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. My Husband Is Mourning His Dead Mistress: Three months ago, the woman who was having an affair with my husband died suddenly from an accident. I found out about the affair only two days after her funeral. I thought she was simply a co-worker and I was wondering why my husband was so disturbed and emotional. He quit his job, saying it was too traumatic to go to work. She was in the early weeks of pregnancy when she died and my husband doesn’t know whether he or her husband was the father. So, on top of everything, he’s also grieving for a baby which may or may not have been his. I find it extremely difficult to be emotionally supportive when he wakes up at 3 a.m. crying and trembling—yet I don’t have the heart to yell at him like I want to. He says she’s dead, so there’s no reason for me to feel jealous or threatened, and asks for my understanding as he grieves. We’ve barely talked these last weeks because I don’t know how to respond to my husband when he cries and says he misses her and wishes she were here, then also how much he loves me and that he never intended to leave me. I asked him to visit a marriage therapist together and he said he’s “not ready” to work on our marriage, and thinks he needs to see a grief therapist instead. Do I need to give him time to mourn the loss of his mistress? Or should I demand he focus on our marriage?
A: You cannot impose a schedule on someone else’s grief. So I think you should let your husband fully experience his—alone. If you are being asked to be an understanding source of solace while he mourns the loss of his mistress, a woman who was possibly the mother of his child, then that is an emotional burden that’s simply outside the bounds of what one spouse can ask of another. He’s told you flat out he can’t work on his marriage because he’s too torn up about the death of the woman he loved. So I think you should tell him to move out while you each figure out what you want out of your marriage and life. In addition, I hope he is independently wealthy, or has fantastically in-demand professional skills, because quitting his job over her death indicates he’s gone off the deep end. I can’t imagine how he’s going to explain that departure to potential employers. Of course you’re reeling over these events, so if he won’t see a counselor with you, consider going alone. And you’ve left us all wondering: Does the grieving widower have any idea what his wife was up to?
Q. Celebration Overload: I have three sons in their late 20s and early 30s. The oldest is married with a young child and my youngest is engaged. Since it has been quite some time since I went through these rituals, I expected them to change. I just didn’t expect them to change quite this much. What used to be nice, simple ceremonies have turned into much longer events. My son and daughter-in-law had professional engagement photos taken, numerous bridal showers, a wedding followed by a reception, professional maternity photos taken, a “gender revealing party,” a baptism, professional family portraits, and a first birthday party. Frankly, I think this is celebration overload and, in its own way, detracts from the seriousness of these events. I miss the days of one bridal shower, a ceremony in a church, and cake in the church basement. I know how delicate the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship can be, so I have not said a word about these events and attended them all graciously. But the thought of going through this number of events for two more kids is exhausting. Is this just the trend of celebrations now and I should go along with it? How do I graciously be a part of their lives while inwardly cringing at another over-the-top celebration?
A: Your answer is contained in your question. You just graciously celebrate while inwardly cringing. I agree with you, Mom, that a return to contained and modest celebrations is to be much hoped for. This is the second letter I’ve gotten about the amazing development of the awful gender-reveal party. As I previously asked, what’s next, the baby-making party? You have to accept that the days of the DIY wedding are gone. But I agree that turning marriage into the Normandy Invasion (actually, that took less time to plan and launch than most weddings) is an absurd waste of time and money. Let’s face it, usually the bride/mother is the driver behind these events, so as a mother of sons, you want to preserve your relationship with your offspring and their wives. So slap on a smile and be grateful to be included.
Dear Prudence: The Happy Hooker
Q. Mean Girls: My cousin and I are both in our 40s and grew up together. We live a good distance away, but every few months, my work takes me near her house and I’ll visit and stay overnight. Her two children, who are their early teens, are horrible to her. In the few hours I’m there, they insult her looks, her cooking, and her intelligence. First it was the older one, and now her younger sister is doing the same. It seems like anything that comes of out of my cousin’s mouth warrants a snide retort from one child or the other. Her husband is part (or the cause) of the problem. He says nothing when they make their comments and occasionally will “joke” along the same lines. Sometimes I will wade in with a neutral comment like “I think dinner is great. If you don’t like it, why you try cooking next time?” but that’s it. She says nothing to defend herself; occasionally she might protest with a “that’s not nice” but it’s very mild. I can tell, though, that she’s hurt by these remarks. My cousin is a quiet and kind person who has never had a bad word to say about anyone. I am appalled by this developing dynamic. I know teenagers can be trying, but this behavior seems off the charts compared to other kids I’ve known. I really want to say something to these children, not just for my cousin’s sake, but also because they’re becoming very mean girls. I feel they’re now old enough to be addressed as the young women they’re becoming and understand the implications of their actions. But, is it my place (as a family member) and what would I say if I did take them aside?
A: I think you should first talk to your cousin. It’s true that most teenagers will test the boundaries of civility and the safest place for them to do it is in their home. But in their home the adults are supposed to explain what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Given the husband’s contribution, it also sounds as if a malicious family dynamic is at play here: Martyr mom does everything for us, and in exchange she earns our contempt. Next time you know you’ll be in town, tell your cousin she needs a night off and you’d like to take her out to a restaurant for a chance to get some adult time. Then tell her gently but firmly what you’ve observed. She may be too sunk into this mess to act, but sometimes an outsider’s perspective can suddenly shine a mirror on a situation. Then next time you do eat at their house, you should feel free to be more direct to the girls. When they insult their mother, in a neutral tone say, “That’s a rude thing to say. Your mother is my friend, so just as I hope you would stick up for a friend who was being treated terribly, I’m going to ask you to stop insulting her.”
Q. Re: Celebration Overload: It’s not always the bride who wants this huge lavish event. I may be one of few, but I didn’t have a bridal shower. We didn’t want a religious wedding that could take longer, but my mother-in-law demanded it. My mother and I aren’t close so I didn’t give in to what she wanted; however, I wanted to make my mother-in-law happy so we caved to whatever she wanted. My husband and I both agree that the wedding is actually about the parents of the groom and bride, and not the actual couple getting married. Please know that the bride may just be railroaded into doing what someone else wants.
A: Ah, no, the wedding is about the couple getting married. It’s true that people who foot the bill can make demands. But if you are being railroaded into doing things you don’t want to do, then you say no and decline the money. I hope you and your husband can start standing up for yourselves now, before you come to the conclusion that raising your children is really about what the grandparents want.
Q. Husband’s Night Terrors: My husband has a pretty good life. He was raised by nice parents, enjoys good physical health, has a job he likes, we have a happy marriage, he has friends and, as far as I know, has never been the victim of any kind of serious crime or trauma. Nevertheless, he wakes up, at a minimum of one night a week, screaming, thrashing, and terrified. It’s as if he has PTSD. With our first child expected in a few months, these night terrors have become an almost every-night occurrence, and it’s fraying my nerves and causing me to lose sleep. I’m worried about him, although during the day he’s one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. It would seem odd to tell a therapist, “I’m happy and have no real problems, but I have night terrors.”
A: I doubt he needs a therapist, but he certainly needs an M.D. First he needs to check in with his internist and explain what’s going on. Then if a further diagnosis is needed, he needs to see a sleep specialist. It surely sounds as if he has some kind of sleep disorder and likely it’s treatable. Convince him to do this right way before the baby comes and his crying and thrashing is just part of the general background noise.
Q. Babies and in-Laws: Due to the economy and the price of real estate in our area, my husband, myself and our almost 4-year-old child are currently living with my parents, renting their basement while we save up for a down payment for a place of our own. While it’s not an ideal situation, (there’s no kitchen or shower, so we have to share theirs), we get along pretty well for the most part. Right now we’re debating having another child. Both my husband and I have agreed that if we don’t have another child in the next two years or so, we’re probably not going to try for one after that point. Here’s where we disagree though: My husband thinks we should just start trying and see what happens. I think, since we’re technically living with my parents, we should ask for their blessing before we start trying. Who’s right?
A: Oh, goodness, this is way too close to the baby-making party! If you start this conversation, I assume once your parents understand exactly what you’re asking, they’d run screaming from the room. We are experiencing a birth dearth in this country because so many people of childbearing age are in your situation. But it sounds as if you’re both employed and making good financial choices. Sometimes there’s no ideal time to have a child, but it’s the right thing to do anyway. But this is a private matter between you and your husband. After the baby comes, you can discuss with your parents whether they want to provide baby-sitting services. But you do not need their permission for baby-making.
Q. How to tell people my husband left me: My husband of three years moved out last week and has no interest in reconciliation. I work in a large office where most people have known me through my entire relationship with my husband (seven years). We were very much in love, so this will come as a shock to everyone—it was a shock to me! I have continued going to work because I don’t want to sit at home and cry, but I’m not ready to tell anyone, but my closest friends. What do I say when people ask me how Jim is doing? And when I am ready, how do I tell my co-workers and clients? I don’t want to be an object of pity.
A: How wrenching, and I hope you do turn to your family and friends who will support you through this tough time. You tell as much as you’re ready. When people say, “How’s Jim?” if all you want to say is, “He’s fine, thanks,” then so be it. As you get more used to the break, you can add down the road, “Sadly, he and I have separated. But we’re both doing okay.” If people ask follow-ups and you don’t want to answer, a simple, “It’s a painful subject to talk about. Thanks for understanding,” should do it.
Q. Re: to Mean Girls: I was raised in a household like this, and sadly, this is the norm for these girls. I imagine they are encouraged to speak to their mother harshly, and sadly, it becomes a bonding point with their father. They will be mortified when they become adults and look back at this. I can still remember standing up to my father in my 20s when he tried to get me to “join in” in ridiculing my mother. Hopefully, the LW can have an impact now, so these girls will not have a lot of regret later in life.
A: It’s good to hear from someone who has lived this ugly dynamic, and was able to change it. Good for you for seeing that “bonding” time with Dad was part of playing out a pattern destructive to everyone. It may be that the teenagers don’t want to hear this message now. But if they are essentially decent people, it will echo.
Q. I’m a Tightwad: Both my husband and I grew up with very little money. Our parents were mostly living paycheck to paycheck. As we have both grown up with no money, we have saved very penny we have earned and have a very nice savings account. I know that this seems like a stupid question, but we have become overly concerned with spending it. We had to buy a new couch to replace our old college dorm room couch and we spent over a month talking about it weighing the pros and cons. It has become so bad that I spend all night staying up thinking about if we can afford things even though I know I can. Am I ok, maybe just a little too concerned or is this something I should talk about with someone?
A: If more people were like you, the housing crash might have been a lot less disastrous. A couch is a major purchase and there’s nothing wrong with doing your research and making sure you’re getting the right one. But you do not want to spend sleepless nights debating whether to get a matching ottoman. It doesn’t sound like you need psychological counseling, just a better system for making financial decisions. Read some reputable books on creating a budget and living within it. Knowing you’re making good decisions should keep you flush and rested.
Q: Sister-in-Law Furious About When I Revealed My Pregnancy: My husband’s sister thrives on being a passive-aggressive, attention-hogging know-it-all. I’ve always managed to be civil to her and praise her ideas to get her to shut up about lecturing me on what foods I should buy, etc. I announced my pregnancy to both families at 20 weeks. I received a scathing email from my sister-in-law recently demanding to know why I wouldn’t tell “her family” for 20 weeks. My exact response was, “Don’t I have the right to choose when to announce my pregnancy? Both families were told at the same time.” She answered back, “Well, whatever.” Since then, my husband’s family has been distancing themselves from me. My husband says I should apologize and just let his sister’s comment go. But I’m tired of being grilled about all of our life choices and the timing of revealing them. Do I actually owe this brat an apology?
A: Thank you for simply revealing your pregnancy and not having a gender reveal party. Before the baby comes, you and your husband need to get on the same page as far as dealing with his family is concerned. It could be that your husband’s sister has some sort of personality disorder so everyone tiptoes around her in order to try and keep the peace. That means she sets the family tone, which only encourages her worst qualities. If kowtowing to the sister is the primary family dynamic, then you two need to stop bowing and start standing up for yourselves. Tell your husband you are happy to apologize when you’re in the wrong. But in dealing with his sister, everyone else is always in the wrong, and in this case you have nothing to be sorry for. Tell him you understand there are difficulties and sensitivities with his family, but now that you’ve got a baby coming, it’s more important than ever to set some standard for how people treat each other. If he can’t see your point of view, a few sessions with a therapist to help you two hash out these in-law issues would be a good investment.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!
If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.
Discuss this column with Emily Yoffe on her Facebook page.
Our commenting guidelines can be found here.