Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. If there are any matzo ball questions, I say right now I prefer fluffy to dense.
New York City: I graduated from college last year and now share an apartment with two people who are in a relationship. They're great except for one thing. They both consider themselves very "green" and go to great lengths to live their lives accordingly. I'm down for recycling, composting, and taking shorter showers, but I do take issue with their insistence that we try to flush the toilet only once or twice a day, regardless of the dirty deed. There is only one bathroom, but three fairly regular people (if you know what I mean), and to be quite frank, it's gross. When I mentioned that I often flush twice (once before and once after), one of my roommates got annoyed and said I was wasteful. He even half-jokingly said I should pay a little more for my share of the water bill. Aside from this problem, I like my roommates, and we have an amazing place that I'd hate to move out of. Any suggestions?
Emily Yoffe: The line from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes to mind, and you may want to loudly quote it: "What a dump!" I fail to understand how keeping a day's worth of bodily waste in one's toilet is making the world a better place. You need to have a sit down, OK, let me rephrase that: You need to talk to your friends and explain that while you entirely support being green, that does not mean you should go green at the gills every time you enter the bathroom. Suggest you all find someplace else to cut back on water use (you all shower together?) and that, at minimum, everyone flush after producing something substantial so that you aren't grossed out every time you need to use your own bathroom. And if they won't comply, then go ahead and double or triple flush—whatever it takes—on the house.
Chicago: From an early age, I suspected that I was gay. I had a few pleasurable experiences with women early on, but I knew that I had to pursue my desires for men at some point. So for the past several years, my sex/love/relationship life has been with men, and I've thought of myself as a gay man.
But more recently (maybe for the past two years), I've found myself yearning to be with women in all sorts of ways—fantasies, crushes, even pictures of women in the media. For a while, I thought that it was just the way society wanted me to feel. But I don't think any amount of social pressure would make me feel like a hetero teenage boy.
So what should I do now? Just start dating women? I would love to! But I'm really worried about how they would react when they learned of my sexual history. I'm healthy and have never been promiscuous. When I'm in a relationship, I don't feel the need to sleep with anyone else. But I know that for a lot of women, the moment they found out that I've had male lovers would be the moment they drop me like a hot potato.
It's all so confusing. I know that nobody wants to hear all about who their partners have slept with. But at some point, I would want to be honest with any woman I was dating.
Emily Yoffe: True, a lot of women would say, "No thanks." But I promise you a surprising number would say, "This is very intriguing." If you have spent the past two years longing to date women, then you just have to start dating women and see where it goes. Anyone with any sexual history should know their STD status, so confirming that you don't have any communicable diseases (or being honest about ones you do have) is important for any future sexual partner. It's also true that some women don't want to know about previous partners, and some do. I'm sure you know all men are not alike, so as you enter the world of heterosexual dating, it will good for you to realize that the same is true of women.
Re: bathroom conflict: Follow the golden rule of water conservation: If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down.
Emily Yoffe: I wish I'd known this adage. However, will it really make a difference to the region's water table, or keep the Ganges cleaner, if three people living together just flush the darn toilet after they use it?
Huntington, N.Y.: There's this person that, whenever I call her, starts talking the minute she picks up the phone. She doesn't ask why you are calling; she just starts talking. It's a nonstop out of the gate one-sided conversation. I literally can't get a word in. I call because I have something to tell her, but after 30 minutes of trying, I give up. She talks only about herself, and if I do manage to squeeze half a sentence in, she finds a way to turn it around to make it back to her story. I've interrupted hastily in the past saying, "Can I talk?" which only has her getting mad and totally shutting up to the point that now I would only get a lazy, "Uh huh" for the rest of the conversation. She doesn't take any kind of criticism well and has no sense of humor, so any funny attempt to make her realize what she is doing backfires, and I avoid it all. It's been going on for decades, and I have become so annoyed by it that I end up getting aggravated to the point that I dread calling her. By the way, she's my mother.
Emily Yoffe: This is why the Internet was invented! When you do your daughterly duty and call your mother, sit in front of the screen and scroll around. Or pull out that copy of War and Peace you've always been meaning to read. Unfortunately, your mother is permanently stuck on "send." It must be disheartening to have a mother who can never focus her attention on you, but when you have important things about your life you want to discuss, you've got to turn to a friend or another family member. Of course you dread calling her—drowning in her logorrhea has to leave you feeling emotionally struggling for air. But if you recognize this will not change, stop looking to her for sustenance, and set a fixed amount of time to keep in touch ("Mom, it's been great talking to you. I know you're busy, so I'll let you go. [Click]") that will make your "relationship" with your mother less painful. Oh, and although you say she has no sense of humor, you do. So rejoice that you aren't like her.
Chicago: Unfortunately, I have found that it's time to leave my job. In the past few months the owner of my firm has told me a "joke" about domestic violence in which the punch line blames the victim and my office/human-resources manager, a generally volatile man, shouted a racial slur in reference to our president. My question is, in job interviews, how do I answer the question about why I want to leave my current position? The firms I'm applying to are larger, and I will actually have less responsibility and autonomy, so I cannot use a desire for more responsibility as a reason. Also, there is a possibility that I would from time to time have contact with my current employer. Complete honesty doesn't seem like the right answer, but I'm at a loss as to what to say when asked.
Emily Yoffe: It sounds as if you should be diplomatically honest. You can emphasize that while you very much enjoyed your work, you have been increasingly uncomfortable about the racist and sometimes violently sexist comments that are the office banter at your small firm. You are looking to move to a larger company with the kind of office atmosphere and policies that will be more professional. Readers, any other suggestions?
Washington, D.C.: My relationship sometimes feels like I'm acting in a play. I do all of the thoughtful things a boy friend "should" do—everything from dishes to surprising her with some nice treat from her favorite restaurant. Am I doing this because I love her? Or because it's how I'm "supposed" to behave? How do I tell the difference?
Emily Yoffe: At work when you say, "Great idea. I'll get right on it," are you thinking, "Great idea. I'll get right on it," or "What a stupid idea, but what choice do I have? Maybe I should go to law school. No, if I was a lawyer, I'd hate it even more than this.."
If you feel authentic in every other part of your life but as if you are only acting the part of the good boyfriend, then something is wrong with your relationship. It could be you're with the wrong girlfriend—does she demand you show up with thoughtful treats?—or you have other issues about being coupled up. Sometimes even in the best relationships, you may not feel like hearing about your beloved's day, but you act as if you do. Because there will be days you want to soak up every detail and days you count on her to listen to you—whether or not she's partially faking it.
Ask yourself if you were being totally authentic, how would your behavior be different, and would you even be with her?
Philadelphia: About a month ago, I was friended on Facebook by a guy who grew up in the same very small town as me. We were never friends, but I saw no reason to deny the request. Shortly after we became "friends," he posted a number of homophobic status updates, and I quietly defriended him. Now that a few weeks have passed, he's resubmitted a friend request. I feel OK about "ignoring" this new request, but do you think I have any obligation to tell him why I'm doing so? And does it matter that we have a number of mutual "friends"? Thank you!
Emily Yoffe: You can just ignore his request, but why not send him a private message explaining that his homophobic status updates bothered you, so you'd prefer not to get such reports.
Job Hunter: No, no, you never say anything negative about your current employer at an interview. If they ask, say you'd like to work at a larger firm where there will be more opportunities for you to grow. Say you've outgrown your small firm.
Emily Yoffe: OK, this sounds better—so strike my advice!
Arlington, Va.: Can you help me find a tactful way to steer people away from asking me about grad school? I understand that most people think my master's degree is a great accomplishment, but the truth is that I was actually going for a doctorate and wound up leaving after many, many years of really awful experiences with a committee that—well, I don't want to speak ill of them as people, but it was really horrid, to the point that even other professors and friends in doctorate programs remark on things not making sense.
I'm much, much happier with my life nowadays, but that part of my life is emotionally difficult for me to talk about still. How can I politely steer the conversation away from what it was like (or, worse, from "Weren't you going for your doctorate?") and on to my much more productive and happy life and work at a nonprofit I love now?
Emily Yoffe: Taking a cue from the better advice from the reader about explaining the reason for leaving an unhappy job (MANY readers are correcting me—thanks!), there's no reason to say anything about your previous experience unless you want to confide in close friends. Many people, partway into a doctorate, realize it's not for them. Just say you realized you were ready to leave academia, and you've been very happy with that decision.
New Market, Va.: "What a dump!" was Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest. (Smile.)
Emily Yoffe: Right—but Who's Afraid… opens with Martha doing a Bette Davis imitation quoting that line!
Seattle: My husband and I have a great relationship, and we rarely argue except when it comes to his family. His mother makes reservations at an expensive restaurant for brunch for special occasions at least once a year. We have gone in the past to these brunches, and when the check comes my father-in-law pays for everyone else except for my husband and me. My husband's siblings never offer to pay or to contribute. I feel so awkward when this happens. With Mother's Day approaching, we are invited to a $40-per-person brunch. I have refused to go because, even though my husband says we can afford it, it drives me crazy to see his adult siblings take advantage of his parents and for his parents to enable their irresponsibility. (His parents still pay for his 28-year-old brother's cell phone, and they are basically supporting his unemployed sister's young daughter.) I told my husband that there are plenty of other things I'd like to spend $40 on, especially since we are expecting our first child. He thinks I'm being selfish. I asked him to talk to his dad before the brunch to ask him how the bill will be divided or even to ask if we can celebrate by doing something less expensive. He says that he doesn't care how much it costs to spend a few hours celebrating in the way his parents want to. We want to resolve this issue, and we both are willing to compromise.
Emily Yoffe: It's striking that your husband is fine with the disparity. Is it because he's just grateful he's the functional one in the family who has not turned into a lifelong burden on his parents, or is it because he's always been "the good one"? Family dynamics aside, you say this comes up a couple of times a year, so your family is out less than $200 annually to keep the peace with your in-laws. That seems like a small enough price to pay—especially since you can afford it. It would be nice if your in-laws didn't stick you with a $40-a-head bill for eggs and bacon, but the ill-will you will engender by not showing up is not worth it. You are about to be a mother yourself, so slap a smile on your face and honor your mother-in-law and hope none of your kids turn into deadbeats.
Anywhere: I wonder if you can help me with a response for my sister. She had a horrible boss—abusive, inflexible, made her cry at least one or two times a week, and she'd cry to me on the phone on her way home at 1 a.m. from another late night at the office. Well, her boss just died. Heart attack during a lunch meeting. My sister didn't witness it, but he's gone, and now all of her coworkers are coming forward expressing their grief (she says they all hated him, too) and expecting her to show outward, traditional signs of grief. She's not a bad person, but honestly, she feels relieved that her boss is gone. What should I tell her so she can not look like the bad guy at work? She's hardly skipping through the cubicles celebrating, but she's feeling some pressure to show grief she doesn't feel.
Emily Yoffe: Read the letter regarding the guy who feels he's play acting when he does thoughtful things for his girlfriend. This is one of those life occasions in which the script is already written for her. You sister just has to put on a somber face and recite the lines: 1) "So shocking." 2) "What a loss." 3) "The office will never be the same." She can silently say to herself: 1) "And so satisfying." 2) "His loss is my gain." 3) "Hooray!"
Maybe she should carry a handkerchief so if she feels laughter coming on, she can bury her face and pretend to sob.
Sisters, Ore.: Sorry to hit you with another toilet question today, but here goes. Like most men my age, I visit the toilet perhaps a dozen times a day to do yellow but only once for brown. This means I am lifting the seat and putting it back down at least a dozen times a day to please my wife, who expects the seat down as a traditional courtesy and as an expression of my consideration toward her. I love my wife and would make any sacrifice for her, so this is really small potatoes, but the custom still seems silly and outdated. Especially when I stumble into the bathroom in the middle of the night barely able to stand and must lean over to lift the lid and then put it down again. It only makes sense if I see it as a constant reminder of my commitment to my wife's well-being, a renewal of my desire to be mindful of her needs. But why associate this renewal so strongly with a toilet? There must be a better way. What do you think?
Emily Yoffe: At the risk of this chat going down the tubes, here's the reason: When a woman gets up in the middle of the night and goes to the bathroom in the dark, the unpleasantness for her of falling in the toilet is outweighed by the annoyance to you of lifting the seat.
Brunch Is $40. Pay Up, Please: Does the fact that when the bill comes, the father essentially says, "No, no, I got it. Except for you two responsible people. Pay up!" mean anything? I'd be embarrassed if I were the daughter-in-law and everyone else was able to sit quietly and enjoy their laziness, while my husband and I fork over hard-earned money. Come on, Prudie, that has to mean something to you!
Emily Yoffe: I agree that's it's ridiculous, but there's a lot of back story here we don't know about. Additionally, these are the in-laws, not her own parents, so the letter writer's leverage is to boycott Mother's Day, which is the wrong way to go. Unfortunately, these sound like the kind of parents who leave the estate to the reprobates. However, being a successful, responsible adult not dependent on your parents' largesse is its own reward.
Resenting Issue: So I was that kid in high school who worked, did a million activities that I hated—piano, soccer, etc.—to make my parents happy. Then I went to a private Christian university—that I paid for! —to make my family happy again. I volunteered—on top of working 20-plus hours a week and taking 18 credits—to make everyone at the school happy. And then I fell in love and gave up my dreams of becoming a journalist, because the position I wanted required a lot of traveling, and took a boring office job to make my husband happy. And here I am at 30, and I wish I could redo everything. Problem? I love my husband and kids. But I'm resenting the life I have because I gave up all my dreams for everyone else.
Emily Yoffe: You're only 30—you don't have to ask for a redo. You still have time for a do! Sure, pursuing your dream, whatever it may be now (looking for an entry-level job in journalism these days is not dreamy), will be more complicated by the fact that you have a young family, but millions of people have raised kids while going to school or starting new careers. Instead of putting the blame outward, look at why it's easier for you to do what others demand. Then when you start making changes, don't take the tack, "I won't let you stop me anymore." Instead, tell your husband you two need to figure out how you both can juggle family responsibilities while you pursue a more satisfying career.
Hurting in Madison, Wis.: This question goes beyond the type of stuff you normally deal with, but I could really use an outside opinion. Two years ago, I met a man and fell head over heels in love with him. I was 19—he was my "first." He was 29 and married, and admitted that to me a couple weeks in. I stayed. Six months later, he left his wife for me, and we're expecting our first child. I know what I did was wrong. I knew it the whole time but was too wrapped up in him to care. He says what he did was wrong, but that he loves me now and wants us to have a strong relationship. Is the basis of our relationship too terrible for us to have a strong life together? We both love each other, respect each other, etc. He swears he had never cheated before then, and I believe him. But I feel guilty and wonder if karma will bite us later.
Emily Yoffe: Ah, what's your strategy here? You're going to have his child, he's left his wife, and you say you two are committed to each other. If you're constantly worried he's going to do the same thing to you, then that's going to just poison your relationship. It's better that you recognize your relationship started with an act of betrayal than to try to justify and excuse what you both did. But you're having a child, so get married (yes, I said get married), and do your best to both live honest lives.
RE: Matzo Balls: The question is not fluffy vs. dense; it's boiled in water vs. soup. I'm in the water camp. Happy Passover!
Emily Yoffe: Don't boil in the soup—they soak up all the broth!
Have a lovely Passover and Easter, everyone. Talk to you next week.