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. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Relationship: My boyfriend and I have been together for six years and have a beautiful child. We’re both done with college, have great jobs and are great parents. We also have a fantastic sex life. We talk about marriage and more children. Recently, a recurring argument landed us in couples therapy. One session was great and helped offer a mutually agreed upon solution. We went to another session to talk through some things in a “pre-marital counseling” fashion even though we are not engaged. There he informed me he’s “not ready for marriage yet” but that this “doesn’t mean I don’t love you or want to marry you in the future.” That was news to me and we have decided to go into it at our next counseling session. However, I want to pack myself and my son up, go to my mother’s, and end this relationship. I am willing to go to the counseling session still, but I’m unwilling to put any more time into a relationship that clearly is just spinning its wheels. When I told him he got upset and said, “I don’t want to lose you.” And I said that I wanted to be married. He asked if I was giving him an ultimatum. That wasn’t my intention, but I realize in retrospect that I was. Is that fair of me?
A: Although it makes me sound as if I miss the days when I had a pet Triceratops, to me the “not ready for marriage” discussion is trumped by the arrival of one’s child. I agree with the researchers who have published a recent study called Knot Yet from the National Marriage Project about how the normal life script of marriage followed by children has been thrown out by a growing segment of our population. So here you both are raising a child. But now you’re finding out your boyfriend is iffy about the marriage thing, and you’re considering taking your kid and walking. Whether or not you two abandon your relationship, don’t abandon your therapist just yet. It’s good you’re addressing these issues, and in the therapist’s office you can find out what marriage means to each of you and why your boyfriend is so frightened of it. It may be the “lifetime commitment” aspect terrifies him. If so, he really needs to think about what being a father means. Blowing things up out of hurt or pique will do no good for any of the three of you. It’s fair that you’re angry, but try to deal as calmly and openly as possible with these issues. You list all the ways you two have a strong foundation, so your goal should be to not undermine what you’ve already built.
Dear Prudence: Young White Supremacist
Q. Wedding and Due Date: My sister-in-law recently announced her wedding date and it is three days before my due date for our first child. She knew that was my due date, as we discussed it as a family not too long ago. We would have to travel about three hours to get to the venue she selected and this makes me nervous. My MIL suggested that I “play it by ear” and that if I feel fine I can go, if not my husband can attend solo. I am really upset, because I feel that is too close to my due date for me to travel three hours away from my doctor. I also am afraid of going into labor and my husband missing the birth altogether. The elephant in the room is why she would schedule her wedding right on top of my due date. What should I do about this situation?
A: By the time the wedding rolls around you may look like the elephant in the room, but please stop dwelling on why your sister-in-law has chosen such an infelicitous date to get married. Life happens—in your case a new life will be happening just as she says, “I do.” It’s very possible neither you nor your husband will be able to attend the ceremony because you’ll be in labor or have just delivered. So, first of all, discuss this with your obstetrician. She or he will give you a general reading about the date and the distance and advisability of your attending. Then respond to the invitation accordingly. If you two end up declining, so be it. If your sister-in-law then becomes an elephant on a rampage, she will be making the choice to ruin her own special day.
Q. Can’t Get Away From My Ex: I work in the IT department of an insurance company. When I first started here, there was a temp employee in the HR dept about a year older than me (we’re both in our mid-20s). We hit it off really well and dated for about a year. At the start of the relationship, we agreed that if anything ever happened to us she would leave since she was just a temp, and this was my dream job. Well, fast forward about a year after that conversation and she broke up with me because she found interest in someone else. Now she’s still working here and they offered her a full-time job! She told me she’s thinking of taking the job because she can’t find work anywhere else. Not only that, but it didn’t work out with the guy she left me for and she wants to try and work things out. I want nothing to do with her. I’ve told her several times I want her to just leave me alone, but she keeps calling and emailing me! I can’t ignore her, because I’m the main helpdesk support person, so if she actually has a computer problem I have to help her. What can I do to get out of this mess?
A: If you’re being sexually harassed by a fellow employee, obviously you should take this complaint to Human Resources. Oh, sorry, your harasser is in the HR department. Well, at least she’ll have firsthand experience with the kinds of incidents she’ll be expected to help mediate. You need to send her an email that’s curt and pointed. Say that you are happy she has found full-time employment at your company, but that your personal relationship is over. Say there is no chance it will be revived, and for the sake of your both being comfortable at work, she needs to stop calling and emailing you about getting back together. If she keeps at it, and you feel you can’t just ignore her, then print out your email chain and take it to her supervisor. Say you’ve got a real dilemma: What do you do when someone in HR won’t leave you alone?
Q. Parents Dislike Boyfriend: My boyfriend of a year-and-a-half is amazing. He is intelligent, caring, thoughtful, creative, and does everything he can to support me and help me succeed. We have a fantastic relationship, except for one thing: My parents hate him because he is 37 and I am 21. I understand that this is a large age gap and may be difficult to process for my overprotective parents. I knew it would be difficult for them, so I told them about it immediately and introduced him to them once we decided to start dating. Since that meeting, they exploded at me about it once, and now barely mention him except to make disparaging remarks. We both work at the same place while we are both working toward bachelor’s degrees. He will be graduating in May, and plans to continue with graduate school as soon as I graduate next year. We have discussed it at length and have decided we are ready to move in together over the summer. Now my problem is how to tell my parents that I’m moving in with someone they hate. Prudie, I hate confrontation and it took so long to get over the last blow-up I had with my parents. I don’t even know where to begin to prepare myself for this. I am completely in love with my boyfriend and if they would just give him a chance I know they would love him too. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this situation?
A: Your problem is that you’re so tied into needing your parents’ approval. This tells me that you aren’t ready, at age 21, to move in with a much older man. Sure, your parents are being rude and unfair, but they disapprove of their baby’s choice. I’m rather conservative about people moving in together. Not because I think unmarried partners shouldn’t have lots of sex, but because it prematurely puts pressure on a relationship that may not be ready for this kind of de facto commitment. You met this guy when you were still in college, and now you’re planning to sign a lease with him even as you struggle with getting your mother and father to embrace your relationship. Of course it’s painful at any age to have your parents dislike your partner. But when you are more mature, you have a different perspective on your parents’ role in your life. I suggest you and your boyfriend continue to keep separate domiciles for a whole lot of reasons, only one of which is your relationship with your overprotective parents.
Q. Re: Due Date: I just booked a wedding date, and you have no idea how easy or hard it was for your sister-in-law, especially considering she had less than nine months. Most vendors are booked solid a year out and she might have only had the date you were due or to wait several months—and who knows what those dates conflict with (other weddings, other due dates, work schedules). We have five babies due the week of our wedding who are invited—it is far from ideal, but there were only three weekends in an 18 month period that were open when we booked.
A: Exactly. Instead of taking it as a personal affront, just accept that the conflicting dates are one of those things.
Q. Sister Trouble: Recently my younger sister got married, and it was a miserable experience for the whole family. Calling her a bridezilla would be an understatement. I made a reception toast at her request. My speech emphasized her true personality—how she walks to the beat of her own drum, and despite facing pushback from conservative parents, was able to make herself successful, independent, and find true love. I earnestly concluded with how happy the family is for her. However, she took this as an affront. She ceased all communications with me, but she emailed my husband telling him that she is extremely insulted. She claimed that her in-laws and friends’ parents are offering their condolences for the mean-spirited speech by her wicked sister, and that she goes to bed every night hoping to wake up with no memory of the horrible wedding. Prudie, I’m at a loss. She isolated and demonized so many family members, and now she’s turned my admiration into an insult. I want to reach out to her, but I didn’t do anything wrong. How can I convince her that her perception of the speech is wrong?
A: Since you say your sister has a history of isolating and demonizing family members your sister may be a head case. Or it could be that in order to live her own life, she had to break away from her repressive family. But I do pause when I read about a toast that celebrated someone’s “true” personality. Much better to be dully conventional in your praise than to enumerate the personality traits of the guest of honor that apparently have caused much conflict with the other family members present. Presumably your conservative parents and other relatives had to listen to how your sister pushed back against their most deeply held beliefs, and that may have been terribly embarrassing for everyone. But instead of talking to you about how your toast caused her discomfort, she’s turned this into a family-wide spectacle. Email your sister and offer your apologies. Even if you think you did nothing wrong, your toast went over badly, and that deserves a mea culpa. Say you only meant to celebrate what you find most admirable in her, but you see now that you took the wrong tack. Say that you know from what you heard from the other guests that everyone had a great time at the wedding and were very happy for her. Write that you hope she can forgive some unintentionally ill-considered remarks, because you want to share in the beginning of this joyous phase of her life.
Q. Re: “Not Ready for Marriage”: I admit, I don’t understand how someone could have a kid and not be ready for marriage. Marriage is FAR less of a commitment than a kid. If the marriage doesn’t work out, people divorce and never have to see each other ever again. If you have a kid (and both are presumably caring parents) that’s a permanent connection. You’re going to have to see your kid’s other parent in most circumstances. But you hear this over and over again. Why?
A: Sadly, marriage and child-bearing have become decoupled. Of course there are rotten parents who are married (just read this column) and marvelous parents who are doing it solo. But as a society, we are losing the sense that one first finds a suitable life partner, commits, then has children. This trend toward thinking marriage is a scarier commitment than child-bearing is one of the reasons for the increasing inequality in our society. People with college degrees are far more likely to follow the old-fashioned sequence, to the benefit of their offspring.
Q. Hoarders: My daughter’s house looks like an episode of TLC’s “Hoarders—Buried Alive.” There are clothes, toys, and junk everywhere, with only small areas in each room to live in. There is no clean space to eat at the kitchen counter or on their two dining room tables, so they eat in the living room. The grandkids have spilled food and drinks on the carpeting, which has just gotten ground into the fabric. It’s disgusting. She continually shops thrift stores, garage sales, and online continually. I shudder to think what could happen if CPS walked into the house! I’ve tried cleaning, but never know where to begin or where to put things. I know she is very unhappy in her life; her husband is mean and controlling and extremely selfish. He shows no love or affection for her or their beautiful children. He has never lifted a finger to help clean. She is now going to school, working full-time, and taking care of three children. She needs to stop trying to fill the void with stuff. She probably needs counseling to change, but I doubt she can afford it. What can I do?
A: Of course you want to help your daughter, but hoarding is a very difficult condition to treat and it doesn’t even sound as if your daughter recognizes she has a problem. Your focus should be on the kids. You must do as much as you can to be an oasis of calm and cleanliness for your grandchildren. I hope you can regularly have them to your house for weekends and holidays. Maybe you can say to your daughter that given the pressure she’s under, you understand she doesn’t have time for cleaning, and you’d like to hire a service to help her out. It’s likely she’ll say no, because hoarders don’t want to throw anything away. You fear what CPS would do if they saw the home—but maybe they should. These children have a mean, neglectful father, and an overwhelmed mother. The house may be or will likely become a danger. You must keep on top of this, and your priority has to be making sure your grandchildren are safe and cared for.
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