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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. Let’s get to it!
Not a pedophile: When I was 26, I dated a 16-year-old. I know it sounds like I’m a pervert, but we were seriously in love. She was smart, funny, kind, beautiful, and mature, and as unlikely as it seems, we connected on an adult level. (For what it’s worth, our relationship was not illegal in our state.) I didn’t like sneaking around, but we kept the relationship from her parents. We were together nine months before they found out, and they were understandably furious. For the sake of her family peace, we eventually agreed to break it off. I was heartbroken but moved on, she went to college, and we lost touch.
Eight years later we found ourselves living in the same city once more and starting dating again. We’ve been together for two wonderful years now, and I feel incredibly lucky that I got another chance with this woman. Her parents, however, refuse to see me. To them, I am the pedophile who took advantage of their teenage daughter. She is now 26, but I am not welcome in their home, and they will not visit us either. I understand they’re angry that I deceived them years ago, but I’ve only ever wanted the best for their daughter. How can I get them to give me a chance? I want to marry this woman, but they won’t even speak to me. My girlfriend is distraught over the rift.
Emily Yoffe: A 10 year age difference between romantic partners depends so much on perspective. Between a 26- and a 36-year-old, it is a notable but hardly cavernous gap, but it is an objectionable one between a 16-year-old and a 26-year-old. If you had just come along now in your girlfriend’s life, the 10 years might have rated a mention by her parents, but hardly a veto. Unfortunately, you are fixed in their minds as the predator/pervert after their budding flower. And as the mother of a teenager myself, my stomach lurches at your description of your 26-year-old self connecting on an “adult level” to a 16 year-old.
However, in the past two years you have proved your nonpedophile bona fides by the fact that you truly are in love with this adult woman—and she with you. Yes, it is wrenching for her to be caught between her parents and the man she wants to marry, but she is not a teenager anymore. As a grown-up she has to address her parents firmly and directly. She should tell them she completely understands that they are finding it hard to get over their long-ago concerns. But she needs to say that you two have had two wonderful years together, and you both want your happiness to continue for the rest of your lives. She should explain that she can’t stand being pulled apart by the people she loves most, but ultimately she will have to choose you. That means she needs to make clear that it is up to her parents to decide to move on and accept this situation, or create an official breach. Then she should say it’s time for all of you to have dinner together and begin the process of detente.
Houston, Tex.: I’ve been married to a wonderful man for five years, and we’ve been together for almost 10. We have a child who just turned 1. Our one big reoccurring problem is in bed—he’s just not that interested, and its been that way from the very beginning. We have had arguments about it for years; he says he is attracted to me, etc., but what used to be just weeks without has now turned into months and months without, and I can’t live like this. Please don’t say I should be initiating it, because I feel like I am always the one that does, and the last thing I want to do is dress up in something “pretty” when I feel completely un-pretty. Does this mean my marriage is doomed?
Emily Yoffe: This is a recurring theme—the long, unhappy marriage punctuated by childbearing. You have been sexually frustrated for 10 years, yet 21 months ago you thought it would be a good idea to have a child with this man, so that you would either be tied to him forever or you would ultimately decide to become a single mother in order to seek sexual fulfillment. If your husband is as wonderful as you say, you should be able to talk to him about your needs and how you two go about addressing his low sex drive. He obviously needs a physical workup to start with. As for your needing to sing, “I feel pretty” in order to get him to perform—that says you two need a therapist who specializes in sexual issues before you conclude you’re doomed.
Atlanta, Ga.: I’m facing a moral quandary. A giant bottom-feeding corporation (the company shall remain nameless, but it’s one posting significant profit during the downturn and is known for putting independent stores out of business) just e-mailed to let me know that they will be crediting my card back for a purchase I have returned, to the tune of $300. Only problem is that they have already credited me back the full amount, several months ago. Husband thinks I need to fess up about the double payment. I think I should take the money and donate it to charity. What say you?
Emily Yoffe: And if you found this corporation to be more to your moral liking, would you decide you would not rip them off due to a clerical error? Here’s a way to make everyone happy: You call their 800 number and tell them you’ve received double credit for the return of a purchase; then you donate some money to charity, anyway.
Albuquerque, N.M.: I manage an accounting department. Recently, my boss showed me an e-mail from a worker who reports to me. The e-mail indicated that the writer believed my boss was of the same opinion and would enjoy a rant by Ben Stein against the president of the United States. She was sufficiently savvy as to NOT send me a copy. My boss, a very kind and gentle man who does not like conflict, was appalled, as was I. How could this employee be so misguided as to think my boss would enjoy that e-mail? Not to mention that any kind of religious or political opinions are inappropriate for sharing. I now think very differently about this reliable worker. I hesitate to clue her in that sending this type of e-mail is, well, just plain stupid, because I have been protecting her against layoff. Knowing her true political opinions, I am no longer inclined to protect her. I would not want her to suspect the true reason for being part of the next layoff. Am I being reasonable?
Emily Yoffe: You are supervising someone who is sending political rants through interoffice mail. It’s your obligation and duty to tell her these don’t belong at work and she needs to keep her political opinions to herself. Then, as long as she does, you put out of your mind that this is your chance to punish her for those beliefs. How insidious to maneuver to lay her off because you realize you have the chance to punish someone whose views you find repugnant. I assume this would be the kind of thing that would appall you if people on the other end of the spectrum were doing it.
Nowheresville, Mo.: I am having major problems at work. I am an admin for a small commercial real estate firm. A few months ago, one of the attorneys I work with stopped talking to me. We had a really good relationship up until then. Don’t know what or if I did anything wrong. The economy has not been good for our industry, and we could be facing more layoffs at the end of the year. I’m afraid this issue could put me on the list, even though we are short-handed in admin staff. Another problem is that it is this huge purple gorilla in our department, and no one says anything. I am so miserable; other than squirreling away money just in case and crying in the car on the way, what can I do?
Emily Yoffe: You didn’t send someone else a Ben Stein rant about the president, did you? If someone you work with has stopped talking to you, you’ve got to get out of the car, dry your tears, and make an appointment to try to clear this up. Do your best to keep your cool and say that you’ve always enjoyed working with him, but have noticed in the last few months he’s been avoiding talking to you. Then say you want to find out what’s wrong so you can fix it. If he won’t tell you, then go to another partner and explain your problem and ask for assistance getting it resolved. This won’t eliminate the larger financial pressures, but it will make you feel more in charge of your life.
RE: Not a pedophile: I met my husband when I was 17 and he was 27. Yes, it was weird, it was hard (there were many angry relatives), but we knew we were right for each other. Nine years later, we have been married for over 5 years. I went to and finished college, am employed, etc. Basically, it wasn’t a disaster and we didn’t give in to anyone.
I guess the point is that it’s different for everyone and only the two involved really know their intentions. I’m glad this guy has a second chance on what he felt he had to give up before. The family will come around when they see the good intentions and the devotion to the relationship (although, it doesn’t hurt to find a few family members on your side, even if they aren’t vocal). This is definitely a case of actions speaking louder than words.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks for your story. I hope “it wasn’t a disaster” is not how you characterize your marriage, but just getting through the family objections!
Pittsfield, Mass.: I will be visiting an elderly relative. She said she wants to give me some old coats and clothes that she can’t bear to throw away. I don’t want them, won’t use them, have a small house, etc. I think she hand-made them many years ago. Should I take them to make her feel better? Then donate them?
Emily Yoffe: Yes, do the kind thing and take them and say you love them, then donate them or sell them at a consignment shop. It sounds as if this elderly relative is clearing out her house in advance of the final clearing out, and that can be a wrenching thing.
Chicago, Ill.: This past summer, I finally sought help to deal with an ongoing eating disorder and alcohol problem. I went to an in-patient facility for two months. To explain my absence, I told most of my friends that I was going to be volunteering overseas. Now that I’m out of rehab, happy and healthy, I’d like to tell people where I really was. I think that telling people is important to continue the healing and prevent myself from going back to bad habits. I also don’t think I can keep up this lie. How do I tell people? And how do I respond to the inevitable questions? Thanks Prudence!
Emily Yoffe: You don’t have to send an announcement, but you can do it on a case-by-case basis. For people who say, “How was your trip?” you can reply, “Actually, that was a cover story. I was in rehab, and I realize now that being able to say I needed rehab and not being ashamed about it is part of my recovery.” If you’re out with friends who are expecting you to drink with them, you can say, “I’m a recovering alcoholic, so you go ahead, but I don’t drink anymore.” Congratulations and continued success with your new life.
New Hampshire: So here’s my problem. I have a swimming pool in my backyard—I don’t use it a lot, my dogs use it daily. I have a friend who has a young child. They use the pool quite often—I’ve done this as a favor to them. The problem is this: When they swim—for hours—they never get out of the pool to use the rest room. NEVER. They live 40 minutes away and don’t use the restroom before they go swimming either—nor after they get out for a 40 minute drive home. What 4-year-old can hold pee-pee in a swimming context for three hours? The problem became apparent when my chemical levels went out of whack after they had a swim—and only after they’ve used the pool.
So, short of getting some of those dye-packs and tossing them in the pool (that react with urine and turn color)—what can I do? They’re nice people, but they’re honestly ruining my pool season.
Signed, There’s No “P” in My ool.
Emily Yoffe: Unless you are running a country club and they’ve paid a membership fee, you are not obligated to endlessly host anyone in your pool. If you are good enough friends that it’s OK they are in your backyard all summer, then you should be comfortable enough to say that in order to maintain the cleanliness of the water, she needs to take her little boy out for regular bathroom breaks. If she won’t, urine luck, and they’re out of it.
Need Advice: My mother’s grief makes me uncomfortable. She lost her mother more than a year ago and still cries copiously and frequently (in public and in private) when she thinks about it. She brings the death up in unrelated conversations with strangers (including cashiers!), acquaintances, and friends.
I’m normally a compassionate person, but these scenes repel me, and I have a very hard time being around her—and being understanding—when she is so terribly upset.
I don’t know what to say or do, and I don’t know why I’m feeling so annoyed by this. Can you think of strategies to help me cope so that I can help my mother?
Emily Yoffe: I understand that you mother’s oceanic grief is disturbing, especially since, as wrenching as it may be to lose a parent, it ultimately is in the natural course of events for people in middle age to bid farewell. Your mother sounds as if she’s stuck in what Rob Stein described in an article in Washington Post last year as “complicated grief.” The theory is that some people get stuck in a loop in which the emotional reward center of their brain can’t accept the loved one’s death and keeps thinking about the departed over and over. Print out the article and encourage your mother to take it to a counselor who specializes in grief. The therapeutic suggestion is the bereaved go over explicitly the details of the death to help make the loss feel real.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: I’m dating a marvelous man, and we have been dating for five years. He has pulled himself out of very hard origins, attended a top-notch liberal arts college, and now holds a very high-powered job. He wants to keep his family, which has ruined other important milestones in his life, away from the life that we now have. My family is very different from his, and he has completely embraced my entire family. He has asked me to marry him, and wedding prep has begun. How am I going to handle the invites to his family? I think it would be super awkward to have my family’s overwhelming presence at the wedding and for him to look like an orphan. What should I do?
Emily Yoffe: I’m assuming he has opened up to you about why he has found it necessary to be estranged from his family. If not, this is something you will want to know more about, without demanding he just give you the full story on what has to be a very painful personal history. But painful childhoods have a way of making themselves known over the years, even to those people who think they have put them aside—so be aware this may not be as closed an issue as you both think. That said, if you understand his reasons for wanting to keep his family away, then you don’t have to make excuses or explanations to anyone. It is only awkward if you think it is. If you are comfortable and supportive, then remember you are avoiding the awkwardness of having your husband put in an emotionally wrenching situation. If people ask about it, you can say, “Bob has a very small family, and they send their best wishes.”
New York, N.Y.: Unbeknownst to me, my boyfriend of 10 months went through my boxes during a move and read my old diaries. After that, he attempted to surreptitiously question me about people and events that he read about. We had a huge argument, as this was not the first time he violated my privacy. I forgave him, but I can’t forget, and now I read double meaning into his comments. How do I move forward with him? Should I?
Emily Yoffe: Reading your old diaries?! You say this was only the latest violation. I say you should move forward by moving on.
San Francisco, Calif.: I’m really questioning whether or not to end my relationship with a local animal shelter due to a power-crazed volunteer coordinator from hell. She’s incredibly hostile to longtime volunteers (I’ve been one for more than seven years), keeps changing the rules for us (usually there are more than five changes per week), and threatens anyone who tries to address problems with her with suspension. She also sends out several e-mails a week and requires us to reply to her within several hours or she pulls our volunteer shifts. Last month she sent out a two-page e-mail to all volunteers questioning our commitment to the shelter, telling us that there’s a long waiting list to volunteer there and saying that if we were going to put work and family above our volunteer commitment, we should remember that volunteering “is a privilege, not a right.” Then, when more than 20 volunteers quit, she sent another angry e-mail demanding that the rest of us up our hours because of all the “selfish” people who dropped out.
I don’t want to be driven from an organization that I have such a long history with because of one person, but her attitude is having a major impact of my enjoyment of the work I do there. The one time I tried to speak to her about her communication, she placed me on a three-week suspension. I’ve since sent anonymous letters to the shelter’s executive director and head of HR, but nothing has changed. Is there anything else I can do to try and resolve this?
Emily Yoffe: Get the e-mail addresses of the recent 20 victims and make a coordinated effort to euthanize this lunatic. Have as many current and former volunteers write a letter to the head of the organization, all the board members, etc., then ask for a meeting. If this does not move the top dogs to get rid of this pit bull of a coordinator, then it sounds as if you need to find another animal organization to give you shelter.
Western, N.C.: I have a son who is now 2 1/2 years old. At the time I conceived, I had been seeing someone I cared about for three months. I had also been having sex with an ex boyfriend. I know it was wrong. The timeline went like this: I had sex with the ex one day, the boyfriend the next, and started a period the day after that. Two weeks later, I had sex with my boyfriend. The next month I found out I was pregnant. I naturally assumed my boyfriend was the father, and its he who is on the birth certificate and paying child support (even though he hasn’t seen the child in over two years). But my son looks like the ex (who I’m now married to) and a medical condition makes ovulation and menstruation irregular for me so the timeline is toast. We’re awaiting the results of a paternity test, but if my husband turns out to be the father, how do I tell this other man that I lied to him all this time?
Emily Yoffe: This situation is why there are lawyers (and Jerry Springer). You weren’t lying, you were promiscuous and confused. Let’s hope your husband is the child’s father and that a lawyer can help you straighten out the legal documents and the financial issues.
No P in OOL: Not that I’m advocating little children who pee in pools, but the writer should know that dogs can also pee in pools while they swim (automatic reflex that comes with being in water). Just an FYI.
Emily Yoffe: Good point. This letter makes me want to take a dip in the ocean, where I only have to worry about rip tides and sharks.
Buffalo, N.Y.: re: last question. Perhaps you’ll understand when your mother dies. There’s no timetable on grief. Your mother probably also is grieving your lack of empathy.
Emily Yoffe: Sorry, but a middle-aged woman who is weeping to cashiers a year later that her mother died is someone who needs help.
Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend of 8 months is a wonderful man who I have grown to care for very much, and we have a great time together. He’s in his early 30s. I’m in my late 20s. We have been on the same page about our relationship from the beginning—we both need our own personal time and space, so we don’t see each other every day, but when we do get together (a few times a week), things are really good. Although I have not put any pressure on him to make a deeper commitment to me and our relationship (I’m a very go-with-the-flow kind of person) … he has recently put the pressure on himself to decide whether or not this is “it” and whether or not I am “the one.” He has also said that he worries that he over-thinks these things. My question is: Is eight months with a person a sufficient amount of time to decide whether or not this is “the one?” I want to tell my man to stop putting all this pressure on our relationship so that we can relax, enjoy each other, and see where it leads us. What do you think?
Emily Yoffe: There is no rule about when you know it’s “the one.” There are people who knew after eight minutes, eight days, eight weeks—and there are people (I hear from them) who are still trying to figure that out after eight years. But it sounds as if you and your boyfriend are hearing different external and internal calls. He’s in his 30s, so maybe he’s feeling, “If this relationship isn’t ‘it’, I don’t want to float happily but aimlessly along. It’s time to start thinking about marriage and children.” While you’ve got no plans to dock. The two of you have gotten to the point where you need to have a different kind of conversation about where you are in life, what you want, and how you feel about each other. Maybe it’s time to make the decision to start making decisions. And if you realize you’d rather just keep floating, then that tells you a lot.
Emily Yoffe: There are timetables for chats, and my time is up. Thanks so much, and talk to you next week!