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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let’s go.
Q. Husband Nicknames: My husband and I have been married six months. All is well and we have no real complaints. But he does have this annoying little trait that I am wondering if I am just being nit-picky or if I actually have ground to stand on. I will accept whatever decision you put forth. My husband is Southern and calls every woman sweetheart or sweetie. This only happened a few times when dating to an occasional waitress, but now I see that he does it with longtime friends, other men’s wives, and co-workers. It grates me that he does this and doesn’t even give me a different pet name. I ask him to stop but he says that’s how he’s been his whole life. Is this a marriage compromise that I should just let go?
A: I live in Maryland, the land of Hon, and I enjoy those infrequent occasions when someone calls me that, though it’s almost always from other women and in a retail setting. However, I don’t care where your husband is from, calling every woman in his path sweetheart is both inappropriate and grating. Believe me, at his office the other women have discussed in the coffee room how uncomfortable his pet name makes them. Since you say he’s from the South, but it sounds like he’s not in the South, he needs to stop spritzing sweethearts everywhere. Even in the South, I can’t imagine a young guy in the office expects to get away with calling his female colleagues sweetheart. If he wants to see how his presumed courtliness can be misunderstood by the wider world, have him read the stories about the sweetheart filled emails between retiring Gen. John Allen and socialite Jill Kelley.
Q. Ugly Scars: I am a survivor of childhood sexual trauma and I have come to terms with my past and am a happy, successful, and healthy person today. The problem is that when I was a teenager, I coped with the trauma by cutting my arms and wrists and now as a professional in my late 20s, I still have ugly scars that were obviously self-inflicted. Obviously, no one can wear long sleeves year-round so I do show my arms sometimes. Some people don’t seem to notice, while some people stare but say nothing. A small few will ask me how I got them and I usually mumble something about it being a long story, which is usually met with a quizzical or pitying look. I am wondering if you could help me come up with a one line explanation that will let people know it’s not their business and that I am fine and sane and don’t need their pity. I’m worried that my scars make people doubt my professional abilities or worse, question my sanity!
A: How wonderful that you have been able to sail forth into a happy, productive life. I hope you can personally see these scars as a kind of badge of honor representing how far you’ve come. It’s good that only a handful of people actually ask about this. What you say to deflect is, in some ways, less important than the way you say it. You’ve got to be totally comfortable with the subject, so when you dismiss it, you don’t leave the misleading impression that you are troubled. Of course, no one should ask—but as my mailbox amply proves, they will. I think you can say something like, “Oh, it’s from a long time ago and fortunately I’m fine.” Do it with a smile and convey that, with that answer, the topic is closed. If the interlocutor presses on, then say, “I’d rather not go into it. Thanks.”
Readers, I get the question of cutting scars fairly often. I’m wondering if anyone knows of effective cosmetic treatment for this so that the problem is physically ameliorated.
Q. Slovenly Sister-in-Law: I have a relative who has four children, ages 10 and under, and is pregnant with her fifth baby. Three of the children have mild developmental delays or behavioral issues. Overall, though, they are well behaved and cared for. The problem is her house. Dishes are put away with food still stuck to them, floors aren’t cleaned and are cluttered with toys and other objects so that pathways are created from room to room. Sometimes beds don’t have sheets or blankets. The worst is the bathrooms. Soap is rarely present, and one of her children draws on the walls with her own feces—and then she leaves it for weeks! Last time a relative visited, there was even what looked like dried blood on the walls. As I said, the children are generally well cared for, so I don’t want to call social services. But we can’t help feeling like we need to intervene. It’s surely not healthy for a newborn to enter that house! She doesn’t get much help with the children from her husband, so I know she must be tired and overwhelmed, but how can we help her realize a cleaner house is necessary? We don’t live nearby, and the relatives that do are not willing to clean for her when the mess just returns a few days later. Is there anything we can do?
A: I’m going to have to disagree with you that the children are being well cared for. A house with dried feces and blood on the walls, no sheets on the bed, etc. is not a place where children—especially those with special needs—are getting sufficient attention. The fact that this woman would go ahead and have a fifth pregnancy under these circumstances indicates just how unable she is to make healthy decisions for her family. You should call the Child Help Hotline, 1-800-4ACHILD, for some advice on where to turn. This service should be able to help you evaluate whether CPS or some other agency should be called in.
Q. Re: Husband Nicknames: As a born and raised Southerner I can confirm that terms of endearment are often used in casual conversation for both friends and strangers (of both genders). No one means anything offensive by it; it’s a common way people talk here. I do think it’s highly inappropriate for her husband to speak to co-workers in that manner.
A: Yep, but he’s not in the South. And if he doesn’t know it’s a no-no to call his female co-workers that, someone needs to enlighten him.
Q. Tie Me Up No More: I am in a long-term relationship with a wonderful and sensitive man. Recently we became engaged and are planning on getting married in the summer. My fiancé and I have always had an open relationship and explored our sexual interests. However, since getting engaged, my fiancé no longer likes to participate in my sexual interests. He says since we are getting married now, we should put our youthful fantasies behind us and be responsible. He says he cannot do such things with the woman he will be marrying and who will be the mother of his children. Although I love my fiancé very much, how do I make him understand that I need more than a vanilla future with him?
A: If you two don’t figure out how to make each other happy in bed, then I’m afraid the flavor is going to be rocky road. First of all, two people can have a wild and satisfying sex life together, so if your fiancé wants to rein it in, it doesn’t mean missionary position in a dark bedroom. On the other hand if for you to be satisfied requires the services of people you’re not married to, then you two might be at an impasse. Since you both are sexually adventuresome, talking about sex should come easily to you. So thoroughly explore what you each see as sexual expression inside of a marriage. As a shift in perspective try thinking of having sex with only your fiancé as an exciting new adventure instead of a dreary limitation.
Q. Sex Life: My boyfriend has an intense irrational fear of accidentally becoming a father to the extent that he refuses to have sex with me even though we use two forms of birth control! When we first got together we had a great sex life, but he claims that back then the newness of the relationship was so exciting that it outweighed any anxieties he had about unplanned pregnancy. We’ve been together now for almost three years and our sex life has now dwindled to celibacy for both. I love my boyfriend and I understand that sometimes people have irrational fears, but I can’t continue on in a sexless relationship! We are both struggling financially (which is certainly one of the factors for not wanting children right now), so we cannot afford couples therapy or individual therapy. I don’t know what to do at this point!
A: I understand money is tight and you two can’t afford counseling. So I suggest working with the tools you must have at your disposal. I assume each of you already has a couple of suitcases and duffle bags. So depending on how you want this to go, either you pack up your stuff, or you tell him to pack up his stuff, and you say you’re through. You can explain that you’ve done some research and to your knowledge there are no co-ed monasteries, and you’re no longer interested in being part of this experiment in celibate living.
Q. Re: Husband Nicknames: I used to have a boss, in his mid-30s, who would ALWAYS wink at people. It was stupid, annoying and creepy and I guarantee that the LW’s husband is the target of justifiably snarky comments when he’s not in the room. She needs to tell him to knock it off.
A: I agree that the husband is annoying his co-workers.
Q. New Mother-in-Law: My mother-in-law threw a fit, berating my fiancée the afternoon after her premature C-section due to complications and high blood pressure. Nurses came running as alarms went off, I returned to the room to find my fiancée crying and I ended up having to kick my mother-in-law out of the room and call security. I went out in the hall to ask her if she wanted to have a civil conversation and she was on the phone. I touched her elbow and she told her husband I was “laying my hands on her.” I told her not to bother coming back to the hospital. Since then her story has escalated to me “laying hands on her three times and pushing her.” My fiancée is an only child, loves her parents in spite of a years-long strained relationship. What’s a new husband to do? I don’t want this woman around my child, her mental health is obviously questionable at best.
A: It does sound as if your mother-in-law to be has some serious problems. These will be compounded by the fact that your fiancée is still enmeshed with her and can’t stand up to her. Right now is not the time to hash this out. You’ve been through a scary medical event, and I hope everyone is okay. Once you two are more settled in to parenthood, you need to explain to your fiancée that her mother is giving a totally incorrect account of the events at the hospital. You can say her behavior during the entire medical crisis was alarming and destructive. Tell your wife-to-be that you understand the bond between mother and child, but that now that you are parents yourselves, you need to make sure a mother-in-law with an explosive temper doesn’t cause problems. Broken record today, but some counseling for drawing boundaries might be helpful for your wife, and she might be more willing to go if it was something you did together.
Q. Re: Ugly Scars: I am a medical librarian who loves your column. I just did a very quick search and found this article about a laser procedure that seems to have worked.
A: Thank you.
Q. Death of a Family Friend: I just found out that a friend of the family passed away over the weekend. She was close to my mom, but was generally a pretty difficult woman to get along with. During the past several months, I urged my mom to distance herself because (from MY perspective) the friendship wasn’t mutually beneficial. This woman always borrowed money, sucked us in to HER family’s drama, and showed up unannounced with a new crisis every month. My father has been ill and my mom was stretched thin, so I just suggested she step back from this friendship so she could concentrate on herself for once. Now, I find out that the woman is gone, and I feel terrible for all parties involved. The woman was estranged from her family so I wonder if she died alone? Was she in pain? Was there some comfort my mom could have given her the past few weeks? I just feel like a bad daughter for interfering with my mom’s friendship.
A: You were giving your mother very reasonable advice, which was hers to take or not. If you feel you dictated your mother’s decision, then your mother has a serious problem in standing up to people that she needs to address. Your mother’s friend sounds like a sad, disturbed person who was draining your mother dry. I think you gave your mother good advice. There are some people who just can’t be helped, and trying to help them comes at great cost. Comfort your mother by telling her that she was a very good friend for a long time, and there wasn’t going to be anything she could have done to change this woman’s unhappy end.
Q. Re: Ugly Scars: I am someone who, like the previous writer, has countless scars all over my body. A few years ago, someone told me about a product, Mederma, that lessens the appearance of scars. I used it religiously, and while my scars haven’t vanished, they’ve greatly diminished. I also use moisturizers on a regular basis, since I’ve found that scars are more noticeable when my skin is dry.
A: More advice, thanks.
Q. Do I Need To Buy Expensive Gifts for My Girlfriend’s Children: I am a 42-year-old man and my girlfriend recently moved in with me. I have an 8-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and she has two sons who she does not have custody of, but does have visitation rights. Her sons are good boys and we’ve bonded really well. Our children are spoiled. They have almost every electronic game on the market and wear obscenely expensive tennis shoes. I take care of the kids on Saturdays while their mother is at work and we usually spend the day outdoors. The oldest boy is 15, and on a recent hike he asked if I would buy him the new Nintendo Wii. The boy’s father showers his son with expensive gifts. I explained to the boy that it wasn’t my place to buy something like that for him, but if he would start taking on some chores around the house I would be willing to work something out with him and the boy agreed. When his mother heard of the agreement she became furious with me. She says I should treat her children as my own and should give to her children without asking for anything in return. I am standing my ground on this issue and we are probably going to break up. Am I obligated to buy her children expensive gifts?
A: I feel so sorry for these kids. The adults in their lives sound like a bunch of irresponsible babies, so they are going to have a hard time learning to be responsible themselves. I agree with you about not buying your girlfriend’s son an expensive electronic. I also agree that teenagers should do chores around the house, but they should do it not to get toys, but because that’s what people who live in a family do. It’s sad that you moved in with a woman, upending the lives of three children, without apparently having even a basic agreement on how to raise kids. If adults want to shack up, that’s fine. It’s not so fine if they’re doing it because they’re not ready to get married or are unsure about a future together, but the children involved get drawn into the vortex of an unstable relationship. If you’re already half out of this relationship over this one fight, then end it quickly before the kids get attached to the new adult in their lives. And reconsider showering your own daughter with material goods as a way to make up for what’s missing emotionally.
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