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.)
Q. Homophobia Miscommunication: I went on a date with a woman who lives in my building. It was going well, but toward the end a couple sat behind her and started making out. They were literally sucking each other’s faces and I saw more of their tongues than I would like to have seen. After a few minutes I suggested to my date we go elsewhere, and rolled my eyes in the direction of the couple. She turned around and saw the two guys making out. We left shortly afterward and she said she had to go home and finish some work. I called her a couple of times afterward but she didn’t respond, so I got the hint and let it go. To be honest, it really bummed me out as I like her a lot. Then I saw her and a friend talking downstairs (she couldn’t see me) and she was telling her friend she liked me until she found out I was homophobic. Should I bother explaining to her I would have been just as put off by a straight couple slobbering on each other in the middle of a cafe? Or just forget about it?
A: The entire Jane Austen oeuvre wouldn’t exist without such misunderstandings of character that fortunately get clarified in the end. Yours is a modern retelling of one of her tales, and I hope, Mr. Darcy, that you can convince Miss Bennet that her assumption about your prejudice is wrong.* You have the advantage of knowing exactly why she so abruptly rejected you, but your dilemma is that you don’t want to appear to have been monitoring her communications when you try to explain this. I suggest you turn to an old form: the letter. After all, you know where she lives. Without giving away what you overheard, put a note in her mailbox in which you say that you enjoyed her company very much and have been distressed by the abrupt apparent conclusion of your budding acquaintance. Say you’ve thought a lot about what might have caused this and you think perhaps it was a misunderstanding over your discomfort with the couple seated behind you during your date. Explain that she couldn’t see them going at it, but you could, and your desire to move away had absolutely nothing to do with the gender of the pair but with the dramatic tongue swordsmanship you were witnessing. Say that you’d enjoy getting together again, but if you get no response from her, you will leave her alone and simply nod pleasantly if you run into each other in the lobby. I hope in this case life imitates art and your romance comes to a satisfying conclusion.
Q. Wedding Pictures Dilemma: At our upcoming wedding, my fiancé and I would like to have a display with wedding pictures of our parents, grandparents, and others who are dearest to us. The snag is that my parents divorced when I was 5 years old, and my father has been with his current wife for over 20 years and they have two preteens. (All parties are on amicable terms.) I adore my mom and dad’s wedding picture, but displaying it might be strange, given that they haven’t been together since 1985. I also don’t want to include a picture of my father with his current wife, because A) it’s awkward to have a picture of the same man marrying two different women, and B) while we get along, I’m not terribly fond of his wife. I’m not intending this as a snub—she’s just not in that circle of intimates for my fiancé and me. Should we give up on the display and eliminate the awkwardness? It would be a shame not to admire photographs of the beautiful marriages that have lasted.
A: I’ve never seen this done before, but what a wonderful tradition it could be as long as the photos get an exegesis with sticky notes. On your parents’ you could post, “Came asunder in 1985.” On others you could write, “Still crazy about each other despite the bickering you’ll hear when Harry has a couple of drinks.” Or you could forget this whole idea since the point of it seems to be to rewrite history and pretend your parents are still together when in fact they’ve been divorced forever and you have two half siblings (who you’d apparently like to write out of existence). No one is stopping you from admiring beautiful marriages that have lasted, just do so without making a bizarre and awkward display.
Q. Possible Pedophile/Incest Accusation Against Husband: Recently my niece confided in me that she had turned her father in for molesting her a few years ago. While this was not really shocking to me (I’d always thought he was a creep), she also told me that within the last year my husband had asked her for a flash of her breasts. She said he was drunk at the time and she refused and took off. I confronted him about it and he says he doesn’t remember anything about this. I find it hard to believe that he would be drunk around any of his family, but my gut tells me he has actually done this. To top it off I have two little girls with this guy. Any advice would be welcome.
A: When your gut tells you your husband tried to molest his niece and you refer to the father of your children as “this guy,” things have come to a dire pass. But this whole situation sounds both horrible and confusing. If your brother-in-law molested his daughter and she reported him to the police, how can this be a secret? Wasn’t he prosecuted? And you say that it’s out of character for your husband to be drunk, but plausible to you he would come onto his niece. You need to see a counselor immediately who specializes in abuse to try to get a handle on what really happened and how to proceed.
Q. Re: Wedding photos: I am doing this at my wedding, only we are asking all guests to provide a photo of their wedding for a slideshow. I think it will be fun to see how styles change throughout the years, since about six decades will be represented. I am just asking people to either email or mail me a wedding photo if they wish to do so and let them do whatever they are comfortable. Wedding planning can get overwhelming, but it is important to remember that this is a small detail.
A: What you’re doing sounds like fun—no judgment about whose marriage is worthy and a model to emulate, just a lot of charming photos of the guests. What the letter writer is planning to do is going to create awkwardness and bad feelings.
Q. Privacy Please!: I am a stay-at-home mom, so usually it’s my son and myself at home all day while my husband is at work. I don’t mind the occasional visitor, but with my MIL and SIL right next door, I have them all the time. They are also both home all day, so it happens a lot. I have a roofed front porch. Combine this with the “Oh we’re related” mentality, and they just won’t leave. My MIL brings her crochet projects, cigarettes, and MP3-playing phone (without headphones) and invites our other neighbors over to visit with her here. Even if I do stay inside, she sits for hours on my porch. How can I let her know that she’s welcome when invited or informs me she’s coming, but not welcome to just plop down and host her own get-together?
A: Everybody Loves Raymond, with its next-door in-laws constantly in and out of each others’ houses, went off the air a few years ago. So you have to bring your version of this sitcom to an end. From the outside it’s kind of amusing to think of you as a prisoner in your own home as your mother-in-law takes over the porch with her tatting and smoking. But relatives who live next door have to have a kind of psychological invisible fence along the property lines so that they don’t drive each other crazy. Your husband should be the one to step up here and explain to Mom and Sis that while it’s great you get to see each other all the time, in order to make this work, everyone needs privacy. He needs to say if either of them want to visit, they should call you, with the understanding that sometimes, for reasons that don’t have to be articulated, a visit is not good at the moment. Then, when they continue to barge in or park on the porch, you have to have the guts to say, “Arlene, I’d love to see you on Thursday afternoon, but today is just not good.” Ultimately, I think you’re going to need the services of a real estate agent. I doubt this is going to get fixed until you find a place across town.
Q. Something’s Gotta Give: I work for a large, well-known nonprofit. I’m a college grad, and truly love what I do, even though it isn’t the most lucrative career. I socialize frequently with my friends from college, and for the most part, life is good. The problem is that one of my friends is always bringing her kids’ fundraising brochures, for scouts, sports teams, school trips, etc. She even brings her kids to ask in person at times. The problem is that while some of my other friends are fine with this and will buy an item or two of the overpriced stuff, I simply can’t, as my budget is very limited. She has gotten upset with me, and has complained (not to my face) about my “miserly ways” given that I “obviously believe in charity” because I work for one. My other friends seem to think this is rather amusing and so I am at a loss as to what to do. Continue to act oblivious to her comments? Confront her directly? Say so long to my college crowd?
A: I don’t understand what’s amusing—being constantly hit on to fund someone else’s children’s activities or listening to the bad-mouthing of a mutual friend. The woman with the kids is way out of line. First of all, there should be a limit (maximum of twice a year) that this mother hits up her friends for these fundraising activities. Second of all, she has to be humble about it and teach her kids to be polite to people who decline. At all this she’s failing abysmally. Obviously, someone in your group has reported to you her bad-mouthing, but I don’t know in what spirit this was said. If it was, “Oh, it was so funny when Maureen went on and on about a miser you are!” then your group sounds rather obnoxious. The next time Maureen hits you up you can simply say you know it’s a good cause, but it’s not within your budget. If she is anything but polite, then you can say being pressured to write her checks is causing a serious strain on your friendship. I hope your other friendships with the gang are robust enough that they will survive this blip.
Q. Re: Charity requests: Since she can affect having inside knowledge of the charity game, OP should decline along with a comment about how little this type of activity actually raises for the school, and how much it earns for the fundraising company. Only about 10 percent goes to the charity. When I was in high school and we realized this, we found other ways to raise funds for activities.
A: Good point. I’m happy to write a check for a worthwhile school activity. And while many dedicated parents put hours of effort into these fundraisers, I don’t like having my contribution skimmed off by overpriced gift-wrapping manufacturers.
Q. Getting Back to Normal Life After a Trauma: Several years ago my son was born under emergency circumstances. I often arrived at the NICU to find a team gathered around my baby, trying to save his life one more time. Two years of intensive care stays, specialists, operations, and sudden crises followed. We are incredibly lucky to now have a happy, healthy 3-year-old with no major medical issues. Our lives have been essentially normal for about a year now. My problem is that I don’t know how to carry a normal casual conversation anymore. I used to be funny and friendly, and making friends was easy for me. Now I feel solemn and closed off. I’ve been trying to make friends at my new job and through team sports, but I struggle to connect meaningfully with regular people. Obviously, referencing my recent experiences in any way is a nonstarter, especially when other young moms want to share anecdotes. My good friends now live in other states. I’m so terribly lonely and I worry that this is just who I am now.
A: That you have been changed by two years of fear and trauma is no surprise. But I think you can get back to your previous emotional set point, you just need some help getting there. There are effective therapeutic approaches to post-traumatic stress disorder, and you must explore some. You committed yourself solely to your son for several years. Now you must commit yourself to rediscovering the funny, friendly person you used to be. You now have a happy, healthy boy, so think what it will mean to him to have a mother who can be open again to joy, to being care-free. Of course your experiences are going to be part of who you are, but you need help releasing yourself from a state of constant vigilance so that you can enjoy your life and your son.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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Correction, May 29, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.