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. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Hope everyone had a great Fourth! I look forward to your questions.
Q. Slow Boyfriend: I want to marry my boyfriend, but there is one issue that always holds me back. To put it bluntly, he is, well, slow. I don’t mean to sound condescending (I’m not exactly a rocket scientist either), but that is what he is. He has zero general knowledge. He thinks hamsters lay eggs, and Greece is a continent, and Beijing is a country in Greece. If I encourage him to read a book, he boasts that he’s never read a whole book in his life. He doesn’t know a lot of words that most high school graduates know. For instance, I was watching the news and remarked, “That politician always contradicts himself.” He asked me what “contradict” means. This happens several times a week, even with my average vocabulary. Although he was born here, his mom is from Chile, so at first I thought it was because Spanish is his dominant language. It turns out he doesn’t even speak Spanish, even though all of his siblings speak at a basic conversational level. He managed to graduate college without any special help, so I don’t think he has any kind of cognitive disabilities. Would this impact our marriage negatively?
A: Hold on, hamsters don’t lay eggs? Then what did I just fry up for breakfast? If you marry this guy, he will tell the best bedtime stories to your children! “On a continent called Greece, there was a giant city full of Chinese people whose favorite food was 1,000-year-old hamster eggs. No one spoke Spanish there, not even the Chileans.”
Usually letters such as yours start with praise for the beloved (“I have a wonderful boyfriend with one glaring flaw: He’s a serial killer. Should I be concerned?). But except for your acknowledgement that you’re no genius yourself, I fail to find anything in your letter that indicates what you find appealing about Mr. Befuddled. Although I’m curious as to what college awards a B.A. to someone who appears to be barely literate, and what he does for a living, the big question is: What do you see in him? If you’re asking me if I would have a hard time marrying someone who wanted to raise hamsters to save money on eggs, the answer is yes. But only you know if his agricultural and geographical deficits are overcome by some extraordinary qualities you haven’t mentioned. And please don’t tell me he’s superb at his work … teaching elementary school.
Dear Prudence: Flatulent Boyfriend
Q. Bad Luck Bride?: Six years after my first time as a bride I am walking down the aisle again with my second husband. My first wedding was one with all the glitz and glamour. Although it was nice, I believe you should only have one big wedding party—hence my second wedding is a low-key affair. I don’t want to spend a lot of money and have been cutting corners where I can. Since bridal gowns take up a significant portion of the budget in many weddings I’ve opted to re-wear the dress I wore at my first wedding. To me it has no sentimental value, and it’s not like I’m going to display my first and second wedding photos side by side anyway to compare how much more beautiful I used to look when I was younger. But the reaction of my family and friends is that of horror. Some people said it’s bad luck and others said it’s tacky to wear it again. Personally, I don’t think the dress has any superpowers to somehow cast the evil eye on my second marriage. But since people have reacted to it so strongly, it makes me wonder—should I buy a new dress?
A: You often hear from women who buy untraditional wedding gowns that they intend to wear them again, and probably no one ever does. But you have come up with the perfect way to get more use out of your gown—wear it for all your marriages! I agree with you that it’s silly to imbue extraordinary talismanic powers in inanimate wedding objects. People have written to me asking if it’s OK to reuse engagement and wedding rings, and as long as everyone is comfortable, why not? On the other hand, as you walk down the aisle, you want people murmuring how beautiful you look, not, “I think the dress fit her better last time.” I suggest a compromise—have the dress altered. If it’s strapless, transform it with some lace a la Catherine Middleton. Perhaps you could change the length. With some clever tailoring you can repurpose your gown so that it looks as if the dress, as well as your union, marks a fresh start.
Q. Workplace Harassment: I am in a difficult situation. I am a new graduate lucky enough to find a fantastic job in my industry. I am a young single female in a work environment dominated by older men. I am ambitious and hardworking and put in extra hours. My immediate supervisors have had a very high opinion of me and have communicated this to me and to other managers. An opportunity arose where my supervisor wanted to promote me, which was met by accusations of him having a “personal relationship” with me due to the amount of praise I was receiving. I was passed up for a promotion and new opportunity while being told by a higher-up that my boss (who was reassigned to a new project) did not need any distractions. Embarrassed and disappointed, I then was put under the supervision of another supervisor, who asked me flat out if I had slept with my last boss. This supervisor regularly makes sexual advances and comments in my direction. I’ve told him multiple times and sternly that it is inappropriate and makes me feel uncomfortable, [only] to be told that “this is the way it is in this industry.” I fear (and strongly believe) that if I complain I will lose my job (which I really love, minus the harassment) and be black marked in the industry. I live in a smaller city where similar opportunities are not widely available to someone with my experience level, and I recently took on a mortgage. What is the best way to handle this awful situation while maintaining my dignity and employment status?
A: Just when you think the world has really changed, there’s a letter like yours. You have done exactly the right thing by addressing your harasser directly and asking him to stop. And he, knowing the job market, knowing how he can damage your reputation, has you in a psychological vise. But a creep like this is only going to escalate, and you will find yourself eventually dreading coming in. You must go to another supervisor or the Human Resources department at your company and give a full accounting of what has been going on. It might be helpful to contact your former supervisor and tell him about the insinuations and harassment you are enduring (he should be interested that his reputation is being sullied) and ask for his help. Once you talk to a supervisor, start keeping notes on how you are treated. Although many readers recommend bringing lawsuits for infractions like the company cafeteria using too much mayonnaise, in this case, if you can’t get relief from a boss who is simultaneously trying to ruin your reputation and get you into bed, a discussion with an employment law specialist might be worth having.
Q. Paying for Dead Woman’s Clothes?: My aunt recently died in a car accident. She leaves her husband and 16-year-old daughter. They decided they wanted to hand out her clothes to the women of the family, in a (in my opinion) very peculiar way. At my mother’s birthday party, two months after my aunt’s death, all the clothes were laid out on tables so everyone could choose what they liked. My niece said that distributing her dead mother’s clothes in this way was what she wanted. However, she was crying throughout, making me very uncomfortable. I wanted to respect her wishes and pick some clothes, but on the other hand it felt like I was causing that poor girl a lot of pain. Everyone kept telling me to take something, so I picked a very nice leather jacket. When I had a closer look at it afterwards, it turned out to have a very posh brand name on it. I feel uncomfortable having received such an expensive item for free from these bereaved people, with whom I am not very close (but my mother is). I called them, but they refuse to take any money for it. Should I send some anyway?
A: Please forget about the money, but do write a note to your cousin and uncle telling them how much you miss your aunt and that you are thinking of them in this time of loss. Tell them how much it means to have a lovely jacket that she picked out, how you treasure it, and how it makes you feel embraced by this wonderful woman you all miss so much.
Also, please don’t judge the “peculiar” way they distributed her clothes. I think it sounds like a wonderful way to give mementos of her to people who cared about her. Of course her daughter was going to be crying, how painful to feel the finality of seeing her beloved mother’s wardrobe disassembled. Her tears, however, do not mean that this wasn’t her wish for her mother’s final effects.
Q. Performance Anxiety: I’m a 24-year-old graduate student in the social sciences. I am very intellectually inclined and love to learn, but I also have a history of performance anxiety which negates my natural abilities. Not to reinforce a stereotype, but as a child of hard-driving Asian parents I developed a sense of inadequacy that years of therapy have not been able to erase. I recently came close to being fired from work and ejected from my program, both of which I love, because of my difficulty with task completion. Lately things have improved enough that I am safe for now, but I am haunted by my past failures and my poor reputation, which will undoubtedly affect my future chances of employment. I’ve always dreamt big about the contributions I’d like to make in my field, but now those ambitions seem to verge on silliness. I am tempted to drop out of school and cut my losses. Am I being realistic or being an idiot?
A: You raise an interesting point about the long-term consequences of “tiger parenting.” Of course, what you are experiencing doesn’t affect everyone whose parents have very high expectations, but several tiger cubs have written that once out in the world, they suffer from anxiety such as you describe about the need to always be perfect. They are afraid to take on new challenges at work or school that aren’t clearly defined because they have been drilled that anything less than an “A” is failure—but adult life doesn’t usually come with grades.
But what is the way to overcome this except accept that most “failures” aren’t catastrophic. That trying and learning from mistakes is the only way to do better. Instead of concentrating on how you’ve failed, turn around your recent experiences and realize, “Yes, I’ve screwed up, but my life isn’t over, I’m still in the program, and much worse than not acing everything is not trying.” Since you’ve already had years of therapy and it hasn’t helped, change therapists. Look into the “mindfulness” therapies now out there, which teach you how to accept, quiet, and overcome the disabling thoughts in your head.
Q. For Workplace Harassment Victim: Check the laws in your state. If it is not illegal to record conversations that you are participating in, keep your cell phone with you at all times and record every single time the harasser speaks to you. This way, you will have something that the HR department cannot ignore. I used this tactic with a boss who was an absolute bully, and while she was not fired, she did back off due to the extreme reprimand she received from her boss.
A: Love this! Thanks.
Q. Suing Over Mayonnaise?: “Although many readers recommend bringing lawsuits for infractions like the company cafeteria using too much mayonnaise, in this case, if you can’t get relief from a boss who is simultaneously trying to ruin your reputation and get you into bed, a discussion with an employment law specialist might be worth having.”
What’s with the unnecessary slam against your readers? If that was meant as a joke, it didn’t come off that way.
Emily Yoffe: No slam intended, so I apologize if that’s how it came off. Every week in the comments section I get an education from readers. But I do take issue with a recurring theme that almost every unhappiness at work can be settled via the legal system. Getting into a lawsuit is best avoided unless there is no other solution.
Q. Don’t Save the Date?: I am engaged and am getting married this fall. I sent out “save the dates” a few months ago and have now realized that I made a big mistake. I had invited a woman from work who I became really close with—we have taken a trip together, gone to concerts, movies, dinners. I considered her to be one of my closest friends. Well, in the past few months, she has stopped talking to me at all. Where we used to email, hang out, have lunch every day—now, nothing. I really am not comfortable sending her an invitation but don’t know how to handle this. I should have probably waited to send out save the dates to work people, or not sent them at all.
A: A “save the date” is a commitment, but there’s probably a loophole for people who upon receiving the card start pretending you don’t exist. You act as if the reason for her sudden silence is a mystery to you, but this woman is a co-worker as well as a friend, so you need to have an actual conversation (if she’ll agree to talk) to try to find out what’s gone wrong. Surely this sudden chill is awkward at work. If she won’t give you a hint and you can’t come to some understanding, do say at the end of the conversation that you must sadly recognize the friendship is over, so you will assume she’d prefer not to be burdened with a wedding invitation.
Q. My Friend, the Mistress: My lifelong friend has recently revealed to me that she has been dating a significantly older man for a few years now. He happens to be married and has several teenage children (for perspective, we are in our late 20s). I believe my friend kept this relationship a secret out of fear that I would judge her, or worse, confront her on what I consider to be her unethical behavior. If so, she’s right! Now I don’t know how to be around her because I am shocked that she sees no problem playing “the other woman,” and I simply cannot support this relationship. I feel as though I have to confront her about this affair, especially since many of our friends have known about it for a while and have said nothing to her, but I’m not sure how to go about doing it without coming across as sanctimonious and judgmental. I also don’t want to destroy a 22-year friendship. Any advice on how to proceed?
A: You’re lifelong friends and she’s now, finally, confided in you that she’s having an affair with a married man. That entitles you to act like a friend and express your concerns. You’re right, you’re not going to get anywhere by being sanctimonious. But you can say you understand while something like this sounds exciting in a lot of ways, you worry there’s a likely way this is going to go. She ends up getting hurt and looks back and wishes she hadn’t gotten involved with someone married. Then, you’ve said your piece. If she’s not asking you to “support” her, then talk about other things when having a discussion of her personal life. But if she feels you aren’t being a good friend by refusing to listen to the exciting details or that this love affair is just too big for you to understand, then you should tell her while you don’t want to spend a lot of time judging her, you don’t want to feel judged in turn.
Q. Performance Anxiety: A great resource (besides a good therapist) for dealing with the unreasonable expectations that you have internalized from your upbringing is Feeling Good by David Burns. It lays out steps for retraining yourself.
A: Thanks. Many readers recommend this book.
Q. Postdated Wedding: I have been a bridesmatron several times in the last two years and love assisting my friends on their big days. Weddings are wonderful, but attending so many has made me regret my decision not to have one because I became pregnant while dating my boyfriend of five years. My family convinced me that having one would be inappropriate for religious and social reasons. It’s been two years and I’m legally married and have a happy son and healthy family. Still, I sometimes buy magazines and plan a “dream wedding” I can’t have. Is it ever appropriate to have a wedding years after you’ve been legally married?
A: Your family was wrong about your being a pregnant bride, but your taking their advice has saved everyone many thousands of dollars that I hope are going to the raising of your child. While I admit I sometimes enjoy re-enactments on reality crime shows, I don’t enjoy them in real life. No one is going to get excited about hauling themselves to the “dream wedding” of someone who’s been married for a couple of years. You’re married—that’s the point of the wedding, so you’ve gotten that out of the way. Many women buy Vogue, etc. to indulge in fantasies of what it would be like to have an unlimited designer wardrobe, for example. If “planning” a fantasy wedding gives you pleasure, fine. But if reading bridal magazines is making you stew about the lack of tulle in your life, start reading the Economist instead. (And I will note that an exception of my dislike of wedding re-dos is for people who have quickie ceremonies prior to being deployed by the military who want to have the big event when they get back home.)
Q. From Save the Date: The silence is definitely a mystery. I am terrible at confrontation, so I will admit I have been avoiding any interaction with her once I realized the silence was there. I will have to figure out some way to approach her. Would an email to her personal email account be the coward’s way out?
A: I will pass on that readers are suggesting the silence may be around the fact that you are a bridezilla, only concerned with your wedding planning. Could that be the case? Even if it is, a sudden freeze seems like an overreaction.
Not many people love confrontations, but when a good friend suddenly and inexplicably goes to radio silence, an email is not the way to deal with it. You simply need to go to her and say: “Sandy, what day this week can you have lunch? We need to talk.” Then you tell her you miss her as a friend, you don’t understand what happened, and you hope your friendship can get back on track.
Q. In Response to Niece With Her Deceased Aunt’s Jacket: I totally agree with your advice but I would add something. The niece may want to wait one or two years and then call the daughter and offer her the jacket then. After my mother passed away, I did not realize until later how much I would treasure the things of hers that I kept. Sometimes I carry a purse or wear a necklace that was my mother’s, and it’s very comforting. It left me feeling later like I should have kept more. If the niece wants to offer the jacket back later, the daughter may appreciate it, even though she doesn’t want it now.
A: Thanks for this sensitive advice. But the offer shouldn’t be, “I never wear this thing, do you want it back?” But, “I’ve loved this beautiful jacket, and I was thinking that now that you’re older, it might be something you’d enjoy wearing.”
Q. RE: Bad Luck Bride: For the price of tailoring and alterations, the bride could rent a wedding dress for the day.
A: Good advice. And no temptation to wear it yet again!
Q. How Much Hobby Sharing Can Spouses Expect From One Another?: As strictly a hobby, I write fictional novels in the evenings after my daughter goes to bed. I am a stay-at-home mom more by circumstance than by desire, though I have loved being there for my daughter. This activity has given me a chance to step into a fictional world for a few hours a night and something to do as my husband is fooling with his computer modeling, music, various artistic pursuits, or video games for the evenings after a day of work for him. I try to be supportive of his hobbies. Is it too much for me to ask for him to read what I write? The only friend I have I feel comfortable enough to read what I write is visually impaired and does most of her reading through audio books. He just never gets around to it when I do ask. I gave him an early draft of a novel I was messing around with and have since finished two sequels to it. I know they will never go farther than taking up memory space on my laptop hard drive, but I still want it to be the best I can make it, and to me that includes having someone I love and trust read it.
A: In her recent memoir, Joyce Carol Oates reveals her late husband didn’t read her novels. Of course, she wrote a novel a day, so maybe it was too much to ask. If you even harbor secret dreams of someone besides your spouse reading your work, I think you need to get braver and join a writing circle, or take a class in which others are forced to read your work. Your husband may be the most sensitive, brilliant reader you’d ever encounter and he’s unkindly refusing to be your Lionel Trilling. Or he may be thinking, “I love her, but if I have to read one more word about a sexy werewolf, I’m going to kill myself. ” Don’t make reading your trilogy a test of your marriage.
Q. Re: Mistress: As someone that has been the other woman, I was angry at first when my sister and friends told me what I was doing was wrong, but as time went on I realized not only was I helping to break up a family, I was also with a guy that had no problem hurting his family. Probably not a guy you want to be with. Talk to your friend.
A: Nice to hear that the wisdom of people who cared about you got through.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone—talk to you next Monday.
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