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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you’re all looking forward to Thanksgiving. My 92-year-old mother-in-law is hosting again. When I asked what I could do, she said, “Nothing.” That’s what I wanted to hear, and I love her for it!
Q. Smother Those Urges: I think I am in love with the least opportune of people: the woman married to my wife’s ex-husband. We’ve kissed, very inappropriately, on one occasion, and I know she regretted it deeply and lives in fear that I’ll reveal it to our spouses. Before the kiss, we were good friends, being that our spouses have remained good friends for the betterment of their children, but since it occurred—she kissed me, by the way, but was drunk at the time—we’ve pretty much stopped spending any time alone. I also love my wife and do not want to leave or hurt her, so I’m wondering if you have any advice about how to smother my feelings for her ex-husband’s wife. It’s becoming a distraction from my marriage, one I really want to handle and get rid of.
A: Think of your infatuation as a potential economic engine. If you and your wife’s ex-husband’s wife (surely we need a more elegant description for this person) bust up both your marriages, much new household formation will result! The lawyer and therapist fees that will be generated will be enormous! More people behaving like scoundrels is what the economy needs. You and your WEHW engaged in one sordid kiss. Since then you’ve stopped spending time alone together. Continue with that plan. Accept that furtive encounters tend to produce both regret and excitement, which can be heady and dangerous. If you can’t get her out of your head, consider hitting yourself on it with a frying pan (before you wife finds out and does it for you). You’re a grown man, so just keep saying to yourself, “Nah, not going to go there.”
Q. Laugh at the Ornithophobe: I am incredibly afraid of turkeys. I dislike their fleshy heads, their huge feathery bodies, the noises they make. Chickens freak me out, too. I literally startle if I accidentally see a picture of a turkey, never mind the panic that rises in me when I see one in real life. In general, all birds freak me out. I know it’s a ridiculous fear, one that many wouldn’t understand, but then again I love snakes and don’t mind spiders. My boyfriend’s family like to hide pictures of turkeys in places where I will find them and freak out. I have asked them to stop, and I have asked him to ask them to stop, but they insist it’s all in good fun. Last time I went over they hid a picture of a beheaded turkey, my worst fear of all, don’t ask, in my purse. I nearly threw up when I saw it and shook for several hours afterward. With Thanksgiving coming up, I am freaked out about what they might do. How can I make it clear to them that this really bothers me?
A: Since you’re an arachnophile, you could show up at the door with a bottle of pinor noir for your hosts and a box of spiders for the family. Say your idea this Thanksgiving is to let them loose on the dining room table and watch the hilarity that results. There are families that enjoy watching others’ squirm (I grew up in one), but inducing a panic attack in someone is cruel and grotesque. Tell your boyfriend that he must talk to everyone in his family and get the word out immediately that the game of ‘pin the turkey head’ on the guest is done. If anyone tries to freak you out, you both with leave. If one person doesn’t get the message and attempts to torture you, your boyfriend should ream out the miscreant. If it is a familywide violation, you both should head for the door. If he won’t go with you, call yourself a cab and spend the ride reconsidering your relationship.
Video: Dear Prudence: Thanksgiving Smackdown
Q. MIL: My mother-in-law comes over twice a week to care for my child, and the other three days my daughter goes to daycare. It’s a perfect arrangement for us because my daughter loves her grandma, and we get to save money on child care. We are hugely grateful for her help, but there has been one major issue. She comes to our house unannounced. One day I was in the shower with my toddler and she barged into the bathroom—I didn’t even know she was in the house! Another time I’d just gotten out of the shower stark naked when I heard the key unlock. My husband has asked her to stop coming unannounced, but it hasn’t deterred her in the slightest. She must have actually complained about this to my sister-in-law, because she called me later that week to lecture me about what a big sacrifice mom was making by caring for our daughter for free. My MIL usually comes around to drop off food because I often don’t have a lot of time to cook. I’d rather not have the food and get the privacy instead. What can I do to stop her from coming here without offending her? Thanks.
A: If she’s complaining about her duties, then your husband has to have a talk with her about whether childcare is something she wants to continue doing. If she is sacrificing time that she might be otherwise employed, perhaps you need to change your arrangement to a paid one. It’s one thing for family members to have keys to each other’s homes if everyone involved has an understanding of the necessary boundaries. But if you find her standing in front of the shower stall like an apparition out of a Hitchcock movie, it’s time for you the change the locks. Again, your husband should be the one to explain that while you both appreciate everything she’s doing for you, you two need more respect for your privacy. If this means she cancels the babysitting, then start scrimping to pay for all week daycare.
Q. Marital Problems: My husband and I got involved with one another while we were both married to other people. The whole situation was made very public by his ex-wife, and most people in our social circle know how we got together. When I got into this situation, I expected to be judged harshly, and I haven’t been disappointed. I hear numerous people gossiping about me daily. Female friends don’t trust me around their husbands. I would understand this more if my husband was getting the same treatment. Most people ignore the fact that he cheated on his wife as well. He also slept with a married woman. I’m resenting him more and more every day because of this. I want this marriage to work out, but I don’t know if I can ignore the bitterness I feel toward him. Any advice?
A: You sound like quite a prize. Tell me, on one occasion when you had too much to drink, did you kiss the new husband of your husband’s former wife? You and your current husband both cheated on your spouses, broke up your marriages, then married each other. You expected to be gossiped about, but now you’re filled with bitterness toward your husband because people aren’t as nasty to him as they are to you. Maybe people are nastier to you because of sexism. Or maybe they’re nastier to you because you’re a nasty person. Obviously, you need to expand your social circle beyond the one you used to run in when you both were married to others. You also have to behave with a mixture of confidence and modesty among the people you already know, slowly winning them over. It doesn’t sound like winning people over is your most salient quality, however. If you find yourself wanting to bust up your latest marriage because people aren’t being mean enough to your spouse, try finding a therapist to help you sort out your approach to human relations.
Q. Animal Abuse?: Is it animal abuse if the owners of three dogs constantly denigrate their largest, least intelligent dog? They love all three of their pooches, and they shower each dog with affection, but because their largest least intelligent dog is always desperate for attention, they often call him an idiot and make fun of him. Not always to his face, but sometimes to his face. When they make fun of him to his face, they make fun of him in a sing-song voice so he thinks they’re being nice to him. It makes me uncomfortable. Is this animal abuse?
A: I love my new dog, Lily, but I’ve got to admit she’s got crusty eyes and is a bit of a stinker. So when I murmur to her about her eye goop and that she smells like a dead fish, please don’t report me to the Humane Society. The late Andy Rooney once rightly said that our pleasure in having dogs would be greatly diminished if they could talk. I understand some border collies have bigger vocabularies than most high school student, but probably the average dog’s pleasure in being a pet would be diminished by understanding everything we say. Your friends’ big dumbo knows he’s loved because they are loving to him, even if they blow off steam by making fun of him in a sing-song voice. This is not animal abuse.
Q. Stuck in the Middle: I am stuck in the middle between my parents and my partner. I have been in a relationship with my partner, “Ben,” for about five years. We love each other very much but my parents disapprove because Ben does not have the same ethnic background nor is he very religious. Ben feels very hurt by this because he feels that they dislike him solely on these things. My parents feel hurt because I had done something that was against their wishes and feel that Ben will never follow/understand our cultural customs. I’ve been stuck in the middle defending and to make them see the better sides of each other over the past 5 years. My parents feel like Ben doesn’t try to impress them enough, and Ben doesn’t feel the need to try harder because they seem very intolerant and closed minded (he also thinks my parents have no right to demand things, when I am a self-sufficient 27-year-old adult). All of them are very important in my life, but my patience (and sanity) is running out… How do I make them understand each other? How do I bridge this cultural gap?
A: Why should you bridge this cultural gap? Your parents have values that are important to them—religious observance and marrying within one’s ethnic group—that clearly aren’t important to you. I agree with Ben that while he should be respectful of your parents, his obligation is not to try to convince your parents he’s something he never can be. You point out that you’re a self-sufficient adult, so stop acting like a child desperate for your parents to applaud you at the ballet recital. Tell them you understand your choice of partner is distressing to them, but Ben is wonderful for you and to you. Explain to them for the sake of your relationship with them you’d appreciate if they would make more of an effort to welcome him. If they won’t, then you have to decide how much time and energy you can spend seeing them apart from your partner.
Q. 92-Year-Old Mother-in-Laws: If my 93-year-old MIL hosted Thanksgiving, we could be assured that nothing would be cooked properly. You’re very lucky if she is able to host that kind of event AND serve edible food!
A: She is amazing and a great cook! She’s getting help, just not from me (could it be because she’s tasted my cooking?). She grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country and through my marriage I have come to adore sauerkraut as a Thanksgiving side dish. I can’t wait for Thursday.
Q. Brain Bleach Please!: By chance, my daughter and I saw my sister-in-law kissing another man (i.e., not my brother) at the local mall. My daughter is 6 and is very curious about whether or not husbands and wives kiss people they’re not married to. I don’t know what to tell her, mostly because I’m shocked myself and realize I don’t have all the details. Her dad and I can’t come up with an explanation that doesn’t involve lying or confronting my sister-in-law. The kiss lasted more than five seconds before I dragged my daughter away, so it wasn’t a chaste greeting or even a mistake. What should I do/tell my daughter?
A: It is true that husbands and wives kiss people they’re not married to (as this chat proves), but not all these kisses are sordid. You may have some pretty good suspicion about what was going on at the mall, but you don’t actually know more than that you saw a too-lingering kiss. You should tell your daughter in a nonchalant way that men and women who aren’t married do sometimes kiss each other, usually to say hello or goodbye. Since she’s only 6, you don’t have to add that the kiss you both saw usually indicates that the couple is getting a room at a Motel 6. It’s up to you whether you pull your sister-in-law aside between courses this Thanksgiving to say, “Hey, I saw you at the mall last Wednesday, but I didn’t want to interrupt because you appeared to be very preoccupied.”
Q. Dreading Dad’s House: I’ve recently learned that my brother, his wife, and two young kids are coming to town for Thanksgiving and do not plan to tell our dad and stepmom, let alone stop by for the holiday. Our parents have been divorced for 15 years, and all of us kids live at least three hours away. There’s a long history of disagreements between my dad and brother, mostly about whose fault it is that they don’t stay in better touch. I’ve tried and failed to get them to mend their rift, but my brother’s holiday decision will likely make their relationship irreparable. I had previously hinted to my dad that my brother might be coming to town in an effort to get my dad to call him, but no luck. Now, what do I say when I’m the only one of my dad’s kids who stops by for Thanksgiving?
A: You don’t have to be the family mediator, and hinting around is an ineffectual way to try to mend relations. You should tell your brother that if you’re asked directly by your father whether he’s in town, you won’t lie, but you won’t volunteer this information, either. When you stop by your father’s you try to direct the conversation away from the family breach and do your best to enjoy spending time catching up with them.
Q. Not Attractive Enough: I’m a twentysomething who’s engaged to a man a few years older than me. We have an excellent relationship; great communication, we have a lot of fun, we have many things in common, we never argue, we’re very affectionate with each other. My problem is, he’s not attracted to me. When things heat up, he loses interest, and is always making excuses to avoid intimacy. I’m not incredibly attractive, but I’m fit and pretty, and haven’t had this issue with previous boyfriends. He, however, has dated drop-dead-gorgeous girls all his life, and having seen the exes, I feel like I am a downgrade. He is also attractive and successful and would have no problem finding another woman. He swears he thinks I am more gorgeous than his exes, but let’s just say he won’t prove it. Needless to say my self-esteem has plummeted and I don’t know what else to do. Please advise me.
A: I’m not convinced from your letter that the problem is your lack of gorgeousness. You two need to have an explicit conversation about what’s going on in the intimacy department. If he tells you, “I love you, but I’m sorry, I’m just not turned-on by you,” then you do have your answer. But it sounds as if he may be suffering from some physical or psychological problem he hasn’t been willing to discuss. First off, he needs a complete medical work-up. If everything checks out, then he should explore what’s going on that’s keeping him from consummating your union. Until you address this, you should not move forward with your engagement. I frankly can’t understand why he would propose and you would say yes if you two can’t connect in bed.
Q. Sexuality and Work: I am in my early 20s, am gay, and work in an office. My close friends at work know I’m gay, but I don’t bring it up a lot, and this seems to have left many of my co-workers—most of whom happen to be old enough to be my parents—in the dark on the issue. It’s no big deal except that people occasionally make remarks about me “finding a girl” or something along those lines. What I think the ideal situation would be is if people just knew but didn’t make a big deal about it. (I shudder to think of the questions well-meaning co-workers would send my way if I was “the department gay.”) So if I ever find myself in a situation where someone makes a remark about me and a girl, what can I say? I suppose a remark about a boyfriend would make quick work of the situation, but I’d rather stay away from anything so dramatic and likely to cause more, um, probing questions.
A: It’s true that your personal life is no one else’s business, but a declaratory, “I’m gay,” delivered with a winning smile, closes down the girlfriend discussion without making you “the department gay.” If you don’t want to tell people, then empower the office gossips. Tell a few of your friends that it’s increasingly awkward that many people in the office don’t know you’re gay and when people chat at the water cooler about fixing you up, you’d appreciate it if they’d straighten everyone out. Once people know you’re gay, you can deflect the probing questions with a simple, “I’d rather not talk about my personal life. Thanks for understanding.”
Q. Spousal Relationship: I have been happily (mostly) married to a great man for the past 17 years. This past election season, he ran for our local city council election and came close to winning. Because he did so well, he is being courted by the local party to run in another local election in 2012. The thing is, I hated the whole process of campaigning, and the thought of him running again makes me fantasize about moving into my own apartment during the campaign season. I told him that I needed a few months to think about whether I could support another campaign, but I don’t see my feelings changing in three months. My question: Should I endure another campaign season (and possibly more) and support him, or should I tell him that I can’t support him this time? I know this is something that he really wants to do, and I know he ( and others) will try to make me feel guilty for not supporting him. But I think that another campaign will not be good for my mental health or for our marriage.
A: By not supporting your husband’s race, I hope you don’t intend to campaign for his opponent. You haven’t made clear whether you hated the role you were forced to play, or whether you hated the fact that the campaign consumed all his time and you felt like a political widow. If it’s the former, then the answer is you need to tell him you plan to be the be the kind of political wife Dr. Judith Steinberg was—she’s the spouse of Howard Dean. While he was running for president, she continued her Vermont medical practice and was virtually invisible on the campaign trail. If you can’t stand the effect getting involved in politics has on your time together, then you two need some honest conversations about how important this race is to him, and how damaging it would be to your marriage.
A: Make it anyway—that’s more sauerkraut for you!
Q. If This Is Animal Abuse …: You’d better report me as well. My husband and I have a 60-pound pointer whose favorite way to get our attention is to step on our feet. Hence, two of his nicknames are “Fatty Boombalatty” and other names. The dog also receives regular walks, lots of playtime, toys, treats, and love. As long as the dogs are receiving the nutrition, exercise, shelter and love they need, I believe “Animal Abuse” can rest assured that this dog is OK.
A: One of the lovely things about pets is that it allows you to talk baby talk long after your teenagers cringe at the adorable nicknames you give them.
Q. Kids at Thanksgiving: I don’t love being around little kids, but will be spending Thanksgiving with my sister-in-law who has two—ages 6 and 3. Usually, I’m good for a couple rounds of Candyland and then I want to have grownup time. My sister-in-law has said, “Oh, just ignore them when you get tired,” but I feel like a jerk if I’m reading a book and the kids are loudly sighing, “I wish Auntie Julie would play with us now.” Plus, I fear my in-laws think I’m a terrible person for not loving children. How much time and interactivity do you think is necessary for visiting houseguests to have with nieces and nephews?
A: Ask your sister-in-law to bring some of the kids’ favorite books. Then after a couple of rounds of Candyland, tell the girls you’re taking a break and retreat the the couch for a while. When you’ve recharged, gather them beside you and read to them. You don’t have to be their babysitter, but making a little extra effort will pay off in years to come when they turn into young women who adore their aunt.
Q. Lost Dog Returned: A kind young woman returned my missing dog yesterday. I offered her a generous reward—I am thankful to her beyond belief—but she said that as a fellow pet owner it wouldn’t be right for her to accept a reward for doing the right thing. She said if I truly felt inclined I could donate the money to a particular charity, one whose mission I disagree with on a moral basis. I want to honor this fine young woman’s request and honor, but it would cost me my own. Should I donate to her charity or one of my choosing?
A: No, you never have to donate to a charity whose purpose is at odds with your morals. Make a donation to something more neutral and let her know without drawing attention to the fact that it’s not the charity of her choice.
Q. Enough Already: My sister caught her husband in an affair a year ago. She was, and remains, furious with him. I worry that her anger is poisoning any chance they have of reconciling, though. She berates him often for what I perceive to be minor infractions such as not unloading the dishwasher or forgetting to buy nonfat milk. She calls him names in front of their kids, my kids, and the rest of our family. I have broached the subject with them and told her that it makes me uncomfortable. She told me I couldn’t understand the pain the affair caused. He said he deserved her abuse for breaking their marriage vows. This doesn’t seem like productive behavior, but maybe my sister is right and I just don’t understand the pain an affair can cause. Thoughts?
A: If she continues with the verbal abuse in your presence pull her aside and say that you can’t condone your children hearing one adult treat another that way and you’d appreciate it if she could stop when you’re around. Say you understand an affair is a terrible thing, but so is subjecting your children to warring parents. Gently suggest that she doesn’t sound as if she’s over the betrayal, and you hope the two of them are getting counseling so that they can heal and the children don’t have to suffer.
Q. Too Old?: I’m 48 and want to become a first-time mother by adoption. Am I ridiculous for wanting this at this stage in my life? My husband has grown children from his first marriage and will be happy either way. I want this opportunity to be a mother to my own child, but I don’t want it if I’ll be too old or out-of-it to be the best mother I can be. I’m in excellent health and I act/look/feel a decade younger.
A: No, it’s not ridiculous to become a mother at 48. As you explore your options join a support group of older adoptive parents and hear from them about what to expect.
Q. Animal Abuse: When I was a teenager, I made up a song for our family cat that went, “Phoebe the cat, Phoebe the cat, silly silly stupid little Phoebe the cat.” Every time I’d sing it, she’d start purring and come running to me. I currently have a one-eyed cat who is the butt of many jokes at his expense (a cat with no depth perception? sigh), and it doesn’t stop him from sleeping on my head every night. Abuse away, animal lovers!
A: Indeed! I loved having a head-sleeping cat.