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 writes: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope we're not interrupted by a rolling brownout.
Q. Boyfriend With the Family Crest Tattoo: I've been dating a wonderful man for the past six months. The only problem is he recently got a tattoo! His chest is now permanently marked with his family crest, and I cringe every time I see it. It's been a few weeks now, and I still can't bear to look at it. I don't want to end the relationship, but I'm not sure this is something that will just "grow on me." Help!
A: I didn't know they had tattoo artists at Buckingham Palace! I hope the family crest isn't a piece of barbed wire. Whatever happens to your relationship, you've got to accept that in the absence of a dermatologist wielding a laser, tattoos are forever. You can tell your boyfriend you're not a tattoo person, but you hope you'll get used to this one. Then draw him out on his future plans for using his body as a drawing board—you don't want your name showing up on his other nipple if it would make you flee forever.
Q. Engagement Rings and Nosy Well-Wishers: I am recently engaged to the man of my dreams. I couldn't be happier; he is truly a prince of a man. We have known each other for some years now and will be getting married soon. For some very good reasons, I do not have an engagement ring and am absolutely fine with that. There are no financial problems; we both earn very good salaries. We have most of our money in other investments and decided we would rather get married sooner and have a fun wedding and reception than spend the money on a piece of jewelry that can be purchased later. However, sometimes when friends or acquaintances find out about the engagement and offer congratulations, they ask me where the ring is and why I don't have one. That is usually accompanied by some insinuation that I am settling, my fiance is a deadbeat, or that I am being mistreated in some way. At first I would laugh it off, but I am growing tired of having to field these somewhat rude comments and nosy questions. The last time this happened, I was so frustrated I just abruptly changed the subject. How can I politely yet firmly respond to these questions?
A: The jewelry industry really has done some excellent marketing if the absence of an engagement ring from your fiance is now seen as an alarming a sign as a black eye from his fist. If someone asks about your ring, just say, "I'm not a diamond person." If you keep getting pressed, abruptly changing the subject is an excellent next step.
Q. Grandparents' Visitation Rights: I gave birth to a healthy, beautiful boy about four months ago. His father, my boyfriend of three years, has always had problems with his alcoholic mother and refuses to let her be a part of our lives and now her grandson's life. I disagree with him and believe that he is being immature and holding petty grudges, and she has every right to be included. She recently went to rehab and has now been sober for over a month. I have taken it upon myself to start contacting her and allowing her supervised visitations with my son, however his family, myself included, has been hiding it from the baby's father due to his disapproval. My question to you is, am I doing the right thing by allowing Grandma to visit with the baby regardless of the father's wishes?
A: You've been with your boyfriend for three years, so presumably you have some insight into the troubles with their relationship. Being raised by an alcoholic mother is a painful thing, and if he hasn't discussed with you what his childhood was like and why he wants her out of his life, then you need to do so. You also need to stop sneaking around about this. It's commendable that you would like his family to come together, but you're running the risk of your relationship coming apart if he finds out you think your opinion of his barely sober mother is more important than his. Given that he had a difficult childhood, and you think your husband is petty and grudge-holding, you two may want some professional guidance to help you sort out your own relationship and your vision of how to be good parents.
Q. Intern Etiquette: I'm the internship coordinator at a small company in an industry where personal presentation really matters. I have one intern who works well and is always polite. However, he sighs loudly all day long. It gives off the impression that he doesn't want to be here or that he thinks the work he's doing is boring or below him. I don't think he feels either of these things and that he is unaware his sighing makes it seem so. Is it my place to say something because I should be teaching/mentoring him? Or am I wrong to think the sighing will aggravate other people? It would be odd to sit someone down and say, "I think you sigh too much."
A: Your job as coordinator of interns is not just narrowly defined by getting them to their desks and making sure they do their assigned tasks. You are also introducing these young people to the manners of the world of work. So if you had a brilliant intern with clock-stopping B.O., you'd have to speak to him. If you had a go-getter who wore inappropriately revealing attire, you'd have to talk to her, too. However, it's possible that this young man has Tourette's syndrome and he simply can't do anything about the sighing. It is fine for you to raise this issue with him delicately—it may be a habit he's not aware of and can address. So pull him aside and praise the good work he does. Then gently mention that you've noticed he sighs a lot. Say this may be something that's beyond his control, and if so, that's fine and you understand. But if it's something he doesn't know he's doing, he should try to become more aware of it because it gives a misimpression about how he feels about his work.
Q. Husband Hogs the Airtime: I've been (mostly) happily married for almost 30 years to a man who is very successful professionally and whose work has taken him all over the world. He has much to be proud of, but recently it seems he has taken advantage of every social gathering, both with old friends and new acquaintances, to dominate the conversation with stories of his accomplishments and how everyone he has worked with thinks he's God's gift to the profession. His taking over the conversation with so much self-talk puts a real damper on the social dynamics, needless to say. I've tried gently interrupting this with questions to our other guests that allow them to join in, but he doesn't seem to notice how he monopolizes things (so often goes right back into monologue form). In my eyes, he comes across as rather a prima donna when he does this. Could it be that I'm just tired of hearing the same stories over and over, or is there something odd about his not noticing how he wants to hog all the airtime?
A: It could be that now that he's reached the 30-year mark, he's starting to feel somewhat insecure about the younger people coming up behind him, and the boasting is his way of reassuring himself he's still at the peak. If so, you need to talk to him about what's going on when he starts monopolizing the conversation. Say despite his many accomplishments, it doesn't sound like him to flaunt them the way he's been doing, and you want to hear how he's feeling. And if this really is a dramatic change in personality, then a neurological check-up is probably in order.
Q. "Gotta Have It All" Bride: I'm engaged and getting married in September. We agreed on a relatively simple wedding, with a few special touches so it's different and "ours." However, now my bride-to-be is looking at all the little things that can be done and wants to do ALL of them. Nothing can be just like anyone else's—the guest book has to be unique, the place cards have to be unique, the menu cards have to be unique. How can I dial this back and help her realize that it'll be unique because it'll be US?
A: If your fiancee dedicates herself to the notion that the two of you need to do things no other young couple has ever done, it could make for an interesting honeymoon night.
How do you make place cards unique, write them out in Urdu? And to make the guest book unique, do people have to sign it in blood? If you haven't had a direct conversation, try saying that you understand she wants everything to be special, but putting a lot of time and money into details no one will appreciate and she won't even remember 48 hours later is making her frantic. But if she wants to get ridiculous about it, you can say, "Sweetheart, here's our budget. I just can't get interested in this place card/guest book thing, so you do your thing, and I'm sure you'll make everything beautiful."
Q. Dominating the Conversation: I had a boss that started doing this, and it seemed pretty out of character. Turned out his hearing was going and he was having a hard time hearing the conversation of others and kept talking to avoid looking foolish when he could not hear what was being said by others. A few gentle conversations and a hearing aid later and things were back to normal.
A: Very interesting—good suggestion, thanks.
Q. Wedding Season: I believe that most etiquette books say that a bride and groom are not obligated to allow singles to bring a guest. Can you explain why we all agree this is acceptable? It has always seemed rude to me considering all the different nonmarital relationships that exist. And often a bride or groom may have a friendship with someone and not know their spouse, but I think etiquette requires that both be invited in that situation. Can someone clue me in on why this isn't rude to have this clear dividing line on the married/unmarrieds? I don't want to be declining invites for some silly "cause," but it always feels like a slap in the face to me for some reason.
A: If a single friend is in a live-in or otherwise well-established committed relationship, then the S.O. should be included. But I can't understand why, if you're single and not with someone special, you would even want to drag any old date along to a wedding. Weddings are a prime opportunity for connecting with other singles in a romantic setting—that should be taken advantage of, not complained about.
Q. Telling Family and Friends About an Early Miscarriage: I recently was ecstatic to tell my family and friends that I was expecting my second child. But now, a week later, it looks like I have to share the sad news that that pregnancy ended in an early miscarriage. I have told two of my closest friends so far, and they have shared their sympathies with me and my husband. I still, of course, have to tell our parents and siblings and all the other friends that were so excited. The thing is, I'm not that sad, I didn't really have a chance to connect with the pregnancy and was even still in disbelief of the pregnancy when I found out I was miscarrying. How do I tell all these people that care so much and then not come across as cold and heartless when I'm not all that upset with the news. We plan on trying again, but now I'm worried that when we do become pregnant again, people won't be as excited. Any advice for sharing the sad news, then hopefully good news in the near future?
A: This is why many people hold back on spreading the news of a pregnancy in its early days. Probably your friends and family will be relieved that you're taking this in stride. Just say, "Actually, I'm doing OK. Miscarriage often means there was something wrong with the pregnancy, so we'll just try again." And you're getting way ahead of the situation if you're worried about their level of enthusiasm for a so-far nonexistent pregnancy.
Q. Thank-You Note Expiration Dates? My brother died by suicide a year ago. I have written thank you notes to four or five dozen of my friends and family who helped in the terrible aftermath of his sudden death, and have helped organize lists and addresses for my mother and sister-in-law to write theirs, some of which overlap mine. But I still have many more to write. A deep depression set in on me this year, and sometimes writing just one note sets me to crying for hours, so I avoid the task. I've told my therapist how guilty I feel all the time that I have not yet sent written thanks to everyone I want to thank, and she insists that I should just let it go—that the "expiration date" on thank yous passed after three months after the funeral, and my etiquette lapse then would only be compounded now if I sent thank yous so belatedly one year later. I'm inclined to go ahead and write what I can now, thinking that most people don't mind hearing they are appreciated even belatedly. But I was taken aback at the advice that writing now would just remind people of my earlier rudeness and compound the offense. Is there some generally accepted timeline for post-death thank-you notes? If I've irreparably passed that time, what can I do now?
A: I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm not a therapist, so I missed that part in training when they taught there is a three-month window to send a thank you after a funeral—however, I think your therapist is making that up. You have already written about 60 thank-you notes. It's wonderful that you have had so much support in the aftermath of your brother's death, but are there really that many more people you need to thank? You don't have to write a note to people who simply showed up at the funeral and expressed their sorrow. And no one is going to hold the lack of a thank-you note in these circumstances against you. So you have to decide if the pain of writing notes is too much for you. If it is, let this task go and know your friends simply want you to heal. However, if you would like to continue connecting with people who helped you, don't worry about the delay. Say you wanted to give them a belated thanks for their comfort during your crisis and give them an update on how you and the family are faring.
Q. DC: I'm usually just a lurker, but the question about the alcoholic mom just made my blood curl. Unless you grow up in a family, you don't know what a parent is really like. She calls it petty, while her boyfriend doesn't want someone within 10 feet of her kid (who is only one month sober, incidentally, which means nothing). People think my parents are saints; they are the love of their community and everyone holds them in the highest esteem. It never occurs to anyone why their kids avoid them like the plague. If she is willing to have a kid with this guy, maybe she should be willing to stop being a busy-body who craves a fake ideal for a second and think that maybe the person she chose to have a child with might have insight into a situation she doesn't and have their child's best interest [at heart]. My supposedly wonderful, great parents aren't ever going to have unsupervised contact with my children. And if people think that makes me a monster—well, where were they when I was 9 years old? Parents need to protect their children, even if people call them petty.
A: It's true that people who didn't grow up in abusive homes have a hard time imagining what is was like (and good for them for that!) or understanding why the grown kids don't want to make nice. I agree the girlfriend needs to have more respect for her boyfriend's feelings.
Q. Flabby stomach:
I'm 24 yrs old and have been married now for three years—no kids yet. My husband has this horrible, annoying habit: He criticizes my flabby stomach ALL the time; I can't even remember a whole week without him bringing it up. I'm not overweight, I'm 5'8" and 142 pounds. To put it in other words, my flabby stomach is the ONLY thing keeping by body from looking close to perfect. Anyway, this has lowered my self-esteem like crazy. I have told him many times how much it bothers me, and he always says that he's only joking; I know he's not. We have discussed liposuction many times now, and I'm not really against it, but I just hate that I'm going to have to go through that just to please his eye, I guess. It's gotten to the point where I don't feel sexy anymore, he never looks at me like he "wants" me, and we just don't have sex (probably twice a month at best). I am very dissatisfied with our intimacy. We have a great life other than that; we get along and love each other a lot. So I guess my question is, if I do get this liposuction (maybe boobs, too), will it help improve our relationship? Or will it be something just temporary?
A: If you go ahead and have kids with your husband, he may not be able to be in the same room with you considering what's likely to happen to your stomach. Start surgically correcting yourself to please him, and you're going to end up looking like one of Tiger Woods' "girlfriends."
You're only 24, and your marriage is already heading toward life support. You need to tell him you're done with the stomach conversation. Say he's not joking when he brings it up—your sex life is proof—and unless he joins you at counseling, it may be that you two got married too young and you should both move on.
Q. High-School Friend: It seems that any time I see an old high school friend, she makes a comment about my weight. The last time I saw her, she said to me, "I'm going to the gym because I was once fat like you. I don't ever want to be fat, I take care of myself." How do I respond to this? My first reaction is to criticize her back (like her ugly teeth), but I don't want to go there. How can I respond to comments like these?
A: "I'm going to end our friendship because although I once put up with having crude insults tossed at me, I've decided to take care of myself and not allow it anymore."
Q. Wedding Season: Have to disagree with you, Emily. I have been to four weddings recently where, as a single, I was seated at a table with only couples. It's incredibly awkward for the single to sit at the table alone while the others dance, and it's incredibly awkward for the couples, who feel they need to apologize for abandoning the single. I totally understand that engaged couples have space and budget issues, but from now on when I receive an invite that doesn't allow for a date, I will decline and send a nice gift.
A: Unless all the dancing is the Vienna waltz, surely there are opportunities for singles to get out on the floor as singles (and, yes, I've done it plenty—let's not go into the reasons why). Doesn't anyone play "Shout" anymore? But it sounds as if your staying home is a good solution for everyone.
Q. Getting Engaged or Breaking Up: My boyfriend of nearly three years still has not proposed. (He's 31, I'm 27.) Eight months ago, I told him it was important to me that we get engaged. He said that he definitely saw himself marrying me in the future and that if our relationship continued to go well, he thought a year was a reasonable time frame for me to wait for a ring. I agreed that that was OK, and he asked me not to pressure him about it further. Eight months later, we are still in a happy relationship, but I'm getting antsy. While I don't doubt his love for me—he is very thoughtful, faithful, and supportive—I'm beginning to resent him for taking up these years of my life. I find myself fantasizing about being single, having fun, and eventually meeting someone who will want to propose after a couple of years. I realize that the agreed-upon 12 months haven't passed yet, so I hesitate to bring this up with him again, but this is beginning to put a strain on our relationship. Other than this, I really am happy with him, so it seems silly that I should refuse to wait another four months. But I'm worried that those four months will pass without a ring, and then another four, and on and on. What should I do?
A: I'm afraid I don't fully understand the happy relationship in which discussion of the future of the relationship is off-limits until a given date, and all the power is handed over to one party. If you two are going to spend your lives together, it seems as if you would want to develop a means to check in with each other emotionally. You might want to say as the months are going on, the deadline is starting to seem artificial to you, and you don't want to nag, but you want to check in on what you're both thinking. If he makes a reasonable case for waiting the four months, then if you can do so, you will feel you gave this relationship every chance.
And if you're thinking, "I think I want to meet someone else," if your boyfriend ends up temporizing with you some more about a commitment, act on your thoughts.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. Talk to you next week—and stay cool!