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. Friend’s Abusive Second Husband Secrets: My oldest, dearest friend remarried a verbally abusive jerk. He blows up at her for minor offenses and curses at her, breaks furniture, disappears for hours, and freaks out if she talks with her ex-husband (the father of her children) too much. Her ex-husband does not know how serious the verbal abuse has become or how much has occurred in front of their kids. I don’t know if my friend has told her kids not to reveal to their dad how their stepdad treats her, but for some reason, they don’t say anything to him. I know they’re scared of their stepdad, because they have told my son that, and my friend has admitted that. She’s worried her ex-husband will freak out if she tells him how her current husband treats her. I don’t think she understands why her husband verbally abuses her, and she thinks it will stop somehow. I know my friend loves her husband and wants their marriage to work. I feel like I’m failing her kids by not giving her ex-husband a heads up. What should I do?
A: To use the old “frog in boiling water” analogy, sometimes the person in a dangerous situation will no longer recognize it because the abuse escalates gradually. Your friend is living with a violent man who is increasingly out of control. Why she loves this creep is for her to figure out, preferably with the help of a therapist, but she has to recognize the situation for what it is. I think you should take her out (let’s hope her husband allows it) and lay out how concerned you are for her and her kids. You can tell her you understand that her ex would freak out to find out what’s going on in the home, but that is a good indication of why he should know. He surely would want to protect his kids. Tell her you’re worried she’s so deep into this bad scene that she’s incapable of telling the ex, so you’re going to. And tell her to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help her get a start in getting out: 800-799-SAFE.
Dear Prudence: Son With a Plunging Crack Line
Q. Sexy Santa-Suit Scandal: My boyfriend “Nick” and I have a holiday tradition where I dress up as Mrs. Claus and he dresses up as Santa and we role play. My costume is from an adult shop and is very suggestive while his is just a regular Santa suit. The thing is this year he has decided to volunteer for a well-known charity standing on the street dressed as Santa to collect donations from passersby, and he wants to use our role-play suit! I told him I want him to get a different suit for his charity work, and reserve the other one for its own special purpose, but he’s been dismissive of the idea, saying a proper Santa suit is expensive and that he doesn’t want to spend the money unnecessarily. I’m considering just going and buying him one myself, but I don’t want to seem pushy. Would I be over the line in insisting he doesn’t use his naughty suit to be nice for charity?
A: As I understand it, you don’t want him wearing his plain old Santa suit because when you see it, it says to you, “It’s sexy time!” However, that connection will not be made by any of the people dropping quarters into his can. This erotic clause you cite for wanting him to spend money for a new Mr. Claus suit is ridiculous. Be nice and drop your objection.
Q. Circumcision Standoff: I am engaged to a wonderful man, and we know we want children in a few years. But he recently told me that he is vehemently against circumcision. It’s not for religious reasons—he is circumcised and believes that it caused him a lot of physical pain in adolescence. I, on the other hand, am for it. I believe the new research saying that it can help protect against HIV, HPV, and herpes and the old research saying that it can lower UTIs and possibly reduce cancer. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics says the benefits outweigh the risks. But my fiancé thinks that all of these studies are just created by doctors looking to get a little extra money from the circumcisions they’ll perform. I love him dearly, but I feel like this might be a deal breaker since it affects the wellbeing of a child, no matter which side of the argument you fall on. We can’t just go through life hoping we’ll have a daughter.
A: All the things you say are true, and I’m Jewish, so a big believer in circumcision. I’m also wondering what the “physical pain in adolescence” caused by circumcision was. I’m guessing it had something to do with beating his member raw, which would surely have happened even if he’d had a foreskin. However, billions of men have not been circumcised and are fine. And plenty of circumcised men have the STDs you list. What’s concerning is that your boyfriend asserts there’s a conspiracy to snip. Surely he doesn’t really think doctors are buying that vacation home on the proceeds of removing foreskins. This is one of those issues on which there’s no compromise, so one of you has to bend. If you feel this impasse exposes part of his character that you find disturbing, then it’s possible you need to reconsider marrying him. But maybe this is just one of those quirks married people have to accept in each other. I think you should suggest talking this over with a neutral party. It would be a shame to let such a little thing ruin a future that could be wonderful.
Q. Cheating Dad: I am in my mid-20s and no longer live at home, but am very close to my parents. Last year, I found out that my father is cheating on my mother. I discovered this when I used the family computer and he had left a secret email open with emails only from one person with a rather salacious name. I confronted him about this and he told me that the reason he had cheated on my mother was that they hadn’t had sex in over a decade. He claims that he is no longer seeing the other woman and they are now “just friends” (yeah, right). I don’t know if any of this is true, but the only person I could ask is my mother and then she would know. Other than this, my parents appear to have a happy marriage and have a lot of fun together. I understand that married couples sometimes become better friends than lovers, and if both of my parents are happy, who am I to judge? My dad told me he would tell my mom about the affair if I wanted him to, but thus far I have decided to pretend I never found out. Am I a coward? What should I do? My biggest fear is that my mother will find out what I know and hate me for not telling her.
A: It’s not cowardly to decide to stay out of your parents’ marriage. It’s too bad your father decided to spill. It would have been much better if he’d said you snooped into something private and he was not going to discuss this with you. If what your father says is true and he and your mother no longer have sex—and I bet you don’t want to explore this assertion further—then your mother is not in any danger from an STD. If your parents are just happy companions and not lovers, your mother may not want to know how your father deals with his sex drive. Tell your father you’re sorry you found out and that decisions about his marriage are for him to make.
Q. Re: For the friend/abusive husband: Please please please, Prudie, ask the friend to talk to an expert BEFORE telling the ex-husband—there’s no guarantee that is the best thing to do (for all we know, the ex may have his own anger issues, which would only make the situation more dangerous). And even if it is the right thing to do, everything needs to be handled carefully to keep the friend and her kids as safe as possible. This is a job for expert guidance, not well-meaning ultimatums.
A: Thanks, it’s a good idea for the friend to call the domestic abuse hotline, describe the situation, and get a read on what course to take.
Q. Bigoted Mom: My son’s second-grade class is having a “Holiday Month” where they learn about Christmas, Kwanzaa, Chanukah, Ramadan, and other holidays during December. One of the mothers is threatening to sue. She claims that since we live in a Christian country, only Christmas should be taught. She attended the Christmas session last week and said some unbelievably anti-Semitic and racist comments in front of the kids. Some of the kids were in tears. The principal called it a free speech issue and is considering cancelling the rest of the Holiday Month to avoid a lawsuit. He more or less agreed with her that Christmas should be the only holiday discussed. I live in a suburb to a major city in the South, so I’ve seen this before, but I’m puzzled as to what I can do.
A: I hope there are some not insane people on the PTA and that a group of you can get together and discuss this rationally with the principal. If not, take this up with the superintendent. Racism and anti-Semitism at an elementary school is not a free speech issue. It’s something that has to be attended to before the principal allows this to become a school principle.
Q. Too Early To Admit Pregnancy: I just found out that I’m pregnant yesterday. Tomorrow, the next night, and several nights next week I’m getting together to celebrate the holidays with different groups of friends. Tomorrow night we are going out for sushi and cocktails, except sushi and cocktails are now off limits. I can order veggie or shrimp sushi (which is cooked) and a sparkling water with cranberry juice, but I’m just afraid that I have no poker face and some close friends might be looking for clues. Do you have any recommendations for how to behave?
A: Congratulations! I agree that it’s possible these clues will lead to a round of questions along the lines of, “Do you have good news?” But since it’s so early and you’re not ready to tell, you can just say that your stomach’s been unsettled lately, so you’re taking it easy on the booze and raw food. And when you feel ready to tell, you’ll have some friends saying, “I knew it that night you ordered cooked sushi!”
Q. Grandfather-in-Law With Dementia: My husband comes from a very conservative and strict family and I’ve learned to keep my opinions to myself and be on my very best behavior around them. We see them only once or twice a year, so it’s not too hard to do. A few years ago, my husband’s grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He too was a very reserved man, with great respect from the community and well honored by his family. However, with his diagnosis he has become a bit indecent. It started with a few stroke on the arm and legs two years ago, but at the most recent Thanksgiving, he grabbed my chest while we were passing in the hallway. I’m the only female in the family under 40, so I don’t have other “peers” to compare notes with. Is this kind of thing usual? Should I say anything to anyone? Especially to my very conservative in-laws? I’m not sure whether to brush it off as I don’t feel necessarily assaulted, but it does still make me squirm.
A: Tell me there’s someone this week with in-laws who aren’t horrible! What joy to be constantly on your “best behavior” around these judgmental, superior people. You need to tell your husband and your in-laws that because of Grandpa’s illness he has started grabbing you. Explain you understand it’s a result of his losing his faculties, but you would appreciate if people could keep an eye on him so that he’s kept away from you. Maybe your in-laws will get a lesson in thinking they have all the answers.
Q. Thanksgiving Relations: I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my boyfriend’s family, and we all stayed at his brother’s home. His brother and sister-in-law became very adamant—even though we were sleeping in separate places already—that we not have sex while we were visiting. My boyfriend and I had already assumed this, since it was a family weekend and a very small home; besides, by having separate sleeping spaces this was implied. When they made this request, we said it was an inappropriate and unwelcoming question, and that it implied a value judgment about our characters. This disagreement led to a whole weekend of unpleasantness and conflict, and the hosts kept bringing it up with us. It got so bad that my boyfriend and I had to leave and stay at a hotel. Are we overreacting in saying that our sex lives are none of their business, or is this an appropriate house rule to set when you have guests?
A: Nope, all in-laws are crazy. Maybe this was a veiled invitation: “Hey, we expect not to hear you having sex in our house. And if we do hear you, we’ll be forced to enter the room to check out what’s going on.” Unless you’re dead broke, staying with these ridiculous people is not worth it. From now on, book a hotel for the entire stay.
Q. Kid-Free Holiday Parties: I’m a childless mid-30s woman living in a downtown one-bedroom condo. I’m having a casual holiday get-together soon at my home, and my boyfriend and I are a bit at odds over invitations. I am not comfortable with having children over. That may seem terribly Scrooge-like to some, but my place is small, I prefer an adult vibe for my events, and the thought of sticky hands and shrieking after 48 hours of cooking and cleaning is more than I can handle. Is it OK to issue adults-only invitations? Is it better not to invite parents at all? I completely understand someone not wanting to get a baby sitter, and I’d be happy to meet with the kids in a restaurant or someone else’s home, but what’s the correct etiquette for my own home? None of the potential guests are relatives; they’re my boyfriend’s friends, and we don’t live together.
A: Yes, you’re entitled to have an adults-only party. So make it a “Holiday Cocktail” event at a time, say 7 to 9, that makes it clear children aren’t welcome. Many parents will enjoy getting a baby sitter and getting out. The ones that won’t should send their regrets.
Q. In-Laws: I hope you can help me with my awkward issues with my in-laws. They are genuinely sweet people and have traditional values, as do my parents, however; they are uber-conservative and I am often afraid of what I do/say/wear around them. There are two main issues: the first being, they insist on being called Mr. and Mrs. Smith instead of their first names, and sign all their cards to me accordingly. I am unaccustomed to this kind of formality and wish that they would allow our relationship to be a little less frigid. Next, they have a dress code for me to follow at their house. I have never been one to dress scandalously despite working in fashion and loving clothes; however, raising all boys and keeping themselves very sheltered, my modest clothing is “racy” to them and I am no longer allowed to wear tank tops or shorts in their home. Hopefully I do not need to further clarify, but I am not large chested, nor do I wear low-cut or shorts shorter than a 4-inch inseam. I love my in-laws and they have raised a wonderful son, but my relationship with them remains awkward and I am at a loss. Please help!
A: OK, I’m not getting evidence today that all in-laws aren’t crazy. Where’s your husband? it’s long past time he had a talk with them that the Mr. and Mrs. Smith thing has worn out its welcome and it’s time for his wife and them to be on a first-name basis. Also, he can say that you are going to leave your burqa at home and dress like a normal person. He can add that if they don’t like it, you two won’t be visiting very often because his wife is way too old be told what she is “allowed” to wear when visiting them.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. It may be time to start planning that holiday getaway on a desert island.
Emily will be answering reader questions on Reddit on Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 1 p.m. ET.