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. Colleague Is Disgusting: A colleague has left town and asked me to care for her cats, which is a terrible inconvenience as she lives really far from me. However, I said I’d do it out of guilt. I got to her place only to discover that she and her fiancé live in total squalor in one room with four cats and four rats, and it smelled like urine. I later found feces on the wall. The cats themselves are well cared for and healthy, but clearly in an unhygienic environment. Do I need to report her? What do I say when she returns—your place is disgusting and you’re mistreating your cats?
A: I don’t care how healthy the cats and the rats (!) appear to be, what you have discovered is a squalid home that I’m sure animal control would say fails to meet basic standards. Your colleague is disturbed, but usually people who live in such filth try to keep it a secret. It’s weird your co-worker wanted you to see it, and frankly I can’t understand how you got guilt-tripped into doing this. You have two choices: One is to call animal control now. The other is to wait until your friend comes back and speak to her first. You have to weigh your relationship with this colleague and how blowing the whistle would affect your work life. But I think you would be perfectly justified in reporting the situation now. If you do, just make sure if the cats are seized they are not put on euthanasia watch. You can explain to your co-worker that when you came into her place there was a terrifying rat infestation which left you unable to enter the premises to take care of the cats.
Dear Prudence Live in New York: Unfriendly Skies
Q. Conflicting Parenting Ideals: I spend a lot of time with my cousin and her amazing 4-year-old daughter. We are somewhat close but we mainly spend time together because our kids get along so well. I do not agree with much of her parenting. She is not physically abusive, but is very manipulative and immature. She has given her daughter the silent treatment if angry, and shames her for not being a “big girl” if she’s not reaching milestones. She demands affection in return for surprise presents. She seems to enjoy getting her daughter upset so she can be the one to console her. I’m not sure all of this seems a big deal but her daughter is really the most pleasant child, who I adore, and it’s so painful to watch. She has tried to get me to go along, giving the silent treatment, not consoling her when upset but I refuse to do so. Sometimes she will get her daughter all riled up, then demand she calm down and then punish her if it doesn’t happen. Is it totally out of line for me to say something?
A: Please intervene, although someone with such a punitive, manipulative approach to child-rearing would likely put you in a permanent time-out from your friendship for suggesting her parenting could be improved. Of course you know that critiquing the way someone raises her child is a minefield, so tread accordingly. Get together with your cousin for lunch without your kids and say that she has a remarkable child and you love spending time with both of them, but that sometimes you feel she could take a different approach with her daughter. You can hand her the book, Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott, which is a wonderful, slender volume on seeing the world through your children’s eyes and gently guiding them through life. Materials available at the Gessell Institute of Child Development would also give your cousin some perspective. Then, when you are together with your kids, and she tries to enlist you in one of her manipulative schemes, you can say, “Janis, this is the kind of thing I was mentioning. Chloe is just acting like a kid, and I don’t think she deserves the silent treatment.” There is a slim chance your cousin will reflect and reform. More likely, Chloe will spend years sorting out the damage done by her mother.
Q. Unheeded Medical Advice: How much sympathy do you give someone who ignores the doctor’s advice? My wife had been to dozens of doctors for several health problems. In most cases, she refuses their advice, but complains when she is no better. Among her ailments, she suffers from insomnia. She has had sleep studies done and found there is no physical reason for this inability to sleep. She has been advised to stop napping during the day, spend only eight hours in bed at night and get out of bed and read a book when she can’t sleep. She refuses to do them all, yet continues to complain. This has gone on for years. At what point do I get to stop playing the role of sympathetic spouse and tell her that until she tries to get better, I don’t want to hear about it anymore.
A: Now would be a good time for her wake-up call. If your account is correct, you’ve been a sympathetic, if frustrated, source of support for years. If your wife won’t do the basics to address her many problems it’s likely that she enjoys being mired in them and the attention she gets for her “health crises.” So stop feeding the beast. Start with her sleeping problem. If she won’t follow these obvious rules, then say, “Honey, I know not getting any sleep is miserable, but you’re not taking the doctor’s advice, so I can’t talk about it anymore.” It may be that you eventually need to tell her your separate sleeping arrangements are going to be in separate domiciles.
Q. Re: Pet rats: The rats from the filthy house sound like pet rats. They are real valid pets just like hamsters, mice, gerbils, rabbits, etc. I agree she should report the house to animal control but she should see if she can find a fancy rat shelter that will take in the pet rats (yes they exist). Many people are unfairly prejudiced against pet rats and it would be a shame if animal control killed them thinking they were pests.
A: So the colleague pressures the letter writer to cat sit for her (which is ridiculous in itself), then it simply slips her mind to explain she’s not looking to re-establish bubonic plague, she just has pet rats. If you’ve given someone the keys to your rat-filled household without establishing the rats are guests, you leave yourself open to having the exterminator come calling.
Q. Mother-in-Law: My recently widowed mother-in-law has been visiting with us for eight weeks now from overseas. Since the death of her husband, it has been understandably difficult for her to be on her own with all of her children living far apart. I want to be a good daughter-in-law and do my part in making this part of her life enjoyable. She is extremely helpful around the house and loves spending time with her grandchildren, but she is also quite demanding when it comes to what we will do and when we will do it. When it comes to his mother bossing me around, especially when he’s not there, it is difficult for me to take. I feel like a child in my own home and it is wearing on me. I think I could handle it for maybe six weeks at a time, but she is talking now about coming to visit for three months at a time twice a year! Is there a way to politely say, “I know you have no one else and you are miserable on your own, but I just can’t stand having you here that long?” Or do I just need to suck it up and do what I can for her, while I still can?
A: I would find six days of this hard to take, let alone six weeks. It’s sad that your father-in-law has died, but I hope your mother-in-law had a life that extended beyond him, because it’s time for her to resume it or establish one. If another one of her children wants to take her in, fine. But her stated plan has her living with you half the year! That’s not fine and you simply have to explain to your husband that, say, a one-month visit, twice a year, is your absolute maximum and that beyond that, she has to make other arrangements for her time. This message, by the way, should be delivered to her by her son.
Q. Hypochondriac Husband: My husband is 27 years old and has always been a very healthy individual. However, ever since I got pregnant last fall, he is always having new health symptoms. He’s had muscle twitches, tingling feet, and dizziness. All of these symptoms have been checked out by doctors (some multiple times) and nothing is ever wrong with him. Yet, he keeps having these symptoms and keeps going back to the doctor. He’s convinced that he has ALS or MS or something awful, and it is driving me insane! I’m going to have our baby in two months, and he keeps scaring me with all of these symptoms. Honestly, it is making me really angry because even I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with him. My best guess is that he is having anxiety about the baby being born. He knows he’s driving me nuts, and I know he feels bad about it. However, it makes me feel like I’m losing my partner right as we are about to become parents. Any advice you have would be much appreciated.
A: If he’s had tests that have ruled out MS or ALS, it’s concerning that he refuses to see that as good news. What you experience as hypochondria on his part, he is experiencing as illness. (I’m giving him more of a pass than the sleepless wife because your husband’s symptoms are of recent origin.) There’s a recurring feature in the Washington Post health section that describes people with debilitating symptoms who go from doctor to doctor for years, being told they’re fine or that they have conditions they don’t have, until someone finally diagnoses their actual illness. So before you get totally fed up, just do your husband the kindness of acknowledging that something is wrong and you want to help him find out what it is. However, you are right that dizziness can be a symptom of anxiety—look up some research on this and show him. Don’t put it in terms of, “You’re crazy and driving me crazy, so take a pill and shut up.” But since he’s covered all the medical bases, suggest to him that his internist, or a psychiatrist, might want to try prescribing an anti-anxiety medication to see if that gives him relief. Since you’re getting heart palpitations over your husband’s symptoms, you might also benefit from letting off steam with a therapist over a limited number of sessions to help you work out strategies for dealing with your own anxieties about your marriage and parenthood. Let’s hope that with the baby’s arrival you’re both so busy that your husband finds he forgets to focus on himself.
Dear Prudence: Return of the Deadbeat Dad
Q. Awesome Guy, Meh Sex: I am marrying a great guy (stable, open communicator, thoughtful, etc.) but as the years have gone by our sex life has gotten more and more boring. I had an, um, adventurous past, and though we’ve slept with the same number of people, I don’t think it made him more skilled in bed, whereas it just broadened my horizons. I really know what I’m missing. To put it nicely, he’s kind of a wham, bam, thank-you-ma’am sort of guy. Which is fun sometimes! But a little repetitive. He likes it three ways and three ways only. As a result, my sex drive has really plummeted. It’s just not something I look forward to anymore, post-honeymoon hormones. Any advice?
A: If you’ve done everything you can to spice up your sex life and his response is, “I can’t wait for Wonder Bread to return, I could eat it every day!” then you’ve got a problem. This is something you need to address directly with him now and you also need to give serious consideration to what you want out of life since he may not ever be able to fulfill this need. Every relationship requires compromises, and it may be that his good qualities outweigh the essential boringness of your sex. But if you are chafing between the sheets before you say “I do,” then maybe you want to say, “Let’s not.”
Q. Best Friends: I have a best friend to whom I am very close. I am female and he is male. We live together. I have known in the past three years that he is interested in a romantic relationship with me. But I have never felt the same and have made that clear to him. The problem is that we are close intimate friends who treat each other as partners. It very much resembles to the world a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship and often feels that way. But it is not physical. Although we have tried on occasion, it has never felt right for me. He is attractive, kind, smart, easygoing, funny, but most of the time he annoys the heck out of me. I find myself irritated at him often. He says if I really loved him I would be blind to his quirks. And I think if I did want him sexually he would be right. Is it possible for me to learn to want him sexually? My mind says he is a keeper but my body feels differently. I don’t want to lose him. He really is great!
A: If you want a partner you actually connect with on all levels, get out of this setup. You essentially are announcing to the world that you are coupled up, your pal wants you to be, but you feel “yech” when it comes to doing the deed. You also find him relentlessly annoying, and he pressures you to have sex. He sounds like a lousy best friend and you should remove yourself from this trap. Maybe with some distance you will find that his virtues outweigh his flaws and your feelings shift. I’m betting while you may miss him in certain respects, you’ll find yourself relieved not to have to be daily deflecting your irritating roommate’s advances.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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