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. (Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe: I’m going to assume we won’t have any questions about the appropriate way to celebrate the demise of a monster. So let’s be happy that Osama Bin Laden is gone, and our lives go on.
Q. My Bridesmaid Wants To Wear White?: Please settle this question for me! I have one bridesmaid for my upcoming wedding. I gave her a budget and told her to select her own dress, which I will pay for, and as long as I didn’t hate it I would be happy for her to get a dress she was happy with. She came up with a design which was fine with me. But now that she started the process of getting it made she is insisting that she wants to wear white. I told her she could have any other color, including black, but I do not want my bridesmaid wearing white. Besides, it defies wedding traditions and many of my guests and family would find it odd. We have been arguing over this and she has her heart absolutely set on white. Since Kate Middleton got married with a bridesmaid in white, my friend is even more insistent that this is the way to go. Am I a bridezilla for not wanting my bridesmaid to be in the same color as me?
A: I have the feeling that the gorgeous Pippa Middleton, with her glamorous white bridesmaid dress, is going to launch a million all-white weddings. You are paying for your friend’s dress and gave her carte blanche on its design. I officially declare you not a bridezilla. That she would engage in a tussle with you over wearing a white dress makes her a maidzilla. So what to do about it? Try to ratchet down the anger. Say as lovely as the Windsor wedding was, you particularly don’t want to look as if you’re copying it. Say the entire rainbow is at her disposable, and it would mean a lot to you if she went with another shade. But if she won’t, then let it go. No one is going to confuse her for the bride. And it may be that if she’s so stubborn and willful, in the future you won’t confuse her for your best friend, either.
Dear Prudence: Unwanted Dog Doting
Q. Hair Color: What is the appropriate response to questions about the legitimacy of a lady’s hair color/bust line/diamonds? (For what it’s worth, all three look real, and two of the three are.) I don’t feel this is anyone’s business, but any answer other than “yes, it’s real” seems to be interpreted as a “no”—including “mind your own business” and “who raised you?”
A: So, on a regular basis friends, colleagues, and strangers come up to you and say, “Is that peroxide, are those silicone, and is that cubic zirconia?” If you go around looking like a Lady Gaga double, people are going to talk privately about you, but it’s utterly bizarre that they bring their speculation to you. You always have the option of giving a quizzical look and walking away. To people you know, you can laugh and say, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that question.”
Q. Husband Bought Expensive Jewelry But Not for Me: My husband and I have separate accounts, but we know each other’s banking details. Our mechanic disputed some payment we were supposed to have made months ago, so I logged into my husband’s Internet banking to verify the payment. I saw there he made a $500 purchase from a jewelry store almost a year ago. Christmas, my birthday, and our wedding anniversary have since passed, and I have not seen this mystery jewelry. He’s very open with his expenses and tells me even about buying a $20 book, so if he purchased something for his mother or anyone else he’d want me to know about, he would most definitely tell me. I’ve begun to wonder if he bought this for another woman as I can’t think of any other explanation—but I seriously cannot imagine him doing this to me. Could there be another explanation for this?
A: If you have the kind of marriage in which you turn to me to try to figure out who got the $500 piece of jewelry, then you’ve got more than a problem with hidden credit card charges. So what you do is you say, “While I was going over our financial statements because of the dispute with the mechanic, I saw this charge”—then you show the line item to him. “What was this for, honey?”
Q. Tell Teens the Truth? I am the mother of three wonderful teenagers! Thus far they are good kids who are staying out of trouble and performing well in school and activities. My problem is, I was NOT this kind of teen! To be honest, I raised some hell when I was a kid! Sex, drugs, alcohol … I partook in it all! Luckily, that phase didn’t last long and I came to my senses before I entered college and, thankfully, turned into a productive member of society! I’m not proud of how I behaved back then and have a lot of regrets. So when my kids ask me questions about my teen years (i.e., Mom, how come you didn’t run track in high school?) I do not give them the real answer of,” I couldn’t smoke cigarettes or drink beer while doing that,” but instead, I just flat out lie. When my daughter asked me how old I was when I first had sex … I flat out lied. My feeling is that they don’t really need to know what horrible decisions I made as it may seem somehow to be permission for them to travel the wrong roads. My friend says I should tell them the truth and the lessons I learned along the way. I do feel somewhat guilty about lying to them. Who is right?
A: Consider yourself lucky not only that you have three wonderful kids, but that they are so interested in you that they actually ask questions about your own teen years. I am against lying, but just because someone asks a question (see letter above re: breast implants) does not mean you have to answer it—even if it’s asked by your own kids. I think it’s helpful for kids to know that their parents weren’t perfect, that they messed up and learned from their mistakes. So you can be open about some of your own struggles or express gratitude that your kids are taking advantage of the opportunities they have instead of squandering many of them, the way you did. But you also aren’t required to give a complete narrative about your dissolute years. There are many truthful ways to answer why you didn’t go out for track besides, “I was drunk and smoking too much.” It’s also the case that you weren’t in good enough shape or fast enough to be on the team. As for, “When did you first have sex, Mommy?”—it’s up to each individual whether you want to tell how old you were or whether you want to say: “I feel the answer to that specific question is something I want to keep private. But I’m glad you can bring up this topic with me. Tell me why you’re asking,” then open the discussion. Your daughter is actually probably more interested in her own sexual decisions than yours.
Q. My Widow Sister-in-Law Thinks She’s Married to My Husband: My husband’s brother passed away and his widow remains unmarried. My sister-in-law “Jane” treats my husband, “Jack,” like he’s her husband. When she needs handiwork done in the house, when her car breaks down, when she needs to discuss her son’s issues, even when she’s going to the supermarket or clothes shopping, she calls him. When I try talking to Jack he only says, “Jane is just like that,” shrugs, and continues as he always does. I even overheard her telling our mother-in-law she was disappointed when Jack married me because that meant he wouldn’t be as readily available for her. She’s also said to my face, “I know Jack better than you know him.” Last night Jack asked me why I dislike Jane so much and I ended up blowing off steam about her overreliance on him. He responded with, “Well, she doesn’t like you either.” He insisted that I should treat her kindly because she’s family and told me that I’m selfish and unable to compromise. What do I need to do?
A: Your sister-in-law calls your husband and says: “Jack, darling, should I get the arugula or escarole? Do you think I look better in a strapless or halter bathing suit? And can you come over and give the shrubs a trim?” and you’re being selfish because this bugs you? The problem is this is a multi-tentacled situation here. Your husband feels a worthy obligation to be a father figure for his fatherless nephew—and you don’t want to appear to be interfering with that. Beyond that, Jane sounds manipulative and nasty. But your confronting your husband only made him defensive, and in the end he attacked you. Not good. For the time being trying to rise above this. Unless Jane’s requests are a major intrusion, just ignore them. Or try to think of this as a way your husband is helping his nephew. Then, after a few months, if you are still bothered, bring up the idea of putting some boundaries on Jane’s requests, explaining you want your husband to be involved with his nephew, but Jane should be able to handle the grocery shopping without a consultation. If this remains a point of contention, it would be worth it to hash this out with a counselor.
Q. No Grief for Deceased Father: I have a father who was an abusive alcoholic. He recently committed suicide, and I feel nothing. Well, to be truthful, I feel grateful that he’s no longer miserable and making everyone else miserable. I’ve had to take some time off work to sort out the mess he left behind, so now everyone knows that he passed away. I’ve had a lot of well-meaning people who are eager to support me in this supposed time of grief. People react with anything from pity to shock when I fail to express the expected level of sadness. What is the ideal response here? I certainly don’t want to exhibit fake grief I don’t feel.
A: At a talk recently about her book on grief, The Long Goodbye, my Slate colleague Meghan O’Rourke mentioned that in her research she came across just this problem. She said sometimes people are ready for a loss, or not deeply grief-stricken over it, and when they express that they’re fine, they get a shocked, even disapproving reaction. There is no reason for you to put on a fake face of mourning. But when people who don’t know your situation intimately express their condolences, they are also not really prepared to hear, “He was a monster and it’s a relief he’s dead.” (I hope there are people in your life who will understand when you say that to them.) So try finding a middle ground: “Thank you. My father had a very sad life, and I’ve spend many years expecting that it would end painfully. I really appreciate your concern. Given everything, I’m really doing okay.”
Q. A Friend’s Parent: I visited a friend whose mother would make snide remarks from time to time. Things like: “I keep telling her not to talk with her hands, and she doesn’t realize how ridiculous she looks in those jeans.” I didn’t say anything at the time, but we talked about it later. There is a self-esteem problem, and now I think I know the cause. Her mother is, bluntly speaking, a bully. I’d like to take her mom to lunch one day to talk about this, but I don’t know if that is a really good idea. Help.
A: If you take the mom to lunch to try to straighten her out, I think you’ll not only get an earful about how awful her daughter is, but she’ll let you know that you’ve got some problems yourself.
The person you need to talk to is your friend. As you’ve probably observed, relations with mothers tend to be complicated ones. Your friend may love her mother, hate her mother, or both, and she may not even see how her mother undermines her. So, perhaps over lunch, gently bring up the fact that you’ve been thinking about the things her mother said to her while you were visiting. Say some of the remarks really bothered you. Then see how your friend responds. If she doesn’t see that patterns with her mother, it may be very illuminating to have the view of an outside observer.
Q. No Love from BFF on My Wedding Day: My best friend decided to skip my wedding five years ago to visit with her sister in the hospital. (She wasn’t deathly ill, no ICU, etc., but was recuperating from a surgical procedure.) I didn’t understand how she couldn’t afford even 30 minutes to watch the ceremony and perhaps return to her sister’s room, but I let it slide … until she mentioned last week that she went to a co-worker’s wedding (someone she just met months ago) over the weekend AND brought a gift! Prudie, she’s been my best friend for 20 years, and this is more than what she did for me on my special day. (It was my second marriage, but still!) I didn’t acknowledge the mention of the wedding and I’m wondering: Was it wrong for me to expect her to show up. Again, her sister didn’t get a kidney transplant and wasn’t critically ill; I’m sure she wouldn’t have been too upset if my friend had been gone for about an hour to support me on such a special day. Your thoughts?
A: Hey, at least she didn’t show up at your wedding wearing white! So you’ve been stewing about this for five years? And you also feel that since your BFF wasn’t at your wedding, she should not be allowed to go to any other weddings, ever. Or at least she should never mention that fact to you. Are you two actually best friends? Or have you just known each other a long time? You said you let it slide that your friend went to visit her sister in the hospital, but you really haven’t. So actually be glad the sister has recovered, that your marriage is a success, and accept it’s time to forget about your wedding day.
Q. Pregnancy Questions: I’m in the early stages of a pregnancy and haven’t told many of my friends and none of my co-workers at this point. My husband and I have decided to wait until the end of the first trimester. However, there’s a woman in my office who hasn’t been with the company for very long, and because I went home with a “fever” the other day when I wasn’t feeling well (it was a good excuse, since some flu bug had been making its way to everyone else in the office), she won’t stop coming into my office and asking me if I’m pregnant or if my husband and I have been “trying.” I’m not sure what to say to her. She has a young child of her own, so you think she would have better sense. I am a higher up in my company, so telling my boss could be really complicated when she realizes I’ll need maternity leave. What should I tell this woman to get her off my back? Obviously, random employees wouldn’t get to know before my boss and family/friends.
A: You could say, “I’m not ‘trying’ at the moment, because I’m at work. You’ll have to excuse me, but I don’t want to talk about my personal life in the office. Thanks for understanding.”
Q. Aid Worker Relationship Issues: I am an international aid worker who got my first major assignment six months ago. When I got the assignment back in January, I was supposed to leave in April, but my departure date got pushed back to the end of May. I will probably not return to the United States for over three years. I am married to a very wonderful and supportive woman who, due to her own career, cannot come with me at this time. We probably will not see each other for at least a year. Back when I thought I was departing in April, my wife made plans with her sister and mother for Mothers’ Day. My wife and her sister are both traveling to the city where their mother lives to celebrate with her. My wife and her sister live far apart and do not see each other very often, and it is something of a financial hardship for my wife’s sister to travel that far. The thing is, I didn’t know about this until yesterday because my wife forgot about it. I’m somewhat upset. I only have a few weeks left in the States and my wife and I have a lot to get in order to prepare for this major change in our lives. Me visiting with my wife is not an option, unfortunately. I say that she should tell her mom and sister that things changed and that I will be in the States for only a few more weeks and we have much to do and we want to spend time together before I leave. She says that would be rude since the plans were made months ago and her sister spent so much money on the travel. I say that it’s rude to leave me when we have so little time left together before I leave. Please help!
A: You two got an unexpected gift of a little more time together, so enjoy what you have instead of demanding all of it. Your wife will need the support of her family while you two are apart. Surely the trip is a short one, it has been planned for a long time (and there was no reason to tell you earlier, because you weren’t going to be around). Don’t make her choose between you and her family. You must have friends to see and last-minute things to do while she’s gone. Then your brief reunion before you go will be all the more sweet.
Q. Re: Bullying Mom: My dad is a bully. Recently, a relative commented on this. It was a relief to know that I wasn’t crazy and that someone else had noticed this … but it was annoying that it took decades for anyone to say anything. The friend should point out what she noticed and offer support, i.e., “For what it’s worth, I thought you looked awesome in the jeans!”
A: It is always helpful to get a reality check, especially if you’re the victim of a parent who enjoys making you feel terrible.
Q. “Delicate” Employee Question: I am a general manager in a hospitality-related industry. One of my assistant managers, although very nice and, for the most part, capable, has a problem with body odor. He is aware of this but refuses to wear deodorant because he had heard that it can cause cancer. I am getting complaints from some of the employees and, to be honest, I have a problem when he comes near me to discuss something. I don’t think I can really say, “Hogwash—you need to smell better even if deodorant is a possible carcinogen,” but I am truly at an impasse on how to handle this. Any suggestions?
A: You can do a quick online search and find authoritative evidence that deodorant doesn’t cause cancer. However, lack of deodorant can cause gagging in co-workers and fleeing in customers. It’s possible a guy who knows he stinks will not be convinced by evidence. But you need to explain that his job requires a standard of personal hygiene he’s not meeting. Tell him he has to meet it or, unfortunately, he won’t be able to continue in the job.
Q. Reward: Last week I lost my cellphone. Luckily it was found by an honest stranger who contacted me by dialing “Home” on my phone list. I have only recently moved to the area and when he told me where he was, I wasn’t sure how to get there. When I told him my suburb, he said he lived nearby and offered to drop my phone off. He came by, and I thanked him profusely. When I said goodbye to him he gave me a dirty look and said it was good manners to give him some money as a way of recognizing the time and petrol money he spent returning my phone. I found this pointed request rather rude and said I didn’t have any on me, but I was very grateful. Prudie, am I wrong? Should I have given him some money to express my thanks?
A: No, it’s not good manners to say, “You owe me some cash as a reward for my good deed.” On the other hand, it would have been gracious of you to give him a bottle of wine or something tangible to thank him for what was a major favor to a stranger. Obviously, you can let this go, but since you have his phone number, you could call and say that you’d like his address because you want to send something as a way of appreciation. Surely the delivery of the phone to your door is worth $25.
Q. Kind Of P.O.’D … for a Girl: We have a new co-worker on our fairly close team of six creatives. He is talented and nice, but we have noticed that when we are all joking, the level he takes it to often includes the phrase “for a girl” or “because you are [insert ethnic or religious reference here].” We are all a bunch of jokers, but we keep it appropriate and don’t resort to borderline racism or sexism. How do we make it clear what is OK and what is crossing the line?
A: The next time he makes one of these remarks, later in the day one of the “girls” and someone of an ethnic persuasion should pull him aside and say what you’ve said. Tell him he’s delightful, you’re all a bunch of jokers, but remarks about “girls” and “ethnics” are making people uncomfortable.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Whatever is happening in the world, we can always rely on the fact that in-law problems never end.
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