Dear Prudence

Present Pain

If my husband doesn’t put more thought into his gifts, I’m going to cry.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband is all the usual things: Smart! Funny! Caring! He has, however, turned into a horrible gift giver. He used to be quite creative, but our lives have become busier as we’ve become older. We have a child, a house, and more demanding careers. I’m not looking for extravagant gifts, I’m just looking for a little consideration and I know he has it in him. For the price of the half-dead grocery store flowers I received on our recent anniversary, I would have loved to have been taken out to my favorite bar for a drink. This wouldn’t be a big problem, except for the fact that we are hosting the holidays this year. My entire family will be with us on Christmas morning. I’m still smarting from the flowers, and I’m afraid if I open another so-so gift I’ll cry! We are a really close family and they’ll be able to read my face no matter how hard I try to keep it in check. We also are the kind of family that opens each present painfully slowly and ohh and ahh over every one. Should I bring this up with my spouse, and how do I not sound shallow?

—No Poker Face

Dear Poker,
Your husband is not all the usual things. From my inbox the usual things are Addicted to Porn! Chronically Unemployed! Volatile Temper! So your husband is a gem, one who remembered your anniversary. My husband is a gem too, and when he surprised me with the last bouquet of half-dead subway flowers for Valentine’s Day, I was thrilled. It’s true I’m insensitive and not a gift person, but I understand that other people are gift persons. I even know about The 5 Love Languages and that “receiving gifts” is one of them. Of course, if I were married to such a love-language person, that would make me want to cite another love language, “words of affirmation,” and say to you, “Stop being such a pain about gifts.” There seems to be two issues here: One is that you want thoughtful gifts from your husband, the other is that you expect him to read your mind. So speak up. If you wanted to go to your favorite bar for you anniversary, in advance of it you should have told him and arranged for a babysitter. You have an opportunity this Christmas to tell him what you want. You can even hand him a catalog with an item circled in pen, or show him the website where he can order the leather tote you’ve been desiring. Then, when your family indulges in its fetishistic gift opening practices, you will not have to worry about your chin quivering like Claire Danes’ on Homeland.


Dear Prudence,
Our 3-year-old son was diagnosed with a terminal, incurable, degenerative disease several months ago. The doctors told us he has a very limited amount of “good” time left. My husband and I were fortunate enough to be able to take several months of leave from our jobs to spend time with him and take fun trips. Family even moved back to the area to be around him more. Our community has been wonderful and supportive. The issue is my 16-year-old stepdaughter. She lives three hours away and is only here once a month at best, less than her court-mandated visitation. She loves her brother but she has told us that she doesn’t want to get closer to him because it will hurt more when he dies. My husband has talked to her about how there will be time for dealing with the pain later, about the importance of building memories, and how she will likely regret this, but it hasn’t helped. We try to get her here for major events, but it takes a lot of stressful coordination with her mother who always acts as if she is doing a favor to let her come. There’s a family party before Christmas, but she’s not coming. We were told she will only be here for a few days after Christmas. Our therapist told us to let her know about what we have planned but that we can’t force her to come. My husband and I are both very hurt and sad that her brother, who probably will never get to know another sibling, is deprived of time with her. What can we do?

—A Worried Mom

Dear Worried,
I am so sorry for your heartbreak. In terrible circumstances like these, sometimes it helps to deflect your pain onto something else, to help turn away from what’s coming. So while your complaint is legitimate, it may even be a relief to be able to brood over the behavior of a teenager and her cold mother. It’s good to hear you have a therapist and she sounds like a wise one. You’re doing all you can do—telling this girl that you would like her to come, and then leaving it up to her. There is no creature on earth more self-involved than a 16-year-old. But even the most selfless one would have a hard time facing the impending death of a little brother and absorbing the anguish of the adults who love him. Sure, if your stepdaughter were different, she would be doing everything possible to spend every moment with a brother she loves and knows she’s going to lose. Maybe someday, when she’s less under the influence of her mother, she will reflect and feel a deep sense of remorse over what she didn’t do. But worrying about that is not something you should be wasting your emotional energy on. I would urge you to let this go, but if occasionally venting about this with your husband takes your mind off other things, then allow yourself that small indulgence. But as you do so, be careful not to make this frustrating girl the focus of your pain.


Dear Prudence,
About six months ago, I got hired at an amazing company and couldn’t have been happier about leaving my old job and its craziness behind. I love the atmosphere and people at my new job but there’s one little problem. In my cubicle area, which I share with three people, I am surrounded by extremely loud eaters. One of my co-workers slurps his coffee so loudly I assume other people around us can hear but just don’t say anything. The other two co-workers chomp on sandwiches or gobble up pasta and other assorted foods so loudly that sometimes I have to get up from my desk and pretend to need to use the restroom. Am I the problem, am I just too sensitive to people’s eating habits? Or is there a way I can ask them to quiet down without becoming the uptight new girl?

—Stop Chewing

Dear Stop,
Have I got a diagnosis for you! (I keep promising I will stop practicing medicine on the Internet, but I just found out about this disorder, and I can’t help myself.) Read this article on misphonia, a newly identified condition in which people are driven bonkers by selective sounds, usually produced by specific people. So your spouse’s chewing drives you insane or your co-worker’s pen clicking fills you with homicidal rage. It’s possible fate has dropped you in a pod of people lacking in cubicle manners, but hitting three out of three seems unlikely. With that and the description of the Dolby-quality pasta chewing, I’m suspicious the issue is you. You are the new girl who made a timely escape from a miserable job. If you want to keep things happy, you will not tell the people near you that when they eat and drink—anything!—you have run to the bathroom to keep from screaming. The article says that noise-canceling headphones might help, or maybe you can occasionally turn on a soft white-noise machine. Perhaps learning meditation will help you live with the fact that you work at an office where everyone’s lunch is lip-smacking good.


Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have a happy marriage of more than a decade, two kids, two cats, and a lovely home. We have a large extended family we enjoy bringing together for holidays and celebrations. The problem is my father-in-law and his wife. They are wealthy people with several homes and we rarely see them except for the holidays. When they come to our house they bring their German shepherd dogs, which they leave in their car with the windows slightly open. Over Thanksgiving anyone walking by the car, including our guests, was greeted by the dogs barking aggressively and shaking the car. On the rare occasion that we have been invited to one of their homes, the dogs have gotten aggressive with the children. My niece was bitten on her thigh, and my then 5-year-old son was barked into a creek by one of the dogs, and I had to rescue him. No one seemed to care. We’ve invited the in-laws to our home for Christmas to avoid any confrontation with the dogs. But now they bring the dogs with them! My husband hands me a cocktail and tells me to ignore them. We have argued about it, and my husband says I don’t want him to have a relationship with his father. Of course I do or I wouldn’t put up with their nonsense for all these years! I can’t drink away their visits. I want to insist that they don’t bring the dogs. Any suggestions?

—Dog Gone

Dear Gone,
The members of your in-laws’ pack sound rather like the three-headed Fluffy, Hagrid’s vicious hellhound from Harry Potter. An enchanted harp put all three of Fluffy’s heads to sleep, so you might want to start learning how to make celestial music as Christmas draws closer. You have two children and two cats, and when the holidays are over, you’re within your rights to expect you end up with the same number you started with, all 16 limbs included. Avoiding free-range encounters with these poorly disciplined dogs is a smart move. But it’s one thing to stop them at your own door, and another to say they can’t even be incarcerated in the car while the rest of you eat. Sure, it’s crazy that these wealthy people can’t manage to find dog sitters, but from your description they are a parody of spoiled obliviousness. (I acknowledge that relatives who are not among the 1 percent are also known to make obnoxious demands about their pets, especially over the holidays.) If they want their luxury car shredded, it really doesn’t make any difference to your festivities if the dogs are held hostage in it. The holidays are a rare time of connection for your husband and your kids with these relatives. So I agree with your husband that you should have a heavy hand with the brandy when spiking the eggnog. But don’t have so much that you get tipsy enough to invite the dogs in for some scraps.


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