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: Good afternoon, everyone. I do hope there are questions from former governors and heads of the IMF.
Q. Pedophile in the Family: We recently found out that my husband’s grandfather was convicted of pedophilia many decades ago (abuse of his own children) and is now awaiting trial for more recent charges involving a young grandchild. Needless to say, my husband was quite distraught about the news, but it hasn’t had any discernible impact on our day-to-day lives; we’ve known about my mother-in-law’s teenage rape for a number of years (although the identity of her abuser was unknown), and this answers a lot of questions about why my husband’s family has always been so distant from their relatives. My question is this: How do we respond to my husband’s grandparents in our wedding thank-you notes? They were unable to attend but sent a nice card and a check. Would it be inappropriate to express love and gratitude to a man who raped and impregnated my mother-in-law? On the other hand, we don’t want to further isolate Oma, who is apparently having a difficult time of dealing with her husband’s illness and, we hear, was also abused/threatened by Opa throughout their marriage.
A: Well, this is timely—Opa sounds like just the kind of guy we need for a top job in finance. It’s understandable the grandparents couldn’t make it to the wedding because of the conflicting court date, the ankle bracelet, etc. Just a question here: Is your husband your mother’s son by her father? Even if he’s not, it’s too bad Oprah is off the air because Opa and Oma would make quite a show. No, you don’t have to express “love and gratitude” to a repulsive, sick snake of a human being. Given the events you describe, I feel less sympathy for Oma than you do. She’s stayed with this sicko all these years—he raped her daughter for goodness’ sake. So perhaps isolation is what she deserves. Frankly, I think you should return the check. You can say you understand they are facing legal difficulties and you are uncomfortable accepting money from them. And if you have children, don’t ever let them within 10 miles of Opa.
Dear Prudence: My Boyfriend Has Slept With Everyone
Q. Jewelry From an Ex: Just a teeny etiquette question. My ex-boyfriend gave me a necklace while we were still dating. It’s pretty and I like wearing it (not out of any particular attachment left over for the ex), but now that I’m dating someone else, I’m wondering: Is it in bad taste to keep wearing it?
A: It would only be in bad taste if the necklace was in bad taste, and you say it’s nice. You are not continuing to wear the engagement ring of your ex-fiance, which would be a problem, given that it declares, “I’m marrying the guy who gave this to me.” But a necklace or earrings are neutral pieces of jewelry which are only imbued with meaning if you let them be. So you can still like the necklace even if you no longer like the guy.
Q. Expectations When You Buy Someone Season Tickets as a Gift: Should there be any expectations when you purchase season tickets to a sporting event for someone? My father-in-law had season tickets to a sports team for one season and was going to renew them for the following season. My husband and I decided to buy the next season for him as a gift. Now it appears that he doesn’t go to many of the games for what seems to us to be not very good reasons (in my FIL’s words, “he got a better offer” on game day). Is this the equivalent of giving a gift with strings attached and we should’ve realized the risk of giving a gift that requires somewhat of a commitment to attend the games? Whenever he doesn’t go, I just see that money flying out the window. Sometimes one of us will use his ticket, but we can’t always go and besides the ticket wasn’t for us, it was for him. Thoughts?
A: Stop monitoring how your gift is being used. Of course it’s frustrating to think you paid for expensive tickets he’s not even bothering to pass on, but unless he lives with you, how do you even know what he’s up to game night? If your husband wants to, he can say, “Dad if you find you can’t attend a game, we’d be thrilled to use the tickets in your stead.” If you get them, great. If you don’t, forget about it. For his next birthday or Christmas, get Dad a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers.
Q. Etiquette While Being Handicapped: I am a woman in my early 30s, and I am wondering if I’m handling this properly. About four years ago, I was in an accident in which I was severely injured and could not walk. Through a lot of physical therapy since, I now only walk with a slight limp, which is a bit worse on some days, a bit better on others. I work in a very large office building and I often either walk from the parking garage, down hallways, or share elevators with people I have never seen or interacted with before. It never fails that at least once a day, someone will ask, “Oh, did you sprain your ankle there?” or “You doing alright?” and I get completely embarrassed. I usually mumble, “I normally limp” or “I have no feeling from my knee down.” Most of the time, they continue the conversation and ask what happened! I don’t feel comfortable indulging them, as it is not their business and I really don’t like talking about what happened, but at this point I feel like I will have to wear some sort of handicapped sign so that people stop asking me in the first place. I really just don’t know how to handle the situation.
A: If there’s a message that I would like to convey through this column, it is: People don’t want strangers inquiring about the origin of their children, or their physical disabilities and anomalies.
I assume some of these strangers are “familiar strangers,” that is, people one frequently encounters but doesn’t actually know. You need a quick, polite way to deflect what you should accept as well-intentioned inquiries. You could say something like, “I’m fine, thanks. This is a left-over from a long-ago injury.”
Q. Dating a Deadbeat Dad: I am dating a guy who’s sweet and thoughtful. Our relationship is beginning to get serious and he disclosed that he has a daughter from a previous relationship. His ex discovered the pregnancy after they broke up. When he suggested trying to work out the relationship for the sake of their child, she refused and moved out of state with a new live-in boyfriend. He said he tried to contact his ex but she has pointedly told him she doesn’t want his involvement in any way. He decided not to pursue the matter legally because, knowing her, she would make it incredibly difficult to gain access to his child, whatever the court outcome. Now the little girl is 5, and he hasn’t met her. He’s given up any idea of parenting but says he’s open to having a relationship with her if she chooses to contact him in the future. I feel troubled after hearing all this. My father was a deadbeat dad, and I have zero respect for anyone who gives up on their child. Even though I know he would have been a good parent if his ex permitted, a part of me judges him for not doing everything he can to see his child. Is this a deal breaker or am I being too judgmental?
A: I have your instinctive reaction to fathers who have no involvement in their children’s lives, but the story your beau presents is pretty compelling. Yes, he could have—maybe should have—pursued this matter in court. But given the behavior of his ex, he’s probably right that the result would have been much time before judges, much heartache, and little contact with his daughter. It speaks to his honesty that he’s even told you this story. This is something a less forthright person would probably have kept secret—then after you’d been married for a decade, he’d suddenly have to explain why there’s a teenager at the door calling him, “Dad.” You can tell your boyfriend that you have a deeply personal reaction to his story because your father voluntarily left your life. But you can add you really appreciate his telling you about a terribly wrenching situation.
Q. Neighborhood Etiquette: We have a registered sex offender in the neighborhood. It is a family person that was caught looking at things online—no charges about actual contact with minors. They were convicted a few years ago, and although I came across the information when I was checking the registry online, they did apparently explain the situation to the closer neighbors to their (everyone’s) satisfaction. Here is my dilemma—we are holding a party for a very dear neighbor and they’ve included this family on the invite list. I wish to honor their wishes, but what is my responsibility to the other neighbors who may not be aware of this situation? I’m honestly not sure that I want this person in my home—but then again, we are supposed to give people a second chance once they’ve served their time. Just saw your first question—looks like it’s pedophile day.
A: You’ve done your due diligence, and presumably you have a guy in your neighborhood who was caught looking at child porn. He did his time, he told the neighbors, and while I’m not defending child pornography, you can find no evidence that he touched any children. He seems like the perfect example of a person who should be allowed to reintegrate into the community, and it would serve no purpose for you to spread word of your research. If others are interested in the sex offenders among them, they are free to check the registry just as you did. I think you should invite this family and not do anything to let on their presence makes you uncomfortable.
Q. Office Relationships: I’m single and, recently, my very attractive boss has become single. It would be verboten for us to see one another socially, and I’m really not sure why. He’s the one, I’m sure of it. The minute I saw him, I knew. I haven’t met anyone like him, and I have been in dating hell for the last five years. I get the feeling that he likes me, too, so why would it be so bad if we dated? I’m not talking about hooking up secretly behind closed doors, more like dinner and a movie and the like. Are all office romances really that bad? If so, what should I do? I’m looking for another job, but I’ll miss seeing him, and in this economy, it’s tough.
A: Unless you’re employed at the IMF, most workplaces vigorously frown on relationships between supervisors and subordinates. So get that other job, and once you’re out the door, send your former boss a note saying you enjoyed getting to know him and would be happy to get together for a drink sometime. But in the meantime, you might want to get some counseling about the reasons for the five years of dating misery. It would be worthwhile to find out what part of your hell is of your own making. I don’t find it a terribly encouraging sign that you say “the minute” you saw your boss you knew he was the one.
Q. Grouchy Co-Workers: I have been looking for a part-time job that fits around my full-time college schedule and staying home with my two children, for two years now. I finally got a job about six weeks ago at a retail store. I work the customer service desk and I love it. The desk keeps me busy, so my shifts pass quickly, and working with customers definitely speaks to my strengths (i.e., I like to talk a lot). The problem is most of my co-workers hate their job. They are grouchy and unfriendly, at best. They make fun of me for being so chipper and when I greet them as they are coming into work, I usually only receive a sneer back. I’m not looking to make best friends, but I do have to call on these folks a lot because the service desk is required to run the store (get help for customers in different departments, call for returns to be taken back, etc.). Should I simply ignore the grouchiness and continue being my chipper self, or should I tone it down for the sake of co-worker relations?
A: Can you give us all your direct number? All hail the chipper customer service representative! You certainly don’t have to act surly and disgruntled to fit in with the rest of the crew, but you don’t have to flood them with sunshine either. Be pleasant and polite with your co-workers and save your happiness for your grateful customers.
Q. When Someone Keeps Going Back Again and Again: What is the best approach when your child keeps going back to a boyfriend who has hurt her again and again? My girl is almost 21 and has been seeing this guy off and on for two years. He’s not right for her (and she’s not right for him) but they break up and make up quite often. When he dumps her, she goes into a tailspin of depression and it affects her school and work. Just when she starts to get back on her feet, here he comes again. It’s not a healthy relationship and it is literally ruining some of the best years of her life. What’s a mom to do when it just keeps going on and on? I have recommended counseling so she can talk to a third person about why she can’t get over this guy, but she just puts me off. Any help would be appreciated!
A: Would she go to see someone if you made the appointment and billed it as family counseling? If you have a good enough relationship, even if she’s reluctant, you could ask her to agree to go just a few times as a favor to you. You might also tell your daughter that you would like to talk to one of her closest friends about this, to see if the friend could join you in helping her see how destructive this relationship has been to her. It’s possible your daughter will push all this away, but it’s also possible part of her is looking for a way out of this addictive cycle. This must be horribly painful for you to watch, but she’s an adult and what you can do it limited—unless you think he’s physically abusing her, in which case you can tell her that you’re going to be forced to call the police.
Q. He Seems Like the Perfect Example of a Person Who Should Be Allowed To Reintegrate Into The Community: Really? I wouldn’t have him in my home. Just because he hasn’t been convicted of touching a child doesn’t mean he hasn’t, and it doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try. People who look at child porn are scum.
A: As I say, I am not defending him, but there is no evidence he did anything but look. It does no good not to be able to make distinctions in cases like these—looking is not molesting. The fact is that someone who has been arrested for watching child porn is going to get out of jail. It does society no good to make such people permanent pariahs. That would discourage people with this sickness from seeking help, because what’s the point?
Q. Neighborhood Party: “I think you should invite this family and not do anything to let on their presence makes you uncomfortable.” Fair enough, but DO have someone keep an eye on any children who are invited to the party. No need to be obvious about it—just talk beforehand with someone you trust who knows about the situation. He may never have acted on his urges in the past, but, you know, “trust but verify.”
A: Good suggestion.
Q. Re: Dating a Deadbeat Dad: Based on my own experiences, I have to disagree with you on the boyfriend. I’ve dated a couple of guys who like to blame their exes for little to no visitation, but the truth of the matter is that they never fought for their kids much at all. He is the biological father and therefore has rights. I’m not a lawyer, but to my understanding, the child’s mother moving to another state without getting permission from the bf is custodial interference, which is like kidnapping, both illegal. So the bf has a case he can win; whether he truly wants to pursue it is another story. I just want your letter writer to understand that the way he handles this situation is an excellent determinant for how he will handle things in the future and of his character overall. The two men I dated who were in similar situations were very up front with these things, and both turned out to be bad dads and bad boyfriends.
A: All we know here is what the girlfriend reported. This guy found out he was to be a father after he broke up with a woman who was already involved with someone else and moved out of state. He tried to make things work, but she warned she wanted nothing to do with him. For every story like yours of guys who really didn’t try to be in their kids’ lives, there’s a story of a thwarted father in hock to his lawyers who still has no relationship with the child he’s never even seen. It sounds to me like this guy may deserve a pass.
Q. Cheating Brother: My brother has been married for several years to a wonderful woman who is not only my sister-in-law but one of my best friends. She was even my maid of honor when I got married. They both travel frequently for work and one week when she was out of town, my husband and I saw my brother at a restaurant having a very “friendly” meal with another woman. (They were kissing at the bar.) I’m furious with my brother for cheating on his wife. I later told him what we’d seen and he admitted to a long-term affair but is strongly opposed to telling his wife and asked that I keep this to myself. I just don’t think I can do that. I feel a strong sense of loyalty to my sister-in-law, and I know I’d want her to tell me if our positions were reversed. I love my brother, but I can’t stand by and watch him hurt his wife like this. Should I stay out of this, or do I owe her the truth?
A: I always take these on a case-by-case basis. In this case your brother is so blatant that he is out on the town where anyone he knows could see him, making out with his girlfriend. And, as you say, if the situation were reversed, you’d want her to tell you. I think you should give your brother a heads up that you aren’t going to keep his secret (it might prompt him to confess before you tell) and then break the unpleasant news to your sister-in-law.
Q. Work Place Blunder: Just this morning I misdirected an email to a friend (to set up a lunch date) to the ENTIRE department. Nothing too humiliating except for a recount of how I revamped my résumé because I’m actively looking for another job! When a co-worker pointed it out to me, I sent out another very brief email recognizing I made a mistake. I’m really embarrassed, and I wonder if I should say something directly to my boss, who I’m sure either read it or had it pointed out to her. I know I’ll recover from the embarrassment, but right now I don’t know how to act—I really don’t want to talk about it (one co-worker told me he will miss me and another one offered condolences … both meant well), but I don’t want it to stand like an elephant in the room no one wants to notice but can’t get around. Any ideas?
A: Since you sent a second email to everyone apologizing for the first, I think that covers it. If your boss wants to talk to you about this, she can initiate a talk. Since you made a little mistake and apologized for it, you should act as if it didn’t happen. If a co-worker mentions it, you can laugh it off (“These days everyone should have their résumé up to date”). As far as the boss is concerned, it’s her choice whether to follow up on what you’ve written.
Q. I’m Not Being Polite, I Really Don’t Want Your Support: I have a serious illness and am about to be hospitalized for the third time. For the first two times I had a great deal of support from friends and my large extended family. Although most people would think I’m crazy, I actually found that stressful. I am the kind of person who retreats into my own shell when there is a problem and deal with my emotions quietly by myself. I found it exhausting to constantly deal with a stream of visitors, keeping up the chatter, keeping everybody notified on my progress, noting down who sent what flowers and gifts and food so that I can thank them appropriately later. I even find my parents’ presence overwhelming because they get very emotional and I end up using what little energy I have to comfort and assure them that I will be OK. Last time I asked for privacy, people thought I must be saying that out of a desire not to burden others and made even more effort to visit me and help me. This time I am hospitalized—as self centered and weird as it sounds—I want nobody to visit me. I want nobody to send me anything. I want nobody to call me to sympathetically ask how I am or what they can do for me. I just want to deal with this on my own. How can I express this clearly without hurting others?
A: You can sign up for one of the services—Caring Bridge, Lotsa Helping Hands—that keeps people informed about how a patient is doing. You can state on it that you’re going into the hospital and while you deeply appreciate all the love and support everyone has offered through your illness, you’ve found you’re rather like a hibernating bear. That is, you need silence, dark, and isolation to recover. Explain that you will regularly update everyone on the site as to how you’re doing, but in the meantime, you want to relieve them of the burden of visiting and bringing gifts. You might also designate a gatekeeper—a sibling or friend—who can keep people at bay, including your parents. Maybe this one, non-draining person can visit and also post progress reports. All the best on your recovery.
Q. Toddler Tantrums and Public Reaction: My 2-year-old has started throwing tantrums. She drops on the floor and flaps her arms and legs wildly and screams at the top of her lungs. On the advice of my wise mother-in-law, I respond with, “OK, Bella, Mommy is going to go now, bye” then take a few steps away and pretend to be busy with something else. After a short period of wailing, she will begin to calm down, pick herself up, and toddle over to where I am with a reconciliatory hug. I find this approach works beautifully, as her screaming usually escalates if I try to force her to stop. My problem is that when her tantrums happen out in public, some onlookers glare at me and even criticize me openly for either failing to discipline a naughty, screaming child or neglecting a toddler who’s distressed. One elderly woman was horrified when I pretended to walk away, thinking I was actually going to abandon my child in the middle of the supermarket. How do I respond to such nosy adults?
A: “I’ve found the less attention she gets, the faster this will be over.” And how wonderful to hear someone say that her mother-in-law is wise and gives helpful advice!
Q. Should I Email?: I’m a single girl, age 36, who met a single guy at a friend’s party who I’m intrigued to get to know better. He was a blast to talk with at the event, however, when he left for the night, he did not ask me for my number. We didn’t have a lot of one-on-one time, our interactions were largely within a group (the apartment we were in was small), but I did feel that even in that dynamic, we had a few great interactions. Should I let this go and assume that if he was interested, he would have asked for my number, or should I get his email address from our mutual friend and get in touch with him? My therapist seems to think that guys fear rejection as much as girls, and some need encouragement from females before they feel comfortable asking them out, however, he doesn’t really seem the type to be shy and I don’t want to come across desperate.
A: A low-key way to see if he’s interested is to send him a personal note on Facebook (don’t make a “friend” request) saying you enjoyed meeting him and would like the opportunity to get together for coffee sometime. If he doesn’t follow up by making a date, then he’s not shy, he’s just not interested.
Q. You Are Not a Psychologist, Are You?: Please be careful about what you say about pedophiles—you are obviously not a trained psychologist. I am, and the fact is that pedophilia is not curable. You wrote something about people getting help for it, and I just want you to be aware that you are making statements that you should not make unless you are a professional.
A: No, I’m not a psychologist. I also didn’t say he could be cured. I said he could be getting help. If someone who enjoys watching child pornography (but has the self-control not to have ever touched a child) came to you for help, I assume you wouldn’t say, “You’re incurable and you should be locked up.”
Q. Re: When Someone Keeps Going Back Again and Again: This may not be very encouraging, but it took my younger sister five years to realize her on-again-off-again relationship was not healthy. It didn’t matter what any of her friends or family said, and counseling didn’t help either. She just had to figure it out for herself—which was very difficult for those of us watching. But figure it out she did, and finally walked away on her own. Today she’s engaged to a terrific guy.
A: It is encouraging. Mom of daughter with lousy boyfriend, take heart.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks so much, everyone. Have a great Memorial Day, and I’ll talk to you next Tuesday.