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. Note: Emily will be on vacation next Monday, July 13.
Emily Yoffe: I look forward to your questions!
West Coast, USA: For about a year now, I have been dating an awesome guy who is an officer in the military. I met him about a year or so into a three-year tour. Everything is going very well, we’ve moved in together, and for the most part we get along without any issues. At the end of this current tour, he will transfer to another location. This has been known and understood since we began dating. On this next tour, he will be deployable. I should mention that his job is relatively dangerous and has little room for error without serious consequences. In any case, I feel confident that our relationship will last until and through the next tour. Oh, I should also mention that he has said explicitly, on more than one occasion, that he “will not marry anyone until they have gone through at least one deployment.”
However, I have a fair degree of anxiety about moving, deployment, etc. knowing that I am not a dependent, and if something happens to him, I have very few options for support. As it stands now, his family stands to be the main beneficiary of any death benefits. They’re lovely and we all get along fine, but it still leaves me in an awkward place. I want to point out that this is only partially about money. Something that worries me even more than life insurance nonsense, is that if something happens, I will be the last to know. Yuck.
So, am I completely out of line in worrying about this? We’re still more than a year away from any sort of major decision, but it’s something that I think about every time talk of the next set of orders comes up, which is more often than you might think. How do I bring it up without making it seem like I’m making a play for a ring on my finger (which I’m not)? I hardly think that I’m the first person who’s had to face this, but I don’t know anyone else who has, so I’m not sure where else to go for advice …
Emily Yoffe: I can almost assure you that the way to hurry the ring is not to say, “I want us to spend the rest of our lives together, and if yours is particularly short, I’m going to be completely cut out of your insurance benefits unless we legalize this relationship.” Your situation is a good example of why living together is sometimes a bad idea. You’re just kind of drifting along, not sure if you’ll ever get married, but racking up a sense of entitlement and resentment. Since your boyfriend has made it clear he’s not ready to get married, you should have clearer boundaries. Perhaps you want to get your own place, while still remaining committed to each other, until you both feel ready to discuss marriage. In any case, you should maintain your own financial independence so that you don’t even need to think about what you are owed in case he doesn’t come home. And as far as being notified of his untimely death in a timely manner—well, that would seem to require that you continue to develop a warm relationship with his family. A good way to do that is to not discuss with them your desire to be the first to get word of his death.
New Hampshire: Dear Prudence, I have an old friend from college who lives in NYC. She often comes to visit, using my or another friend’s house as a sort of vacation home—announcing her planned stay with very little notice, coming and going as she pleases when she is here, not helping with meals (financially or otherwise), and not contributing to the stockpile of booze that she expects will be waiting for her when she arrives. I had been weaning her off these visits, claiming that my husband and I were busy or going out of town (to which she has said, “No problem, leave the key for me”), but she still shows up and doesn’t seem to be surprised when we are home. Additionally, she now has a boyfriend. They show up together, he complains about the air mattress at our house or the cats at our friend’s, grimaces at the food we cook, and, horror of horrors, they think nothing of having sex (loudly!) at all hours of the day and night. How do I tell her that I’m all set with all of this mooching (and screwing around)?
Emily Yoffe: On Halloween if you don’t want trick-or-treaters you leave the house dark, and don’t have a pumpkin on your porch. You need to treat your friend like an unwanted Halloween ghost—and there is only a small chance she will egg your house when she finds out it’s no longer her permanent crash pad. When she calls to tell you she’s coming, you tell her, “Sorry, Hank and I can’t entertain you this year, but have a lovely summer.” If she shows up on your porch, leave her there while you go inside and print out directions to the nearest motel.
McLean, Va.: I just bought a house with my husband. My mother, a lifelong smoker, wants to smoke in the house. I told her that she could smoke outside, but she refuses and says that as my mother, she should be able to do what she wants.
She now refuses to speak to me and when she does, she says that I am being disrespectful to her.
I don’t see how I am, so can you please tell me? Am I wrong here?
Emily Yoffe: She can do what she wants, as long as it’s not at your house. Just because she gave birth to you many decades ago, she is not entitled to marinate your house in her smoke. If this is the way she behaves about this subject, surely she is irascible on many other topics, and you need to accept what you can, and draw the line at what you can’t. If she refuses to speak to you over this perfectly reasonable request, then enjoy the peace and quiet.
Raynham, Mass.: Dear Prudie,
I’m a teacher and work on a team with four other teachers. I’m new to the school and the profession, so I usually look to them as role models as well as co-workers. I’m a little baffled as to one practice done by every one of them: When students give small gifts for holidays, teacher appreciation week, or end-of-the-year thank-yous, the teachers all insist on writing thank you notes to each child. I was always taught that outside of more formal occasions like weddings, showers, etc., you wrote a thank you note only when you weren’t able to say “thank you” in person at the time you received the gift. When a student gives me a gift, I say a very sincere thank you and let them know how much I appreciate it, but I can’t see wasting time writing out thank you cards to 11- and 12-year-olds who, frankly, I think don’t really want them. Am I being rude and going against proper etiquette by not writing them thank you notes, or is this overkill on my co-workers’ parts? Thanks!
Emily Yoffe: I often wonder if teachers really want a collection of 25 coffee mugs a year, or a bakery’s worth of goodies. I know there are some schools that ban individual gifts, or encourage one class gift, and that seems like a much better solution. But as onerous as it sounds, your colleagues are right. First of all, the gifts are from the parents, and they need to know the present actually got to you. And second, you are a role model. So your students’ parents can show them your card and say, “How thoughtful of your math teacher to write such a lovely note.”
Boston: I recently called off my wedding. My fiance is a wonderful man, but has anger issues that were escalating into the realm of verbal abuse. These incidents are unpredictable, sometimes public and getting scarier every time (this last time was enough to get us chased into the car by a random street thug who was trying to come to my defense). My fiance is taking responsibility for his problem and seeking treatment. My questions: can anyone with a problem like this really change? Is it more beneficial to both of us to stay with him and help him get through it or to move on?
Emily Yoffe: Of course there are people who have been able to get abusive anger under control. You should give your former fiance your best wishes that he becomes one of them, then RUN.
Kansas City, Mo.: Dear Prudence,
My parents are preparing to celebrate their 50th anniversary this summer. With the exception of my wife and me (and our four adult children), the whole family (my parents, my two brothers and their wives and school-aged children) lives in Southern California. A few months ago one of my brothers called to let us know they would like to put on a luncheon/open house for family and friends (“approximately 40 people”) at their house to celebrate, and wanted to make sure we could attend and also ask if we would be interested in splitting the bill three ways among the siblings. I agreed, and have since bought plane tickets for my family, and we have been looking forward to the party. I got an e-mail from my brother over the weekend, informing me that the bill came to $6,000, so my portion is $2,000. I was, and am, astounded by the amount! When I heard “luncheon/open house for 40 people” I figured sandwiches and finger food, and paying a few hundred dollars. $6,000 seems excessive to me. I guess the lesson I should learn here is that I should have asked what they had in mind for expenses/cost, but I also think they should have clarified they were planning on dropping enough for a small wedding. Was I being naive about the cost, or is there a point at which my brothers should have clued me in on the bill?
Emily Yoffe: Is everyone going to pan for gold in the punch? Are they serving BLTs, with the “T” standing for truffles? Yes, $150 a head for an open house luncheon is outrageous. Sure, catering in Southern California may cost a lot more than Kansas City, but certainly it would be reasonable for you to have assumed your cost would be under $1,000. You need to tell the brothers that this is way over your budget and ask if there is some way the costs can be significantly scaled back. If they won’t, then you have to decide how to balance both family unity and your checkbook.
Richmond, Va.: I am dealing with an elderly neighbor who is unable to accept the fact that another neighbor is gay.
She comes over about twice a week, and lately the topic is always the same—the gay guy who nobody wants around here.
I always felt the best thing to do is to just nod my head and change the subject. But now things are turning weird—she wants her son to drive down the street (he has a pickup with an exhaust system that sounds like a freight train) early in the morning. The goal is to wake this poor guy up and then nudge him to sell. So she wants us to sleep in the basement for a while so the noise won’t wake us.
At this point, we would rather she not come over anymore. Is there any way to handle this so my family doesn’t wind up in the middle of the mess she is creating?
Emily Yoffe: You should tell her your sorry that you can’t entertain her anymore, but her insulting comments about your lovely neighbor are impossible for you to listen to. You can warn her that if she starts harassing the neighbor, you will alert him as to who’s doing it and that you will call the police.
West Coast, USA… Again: Hi—
Thanks for answering my question, you’ve definitely given me some important things to think about.
Just to clarify, I am financially independent now, have my own job and benefits, easily pay my share of house expenses, etc. We do not share any debt or other financial obligations. I don’t anticipate that will change if/when a decision about moving is made.
If I made it seem like my question was entirely about insurance money, or my “entitlement” to it, it was my mistake to not re-read my question, since that really isn’t the case at all, or even close to it. I was trying to get at what happens if we move and something happens…. Where does that leave me, financially, family-wise, etc. I don’t resent him, what he does, or his family. I’m just trying to figure out my place in all of it as things get more serious between us.
Thanks again though for the thoughts, I really appreciate it.
Emily Yoffe: (This is from the woman with the boyfriend in the military)
Thanks for your reply. I know I let you have it!
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dear Prudence, I am engaged to a wonderful guy and great friend. He’s been supportive of me through several challenging situations, and I trust him a lot. Recently he disclosed that he has an addiction to online porn. It’s something he feels he has no control over and is very ashamed about. I try to listen and be nonjudgmental, but I don’t have experience in helping people confront addictions. He needs more help than I can provide, but is too embarrassed to seek professional help or even (he says) talk to anyone else about it. I also am concerned that if he doesn’t try to deal with this and get better, it will affect our relationship and potential marriage for the worse. What do you suggest I do?
Emily Yoffe: My in-box indicates that one’s default assumption about anyone with XY chromosomes should be that he’s addicted to porn. There is a distinction between looking occasionally at porn and being “addicted.” Your fiance has just admitted to you that he has a problem. One thing to consider is that until this confession, you were not even aware of this habit, so right now his activities have not impinged on your relationship. Another is it’s not clear what your fiance wants to do about it. Is he warning you that he’s going to disappear for a couple of hours a day to attend to his habit? Was he afraid you’d check his computer history and stumble on it? Is he saying he wants to stop? You two need to talk about how you both feel about what he’s doing. And if this is causing both of you distress, what can he do but seek help from a counselor trained to deal with addictive behaviors?
re: Richmond: If the son is willing to aid the elderly woman in chasing a gay man out of the neighborhood, I don’t think it’s a good idea to forewarn her (and the son) that the police may be called. That doesn’t sound safe.
I would make myself unavailable for weekly chats, and I would visit the neighborhood precinct and notify them of the “plan.” It’s best to adopt a “know nothing” approach so as not to become the object of unwanted attention.
Emily Yoffe: Good points, because mother and son both sound out of their minds, unfortunately.
Re: Thank you notes: I just wanted to say that my children love getting the Thank You notes from their teachers. It just takes a couple of sentences on an inexpensive note card and tucking them in the child’s backpack. It also sets a good example. I know teachers are busy, but you make such a big impression on children, some of whom will never get these lessons at home.
Emily Yoffe: True. Many kids grow up in homes in which they are never taught they need to properly (pen to paper) thank people for gifts.
Herndon, Va.: Dear Prudence—While on a family vacation, my mother-in-law recently walked in on me as I was getting out of the shower and, for lack of a better phrase, “saw everything” and actually gazed a little longer than expected. Should I tell my wife of the incident or just let it go? The reason I ask is I now seem to be getting a lot more attention from my mother-in-law than usual, for whatever reason.
Emily Yoffe: Herndon, couldn’t you have put a “Letter that will make you gag” warning on this? Yes, you should tell your wife—isn’t this the kind of thing spouses tell each other: “Honey, the most embarrassing thing just happened …” As for the special attention, do your best to ignore it. And let your hygiene go at the next family vacation.
Regarding Richmond: I’m not involved in this situation, but I’m more worried about the gay man being subjected to harassment. Should the writer let him know about the prejudiced neighbor’s plans? Or do you step up as a witness only after something has happened?
Emily Yoffe: I think the writer should let the gay neighbor know—that way he will understand what’s going on if a pickup starts waking him up at dawn.
Herndon, Va.: My father, brother, and I share this trait that when we get together, we complain about our significant others. I’ve realized it, made efforts to break the pattern and have made some improvements. My father, however, has not.
When he and my stepmother visit, it’s pretty clear the things that he says hurt her feelings or at the very least bother her. She usually hints that it bothers her, but he is oblivious or doesn’t care to stop.
I’ve touched on the behavior with him in the past, but he did not really acknowledge it. Do I say something again, or do I stay out of it?
Part of the problem is that it makes it harder for me to resist doing it when he starts doing it.
Emily Yoffe: If your father and brother liked to shoot up heroin when you got together, that wouldn’t mean that you have to find yourself saying, “Pass me the needle, please.” I’m not sure scientists will ever be able to identify the “disparaging your spouse” gene—so instead of blaming it on heredity, take responsibility for what comes out of your own mouth. As far as responding to what comes out of your father’s, when he makes nasty comments about your stepmother, you can say something like, “Dad, I don’t want to hear you insult ‘Jean.’ Your remarks are not only unpleasant, they’re wrong.”
Washington, D.C.: When my in-laws visit and we go out to eat, they will only eat about one-third of the food on their plates. With no fridge in the hotel, my husband and I are expected to take their leftovers home. I think they believe they’re doing something nice for us, but it’s disgusting. I am in my late 30s, doing just fine financially, but feel like a baby bird who is being offered regurgitated food.
I have pointed out that they pack my fridge with food that I can’t eat (dietary restrictions), and my husband doesn’t particularly like. So even though they can’t stand to waste food, they must realize that’s what will happen after they leave. But they still won’t order less/just leave their garbage behind. As time passes and I am more annoyed by their eating habits, I have been getting a bit meaner about it.
I don’t like them, but they’re not bad people. Please help me learn to deal with this or something to say to get through to them.
Emily Yoffe: When they say, “You can pack up our leftovers and eat them tomorrow.” You say, “Thanks for the offer, but we’ve got tons of food at home.” If they start insisting, then pack it up, take it home and feed it to the dog or put it down the disposal. This is not something worth making an issue about.
Philadelphia, Penn.: Dear Emily,
I’m a 29-year-old married mother of three, and my question is in regards to my eldest child, my one and only daughter. I had her when I was 21 and was a single parent for a good two years before dating and marrying my husband. Since she was so young when my husband came into the picture, she’s always called him “Daddy” (which she chose to refer to him as such on her own accord). She’s never met her biological father (aka sperm donor), and I’m not really sure who he is.
I’m a firm believer that “daddy” is a title that’s earned because it means more than just “father.” At what point in her life do I clue her in on the fact that she’s not biologically related to my husband? My husband says to wait until she learns about sex and explain things to her then. I’ve seen and heard so many people who have found out that kind of news at various stages of their lives, and no age seems to be a good age to reveal that information. I know she’ll be crushed, but am hoping that she’ll know that she’s luckier than most children because I found a man who not only was willing to take that role but wasn’t simply “stuck” with being her parent. When should I tell her, if ever?
Emily Yoffe: This is something your daughter has to be told. There’s no covering up that she was 2 years old when her “Daddy” came into her life. This is information that should be given out in stages as she asks for it. She might have questions about when you and Daddy got married, and you can show her pictures that she was there at the wedding. You can say something like, “We’re so lucky that we met Daddy and he came into our lives.” Then take your cues from her. If she says, “Yes!” that’s all she needs to know. If she’s old enough to ask a question about her “other daddy,” you can say you aren’t in touch with him. And if she wants to know more than she can handle right now, you can say, “This is a subject we will talk about a lot of times. But some of it is confusing, so why don’t we wait until you’re a little older to talk about more details.” And you need to be more comfortable with this subject yourself. Whoever the man is, he is your daughter’s father, you chose to have sex with him, so dismissing him as a “sperm donor” will only hurt your daughter.
Minneapolis: Prudie, I have a situation and I’m not sure if it’s my problem or not. My husband and I are very good friends with another couple—I’ll call them Beth and Larry. I have known them for more than 15 years, and my husband has been close friends with Larry for even longer. In recent months, I have noticed that Larry is giving some signs of being attracted to me, maybe even having a crush on me. (God knows why. I’m not exactly the catch of the day.) I know this happens in even the strongest marriages, and so I haven’t worried about it, figuring it would pass with time. I have continued being friendly with both of them and made a conscious effort to convey my commitment to my own husband. In the past few weeks, though, I have seen signs that Larry’s crush—if it is one—may be causing problems between him and Beth and that Beth may be insisting on putting distance between all of us. I would hate to lose them as friends, and it would be especially heartbreaking if this caused problems between Larry and my husband. Right now I’m maintaining my laissez-faire approach, basically assuming that any signals I’m getting are not signals and that anything amiss between Beth and Larry has nothing to do with me. Is this the correct approach, or should I be more proactive?
Emily Yoffe: At least Larry is not your father-in-law! Since your presumption of Larry’s crush is all about subtle signals, you would be taking things to another realm if you were to voice your conclusion: “Beth, I want you to know that when Larry lingered a moment too long at the last goodbye hug, and gave me a meaningful look as he handed me the wine spritzer, it meant nothing to me.” Even if you’re right, the right thing to do is ignore these little signs unless the goodbye hug becomes a bear hug or the meaningful look turns into an attempted kiss. If Beth is making it hard to get together as a couple, you could each meet your same sex friend separately for lunch. You can even ask Beth if something is wrong—she’s seemed distant lately. But since you’ve never given Larry the slightest encouragement, hope that this episode of middle-aged craziness will soon pass.
Boston: Thanks for the response. Unfortunately, I think I’ve known that I need to leave. I’m just having a really hard time doing it, and I know that many other women in my situation feel the same way. I’m 32, have a graduate degree, a great job and a supportive family. Abuse does not discriminate.
Emily Yoffe: (This is from the woman with the fiance with “anger problems.”) Of course it’s hard to realize that the life you thought you were going to have is not going to happen. But it’s harder to be married to someone who bashes in your face. End contact with him—that will make it easier to find someone worthwhile. And get some therapy to figure out why you put up with this.
Spokane, Wash.: Dear Prudie,
I have a delicate question. I am what is known in polite circles as the ‘new wife.’ We have a difficult relationship with my husband’s former wife, as their divorce was tense. They have an adult daughter, whom I am delighted to call a family member and friend. As we all live in different faraway cities, we do not have to interact much, but recently my stepdaughter became engaged to be married, and there is a joyous occasion to be attended in a few months.
We have all agreed to be civil for the sake of our girl’s special day, but I am on the horns of a dilemma. She made a point of extending a special invitation to me to be sure that I could be there, and I wish to give her a gift that represents how special she has become to me and my family. Her father and I are paying for the reception dinner, and her mother will be giving her the wedding night in a nice hotel. Is there some way I can acknowledge her in a way that will not hurt her mother’s feelings or offend her? I wish this gift to say “I know I’m not your mother, but I’m grateful to be your friend.” Is there a middle ground where I won’t offend anyone? I already know my job is to melt into the wallpaper at the event, but I don’t want my new daughter to think I forgot her.
Emily Yoffe: Even in impolite circles a new wife is referred to a “new wife.” And your purchasing a lovely gift for your stepdaughter is not going to be seen as your way of encroaching on her mother’s territory. What you should do is have it sent to the bride before the wedding—you don’t want to arrive at the ceremony with a gift-wrapped sports car. It’s nice to hear from a stepmother who is sensitive to the difficulties of blended families, but you may be oversensitive. Unless there was a compelling reason otherwise, you would be expected to be invited to your stepdaughter’s wedding. And your job at the celebration is to be charming and enjoy yourself—which doesn’t require you to be a wallflower.
Linn, Mo.: I’m a 65-year-old woman. In six weeks I will have pelvic surgery to repair a rectocele and to remove scar tissue that causes painful sex. I need an easy answer to give people who ask why I’m having surgery. You know they’re going to ask!
You: “I’m having pelvic surgery.”
A friend: “Oh, what are you having done?”
You: “You don’t want to know.”
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you in two weeks!