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.
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. Let’s get to it.
Q. Cheating Partner: A co-worker and I have recently begun to discuss leaving our company and setting up our own business. We’ve worked together for several years and he has good knowledge in our field, so I was all ready to go ahead. Then I discovered that he is going through a divorce because he cheated on his wife. This gives me serious alarm bells over his trustworthiness, integrity, and character. If he’s willing to cheat on the one person he swore to love and stay faithful to for life, how do I know he’s not going to cheat me? What is your take on this?
A: This would be a good question to put to the candidates in the Republican debate tonight! If this guy were just a co-worker, this would be none of your business. But as you’re about to put your financial future into each other’s hands, any concerns you have about his character are legitimate. Do keep in mind that whatever happens, your co-worker won’t cheat on you in quite the same way as he cheated on his wife. I’ve never been aware of any evidence that Richard Nixon cheated on Pat, yet if you considered marital fidelity as the primary indicator of integrity, you’d have been badly misled about him. The number of sexually profligate politicians is too numerous to mention, yet some have been honest and effective leaders. Marriages end for many reasons, and his intimate life is not your business. But you should have a broad sense of this guy’s character. Since your future will be so intimately tied up in his, I think it’s fair to sit down and tell him that you’re not prying into the reasons for his divorce, but infidelity does raise concerns about personal honesty for you. Then see what he says. If he’s hostile and defensive, if he bad-mouths his wife, then weigh what you hear. If he responds that he doesn’t want to discuss his personal life, but he understands your concerns and wants to assure you this private matter is separate from his professional life, you’ll have a different sense. And if he tells you what you’ve said is the most despicable question imaginable, don’t give him a standing ovation.
Dear Prudence: Vacation House of Horrors
Q. Bride Is Embezzling: My husband and I are invited to a wedding in February. She is the office manager in my husband’s office, and it was just discovered that she was embezzling from the business. We already accepted the invitation for the wedding. If the wedding still happens, we are not sure we should attend. What is the etiquette for now saying we won’t attend the wedding?
A: Let’s hope you’re saved from having to make this decision because the bride is not only wearing white, but also an ankle-monitoring device. If you cancel she’s already paid the caterer for your meals–with money she’s stolen from your husband’s employer! Only under the most dire circumstances should an invitation be rescinded, or an acceptance revoked. If there’s no question about these accusations, that’s pretty dire. If you and your husband do not have a true personal friendship with this woman but only an office one, I’d say it’s understandable if you send her a note as soon as possible saying you are deeply sorry that you will be unable to attend her wedding.
Q. Dental Disaster: I’m 24 years old, engaged to a wonderful man I’ve been with for four years, in my last year of college, and am generally a very content and peaceful person looking forward to what the future will bring. My fiance and I have a good relationship, we love to be with each other and tell each other everything. But there is one thing that I just can’t bring myself to talk about without inducing a panic attack (and honestly writing to you is giving me a little bit of one right now). When I was a teenager I had a severe problem with bulimia (which my fiance knows about) and it wreaked havoc on many things in my life, including my smile. My mind and body may have recovered but my teeth never did and they look horrible. I’m embarrassed to smile and constantly worry about what other people are thinking while I’m speaking to them. I know that I need to see a dentist, but I obsess about what he’ll say when he sees a 24-year-old who possibly needs dentures. I worry about the cost, if they’ll lecture me, and I worry about being made fun of when I leave the office. If I do get them fixed, I worry that people will notice and comment on it. I’m just scared honestly, and it’s taking over a lot of my spare time and thoughts. I know this is absurd, but I just don’t know what to do. Please help!
A: Good for you for dealing with your problem and for being honest with your finance. Now that you’ve told me, you’ve got to admit writing this and seeing it appear isn’t as bad as you thought. Please stop thinking that you’re going to need dentures. There are so many cosmetic fixes dentists can offer that will preserve your existing teeth and make them look tons better. It will cost you, but it will be worth it. Look at any local consumer publications for recommendations for dentists who specialize in cosmetics, and also start asking around. No professional dentist or staff member will mock you or lecture you. If one does, say: “This is making me uncomfortable. I think we’re not a good fit.” You deserve to have a radiant smile to match your happy new life, so march confidently to the dentist’s chair and get one.
Q. Facebook Husband Gaffe: I made a huge mistake. An old high school friend I haven’t seen in several years recently got married. She posted pictures from the ceremony on Facebook, where I saw them. She made her profile picture a photo of her dancing with a handsome but noticeably older man. I commented, “Father-daughter Dance! So cute! What song did you pick?” When I began clicking through her wedding pictures, I realized the handsome older man was her husband, not her dad! I was mortified and deleted my comment, but not before her brother “liked” it and her best friend corrected me. I haven’t heard any response from my friend, and I feel like I should send a quick apology message. I feel terrible and want her to know it was an honest mistake. Should I? And what should I say?
A: Enough with the Newt Gingrich questions for one day! This is a good lesson in people’s new need not only to post every aspect of their lives for everyone they know to see, but for everyone they know to offer commentary. You made an honest mistake, and despite the bride’s brother’s cheeky response, you rectified it as soon as you could. Your note is no longer up. Drawing further attention to your faux pas: “For an old guy, your new husband is really handsome” or “I should have remembered from high school your father wasn’t that good-looking” will only compound the error. Let’s hope your friend didn’t see it, or if she did, she and her new, mature husband have a good sense of humor.
Q. Cheating Partner: I’d be more concerned with the fellow’s being able to make good business decisions while his personal life is in crisis—that’s a lot of change going on at once, and he may not be in a frame of mind for the amount of attention the business plans need.
A: This raises another way to bring up the topic–if he’s going through a divorce you need to know if he will be in a financial position to contribute to the starting of the business and see through what might be a rough beginning. As I say, his personal intimacies are not your business, but knowing who you are entrusting your financial future to is.
Q. Sister: My sister, who I dearly love, is having an unacceptable relationship with a professor in her department. She is a junior in college, and he is, of course, married with kids. I just find this so appalling. I don’t mean to be judgmental, but she having an affair with someone without any care for the consequence to his family or her future career. She is serious about her chosen field and this can only end with her starting her academic reputation with this being part of her credentials. I obviously think he is entirely morally responsible for his horrible behavior toward his family, but that doesn’t give her a right to be a home wrecker. My parents aren’t spending $50,000 a year for her education to behave like this. My husband tells me to mind my own business and not say anything to her, but she’s my sister, and I feel a responsibility to talk with her about her behavior. Am I being a jerk if I say something to her?
A: Forget the lecture on the money your parents are spending. Perhaps she’s majoring in biology and she’s getting personal instruction. If you want to heap opprobrium on your sister, I agree with your husband that you should back off. But if you can get in a supportive, sisterly frame of mind, then this is the kind of stuff sisters talk to each other about. Please know that an undergraduate besotted with her dashing (creep of a) professor will dismiss your concerns about her behavior and reputation as those of an old crone who doesn’t understand love. But as her situation inevitably starts to unravel, your words might penetrate. She may come to realize you were right and that she needs your love and support, which I hope you will give, while restraining yourself from saying, “I told you so.”
Q. For Dental Disaster: I empathize with you and understand how you feel. My teeth have been destroyed by bulimia, too, and I avoided going to the dentist until the need for a root canal was so excruciating that I had no choice. I had already resigned myself to getting dentures, but the dentist told me I wasn’t anywhere close to needing them. I did end up having several root canals and am in the process of getting one implant. When I can afford it I will probably need more implants, but they are supposed to be a good option. I know it is really scary and embarrassing, but there are dentists who have seen worse than you can imagine … worse than you think your mouth is. You’ll feel better after you go, even if you are embarrassed. My heart goes out to you. Make an appointment. Also, if you have a therapist he/she might be able to suggest a dentist in your area who works with eating disorder patients, too. Good luck. You aren’t alone, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be able to open your mouth without feeling judged.
A: See, Dental Disaster, there is a solution awaiting you. Between veneers, bonding, implants, etc., you could have a beautiful smile more easily than you ever imagined.
Q. For Facebook Husband Gaffe: I’d say, “I was joking. Then I realized it wasn’t very funny and deleted it.”
A: I think that’s worse–there’s a kind of malice in that explanation. I think this is one of those things that both parties, if they’re wise, just pretend never happened.
Q. Unmarried: I took three weeks off work to get married and go on my honeymoon. Two days before the wedding, my ex called it off. I’m about to go back to work soon and I don’t know how I’m going to handle the congratulations. My office typically gets everyone together to have a cake and give a gift when someone gets married or has a birthday, and I’m afraid they’re going to have that arranged for me on my first morning back. I’ve been wondering if I should email everyone at work to tell them, but since I’m not that close to them, I feel awkward sending such personal news. Or I wonder if I should privately email my manager and ask her not to say anything to the staff, but that feels weird too. What’s the proper protocol here? Thanks for your help in advance.
A: I hope, a la the first Sex and the City movie, you gathered up some girlfriends and went on the “honeymoon” without your bum. This is a case where you want the word spread far and wide before you get back. You don’t want to spend your first few days answering dozens of questions about married life and being asked to show off your non-existent ring. Tell your manager that sadly the wedding was called off just before the event. You’ve taken some time to recover, and you would appreciate her getting the word out that you didn’t get married so people will know, but that you’d prefer not to talk about it. Then notify some friends in the office and explain when you get back you’d prefer to just lick your wounds and not go into the gory details.
Q. Feelings for Brother-In-Law: I am married and I love my husband, but I can’t shake the feelings I have for his brother. It all started out innocent. He and his wife would stay with us while they were in town. We would talk while my husband was at work and his wife was still sleeping. I’ve grown to have feelings for him. He has made a couple of passes at me. For example, when we were facing each other one day and talking, he took his foot and swiped it on mine, touching my hand, stuff like that. … I guess you kind of had to be there, but it’s little things like that. He hasn’t done anything in a while like that, since we really haven’t been alone, but we do see more of each other lately since they moved close to us. I have caught him staring at me. I don’t want to have these feelings because I know what it would do to my family, and he has his family, too. How do I get over it since I really can’t just stop seeing him?
A: During the Cold War there was a doctrine called “mutually assured destruction” which kept both sides from casually lobbing a nuclear bomb at each other. Having an affair with your brother-in-law would be a nuclear device thrown into the lives of your children and everyone else in the family. If he’s staring at you, get up and get out of his line of sight. If he plays subtle footsie games–even though you like it–you take your feet and walk away. Decide to behave like an adult, not some rutting … politician.
Q. Sister With the Creep: (From original letter writer) I realized when I read what I had posted that something I said should have been restated more graciously and elaborated on. My parents would lose their minds if they found out—our dad, in particular, could pull a nuclear reaction. It’s sexist and unfair, but he is very paternalistic, and I couldn’t put it past him to cut her off financially if he found out. As I found out about this from our cousin and her best friend, it’s not like she’s acting discreetly, and a major concern is my parents finding out. I probably should have phrased my question slightly differently—she has a lot at stake.
A: Then, having climbed down off your high horse, you tell her that what’s going on has come to you from several sources, so the affair is becoming widely known. You tell her that if the school authorities hear, there will be terrible consequences for all. And if your parents find out—which, given how many people know, is a possibility–she could lose the ability to go to college. You’ll still probably hear that this is real love and you just don’t understand, but you will have done your best. Also do your best to keep everyone who knows from blabbing. There is no good reason for your parents to be told.
Q. May-December Romances: My husband is quite a bit older than I am, and we got used to (and over) the comments really quickly. I think when you choose to be in these relationships, you understand that this sort of mistake comes with the territory. We’ve also picked up some very nice “extras” offered to us on Father’s Day along the way!
A: Thank you for demonstrating how a sense of humor about one’s life is invaluable.
Q. Baby’s Father’s Identity: I have never been sure if my 3-year-old toddler is my husband’s child. A month before I found out I was pregnant, I slept with two men: my husband numerous times and this other man once. It was a mistake, I was drunk, I never considered the possibility of my husband not being the father until my son turned 1 and started looking more like a little person. He doesn’t look like his “dad” or me! I know I am in the wrong. Hurl whatever judgments you have at me. But could you also offer me advice about what to do? My husband adores our little boy and our older daughter.
A: In order to establish who the father is, you would have to tell your husband you want him to have a paternity test. However, you husband is the father of your son no matter what a cheek swab says. Whenever I recommend not telling such things, I always say that generally I’m in favor of the truth. But you don’t know what the truth is. Plenty of people don’t resemble their parents, so stop examining your son for signs of the other guy. Be grateful you have a happy family and stop torturing yourself.
Q. Saw My Teacher Naked: I am a teen who works out at a local gym with my parents. This weekend I showered in the locker room and then headed into the changing area. The first person I encountered was my naked homeroom teacher. She has never cared for me, and I’m afraid our naked run-in did nothing to strengthen our relationship. She waited for me to change and then “confronted me.” She warned me against telling anyone—friends, family—about seeing her naked. She threatened suspension if she caught me spreading such “gossip.” Now I’m worried this paranoid woman will flip out at me for the slightest infraction. What should I do?
A: This teacher sounds like a wacko. You must tell your parents that you have been threatened by this woman. They are the ones who need to go to the administration and say that a normal event occurred in the locker room but the teacher turned it into a bizarre threat. They could even suggest you be transferred to another homeroom. But, please, put this in the hands of your parents.
Q. Daddy Husband on FB: I’d opt for a short message saying: “I goofed. Not the smartest remark ever made on FB, but I look forward to meeting your new husband and seeing you soon!” If you say nothing, it will be hanging, awkwardly, between the two of you.
A: People are pointing out the friend probably got a Facebook alert about the remark. I do think that the quick removal conveys sufficient embarrassment and regret, but I agree the statement above is a graceful way to acknowledge your error.
Q. Allergic to Everything: I just found out that I am allergic to the harsh detergents used by the hotel industry. I understand why they have to use them, and no one else I know has any problem with it. My reaction is quite severe, and my doctor is advising me to bring my own towels, washcloths, and bedding on my next vacation. My questions are: Can I do that? Do I tell them beforehand, or just strip the bed when I get there? Do I leave a note to not change the sheets? I would make sure I took different colored sheets, etc., so they would know they weren’t the hotels’, but it still seems like they would really think I was really weird. The only reason I am considering it is because the reaction was so bad last time I was on high doses of prednisone and antihistamines for a week after coming home. Thanks for any help you can give me!
A: I assure you that anyone in hotel management can tell you a lot weirder stories than the one about the guest with skin sensitivities who brought her own sheets and towels. Follow your doctor’s advice. When you’re booking the hotel you can mention that you have to bring your own supplies and ask that this be noted on your reservation. Then when you check in, remind the front desk of your special needs and have them alert housekeeping. It’s no vacation if your bedding causes you to need steroid treatment.
Q. Doggy Dilemma: There is a dog in my neighborhood that NEVER stops barking. He is the subject of countless complaints. Where I live there are mediation procedures to follow if a dog is noisy, but the local authorities have minimal actual authority to do anything about it. The worst they can do is tell the owner to try to control their dog, which of course he doesn’t do. I’ve lived on this street for almost 10 years and it has turned my friendly, harmless, mild mannered neighbors into angry, sleep deprived zombies. Recently I discovered that two of the neighbors are plotting to “eliminate” the dog. Most of the other neighbors know about it, but they pretend not to know. The two people involved researched the law and precedents, and they are certain they won’t be discovered, and if they do, they’ll receive a small fine. Despite being a dog lover, I sympathize with what they want to do—the dog is a real terror around here. But there is a part of me that feels I should warn the owner. What should I do?
A: Host a neighborhood gathering, minus these dreadful dog owners, and suggest everyone band together and hire an attorney to fully explore your options. A couple of you should offer to do the research on what lawyer to engage and what the fee would be. There may be legal options beyond what the authorities are offering (which is nothing). This is a dog in distress that deserves help. It’s the owners who need punishment.
Q. School Authorities?: At my school, we have a hard and fast “no fraternization policy.” You can’t date any students at the school if you work here. Most schools have that, or something like it. If the school finds out, the professor is the only one who is in trouble; it’s considered a form of harassment to start an affair with a student in your department or classes. The student isn’t going to get in trouble for this.
A: Right, the professor is putting his career on the line. But if you are the student whose affair resulted in a professor being fired, that has emotional consequences. And as the sister elaborated, if the parents find out, there could be financial consequences.
Q. Telling the Truth: I love your advice, but I am really wondering how you can justify not telling the husband the potential truth about his son. Facts are hard things, but they are still facts. Even if the mother can put her anxiety about her transgression aside, the facts are still lurking under there. It wasn’t until I was in a similar situation (not so bad, thank goodness) and came clean that I realized that the truth really does set you free. Just because you don’t acknowledge the truth doesn’t mean it’s not still out there. Besides, it’s not like this was 50 years ago—it was a year and nine months. It will only get worse the longer she waits. Do the cheek swab privately—I think there are services that will send the kit in the mail—and cross every body part you can until you get the test results. You have a 1 in 2 chance of being able to relax and rededicate yourself to your family. I think that is much better than many other odds people hope for. Good luck!
A: I know, I know. In these very touchy situations, whatever side I take there are people with powerful arguments for the other side. If the mother does decide to tell, she shouldn’t start swabbing privately. She needs to come clean that she was unfaithful once and the son is possibly not the father’s. As I type this I’m still thinking, “Why?” As a side note, after one of these dilemmas I asked a bunch of people, including my teenage daughter, if they’d want to be told that they were the product of a one-night stand and their father wasn’t actually their biological father. Everyone said no.
Q. Re: Doggy Dilemma: Who is the neighbor, Elaine Benes? Sounds like the plot line from an episode of Seinfeld. How do you know if you’re being punked or not?
A: Practically every question has been covered by Seinfeld or Sex and the City. That doesn’t mean they’re not real.
Emily Yoffe : Thanks, everyone. My dog is now barking like a maniac to go out. Talk to you next week.