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. Snow, yes, snow.
Q. My Sister Is Polyamorous and Pregnant: My sister Julia recently told our family that she and her husband Jake are in a polyamorous triad with their best friend Tony. The three of them have been together for as long as Julia has been with Jake (seven years) and all of their friends know that, essentially, Tony is Julia’s other husband. They decided not to tell our more traditional family (with the exception of our brother) until Julia became pregnant, as she is now. She does not know whether the child is Jake’s or Tony’s, but both men plan to raise the child equally. Our brother claims they’re an amazing set and that Julia has never been this happy. My parents, my husband, and I are more realistic and feel queasy about the arrangement. I cannot imagine how their child will feel, growing up with half siblings (Julia plans to have children by both men) and with their mom sleeping with two men. I don’t know how they will provide the children of this “marriage” with stability. My husband doesn’t want Tony around our children, even though Julia has asked that we now treat him as her husband in addition to Jake. I love Julia but am nauseated by her lifestyle choice. I think eventually it will end disastrously. How can I support this?
A: You don’t have to “support” it, you just have to act like a decent person. Jake, Julia, and Tony are a threesome. Your sister is not asking for your advice or approval, she is just asking to be treated politely. You don’t have to say any more to your kids other than Uncle Tony is Aunt Julia and Uncle Jake’s good friend. Kids are remarkably flexible about these things. I fail to see how having Uncle Tony—presuming he’s a good guy—come along on visits will harm your children in any way. If your kids have questions you answer them honestly in an age appropriate way. Which will mostly consist of, “The three of them are really close friends. I agree it’s kind of unusual, but they are happy all living together.” Julia is pregnant so she’s the one who should be dealing with nausea. Eat a couple of crackers, settle your stomach, and welcome this new addition to the family.
Q. Marriage and Alcoholism: My husband and I will celebrate our seventh anniversary this year. We have two children, 4 years and 6 months old. About a year and a half ago, after the threat of divorce, my husband joined AA and has been sober since. In my opinion, AA has taken over his life, to the point I see him less now that he is sober than when he was drunk. He goes to meetings once or twice daily, and several times on the weekends. We both work full time, and I pick up the kids, make dinner, get them ready for bed, and get the kitchen cleaned by the time he walks in the door at night (about 8 p.m.). He has been asked to be a part of regional representation for AA, which is going to take up more of his time. I feel horrible when I say anything, since I complained when he was drunk, and now I am complaining when he is sober, but I am exhausted! I feel like he needs to be part of our family, and his kids and I are suffering now for his sobriety. Do I have a reasonable beef, or should I just suck it up for sobriety? I’d go to an Al-Anon meeting, but I sure as hell don’t have the spare time.
A: Let’s stipulate that your husband has an addictive personality, and being hooked on AA is a healthy alternative to liquor. His abstinence is quite new, so it’s really important that he gets gratification from it and creates habits of mind and behavior that make being sober rewarding. It seems that he has found that with the fellowship that AA brings. But you have a legitimate beef that if in order for him to do this, he has virtually abandoned his own family to attend to his new one at AA. I don’t know enough about the rules of AA to be certain this suggestion is kosher, but perhaps you and he could get together with his sponsor to discuss how your husband can be with his family and attend to his sobriety. If talking to the sponsor is not an option, then it is time for you two to see a counselor who has expertise in addiction issues. You are in practical effect a single mother. You need to tell him you don’t want to legally become one, so you both need to figure out how you can meet the needs of yourselves, each other, and your children.
Q. Coughing Cubicle: I work in a typical cube-farm within a small department for a nonprofit organization. A cube-mate of mine coughs and clears her throat … ALL. THE. TIME. It gets so bad that I look forward to when she takes her hour lunch so that I can have some respite from the constant hacking. Our department unfortunately requires constant phone interaction, so wearing noise-canceling headphones or listening to music is not really an option. I feel bad because she is an older lady with a lot of health problems, but may patience is wearing thin and she is driving me up the wall. Please help.
A: It’s true that erratic but repetitive noises can shatter one’s focus. Sure you try to concentrate and shut out the respiratory tract troubles of your colleague, but the endless hacking just makes you feel like you’re caught in a tidal wave of phlegm. I don’t think there’s much point in asking Muriel to keep it down—she can’t. She’s suffering and would surely love not to feel the way she does. Instead, take this to a supervisor and be oh, so sensitive. Explain you have tremendous empathy for your co-worker’s health problems, but that she has a chronic condition and unfortunately there is no way to baffle the noise which is constantly breaking your concentration. Ask if there’s the possibility of a new office configuration—maybe you can be moved, maybe Muriel can.
Q. Re: Marriage and alcohol: Bad advice, Prudie—this woman should get herself to meetings of Al-Anon ASAP. Al anon is for friends and families of alcoholics and problem drinkers, whether or not the alcoholic is in treatment or attending meeting themselves. She is experiencing a common dynamic, and will get the support and advice she needs from others who have lived the same issues.
A: Sure, Al-Anon is a great idea, but she has to hire a babysitter to go because her husband isn’t home long enough for her to attend a meeting. Al Anon will give her support and ideas, but in the end she and her husband have to talk and come to some understanding. I’m suggesting they do that right now.
Q. Representative Woes: I work for a college, in the admissions office. My day consists of answering calls for eight hours, to inform applicants on their application status, verify receipt of documents, and explain the admissions process. The job is very stressful and the people who call are usually always rude. If they can’t understand something we have said, they never say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.” It’s always, “What?” These aren’t just the students, its the parents. It seems like no one has phone manners anymore. I always try to maintain a polite composure, and assist the caller the best I can; however, the minute I say something they don’t like, they want to take my name down, and talk to my supervisor. I hate this job, but leaving isn’t an option. The pay is decent and the benefits are good. However, I really am starting to hate people in general. I get satisfaction when a rude applicant calls for an update, and I see that they have been rejected. I can’t tell them their decision, though, and they have to wait for their letter. I feel no empathy when they call crying or upset because they didn’t get in. I hate that I have become this way, but I feel that I have been driven to it. I have worked some really stressful jobs, but this takes the cake. Any suggestions?
A: Soon your college will release all their acceptance and rejection letters, and after you deal with a next wave of outrage, all will be quiet for months. My daughter is a high school senior, and it’s bizarre me to think of people calling an admissions office, letting their caller ID be seen, then acting rudely to the representative. (Note: Being rude to people on the other end of the phone is not acceptable even if you aren’t trying to get your kid into their college.) So, yes, you should take secret gratification in knowing that some of the most obnoxious will not be at the accepted students celebration. You are stressed by your job, but keep in mind that the people who are calling you are also in extremis. I’m sure you’ve been in an emergency room, so you have to adopt the unflappable, I’ve-seen-it-all attitude of the people who work there. Just think, if you manage to stay calm and centered, you may be able to talk some of these loons back to equanimity. Even if you can’t, these interactions surely are fairly brief. But if your job is undermining your mental health, start exploring other prospects at your college—working in the archives, groundskeeping, assisting the deans—anything that will keep you far from the madding crowd.
Q. Rape, pregnancy: I’m a man who got raped by a woman. I will spare you the details, but it genuinely was rape, if you accept that that’s possible. No one else was present, and I did not report it. I have tried to stay away from her since then, but now, nine months later, she is about to give birth. I’m inclined to stay far away from this, but is that right? The child will still need a father. If the child is in fact mine and I do “claim” him/her, I know I’ll be responsible for child support. And even if I don’t, there’s still a chance I could have to pay child support. Reporting what happened is probably out of the question now since it would seem like I was just trying to weasel out of my responsibilities.
A: You are raising a bunch of legal questions. I’m not even clear whether this woman has let you know she’s gestating her child, or whether you’ve heard of her pregnancy through the grapevine. You need to talk to a lawyer about your allegations, what you do now, and what’s ahead.
Q. Re: For triad: Divorce and remarriage often result in far more “bizarre” outcomes than the one she is describing.
A: Great point!
Q. Polite: I provide weekly home health services to toddlers and moms. I have a very comfortable professional relationship with them. We usually address each other by first name. One darling woman always addresses my co-worker and me as “Miss” followed by our first names. I think it’s lovely, but now I feel rude when I address her only by first name. Should I start calling her “Miss” as well, or is it weird since I have already known her five months? She’s only a few years older than I am, but she’s such a gracious client. As a side note, there haven’t been many times that I’ve had to directly use her name in this time.
A: “Miss Sally” is a delightful Southern tradition that allows one to be both respectful and intimate. However, you are comfortably on a first name basis with your clients and saying “Miss” is not natural for you. So, no, you don’t need to echo this client when talking to her. Feel free to simply call her by her first name.
Q. New Co-Worker Outed at Work: A new co-worker just started at our company. He is the boyfriend of the boss’s son. The boss’s son also works at the same company in a different division and is extremely closeted at work. Everyone in the office already knows this new guy’s past and no one cares that he is gay or dating the boss’s kid (I broke everyone in when I came out at work). However, when asked about his connection to the boss, this person states that he is a good friend of the boss’s other kid. While this person isn’t being dishonest, I feel terrible knowing everyone is whispering behind this new person’s back. I would like to let him know that everyone already knows about his past without coming across as a gossip or being weird. Should I let him know, or let him find out on his own?
A: Stay out of it. The issue for the new guy may have far less to do with being gay than nepotism. He may be saying he’s just a friend of the other son (which surely he is) so that people don’t cluck, “Oh, he got the job because of his romantic involvement.” As you know, people will gossip and eventually it may come back to the new guy that everyone knows he’s the partner of the boss’s son. But I don’t see anything in it for you by pointing this out to him.
Q. Does the Bride Need to Know?: A longtime friend who lives across the country recently called me up to ask me to be a bridesmaid. What I wasn’t prepared for was the way she went into detail about why she was asking me. I learned I was a backup because she demoted one of her original bridesmaids and critiqued her behavior. I accepted, although admittedly my feelings are a little hurt that I wasn’t a first choice. After we hung up I realized her wedding is nine months away. My husband and I are trying to start a family, so it’s possible that I may not be able to make the trip for her wedding. Would it be better to let her know now and decline to be a bridesmaid, or should I wait until I’m actually pregnant and go from there? I do treasure our friendship and would love to be part of her wedding day if possible.
A: Given that you got an earful about how the previous bridesmaid failed in her duties, do be prepared for what’s going to be expected during this long march. However, you are not required to announce your reproductive plans to your friend. If you get pregnant right away and the wedding will potentially coincide with your labor, then you alert your friend. I have heard from several pregnant bridesmaids who have been reamed out by angry brides over how inconsiderate they were not to use birth control during the time leading up to the bride’s nuptials. These situations do make me wish that when the pregnant bridesmaid sways down the aisle her water breaks and she steals the show.
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