Now that he’s dead I hope we can resume our friendship.” You can say your heart goes out to her, you’re thinking of her, and you miss her.
You may blame the boyfriend for ending your relationship, but it was your friend who made the choice and did the deed. After you send the note, you can follow up with a phone call and see if she’s receptive to getting together. Since you openly disliked the boyfriend and your friendship was broken off, I think you should wait for an indication from her that she wants to get together, rather than just showing up.
Q. Re: Her Father Did Something Involving Porn on Her Computer: Not necessarily. I get all kinds of yucky spam. Someone accidentally getting a glimpse at my e-mail on any given day may think I’m trying to enlarge my private parts, or that I’m eager to chat with Ivanka from Russia. But I’m not, nor did I doing anything involving porn.
A: Good point. It could just be that the daughter saw a glimpse of the ugly side of a bad spam filter. Again, my suggestion is to forget about it.
Q. Insecure in a Relationship: I did the worst thing in the world and looked through my on–again, off-again boyfriend’s e-mail and as is want to happen, I read something that has really upset me. In a conversation with his friend, he said that in terms of looks, he feels as though he is settling. He is a very good looking guy who gets attention from women and will get even more attention as he starts his career in a high-paying industry. Meanwhile I am recently unemployed and have not figured out what I would like to do with my life. We have since gotten back together, and he tells me that he loves me and wants to be with me and has even set a timeline for when we should get married. Can I be with someone who once thought the grass is greener on the other side?
A: You haven’t stumbled on your father’s possible spam e-mail. You deliberately looked at your boyfriend’s e-mail and found something that confirmed your insecurities. You need to tell him what you did—you can apologize and say you know it was wrong—but you can’t undo what you found, and it’s left you worrying he feels he’s settling. There’s no guarantee where the conversation, or relationship, goes from there. But if you ever are going to be married, you need to have a more honest foundation to your relationship.
Q. Dad’s E-Mail Again: For what it’s worth, it was clear from the e-mail that it was a legitimate reply to a query my father sent, and not a spammer. But I’m hoping that nothing ever came of it, and I’ll try to apply liberal amounts of brain bleach. Thanks.
A: What was Dad going to do, say, “Hey, I’ll run out for bagels!” then hook up with Ivanka? Brain disinfectant is a good idea!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. And I especially appreciate that it took some perseverance to find the chat.