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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. Let’s get to it.
Q. No, Everyone Does Not Want to See Your Nipples: My 20-year-old son “Ted” has a 19-year-old girlfriend named “Dahlia.” Dahlia is very well-endowed and rarely wears a bra. However, she does wear low-cut clothing and often looks like she’s about to fall out. The dress she was wearing last night was so small on her that it she couldn’t zip it up all the way and she was very close to a nip slip. When she walked in the door she looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said, “I know this is a low-cut dress” as if she knew she was coming to my house, knew what my expectations are, but came looking like that anyway. Here’s my problem: She’s going on vacation with us in a week. I don’t want to seem prudish but I do want to get through to her that this type of dress isn’t appropriate for the places we’ll be going and the people we’ll be seeing. I’ll be asking her before we leave if she’s got bras in her suitcase and I am ready to leave her behind if she doesn’t or make her go out and buy a few or buy them for her. What do I do? How do I handle this without alienating her but helping her to understand that something that is fine when you’re out clubbing is not fine when you’re trying to make a good impression with your boyfriend’s family?
A: You have time to have a friendly and helpful chat with Dahlia before you all go bouncing off on holiday. Take a supportive, not punitive approach. You can say something like, “Dahlia, dear, you’re young and beautiful, but the clothes you wear to go out in the evening aren’t going to be appropriate for family outings. I wanted to make sure you have things to wear, including bras, that will work for the trip. If not, let’s go to the department store and get you a few items.” If you have to put the underwire, nipple-concealing bra on your credit card, consider it an excellent investment.
Dear Prudence: Not-So-Secret Life
Q. Married Boyfriend Makes Guilt Payments to Wife: I’ve been involved with a married man (don’t judge) who decided to move out and get a divorce. It came unexpectedly to his wife. He said that after nine years of marriage, he owes it to his wife to continue significant financial support until she completes her two-year course (which she hasn’t even started) and finds a job. As a result, nearly most of his income continue to go to his wife and children as though they were still living together. I understand his sympathy toward her but this is taking a toll on our lives, as well. I feel like the breadwinner in this relationship as I now support myself and my boyfriend with my income alone. He gets touchy and defensive when I ask him to agree on a more realistic amount and time frame for alimony with his wife. Is this a sign that our relationship won’t work out in the long term?
A: That wife sounds so awful I’d be wishing along with you that she just drops dead, except for the fact that then you’d be responsible for helping your guy with his dreadful rug rats. Here’s some news, when you tell your story you can say, “Don’t judge,” but you’re going to be judged anyway. Yes, people cheat and marriages end. But when this happens there should be some recognition on the part of the cheaters that they have caused great pain to innocent parties. If there are children involved, the adults must focus on putting them first and ameliorating their pain. That includes the father’s obligation to support them financially. I think you should do everyone a favor and kick this guy out. Tell him that now that you have him you realize what a leech he is and you’re done. Maybe he will see what a horrible mistake he made and crawl back to his family begging his wife’s forgiveness. Maybe if he’s very lucky, and totally sincere, his wife will take him in.
Q. Children Ask About Their Father’s Mistress: My husband had an affair with a very good friend of mine. Her husband found out and told me. My husband and I decided if we wanted to save our marriage, we needed to end our relationship with the other family. The decision has been painful, not just because I miss the friendship I thought I had with his affair partner but also because the couple (themselves childless) were close with our kids. Our young children miss our friends and ask when they can see them again. My former friend has also sent me several letters begging me to allow her to see my kids or to at least communicate with them or send them presents on birthdays. I tear up the letters. Without telling my kids about their dad’s affair, how can I explain to them why they can no longer see their “auntie” and their “uncle”?
A: How sad that your children are collateral damage in all this. And how presumptuous that your former friend doesn’t understand the need to disappear from all of your lives. Of course this is painful and confusing for your children, but when you start to feel bad about this, think about how much more painful and confusing it would be if you and your husband split up and if he suddenly was living with “Aunt Griselda.” You can be honest with your kids in an age-appropriate way. The next time they bring up their aunt and uncle you can say of course you understand that they miss them, you miss them, too. But unfortunately, there was a big fight over some grown-up stuff and it was a bad enough one that it turns out you and dad don’t want to see Auntie and Uncle. This made everyone sad, especially since it affects you kids, and you’re all sorry about that. If they want to know what the fight was about, you can say that Aunt Griselda told some lies and it was very hurtful. Try to find some family members or other friends to fill this void, which your children will likely soon get over.
Q. Overcoming Future MIL’s Prejudices: My brother and I are the product of a long-term affair. Our dad’s wife found out about us when I was 6, and he disappeared from our lives after that. My mom worked overtime to make sure my brother and I felt loved and had everything we needed. My fiancé’s mom recently learned about my “origins” from him, and now she has concerns about our relationship. His mom has been cheated on by her ex-husband and by my fiancé’s dad, and she now believes my mom is a train wreck. She also told my fiancé that I grew up in a home with a permissive attitude toward affairs and that my judgment about them might be skewed. I am hurt and offended by my future mother in law’s judgment, but I want to have a good relationship with my in-laws. I’m not sure where to go from here.
A: I hope your mother got your disappearing rat of a father to at least send checks to help support you. If not, she got screwed then screwed over by your father. And now you’re reaping the resentment of a woman on the other side of the equation. I hope your future mother-in-law is adult enough to be able to separate her own personal hurts from her knowledge that you are an individual her son loves who has absolutely nothing to do with the unfaithful men in her life. I don’t know if you’ve learned of her reaction first hand, of if your fiancé has told you. But in any case, he’s the one who should address this with his mother. He needs to tell her that now she’s had her say about your upbringing, she needs to put that aside. He can say he’s sympathetic to the pain affairs cause and can add that you yourself have suffered being abandoned because of infidelity. But now she’s got to get over her reaction and makes sure she treats you—and your mother on the occasions you’re together—with respect.
Q. Overcoming a Phobia: I am 58 years old and in excellent health. I understand that good health is a gift for which one should be very grateful. My doctor wants to do blood tests. I was able to have blood drawn two years ago, but failed terribly last week. Unfortunately, I have an extreme fear of hypodermic needles. I would like your advice about methods to overcome this fear. As a child, my parents were in an occupation that allowed them to have veterinary equipment. They had hypodermic syringes suitable for treating cattle. Several times, my father used one them to traumatize me for the sole pleasure of seeing my terror. My mother never spoke out against this or other stuff. Sometimes she seemed amused as well. For the most part, I’ve sorted things out. Other than this one issue, I don’t think that I have any psychological baggage. It is 2013. Things that happened in the ’60s really have no importance now. Giving them importance returns power to one’s assailant. I’ve come to the point where I can receive an injection without trouble as long as I don’t see the needle. But, bring those blood vials out, and it is 1964 and I am a terrified 8-year-old boy again. Do I just tough it out until I am successful?
A: I’m hoping that your father was only sadistic enough to make you watch him use this scary equipment, not that he was psychopathic enough to use it on you. I shudder at what went on during your childhood. Of course you have a good reason to be phobic about needles, but you have a clear understanding of the cause. I think you should explain to your doctor that you have a problem with blood draws and that you need to be able to lie down, close your eyes, and listen to music while the procedure is being done. Believe me, they will have dealt with other patients like you and they should be very sympathetic about making this procedure are painless as possible.
Q. Re: Bra dilemma: Come on, Prudie, this girl is not going to start wearing bras because her boyfriend’s annoying mother tells her to. The mother needs to learn that other people’s personal style is not under her control.
A: And the girl doesn’t need to learn to dress appropriately for being a guest on someone else’s vacation? I disagree that no older woman can say something helpful to a younger one. Sure, the girlfriend’s style gets her a lot of attention, but as she makes her way in the world it’s not going to be the helpful kind.
Q. Roommate Is Obsessed With My Interracial Romance: I moved into my dorm early because I am a student athlete; my roommate is also on my team. When I started putting up pictures, she deduced that my boyfriend is African-American while I am Caucasian. Since the discovery, she has made comments like, “My dad would shoot me and then him if I dated a black guy,” and “I bet if you had kids they would be models.” I know she’s from a very conservative part of our state, so at first I tried to ignore her comments. But she seems taken with the novelty of an interracial couple—she asks me if I have crushes on various black celebrities—and it’s starting to get on my last nerve. What’s a nonconfrontational way to let her know she’s crossed a line with me and, if we’re going to live together peaceably for the next year, she needs to retreat back over it?
A: This is part of the out-of-classroom education that can make the college experience so valuable. You can say something like: “Jenna, you’ve made it clear that interracial romances are outside your comfort zone and exotic to you. But my boyfriend and I are just two people who love each other. I’m uncomfortable myself with your constant questions and comments about race. So please, let’s put a lid on it. Thanks.”
Q. Unhealthy Relationship: My fiancé and I have been together for three years. She comes from an abusive background and often acts out. Recently she has started hitting me and even spitting in my face when she is angry. I feel that because I didn’t stop her the first time, that I have told her that this is acceptable behavior. I seriously considered calling the police after her last fit, which included removing my clothes from the closet and taking my house keys off my key ring. I want to leave BUT, she has a child. He was a few months old when we met and started dating. I’m the only other parent he has ever known. I feel like I need to stick it out for him. There is no chance of my getting custody, so he would be left with an explosive, unemployed and unbalanced mother. Should I stay or should I go?
A: You cannot stay and take it, especially not under the guise of protecting her son, because you will both end up being abused. This is another terrible situation in which there is nothing to do but call in the authorities. You can report her behavior to you to the police and concurrently call CPS. Even if this mother keeps custody of her child, she needs to come under the attention of a social worker.
Q. Invading Personal Space: How can I best handle my mother-in-law and sister-in-law who, whether visiting at my house or theirs, follow me everywhere I go? Literally the bathroom is my only refuge! Two recent examples—last night at a family dinner I got a spoon out of the drawer and turned around and bumped into SIL because she was on my heels; MIL followed me into my bedroom and sat in the corner while I changed the baby’s dirty diaper; SIL followed me into my bedroom after I said I was going in there to change clothes. This is really becoming uncomfortable for me. Help!
A: It’s possible mother-in-law and sister-in-law are actually your FBI handlers, and the dirty diaper may just be an NSA listening device. You have to get them to back off before they back you into another corner. If you’re going to the bedroom to change, for example, and one of them is on your heels, just stop and say, “Did you want to talk to me privately about something?” I hope you get a “No,” but if you get some kind of ambiguous answer then say, “Well, if there’s nothing to discuss, please excuse me because I want to change in private,” or, “It’s easier to deal with the baby if someone else isn’t in the room. So I’ll see you back at the dining table.” If that doesn’t stop this, get more blunt: “Is there some reason you’re always following me?”
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Correction, July 29, 2013: Due to a production error, Monday’s article originally included the chat letters intended for Tuesday. Those letters will still be published tomorrow.