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.)
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Q. Inherited Jewelry: Four years ago my mother-in-law had a stroke and lost the use of her right arm. She felt that she couldn’t use much of her jewelry anymore so she gave me a few of her pieces. Although the gesture was sweet, the jewelry was not my taste. I had kept it put away for many years, but finally this past winter, money was a little tight and I decided to sell some of my least favorite. I ended up using the money for groceries so we could have a little extra money for Christmas and a birthday for our youngest child. Just a month or so ago my mother-in-law called me up to asked if she could borrow for the very hoop earrings I sold and my heart sank! I told her the clasp was broken from a one time use and were unusable, and she left it at that. Then a couple of weeks ago she asked my husband if he remembered the heart necklace she gave me, he told her he did, she also asked for that back so she could wear it again. Well, I sold that one too! My husband has no idea I sold these items and I don’t think he would say anything about it if I told him. Now I’m hoping she doesn’t ask for it again, but I know she will. Do I fess up?
A: I understand that such a gift could be considered handing down an heirloom, but unless the point is made explicitly that this is something that should be kept in the family, a gift is a gift and people are free to do with a gift as they like. There is also an informal statute of limitation on such things. If your mother-in-law had realized a few months after she had given you the jewelry that she had acted too abruptly and wearing her beloved pieces made her feel better, then surely you would have understood and handed them back. But this is now four years later. So if your mother-in-law is enjoying wearing jewelry again, that’s great, but it’s not fair at this point to ask for things back. Especially since you don’t have them. What you do depends on the kind of relationship you have with her. If it is warm and friendly, you just need to tell her the truth. If it’s not so warm and friendly, have your husband be the go-between. It might be easier to hear from him that things are a little tight financially, and you both thought it was fair to turn the jewelry, lovely as it was, into something more immediately useful for the grandchildren—emphasize the grandchildren.
Q. Dating and Pets: I’m currently dating a great successful girl. We are serious and have talked about marriage and kids. Here is the issue. We both have dogs. I have a 7-year-old lab that I have spent a ton of time training and have owned since she was a puppy. My girlfriend has a small mix that is super food aggressive, toward other dogs and, in limited interactions, kids as well. She took food from a 3-year-old at a cafe. So I mentioned that I’m not sure I would trust her dog with a kid, and she said that if she had to get rid of her dog, my dog has to go as well. She won’t take the dog to training, let me discipline the dog or even recognize that this is a problem. She has said that once a kid comes along, the dog will bond and everything will be fine. Any advice?
A: Unless there is a serious allergy situation which means someone cannot live with a pre-existing pet, my stance is that the pet is part of the package. Her pet is part of her life, and since you two haven’t even gotten engaged, you’re getting way ahead of things to be worried about how the dogs will bond with your nonexistent children. Nonetheless, there is something disturbing about the dynamic here. There simply are some dogs who are very difficult and almost beyond training—I had one for 10 years. But at least I hired trainers and recognized there were situations that required her to be contained. It’s unfortunate your girlfriend doesn’t realize her dog has issues. But I also sense something amiss with your desire to “discipline” it. The dog needs comprehensive training. Your occasional discipline will likely just make the dog (and her) hate you. But then the ante gets upped by the discussion of how if her dog isn’t safe around a baby, your dog has to be dispatched, too. So at issue here is not what do you do with your dogs, but what do you do with each other. This is a really good opportunity to see how you two address conflict and arrive at compromise. So far, I’m not impressed.
Q. A Co-Worker Is Literally Beating Herself Up Over Something: I arrived at work a bit earlier than usual this morning and well before almost anyone else was in. On my way to my desk I saw a co-worker hit herself in the cheek with her fist several times when I walked by her cubicle. I don’t think she noticed me and I was so shocked by what I saw that I didn’t say anything to her and continued on to my desk. She has a red mark and a lump on her face and is saying she ran into a door when people ask her what happened. Of course, a lot of eyebrows are being raised because that seems to be a classic response in domestic abuse cases to explain away bruises and people are gossiping about it. I know this co-worker is married, but I don’t know much else about her. We are not close and do not usually have occasions to speak to each other beyond saying good morning. I am concerned both by what she was doing and by what everyone seems to believe about how she got the lump on her face. I don’t want to embarrass her by telling co-workers what I saw but I really don’t feel comfortable asking her about it. Should I tell someone or is this a time to mind my own business?
A: You would be perfectly justified staying out of this completely—not saying anything to your bruised colleague or to the gossipers. (And gossipers, I hear from women who have balance problems, etc., who occasionally find themselves bruised then become the object of endless inquiries about their husband’s fisticuffs.) But you saw something so concerning, that if you feel comfortable, you might want to speak up. You could pull this colleague aside someplace private and tell her you wanted to give her a heads up that people are speculating about her being hit. You can say that it’s none of your business, but as you came in the other day, you saw her hurting herself. Tell her you’re concerned about this, that there is help available for people who have a problem with self-harm, and you want to encourage her to seek it. Then you’ve done what you can do.
Q. Re: Inherited jewelry: My first question is, why didn’t her husband know they were so short of money that she had to sell some jewelry? I have given my daughters some of my jewelry, because I wanted them to have it. If they needed money that badly, I would rather give them money so they wouldn’t have to sell the jewelry (and yes, I know it’s a gift. Still!).
A: Yes, it would have been better to have a discussion with her husband about their finances and the jewelry, so I hope she’s comfortable telling her husband now. But no matter what the gift—unless, as I say, it’s truly something with invaluable sentimental meaning—if someone would prefer to turn it into cash, that’s the recipient’s choice.
Q. Matched With My Professor: I’m a student at a small liberal arts college. Due to the small percentage of men at my school, I have turned to an online dating site to meet people. I have met some interesting people, but for safety reasons, I have not posted my full name or school, which I can then disclose at my discretion. Recently, a professor in my department sent me a long, desperate note on the site saying that he finds my profile “extremely intriguing” and asking me about various interests I listed. I am sure he did not recognize me since I have not taken a class with him yet. I know his wife recently left him and his confidence is shaken, so I feel guilty not responding, but I feel it would be more embarrassing if I explained why I was not interested. I will have him for a summer class, and I’m afraid he will recognize me. Should I disable my account, even if it meets cutting off contact with interesting men? How can I minimize any awkwardness?
A: I hope he is a professor of English or psychology, because someone with familiarity with those fields should realize the long, desperate note is never a turn-on, especially when it’s aimed a someone of college age. The tacit understanding about sites that connect you with strangers electronically is that you have no obligation to them. Of course, if you’re interested enough to make mutual inquiries, then use good manners and common sense. But if you are not interested, you don’t have a responsibility to respond, no matter how ardent the guy typing across cyberspace. Ignore his note. Let’s hope that when you’re sitting in his classroom, he doesn’t recognize you. If he does, let’s hope he’s smart enough to keep it to himself. But if he uses summer school to make another pitch, then you tell him you’re his student and your relationship has to remain purely professional. He should know there will be serious consequences for him if he doesn’t understand that.
Q. Re: Co-worker hurting herself: Obviously, I have no idea what’s happening but the first thing that came to mind is “is she planning on or getting divorced”? My neighbor’s son was getting divorced and often his wife (while on the phone with him when she was at work) would say loudly “What do you mean you won’t let me see my kids?” or something similar when they were discussing something completely different (nor did the husband ever say anything about preventing visits). She was doing this so her co-workers could testify that they heard her arguing over visitation and he was threatening no visits. Could this woman be setting the stage for claiming spousal abuse?
A: Yikes. Now we’re in sociopath territory. Thanks for raising this issue. Obviously, the letter writer doesn’t want to explore too deeply the distant co-worker’s personal issues. However, I still think it’s fair to say a quick word about what she’s seen. Let’s hope this isn’t a real-life Gillian Flynn novel.
Q. Doubts About Daughter-in-Law: My son met and married a young woman four years ago when he had known her for just a few months. He was 30, she was 32. We all embraced her as part of the family. Over time, I’ve come to understand she had a “checkered” past—the most concerning info was about drug addiction and alcoholism. She has had many slips since then. She also has severe abandonment issues and knows how to get attention from my son and me, often in the most negative of ways. They have had a piece of perfection in a beautiful daughter who is now 2. But the marriage is ending. I am focused on their daughter’s well-being and, of course, am supportive of my son. But I am so worried about his wife, and her issues both chemical and emotional. I don’t want to abandon her or make her feel deserted by this family. Yet I don’t want my son to feel that I’m disloyal if I maintain communication and a relationship, however limited, with her. How do I walk this line in a wise and caring way for all three of them?
A: Thank you for wanting to continue to help this family even if they are not intact. A little girl with a troubled mother is going to need the consistent love of a grandmother. I think you should tell your son what you told me. That you do not want to do anything to make him feel you are being disloyal to him, but that you are concerned about the emotional well-being of his soon-to-be ex, particularly as regards their child. You say you hope you can walk that fine line of continuing a cordial relationship with his ex-wife so that all of you have an easier time of it in the years ahead. Then see what he has to say—let’s hope it’s supportive of your plan—and also let him know that you want to know if anything you do makes him uncomfortable.
Q. Re: I think you’re wrong about the jewelry: Yes, a gift is a gift, but there are different types of gifts and different ways to respond. If I gave you a bottle of wine and you promptly poured it down the drain, one could say, it was a gift and so you could do what you wanted, but your response would be considered rude and ungrateful. Admittedly, that’s an extreme scenario, but the point is that the woman did a very foolish thing and knows it. She should fess up and take responsibility for a bad and thoughtless decision. If she didn’t like the jewelry, her MIL likely would have wanted someone else to have it.
A: And if the daughter-in-law flung the jewelry back in the mother-in-law’s face and said, “What makes you think I would wear this dreck?” that would also be rude. But if you got a nice bottle of wine, thanked your givers, then brought it to a dinner party as a gift for the hosts, that would be just fine. The jewelry was not given with strings, and the wife sold not out of malice. Yes, the mother-in-law needs to be told, but no one is behaving badly here.
Q. Violated Trust: For the past five months I have been dieting and working out with a trainer. I have lost 35 pounds. I asked my mother not to talk about this with anyone, especially my brother and his wife, as I wanted to control the information, and I was trying to lose 50 pounds before it became public knowledge. Yesterday, she told him. I asked her why and she said because I had told some neighbors. The neighbors had seen me and noticed the weight loss. I told her the only people who know are the people who care about me and ask me how I am doing on a daily or weekly basis. I only deal with my brother and his wife when I have to—Christmas and birthday cards, as there is a history of extreme verbal abuse from both him and his wife. I feel that my mother violated my trust. I don’t want to have a big fuss as she is 86 years old, but, I am having a hard time getting over this.
A: Let’s say you ran into your brother and his wife on the street. In that case your secret would be out. If your mother is 86 years old you are a long-grown woman, but you sound very enmeshed in family drama. Since your mother clearly is in touch with your brother and likes to blab to him, if there’s stuff you don’t want her to pass on, don’t tell her. But the horrible brother you won’t see until Christmas finding out you lost weight should have no effect on your weight loss efforts or your life. Since you got an expert to help you with your weight issues, consider getting one to help you with your family issues. Setting up boundaries and deciding what is and isn’t important would be liberating for you.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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