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. Awkward Run-in With Future Father-in-Law: My future in-laws stayed with us for several days a few weeks ago. They live on the other side of the country, so I have actually only met them once (though my fiance generally only has good things to say about his parents). Well, one morning when they were here, my fiance was showering and I was making everyone breakfast. I stepped in our bedroom for a moment to get something and found my fiance’s dad sniffing a pair of my panties from the laundry basket. Dirty underwear. Eek!! I acted casual about it like I hadn’t noticed and he said he was looking for a sweater that my fiance had offered to let him wear. This kind of creeps me out though. I haven’t told my fiance and I’m not sure if I should because I know he gets along so well with his mom and dad. Any thoughts?
A: For all of you who are dreading the holidays with your overbearing in-laws, you now have a beautiful mantra to repeat to get you through Thanksgiving: “At least my father-in-law is not sniffing my dirty panties.” Eek, indeed, and your future father-in-law is a rather bold pervert if he is willing to sneak into your laundry basket while his son is in the shower and you are down the hall. This is a repulsive image, one that will be hard to eradicate in the decades to come. I think this is too big a burden to keep secret from your boyfriend. At the least your fiance might want to know why you’re avoiding hugs with his dad or don’t want to sit next to him at meals. I think you should sit your boyfriend down and say you’ve got something unpleasant to tell him you realized you just couldn’t keep to yourself. Hearing about this doesn’t mean he’s not going to continue to love his father. Just that he has to understand his dad has a problem and you are going to do your best to be warm and cordial, but keep your distance.
Dear Prudence: Dating Adonis
Q. Mean Girl at the Office: I work in a very small office (3 women and 4 men). One of the women constantly talks about one of our co-workers in a disparaging manner—commenting on the person’s presentation and odor. The target of these remarks does have an odor, but it is due to having a catheter. I am getting sick of hearing these things and I know that it’s not right to talk about another person like this especially when there are specific medical reasons behind their problems. What can I do to stop this kind of talk? Because it is such a small office complete avoidance of the mean girl is not an option.
A: I think you, and possibly another likeminded colleague, should go out for coffee with the office scourge and coolly and professionally explain to her that you’re disturbed by her disparagement of your co-worker and that she needs to stop. Reiterate that your colleague has medical issues, and her insults have no place in your place of work. Say that you hope she understands if she doesn’t stop, you will have to take this further up the ladder. You might want to make some notes about the conversation in case this woman tries to make life unpleasant for you as a result. She sounds dreadful and I’m sure her departure from your office would be a great improvement in the atmosphere.
Q. Friendship—Do I Keep A Secret Or Spill The Truth?: I have a close friend, “Sam,” who I met in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting many years ago. He has gotten very serious with a woman, “Amanda,” and they have been living together now for a little over a year. They have four children between the two of them. Sam recently told me that one of the rules he had set down was that he could not, under any circumstances, be involved with a woman who drank, so his girlfriend supposedly “swore off” alcohol for him. Well, I was at a social function and Amanda happened to be there. She was drinking, and she was buzzed. When she saw me she made me promise not to say anything, and now I feel torn. As a fellow recovering alcoholic, I feel it’s my duty to tell my friend because as alcoholics, our recovery must always come first and foremost, and she might end up jeopardizing this. On the other hand, I would feel terribly if I tore the family apart they are trying to build by speaking the truth. What should I do?
A: I agree that for an alcoholic staying sober is a foremost task in life. But the person who can’t drink has to learn to navigate through a world of people who do. I know many recovering alcoholics who are married to people who enjoy having a glass of wine in their presence and all is fine. I can’t tell from your description whether you think “Amanda” herself is hiding a drinking problem, or she was just a little tipsy at a social event. Building a relationship on unreasonable demands and lies is a poor basis for success. But I don’t see how Amanda drinking at a party jeopardizes Sam’s own sobriety. I think this is an issue for the two of them, and you should stay out of it.
Q. Pregnancy Announcements: I am happily and unexpectedly pregnant. My boyfriend, a divorced father, is incredibly happy too. Unexpected pregnancies don’t come without inconvenience, though, so here’s our dilemma: His ex-wife remarried shortly after their divorce to her high school boyfriend. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fully prepared to become a stepparent, and she discovered he’d developed a really nasty temper since they’d graduated. They divorced this past April, and she’s still understandably devastated about her second divorce in five years. My boyfriend wants to marry me, and I want to marry him, but we both feel sick over the pain we might cause his ex-wife, a truly kind and caring woman. I feel as though our lives are coming together as hers is falling apart. How should we proceed with pregnancy and wedding announcements? P.S. I met my boyfriend two years after his divorce, and I enjoy a good relationship with his ex-wife.
A: It would be great if people on either side of the good fortune/bad fortune divide would understand that happiness and unhappiness is not a zero sum game. If someone is unable to find a happy relationship or get pregnant, she has to accept that her friends who are getting married or having children are not stealing her potential mate or children. (Unless a friend has actually stolen her boyfriend.) This also means people who are experiencing happy milestones in their lives do not have to be preemptively defense about their good news to cushion the blow to others. Of course, no one should gloat. You and your fiance simply have to tell the ex the good news—without adding, “We kind of didn’t want to tell you because your life is so crappy right now.” If she’s as wonderful as you say, she’ll be happy that her children will have a loving stepmother and a new sibling.
Q. Re: Sniffing Panties Guy: A long time ago you had a question from a MIL whose son-in-law was flashing her. Most of the comments seemed to suggest she was overreacting or even a fantasist. Not that much later, a website was reported in the news, which I won’t link to, in which flashers and perverts gave each other tips. The number one target was MILs. My point is, if the LW saw the FIL, then she saw him. She needs to make sure her fiance is on side with her rather than letting her think she is crazy or a fantasist.
A: It is true that this would be such a destabilizing bit of news that it could bring up possible suspicions about the messenger. But you’re absolutely right that the fiance, as upset as he may be, needs to believe and support his girlfriend. How utterly creepy that a perversion website gives advice on targeting family members then painting them as crazy.
Q. Volunteers Behaving Badly: I am a volunteer unit leader in a well-known youth organization. Evidently last year one of my leaders, Mrs. J, tried to strike up a friendship with one of my dads, Mr. R. When he became uncomfortable with the amount and intensity of her attention to him, he alerted his wife and discontinued all contact with her. Mrs. J has since badmouthed Mrs. R to other parents, yet is still trying to contact Mr. R through email and text messages. Mostly the messages concern her desperation to rekindle some sort of relationship with him and his family, how only the children are being hurt, how she never meant to insinuate herself into their lives, etc. Mr. and Mrs. R are ready to remove their children from the program because they feel harassed and have turned to me, the unit leader, for help. I happen to know Mrs. J has naively crossed the married-friend line before and is unlikely to stop the current harassment without intervention. Do I fire my volunteer? Privately put her on probation? Talk to her husband? Butt out and tell Mr. and Mrs. R to call the police?
A: You are running a volunteer organization and have been told one of your volunteers is using this organization to try to ruin the marriages of others and play out her disturbed fantasies. Yes you have to act! First of all, contact the leadership to tell them what’s going on and see what their procedure is. I assume they will tell you to call in Mrs. J (and her husband, if he is also a volunteer) and explain that Mrs. J can no longer participate in the organization because she harassing and badmouthing other parents. It would be unfair to punish her children, who should be allowed to continue, but presumably Mrs. J will be barred from your organization’s events. She should also be told if her harassment doesn’t stop, the recipients of it may well report her to the police. You should then tell the R’s what you’ve done and that any further misbehavior from Mrs. J should be brought to the attention of the authorities. Let’s hope this woman gets help. What a nightmare for her poor kids.
Q. Eating my Cupcakes: Yesterday I got a gift of a dozen large cupcakes. I ate one and brought one down to my boyfriend. I left the others in a kitchen that I share with two roommates, with a sign on them that said “Eat me.” I was gone from 10 p.m. last night to 9 a.m. this morning, and when I returned all the cupcakes were gone. I think my (generally inconsiderate) roommate must have had people over and they ate all my cupcakes. I’m pretty annoyed but my boyfriend says that it’s my own fault because I put the sign on them. I was really happy to share with my roommates but was definitely not expecting that in doing so all the cupcakes would be gone in less than 12 hours. Am I off base?
A: Hey, Alice in Wonderland, I assume you know that generally people follow instructions when there is something yummy with a sign on it that says “Eat Me.” And for all you kids anticipating taking the SATs, here’s an example of someone who wanted to have her cupcakes while letting her friends eat them, too. Your boyfriend is a wise man, and you’re off base.
Q. Mean Girl Management: The poster should not remind the Mean Girl that their colleague has medical issues, as Mean Girl may not be aware of it. That is private information that only the poster may know. As a more, ahem, assertive person, I would just shut it down on the spot: “That’s my friend. Don’t be so childish.”
A: Good advice on not mentioning the medical issue. Still I think she should be told clearly to stop the disparagement and that it will be taken further up the chain if she doesn’t.
Q. Re: AA Friend: As a member of AA I completely agree with your answer to the letter writer with the friend with the drinking girlfriend. A huge part of the AA program is the “live and let live attitude.” We realize that we cannot drink alcohol, but that it is not inherently evil and that others may chose to do so. I’ve been in recovery for seven years. I was in recovery when I met my husband and he has always enjoyed alcohol. We keep it in our home and it doesn’t bother me. My line of work is such that I am often around alcohol. If Sam’s recovery is so fragile that he can never have alcohol around, the issue is the strength of his program and not his girlfriend’s actions.
A: Good points, thanks.
Q. Mr. And Mrs. R Should Call The Police?: On what grounds? She hasn’t committed any crimes against them. She’s not threatening them. They should block her number and tell her to leave them alone; with her out of the program it will likely stop. I like your advice a lot, Prudie, but you sure do like to advise people to call the cops at the drop of a hat. And yes, I’m an attorney.
A: No, I don’t believe in consulting lawyers or police at the drop of a hat. Sometimes harassers are very clever and skirt the line of legality so they can continue to badger their target. If the woman stops, obviously the problem is solved. If she continues contacting the object of her desire, then that couple might want to take some legal action—presenting her with a cease and desist letter from a lawyer, for example—to get her out of their lives.
Q. Group Gifts: My family likes to purchase group gifts. One member of the family will decide that another should have an expensive item and then request money from all other members to buy it. If we suggest that we think it’s not a good idea or don’t want to participate, then we are the odd man out, “cheap,” and are treated very poorly at the event where the gift is given. This has caused us enormous strife in the past. We have stated that we do not like this group gift thing and do not want to be a part of it, but it keeps happening and we fear the repercussions or saying “no,” but $100 here, $200 there, etc., adds up. It’s not that we don’t have the money, it’s just that we don’t feel like spending it this way and don’t like the unexpected expenses. How do we handle the situation?
A: I’m trying to imagine the repercussions: “Marlene—get your paw out of the chocolate fountain! You didn’t chip in $100 for the crystal chess set.” You handle this by saying, “That’s a very generous idea, but we just don’t have the budget for expensive gifts, so you’ll have to go ahead without us. ” Then at the events where the gift is presented, you just deflect the strife with a smile and repeat, “What you did was very thoughtful, sorry we couldn’t participate.” If it’s too unpleasant, stay home.
Q. Should I Marry This Guy?: I am engaged to a great guy who is VERY close to his family. He owns his condo(where we both live) and business with his family. He works with his family and sees and talks with them every day. Unfortunately, they do not want him to marry me. They are nice to me in person but have told my fiance in private that they strongly object to the wedding. I don’t know why but believe that since they also objected (and continue to object) over his two siblings marriages, that it has nothing to do with me. My fiance tells me that they won’t change and there is nothing that he could do. I feel that he should start an open dialogue that requires them to recognize me and acknowledge that we are engaged and getting married. I am just not sure I can live my life with someone who is so controlled by his parents that he won’t stick up for his own life (and future wife). What should I do?
A: If you two are engaged then he has decided to go ahead and marry you despite his family’s objections. It’s another story if you feel he’s gotten engaged to appease you, but will never go through with the wedding to appease his family. You say the parents also objected to his siblings’ marriages, but these took place anyway. The parents are nice to you when you’re together, and whatever their hang up about their children marrying, it hasn’t resulted in the kids staying single. The in-laws sound a little whacked, but since your fiance works in the family business, he has to keep the peace. You don’t complain about their treatment of you, so launching an open dialogue sounds like trouble. Unless you have evidence to the contrary, accept that your fiance is sticking up for you by going ahead with the wedding planning and is dealing with his parents by ignoring and deflecting them.
Q. Operation Get Pregnant: My brother recently borrowed my computer to surf the net. He did not log out of his Facebook, so I did a bad thing—I snooped. As it turns out, he and his girlfriend, both unemployed 19-year-olds living at home, are planning to conceive a child in the near future. Both of our families are upper-middle class, and while I’ve elected to work since high school, neither of them have ever held serious jobs. They both dropped their college classes this quarter because they couldn’t wake up early enough. They are not parenting material. I’m willing to take the fallout for snooping if it prevents them from going through with “operation get pregnant”, but how on earth do I broach this with them?
A: Oh, great—two unemployed teens want to reproduce. This pair of nitwits must think having a baby shower is like hitting the lottery. You say something like, “Bro, you left your Facebook open on my computer and I saw that you and Courtney are talking about having kids. You’re an adult, but I’ve got to weigh in and say this sounds like a really bad idea. Raising children is the single most emotionally and financially demanding thing you can do in your lives. You two just aren’t ready to take on that responsibility. Think through the fact that if you do it, you will be responsible for raising this child for the next two decades. Even if all the parents help, you will be saddled with fatherhood way before you’ve even gotten launched in your own life.” Too bad kidnapping him and giving him a temporary vasectomy isn’t an option.
Q. Re: Less Fortunate Ones: Fine then, but do you have any advice for those of us who aren’t blessed with good fortune? For example, do I have to hang out with my friend who is anxiously planning her wedding while my engagement falls apart and there’s nothing I can do? I really don’t want to contact her right now, and although she says she understands, she still wants to be friends. Ditto for everyone else who’s getting married and/or pregnant. I just don’t want to hear about it. At some point later, I might reach out, but for now I want to be left alone. Yes, I understand it’s not a zero sum game, which is quite condescending, I might add. But that’s not the point. The point is, it’s difficult to watch our friends go through natural stages of life while we’re left out on the sidelines. Yes, I know happiness is infinite. Duh.
A: If friends are being obsessive bores about the details of their wedding or pregnancy, then limit your time with them. Or when you’re out, after listening for a fair period, change the subject. Sorry you think my advice is condescending, but I hear from pregnant women who are treated punitively by friends and family members who are struggling with infertility. My husband’s first wife, Robin, died of breast cancer at age 34. While all their friends were having children, they couldn’t because of her treatments. Yet Robin went to everyone’s baby shower, and whatever her private pain, made the effort to celebrate and be happy for her more fortunate friends. It can be done.
Q. SAT?: Prudie, can you explain the SAT reference? THX.
A: My understanding is that on the SATs the kids are given various common sayings, “A stitch in time saves nine,” or “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too” and are tested to see if they understand them.
Q. The Persistent Myth Of “Private Info”, Esp. As It Relates To The Workplace: Clearly the co-worker with the catheter shared that info with at least one person if not everyone. Once (s)he did that, (s)he can consider the “privacy” issue moot. No person is obligated to share what they consider private medical details to whomever—even the employer—but once they do so, whomever is free to talk about it. That’s all there is to it. There is a HUGE amount of disinformation out there about what’s “private” and what isn’t (kinda like the misconceptions folks have about the First Amendment, among other things, but don’t get me started). VERY little about one’s life is private in any legal sense.
A: Interesting, thanks. Some people have pointed out that the insulting co-worker could be creating a hostile work environment under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Whatever the possible legal issues, I still think that if a co-worker is making remarks you find offensive about another co-worker, you should ask that person to stop. If she won’t, then take it to the supervisors.
Q. Unemployed Teenage Parents: But what if they get picked to be on “Teen Mom”? Then they’ll be on TV and FAMOUS!
A: I hadn’t thought of that. You’re right, they should get to work on making that baby right away before the future mom turns 20 and is really old!
Q. Girls and Boys: My wife and I have two boys in middle school. Over the past couple of years, my wife has decided that she needs a daughter. She is endlessly disparaging her life as a “woman trapped in a house of gorillas” and hounding me about having another child. I know this has something to do with being 40-something, but the near-constant negative commentary about men is beginning to wear on me. And our boys have begun to notice (and be hurt by) these comments as well. My wife dismisses any hurt she might be causing as “just telling the truth.” Oh, and if she does get pregnant and it’s a boy? Abort and try again. I know this sounds like a therapy issue, but she isn’t interested. I’m starting to lose it. Help!
A: I have a friend who was one of two brothers who had a mother desperate for a girl. She convinced her reluctant husband to try once more, and they followed all the advice on maximize girl-making. She gave birth to twin sons. It is sad your wife isn’t happier about having two healthy boys—think of how many women struggling with fertility would count their blessings. Good natured teasing about the testosterone around the house is one thing, disparagement of her sons is another. Tell her her comments are hurting you and the boys and if she won’t join you, you’re going to therapy alone to figure out how to deal with this better.
Q. Mean Girls OP: Thanks for answering my question and for the input from the other readers. I guess what complicates this situation is that I used to participate in this bashing, have come to my senses and realized that I was being a complete jerk and now it makes it a bit difficult to stand up for what is right without being a hypocrite.
A: Good for you! I think that makes it easier. You are no hypocrite. Tell her you look back on what you said with real shame, and all of you have to create an office atmosphere in which everyone feels safe and supported.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. It is my good fortune to get to do this chat with all of you.