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.)
A: Brava to the woman who spoke up to the abusive mother. And not only was she right, but there needs to be serious follow-up. Of course, none of you feel you have any standing to intervene—you're not relatives, etc. But this unbalanced woman is psychologically shredding her kids, and something needs to be done. Perhaps if the kids are in a preschool, someone could speak to the head of the school and explain what you saw. A school administrator would have a legal (and moral) obligation to follow up. Let's hope that with the proper intervention, this woman can learn what it means to be a mother.
Q. Justified?: Please help me out here. My husband and I were virgins when we married in our early 20s. I love him, and our life together, but our sex life is not really worth the effort. He asks me what I want him to do, and I can't honestly tell him since he's the only man I've ever slept with. Fast forward 20 years, and I'm really wanting some kind of enjoyable sex for once in my life. I know that if I find what I'm looking for, I can't tell him, or it will end the marriage, but he won't discuss our sex life and has given up trying. I know I can keep my secret but wonder if I'm placing too much emphasis on the big "O."
A: If, when you finish the act, the thought bubble over each of your heads is, "Wow, that was even worse than last time," you are right to want to address this before you go out searching for someone who knows what's up when it comes to sex. Since many people are out there having good sex, it's time to procure some of their wisdom. I suggest you invest in a set of Better Sex videos for a starter. Watching others go at it, and talking to your husband about what you're seeing, will give you both pointers and a way to make this a topic you can explore together, instead of a source of shame and frustration.
Q. Abusive Mother:I've heard some interesting advice for dealing with abusive parents that you don't know. If you confront the parent about their parenting skills, you'll probably make them really mad. It is possible that they'll take this anger out on the child later, saying for instance, "You acted so badly that you embarrassed me in front of a stranger." If you can in some way distract the parent, it might be a better way to diffuse the situation. For instance, you could say, "Two-year-olds can be quite a handful, can't they?" And then once you have the mother engaged and not yelling at her child, you could say, "Sometimes when my 2-year-old acts up, I try this ..." and offer some gentle advice.
A: Good points here. Sometimes parents are just overwhelmed, and you're seeing them at a bad time. But sometimes you are seeing horrible parents in action. If this woman has a pattern of yelling at and demeaning her children, she needs more than a gentle pointer or two.
Q. Demanding Bride: I have a friend who has become a very demanding bride, requiring wardrobe changes between wedding events and gifts in the form of a cash honeymoon. I have to go to the wedding, but is this something that's OK these days, or should I say something? If so, how? If I knew how high-maintenance this was, I wouldn't have agreed to go in the first place.
A: When you say "requiring wardrobe changes between wedding events," I'm having the feeling you are not referring to the bride's many wardrobe changes but that she is treating her guests like movie extras and demanding all of you step up to meet her fashion requirements. The bride is free to demand anything—your PIN numbers, access to your 401(k)s—but none of you are obligated to respond. You're already committed to attending this wedding, so wear one lovely frock and give her a gift you feel comfortable with. If that isn't good enough for her, then rejoice that she will soon be a former friend.
Q. Yelling at Kids: I can tell you from personal experience that simply yelling at your children does not qualify as abuse. When I lived in Boston during grad school, I called protective services about the woman in the next apartment who spent the day yelling at her kids. I was told in no uncertain terms that unless I could report hearing her slap the kids or knew of evidence that she was neglecting them, the city could not do anything. The woman I spoke to told me that parents have a right to yell at their kids, and there's nothing she or I could do about it.
A: It's tragic that psychological destruction of your children is considered to be fine. Good for you for trying to help these poor children. I still think the people who have seen this woman in action should call school administrators, who can keep an eye out and possibly try to intervene.
Q. Nosy Relatives: Any advice on dealing with an intrusive sister-in-law? I like to have her, my brother, and their son over to use my pool, but she keeps going into my private papers. Once, she picked up an envelope, took out the contents, and then asked me about it. (It was a wedding invitation.) Recently, I spent over an hour hiding things before they arrived to visit. To my chagrin, she asked me about the contents of a notepad that she had pulled out from under a few books. The text referred to a matter told to me confidentially regarding a position I hold. Please help. I don't want to never invite them again. How should I handle this?
A: It sounds as if your sister-in-law should apply for a job with the NSA. Tell her directly that there's a problem: "Sue, I love having your family over to visit and use the pool, however, I can't continue to invite you if you continue to go through my personal items. I don't want to have to hide my papers in my own home, but if you don't stop snooping, I'm afraid the visits will have to stop."