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. Wedding: I am 27 years old and engaged to an amazing guy. When I was a little girl, my dad was involved in a really bad accident and was burned over a large portion of his body. He lost part of one limb and has some serious disfigurement. He has been a great dad and I never think about it. A few weeks ago, my fiancé started acting strange when we talked about the wedding. I asked him what was up and he avoided the question. Then his mom called me out of the blue and told me that she didn’t think that my dad should come to the wedding. She thinks that he will upset the guests and “traumatize” any children who might be there. She is suggesting that we have a private family ceremony before the big blowout. I got upset and my mom asked why. When I told her, she said that she and my dad understand, which only makes me feel worse. Maybe my future MIL has a point, but I would really rather disinvite HER than my dad.
A: Your fiancé is not so amazing if in response to his mother’s outrageous, sickening request he didn’t immediately say to her, “Mom, Elise’s dad is a great person. That he has overcome a terrible trauma makes me admire him even more. You need to permanently drop this. He’ll not only be there, he’ll walk her down the aisle, and I don’t want to hear another negative word about him.” Instead, he has weaseled around, and presumably didn’t tell his mother not to make her despicable request to you—he surely knew what she was up to and didn’t even have the courage to warn you. Instead of responding to his mother, you need to talk this through with you fiancé. He should be the one to respond to his mother about this, and it’s not too late for him to make clear she is totally out of line. How he handles this will tell you if he’s worthy of becoming a member of your family. And I hope you tell your parents that if they are not both at the wedding and treated as guests of honor, you won’t be there, either.
Dear Prudence: Unwelcome Bridal Heirloom
Q. My Co-worker’s Wife Thinks I’m Having an Affair With Him: A few days ago I received a letter at work from the wife of a co-worker asking me to leave her husband alone. She wrote: “My husband, XXX, has told me all about his relationship with you and how every time he tries to break things off you find a way to hold onto him. He says he is too weak to let you go, so you must be the one to end things for the sake of our children and the sake of our marriage. He believes he loves you but I know him better than he knows himself. Please back off, I’m begging you.” The problem is I barely know her husband. We are co-workers, but are not even in the same department. I was introduced to him and his wife at a company function about six weeks ago and at that time had the only conversation I’ve ever had with him (and his wife was present). Should I ask my co-worker why he told his wife we’re having an affair? Should I respond to his wife and tell her I have no idea what she’s talking about? I have been with this company for less than a year so I hesitate to seem like I’m going to be trouble, but as the workplace is the only link between me and my co-worker, should I let HR intervene for me? I am pretty skeeved out by this whole situation. What should I do?
A: This sounds like the opening scene for one of those workplace sexual intrigue movies starring Michael Douglas. Let’s hope your experience doesn’t become a full-length drama. What happened is bizarre and disturbing and you should make a copy of this letter and walk it over to the desk of your supposed paramour. Don’t ask him why this would happen. Tell him you have no idea what the wife is talking about, but if this note reflects some misinformation he has conveyed to her, he needs to clarify it immediately. I’m going to guess that this guy is having an affair with someone at the office, the wife hasn’t been able to pinpoint who, and after meeting you decided you were the culprit. Alternatively, if he didn’t want her to know who his girlfriend really was, maybe he mentioned your name to get his wife off the scent—which would be idiotic, but perhaps this marriage is not based on highest-level functioning. Let’s hope the husband takes care of this and the letter is the last you hear from the wife. But if it isn’t, and you become the object of a harassment campaign, then document all of this and take it to HR. HR is where great movie plots go to die.
Q. Four-Year-Old and Her Privates: Parenting my 4-year-old daughter has had its challenges and my husband and I have thus far handled things pretty well. There is one thing has me questioning myself on an at least weekly basis. She has discovered that it “tickles” when she touches herself. Initially my reaction was “Yeah, it does, but that is something that we don’t do around other people. If you feel like you need to do that then you should do it in your room, alone.” I stressed that it isn’t something that is polite to talk about with other people and that she is the only person that can touch her like that (aside from being washed). Today my 18-month-old boy grabbed his penis as I was changing him and started laughing to which my daughter said, “You shouldn’t do that out here, if you want to do that go to your room!” I’ve been struggling with the fact that when she’s old enough she will realize that obviously I knew what was going on. I want her to be comfortable with her body and refuse to shame her, but can’t exactly explain (nor would I want to) sex and all that it encompasses. Is there a way I can handle this so later down the line she isn’t ashamed? It’s come up enough and her memory is such that she can recall conversations we’ve had months out. Am I doing this right? I also don’t want her talking to her friends at pre-K about this obviously sensitive topic.
A: It sounds as if you’re handling their handling quite well, but that you should do it with less anxiety and more humor. Come on, the scene you describe of your children’s discovery of self-delight is pretty hilarious. Laughing at your kids’ antics is one of the great things that buffers the challenges of being a parent. I think you need to be very low-key about this. I agree that telling your daughter “tickling” is an activity for when she’s at home and in her room is fine. When her toddler brother is laughing with joy over his amazing appendage and she wants to send him to his room, you can tell her that he’s so little he just doesn’t understand what he’s doing. But that she’s right, that some things are private. As for nursery school, please don’t worry about censoring her conversations. Maybe this will never come up. Maybe she will impart life-changing advice. If someday word comes back to you that she’s the bunny’s class’s Dan Savage, I hope all the adults will have a good laugh.
Q. Re: Not mistress: Go straight to HR. Period. This is as creepy a scenario as I can imagine. Something is wrong with this dude and she needs to immediately distance herself. Of course, in the movie, the HR director is the one having the affair with the man and the letter writer is drawn into something even deeper. Poor letter writer.
A: I like your plot twist. Sure, she could go directly to HR, but in most cases people are encouraged to first deal directly with a problem with a fellow employee. She barely knows this guy and he does not supervise her. If the wife were on a fishing expedition, when he sees the letter he might apologize to his colleague and say he will straighten this out at home, and that’s the last the letter writer hears about it. I really do think she has to see if this can be handled first without bringing in the company.
Q. Heartbreaking Divorce: I married the son of close family friends four years ago. We grew up together, and our parents were thrilled when we fell in love and got engaged. Our marriage was a happy one; then he told me he impregnated another woman. My heart is broken. We are divorcing—my choice, not his. We don’t have kids, so the logistics of the divorce will at least be easy. Telling our families not so much. I feel psychically ill when I think about telling my parents I am divorcing my husband and why. I feel so humiliated and hurt by his affair, I barely want to acknowledge it myself. What’s a good start for telling them?
A: Soon there will be a bundle of evidence as to why your marriage has come asunder. This is not a judgment on you, it’s a painful and complicated situation and you have made the best choice for your future. So hold your head up and tell your nearest and dearest that you have sad news, but you and Donald are divorcing. Explain to your parents he had an affair and his girlfriend is pregnant, and that’s the end for you. It’s his responsibility to let his parents know they’re about to be grandparents. Think about seeing a therapist just to help you sort out the end of your marriage and help you work through the loss. It sounds as if you are making a wise choice, one that I hope leads you in time to a new love.
Q. Re: Wedding: I am the son of a man who was severely burned in an accident in 2001. I have to say that I would not give the fiancé nearly as much slack as you suggest. This guy actually allowed his mother to suggest that the father of the bride be excluded from the wedding because he was severely burned! Unless there is a really good explanation for his actions, he deserves a swift kick in the rear. For folks who are not aware, many burn victims are ashamed of their scars. The shame is so pervasive, that many burn-victim support groups include the word “moonlight” in them, referring to some victims’ reluctance to go out of the house except at night. A man who would allow his future father-in-law to be shamed to the point of not being able to attend his daughter’s wedding is pretty despicable in my book.
A: The letter writer has to talk directly to her fiancé about his mother’s request. I think she should give him the chance to step up and demonstrate his character. If it turns out the fiancé can’t confront his mother about her behavior, the letter writer has a wedding to cancel.
Q. Friends With Kids: How can I tell when to give up on a friendship? I’m at that age where many of my friends have babies or small children, and we don’t (yet). Some of these friends have done a great job “staying in touch,” e.g., we still hang out when they can get a sitter, or we’ll make kid-friendly plans so they can come. However, some friends with kids just drop off the face of the planet, despite our continued invitations to do stuff. I know getting a good sitter is tough. But, how do I tell the difference between that vs. them just not wanting to hang out anymore?
A: Parents of small children, you need a break from toddler masturbation, so get back in touch with your childless friends! I agree that this is a difficult one to sort out because some people go so down the rabbit hole in trying to juggle domestic and work life that social life just gets squeezed out. I like the solution some friends of yours have; suggesting you tag along to the playground, etc., and catch up while the kids play. So try that with the people you miss you can’t seem to connect with. If they just never take the bait, then it’s too bad for them that there’s not enough room in their lives for adult time.
Q. Miscommunication: My boyfriend of eight years has started putting an end to every single one of our conversations with “you’re wrong, and I’m always right.” This happens with every topic ranging from the most mundane detail of our daily life (what topping to put on pizza) to political/philosophical conversations to, more importantly, the major life decisions we’re considering at the moment (babies, relocation, etc.). To his credit, he doesn’t actually take away my freedom of choice, he just announces that the choice is wrong. Then leaves it up to me to go through with it or not. I don’t recognize the intelligent man I fell in love with. We have pretty much never agreed on anything before, but that always fostered lively debates and good communication to come up with the necessary compromises in order to make our life together work. Any advice on how to knock some sense into this knucklehead?
A: Let’s say Catholics one day allow clergy to marry. Obviously no one is going to marry the pope because it would be impossible to live with someone infallible. You need to have a discussion with your boyfriend about this new style of non-discussion: “We’ve always had lively debates, but you’ve never asserted that you are always right. You know no one is always right, so what’s really going on here?” Maybe he wants out and instead of being able to tell you, he is acting so obnoxious that he drives you out. Maybe, given this unpleasant change in personality, something is wrong physically or mentally. But if he won’t address this relationship-ending personality development, you have to let him know he’s so often right, that you’re right out the door.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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