Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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.)
Q. Should I Intervene?: My best friend is going through a nasty, messy divorce. Recently she accused her husband of molesting their 4-year-old daughter. This may sound awful, but I am hesitant to believe her. It’s not anything I can pinpoint, but I have known her for 20 years and there’s something about the way she talks that makes me wonder—is she telling the truth? Her husband contacted me to ask if I could write a character reference for him to dispute my best friend’s claims. I personally detest this man and he is not a nice person. He has very few friends and I think he is getting desperate to ask me. But I’ve always known him to be a good dad—in fact, before the accusations surfaced I was encouraging my friend to tolerate her jerk husband and share custody. I am worried that if I say nothing, an innocent man might face legal consequences and have his daughter taken away. I am also worried I might unwittingly defend a child molester and ruin a treasured friendship. What should I do?
A: One of the most malicious redoubts of the bitter spouse is the false accusation of child abuse. It is a potential life-ruiner, not just for the accused, but for the child who has to suffer all the consequences that result. But it sounds as if you would not be much of a character reference in any case. You doubt the accusation, but you aren’t sure. Otherwise, you detest this guy. Tell him that you don’t feel comfortable getting legally involved in his divorce. But perhaps you can talk with your friend. Tell her you understand she’s in extremis and she has nothing but contempt for her ex. Explain you don’t like him yourself. But then ask if he really is a child molester, because if he’s not, making such an accusation to help her divorce case will only hurt her child in the long run. If she stands by the story you can say if that’s the case, he deserves the maximum punishment. But if it’s not, she herself could be prosecuted for making false charges. And the damage of all this to their child will be incalculable. They sound like quite a pair. That poor little girl.
Dear Prudence: Mother and Daughter Hitting the Bottle
Q. Addicted Fiancé: I found out several months ago that my fiancé of four years was addicted to synthetic marijuana and had been for nearly one year. He gets it illegally from the corner store using his credit card and has racked up hundreds and hundreds in debt. I called his parents and they took him home for two weeks to get clean and be in a supportive environment away from the drug. He has also been seeing an addictions counselor. He came back to me and all appeared to be fine until this weekend when I found him high again. I asked to see his credit statement and found that he had been doing it since he returned on a daily basis. Last night he asked me to drive him to a halfway house and I guess that is where he will live for a while in order to finally kick the habit. The thing is, we have been planning our wedding in May. We’ve already spent thousands on deposits and a honeymoon. I love him with all of my heart and want nothing more than to spend the rest of my life him. However, I am not the co-dependent type and do not want a life of hurt and regret that seems to be associated with family addiction. He’s always been so good to me, and I want to believe that he can beat this, but I can’t be sure. Would I be doing myself a huge disservice by staying? If so, how do you leave someone you love?
A: Your first step is to see how much of your deposits you can get back. Then you notify everyone that sadly the wedding is off, and you will be returning the gifts you have received. If you are going to stay with the guy, he needs a long period of being clean before you can trust that he’s kicked his addiction. That May deadline is too soon. Now that he’s in treatment, you should talk to his counselor and get some understanding of his situation and how you can support his recovery. It could be that the best thing for both of you is to break it off. But if you decide to stay, it has to be with the clear understanding that he’s got a long way to go and he’s seriously violated your trust. If you decide to spend your life with someone you don’t do it because you hate to eat a catering check.
Q. Weight Loss: I am a 26-year-old woman and I have been overweight all of my life. In 2009, at my highest weight on record, I weighed well over 300 pounds and had a BMI in the 50s. I come from a large family and had resigned myself to being overweight because I am “a clone” of my mother. This year, however, I broke myself of that mentality with the help of a counselor and a wonderful gym and I made a change. I have lost 70 pounds in the last eight months for a total weight loss of 117 pounds. That kind of change is, obviously, bound to be noticed and commented on. At work I get people I don’t even know mentioning how good I look and wanting to know “my secret.” (It’s diet and exercise by the way.) People are calling me “Skinny Minnie” and “Thin Mints” (I enjoy that one for its irony) and encourage me to keep up the good work. At home, it’s another story; especially with my mother. She thinks I should take a break and that I’m too skinny. (I’m still over 200 pounds and obese.) She accuses me of being anorexic (I’m not. I eat 1300-1600 calories a day) and of overexercising. Both camps are really starting to wear on me. How can I tell everyone, especially those encouraging me, to stop? I am really tired of the comments about my weight loss, no matter how positive it is. It’s getting old. Thank you.
A: Congratulations! We all come into this world with certain less than ideal genes and propensities, but how wonderful for you to decide to take control of those things you can modify. With the well-wishers if you can stand it just say, “Thanks” and change the subject. Your new weight will eventually become old news. If you really don’t want to hear “Thin Mint” etc. anymore, just say, “I appreciate your good wishes, but I’d rather not be called by that nickname. I’d like to spend as little time as possible thinking about my weight, even if the trend is good.” As for your mother, what a classic case of feeling threatened. She liked your being her “clone” because that way if you were both morbidly obese, it was proof it was beyond your control and just bad genetic luck. But here you are demonstrating that she could do something, too. It’s not clear whether you live with her. If so, you need to set serious boundaries around your weight—that is, you don’t talk with her about your food and exercise, and if she starts nagging you, you leave the room (or move out). It you’re talking about visits, you tell her that you are getting good medical care, you feel great, and if she tells you to get off your diet and exercise plan, you will be cutting your visits short.
Q. My Heart Is Not a Zero-Sum Game: I was married for 25 years to an amazing woman who came to a sudden and untimely end. I am now dating another amazing woman. After dating for a year, we moved in together six months ago and love each other like crazy. We have our differences, but nothing that I wouldn’t expect for any two people trying to make their separate lives into one. Except one thing: I want to keep my late wife as a part of my life in the form of a few pictures, a couple of specific mementos, and the occasional topic of conversation. Sometimes my girlfriend is supportive of this but sometimes she is not and it causes her pain. I’ve read how you dealt with your husband’s first wife and was hoping you could help me learn what topics are more likely to hurt my girlfriend so I can handle them more adroitly, or alternately give me some words I can use to explain better to my girl that I love her completely too. I’ve tried but sometimes she ends up feeling second best, like some kind of leftover, but she is not second best she is amazing. I don’t think this is a long-term deal-breaker, I just want to make things easier for my girl.
A: It sounds as if you’ve done plenty to explain to your new partner that you love her completely. It also sounds as if the place of your late wife in your conversation and home is appropriate and not intrusive. Perhaps your girlfriend is trying to express to you that any reminders of your first wife are painful to her and that at best she indulges this, but editing your first wife out completely would be preferred. So it’s up to you to explain that at this point in your lives you each have complicated histories that are part of who you are, and you are not comfortable if you have to catch yourself before you say things such as, “I love Florence. Rachel and I went there for our 10th anniversary.” You two should have sorted this out better before moving in. But maybe a counselor will help you each understand the other’s perspective.
Q. Smoking and In-Laws: Every time we visit my husband’s family, I spend the entire trip miserable with terrible allergies. Their small house has poor ventilation, old wall-to-wall carpeting, and a heavy smoker (my mother-in-law). Since her smoking doesn’t bother anyone else, I’ve always tried to be polite and downplay my allergies. But it’s reached a point where I don’t want to spend any time in their house and I worry about what will happen when we have kids. We only get to visit a few times a year, and I know she would be hurt if we suddenly started staying at a hotel instead. What do I do?
A: Stay at a hotel and limit the time in the house. Sorry their feelings will be hurt, but you will need a drip pan for your nose if you stay with them. Perhaps, when the kids come, it would be more convenient if your in-laws came to you—with the understanding that grandma has to smoke outside.
Q. Re: For Weight-Losing Daughter: What you’re doing is AWESOME and you should be incredibly proud of yourself. I’ve lost 45 pounds, much less than you have, and I know how difficult it is. Trust me, the compliments will come to an end soon enough! But you should find a better circle of support and not try to do this alone, especially with a sabotaging mom. Weight Watchers meetings work really well for me (once I found the right group leader, because some of them are annoying). There are discussions about how to handle things like someone telling you you’re too skinny and just eat something. I don’t work for WW, but it’s really been helpful for me so I thought I’d share the idea. Keep it up, girl!
A: Excellent advice. Getting support to maintain the loss is a good idea.
Q. Paranoid Parent: My mom is a very intelligent, with-it person in her 70s. She also believes that people are coming in her apartment frequently at night, that they take her financial paperwork, that her phone is not secure, that her computer is monitored—so she stopped using it. I end up doing a lot of checking up on her finances for her, since she is without computer, and she worries that someone is stealing her money. I’ve suggested therapy, and she’s even tried it, but she thinks she is smarter than her therapists and there is no change in her outlook. She’s been sure people are after her since she was in her early 50s—sometimes because of a weird conflict in her family, other times because she was involved in local politics. She has since moved far from these troubles—so now it’s people after her money. (Since I’ve been monitoring, a couple of years now, nothing has been taken.) I feel sorry for her, because she is really suffering, but resent the time I spend on something she is perfectly capable of doing. Any suggestions?
A: Your mother is not with it, she’s ill. She needs a physical and mental work-up to try to figure out the cause of her crippling paranoia. You tell her you’re making a doctor’s appointment for her and will go with her. If she refuses you explain you are done checking up on nonexistent intruders.
Q. Impending Divorce: I found out just over a month ago that my husband had been having an affair since shortly after our second daughter was born in January 2011. I took several weeks and decided that I could probably get over the infidelity with a lot of time and work, but that what the past two years revealed about his character led me to the decision that I did not want to try to save our marriage. He seems to feel that this now gives him a “pass” as far as the affair, as in, “That’s not what is causing our breakup. You said so yourself.” He also accuses me of clinging to my “victim” status. I don’t want to become a bitter-victim type, but I do feel like it’s unfair when he tells people that we are breaking up, he leaves out the part where he was having an affair for most of the past two years, and treating me terribly at the same time. I am seeing a therapist, but I would welcome input from a different perspective.
A: Good luck to the next woman (women) who end up with this gem. You don’t want to engage in a war of accusations with this jerk. But you are also entitled to tell your story to your friends. When they express sadness at your divorce you are entitled to say, “Unfortunately, I found out Dick had been cheating on me for the past two years. I still wanted to save the marriage, but it turned out the problems ran so deep, it couldn’t be done.” You don’t have to give details or malign his character—his character is evidently malign enough on its face. If you let the facts be known to a few blabby friends, soon the facts will be known by all.
Q. Postal Workers: I work downtown in a high-rise in a major metropolitan area. We have a postal worker who delivers the mail and he really does a great job. He recognizes the tenants well enough to hand us our mail when we come get it in the mail room. I think he’s great, and I appreciate his cheerful demeanor. The problem is that every day, once he distributes everyone’s mail to their box, he sits in the mail room and hangs out, reading the paper or just taking a nap, for at least an hour. I’m not usually the type of person who is concerned about what everyone else is doing, but considering all the troubles that the USPS is going through financially these days, I’m wondering if I should do or say anything. What do you think, Prudie, leave it alone or tattle-tale?
A: Your complaint makes me want to go postal. Apparently you think you’ll solve the postal service problems by reporting this guy for taking a break in your mail room. Unless his presence is disturbing to your company, it should be of no concern to you that he takes his break in a quiet and comfortable place. Instead of reporting him, have everyone in the office chip in and get him a Christmas gift in recognition of his excellent service.
Q. Rekindled Relationship: About a month ago, my boyfriend broke up with me without providing any reason and there was never any indication that anything was amiss. I took it as a sign and recently started seeing someone else. Over this weekend, my ex called wanting to talk. We met, talked, and are going to try to work things out. We decided that for now, we will not go back into an exclusive relationship but what if any explanation do I owe to the other guy? Do I not mention it and see how things pan out or do I owe him the courtesy of at least knowing we are trying to work things out?
A: I hope he gave you some fabulous explanation that would justify your giving a second chance to someone who so cavalierly and cruelly ended things. I think you should take this very slow. Given your timeline, you’ve only dated this new guy a few times. So what you say depends on what you’ve said to each other about your social lives. If you’ve each made clear neither of you is seeing anyone else, then you have to give him a heads up. But if it’s ambiguous, you can leave it that way until you know better what you’re feeling are about the guy who just dumped you.
Q. Impending Divorce again: Thanks! That all seems so simple once you spell it out, but I was up most of the night noodling it through. The one other issue is that he told his parents, who I adore, this weekend, of course leaving out the affair. I want them to know the truth, but I also feel like it would be a case of tattling to his mommy. Should I tell them, or leave it up to him to come clean?
A: The parents are tougher because they are going to have to come to terms with what a jerk they’ve raised. Wait this out and see how it goes. If they reach out to you in some way and express their sadness, or raise the issue of the divorce, then you can say, as if in all innocence, “Yes, it was very painful to find out about his long affair. But there were other problems we just couldn’t get past besides his infidelity.”
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.