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, I look forward to your questions!
Q. Always Take the Wife’s Side?: I’m about to get married and am caught in an argument between my fiancée and my parents. This will be the first time in over five years that our whole family will be together. My parents want to take a picture of just them, me, and my siblings, and a family photo obviously means a lot to them. My fiancée heard this and became immediately offended. She says it’s rude to exclude her on the day she “joins the family” and any family photo should therefore include her in it. We’re not talking about taking an hour for a separate family photo shoot; my parents simply want one photograph of themselves and their children. I don’t understand why my fiancée is so annoyed and now she’s even more angry because I’m not supporting “her side.” Should I back up my fiancée on principle, even if I disagree with her?
A: Apparently your fiancée wants to be the “Where’s Waldo” of her wedding album. When the photographer calls for a shot of all the groomsmen, she plans to puts herself in the middle. Photographs take only a short time to compose and an instant to snap. Presumably, both of you want a variety of pictures of groups of people to commemorate this event. Since your family is apparently far-flung, there is nothing wrong with your side wanting to piggy-back on the big event and get a couple of family photos added to the mix. This is one of those silly little fights every couple has. Calmly tell her you understand how she may have misperceived your family’s request, but it has nothing to do with excluding her. Your parents just want to take advantage of all of you being together for this happy day to have a long overdue photo of your immediate family. Explain to her that of course all the many and traditional wedding photos will take place. If she won’t back off, then it’s important that you two figure out how to resolve an issue—trivial as this is—that has you each in opposite corners, certain you are right.
Dear Prudence: Failure to Communicate
Q. Dog Gone?: I am a fiftysomething woman preparing to move in with my boyfriend next March. I have a miniature schnauzer who is 8 years old and has always slept in my room on the floor next to the bed. My boyfriend wants me to banish my dog from our bedroom when we move. I don’t think it’s a good idea, especially with moving to a strange house, and I think the dog will do better with the transition if he can sleep in our room. Am I wrong on this?
A: Oh, your boyfriend has come to the wrong place. Some nights my husband and I can barely turn over in bed due to the arrangement of the dog and two cats around us. You’ve got me laughing at the idea of banishing my cavalier from the bedroom. No one would get a minute of sleep due to the whining and howling. You have a beloved pet who sleeps peacefully on the floor. Unless your boyfriend frequently steps on your dog on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night (if so, just rearrange the dog bed) I do not understand his objection. More than that, if he understands what your dog means to you (and you to the dog), his demand is rather cruel. I’ve had letters from people who have fallen in love with other humans who are seriously allergic to their pets. Those are very difficult situations, but—much to the annoyance of animal lovers—I come down on the side of human love taking precedence. But there is no good reason here to shut the door on a sleeping dog. You’ve got a lot of time before the move to hash this out. But I think you’re entitled to say, “Love me, love my schnauzer.”
Q. Smother-in-Law: My mother-in-law threw me a sort of family baby shower, giving us lots of stuff we don’t need even though I specifically requested not to have one because we have such a small N.Y. apartment and I was already given practically everything from my sister who just had a baby. My question is: Do I have to send a thank you note to her for the stuff she bought me even though I specifically requested that she NOT buy anything?
A: Nasty, nasty mother-in-law, wanting to shower you with stuff for her impending grandchild. I hope you understand that now that you’re having a child your mother-in-law is likely to be more in your life than ever. Maybe apart from ignoring your express orders about gifts, she’s a lovely person who will be an important presence in your baby’s life. Although your pen may be dripping poison, write the thank you note and make it sound as sincere as possible. Since you are having a child, surely many of your friends will be too, so a closet of new baby items will be perfect regifting material.
Q. Late Night Sidewalk Etiquette: I’m a young man who works late as a bartender in an urban area. I walk home usually at 2 a.m. I often find myself half a block behind women (either alone or in pairs) going home the same route. How do I act so that they don’t fear me as a potential predator? Cross the street? Slow down (looks like stalking) or greet them (equally creepy)? Help!
A: There is nothing that gets a woman’s sympathetic nervous system on high alert like hearing footfalls behind her at 2 a.m. Thanks for being sensitive to this. Since you see the woman looming ahead of you, it would be a nice thing to do to cross the street before you’re close enough so that she starts glancing behind her, clutching her purse.
Q. Re: Wedding siblings photos: We had the same battle. My view was that after we are married, all photos must involve both of us. However, before the wedding, each family got 30 minutes to get whatever photos they wanted done. After the wedding was my photos on my schedule. I got great photos with my family, and my in-laws chose to get great photos of their grandkids, family portraits, and a siblings photo. The photo in their house is their immediate family and my parents display the one of our new family. It was an easy compromise.
A: After the vows, if the photographer snapped a photo that didn’t include you, did you take the camera and smash it like Sonny Corleone in The Godfather? It’s good everyone was able to complete their photo assignments in the 30 minutes allotted.
Q. Inappropriate Contact as Children: I’m 47. My dad sexually abused me when I was young. It stopped when I was 12, and I’ve gotten therapy for it. The only lingering problem for me is what to do about my cousin. When we were younger, I remember playing with her and I’m pretty sure that it was inappropriate. She is three years younger than me, and I couldn’t have been more than eight, and it didn’t happen with anyone else that I can remember. I’ve wanted to talk to her about this, but it’s been almost 40 years. I know from counseling that I was acting out from what my dad was doing to me, and I didn’t have the understanding of it that I do now. It’s still painful to talk about, and there are some other family issues that I am dealing with that are connected with my dad’s incest, but not relevant to my cousin. We haven’t been in contact for more than 20 years because of the family issues. When I found my cousin this summer, she and her parents were delighted to see me, so there doesn’t seem to be any long-term hard feelings. My cousin has a good life, with good relationships with her brother, husband, and parents, and she has a master’s degree and is successful. I don’t know how to approach this topic with her. I want to apologize. Does this seem like a good thing to open this can of worms?
A: I’m so glad you’ve gotten therapy, but if you’ve stopped, this issue is a good reason to go in for a tune up and explore what’s been stirred up by reconnecting with part of your family. As you know, the horrific violation you experienced can echo through your life—although it is heartening to hear that you’ve taken steps to deal with your abuse. As you know, small children often act out terrible things being done to them, and you have memories of doing inappropriate things to your cousin when she was 5 years old or less. But from your recent welcoming encounter with her, it doesn’t sound as if she remembers anything or feels anything but warmth for you. Based on what you’ve described, it may be the best thing not to introduce this painful and difficult subject into your cousin’s life. But you need to sort out these issues and their potential ramifications with someone who knows you and the entirety of your story.
Q. Re: Baby gifts: If you don’t need an extra high-chair, bouncy seat, Pack ’N Play, or what not, at your house, why not tell your MIL that you want to keep some of the stuff at her house (assuming she lives in area) so that when you come to visit, you will have some baby stuff all set up.
A: Great idea. Even if she doesn’t live that close, you can tell her than not having to schlep all the equipment with you will make your visits so much easier (and more frequent!).
Q. More Money, More Problems: A friend of mine has, through no fault of her own, some money problems. I could make these go away by loaning her some money. The amount she needs would be trifling to my bottom line. I am not being purely altruistic here. I have to have surgery in the near future and my friend has offered to help me. Well, if she gets her phone cut off, or can’t put gas in her car, how much help is she going to be? I told her, if it would make her feel better we would write it up like a formal loan with a repayment plan. What is the best way to make a friend take your money?
A: The perfect answer would be that you hire your friend to be your caretaker. It’s awkward to want to force money on your broke friend so that she can then volunteer to nurse you back to health. Instead, tell her that her offer of help makes facing the surgery less daunting. Say it would mean a great deal to be able to rely on her to get you through your recovery, but since you otherwise would have to pay for such services, you insist that she be financially compensated for her time. Tell her that because you want to reserve it in advance, you’d like to give her an advance, so that she is in the financial position to clear her calendar.
Q. Re: Dog gone: “You’ve got me laughing at the idea of banishing my cavalier from the bedroom. No one would get a minute of sleep due to the whining and howling. ” The dog might fuss a little, too.
A: Truer words … Thanks for the laugh.
Q. In-Laws’ Free Vacations: My husband of one year and I are in our late 20s and live near a popular city. Most of our family originates from another part of the country, and we have been getting visitors from his side. I get along with them fine, but I dread their visits. Any time someone visits, we end up being the family members who take them out and entertain. This would be OK, but we end up paying for everything. We never explicitly say we’ll pay, but they twiddle thumbs when it’s time to pay. My husband thinks it’s fine since it’s family and we are hosts. Prudie, though we aren’t exactly struggling to get by, we’re trying to buy a home and start a family. These are adults who are financially stable and vacationing on us. We always give his parents gas and grocery money when we visit. Even his very capable sister once stayed with us six months room-and-board free. My family has been extremely generous with us. I don’t expect the same from his family (who is equally well off) but at least not to take so much. I’ve tried to talk it out, but he doesn’t think it’s a big deal. Help!
A: If your husband didn’t think it was a big deal that his sister moved in with you for six months, the problem is not just with your in-laws, but with your husband. If your husband doesn’t understand that running a hotel for his family, in which there are no check-out times and the bills are never paid, is an emotional and financial drain, then you’ve got issues. You need to tell him you’re going to unilaterally start making some rules about how long people can stay, and how much entertaining you’re going to do while they’re there. Stop playing active host, and instead give people a key, show them where the refrigerator is, and tell them to enjoy themselves—you two are busy and just need to carry on with your normal lives. If your husband won’t agree, then maybe hashing this out with a counselor for a few sessions will keep this from blowing up.
Q. It’s Them or the Dog, and I Choose the Dog: My mom’s family has done Christmas exactly the same way for the last (at least) 30 years. They spend all day inside at my aunt’s house starting with stockings being opened (one at a time), then breakfast, then presents (one at a time), then dinner. My husband and I are very active people and this tradition is like torture. Add on to this that our (very well-behaved) dog isn’t even welcome in the yard, so we’d have to drive five hours to sit around all day and find a kennel for our loved one. As a result, I haven’t been to Christmas with that side of the family in nine years. Am I being unreasonable or am I allowed to have my own Christmas traditions that don’t involve my aunts and uncles?
A: Either your family has a boat-load of presents (or they are the world’s slowest unwrappers), because if they start at breakfast and don’t finish until dinner, they must personally be keeping the retail world afloat. I assume you have seen your family in the last nine years, it’s just that you’ve decided to forgo Christmas. If that’s the case, you can just say visiting at a less frantic time is better for you. But perhaps, now that people are getting on in years, they are worrying that as a group all of you may never be together again. You can continue to absent yourself. But I’m going to suggest making a compromise. You could either arrive the night before, do the breakfast shift, then go home. Or alternately, have Christmas dinner and leave the next morning. Surely, you can find someone to look after the dog for a day. If you can’t, an overnight at a kennel won’t hurt—just don’t tell the dog you’re skipping Christmas.
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