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. Bait and Switch: I dated my wife for three years before we married. We were both in our 30s and had had all of the important discussions before we decided to marry (kids, religion, etc.). At the time, she told me she was agnostic, and not really into “the whole religion thing.” Now, less than six months into our marriage, she tells me she’s joined a church and expects me to join her for Sunday services. It’s only now that I learn that she has extremely right-wing, religious views. After talking with some of her friends, they couldn’t believe I didn’t know this about her. I asked them why they wouldn’t have mentioned this when they found out we weren’t having a church wedding and they told me that was probably done for my benefit. Now, instead of our not wanting any kids, she wants at least five and maybe more. Instead of no religion, she wants strict adherence to her religion. I feel I’ve been duped and that she’s lied to me about herself. Is there any way out of this short of divorce?
A: This sounds like the idea for a follow-up to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, because you’ve got a wife who rivals Flynn’s in the unreliable narrator department. In your case either your wife is completely crazy or you’ve decided to concoct a crazy letter. I hate to think I’m being duped, but if this is an accurate rendering of the first months of your marriage, I don’t understand why you’re writing to me on how to avoid divorce. Your question should be something along the lines of whether you should go directly to a lawyer or trying a stab at therapy first. I get a lot of letters about couples with differing religious views. Almost always if there is deception, it’s on the part of the person who is having doubts about their faith but who doesn’t want to upset the believers around them. I haven’t heard of the devout who want to keep that under wraps in hopes of snagging an atheist to convert. Marriages can be annulled when entered into fraudulently—I think you’ve got better grounds for this than did Henry VIII.
Q. Husband’s Electronic Mistress: My husband’s e-addiction is taking a toll on our otherwise happy marriage. He has a demanding job and even when off the clock, must respond to a near constant stream of emails and texts. The problem has multiplied over the past few months as he’s started playing a few different online games. He can’t ever focus on just me and our kids. At meal times, in bed, while coloring with our toddler, or waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, he must have one of his devices in hand to work or play his games. It makes me both sad for him and mad at him that he can’t simply be happy being with our family. Prudie, is there a way to get my husband to break up with his e-mistresses?
A: This is part of the problem with the work day never ending. Not only does it intrude into one’s family life, there is something utterly seductive about being alerted that a tiny bit of potentially rewarding information is coming your way. And the addition of games just makes it even worse. Your husband is hooked and it’s going to be hard to get him to focus on your family. He can reply his job demands he be connected and he can point out that everyone around him is staring at their phones. (Why real people are not as interesting as disembodied messages is a separate question.) You must talk to him, so first ask him to turn off his phone and leave it in the other room. Without sounding put-upon or rancorous, tell him that a toll is being taken on your family and the quality of his relationship with his children because he’s constantly living virtually. Say your family need some basic rules on electronics. One should be that none are allowed at the dining table, because that’s just good manners your children need to learn. Another is making some places phone-free. Bed, for example. No matter how demanding your husband’s job, he’s entitled to some time off the clock so he can get to know his wife and children. If he gets too agitated being away from his phone to even have this conversation, say there’s another place you’d like him to go with you where phones aren’t allowed: a marriage counselor.
Q. Re: Bait and Switch: Though you haven’t heard of it, there are some fundamentalist churches that encourage dating and marrying nonbelievers and trying to convert them. It’s called “missionary dating” and it’s a real thing. Sounds like this guy was a victim of that.
A: I know about the missionary position, but missionary dating is a new one for me. Thanks for the enlightenment about a malicious and un-Christian practice. It sounds like ample grounds for withdrawing from a marriage.
Q. Younger Colleague Needs to Cover Up!: I am a senior female associate at a small law firm in a major city. I try to act as a mentor to the more junior female attorneys when possible, but I am at a loss as to how to deal with one particular issue. One of the younger female associates has an unfortunate habit of dressing a little too risqué for the office, often wearing very body-conscious dresses and too-short skirts. I don’t think it is by design, as she is otherwise quite reserved. Many people at the office have taken notice that her outfits are inappropriate, including several of our male superiors who have commented to me that her clothing choices are out of line. The way she looks certainly makes her seem less than professional, and I feel like I owe it to her to say something, but I have no idea how to address the issue without completely mortifying her. Do you have any suggestions?
A: I get the impression your male bosses are mentioning this to you as a way of saying, “Melissa, take care of this for us, none of us want to talk to Kate about her clothes.” You need to clarify with them whether this impression is correct. If it is, the word would be better coming from a female partner—if there is one. Or if your company has an HR person, this is something that office can handle. But if they want you to do it, you should ask that the company draw up a dress code for men and women so that associates can know what’s expected. If you have the “what not to wear” talk with Kate, get it out of your head that this is horribly embarrassing and will mortify her. You are doing her a favor by letting her know what the culture of your office is and that she will advance further if she doesn’t distract from her good work with clothes not appropriate to your firm. Keep it direct and professional, and even if it’s somewhat awkward, Kate should be grateful.
Q. Re: Bait and switch: If the husband does decide to leave, there may be resistance from his wife. They may be glad to know there’s a Biblical basis for this in 1 Corinthians 7. “If the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband?”
A: Maybe he can just pack up his stuff and leave this as a note on her pillow!
Q. Graduation (Please Help): So I am 25 and have struggled with completing school (the first few years of college I just kept failing out semester after semester due to lack of drive). The last two years I have dedicated to getting my associates degree before transferring to a four-year to finish. My younger sister is not only graduating this December from nursing school, but also has managed to graduate earlier than her peers and has a full-time job already lined up. My question to you is how do I deal with family members and their comments about why my younger sister (21) is graduating ahead of me? My dad has already made a few snide remarks about how at least someone is graduating college and early to boot. I still live at home, but pay for everything by myself (as does my sister). I am truly happy to be there for her graduation and party, but it’s giving me anxiety and I am thinking of planning a trip out of town for the graduation ceremony and party. Please help me figure out how to graciously deal with inquisitions about my younger sister.
A: You are getting yourself on track, so continue to build on your success. I’m wondering if you may have some underlying learning or concentration issues. Please consider getting an evaluation and seeing if there are problems that have been making school work hard for you. Don’t leave town. You will be a role model for others if you can join in the celebration of your younger sister. Practice making a toast to her celebrating her dedication to her career and saying how lucky the patients she treats will be. If you can carry off being proud of her, that will defuse a lot of your anxiety about the judgment of others. If they ask what you’re up to, inform them that you’re happily moving toward getting your B.A. You want to have a separate conversation with your father and tell him it’s true you’ve had more of a struggle than your sister, but his making comparisons only makes you feel bad and you’d appreciate it if he wouldn’t. But do check into the counseling offices at your school and see if there’s something you can address to make your path easier.
Q. No Gifts, Please: What do you think of declaring Hanukkah a “no gifts” holiday? We are attempting to figure out our family traditions (due to a new baby) and see it as a time to do special things with family and for others but would rather avoid consumerism. Are you terrible for denying grandparents the opportunity to give gifts to their grandchild?
A: You don’t have to worry about turning your baby into a gift-grubbing consumer on his or her first Hanukkah. Instead of making any declarations, see what the grandparents do. If it’s one nice gift, or eight token ones, then good. If you’re inundated with an over-the-top celebration, after it’s done you can say you appreciate their generosity, and know how excited they are to have a grandchild to buy stuff for, but because the holiday runs for eight days, in the future you want to do something more scaled back. And remember, if the grandparents insist on going over the top, you can always donate their largesse to families in need.
Q. Re: Graduation: Excellent advice. My daughters are similar in that my oldest took five years to graduate from college with a degree in history, but it took her two years to see if there was a problem. She was diagnosed with ADD at 19. Medication helped her tremendously. My younger daughter is graduating from high school this year, with gifted-program AP courses, and a future in the sciences. I never compare them. They are individuals. It’s important the older child get tested. Even if there’s not an official diagnosis, they can help with time management, etc. LW, please continue on your path and don’t let anyone tell you you don’t measure up. You’re doing great!
A: Thanks from a parent whose been there and knows how destructive it is to compare children. That’s great that your older daughter got diagnosed. It’s never too late to address underlying problems or get help creating new patterns.
Coughing Co-worker: My office has our cubicles within very close proximity to one another. Luckily, we all get along well for the most part, but one co-worker’s health issues have been causing a big disruption. This co-worker is a bit older, smokes, and has a terrible cough that has been best described as a “phlegmy death rattle.” It’s been going on for several months and is only getting worse. I’m of course sympathetic to people who feel ill, but this sounds much more serious. It’s disturbing, upsetting, and makes me feel nauseated. She doesn’t seem to be taking care of herself or even acknowledging that it’s an issue. Is there an appropriate way to intervene or ask her to seek treatment?
A: It’s a little hard to go to a co-worker and say, “Have you been to a pulmonary specialist recently? I keep being surprised you show up each day considering that death rattle of yours.” If someone has a cough that’s rattling the concentration of everyone in the office, there may be nothing medically that can be done about it, but it is something that’s fair to address. You and perhaps an ally can go to a supervisor and explain you’re very concerned about the health of your co-worker. You can add that unfortunately her hacking is disruptive of everyone’s concentration. You can say you hope the supervisor can address the health question with the colleague and also perhaps move the person to someplace more private that will muffle her cough.
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