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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. Wishing all of you a great 2013, and a bearable New Year’s Eve (my least favorite holiday!)
Q. Social Network Relationship Entanglement: A few months ago I joined an online group of like-minded people where we often discuss personal relationship problems. I have found that griping about my husband to anonymous people online is a lot better than venting my frustrations at him. Lately my husband has also been really good at changing some of the behaviors that have always driven me up the wall, and now I know why. While using his laptop, I happened to notice him logged in as one of the members of my group! He created a fake persona and has seen every gripe I ever typed about him! I haven’t confronted him on this, and to be honest it has been a convenient way to indirectly communicate my frustrations to him. So should I tell him I know who he is, quit the group, or just let this be?
A: I’m sure my husband would love me to follow your lead and post my complaints online instead of expressing them directly to him. Then he’d follow your husband’s example of not discussing any of this with me. Where he’d differ is the part where he logs on and reads my nagging, then dedicates himself to meeting my standards of the perfect husband. Your situation sounds like a variation of that dreadful Pina Colada song. But I’d find your version more believable if it turned out your husband was remaking himself to please you in order to divert you from exploring the fact that most of his time online is spent looking for kinky sex partners. It’s also possible that you haven’t paid enough attention to the male poster on this site who complains that his hypercontrolling witch of a wife doesn’t even appreciate when he makes the changes she wants. I suggest that, to get back to face-to-face communication, you tell your online audience that your husband has undergone a remarkable transformation and you’re so moved by this that you’re going to let him know how much his efforts have meant to you. Then do so, in person, including letting your husband know you know he’s a member of your rant group.
Q. Old Mother: I am 40 years old and eight months pregnant. It is my first child after spending most of my life thinking I won’t have any. I am happy to report it has been a generally comfortable pregnancy and my baby and I are healthy. The only discomfort I must endure on a regular basis is comments from various family members, friends, co-workers, and even total strangers. I’ve had so many people ask me if I’ve had IVF, or people assuming IVF and asking what the process was like. Although the baby was conceived the old-fashioned way I do not feel comfortable discussing my fertility with others. Had I actually gone through fertility treatments, it would have been something intensely personal and not something I’d announce to the world. Either way, I certainly don’t feel like explaining to strangers, “Oh no, I actually became impregnated by having unprotected intercourse with my fertile husband.” Many people ask me if there is anything wrong with my baby, or become offended and outraged I didn’t terminate. My boss yesterday even remarked, “I don’t know how you justify to yourself having a baby at your age,” after ranting about a friend’s daughter who was born with Down’s syndrome after her mother gave birth at a later age. I’m sick and tired of justifying my pregnancy to others. How can I politely steer myself away from these questions?
A: Wow, you know a lot of dreadful people. I, too, had a baby at 40 (the regular way, not that anybody asked me) and I can’t recall one person saying anything but how happy they were for me. Fortunately, in a few weeks the pregnancy questions and remarks will end, and you will have a beautiful baby. For now, just smile beatifically in a way only pregnant women can, and say in response to these idiot remarks, “Thank you for your good wishes.” If after the birth this crowd keeps up their nasty commentary, stick with the non sequiturs and say, “Yes, I have blessed with a wonderful child, now please excuse me.”
Q. I Don’t Want Mother-in-Law’s Money for Our Wedding: When we got engaged, my boyfriend and I agreed we didn’t want anyone to pay for our wedding. Partly because I think, as a self-sufficient adult, I should pay for my own event—and secondly, because I know how people can be as soon as money is involved. He and I have both turned down his mother’s offers to pay for various things multiple times. She keeps insisting and has firmly told us she will pay. No surprise—she’s added 10 of her friends to our guest list. When my boyfriend asked who they were—a hint—she replied, “My friends.” I’m not inviting any of my mother’s friends, and this is a very small event—about 70 people without her friends. Frankly, I don’t want people I barely know at my wedding, or my mother-in-law’s money. Is there a kind way to settle this with someone who’s absurdly headstrong? I imagine she will just put the money in a card anyway and be offended if we don’t invite her friends, as she will still have “paid” for some of the wedding.
A: Another in-law question, another time for the son to step up. No hints with this woman. Your fiancé should say, “Mom, we know our wedding is a big deal for you and you would like your friends there. But we are having a small ceremony we are paying for ourselves and we can’t expand the guest list. But after we’re married and back from the honeymoon, we would love to have a party at your house where we see your friends and celebrate.” Then the subject is closed. Both of you learning to stand up to an “absurdly headstrong” woman will make the next several decades more pleasant.
Q. Relationships, and Coming Out: An ex from several years ago, now a good friend, recently came out to me as a transgender person. He has not undergone any of the transition, but has confided in me that he has always thought he was female, including when we were together. I am supportive of my friend. During our relationship, we planned on getting married and having children. We broke up due to an unrelated reason, and grew up a lot. We have recently talked about our relationship. I love him very much, but I am afraid of what may happen if we were to reconcile. I now have my own child, and I want to be married and have more subsequent biological children. What do I do?
A: If I understand, the question you’re asking me is if you should pursue a romantic relationship with your male ex who is becoming a female ex. If he’s going to make a transition, even if he doesn’t choose surgery right away, surely he’s going to be on enough female hormones to render him infertile. You want more children, so that makes this a nonstarter. Unless you are bisexual, I don’t understand how you will find yourself attracted to a transgendered lover who is now female. You can remain dear friends, but even if you “love” your ex, the time for an intimate relationship has passed.
Q. Boyfriend With Terrible Manners: My lovely boyfriend—cute, smart, warm, loving, devoted—has about the worst manners, especially at the table, that I have ever encountered in my life. He doesn’t know how to hold a fork, he wraps his left arm protectively around his food and hovers his upper body over it, he uses his left hand to help food onto his fork or spoon, he slurps soup and spaghetti loudly and sloppily. I’ve tried to bring it up in lighthearted way, especially in the context of meeting my parents, and he doesn’t get it. I do not want to insult someone I love, and by proxy his parents, but I couldn’t in a million years bring him to a dinner party, a nice restaurant, a family gathering, basically anywhere outside of the confines of my apartment. The one time we had a full meal out people did stare and I’ve steered us into drinks or a movie rather than dinner ever since. I’m not just embarrassed, I’m also concerned for his reputation in his line of work and in his peer group. When he eats, he looks and behaves like he’s at a Renaissance Fair. How do I address this with the man I love without hurting his feelings?
A: You address this directly, factually, and unemotionally. You say he’s probably completely unaware but his table manners are not standard and they unnecessarily detract from people’s impression of him. You get him a basic book on etiquette and ask him to read the portion on dining. If he doesn’t crack it open, ask him, for the sake of your relationship, to go to a short number of etiquette classes. I’m sure you can find an expert in your area who will work with an adult one on one. If you are in love with a man who you could never go to a dinner party, a restaurant, or a family gathering with, and he won’t change that, then you’re involved with a guy you’re soon going to have to dump.
Q. Domestic Violence: My parents encourage my brother to be verbally and physically abusive toward me. When we gather at my parents’ home for the holidays, my brother tends to become physically violent if we are ever at odds with one another, even over very innocuous things (for example, earlier today, he jerked my arm and hit me in the face when I sat down in his place on the sofa when he got up to get something from the kitchen). My family does not tell him to stop or say anything to him, and when I protest, they yell at me and tell me it is my fault for “frustrating” him. My brother and I are not children; we are both in our 20s and are much too old for the sort of hitting and physical fighting that sometimes happens between young siblings. We are also part of a culturally conservative Asian family that places a high value on sons and comparatively little value on daughters (I am a woman), and my parents have always preferred my brother to me since we were very young. Short of calling the police, which I do not want to do because it would cause a serious rift in our family, how should I deal with this when it happens?
A: It’s very sad to have to estrange yourself from your family, but that may be your only recourse. You could, if you’re willing to have a next visit, announce to everyone you will be calling 911 if your brother lays a hand on you, and if he’s verbally abusive, you will leave. You may not want to charge your brother with assault, but that’s what you should do with someone who’s assaulting you. If for your entire life your brother has been exalted and you’ve been denigrated, then exempting yourself from family gatherings may be liberating for you. Please also seek out a support group for people who have been abused, or a therapist—this is a tough legacy to overcome and can lead to your choosing abusive partners. The only way for you to “deal with” this kind of abuse is to make sure it never happens again.
Q. Family Past: One of my most painful and reoccurring childhood memories is of getting tearfully and terrifyingly ripped from my father’s arms by a police officer at the age of 4. My mother was dealing with complicated grief over the loss of my youngest sister, and for reasons no one understands, she accused my father of horrible abuse. My surviving sister was 2. We spent a few weeks in the care of other family members until my father was cleared, and then by some miracle, the family was patched back together and we went on with our lives. My sister and I are now in our early 30s. I thought her too young to have any recollection of the events, and have silently nursed the trauma, slowly and privately dealing with feelings ranging from rage at my mother to (unfounded) doubt of my father’s innocence. I fought myself over it. And then my sister reached out to me, asking about her own, shadowy memories that match mine. She wants to know what happened. I do not want to tell her. I want to spare her the years of complicated emotions I’ve dealt with, and let her go on knowing with no doubt that both of our parents are loving, if flawed and complicated, individuals with no secret histories. Except that they do have those secret histories. Do I owe her the truth as I understand it?
A: Obviously, there is a whispered family story here because it seems unlikely a 4-year-old would have been privy to, or understood, the kind of accusations you say your mother made. Since your sister has picked up on some dark family history, I think you should tell her the truth. Say your mother had a breakdown after your sister’s death and in her grief and temporary insanity blamed the death on your father. Fortunately, she got help and as your sister knows, your family healed and went on. You say your mother suffered from “complicated grief,” which is the inability to move on after a loved one’s death. You sound as if you’re suffering from your own long-running version of it over this childhood trauma. Please seek psychological help. It’s time you were freed from these continual thoughts.
Q. May–December: I’m 52, well-educated, financially secure, single with no dependents, own my home, have multiple pursuits and passions, and am happily employed part-time. I’ve had no relationships the last many years. I met someone whom I share many interests with and he’s a vibrant, athletic, intellectual and intelligent … 72-year-old. I am really torn. Very drawn to him, but the age difference is an obstacle. Do you have any advice for me? Should I forget the age difference and enjoy the relationship? I have no interest in his money or anything like that—I have my own. I like him for him. I am looking for a way to think about this but it clearly bothers me or I would have cut ties or plunged in. Help. Thank you.
A: Sure, you don’t have an endless timeline when you fall for someone in his 70s, but you’ve been alone for many years, are comfortable in that, and have suddenly found yourself happily spending time with a vibrant man much your senior. I say go for it and see where this unexpected connection leads.
Q. Re: Old mom: Where does this woman live and work? The 1960s? She’s getting more grief than my mother got when she had her first child at 43, back before there was any IVF. Of course, there was also no legal abortion and reliable birth control was a new thing, so no one expected her to have had any control over the situation. (Her doctor refused to believe a woman could have a first pregnancy at 43, wouldn’t perform the “rabbit test,” and prescribed tranquilizers for the next couple of months. I’m lucky I wasn’t born with flippers.)
A: I agree the whole thing sounds bizarre. And indeed you are lucky you weren’t damaged by your mother’s doctor’s ministrations!
Q. Being Turned Into a Black Sheep: My family is convinced that my smart, hardworking, caring boyfriend of nearly two years is a deadbeat because he has a disability. Nothing I say will convince them otherwise. They declared him persona non grata after just one meeting, so there’s nothing he can really do to change their minds either. I hoped that time would soften them up a little, but we are living together and nothing has changed. At this point, we are talking marriage and kids. I guess what I’m asking is for advice on how to be the black sheep of the family. On the one hand, I wouldn’t want our future kids to spend time with people who can think such hateful things about their dad. On the other hand, I don’t want to burn any unnecessary bridges. What do other people do in this situation?
A: Who are these people? Parents who let their sons beat up their daughters? People who suggest abortions to pregnant women? And now an entire family who wants to shun someone with a disability? You are not the black sheep. Your family is a flock of them. You don’t have to announce, “We are now officially estranged.” But you do have to say that you and your boyfriend are a couple and either he is welcomed as your partner, or you won’t be able to attend future family events without him.
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