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.
Q. Frustrated with stay-at-home wife: I work full-time, and my wife stays home with our 18-month-old daughter. She is a wonderful, attentive mother and a good wife. She does the laundry, cooks dinner most nights, does the finances, prepares me a balanced lunch to take to work, and irons my clothes. I appreciate everything that she does. However, our house is generally a cluttered mess—clothes strewn about, books, papers, and various miscellany on the furniture. Sometimes the vacuum or a cup will sit in the middle of the floor for weeks. Before we had our daughter, she (justifiably) quit her previous job to stay home. Her housekeeping was the same then, too. I hate myself for it, but I resent her every time I trip over her shoes in the hallway or have to move a pile of books and mail to sit down on the couch. I have brought up the subject multiple times, but nothing changes. I feel stuck and am not sure what to do.
A: Since you didn’t mention that you have a physical disability which prevents you from picking up a cup off the floor or putting the vacuum cleaner in the closet, I’m stuck trying to figure out why you can’t spend some of your precious at-home time tidying up your house. Your wife may be a slob, but she’s an iron-your-shirts, make-your-lunch kind of slob, and how generous of you to rate her “good” in the wife department. Here’s a little experiment—tell your wife that you want her to have a day off to herself or be with friends. Then you watch your toddler for an entire Saturday, and see how much housework you get done. To relieve some of your wife’s burden, maybe you should invest in a monthly cleaning service. Or you could start running the vacuum instead of running your mouth.
Dear Prudence Video: Facebook Photo Flub?
Q. Men: Why do many women completely fail to understand male sexuality, and why do they think it is cool not to try?
A: Good point. And I enjoyed the accompanying photos of you looking at yourself in the mirror at the gym while holding your special part.
Q. Flirty husband: My husband and I have a very healthy and loving relationship. We have been married for almost a year now and have known each other for six years before we got married. We respect each other and are deeply in love. And this is why I am very confused about something that I have found out about my husband. I had borrowed his smartphone to download some images he had taken from his phone camera. While looking through his media folder, I found that he has images of other random women that he takes surreptitiously. These are photos and videos of random pretty women, in coffee shops, stores, on the street taken without their permission and knowledge. Since my curiosity was piqued, I looked around his phone some more and found that he and a couple of his friends exchange these pictures with complimentary messages about these women’s looks. The images and language are pretty PG-13, but this is so juvenile! Also, for guys in their 30s, this is kinda creepy in my opinion. Am I right to be disturbed by this?
A: Let me go on the record that I’m all in favor of robust male sexuality and I don’t believe all men are creeps. However, “understanding male sexuality” does not require one to accept that the man in one’s life will engage in obnoxious, embarrassing behaviors. It’s one thing for a men, even married men, to enjoy that daily life presents a bouquet of beautiful women. Looking (not gawking) is a simple, life-enhancing pleasure. Until the advent of the phone camera, it wasn’t possible to record these happy experiences without running around on the streets obviously snapping photos. So now technology has enabled men to turn this little pleasure into the equivalent of swapping baseball cards. This sounds like a misdemeanor, not a felony, but it doesn’t really pass the “Eww” test. You weren’t initially snooping, but having found the pictures, you were naturally curious. So hand him the phone and say, “Honey, I accidentally came upon this. I understand every man likes to look at pretty women. But what’s this about?”
Q. My daughter loves children too much: My daughter and son-in-law have five children under the age of 10. She is a stay at home mom (childcare for five children will cost far more than what she can realistically earn), and he makes less than average wage. They probably would have starved to death a long time ago if it weren’t for government assistance. I am at their house every day helping with housework and childcare. The other day I found out they were planning to try for a sixth (SIXTH!) child. I pleaded with my daughter not to do it, and she said it’s her and her husband’s decision. Well, it’s MY business too when I’ve given up retirement to care for her children! Others say I need to practice tough love and stop assisting her. How can I do that when it’s ultimately my innocent grandchildren who suffer? —Exhausted grandma.
A: It would be tempting to have a medical team come during the night and tie off the various tubes of this hyper-fertile pair. Your daughter-in-law is right that her reproductive decisions are her own. But since you and the taxpayers are keeping this nursery afloat, you need to sit down with the two of them and try to have a practical, rational discussion. Explain that because of your love for them and your grandchildren, and your knowledge of how precarious their financial lives are, you have given up your retirement to assist in the care of their kids. But you know you don’t have the energy for a new baby, and frankly, the hours you are keeping now are exhausting you. Explain that you’re going to have to draw up a new schedule—you want to continue to help, but you’re going to have to be more judicious with your time. Then cut back significantly. Maybe, if they see what it’s actually like to deal with five without daily care from you, they will reconsider getting to half a dozen. Of course you don’t want to hurt your grandchildren, but if you remove some of the props that are holding up this household, they might realize they have more than enough children to contend with.
Q. Grammar Police: My sister’s boyfriend (unfortunately in a serious relationship) has an annoying habit of correcting people’s grammar in social settings. At first we just ignored his corrections because we didn’t want to be rude to the guest of the family. Now it’s becoming increasingly irritating. All of us are university educated, but when we have casual conversations we don’t care much about having the perfect grammar. My sister’s spoken to him about this, and he says he’s just being helpful and teaching us the correct way of speaking. We find such response maddeningly insulting. We don’t want to be rude to him, but we don’t want to put up with his arrogant corrections, either. How do we get him to stop?
A: I think all of you should give him a big smile and show your appreciation for his attempts to improve you: “Thanks, Brett. Me no speak English too good.” Or, “You’re right, I’m always misusing the pluperfect. How mortifying!” Let’s hope that either causes him to stop, or your sister sees what a prig she’s involved with.
Q. Advice Columnists: Your colleague who writes The Ethicist at the NYT is using a question that looks familiar to one that appeared in one of your recent chats (The “should I work in Bahrain” question). This isn’t the first time I’ve seen similarities between Ethicist questions and your chats—there was a recent Ethicist article on what to do about your dead co-workers emails—and I know that you and Dan Savage have recently answered the same question before. Since three times = trend, any thoughts about this recent phenomenon?
A: It’s not a recent phenomenon. Sometimes people submit questions to multiple columnists, and occasionally more than one of us bite. I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it, but I’m always very relieved if I get to the answer first.
Q. Re: Frustrated with stay-at-home wife: You were ridiculously harsh on this guy. His wife was a slob before the baby! And as a single working mother who has to do it all, I do get tired of the “but I was chasing a baby” argument. Sure, laundry may pile up a bit, but leaving things strewn around the house is a bit much.
A: Yes, she sounds like a slob. What is wrong with him that when he sees a cup on the floor he’d rather leave it there “for weeks” than pick it up? If you’re married to a slob, and you like the house neat, unfortunately, you’re going to have to do some tidying yourself and maybe get some professional cleaning. It would be nice if there were a magic formula for fixing the justifiably annoying failings of one’s spouse, but nagging her clearly isn’t it.
Q. House investment with overinvolved Mother-in-Law?: My fiance and I are hoping to buy a house soon. We found a perfect starter home in an up-and-coming neighborhood within our price range and were set to move forward—until we told his mom. The problem: My future MIL is of means and now wants to invest in a house with us. She would contribute funds, and we would live in a better house in a nicer ‘hood. The problem? She has a history of dominating her son—she decorated his apartment, buys him clothes, strongly declares her opinions on every life choice he makes. I’m scared that we’ll be living in “her house” and that she will have her hand in all the decisions! I want to start an adult life with my fiance and to know the joy of making our own decisions. Is there a way to do this while living in what will be half my MIL’s investment? Am I being silly? Thank you, Uncomfortable Taker
A: You will be much happier living in a shack the two of you can afford than a mansion that his mother calls her own. This is a great opportunity to draw some lines that will make your relationship with your mother-in-law so much more pleasant over the years. The two of you should express your deep gratitude for her offer but explain that as young adults, you want to be responsible for living within your means and making your own good financial decisions.
Q. Quid pro quo: I’ll understand male sexuality when they do the same for females.
Q. Swearing at Work: I work in a male-dominated environment where the majority of the time I am the only female: engineering. I enjoy the work and co-workers with an exception of when they swear. As the field and the people working in this field are a contrast from, let’s say, banking environment, it’s much more open, but how do I react when somebody uses the F-word or alike in the group? They are not saying F— you, but still using it. I don’t swear myself at all, don’t like them swearing. I don’t want to tolerate this behavior but at the same time don’t want to be the swear-word police, either. What is the appropriate response without making it a big deal? Thank you.
A: If everyone’s dropping F-bombs all the time, it should start to sound like background noise. What’s wholly inappropriate in some workplaces is standard in others, and swearing is standard in yours. The last thing you want to do is sound like the grammar policeman noted above. There’s nothing for you to do but ignore it.
Q. Free advice to Mr. Frustrated: Start wearing a helmet when you bring up the subject of how, despite your cleaned and pressed clothes, healthy meals (at home and work), balanced checkbook, and happy child, you can’t help but notice that she’s still a big slob. Because one of these days, that cup is going to get picked up, and you’d better hope that one of her other endearing qualities isn’t a good fastball.
A: Another touché!
Q. Catcalled: What would you say to a young women who gets catcalled often during the summer? I live in the city, and as the weather gets warmer, catcalling gets more frequent. Although I dress normally (typically shorts and a blouse in the summer), I find that I’m yelled at by old men and young men, standing on corners, driving by me, etc. It makes me tense, and now when I walk down the street, I see every man as a potential threat. It’s annoying and demeaning, but I know I can’t haul every weirdo on the street to a sensitivity class. How should I deal?
A: Wait, my dear, just wait. When I walk down the street with my lovely teenage daughter, men passing in trucks will honk their horns and make appreciative kissing sounds at her. They apparently think the prune standing next to her is deaf as well as old. Yet, their catcalls spark a vestigial memory in me—a couple of decades ago I used to hear vocal judgments from men. At the time it was annoying. Yet given their absence, I have to admit it wasn’t all bad.
Since today is apparently the “men are pigs” day at the chat, this also falls in the category of there’s nothing you can do but ignore it. And maybe a catcall is better than finding you’re being photographed and your image swapped around by horny married men.
Q. Re: Swearing at Work: If incessant F-bombs are part of a pattern of abuse against female employees, the letter-writer might want to consult an attorney to determine whether she has hostile-workplace sex-discrimination case.
A: Let’s posit that a general rule for a happy life is to avoid unnecessary hospital stays and lawsuits. Remove the lone female employee from the workplace and I doubt the men will say, “Hey, it worked, we drove her out! Now we can stop swearing and start talking like Queen Elizabeth again. What a relief!”
Q. Argh: Can we please stop with blanket statements about male and female sexuality? I am a crazily-happily-married female who checks out guys (and yes, pretty women) in the street, finds pictures of hot naked guys sexy (according to Monica Hesse’s article in this paper, I am not supposed to), and has a crazy sex drive. A friend of mine is married to a man she has to beg for hugs (!) and rarely gets sex. Let’s all just put the generalizations into a jar on the shelf and deal with individuals. Men, women, gay, straight, whatever. We are what we are, and sexuality often is a spectrum.
A: Good point. I love Monica Hesse’s work, but I have to disagree with her that a laundry basket of clothes folded by the man in your life is sexier than the man in your life in all his glory. But I think we can also agree that while being a highly sexual person can be a great, it’s imperative to keep this aspect of yourself a private pleasure.
Q. Re: Swearing At Work: As a woman who has a pretty foul mouth, I kind of resented the “gender gap” implied in this message. (If anything, I’ve found that it’s a regional thing more than anything else.) Why does it bother you? It’s a word. As long as they aren’t using it to degrade you or another person, it’s not a hostile act. Try looking at things from the perspective of intended meaning. Do you really want to be the person who has her co-workers walking on tiptoes around her just to appease her sensibilities? And a word of advice: Don’t visit New Jersey. You won’t like it.
A: Well said. And she especially shouldn’t watch any of the Real Housewives of … shows.
Q. RE: Swearing at work: Wait, what? You’re saying that as long as they’re not using sexually explicit language to intentionally harass her, then it doesn’t really count as a hostile workplace? Are you kidding me?
A: No, I’m not kidding. She says they’re not saying, “F— you” to her. They’re just decorating their speech with F’s. You’ve got to be kidding that a lawsuit is a good way to resolve this situation.
Q. Cat-calling: I wear my headphones, so even if I can still hear it over the music (and am usually flattered, I must admit), I just pretend I didn’t hear anything.
A: Good suggestion.
Q. Etiquette Question: Good afternoon! How do you introduce two people who have already met before? This weekend, I will be going to a large BBQ at our company’s CEO’s house. I will need to reintroduce my wife to the CEO and other higher-ups. However, they have been introduced at large functions before (but wouldn’t recognize each other on the street). I am stumped!
A: When the two of you are in front of the CEO, you say to her, “Melissa, this is my wife, Sandy. I think you two met at the picnic last summer.” And then when you’re talking to the marketing director, Bill, your wife should be ready to step up, stick out her hand, and say, “Bill, hi, I’m Sandy Wilson, Jim Wilson’s wife.” Then Bill will say, “Of course, Sandy, good to see you again!” while he is saying to himself, “Bless you for telling me your name.”
Q. Casual Drink: I have been married for 19 years, we dated for six years prior to getting married. I recently had a conversation with a man that I have done business with off and on over the years, he told me he has always found me attractive, and if my marital situation ever changed, he would like to give me a call. I was very flattered. Ever since then, I can’t seem to get him off of my mind. I run into him quite often shopping or running errands, and we always chat. I think I just didn’t think about being attractive to other men after being married to my husband (and dating) for so long. I keep thinking, what would be the harm in going and having a drink with this man, just for fun? I know I am just trying to feed my ego, but is that so wrong?
A: The change this guy is seeking in your marital situation is that you’d like to give infidelity a try. You may be flattered, but it would probably be best to assume that he tries this gambit with many women who cross his path. Ninety-nine out of 100 give him a verbal slap-off, but if he can get that 100th into bed, it was worth it. A long-term marriage is a good institution for many things, but it’s very bad for igniting the kind of feelings stirred up by the prospect of illicit sex with a new partner. Of course, illicit sex with a new partner tends to stir up all sorts of other things in a long-term marriage. If you want to feed your ego, try doing something new (a pottery class, volunteering at a food kitchen) that doesn’t involve getting naked with a business acquaintance.
Q. Love and STDs: I am a HSV carrier (that’s herpes). I don’t have outbreaks, but there is a small chance I could pass it on. I recently met a man, and it seemed we hit it off and there was the possibility of a real relationship. When I told him of my status he decided he “could have loved me if not for that.” I am devastated. But he “still wants me in his life.” I feel creeped out even being near him now, but others have suggested I should “understand” his position. I don’t want to be around someone who feels superior to me and thinks I am a leper. Who’s right?
A: No one’s right or wrong. You did the honest, brave, correct thing by letting him know this and so he could make a decision about what level of risk he wanted to take. It turns out someone you’ve just started seeing doesn’t want to go all the way. Try not to be devastated over a relationship that’s only in the “might-have been” stage. But since you were interested in a romance, you’re not up for turning this into a platonic friendship. So tell him you respect his choice, but you two need to go your separate ways. There are estimates that about 25 percent of the adult population has herpes, so you have a good chance of meeting someone for whom this isn’t an issue.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, all. I’ll be away next week (working on grammar lessons) so talk to you in two weeks.