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. Three’s a Crowd: “Laura” and I have been best friends since we were 10. Four years ago her husband, “James,” needed my help on a work-related matter and came over without Laura, who was busy with something else. It involved a very difficult and tedious task, and we decided to make it more tolerable by bringing out some wine. That night James and I ended up sleeping together. I always had a small, harmless crush on James but never in my wildest dreams fantasized about acting on it until that night. We both felt very guilty afterward. I even tried to cut off contact with Laura for awhile, but she kept calling me in tears asking what she’d done wrong. I feel horrible, and I am not even attracted to James anymore. We avoid each other as best as we can. I’m struggling with whether I should confess to Laura or not. I can’t get over what I did, but should I tell her?
A: If you were going to confess, the time for confession was at the time. Cast your mind back to the alternative reality that didn’t take place: tears, pain, recrimination, possibly lawyers and divorce. I am not defending cheating or saying the best way to deal with it is to keep it a secret. But I have come to feel that a single episode of it, much regretted and never repeated, is often best forgotten by those concerned. (Certainly you realized that compounding your betrayal by trying to punish Laura was cruel.) It’s been four years, so telling Laura now would not only be devastating, but leave her wondering what’s the hidden message behind this sudden revelation. It would also likely make her feel the past four years of her life were some kind of farce in which you and James were mocking her and communicating through glances she will now obsessively reinterpret. You say you can’t get over what you did, so living with that awful feeling is your penance. Don’t also make Laura pay.
Dear Prudence: Charitable Conundrum
Q. Loans, Parenting: My son “Alex” goes to school with my good friend “Pam’s” daughter “Maggie.” Three weeks ago Alex and Maggie went on a school field trip in which the kids used public transportation to reach their destination. Pam chaperoned. Alex misplaced his bus money, so Pam “loaned” him 75 cents to return to school after the field trip ended. Alex promptly forgot about the “loan,” which Pam explained to him she expected to be repaid, and now I have learned that Pam and Maggie are upset because Alex refuses to repay the loan. Maggie has asked him seven times if he has brought her mother’s 75 cents, explaining that repaying loans is a “matter of principle.” The kids are 12, so I understand that Pam’s trying to teach Alex financial responsibility, but I’m miffed that Maggie has been badgering Alex about this. It’s only 75 cents, after all. And what would Pam have done? Not given him the money and left him on a street corner? My husband wants to give Alex 75 cents and be done with this. I think Pam’s taken this too far, and I want to tell her how I feel she could have handled this better. What should I do?
A: There are so many lessons to be learned here; the primary one is that being a jerk doesn’t teach anyone anything except that you are a jerk. This label could apply to everyone involved, except perhaps your husband. Obviously the amount is trivial, but Alex should have promptly repaid it. When he didn’t, and after Maggie asked for the money and didn’t get it, her mother should have told her to forget about it—and that she will learn in life that when you loan money, you don’t always get it back. And further, it’s good to be generous and get a friend out a jam—one’s good will tends to get repaid in the end. Pam instead is demonstrating she’s an overbearing boor. But what’s the lesson you’re trying to teach Alex? It sound as if you believe that if people ask for their money back in a way you don’t like, you don’t have to give it. I’m with your husband on this, only I’d suggest Alex hand Maggie a dollar and say the extra quarter is interest on her loan.
Q. Uninvited Family: Some of my wife’s family have invited themselves for Thanksgiving dinner. While they aren’t entirely unwelcome and we would have said yes if they had asked, I’m finding myself bent out of shape because a) we didn’t invite them and/or b) they announced they were coming instead of asking in the first place. How do I let these guests know that I am glad they are coming to my table but I’m still mad at them?
A: That sounds like a fun holiday! Before you carve the turkey you can say, “I want to make note of all the blessings we are grateful for this year. Chief among them is being joined by family members who we never would have invited.” If you are being the host, your primary obligation is to be gracious, so get some extra cans of cranberry sauce and can the idea of telling your guests how mad you are. For the future your family needs to clarify well in advance who’s going where at holiday time, so the only things that get bent out of shape are people’s belts after the meal.
Q. Grandma’s Cabin: After my mother passed, we purchased her cabin. Now my brothers and nephews and nieces see it as “Grandma’s cabin” that Tom and I pay for. They have asked to visit, or just told me outright that they and their friends are coming up such and such a weekend. I actually told my niece of course she and her husband could come up until she asked me the capacity of the cabin, at which time I told her, “But I live here, Nikke, and I’m not leaving.” She left me a nasty voice mail about how selfish I was. I live there six months out of the year. I am not willing to pay 12 months a year for a cabin that I can use six months and give up weekends for my brothers and kin to enjoy while I pay the mortgage. While I cordially invited them and their friends to join me, they still insist on requesting individual weekends by themselves. I agreed to allow my brother and his friends for their annual “fishing opener.” My CD player, binoculars, and other items went missing, to which my brother responded, “I was just taking mementoes of Mom.” My husband’s chain saw simply isn’t something I remember mom by. What can I do?
A: Maybe next time they inform you of the dates of their visit, you can say that means you’ll have to hurry with the improvements you’re making to the cabin—you’re installing a security and video system because you’ve had an unfortunate series of thefts from the property. To them this may be Mom’s cabin, but you have mortgage papers showing it’s yours. This is a fact that needs to be impressed upon your family, so you need to state it in clear terms, such as, “We love to see you, and I know the cabin will always feel like home to all of us, but Tom and I purchased it to use as our residence. That means it’s our home and I’m afraid we aren’t going to clear out when people would like to use it for a weekend. As owners of the cabin, we would like to continue to have it be a place the family gathers from time to time, but that has to be at our convenience. One more thing, the items in the cabin are ours. Unfortunately, we’ve lost some valuable things recently when guests have misunderstood their ownership. There are no more mementos here, there are simply our belongings.” Who knows, this may so offend your family that they decide to boycott you. That’s what you would call win/win.
Q. Omaha, Neb.: A few years ago, I confided in my best friend that I was having an affair with a married man (which continues to this day). I swore her to secrecy, and only a few other friends know. A few weeks ago, I found out that the secret had gotten out to a wider audience. My best friend is the most likely candidate, given the people who found out, but she swears up and down that she didn’t say a word. I have asked repeated times, and now she won’t speak to me at all. She says she’s angry that I called her at work about it a couple of times and that I keep calling and emailing about the matter. But I’m angry, and I think I have a right to know how this information got out. What do I do now?
A: You could use this as an opportunity to assess why you are throwing away your chance to have an above board romance with a man who is single. You could also use this as a lesson in recognizing that when you just have to blab your exciting news to a select handful of people that you’re having an affair with a married man, you don’t control that news anymore. You could also consider why, instead of engaging in some self-reflection, you decided to harass your best friend, who perhaps is glad you behaved so badly because surely she must be sick of being your confidante about your other bad behavior.
Q. Cabin: I’d change the locks, pronto, if they have keys.
A: Good advice. Pronto, indeed!
Q. Pregnancy Announcement at a Wedding?: Next weekend, my group of friends from high school will be getting together for what appears to be the last wedding for a while from the group. I see this group of nine girls infrequently (as I live in a different part in the country), but we’re rarely all together anymore as people have moved and married away from our hometown. I recently found out that I’m pregnant and would like to tell my close girlfriends in person. Unfortunately, the only time in the conceivable future that we’ll all be together is at this wedding. I don’t want to take any of the attention from the bride but would like to tell my friends in person. Is it rude to tell people at the reception that my husband and I are expecting?
A: Is your friend the kind of bride who has sent people the color options for their clothing so that no one clashes in her photos? Did she include a request for money in the invitations? If so, then she may be the kind of bride who will feel conversation during Her Day should be confined to how beautiful she is and how perfect the wedding is. If, however, she is a normal person, she will expect that when friends get together they will talk about what’s going on in their lives, and be excited herself to learn your great news. Go ahead and tell. If the bride is miffed, she’s not much of a friend.
Q. Difficulty Dealing With Ex-Spouse but Co-Parent: I have two (elementary age) children with my soon-to-be ex-husband. He has visitation for three hours on Wednesdays and every other weekend. For the last few weeks, the kids have told him they don’t want to go with him. I don’t think there’s anything wrong or they feel unsafe. I believe that with a busy extracurricular schedule, they just want some downtime in their own house. Plus, the fact is they are just closer to me than to him. When they say they don’t want to go, his response is, “Yes, you do” or some other inane, conflict-avoiding response. He won’t say, “You have to get in the car” or some such, and he often looks to me to convince them to go. I’ve stayed out of it. I don’t tell the children to get in the car, I also don’t encourage them to do these antics. I tell them that they have to discuss and resolve it with him. My family is telling me that I need to do more to help my ex with the kids, but I feel like if his time with them is important, he needs to figure it out. Should I be doing more to push the kids to go?
A: You may enjoy the rejection your kids are handing to your ex, and his distress, but I agree with your family members that your pleasure at his pain is coming at the expense of the children and you should do more to ease their visitations. Transitions are hard for children, especially the one from intact family to warring parents. They feel your home is their home and it’s probably more comforting to just continue their routine there, no matter how much they may want to see their daddy. They’re probably also picking up that you enjoy it when they don’t want to go, so they get the reward of pleasing the parent providing their primary care. You need to get past your anger at your ex and help the kids understand that even if you and Dad aren’t living together anymore, you both love them and are always going to be their parents. You could probably use some family counseling to help you help them. For now, you need to explain to the children you know sometimes it’s hard to switch houses, but their dad loves them, and going back and forth will get easier. Let them know they can talk to you about their distress—they probably are clamming up to keep you from getting upset—and that you and their father will always want to talk things through with them, even if what they have to say is upsetting. When it’s time for them to visit their father, show you’re excited for them by helping them pick out the clothes they will take and the stuffed animals they will bring along. You may even suggest they keep some things at their dad’s to help make his place feel like home. You will reap the rewards for years to come of making both your homes happy places for them.
Q. My Mother the Hero: My mom (who’s not on Facebook) recently looked at my Facebook page and saw that under “heroes” I had listed five famous people … but not her. And she was deeply offended. I love my mom and we’ve always been incredibly close, but to be honest I’ve never thought of her as a “hero.” I was very, very fortunate to grow up in a home that didn’t want for money, and she was a stay-at-home mom who took care of me— and she did a wonderful job. To me that just means that she’s a great mom, though. I don’t see anything particularly heroic about it by standard definitions of overcoming adversity. But she won’t let up about this stupid Facebook thing. I could gush (and lie) and go on about how she’s really my hero, but I think this whole thing is absurd. I’ve talked to her about it and reminded her how much I love her, but she won’t let it go—I’m afraid that I’ve really offended her. Any thoughts about how to make this right? Am I in the wrong for not automatically including my parents in that Facebook list to begin with?
A: Maybe you could offer to get her face tattooed on your biceps with the words “My hero!” underneath. It would be one thing if you used your Facebook page to trash your mother. It’s another if your mother wants to go searching online for things to be offended about. Obviously, your list is composed of world figures you admire. You’ve explained this to your mother, and that should have been sufficient. Now you need to tell her that you’re sorry she’s upset about something she misunderstands about your Facebook page, but after clarifying it for her, you’ll now just have to consider this discussion closed.
Q. Pregnant Lady at Wedding: At my wedding, a cousin told everyone she was pregnant. I was unbelievably happy for her, but my mother-in-law, five years later, still brings it up as an unforgivable faux pas that tells her everything she needs to know about my family (and, boy, is she another post—although I take her with a grain of salt). My point is, old-fashioned, crazy people are at weddings, too. When I have big news at weddings, I wait until the after party. Would that be a good compromise?
A: I wouldn’t let a rude, even vindictive, mother-in-law intimidate you from having normal conversation at a wedding. I bet your M-I-L could fill an entire column.
Q. Re: Pregnancy at a Wedding: I think it will be pretty clear to your friends that you are expecting if you are drinking water instead of champagne. Someone is bound to ask, and then it is fine to share your news without looking like you are trying to overshadow the bride. But I would not make an announcement at the wedding. Instead, do it before or wait until the after-reception get-together or grab brunch with your friends the next day. Allow the bride to have her day without trying to change the focus on you.
A: Let’s clarify what’s meant by “announcement.” If it means coming up to the mike during the toasts and saying, “By the way, I’m pregnant!” I agree the guest should not do this. If by announcement she means when old friends say, “What’s up with you?” and she says, “I’m four months pregnant!” that is not stealing the spotlight from the bride.
Q. Kids Want Downtime Instead of Dad: Cut back on their “busy extracurricular schedule.” Having time to spend with their father is far more important than lacrosse or violin.
A: Yes, if the kids are craving downtime, that may mean they’re doing too much. Having a good relationship with their father is one of the most important things that should happen during their childhoods.
Q. High-School Protocol: Our daughter, a freshman, joined the golf team at her high school this year. She is an average player but has improved steadily over the year. At the end-of-season tournament last week, she played the best golf she has ever played and qualified to move to the next round of competition. Unfortunately, the best player on the team, a senior, played poorly and missed the cut by one stroke. We have heard from the coach that some of the parents of the other upperclassmen players on the team have suggested he withdraw our daughter from the tournament and let the senior take her place in the next round. Their reasoning is that my daughter will have more chances to play in the finals while this will be the senior’s last opportunity. We were taken aback by this but have since learned from other parents that it is expected that our daughter will give up her spot. My daughter wants to step aside because she is concerned that the other kids will turn against her since the senior is a very popular girl at school. I know that this whole situation has put more pressure on our daughter and will make playing difficult, but I believe that since she won the opportunity to play she should take it. My husband thinks we should leave it up to our daughter to decide if she wants to play or not. Am I being insensitive here? We are new to the school and town and we don’t want to get off on the wrong foot.
A: My only relationship with golf is that I have a putter in my bedroom in case of burglars, but my impression about this sport, about sports in general, is that you win some and you lose some, and when you lose you don’t get to pressure the winners to withdraw because everyone feels you should have won. I don’t quite understand the coach’s position here. He is conveying the social pressure he’s feeling to your daughter? You should talk to him because he’s the one who should come forward and say he opposes the suggestion that your daughter withdraw—sportsmanship requires being gracious in defeat. However, if he’s a weakling, the more salient information is that your daughter is new in town, and if a consensus has formed about what’s “right” (even if it’s wrong), then the price your daughter would pay at school is probably not worth it. If your daughter says she’d rather step aside and will play well again, then support her.
Q. Ex-spouse: Unless your ex is abusive, your kids will be far better off and happier in the long run if they have a good relationship with both you and your husband (aka, their DAD). And since they’re still young, they don’t know what to do and they’re looking to you for help. Yes, it is on you to try and help with that. He’s still their father and they need him. If parents have a solid relationship, the kids are better off even if the parents are divorced. Unhappy parents, parents who revel in the ex’s troubles, bitter parents, angry parents, etc., married or divorced, create serious problems for kids. If you don’t drop the anger, it might be you they distance themselves from one day, just as food for thought.
Q. RE: “Pregnant Lady at Wedding”: The pregnant lady wasn’t planning on making a public announcement of the pregnancy at the wedding, was she? (You know, dinging her spoon on a glass in order to get everyone’s attention) My impression was that she was planning just to inform her old friends personally and privately while they were all together, which seems perfectly reasonable.
A: To me, too. But the mail is running in favor of keeping this quiet until after the wedding and waiting for something like brunch the next day. I just don’t see how in conversation with friends at the reception it would ruin the bride’s day for one person to tell others she’s pregnant.
Q. Mother the Hero: Tell your mother to read King Lear.
Emily Yoffe: Great suggestion! Let’s hope the letter writer’s name is not Cordelia. Although your comment is the last, it is not least. Thanks for the Shakespeare reference, and thanks, everyone, for your questions and comments. I’ll creep out of this petty pace and talk to you next week.