Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. ( Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. Let’s get to it.
Q. Virginity: This December I am marrying a wonderful man who is from a different culture. He comes from a conservative background where young people are expected to stay virgins until their marriage. He also has this view on sex and has remained a virgin as well. Whenever we discussed sex, he said it was very difficult growing up in America and staying a virgin, but he has, because he sees sex as a special thing he wants to reserve only for his wife. The only thing is, this won’t be my first time. I’ve had two partners previously, both in a serious relationship. I never explicitly said I wasn’t a virgin but led him to believe I was. I asked him hypothetically one day (before we started dating) how would he feel if his future wife had sex before meeting him. He said that this would be a deal breaker for him. In my mind it’s not a big deal having partners before marriage, but it clearly is for him. Do I say anything at this point?
A: Let’s say your fiance was from a culture in which it was acceptable for men to have more than one wife, and before you started dating he asked you how you felt about polygamy. You replied that it would be a deal breaker. So you two started going out, fell in love, and got married. And as you embarked on the honeymoon he broke the news that Wife No. 1 would be accompanying you because to him polygamy was just a normal thing.
Before you even went out with this man, he laid out his bottom line on getting laid. You chose to ignore his fundamental beliefs because to you it doesn’t make sense to be a virgin until marriage. I’m on your side in this debate. Frankly, since you’re sexually experienced, I can’t imagine why you’d want to marry someone before having a test run. Nonetheless, as silly as you may find your husband’s convictions, they are his, he made them explicit, and you are starting your marriage based on a lie. When there is a lack of bloody sheets on your honeymoon, are you going to trot out the old canard that your hymen got ripped while horseback riding? When you start to blurt out, “I like it better if you—I mean, I have no idea what I like,” won’t he perhaps be suspicious? Before this goes any further, you must tell him the truth. That he loves you and wants to marry you might mean he is willing to examine his beliefs in light of the fact that you aren’t a virgin. The Virgin Suicides is supposed to be an excellent novel; you don’t also want it to be the theme of your new marriage.
Dear Prudence: Father’s Worn Out Welcome
Q. Infertility: My husband has two sisters, both of whom are around 40 and childless. They both have been trying for a baby for years with no luck—one sister is divorced because of all the stress of conceiving, the other has had two miscarriages in the past 10 years. I have two young children and my sisters-in-law behave rudely to them. When we all get together, my sisters-in-law constantly tell them off for being loud or running around. If my kids are watching TV or playing games, they get told off for being lazy. They’ve never once received a birthday or Christmas gift from their aunts. If my MIL is having fun with my kids and laughing together, the sisters-in-law will leave the room. Others say I should be the bigger person and understand how they must be feeling, but I am simply fed up. How can I deal with this situation?
A: I see, so your sisters-in-law are entitled to disparage and ignore your children, and you’re supposed to be understanding about it, because somehow your ability to reproduce was the cause of their reproductive difficulties? Of course, it’s terribly painful not to be able to have children, but people going through this difficulty need to remember the world is full of kids and other people’s children are not a rebuke to them. If these children are those of friends or relatives, one’s life will be enriched by having a relationship with them, not insulting the children and shunning the parents. This is really a situation in which your husband should talk to his sisters. He can say he knows they are in pain, but your kids are missing out on two wonderful aunts, and they’re missing the chance to be important people in the kids’ lives. If they’d rather be bitter and nasty, then limit your interaction with them. If they want to leave the room when the kids’ grandmother is playing with them, then that’s what you call win/win.
Q. Should I End My Child’s Friendship With a Lonely Child? We have a 6-year-old son (Sam). My husband’s best friend of 20 years and his wife have a 6-year-old son (Chris), a 3-year-old girl, and they lost a child (Mark) a few weeks after his birth eight years ago. The mother has tried to keep Mark’s memory alive, with examples ranging from the power going out in a storm, to a sound in another room as “Mark saying hello or playing in the other room.” She has the two younger kids speak to him as if he is there beside them, like a regular conversation. Mark’s nursery is still set up and was never used, and she keeps a shrine to Mark that includes disturbing/graphic photos (after death and surgery photos) in her living room. This is getting worse/more extreme with time. Her family support her in this, and her husband and his family face her wrath (for weeks) when they voice concerns. Chris is having problems at school. Recently, during a storm the lights went out in class, and Chris started yelling and screaming at his brother to turn the lights on in front of the other kids. He also has these one-sided conversations in the classroom with “Mark.”
Kids have now started to say things like, “Chris sees dead people” and call him “Creepy Chris.” My son and Chris have been friends since birth, but Sam doesn’t want to invite Chris to his upcoming birthday, yet Chris has attended every previous party. What should we do? I don’t want my son to be uncomfortable or force him to continue the friendship (sadly he used to really enjoy Chris’ company), but I can’t help thinking about those poor kids.
A: Someone needs to intervene here because this mother sounds as if she has veered into mental illness and the whole family is coming undone because of it. Since your husband has been friends for years with the father, your husband needs to have a serious talk with the man and say his wife seems stuck in her grief and, unfortunately, it’s having a devastating effect on the wonderful children they do have. If necessary, your husband—who must know the grandparents—should try to enlist their help. Tell your son you understand his discomfort with Chris, but that he’s a great kid who’s having a hard time and all of you have to be nice to him, not shun him. If you’re around Chris when he makes a reference to Mark controlling the lights or some such, feel free to say: “Chris, that was just a power outage. It had nothing to do with Mark. Mark is gone and he doesn’t control anything that’s going on in your life. “
Q. Virginity: The whole “Bloody sheets” thing is not universally true, and neither does every female virgin have a totally or even partially intact hymen. It doesn’t always hurt the first time and it doesn’t usually bleed much if at all. While I agree that she should tell her fiance, let’s not engage in virginity stereotyping.
A: Sure, that’s true. But I assume the bride is going to feel obligated to put on some kind of show to act as if this is her first time, and that her husband may question why he met with so little resistance.
Q. Expected for Dinner: Acquaintances of ours recently canceled a dinner invitation (again, this time the morning of the dinner party) in order to move forward some nonemergency contract work on their home (I think—the details are fuzzy). They’re now asking when we can reschedule. After eating some very expensive leftovers for days on end, I’d like to say, “Why don’t we come to you this time.” Would it be too rude to invite ourselves to their house? They’ve never offered to host. I’m just tired of emotionally and physically preparing to host but would still like to see them.
A: I’m trying to understand why you would like to see these people. Is it because just as you can’t tickle yourself, it’s impossible to stand yourself up? It sounds as if you enjoy their company because you don’t actually get to enjoy their company, but you do get to lick your wounds—and eat lots of leftovers—when they end up not showing. Here are some good reasons for explaining why on the morning of a dinner party you can’t come: A parent just died, or you are having an emergency appendectomy. The next time they ask when they can get you to spend a lot of money on them, you can either say, “Since you’ve cancelled on me the last few times, I’ve concluded you’re not interested in having dinner with us.” Or, “I’ll get back to you on that,” then don’t.
Q. Bragging About Money: My wife’s sister’s husband, for over 30 years, has bragged continually about how much money he has made. One never hears the end of his “CDs,” etc. On occasion, he will enter a room and change the conversation topic to money, and he rarely talks about much else. Is it acceptable to just call him a dolt ?
A: Maybe this guy should become the next Treasury secretary, since he’s the only one still making money. He is a dolt, but it would be rude to blurt this out, and odd after 30 years. But it is acceptable to fall silent and stare into space when he starts blabbing about his 401(k). It’s also acceptable to get up and say, “Excuse me, I need to freshen my drink.”
Q. My Friend Is a Thief?: When my close friend “Tiffany” got kicked out of her home by her ex-boyfriend I offered her a room in my home until she found elsewhere to live. A couple of months after her monthlong stay, I decided to do some spring cleaning. In the process of cleaning out old clothing, I also took out my jewelry box, which I normally keep hidden in my drawers. To my horror I realized an antique hairpin and my great-grandmother’s wedding ring were gone. I have always kept them there my whole life, my husband swears he hasn’t touched it (he didn’t even know I had a jewelry box), and I know I definitely haven’t moved it. I hate to say this, but Tiffany is the strongest suspect here. I entertain friends at home every now and then, but they never go upstairs, where my bedroom is. I am at a loss as to how to bring the subject up with Tiffany. What do I do now?
A: You have a strong suspicion but no proof. Whether or not the culprit is Tiffany, she obviously is going to deny she stole the stuff from Tiffany’s, so it’s useless to accuse her. It’s also possible she didn’t do it. So I’d say from now on keep your socializing with Tiffany off your premises.
Q. Expected for Dinner, Cont.: They’re friends of friends, we enjoy their company, and our life stages are similar (young families). I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and don’t view myself as weak or spineless for doing so (thank you very much). I’m just wondering the best way to go about it given their behavior and my limited resources.
A: There are no lack of delightful people with young children who would be thrilled to get an invitation for a home-cooked meal, will actually come, and will bring a bottle of wine in addition. You’ve said these people chronically diss you and now you’re mad at me for telling you to drop them. I’m afraid I don’t know how to help you to get them to cook for you.
Q. Death of a Parent: I just found yesterday that my mother-in-law (aged 58) has less than one month left to live. This was the devastating news from her doctors. She has cancer that has managed to spread to her bones and just went to hospice. I’m at a loss as to how to deal. My husband doesn’t like to talk about his emotions, and I get that, but he’s pushing me away. I want to talk but he doesn’t. How can I show him that it’ll be easier to talk, and easier to heal to talk about things rather than keep them bottled up inside? I know it’s going to take a while to get over this loss, and I want to remember the good times, get life back to normal, but I also don’t want to be pushed away from that side of the family. She is literally the glue that holds everyone together.
A: You can help him get through this terrible news and his coming loss by not forcing on him your ideas of how people should respond to such events and letting him know how he should act once his mother is gone. You want to talk, he doesn’t. So you need to talk to your friends about what’s going on, because your husband is processing his shock and grief in his own way. When you have an to urge to force your ideas of “healing” on him, take a deep breath and keep your mouth closed. Follow his lead in what he wants. Maybe he wants you just to hold his hand (but if he doesn’t, hands off). Maybe you could do the most good by organizing meals for the family as they start their vigil. Stop anticipating people pushing you away or falling apart. This is your mother-in-law’s illness and death, it isn’t your drama. Quietly take your place by your husband’s side and don’t make this about you.
Q. Stolen Jewelry?: Prudie, Prudie, Prudie, this is a perfect time to dust off your acting skills. Over lunch with your friend, you burst into tears, talking about how losing your Nana’s things has upset you. You can’t imagine how this happened. You know you haven’t moved them from your drawer. You do NOT accuse her—you let her know the loss is significant to you, and you let her either confess, or replace them unnoticed by you. If neither happens, drop her.
A: Tiffany may be the thief, but we don’t know that for sure. Maybe Nana’s things were snatched before Tiffany ever showed up. I agree that it’s fine for the letter writer to go out with Tiffany and in the course of the conversation say she was deeply distressed to find her late grandmother’s jewelry was missing. Perhaps that will spark a confession. But if one’s friend is capable of stealing jewelry, she’s capable of keeping that to herself.
Q. I’m Not a Library!: I’m an avid reader and collector of books, and I often recommend books to my friends who are interested in the same genres. Recently, I loaned a book to a friend who promised she would take exquisite care of it—only to have the nearly pristine first edition paperback returned in appalling condition (binding broken, cover torn and bent, pages buckled). This has happened before (with other friends), and I swore off lending books for years, but I’m relatively new in this city and have few friends here, and I didn’t want to insult my friend when she asked. Can I ask her to replace the damaged book with a like copy (which could run to around $30 since it’s first edition)? And how do I tell future friends I’m not a lending library without them assuming I don’t trust them? I’ve gotten that reaction before, and I’ve also had friendships dissolve over damaged books. I think they see paperbacks and assume the books have no value, but that’s often not true. Do I have to put my treasures on the line to preserve my friendships?
A: Since you love books, the writers of them will appreciate if after you rave about a book you say, “I just don’t like to lend out books. But I assure you, you won’t regret buying this one.” Your friend should have taken better care of the book, but paperbacks easily show their wear and if you wanted it to remain pristine, you never should have loaned it. Save your friendship and shell out the $30 yourself if you must have another copy.
Q. Seeing Red!: I am fortunate to have two beautiful young daughters. One of my daughters has gorgeous bright red hair, which attracts comments from random strangers on a regular basis. As a proud mother, I used to find these comments flattering, however, they’re starting to get annoying. First of all, my daughter has become very well aware that having red hair is an envied trait. However, what bothers me most is that many of these “well-wishers” completely look past my other daughter, who is generally right next to her! Last week she made a comment to me about how she is “not special” because she doesn’t have red hair like her sister. This breaks my heart! Is there a polite way to handle these situations?
A: Red hair attracts comments, perhaps not so much in Ireland, but anywhere else it’s a striking trait and one people feel comfortable noting. (It is not universally desired, however. News is that the world’s largest sperm bank doesn’t want any more flame-haired donors.) But it’s insensitive to comment on the remarkable tresses of one sibling while the other is just standing there. However, you’re not going to stop people from saying, “Look at that gorgeous hair!” so you have to show that, yes, she has lovely red hair, but hair just doesn’t mean very much to your family. You should smile and say, “I’m lucky I have two gorgeous daughters.” Teach your ginger girl to simply say, “Thank you,” when she gets compliments about her hair. Your brunette daughter may resent the attention, but your redhead also knows that simply growing hair doesn’t take any ability.
Q. Death of a Parent: I second Prudie’s advice. When I am stressed or upset, I tend to cry or get upset or want to talk it out a lot. My S.O. is the complete opposite. He might eventually want to talk, but he needs time to process his emotions, calm down, decompress, etc. I expended way too much energy trying to get him to talk about it before he finally got me to understand that talking isn’t what he needs. All I asked in return is that he just tell something like: “I’m not mad or angry with you/I want to talk, just not now/Let me have some time to myself” so I’m not left wondering. It makes everyone’s life much better.
A: Good advice to understand each other’s styles for dealing with powerful emotions. And I agree the quiet partner should feel comfortable telling the talkative partner, “I just need to think this through alone for now, thanks.”
Q. Paparazzi: There was a house fire on my street last week where a house completely burned down. Thankfully, everybody got out in time and no one was killed (thank you fire alarms!). There was a big crowd of people around the house. The family who got out just in time were obviously distraught and crying. Some people started taking photos of the house—and the distressed family as well. I saw from my house across the road and I really wanted to run over and snatch the cameras away. Days afterward I still feel shaken by the whole thing—obviously about my neighbors, but also about the people photographing the “event” as well. Should I have said something to the paparazzi?
A: But this is more exciting to post on your Facebook page than what you had for lunch. “Take a look at the faces of my distraught neighbors while their home turns into a cinder behind them!” I think it would have been fine to quietly tell the photographers that this is a time to offer help, not to take pictures of their neighbors’ distress.
Q. In-Laws Visiting: My husband’s parents are visiting us for a week. My question is mostly to do with my MIL: She is very controlling with my 3.5 year old son. She tells him “no” all day for little things. “Don’t peel the paper off of that crayon.” “Don’t hold your fork in that hand.” “Don’t tidy up that way.” It’s constant and nonstop. How do I intervene without contradicting her every time she says something? I don’t want to make her look bad in front of my son (her grandson), but I’m sick of this negative attitude. We don’t have the greatest relationship to start with, and she doesn’t take well to being corrected.
A: It’s true that usually the people who are a fount of criticism don’t enjoy having the hose turned on them. As I repeatedly recommend regarding problems with in-laws, the first line of defense should be the biological child. Your husband should tell his mother that he knows she has strong opinions about child-rearing, and she got to exercise them when he was little. But now it’s the next generation’s turn, and the two of you have more relaxed views. He should say he’d appreciate it if she didn’t give your son so many corrections. Remember, the visit is only for a week, so it will soon come to an end. On the other hand your toddler shouldn’t have to listen to a string of crazy orders that whole time. So when she starts in, say as calmly as possible, “Irma, it doesn’t bother us if Zach peels the crayon.” If she gets to be too much, say you’re buckling him in the stroller and taking him out for a run.
Q. Red Hair: I have red hair. I got all of the comments that the original poster’s daughter got. I also got taunted by kids my own age and didn’t like having red hair until I was about 18. I wrote my college application on being a redhead. All of it means next to nothing as an adult. My hair has faded to a strawberry blond and my hair only makes it easier to find me in a sea of blondes and brunettes. The reality? Compliments mean next to nothing to children, but the teasing and taunts of elementary school probably bother your redheaded daughter more than the brunette daughter is bothered by the lack of compliments on her hair.
A: I didn’t think about the other side: the flame-headed getting flamed for it. Thanks for this perspective.
Q. Red Hair: I was the mousy-brown haired sister of someone who had (and still has) beautiful red hair. For every adult who comments positively on the hair, there is a kid yelling “carrots” on the playground. Just saying that while, yes, the mother is right to be uncomfortable, she isn’t hearing all of the comments the red-haired daughter or her sister hear. It isn’t something to lose sleep over!
A: See, Mom, the brown-haired kid is all right.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!
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