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. So far I haven’t slipped and written 2011 on anything yet.
Q. Intrusive and Annoying Friend of Wife: One of my wife’s friends has hated me since the day she met me. While early on, her hatred was tolerable, lately it’s become annoying and more than a little creepy. I work in research and development, the same industry as her. I often have lunch with colleagues, both male and female, while we discuss work. She has spotted me a few times having lunch with a female colleague and without even talking to me, she’s reported to my wife that she thinks I’m having an affair (even though it’s been a different woman each time—apparently I really get around). My wife was suspicious at first but is not so worried now. (I’ve never cheated on her and have given her no reason to believe I have or would.) This woman ran into me last week and told me, “I’m going to destroy you” and walked away. I told my wife, and she said I must not have heard her correctly. How do I convince my wife that she needs to confront this nutcase? If she doesn’t change her behavior toward me after that, I think it’s only fair that my wife stop seeing her as a friend. What do you think I should do?
A: So, we’ve got the set-up for a thriller. In the Hollywood version you’re working late one night when you hear the click-click-click of high heels coming down the corridor, and when you turn around there’s the friend, wearing a wig to look like your wife, the knife in her hand glinting. Sorry, I didn’t mean to get carried away, but this situation is seriously disturbing. I’m not suggesting you start keeping pepper spray in your briefcase, but you have to do something about this nut. It wouldn’t take too many false reports from a “friend” that my husband was having an affair with a new woman every week for me to drop the pal. It’s odd that your wife continues to have fond relations with a woman who has made it her goal to ruin your marriage. What does your wife think her friend actually said last week: “I’m going to Hanoi. You?” You need to explain to your wife that since this woman is in your industry and has an irrational hatred of you, she could spread vicious rumors that harm your career. I think you should get your wife to accompany you to a lawyer’s office where you discuss this woman’s behavior and find out what you can do about it. But a helpful first step would be for your wife to become your ally and make clear to her friend that this hostility to you is unwarranted and needs to end.
Dear Prudence: Deep Sleep Sex
Q. Birth Announcements: My little sister delivered a full-term stillborn child on New Year’s Eve. She and her husband asked his sister, a professional photographer, to take pictures of them and their baby. Now they want to send out birth announcement with a message on the back thanking their loved ones for their support. They want to use a picture of them holding their stillborn daughter on the announcement. I cannot imagine the grief they’re experiencing; I want them to do whatever helps them grieve, and using that picture doesn’t seem harmful to me. My parents feel using a picture of a deceased baby is morbid, though, and confusing. My sister has asked my advice on the matter, and I feel inclined to tell her to follow her heart. Would you advise against using the picture on the announcement, which they will send to about 200 people?
A: People in mourning deserve a lot of leeway and your sister and her husband just experienced a crushing loss. However, since she’s asking your advice, and you’re asking mine, I strongly urge her not to send the photo. You don’t send a “birth” announcement when there has been a stillbirth. And you’re right the announcement and the photo will be both confusing and disturbing. It would be one thing to show the pictures to immediate family, but your sister has a very large list of friends and acquaintances. Surely, the word has gotten out about their loss, so your sister doesn’t need to do any more to let everyone know. For those who have brought food and provided comfort, a short note of thanks is all that’s necessary.
Q. Fruit Cake: I like fruitcake and I enjoy making it for the holiday season and distributing to my relatives. This past New Year’s Day, after amassing a quantity of fruits and nuts, I produced 14 pounds of the controversial product. The problem is, I use a different recipe every year and I am an inveterate recipe meddler, and thus, this year’s results are less than spectacular. I had made my own candied orange/lemon peel, and then let it sit on the counter for several weeks and its contribution to the gestalt is a citrusy bitterness. I am a stickler for quality ingredients, eschewing the weird fruits that many find objectionable, but I couldn’t pass on the post-Christmas marked down green cherries (from $4.99 to 50 cents!). So what do I do with 14 pounds of subpar fruitcake?
A: Doorstop? Traffic cone? Hand weights? I believe it was humorist Russell Baker who said the original fruitcake was baked in colonial times and has been handed down ever since because no one has ever eaten one. I’m going to bet that none of your loved ones has inquired where their annual treat is. Maybe everyone is relieved they don’t have to feed it to the dog again this year. Chalk up this experiment as a green cherry total loss and know that 2012 has to start improving.
Q. Take This Secret To The Grave?: My younger half-sister (Annie) will soon marry a family friend (Chris) with whom I went to college. She doesn’t know that a decade ago, during a rough patch in my marriage, Chris and I carried on an intense four-month affair. It ended when I realized I love my husband more, and since then we’ve rarely talked about it. I now have no romantic feelings for Chris, and he has no romantic feelings for me. I feel I can safely say that we will never ever become romantic again. My husband also doesn’t know about the affair. Chris doesn’t want to tell Annie that we’ve had sex, and neither do I. Do we have any obligation at all to tell her, given the near certain unlikelihood that she will ever learn about the affair?
A: I certainly hope that “Annie” and “Chris” are pseudonyms (I rely on the discretion of letter writers when they provide names) or else a whole lot more people that you ever intended might figure this one out. Telling Annie would be an unnecessarily destabilizing revelation. I’m assuming she knows Chris is not a virgin and that’s about all she needs to know. Her finding this out could cause her to break off the engagement and the reason why she ended it could end up reaching your husband. Then you have a whole lot of unhappy people in unraveling relationships for no reason. You and Chris had illicit sex with each other long ago and never will again. Tell this one to the crypt keeper.
Q. Roommate’s Racist Friend: One night I walked back from the library with my roommate Anna and her friend Tom. We passed a group of rowdy young men, the majority of whom were black. Tom then used the N-word when telling a racist joke about slavery. He added, “If my little sister ever dated a [N-word], my dad would shoot him and her!” I found his behavior appalling and told him so. He and Anna argued that he was “only joking.” I left them, and later I told Anna I didn’t want Tom to come to our room anymore. She told me I was overreacting. Later Tom called me an uptight bitch and told me not to tell anyone about what he said. Before we left for break, he began following me around saying stuff like: “Smile at me. I know you like me. Come on, smile for me!” He thinks it’s hilarious, and so do his friends. My request to change rooms was just denied, and the situation has not bettered with my return to school. Any advice you can offer? Am I being unreasonable?
A: That Tom is quite the Oscar Wilde, that’s some joke he told. I applaud you for calling him on his repulsive remarks and walking away. It then became more complicated when you try to bar him from visiting Anna. It probably would have been better for you to say you don’t want to interact with him anymore and you’d appreciate if she’d socialize with him away from the room. However, if Tom and his friends are now on a campaign to harass you, you need to take this back to your dorm adviser. Explain exactly what happened during the precipitating incident, and say you now need some help getting this harassment stopped. Accept you may not be able to change rooms. But stay calm and resolute—don’t let the jerks get a rise out of you—as you work your way through getting this idiot off your back.
Q. The Non-Reciprocating Friend: One of my closest friends has a birthday coming up and she’s planning a weekend of events—dinner, club, hotel. This is fine and I’d be happy to attend, except for the fact that when it’s my birthday, she’s never to be found. My birthday plans have been modest (a house party and a gathering at a local watering hole) for the past two years, and she hasn’t attended either, citing no baby-sitter each time. Yet I attended, and shelled out for, her last few soirees at expensive restaurants. I love her dearly, but I don’t want to go because she’s never at my birthday party. I’m single and childless, so maybe I just don’t understand. I feel like a spoiled brat, but I’m considering being “busy” that weekend. What do you think?
A: It’s one thing to throw a bash to celebrate a milestone birthday. Actually, any birthday celebration is fine if you invite your friends over and provide food and drink. But this trend of adults expecting people to underwrite an evening at an expensive restaurant annually just because they’ve turned 27 or 43 is pernicious. Your friend throws herself a birthday weekend and everyone else picks up the tab. What’s next, billboard-sized posters of her on every corner? When she doesn’t want to go to your celebration, she declines. You don’t want to go to hers, so turnabout is fair play.
Q. Re: Racist Friend: Skip the dorm adviser, since the offender presumably doesn’t live in the same dorm. A report of harassment should go directly to the dean of students’ office.
A: Go for it.
Q. Fruitcake Dilemma: Save it and enter the annual Colorado Fruitcake Toss! Good luck!
A: Perfect! Sounds like more fun than dog dancing.
Q. Announcement: I disagree about not sending a birth announcement. It is just as important to acknowledge the lost child as it is the living. Many parents I know find the fact people ignore their loss incredibly painful—an announcement opens the door for discussion.
A: People do feel isolated when others won’t discuss their loss. I hope the sister and her husband are getting a lot of help from their family and friends. They can also join a support group of others who have experienced a similar loss. But sending a disturbing photo and announcement is not going to open the door for discussion; it will leave people not knowing what to say.
Q. My Recovering Stepson: My husband’s son has battled an addiction to heroin since shortly after his parent’s divorce. He will leave his latest stay in rehab soon, and my husband wants him to live with us instead of at a halfway house type of situation. I want to support my husband and my stepson as much as possible. But we have two young children, and I admit I am worried about bringing a recently clean recovering drug addict into the same house as them. Four years ago, the last time he lived with my husband and me, my stepson overdosed, and I discovered him. I am very worried about my toddlers having a similar experience. What are your thoughts? I would never ask my husband to turn his son away, either. I just want to make sure our home is a safe environment for our kids.
A: Discussing what is the best next step seems as if it should be part of what happens as he is finishing his stay in rehab. Your concerns are very legitimate and do not mean you are rejecting your stepson. Surely your son has a caseworker, so you and your husband should make an appointment with him or her to talk about what’s next. You can air your concerns in both a loving and honest way. It may be that he would be better off in a more controlled environment where he is being more closely monitored. You and your husband should be able to discuss all the possibilities and arrive at one that makes everyone feel safe and cared for.
Q. Hello, Baby, Redux: Last week I wrote that my ex-husband’s new wife was about to have a baby. They had a little girl, and per your advice, I asked if I could pop in for a quick visit. They said yes, and I spent a half hour cooing over their new darling before bowing out. My daughters are thrilled at adding another girl to their family, and I can’t wait to watch this baby grow.
A: Thank you so much for this follow up. I’m delighted your ex and his wife welcomed you. And how lovely for your husband’s new wife to know you are welcoming her daughter as a third sister to your girls. Oh, if only all divorced couples with children could have it turn out this way!
Q. RE: Racist Friend: The escalation of the situation to the dean is likely to make the situation even worse—that official can’t be everywhere on campus all the time where she is likely to run into crazy man. What if she first tries to address the situation by talking directly with Anna and racist friend, since after all, she does “have on him” that he doesn’t want her broadcasting his comments so they could call a truce if he leaves her alone and maybe try to start anew … it is a new year.
A: I agree the best solution is for everyone to drop it. For college students it’s a good lesson to learn that not everything in life can be rectified by people in charge. However, the letter writer says that upon returning after the winter break the racist jerk is continuing his campaign. Of course the dean wouldn’t be monitoring the jerk’s whereabouts. The jerk would be called in and told to cut it out. That seems fair.
Q. Recovering Stepson: After treatment, I went into a half-way house. I think it’s important that your son have the support of people who have been there, in his shoes, and lived to tell the tale. Unless your husband/you have addictions, you just won’t get it—no matter how loving you are. He is welcome (if he earns the privilege) to visit you. Just not stay with you.
A: Thank you. Great points about what the next step should be and that professionals need to be monitoring his continued recovery.
Q. Annoying Ex: My husband’s job involves going to the company’s New Year party every year. His old college ex is in the same industry and attends the event as well. Every time I see her, she makes a point to tell me about how well my husband treated her and their past love life. Sometimes she belittles him, because he wasn’t manly enough for her. I may be biased, but my husband is the kindest, most romantic, and strongest person I have ever known. The party is a good way for my husband to talk to people to advance in his career, so I have to see her. Instead of punching her, is there something witty I might say next year?
A: The first thing you need to do is put the ex out of your mind for the next 11 and a half months. Don’t worry about stopping her with some devastating witticism. A simple, “And a happy new year to you, too. Excuse me while I get more champagne” will be enough.
Q. Blog Etiquette?: I’ve been writing a family blog for about 1.5 years now and it’s been causing some drama with my in-laws. I write it as a family journal about what my kids, husband, and I are up to on a week-to-week basis. I have never once said anything negative or insinuated anything negative about anyone in the family. Because of the nature of family squabbles, sometimes I’m more effusive in praising my in-laws over my own family and sometimes I acknowledge my own family more on the blog. My husband and I both agree that it essentially balances out over the course of the year. The problem occurs when I mention my parents in a blog post and don’t specifically mention my in-laws the same way in the same post. My husband thinks it’s rude to thank one of my parents in a post and not thank both of his parents even though all the family members were involved (and some of my family also goes “unthanked” in those posts). My response is that it would seem fake for me to go on about his parents just to make sure that everyone gets the exact equal amount of attention in the blog and I’m trying to aim for a genuine journal style. I don’t leave them out with the intention of withholding thanks, whenever they do something for us I thank them in person or over the phone. How much responsibility do I have to ensure that everyone gets the “same” amount of public acknowledgement in each individual post if it usually balances out in the end?
A: When you turn your private musings into a blog, you invite commentary. Just think, if your journal was a physical journal, and not online, you could write in it any way you liked and no one would feel miffed or left out. Maybe your husband is being silly. Maybe he is reflecting the fact that your parents get acknowledged for your millions (or single digit worth) of readers to see, but his parents rarely make it onto the blog. Now that it’s been pointed out to you, you could make more of an effort to acknowledge them. Alternately you could say to your husband, “Honey, this is a blog about going to Chuck-E-Cheese with the kids and what they sang at the school talent show. I can’t believe anyone really cares about what I write.”
Q. Former Dean of Students Employee: I spent four years working in a dean of students’ office. This is the type of situation they need to know about. The office (at least mine did) works closely with campus security, resident life, and the campus psychologists. You can’t think this girl is the only person on campus this young man tries to intimidate? At the very least, he’ll be on the radar of campus officials, who are charged with keeping students safe.
A: And methinks the dean of student affairs will take a dim view of “jokes” featuring the N-word.
Q. Buzz Off: My ex-husband cheated on me six years ago. We divorced because of it, and we’re both remarried. I cannot stand him anymore and only tolerate him when I have to for our kids’ sakes. His new wife knows this, but she continues to invite my husband and me on family outings when she and my ex have the kids. I know she has a very good relationship with her ex and that they do a lot together with their daughter. But not everyone can or wants to be that friendly with their ex, and I am one of those people. She knows my ex and I have a strained relationship, but she continues to ask me along. Her behavior seems presumptuous and holier-than-thou. Am I wrong to want her to go away her and just take care of my kids on the weekends? How should I handle her?
A: So you will not be visiting the maternity ward and cooing if she has a baby. Next time you get invited, tell her that you are very lucky your children have such a loving and welcoming stepmother. Then add that unlike her and her ex, unfortunately you and your ex prefer not to spend time together. Say you hope she understands that get-togethers are not a good idea for all of you.
Q. Secret to the Grave…: I don’t disagree with you but would like to make one comment. How much do we value having the information necessary to make informed choices in our own lives? What right do we have to deny that information to others? If my sister slept with my future husband, I would want to know that so I could make the best choice for me. Think of relationships as buildings—would you want your house built on quicksand?
A: An illicit affair a decade ago is not relevant to today. The revelation will only hurt people unnecessarily. To use your house metaphor, when you start a new relationship, you don’t ask if your love has kept all the dirty sheets so you can examine them.
Q. A Sister’s Lies: My brother, sister, and I grew up in a series of unhealthy households. Our alcoholic father ruled the house until he ditched us. Then our mentally ill mother allowed a string of loser boyfriends to live with us. When she committed suicide, we went to live with our rigidly religious grandparents. When my brother came out at 16 they kicked him out. Somehow we survived and stuck together and are doing very well in our 30s. My brother and I live 20 minutes from one another while our sister lives across the country. Over Christmas she visited with her fiance, Brad. From our conversations with Brad, my brother and I discerned that he doesn’t know anything about our childhood. He thinks our parents died in a car crash and (even more ridiculously) that my brother won a scholarship to a boarding school at 16. My brother is offended by our sister’s lies, and I’m worried by them. We feel we should talk to her, to make sure her head’s in a good place. Would that be too interfering? What would you suggest we do?
A: I agree that this is a matter of concern, not offense. I think you need to have a conversation with your sister, preferably in person, but over the phone if necessary, saying you were concerned that her fiance has a view of your upbringing that’s unrealistic. Then hear her out. She probably has a lot of shame about her childhood, but that is a corrosive feeling. Gently talk about what’s going on and emphasize all of you should be proud of what you’ve made of your lives. Say that both you and your brother have found great comfort in having the intimate people in your lives understand where you’ve come from. Don’t press too hard. But if she’s willing to open this discussion you can say the next time you are all together, you would be happy to talk with her and Brad about what your childhoods were really like.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.