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. Heavy Sighs: My husband is the best, except for a few small things. One thing he does that drives me crazy is that, whenever I ask him to do something for me, he responds with a heavy sigh or roll of the eyes as if he is extremely put-out, before he agrees to do it. I swear I am not being unreasonable in my requests, although I have needed more help than usual lately since I’ve been sick a lot with my pregnancy. He tells me that I should just ignore it, because he does generally do the favor for me, and he doesn’t always mind as much as he looks like he minds. He acts like the reaction is practically involuntary. But I can’t help the fact that it gets to me sometimes—I wish he would just do these things without making me feel like a nag all the time. Worse, it makes me feel like he’s my teenage son or something. But I don’t want to police his facial expressions either. Any advice?
A: It’s such a little thing—an exhalation of breath, a circular orbit of the eyes. But everyone understands why sighing and eye-rolling is so maddening that it provokes thoughts of reaching for the frying pan. What your husband is doing isn’t OK, and it can’t be ignored. When your baby arrives, interacting with your little one will reinforce your husband’s understanding of what social creatures we are and how even the slightest change in facial expression conveys so much. But for now tell your husband that it’s a real problem that if you make a reasonable request he acts ticked off. Try this: Ask him permission to do to him what he does to you so that he can experience just how annoying it is. A few sighs and eye-rolls in response to, “Hon, could you pick up my shirts at the dry cleaner?” might be very instructive for him. If that doesn’t work, then call him out on his behavior. When you ask him to change a light bulb in the ceiling and you get his usual response, without rancor say, “This appears to be an imposition. The problem is that it’s hard for me to balance on a chair right now. Please tell me if I’m being too demanding or setting you off. Because when you roll your eyes or sigh, it makes me really want to back away from you.”
Dear Prudence Live in New York: Surprise Pregnancy
Q. Affair Discovered: I’ve been having an affair for a month with my best friend’s husband. My husband figured out something was going on almost immediately, but instead of confronting me, he let it go on. Finally, when he said something two days ago, we ended up having a big confrontation. He says he loves me, forgives me, and wants our marriage to be fixed. When the affair started, my lover and I agreed we would never leave our spouses because we both have kids. My husband wants to keep it all secret (as do we of course) because he doesn’t want my lover’s wife to be hurt. My husband doesn’t realize that I am still communicating with my lover, but I just can’t let it go. We both are in love but know that we can’t financially or emotionally afford to divorce. He doesn’t want to let me go, but he says he can’t leave his wife. Are we crazy to keep hanging on and hope that we can continue our secret relationship?
A: Your beautiful love story has so moved me that I find it hard not to hope you two crazy kids get what you deserve. Of course, what you deserve is to each be kicked to the curb, but that will cause endless anguish and emotional and financial devastation to your two families. It could be once your best friend (BFF!) figures out what’s going on, she will not be so understanding as your husband, and all the unpleasant consequences you are trying to avoid will come raining down on you. You and your lover have both betrayed everyone in your lives. Stop it now and try to salvage your marriages.
Q. Crazy Mother-in-Law to Be: My fiancé is amazing—he’s kind, smart, funny, responsible. His mother, however, is not. She has undiagnosed psychiatric issues (she refuses to see anyone) and has gotten worse in recent years since she retired. She’s managed to push everyone in her life away, except for her husband and sometimes her son and daughter. For the first year and a half we were together she left me alone for the most part, but lately she’s started saying terrible things about me to my fiancé—e.g., she knew I didn’t like her because I kiss the side of her head rather than her face when I hug her, and that my family and I (culturally Jewish, but agnostic) ram religion down her throat. He stands up for me completely, and honestly he gets it from her way worse than I, but how do I spend time with her without feeling totally awkward? I know she has serious issues, but I have a hard time being in the same room with her without wanting to run away. We want to have kids in a couple of years, which I know will bring her around even more.
A: Limits, limits, limits. First of all your fiancé should have a serious discussion with both his parents in which he says he is concerned about his mother’s increasing isolation and evident unhappiness and that he thinks a professional could help her. I’m assuming this will induce from Mom something along the lines of, “You think I’m crazy? This comes from that girlfriend of yours, doesn’t it? Well, here’s some news, she’s the crazy one!” I’ll also guess that Dad will do his enabling shtick to get her to calm down. But this conversation will at least have laid the groundwork for the second set of steps, which is to explain that there are certain types of behavior you both will no longer put up with. Your fiancé should say to his mother that she had made some groundless and hurtful accusations to him and to you, and neither of you want to hear it anymore. He should explain if she starts down that road you both will end the phone conversation or the visit. Then do it! When Mom starts on her cuckoo-talk, you both should have a signal that you give each other, then you get up—even if it’s in the middle of a meal—and say, “Sorry, this is the kind of unpleasantness we were talking about. We’ll see you another time.” You cannot change his mother, but you can change how you interact with her. And if she realizes she’s not going to get away with it, she might even start reining it in.
Q. Writing a Will: I’m about to take on the long-delayed task of writing my will. My only relatives are two younger sisters. One of them is financially comfortable, and the other, “Barbara,” is low-earning and has virtually no retirement savings. She’s sometimes very nasty to me. We’re all middle-aged. I want to leave my money to charity. Is it ethical for me to not include Barbara in my will?
A: You can do whatever you like with your money. I had a recent letter from a woman who came upon her mother’s will and discovered that it provided far more generously for her half sister than herself. I said that except in special circumstances, parents should divide estates evenly. This is less of an imperative regarding other family members. But if you do feel moved to leave part of your estate to your sisters, make those shares equal, just for the sake of not creating ill will between them. But if you equally want to leave them nothing, feel free to give your money to what you see as a more worthy cause.
Q. Family Jokes That Go Too Far: Prudie, I don’t much like my family. The dynamic has dictated that I’m the one who gets teased and picked on more than everyone else; I guess I make an easy target, and the expectation is that I’m supposed to smile and take it. If this were an occasional, gentle thing, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it feels incessant and mean-spirited. The worst part is that when I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with PTSD, and I recently found out that when some members of my family talk about me to people I don’t know, they describe me as “the crazy one.” This is beyond hurtful, it’s callous and offensive, and I have no idea what to do with any of it. Any past attempt to get them to stop or to tone it down is met with derision, “It’s so typical that you’re being unfun right now,” etc., but I’m tired of bearing the brunt of everyone else’s meanness. I’m in my late 20s, and this is coming from my siblings and their spouses. My parents aren’t going to make it stop, and it’s humiliating that at my age, I might need parental intervention. I don’t know if I should cut and run or grin and bear it.
A: Sadly sometimes families, which should be places of solace, are the source of pain. It’s very ugly when one person becomes the family goat, but there’s no reason you should endure taunts and derision. Yes, it may be that you are particularly sensitive in a family that requires a thick skin. But if your family treats you in ways you would never accept from friends or co-workers, then you have to do something. As with the crazy mother-in-law in the previous letter, at the next gathering when the teasing starts, say calmly and coolly, “I’m not in the mood for ribbing today, so I’d appreciate not getting any.” This may open floodgates of derision. If so, quietly get up, get your things, and bid everyone adieu. If you make it clear what your boundaries are, either your family will start to honor them, or you will stop honoring them with your presence.
Q. Re: Writing a will: Consider leaving Barbara a bit and your other sister a bit as well. You can leave 80 percent of your assets to charity, but if you give each sister something, you’ll feel more at peace during your life, and you will leave a more generous legacy (odd to say that leaving less to charity is generous).
A: I think this is a good point and a good compromise. And ultimately the difficult, potentially destitute sister is going to be in need of charity.
Q. Wife in the Hospital: Ever since my wife’s transplant surgery three years ago, she has become extremely paranoid about germs and getting sick. She now refuses to let me share food or drink with our friends due to fear of “double dipping” or backwash. We used to go out and order a variety of meals to share, but now my wife and I ask for extra plates and take small portions to sample before anyone else touches their meal. A few weeks ago I went out to a new restaurant with friends. My wife skipped because one of our friends was just recovering from a cold. I took the opportunity to cut loose and share in our friends’ beer samplers and the variety of foods off one another’s plates. The next day I woke up with a tickle in my throat but managed to fight off any infection. My wife, however, caught a cold, which turned into a severe respiratory infection and landed her in the hospital. I can’t say 100 percent I’m to blame, but I feel guilty that I ignored her concerns and now she’s sick. I’ve learned my lesson, but I don’t know whether to come clean to my wife or not. My friends say no—that if I tell her, it will just fuel her paranoia. But I’m worried she’ll start looking for new causes of what made her sick if I don’t reveal it was what she had originally been worried about all along!
A: I cannot speak to the level of isolation your wife needs to be safe. That’s a medical question, and it needs addressing with your wife’s doctor. But unless she goes around in a surgical mask and gloves (and even if she does), there’s no way for her to remove herself from the world of germs, because that’s the medium in which we all swim. I did a quick search and generally viral illnesses like colds usually take about two days to appear, but some can be faster moving. But your sequence of events could simply mean that something was going around, and both you and your wife caught it independent of your friend. The dinner and its aftermath are not going to attract the notice of the CDC, so you actually don’t know where you, or your wife, picked up the germs. If you confess, it will get you tagged as your family’s Typhoid Mary for no good reason. Instead of confessing, I urge you both to sit down with your wife’s doctor and get some clarification about what steps are necessary to keep your wife healthy.
Q. Re: Affair discovered: Or leave. Just decide something, make a commitment either way, and carry it through to the Nth degree. I was the casual (as opposed to “best”) friend in this story, and I can’t tell you the horrible heartbreak and damage created by this sort of stupid, selfish dithering. And, yes, in the end, it hurts the kids, too. If you don’t have the decency to treat your spouse and friend right, at least create a life that is as least damaging as possible for the kids. My kids and I are OK now; my ex-husband’s now-divorced girlfriend and her two young children aren’t making out so well.
A: It would be best for the cheaters to snap-to and try to avoid creating more heartache all around. But this pair sounds pretty determined to ruin a lot of lives.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a great Memorial Day, and I will talk to you next Tuesday, May 28, at noon.
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