Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com every Monday at 1 p.m. to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.) An unedited transcript of this week’s chat follows.
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m looking forward to your emails.
Chicago: My family is entering a zone of weirdness that I’m not sure I can handle. My sister is 10 years younger than I am and we’re not that close. At 24, she’s still living at home with my mom. My mom is widowed, and has not really dated anyone since my dad died 5 years ago. I’m married, have two kids and live about three hours away, so I don’t get a lot of information about what goes on a daily basis.
I’ve recently learned that my sister is dating a much older man (early forties) and my mom is dating his brother. They double date! My sister is of the view that age doesn’t matter and I’m old-fashioned. My mom says she’s having fun for the first time in ages and I shouldn’t worry. Shouldn’t worry about my middle-aged mom partying with my flaky sister? How?
Emily Yoffe: So if both couples get married your sister will be your aunt, your mother will be her daughter’s sister-in-law, your brother-in-law will be your step father, and Christmas gift-giving time will require a spread sheet. Yes, it’s kooky, and it may all end in multi-generational heartbreak— let’s hope the guys are more Marx Brothers than James Brothers. But unless you have reason to believe the brothers are up to no good, just sit back and enjoy your family’s version of Big Love.
Washington D.C.: My son is now marrying his junior high school sweetheart. My question is should she make some type or arrangement to include some of his family in her wedding plans? Like maybe a flower girl or brides maid? She seems to include only her family and friends and my side of the family wish to be included also. How do you ask her to please consider our side of the family? Thanks.
Emily Yoffe: Unless this pair is still in junior high school, presumably she has known your family for years. Before everything gets set, talk to your son and ask him to discuss this with his bride. Explain that a gesture to include your side of the family in the wedding party would mean a lot. She may be oblivious to the hurt feelings she is causing. Then whatever she does—forget it! Do not start this new marriage with your family conspiring to resent her.
The Patch: My husband is trying to stop smoking. He started the patch this weekend. And he has turned into a complete jerk. He is mean and nasty and has said some really terrible things to me. He’s also been really mean to our son.
I know it’s temporary and I’m really excited that he is going to stop smoking, but I don’t know how to deal with him. I dread going home tonight.
Emily Yoffe: You need to sit him down and say in the most loving way that all of your are thrilled that he’s taking these steps to extend his life, but you’re all going to feel like killing him if he doesn’t get hold of his frustration and stop striking out at you and your son. He may not even be aware of how impossible he is. If he continues to go too far, don’t rise to the bait, just calmly say, “I think that’s the cigarette withdrawal talking. Why don’t you take a walk before you say some more hurtful things.”
Indianapolis, Ind.: Hello, Prudence. I have just graduated from university with my degree and am hitting the job market. Now I’ve run into a bit of an embarrassing problem. You see, it is customary to shake when a hand is offered to you, yes? Well, my hands are disfigured due to a birth defect (radial aplasia if you want to know). The interviewers seem a bit surprised and a little embarrassed. They are put a bit on edge, at least if I’m reading their body language and vocal tone correct. It is not conducive to a good interview. Do you have any advice for my situation?
Emily Yoffe: Unless your birth defect makes it impossible or uncomfortable for you to shake hands (and it doesn’t sound as if that’s the case), you need to confidently offer your hand, put a big smile on your face, and say, “So nice to meet you.” Yes, you’re right, people are often uncomfortable or flummoxed when faced with such differences, but by being confident the first thing you’re going to show your prospective employer that you have mastered the art of putting people at ease.
Washington, D.C.: I have always been on the skinny side, but unfortunately due to a digestive disorder, I have lost even more weight recently. Whenever I go out to dinner or are with friends eating, I attract unwanted comments about the amount of food I am eating and my weight since small portions are easier on my stomach. People also tend to force food on me to “fatten me up.” How do I respond to these comments and gestures? My health problems and my weight already cause much anxiety for me, and having unwanted attention on account of it does not help at all.
Emily Yoffe: Everyone knows it’s a faux pas to comment on what a heavy person is eating, but since being skinny is a much desired (if unattainable) goal, everyone thinks it perfectly okay to talk about the bodies of the underweight. It’s not. But since people will be commenting, you have to both convey your comfort with your body, and that you wish to end the discussion. You could say something like, “I know it looks like I’m blessed with being slender, but because of a medical condition, I can only eat a little at a time.” To the inevitable follow-up questions you can say, “Let’s talk about something more appetizing than my digestive system.”
Pine River, Minn.: Dear Prudence, My youngest of three failed to graduate on time. He will receive his diploma after some weeks of summer school. I am wondering if it is okay to honor him with a late party once he actually finishes.
Emily Yoffe: Of course! He ran into some trouble, and then worked his way out of it. He accomplished his goal. Those are all good reasons to celebrate.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Dear Prudence, Everybody tells me that high school is the point in your life where you should be starting to form romantic relationships with people, but the concept is lost on me. I’ve always been a more solitary person, but recently I’ve been reaching out and am now on the social scene more than ever before. Because of this, I’m being noticed by some of the guys in my grade in a different light. I’ve been asked out about 2-3 times and have turned every offer down. I do this because not only do I have no interest in a boyfriend, but also I think I would make a poor girlfriend. Being a teenager, I have the overly active hormones we are known for and habitually pick out any attractive man I see (generally on television or in movies) all the time. It’s something that I think is fun, but would put a lot of strain on a relationship. My mom says it’s normal, and most of my friends agree. Save for one. One of my semi-close guy friends claims it’s mean and unfair for me to not give these potentials a chance. I’ve explained to him numerous times that I don’t want a boyfriend and don’t feel ready for that kind of commitment, but he still says I’m being rude and refusing them for all the wrong reasons. Am I right that I’m not ready for commitment, or am I just refusing them for my own bizzare reasons? Are they even the right reasons? And if I have the right to refuse, how can I let people down in a light manner without seeming cold? Please help!
Emily Yoffe: Even if you pine for Chris Pine (Capt. Kirk in Star Trek), he is simply not going to return your attention. Plenty of people don’t date in high school—they aren’t interested, aren’t ready, etc. But if you aren’t dating because you’re not ready for commitment—and find actors more attractive than classmate—that’s just fine. But a date does not a boyfriend make. It’s good to get some practice in finding out what it’s like to go out with a real person. You don’t have to confess your secret, and you don’t have to go steady. Just have fun.
Chicago, Ill.: I recently accepted a volunteer position with the intent of pulling myself out of my own personal doldrums. I really wanted to get involved and put my talents to good use. The place where I’m volunteering is extremely prestigous and very well-known. I have committed myself for two nights a week for the rest of the summer.
Last week was my first day, and I’m very disappointed. The work is extremely tedious and boring (think data entry and alphabetizing), and there’s a lot of it to do with no end in sight. The work must be done regardless. I was really hoping I’d have a chance to put my professional know-how to good use, but quite honestly the work is beneath me. (I interned at this same place many years ago, and the work I’m doing now is further down on the totem pole than what I did before.) It’s clear to me there will be no other tasks to do at this organization other than what is before me. Volunteering is having the opposite effect on me than what I’d originally hoped for.
I spoke to a friend of mine who thinks I should quit. She told me that although volunteer work on a resume is always a plus, she thinks prospective employers would look down on me for taking such a low-level volunteer position and question my professional capabilities and how I value myself. I have to admit my friend has a point.
I don’t know what to do. My life hasn’t been the greatest, and I really had high hopes for this. I’d just like to bail now. There are plenty of others lined up behind me to help so my presence won’t make a difference. Should I quit after just one day? Do you think this will hurt my job prospects in the long run? Is there a graceful way to back out of this? Should I put this on my resume? Right now, I’m too ashamed.
I don’t know what to do.
Emily Yoffe: You probably don’t want to put on your resume, “Alphabetizing at The Salvation Army from May 28, 2009—May 28, 2009.” Before you do anything, you need to have a talk with your supervisor, or the person in charge of interns. Explain that you chose the organization because you volunteered there before and had engaging work that made you feel you were furthering their goals. But now you are concerned that if you are only going to be expected to do data entry, that is not the best use of your abilities. And since it’s not the best use of your abilities, if you’re working for free, there are plenty of other places where you could put your real talents to work if this place won’t change your duties.
Sacramento, Calif.: Dear Prudie,
Several months ago I ended a bad relationship with a man I’d been seeing for about 9 months. I was verbally and emotionally abused by him and it took every ounce of my strength to finally walk away from him and not look back. About a month ago I began dating again, feeling like I had come a long way and had healed enough to put myself back in the game, and have started seeing a man who is everything I could have possibly hoped for. He’s smart, ambitious, kind, gentle, considerate - basically everything I’ve ever wanted. However, my ex got wind of my new relationship and has done everything possible to tear me down and make me feel insecure about myself and my ability to be in a relationship. He tells me all of the imperfections of my body, how horrible I am as a lover, has been ‘fessing up to lies he told me throughout our relationship. I try to ignore him, but somehow I still feel battered and bruised and I’m worried that my new guy will decide I have too much “drama” with my ex constantly harrassing me. Any tips about how to make my ex leave me alone? We don’t even live in the same state!
Emily Yoffe: Why is this guy in your life in any way? Next time he contacts you tell him your relationship is over and you both need to move on and end contact completely. Then do not pick up the phone when you see it’s him, don’t answer his emails, don’t respond to his tweets, etc. If he continues, then tell him if he doesn’t understand you meant no contact, you will be forced to take legal action to get him to leave you alone
Philadelphia, Penn.: I’m a graduate student in mathematics, and my particular area is very abstract. When people ask me what I do, or see me with a textbook and ask what I’m reading, no matter how simplified an explanation I give them, inevitably the person remarks that my area is “way beyond” them or that they’d “never be able to grasp that”. I always want to tell them, “You definitely won’t with that attitude.” To me, all of these concepts are perfectly intuitive, and while I’m certainly aware that not everyone has my capacity for, or interest in, mathematics, I am still annoyed by all of these people putting themselves down to me—did they ever try to understand the subject? At least some of them might find it easier and more interesting than they expected! For some reason, they all seem to take pride in how poor their math ability is, or at the very least they aren’t troubled by it. Should I be harsher and just say “Yes indeed, this is much too hard for you”? How do you suggest I respond to these kind of comments?
Emily Yoffe: A few years ago, in an attempt to help my daughter with her math homework, I enrolled in the elementary school math prep program, Kumon. I scored at the first grade level. Even if I tried, I probably couldn’t truly understand what you’re doing. But I would be interested if you could explain what this math is used for—modeling subprime mortgages? Global warming? Then we’d have something to talk about. So ignore the self-put downs, and don’t add any of your own. Instead think of it as an opportunity to show that what you do is interesting and can—on some level—be grasped.
Arlington, Va.: Please, please, please advise the woman whose husband is trying to quit smoking to discuss this side-effect with his doctor immediately. My family has been devastated by a member who committed suicide shortly after beginning a drug-based regime designed to help him quit smoking. A reaction like her husband’s shouldn’t be ignored or trivialized. (Not that your original answer trivialized it, but please have them make sure it’s not something more serious.)
Emily Yoffe: Medical alert! Wife with the husband quitting smoking who has developed a terrible personality—have him call his doctor immediately. Thanks for the heads up.
To the Sister: I know it seems weird for your sister and your Mom to marry brothers, but it’s not. See, I’m my own Grandpa. It sounds funny, I know, but it really is so. I married a somewhat older woman, then my Mom passed on, and my dad got to know her 20-something daughter, and somehow they became close. Then we had a kid, and they had a kid, and after much consideration, I realized that in fact I’m my own Grandpa.
Emily Yoffe: If this weren’t a country song, I’d say it sounded like something out of Sophocles.
I can’t believe I’m saying this…: As someone who despises the whole wedding industrial/bridezilla complex… but the bride’s choice of bridesmaids are supposed to be people she is close with. Presumably, that doesn’t include any members of your family, and she’s chosen to pick her friends and family to stand with her. Is there really anything wrong with that?
When I was married, my mother-in-law arbitrarily invited her niece to be my bridesmaid on the basis that she had a really pretty dress to wear. I didn’t even know her well & my bridesmaids consisted of two people—my best friend and my cousin, which is what I wanted. I thought it odd that she would presume to add someone she felt would fit in.
Emily Yoffe: Elope, everyone, elope! I share your dislike of all this, and agree with you about choosing your own bridesmaids. But obviously the two families (the couple met in junior high) must know each other well and both bride and groom should sit down and make sure some groom’s family members have a part in the wedding.
Atlanta, Ga.: Dear Prudence, You’ve just reconnected with someone on Facebook and want to ask whether or not their parent(s) is still alive. Is there any graceful way to ask that question?
Emily Yoffe: Now, thanks to Facebook, high school truly never has to end, no matter when you graduated. People are reconnecting to classmates they haven’t heard from in decades, and there’s no way people can be expected to know about the health status of older relatives. Go ahead and send a message — a private one, not posted on the wall—saying, “How are your parents doing? I think of them so fondly.” Then if they’re no longer around, don’t be embarrassed, just express your condolence.
Washington, D.C.: For the radial aplasia writer: I work with a young woman whose hands are significantly deformed, and she follows Prudie’s advice. Bright smile, totally warm and confident, no hesitation on the hand-shaking. Sure, you notice the hands right away, but you forget them just as quickly as her personality shines through.
Emily Yoffe: Wonderful! As you’ve seen, a confident, engaging manner can’t be beat.
Detroit, Mich.: Dear Prudie,
I have a questions about interfering in someone else’s life. My aunt and uncle have hit some hard times recently, my aunt was laid off and had to take a much lower position to make ends meet, and my uncle is under more stress than ever at work. They have two young children, who are wonderful and charming, but I have noticed a pretty large difference in their little girl lately. Last time I saw her she has gained a lot of weight, her face was dirty and her hair uncombed. While at my house she ate more than I did and ate cake and burgers and whipped cream with abandon and no comment from her parents. I fear that she is being lost in the hard changes that must be taking place at their house. My uncle has always been a man’s man and has paid more attention to the little girl’s older brother, taking him to car races and camping but leaving the girl at home. And now, with my aunt have less time than ever to spend on her, I think she has been a little forgotten. I am concerned about her, but also concerned about sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong. Any advice?
Emily Yoffe: You’re family, so I think your nose belongs, but you must handle this very gently. Check in with your aunt about how things are going. You can say you were concerned that “Caitlin” didn’t seem like herself the last time they visited. Then you should step in and take an interest in Caitlin. Tell your aunt you’ve got some free time and you’d love to spend more time with Caitlin. You could take her to museums, go to a pottery class together, etc. Your consistent interest in this lonely child could make a permanent difference in her life.
Park City, Utah: I love my boyfriend very very dearly. We have been together six years, living together for three. About a year ago we had a public fight in which my boyfriend got a little physical with me (first and only time). I broke things off, but we recently got back together. Everything is great, I love being with him, but the second things turn sexual I freeze up. My skin crawls and it’s all I can do not to push him away. I just want to love him again…please help me. How can I get past this?
Emily Yoffe: Your boyfriend totally lost control and what—Hit you? Pushed you around? Now your skin crawls at his touch. I think your skin’s telling you you can’t get past it.
Milwaukee, Wis.: I am asking for advice regarding the first year of marriage. My husband has recently let me know that he questions whether he can stay in our relationship, and cites the fact that he never has felt confident in his feelings of love toward me. I love him deeply. Any advice on how to cope with this ambiguity? We are seeing a therapist but exploring his feelings seems to be taking things to a new low.
Emily Yoffe: This is along the same lines as the letter above. The first year of marriage shouldn’t be that hard. This sounds painful and humiliating, but how do you convince someone he didn’t make a mistake and he should love you? Therapy is just revealing how little he wants to be in the marriage. I say you should take charge of yourself and tell him you realize you don’t want to be in a marriage with someone who doesn’t love you, and get out before you invest more years with Mr. Tortured.
Washington, D.C.: We have a small child who is possibly the most-photographed kid on the planet. My husband practically lives behind the camera — but only with his own family. When we’re with my family, we might come away from the visit with two or three snapshots. Visits with his family get a page or two on Flickr. I’ve mentioned that I wish he would show as much interest in my family’s interaction with our child as he does in his own. He says “sure” but nothing changes. Am I wrong to be a little miffed over this?
Emily Yoffe: You are wrong in not taking the camera yourself and making sure you get plenty of shots with your child and Grammy and Papa. There are enough real issues that make marriage difficult, so skip the ones that aren’t.
Re: Volunteering: Shouldn’t this person honor their commitment and then find a better fit? They are obviously needed. I volunteer at my children’s school and while a portion of my time I get to work with the children, a lot of it is boring copy, laminating, filing and organization. But I know my helping lets the teacher’s spend more time teaching.
Emily Yoffe: I think doing scut work for your kid’s school — which allows you know the staff and teachers better and feel part of that community — if different from doing utterly tedious work for an organization where you have no direct connection. It sounds like a very long summer of alphabetizing for free for no real good purpose.
Washington, D.C.: I have recently begun to get graduation invitations from the children of high school friends and distant relatives. I have never met these children, and in many cases I have not seen their parents in over 15-20 years. Is a gift really expected or required? The invitations came from the children themselves — not from their parents with a “can you believe I am old enough to have a high school grad” type note, which would have made it seem more “news-y” than “greedy.”
Emily Yoffe: You may be tempted to respond with, “I can hardly believe it, since until your note, I didn’t know you’d been born!” You can ignore the notes from former friends you haven’t seen in decades. As for distant family, you can reply with a note of congratulations — if you feel if the circumstances were reversed you’d never expect a gift, then don’t send one.
Los Angeles, Calif.: My 82-year-old grandmother is blind and, since my grandfather went into a nursing home, has been living by herself for the past three years. For the most part, she is amazingly self-sufficient; paying her bills and ordering her groceries online, etc. I am extremely proud of her. My problem? I live 5 minutes away and am the relative she relies on for all of the other things that she needs help with. I honestly do not begrudge her the help she needs, picking up prescriptions, making out checks for her, taking her to visit my grandfather, taking her pets to the vet, etc, but more and more I’m feeling resentful that none of the rest of the family who live in the area pitch in to help. While I am over there several times a week, my uncle, who lives less than 1/2 an hour away, stops by briefly maybe once a month, if that. When the subject is brought up, he gives vague excuses as to how “busy” he is at work then goes on to describe the time he spent on his sailboat the weekend before.
When she had her house renovated, I was the one who spent weeks dealing with the contractor, the paperwork, and helping her get the house ready, though a few family members did come over on two days to help clean out some of the rooms.
I find myself resenting each trip to my grandmother’s because I know that it will be filled with obligatory tasks and chores. She is too proud to accept help from senior services, so I’m at a loss as to what else to do. How can I stop feeling like an indentured servant and start feeling like a granddaughter again? I love my grandmother dearly and miss the time when I eagerly looked forward to our visits.
Emily Yoffe: If your grandmother’s pride is making you dread your visits, then it’s time for pride to taketh a fall. You need to call a family conference to discuss how all of you can better address your grandmother’s needs. You have fallen into being her de facto caretaker and it’s not going to serve anyone if you become overwhelmed. Tasks have to be delegated — maybe someone can be in charge of finding out what services are available for your grandmother. Others can agree to run errands, care for her pets, take her to visit your grandfather. Tell everyone you all need to share in the burdens and joys of last years.
“Math? That’s over my head”: I think this writer deserves more of an answer. I’m a woman in physics, and nearly everyone makes a self-deprecating comment when I say so. The point really is this: there is a cultural pride in innumeracy that doesn’t exist for illiteracy—no one will brag about not being able to read, yet feel free to essentially brag about not being good at math. This is not people being candid about their abilities. It actually is a way of dismissing the importance of the field of study by implying that it has no cultural necessity or meaning. There has to be a way of responding to this, but subtly encouraging people to believe that it can be understood (with perhaps some effort—but what doesn’t take effort?). Most people can do math to at least the calculus level with time and effort, not talent. And most people can understand even high mathematical concepts, if not perform them, if they’d get past the mental block. This hurts everybody!
Emily Yoffe: I’m sure most people could change their carburetor with some time and effort, too. Instead of lecturing people about how their innumeracy hurts everyone, understand that people are complimenting you on your impressive skills. So come up with some things to say about your field that can engage even the innumerate, like me, in conversation.
And thanks, everyone, for this week’s conversation!