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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. I Caused a Scene, Now What?: Recently, my husband and I were arguing over something trivial, but it escalated and I suddenly found myself spinning out of control. I started screaming at the top of my lungs, slamming doors—basically throwing a tantrum like a child. I felt like something snapped inside me. Nothing like this has happened to me before. I was so loud that a neighbor called the police, which was humiliating, and now I’m concerned that everyone on the block thinks I’m being abused (or am abusive myself). I am under a lot of professional and personal stress (pressure at work, a major change in my husband’s job, change in income, and a recent death in the family), and I know this is the source of my “episode.” I’m looking for a therapist to help me work through what happened and figure out how to prevent it from happening again. But I’m having trouble getting over my sense of humiliation. Every time I pull into the driveway, I pray I won’t see any of our neighbors. I won’t know what to do the first time I run into someone from the block—do I acknowledge what happened? Apologize?
A: You lost it. It was embarrassing and humiliating, and you shocked yourself, your husband, and the neighbors. But for goodness sake, this sounds like a one-time event and you deserve to give yourself a pass. Everyone’s had those moments when it all just seems like too much and you lose your emotional stability. Keep in mind you didn’t strike out physically at your husband, and the door’s feelings were not hurt. I agree it was all a sign that you need help working through all that’s going on, but put this incident in perspective. It’s not like you have to join Door Slammers Anonymous. Your chagrin will probably be preventative of future incidents, but you are in distress and talking to a neutral party should give you some relief. I hope you soon run into a neighbor because what you do is act as if nothing happened. If someone asks you about it—and chances are no one will—just say, “Oh, dear, it was one of those things best forgotten. So how’s your son enjoying college?”
Q. Husband Wants Tattoo: My husband and I are both in our late 30s and neither of us have tattoos. My mother-in-law unexpectedly passed away about seven months ago, and now my husband wants a tattoo in her memory. While I respect and love how close he was to his mom, who was an amazing woman, I think tattoos are ugly! As much as I love her, I don’t want to see her name on his chest every time we make love. I understand his heartbreak over this loss (I too am heartbroken) but am I being cold hearted to not want him to get the tattoo?
A: You make a really powerful case for not noting in ink the passing of a loved one. Having to think about Barbara every time you are trying to get in the mood is going to be a turnoff. And there’s something a little pathetic about a man in his 30s with his mother’s name plastered across his chest. He is mourning now, he will never forget his mother, but in years to come thoughts of her will come and go. There’s something artificial about having to think about your mother every time you step out of the shower and dry off your chest. There are so many more meaningful ways he can honor her. Surely this lovely woman believed in some good causes and your husband could make a donation in her memory. How much better to do something worthy in her name than getting it inscribed on his chest.
Q. Who Is Courtney?: I’ve noticed that whenever you need to make up a fictional female name, you always pick “Courtney.” What’s up with that? Just curious!
A: I used to reflexively write, “Denise” and I once got a funny letter from a Denise asking what a Denise ever did to me. Good point that I need a name book by my computer. I like Courtney because I don’t know any and it’s a likely name of a person in her 20s, the way Susan is Courtney’s mother, Dorothy is her grandmother, and Myrna is her great-grandmother.
Q. Wife Holding Grudge: When my wife and I were married, my brother’s girlfriend caused quite a scene at our wedding by yelling at my brother and dramatically storming out of our reception, only to return and do it all over again. My wife and I were embarrassed and upset that she would behave like this in front of our friends and families. Since this time, we have not spoken with the girlfriend and my brother said it was a minor fight and couldn’t understand why she got so upset. My wife still holds a grudge against this woman and says that she will not speak with her until she gives us an apology. My family is attending Thanksgiving this year at the home of my brother and his girlfriend and an invitation has been extended to us as well. My wife would like to address the issue prior to attending Thanksgiving but at this point, I think it is best left alone and ignored. Am I wrong for wanting my wife to drop the issue?
A: As I mentioned, almost everyone has lost it at one time or another, but it’s best if that time isn’t at the wedding of your boyfriend’s brother. It’s probably a good bet this scene was fueled by an excess of champagne punch, and it’s possible the girlfriend only has fragmentary memories of her outburst. As I’ve noted many times, these events don’t ruin weddings, they instead are like goodie bags for the guests—a treat to chew over during the ride home. You don’t say you are just returning home from the honeymoon, so this grudge and lack of apology sounds like a long-running standoff. Of course the girlfriend should apologize, but she hasn’t and likely won’t. I hope your wife has learned demanding an apology rarely results in a sincere one. If your wife refuses to go to Thanksgiving, or spends the day seething while everyone is enjoying the pumpkin pie, then she’s the person making the scene. I agree with you that Thanksgiving should be a new start, so you both should go and act as if you’re happy to be there.
Q. More Bad News?: My husband and I found out a few weeks ago that we were expecting our first child. Last Friday, at our first ultrasound, we learned our baby likely will not survive, and that I will miscarry soon. We are devastated. Because we’re in our late 30s, we didn’t tell family we’ve been trying (we didn’t want to get hopes up). Now that we’re facing a sad and difficult loss, I’d like to tell my parents—we see them several times a week, and they may intuit that something’s wrong. Plus, I kind of just need my mom right now. Here is the problem: My mother’s sister and father both have end-stage cancer and have only weeks to live. My mother is their primary caregiver and is emotionally and physically exhausted. I don’t want to add one more loss to her life right now. The rational part of me thinks my husband and I should handle our loss on our own, sparing my parents additional sadness in what is already an incredibly sad time in our family. Is that a good reason for not telling them? My husband wants to follow my lead on this, but emotionally I can’t tell up from down right now.
A: What an agonizing situation and I’m sorry you are going through this. Of course this is the time you want the solace of your mother. Yes, she is probably at the breaking point, but you sound like a sensitive, caring person and ultimately your mother would probably feel worse that you felt you couldn’t confide in her during this difficult time. You see her a lot, so I think you should speak up. Sit on the couch next to her, take her hand and say you don’t want to add to her burdens but she’s your mother and you have to tell her. Then explain what’s going on. Yes, you’ll both fall on each other and cry, but those will be the kinds of tears that are needed at a time like this. You say your mother is the primary caretaker of a dying sister and father. I know you’ve got enough to deal with right now, but perhaps you can talk to your father about getting some respite relief for your mother, about bringing in some outside help for your aunt and grandfather. I know your mother will want to be there for you, but a person can only be stretched so many ways. And please talk to your doctor about support groups for people who have been in your situation—you could benefit from being able to talk to others who truly understand.
Q. Re: Courtney: I once had a professor who would reflexively use the name “Stacy” for a generic female and then mutter, to a room full of students born in the ’80s, “That’s such an ’80s name.” The Stacys in the room—and there always was at least one—got a good laugh out of it.
A: I’ll add this to my repertoire! But a quick look at a reference confirms my sense that Stacy is such a ’70s name.
Q. Past Coming Back to Haunt Me: I find that people are repeatedly asking me an awkward question that I don’t really want to answer. I’m 18, and I used to cut myself. I stopped about six months ago, determined to go to college in a better mental state. I have my depression generally under control now, but I still have scars all over my arms and some on my legs. For a while, I just wore long sleeves and pants, but the summer was too hot so I dressed normally again. However, with that, people (strangers, friends, family members) started asking what the scars were from. I usually just mutter “nothing” and change the subject. I can’t really lie (because of the obvious pattern) but I also don’t want to have a discussion about it. Particularly with my friends and family, who would be quite disappointed with me if they knew about my history of depression (they see me as happy, smart and talented), even though it’s already in my past. How should I respond in the future when people ask me about my scars?
A: Good for you for dealing with your problems. I hope you’ve gotten professional help from someone with experience with teens, cutting, and depression. This is a big thing to tackle on your own and being able to touch base with an understanding adult (who is not a member of your family) could be a big relief for you. I’m also concerned about your need to put on a happy face for everyone around you. Of course they would be distressed to know that you have dealt with emotional troubles—but you would be surprised by how many of them would be able to say to you, “I understand because I’ve been there.” You can be smart, talented, and even happy, yet also struggle at times with difficult feelings.
I’ve gotten many questions over the years from people dealing with scars. I think what you say depends on the circumstances, your relationship to the person, even your mood at the moment. What you went through is nothing to be ashamed of and if you want to tell a few intimates that you cut yourself but fortunately have been able to stop, then you should not bear the burden of feeling this is your terrible secret. For people you know but don’t want to discuss this with you can say something like, “Thanks for your concern. It’s something I’ve dealt with so I’d rather not go into it.” As for strangers, feel free to just walk away.
Q. FIL Brings Us Food-Bank Food: My father-in-law has either been homeless, or near it, for the entirety of my relationship with his son. This is of his own volition—he is opinionated and difficult and he gets fired from every job he manages to obtain, and evicted from every house he lives in. For the past two years, every time he comes to visit, he brings food with him. My BIL and SIL give him a monthly allowance, and in addition to this, it came to light about six months ago that a lot of this food is actually coming from the food bank. He goes and takes baskets and baskets of food, and then promptly brings it to our home. My husband says he’s spoken to him about it repeatedly, but then some days I will come home and there will be bundles of food left on our doorstep. It bothers me that he buys food for us with money he took from my BIL, but even worse is that he’s taking it from the people who genuinely need this food! We are not starving, we are rather well off. Help! I’m at my wits end and have no idea how to get him to stop!
A: It would be good if your family could get your father some serious mental health treatment. It could be with the proper medication he could function a lot better. I understand your distress at the gifts but they’re not important in the grand scheme. Sadly, your husband’s father is mentally ill, and leaving you food makes him feel better, so let it be.
Q. Don’t Need a Boy: My father in law is a dear man except for one flaw. My sister in law had a beautiful baby girl just two months ago, but he is pushing my husband and me to have a boy. Although he does love his granddaughter, I find it very offensive that he seems to think this wonderful baby is not good enough. I want it to stop before she gets old enough to be upset by it. I know you get lots of “pushing for a grandchild” questions, but the old “we’ll let you know” and “we’re just not ready” aren’t quite enough to answer this one.
A: Is the old man aware that you don’t just order up a boy? I think his remarks should be treated with the respect they deserve. Next time he brings up having a boy, you can say, “I know what you mean. Obviously we aren’t going to even consider reproducing until they perfect the technology to make sure it’s a boy. That may take a long time, so we’ll let you know when the doctors give us the go-ahead and promise us we won’t saddle you with another granddaughter.”
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