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. Smothering My Faithful Wife: My wife and I are trying to rebuild our marriage after she caught me in bed with another woman. It took almost losing her to realize how much I love my wife. I am 100% committed to reconciling with her, but since she only discovered the affair two months ago, her emotions are still very raw. She vacillates between wanting to reconcile and wanting to move in with her best friend so we can separate. I’m terrified she’ll divorce me and I’ve become clingy. I follow her around when she’s home and want to go with her when she runs errands. I’ve even hovered in the bathroom while she took a shower. My behavior isn’t helping us reconcile, but ‘m so scared she doesn’t know how much I love her. She’s told me I’m smothering her, and that’s true. How can I stop being so afraid of her leaving me?
A: I’ve got a win-win suggestion: You handcuff her to you so that way she’ll know you’re not cheating, and you’ll know she’s not leaving. First you have sex somewhere (your marital bed?) where you can be discovered by your wife, and now you’re stalking her while she showers. I’m trying to imagine what qualities you do possess that would make your wife not be grateful to be leaving this marriage. Often it’s the cheated-upon spouse who installs video cameras and starts behaving like a parole officer. But your wife just wants you out of her hair long enough so that she can wash her hair. You two need some professional intervention. It might not save your marriage, but while she is deciding what to do, at least it might help her to be able to relieve herself in peace.
Dear Prudence: Secret Tattoos
Q. Rejected Baby Gift: Many of my friends have recently become grandparents. And I’ve rediscovered my love for knitting, making a (soft and machine washable) sweater for each new arrival. I’ll also confess that I get a real kick out of seeing pictures of beautiful little babies wearing something I made. I recently sent a blue, white, and green striped sweater, an alphabet board book, and a teddy bear to the grandson of one of my dear friends. Last week, I opened my mail to find the sweater and alphabet book sent back to me with a note from the baby’s parents saying that while they would “like to assume you meant no harm” that they were not going to force their child into “a predefined gender role” by dressing him in blue. They also said they reject the “concept of learning on schedule” so would not expose their child to alphabet books. Apparently, the teddy bear was OK. Part of me wants to forget the whole thing, but I worry that my friend, who has seen gifts I made for other friends’ new additions, will think I overlooked her first grandbaby. I don’t see how I can tell her about the gift return without making it sound like I think the new parents are over the top. Any suggestions on how to handle this gracefully would be appreciated. Sincerely, Knitting Knorma
A: I wish I could be there when this little boy comes back from his gender-neutral needlecrafts class and proudly shows his parents the gun he knitted. As rude and nutty as these new parents are, be grateful they aren’t your children. Your friend, the new grandmother, is in for a long slog of listening to lectures on the damaging societal norms she is imposing on her grandchild through her lullabies and how much damage she is doing the ecosystem by trying to persuade the new parents to use diapers on their infant. You can tell your friend what happened in as (gender) neutral a way as possible. “Louise, I didn’t want you to think I didn’t send a hand-knit sweater to little Joshua. I didn’t mean any offense by it, but your daughter said because it had blue in it she didn’t want to use it because of gender-role issues. Fortunately, they liked the teddy bear. Do you have any pictures of Joshua, I can’t wait to see him.”
Q. Boyfriend Wrote an Erotic Story About His Crush: When my boyfriend gave me a folder with a term paper he wanted me to review, I found three pages out of a sexual fantasy he wrote about him and a girl in his major. I’ve always known he’s had a crush on her since they were freshman, but she mostly ignores him, so it never bothered me. The fantasy was graphic. When I confronted my boyfriend about it, he was deeply embarrassed and told me he’d written it ages ago. He swears he loves me and has assured me he’s no longer attracted to her. But the fantasies still bother me, perhaps because I fear he’d never write an erotic story about us. I’m also not sure I believe he wrote it a long time ago, because why would it be with a recently printed paper then? Should I drop this or reiterate my feelings?
A: I hope the class was in psychology and that your boyfriend’s term paper was on Freudian slips. Everyone is entitled to their own fantasies. They are even entitled to write erotic fiction based on them. What’s not such a good idea is to put these efforts into a file folder you hand to your actual love. There’s not much point in simply reiterating your feelings, because he will then reiterate his stumbling, mumbling reply. So you can either accept his explanation and move on, or decide that this is a good opportunity to review your relationship. You’re college students and maybe your boyfriend’s extra credit efforts are an indication your romance has run its course and you two should pursue other extracurricular activities. As all your professors have been telling you, this is a time in life to try new things and explore new interests. It may be opportune to apply this lesson to your dating life.
Q. Dad Thinks BF Should Protect Me Better: Last weekend my boyfriend and I were at a street fair when we saw a fight break out between a vendor and a drunk homeless man. The vendor began kicking the homeless man, and before I had time to register what I was doing, I intervened. In my efforts to stop the beating, I was kicked in the face by the vendor. I was sent to the hospital to fix my broken nose. My boyfriend has been totally sweet by nursing me back to health. My parents visited us this weekend. My dad laid into my boyfriend. He thinks my boyfriend should have protected me better. He directed some emasculating insults at my boyfriend before leaving. My boyfriend thinks my dad’s right and feels awful for not “protecting” me. I think their views about female protection are slightly medieval and that if anything I’m to blame, because I put myself in a bad situation. Does my dad owe my boyfriend an apology? I want to make up with my parents but think they were wrong.
A: This is a chain reaction of impulsive behavior. Yours was heroic, if dangerous, and I hope the local news has made note of your bravery. (And I hope the vendor is in jail.) Everything took place instantaneously. Your boyfriend couldn’t have anticipated you would act and in the time it took for you to become a victim, your boyfriend was stuck on the sidelines. Then, with your father seeing you bruised and banged up, he wanted to strike out at the responsible party. Since the vendor wasn’t available, he chose your boyfriend. He was wrong to excoriate your boyfriend, but your demanding an apology might escalate the situation. Tell your father you understand his anger, but it was directed at the wrong party and because of the way things happened, it was not your boyfriend’s fault that you were hit. Say all of you would like to put this behind you. Explain there have been enough attacks in the past week to last a lifetime, and you’d appreciate it if your father would drop his.
Q. Lied About Abuse: Six years ago I was trapped in a disastrous marriage to an emotionally and physically abusive alcoholic. My husband threatened to kill our daughters and me if I told anyone, so I hid the abuse. Eventually a good friend discovered my secret and offered to help me escape and hide from my husband. I panicked and told many mutual friends that she tried to seduce my husband and was out to get me. My close friend eventually reported my husband to the authorities, but by accusing her of craziness my husband and I were able to duck the charges. Our mutual friends sided with me. Later my husband and I moved away, and then I found the courage to leave him. Three years out my daughters and I are much happier. I am still haunted by my behavior towards my friend, though. I want to apologize and to tell our former friends that she was right, but I’m not sure how to explain why I acted so horribly. How should I apologize?
A: You’ve got a good start right here. As old-fashioned as it is, letters seems like an effective way to do this. They are somewhat formal, not easily forwarded, and relieve you from getting tongue-tied. I doubt your friendship with the woman who tried to help you can be repaired, but you should apologize to her nonetheless and restore her reputation with your other friends. The tone you strike here is one you should maintain in your letters—you are not defending or excusing yourself, you are outlining the circumstances and taking responsibility for your own poor behavior. It is good you can close the letter with an update about the improvements in your life. Say you’d be happy to discuss any of this (include your email and phone number). Whatever the result is, getting these letters out will be a huge burden lifted.
Q. I Spy: Best Friend’s Ex With a Random Woman: Last night my wife and I were at dinner when we saw her best friend’s ex-husband canoodling with an obviously much younger woman. The other couple didn’t see us, but my wife took a few phone photos of them to send to her best friend. Her best friend and the ex-husband are still good friends because they have kids together, and according to my wife the ex-husband hasn’t mentioned he’s dating. I think it’s intrusive to send the photos or tell my wife’s best friend about her ex-husband’s date. My wife thinks it would be a semi-betrayal to not tell and, if the positions were reversed, would want to know if I was dating. What’s the right thing to do?
A: George Orwell imagined a future state in which all of us would be watched by a ubiquitous Big Brother (these states do exist—think of North Korea). But he didn’t conceive of a world of Little Brothers, of technology that would make it possible for our every encounter to be recorded and disseminated. Your wife was way out of line. This guy is divorced and entitled to go on a date and even canoodle without it being physically documented. That doesn’t mean your wife is barred from gossiping. Calling her friend the next day and saying she ran into her ex having dinner is fine. But I doubt your wife’s friend even really wanted to see her ex nibbling on a luscious dessert.
Q. Canceled Adoption Equals Drama: A year ago my wife and I were prepared to adopt a baby from a teenage mother whose medical and living expenses we were paying. The mother had the baby, and we got to take our daughter home. The mother changed her mind after a few days, and my wife and I were forced to relinquish our child. The past year has been a real struggle. We ultimately decided not to seek repayment for the expenses we covered for the mother, because that would have been a complicated mess. Last week on the baby’s birthday we received a detailed letter and many pictures of the baby from the mother. She thanked us so much for being so kind and forgiving towards her and proceeded to tell us about the (OUR!) baby and how happy they are as a family. The letter sent my wife into a deep depression and, inexplicably, enraged me. I have struggled not to be so angry with the mother in the past, but now I feel like she’s rubbing our noses in happiness that could have been ours. I want to respond to this letter, but I’m afraid I might lose control. How should my wife and I respond to the mother’s letter?
A: Neither of your responses are inexplicable. You should have been the ones writing the letter to the biological mother telling her how happy she made you by allowing you to be parents. What happened to you was devastating, and you behaved with admirable restraint—swallowing the cost of this pregnancy must have been bitter indeed. I feel certain that the mother is not out to hurt you. She thinks she is making amends. But of course her joy scalds. During this painful year you have been magnanimous, not vindictive, toward this young woman, so hard as it is, continue on that path. Write a very short note—one or two lines—saying you are glad to hear all is well and that her baby is beautiful. If she doesn’t get the implicit message and writes again, tell her further updates are painful and unnecessary.
Q. Cousin’s on-the-Job Clothes: I helped arrange for my cousin to get an interview for an unpaid internship in my office—it’s an informal program where we bring on a few, if any, interns each summer. I told her I would keep out of the decision process. We planned for her to stop by after the interview so we could get lunch. When she walked into my office, I nearly fell out of my chair. She looked like she was interviewing for a position at a strip club. Her heels were at least five inches tall, her skirt was skin tight and so short, and she was wearing a camisole under her suit coat where you could see her (bright green) bra strap at certain angles. I didn’t say anything—I didn’t know WHAT to say—but I think I owe it to her to say something. I just don’t know what to say that won’t sound sexist and unfair. She’s a junior in college with excellent transcripts, but I suspect strongly that she will not be getting this internship or any other one where the hiring decision maker isn’t a deviant. What should I say?
A: I wonder if this is the Kardashian Effect and many young women feel they’re auditioning for a reality show about their lives. Given your concern about sexism, I’m assuming you’re male. But there’s nothing sexist about telling a younger cousin that she’s dressed inappropriately for work. (Or for every profession except one.) Tell her that you’re out of the hiring process, but she needs to radically revise her wardrobe because she’s going to make an impression, but not the kind she’s seeking.
Q. Comment on Gender Neutral Sweater: If the knitting woman is willing, she might ask the gender-neutral parents if they’d prefer another, gender-neutral sweater, in a color such as yellow, perhaps. Then, it becomes a win-win: another knitting project, and no awkward encounters with the grandmother.
A: Ah, no. They’re parents now and they’ve got to learn that rewarding bad behavior only gets more. When you’ve made a lovely gift and had it thrown back at you, you simply strike the recipients off your list.
Q. Mistaking Clumsiness for Domestic Abuse: I have always joked that I misjudge corners, which means I sometimes bang into them, or tables, or doors. Recently I’ve acquired a few bruises, on my arms and one leg, from my carelessness. I resolved to be more careful where I walk. My neighbor Jean is involved with a well-known local domestic abuse organization. She saw my bruises one day and has since reached the conclusion that my husband beats me. Jean has cornered me twice—once to ask if he beat me and the second time to give me pamphlets about her organization. When she saw a bruise my daughter got in a kickball game, Jean asked her if she’s been abused. While I appreciate Jean’s work, I feel she’s crossed the line. The implications of her accusations could be dire for my husband and my family. What should I do? I’ve told my husband, and he’s pretty upset, but also unsure how to proceed.
A: I’m also one of those bump into things people. I once went for a discount massage at a massage school and I must have had a couple of bruises on my back because the masseuse-in-training started grilling me about them. There I was, laying on the table thinking that I came for some cheap stress-relief and now I was going to end up being reported as a victim of domestic abuse. Fortunately, nothing happened, but your neighbor Jean sounds like a menace. If you find your reassurances have mollified her, then all is fine. But if she raises this issue again, you have to be blunt: “Jean, I understand your concerns, but you are simply wrong in your assumptions, and as you know making false accusations about abuse is incendiary. You need to drop this. And if you don’t, I’m going to have to take action because you are potentially harming me and my family. ” Then contact a lawyer. It may be that a cease and desist letter from an attorney will shut her up.
Q. Big Momma Stretches Clothes: I love my mother-in-law. But I hate shopping with her. My M-I-L is a big woman who, when we shop, chooses medium-sized clothing instead of the plus-sized clothing that would fit her. She ends up stretching and/or tearing the clothing she tries on. She leaves the clothing in the dressing room and moves on as if nothing’s happened. Obviously, I need to talk to her about this, because it’s wrong to stand by and watch her ruin merchandise. But while I think I should take a gentler approach, my husband thinks I should be very blunt with his mom. What would you say?
A: I would say, “Anita, I’m not much of a shopper. Let’s just meet for lunch.”
Q. Sister-in-Law Giving our Niece an Awful Name: My sister-in-law has decided to name her future baby—if it’s a girl—“Serenity Grace.” My husband’s irate and worried that the name is going to haunt our niece—and said with a name like that, there are only two “professions” his niece could enter. I did say that it’s his sister’s child and there’s little that we can do. But, his sister has not directly told us about this name. I suggested that we send them a congrats card along with a small baby name book. The baby’s due in December, so there is still plenty of time to reconsider. At the end of the day, the choice is theirs, but I do think finding a balance between very common names and very out there names is important.
A: I can see that Serenity Grace might be a good name for the cloister, but I’m truly baffled at what your husband thinks the other profession might be. Of course anyone named Serenity Grace is likely to be a wild child, but the name itself is quite lovely. More important it’s none of your business. (Repeat the previous sentence to yourselves.) Forget your passive-aggressive gift and be a loving pair of relatives, even if the baby ends up being a boy named Roughand Tumble.
Q. Can’t Shake The Encounter: A few weeks ago, I was in Los Angeles on business (I live in Chicago) and met a very attractive and famous man at a coffee shop. He and I talked over coffee for an hour and exchanged e-mails, but I had a seminar to go to and left it at that. He seemed genuinely interested in me, and has sent me an e-mail since the encounter, saying how nice it was to meet me, etc., etc., wanting to talk again. Ever since the meeting, I can’t stop thinking about this guy and how he seemed really honestly nice and how I’d like to get to know him. The only problem is—I have a boyfriend who I was previously VERY happy with. We live together. But this encounter has me thinking constantly of this guy. I’ve no plans of leaving Chicago for the next five years, and I love my boyfriend. But how can I get over this celebrity encounter? -Notting Hill in LA
A: Who was it? George Clooney? Ryan Gosling?? Is Notting Hill a clue? It was Hugh Grant!!! (In that case, stay away.) I can understand how heady this encounter must have been, but you are not on the market. Likely your famous would-be flame is in the market for encounters with attractive and willing females and it’s convenient for him to have some lined up in the various cities his travels might take him. If he wasn’t famous, you probably wouldn’t be obsessing about the attractive guy you chatted with in the coffee shop. Do a search on his love life and note what I assume will be the many, many relationships this guy has had. Then consider that you don’t want to throw away what you have to be added to that pile.
Q. Easy Bruising: Some of my family members (including my mom and me) have a connective tissue disorder and bruise very easily. People should be very careful when making assumptions. My husband is the one who is always telling me I have to be more careful—he’s never ever hurt me, but people who see my legs sometimes think I’m either abused or have cancer.
A: Thanks for the reminder about assumptions.
Q. The Erotic Story-Writing Boyfriend: It is possible that the boyfriend purposely put that story in his term paper in a bid to see not only how his girlfriend would react, but to see if she would be willing to “act out” the story with him. If there is nothing that disgusts the GF except the subject, then maybe a way to get around this is to tell her BF that she is more than willing to become the heroine of a new erotic novella for him. One that they can play out together.
A: It’s a bit much to expect the girlfriend to pretend to be “Serenity Grace” for the sake of fulfilling her boyfriend’s lust for a classmate.
Q. Distant Father: My mother got pregnant by accident while dating my father 26 years ago. They broke up while she was still pregnant, and he went on to marry another woman and had a family with her. My father felt that my mom got pregnant on purpose and trapped him into 18 years of child support because she knew he was well off. Whether or not that is the case has never concerned me. I love my mom. My dad however has never been able to get over this. Growing up, he was in and out of my life, and now when I’m in my mid twenties, our relationship is cold and formal. To make matters worse, his wife has a daughter around my age from a previous marriage. He has always been a doting and loving father to her, as well as to his other biological children. My father has never addressed this with me, or apologized for all the hurt he caused me over the years. I thought I would get over it, but the older I get, the worse it feels. I would like to confront him about this, at least to have him acknowledge that the way he treated me was wrong, but I’m afraid that doing so would damage the relationship I have with his wife and children (my siblings). What do you think is the best course of action?
A: You need to talk this out with a therapist who can then help guide you through a conversation with your father. Confrontation will get you nowhere. You’ll be hurt, he’ll be defensive: status quo ante. Being rejected by a parent is terribly painful and is something you need to address. You may have to accept that your father is a limited man and that he is the one who has lost out on having a close relationship with you. But I’m glad you and your mother are close and that it sounds as if you have found acceptance with your father’s wife and your siblings.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. I hope your week is filled with serenity and grace. Talk to you next Monday.