Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, I look forward to your questions.
Q. See a Dentist!: Last October I gave my husband an ultimatum, see the dentist or we’re over. In the 16 years we’ve known each other, he has not been to the dentist once. As a child he had a traumatic injury to his front teeth, and that the repair was not done correctly. As a result, he does not smile and show his teeth, and he talks so that his teeth can not be seen. He does have a dark/discolored top front tooth. Due to his lack of regular dental visits, I am not interested in kissing him. He has extreme halitosis and I have mentioned this to him and he gets very upset and angry with me. I’ve told a couple friends about my ultimatum, they think getting divorced because of poor oral hygiene is ridiculous. What are your thoughts?
A: We know what’s wrong with your husband. His mouth is a cesspool and he has extreme dental phobia. But you signed up for this 16 years ago, and I don’t understand how you married someone whose mouth reminds you of the portal to hell. Open-ended ultimatums aren’t really ultimatums. Your husband hasn’t seen the dentist, and now it’s almost July. His mouth prevents you from being intimate with him, and he won’t do anything about it. I suggest you do some research into dentist who specialize in treating the phobic. Tell your husband you will accompany him and that the biggest hurdle is just getting to the office. Your marriage does not hang on the results of a survey of your social circle—and these people have really relaxed standards. Your requirement that your husband meet a minimum threshold of hygiene is perfectly reasonable.
Q. Finders, Keepers: We hosted an end of the season party for my 12-year-old daughter’s sports team. The 7-year-old brother of a teammate came to me and proudly claimed he “found” a few $1 coins. I said “Thank you, our family’s tooth fairy brings dollar coins and she must have dropped them.” Then I held out my hand to the boy to return them. He clutched them, he mother quickly stepped in front of him. She stared at me and said, “Finders, keepers.” I was speechless. I did not want to confront a guest in my home, but I didn’t want the children scavenging around my home for money to keep/steal. What should I have said or done? This family is flourishing financially, and we are not. And the $6 taken from my daughter’s dresser is a small fortune in her world.
A: Normally when parents are confronted with an chance to convey a life lesson the lesson is not, “Take advantage of every opportunity to commit larceny.” The issue is not the relative condition of each family’s bank statement. It’s that a little boy needed to be told what it means to be a guest and how to respect other people’s property. (I love your graceful way of trying to get the money back.) I understand that you were aghast and speechless, but not escalating this was the right thing to do. Now you know the character of this mother, and no matter how wealthy they are, you can have some sympathy for kids who are being raised as little monsters. You should explain to your daughter what happened, how wrong it is, but that it would have been worse to try to wrestle the coins from the boy’s hand. Say that unfortunately some people are dishonest, so it’s always a good idea to put away money before guests come over.
Q. I’m Not Coming: My boyfriend and I have been dating for five months. He recently had intercourse with me and, like most women, I did not get off. I asked him for a little more attention afterward, and he balked that it was too much work and that I was expecting too much from him. He then asked what the point of intercourse was if I didn’t even get off during it and indicated that he thought I wasn’t normal. Is it too much to expect some extra attention so that it’s fun for me too, especially when I’m willing to do the same? Or should I expect to be in charge of doing my own thing while he does his?
A: I would hope that when you have a guy with this attitude about your coming, you would tell him you’re going. Of course that first time can be awkward and not wholly satisfying as two people figure out each other’s bodies and psyches. But I think you’ve heard enough to know that if this guy’s approach is “I’m done, so take care of yourself” then you should take him at his word. Attend to your own needs in private until you find someone who is interested in actually being your lover.
Q. Daddy Issues: When I was 12, my father murdered the lover of my stepmother. He was sentenced to 50 years and has served almost 20 years. It was very traumatic for me to say the least and I have been in therapy off and on ever since. Most of my issues are related to his abandonment. And it’s not like he was not a great father before he became a murderer. He has since been diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia disorders, which was an ah-ha moment for me and my family. I visited and wrote him fairly often until I was 18 when I moved abroad for a while. In the past 10 years I have only seen him once. It was an awful visit. I told him how I felt, that I was sad and angry, etc., and he was very defensive. He also told me that he believes he deserves to be in prison because he would do the same thing over again if given the chance. I haven’t written to him in several years and a few years ago he stopped writing me. I pretty much hate him and feel he doesn’t deserve me in his life, but a part of me feels like it might be important to say goodbye. He is in poor health and I don’t imagine he will live too much longer. I’m afraid if I don’t go see him one last time, I will regret it. I don’t even know what I would say or if this would be a good idea, because the last time was so heart-wrenching. What are your thoughts?
A: Ah, closure—how I hate that concept. Of course, I know that many people have had the kind of conversations that help them feel they have addressed a lingering issue and are now more able to move on. But often the idea of closure is that a magic wand of understanding and connection is waved over a situation that just doesn’t lend itself to being satisfyingly closed. You have tried to reach out to your father and get some understanding and an apology from him. Instead you got a painful dose of reality: He is a sick person, he at least has the insight to recognize it, and he is not capable of giving you what you want. This is unlikely to have changed, so if you go see him, do so with the understanding that you’re doing it so that you don’t feel regret at not doing it. But I have heard from many, many people with catastrophic parents who never had that last goodbye and didn’t regret it. They accepted that the parent they wanted didn’t exist and the one they had was already effectively dead to them.
Q. Put an (Evil?) Ring on It: My boyfriend and I have been discussing marriage. When he asked what I like in rings, he was excited about my answer because it apparently describes his deceased grandmother’s ring that is “his.” The problem is, from what I’ve heard of the woman, she was a cruel, manipulative person. Her children didn’t speak with her, his mother is still in therapy, and the cascading effects of family dynamics caused serious examination for me when we started to date seriously. I tend to be logical and not superstitious, but I can’t shake the bad vibes. I don’t need anything pricey and I like the idea of a hand-me-down. Just not from her. Should I talk to him about this before we get engaged, or recognize it’s just a piece of metal and rock that has no bearing on us, and try to get over it?
A: I don’t like superstition either, but then I’m not a sports fan, so I don’t have to engage in rituals to help my team win like not changing my underwear during the finals. But being superstitious, and imbuing inanimate objects with talismanic powers is part of human nature. I think you can address both your logical and mystical sides and end up with a lovely ring. Perform some kind of cleansing ritual on the ring. (Only you know how open your fiancé would be to joining you in this.) You can have the ring professionally cleaned as a way of giving it a new start. You can say some kind of incantation over it about how this stone will represent a happy beginning. As I mentioned, I dislike superstition, but that hasn’t stopped me from walking around each new house I’ve moved into with a burning sage stick just to freshen things up.
Q. Re: See a dentist: I have the same problem with my husband of 13 years. It irks me to see Prudie, whenever this issue arises, express astonishment that the letter writer signed up with Mr. Bad Dental Hygiene in the first place. In my case, it’s been 13 years. His teeth weren’t noticeably bad when we first got together, and in my youthful optimism I assumed that he’d see a dentist when we got real jobs with dental insurance. Making a lifetime commitment to someone often means being around long enough to see seemingly small bad habits turn into big problems. I sympathize with the ultimatum-giver (believe me, it’s crossed my mind too), and know exactly how she ended up here. It’s a tough place to be, and if her husband is as scared and stubborn as mine she has nothing but sympathy from me.
A: I agree that what turns into a crisis isn’t always evident at the start. But you and the letter writer each married someone with dental issues, issues that never got addressed, even when the money and opportunity arose. Of course, there’s not necessarily an easy fix when a small problem becomes a major one. You don’t just snap your finger when you realize the guy who used to really like his beer is now an alcoholic. Or that his mouth is decaying, you don’t ever want to kiss him, and he won’t do anything about it. But feeling furious and stuck year after year is not a solution.
Q. To Tell or Not To?: Yesterday after the post-Pride haze I hooked up with a guy. I am a gay man in my late 20s. I have chronic hepatitis B, I am 100 percent upfront about my health condition when it comes to dating, but yesterday I couldn’t tell this to the guy, though we did not engage in anything unsafe. I now I am feeling terribly guilty for not telling. Maybe subconsciously I was afraid of yet another rejection. Though it was just a hookup and we never meet again, he did add me on Facebook. Now I have absolutely no idea how to deal with my guilt and with this new Facebook connection.
A: You don’t say whether he asked you explicitly about your health status and you gave a false answer, or whether in the haze both of you were in it never came up. What you describe is one of the dangers of casual sex, and anyone engaging in it has to take personal responsibility for making that sex as safe as possible. But you say that the two of you didn’t do anything unsafe. If that’s really the case, stop beating yourself up. And casual though this encounter may be, you did exchange contact information. So send a private Facebook message to this guy, explain there’s something you have to talk to him about and give him your phone number. Then just say you would feel remiss in not informing in that though what you two did is highly unlikely to have exposed him, you wanted him to know that you have hepatitis B. You will feel better for being honest.
Q. Re: Evil ring: The ring could be a reminder that you and your husband are breaking from a cruel, unhappy past and charting a new family course. Think of what that ring could then represent to future generations as a symbol of loving change. It’s powerful to think that you’ll change what the ring represents rather the ring changing you. At least that’s what I tell myself so I can keep my grandmother’s gorgeous wedding silver from her bitter, unhappy marriage to my lying, thieving, womanizing grandfather.
A: There would be no antiques business if everything old was required to come with a certificate that the previous owners lived a blissfully happy life. I love your take on the silver, and I think the fiancée should apply it to the ring.
Q. Bad Mom: I feel overwhelmed with guilt for even typing this now and I would never admit this out loud, but I suddenly don’t like being around my 7-year-old and I can’t explain why. He’s a dream son, my oldest of three. His teachers adore him, he’s never mean to anybody (except for one of his brothers), he routinely scores in the 99th percentile of standardized academic assessments, and his gifted teacher constantly jokes that she wants to adopt him. But he’s also extremely sensitive and doesn’t stop talking and overthinks everything (my husband and I are also both guilty of these things, so he comes by this honestly). But, as much as I love holding and cuddling the younger two, I force myself to give him hugs and have to pull away long before I intended to. I don’t enjoy his cuddles and he loves me so much, but I just cringe when he asks to snuggle with me. I love him, but I don’t like him. I’m crying as I type this because I just feel so guilty. He’s very perceptive and notices everything. He’s also very articulate and tells people about how his mother used to love him so much and cuddled with him all the time and read to him every night, but now she’s always mad at him. And it’s true that I am much harder on him than I am on his brothers. I tell myself I am not going to yell, but when I’ve asked him to put on his shoes three times or he isn’t eating his breakfast because he’s obsessively consumed by some article about osprey catching fish, I lose my temper and raise my voice and then hate myself for it. My youngest is only 3 months old. Could this be post-partum depression, only directed at my oldest and not the baby? How can I get back the overwhelming love I used to feel every time I looked at him? I don’t want to be this kind of mom. I don’t have time for therapy!
A: Good for you for confronting what’s going on, and with such insight. Please talk to your doctor right away about post-partum depression. I think that is an astute insight and you may indeed be deflecting your distress on to your oldest son. Please also consider calling the hotline for Postpartum Support International. I’m sure it will be a relief to you to talk to others who have been there. It’s crucial you make sure you have enough help. It can be overwhelming to be responsible for three small children, and of course you are focused on the needs of your youngest, but get a babysitter or family member to come in regularly to watch your younger two so that you can spend some time with your oldest. It’s also crucial that your husband gives you support and relief—and also focus attention on your eldest. Your 7-year-old sounds like a remarkable child, but also one who needs special care and handling—you know that because he’s like you. And because he’s like you, you might not like seeing some of your more, ah, difficult traits reflected back. So start with the basics: doctor; support group; babysitting. If that doesn’t help, then you must find the time for a therapist. Your highly intelligent, acutely sensitive son knows something is wrong. There’s nothing more important than taking the steps to set your relationship right.
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