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. And I hope everyone who's cubicle-bound gets to enjoy at least part of this gorgeous day.
Q. Sticky Situation: I am a mom in my mid-30s. My husband and I have been happily married for 12 years and have a 6-year-old son. No problems there. My issue is ... bizarre. I am friends with a member of the clergy. We started as friends years ago when I met him to join the temple we attend. Over time, I would spend time at the temple talking to this clergyman, and then we began to take my son out for lunch, the bookstore, movies, etc. At one point, we were each in a personal crisis: he due to situational stress and I due to serious health problems. We became very close at this time. I consider him a very close friend and have even told my husband that I love him as a friend and care about him. Believe it or not, my husband understands this type of love and trusts me and understands it. Unfortunately, I think my friend may be misinterpreting our friendship. The weirdness started on movie day, when my son is at school and we hang out to watch a movie. After a few movie days, things progressed to his hand on my knee, rubbing my knee, holding my hand, rubbing my hand, rubbing my back, an arm around me. I'm the type of person that can take this from a friend and be fine; my issue is that I am seriously concerned that he may be perceiving things in a different and more complicated light. My friend is very kind and shy; with another type of friend, I would just say, "Knock it off," but with him, I think this may seriously hurt him in the "non-iffy"zone?
A: You should stop worrying about your clergyman friend's tender "non-iffy zone" (whatever that is) and give it a good, swift verbal kick. His behavior is addressed in the 10 Commandments under "coveting, don't." He is not actually your friend. He is abusing his position and your previous vulnerability, and you have to tell him this. What this means is no more movie dates or other pseudo-intimacies. If you have to switch places of worship, do so. And if you haven't told your husband what a creep this guy is, you need to. Probably your clergyman's behavior should be reported to the board—perhaps you aren't the only "good friend" getting back and knee rubs or more—but I will leave that up to you.
Dear Prudence: Cat-Calling Creeps
Q. Closet Organization: Something easy for a Monday! My husband and I are having a disagreement about which direction his suits should hang in our walk-in closet. (my clothes are all on the left-hand side, his on the right, on parallel bars.) I have always understood that clothes should hang with the front of the garment facing to the left. He says that his should hang facing to the right because that way they face the doorway of the closet. Who's correct? (Please say me.)
A: Your husband should hang his clothes whichever way he prefers. The real issue here is how you start getting control of your control freakiness.
Q. Biological Clock vs. Financial Reality: My husband and I have very different views on when we should start trying to conceive. My feeling is there's no time like the present, while he feels that we're not ready yet. We both feel ready emotionally, but we both feel, quite frankly, poor. (We're both graduate students—we make less than 20,000 and after this May have no guaranteed income.) But I'm of the "simple life" mind-set anyway. Infants don't need much beyond onesies and diapers; no matter how well-off we are, we wouldn't be doing diaper genies and such. And mostly, I feel, we can always get money, but we can't get these years back. (We're fairly young—in our late 20s—but we want to have lots of kids.) I'm having a really hard time waiting; I break into tears every time I see a baby. We've discussed this ad nauseam. He says it's not just up to me, so we should wait. But it's not just up to him, either. I guess my question comes down to this: Who's the default decider?
A: Among the devastation this bad economy is bringing is the situation you are in: People who would otherwise be starting their families are too financially afraid to do so. There's no default decider here—this has to be a decision the two of you make. Your husband is right that having a baby requires more than onesies and love. But you're also right that you can't put this off indefinitely while you wait for the economy to improve. In any case, however bad the economy is now, eventually it will recover—perhaps in time for you to make a dent in a college fund. I think you two should talk to some trusted outsiders about this. Not necessarily a marriage counselor, but maybe some older relatives who started families in the late 1970s or early '80s, when the economy was also in the dumper. Or perhaps you should consult with someone who does long-term financial planning, so that your husband can feel more confident about making the decision that now is the time for you both to start adding future wage earners to the workforce.
Q. Are Anonymous E-mail Services for Cowards or Not? What do you think of all those e-mail services that let you send anonymous e-mails to co-workers (like "you smell" or "stop whistling")? My view is that one should opt for the direct route ... but others seem to think that they're OK and have a role.
A: As awkward as it is, I think this should be addressed directly. Imagine getting one of these notes—how would you ever face your co-workers again without wondering if everyone spends all their time talking and laughing about you. The issue of B.O. is something a boss or human resources should address. As for whistling, if you're the one distracted by whistling, first talk to the miscreant yourself, nicely explaining he is probably unaware of how loud it is, etc. Then if it doesn't stop, take your complaint to management.
Q. Dealing With the R-Word: How can I respond to people who use the word "retard" or "retarded" as derogatory term in my presence? I have two beautiful children (one has autism), but have never used the R-word even before I became a mother. While I realize a vast majority of the time, people who use this term are not referring to people with intellectual disabilities, it still hurts to hear the word since it's generally used to mean stupid. I have been hearing this word a lot lately—sometimes from younger people, other times from people my age (mid-'30s) or older who throw this word around. When I am in my own home, I just tell the person, "We do not use that word in this house." When I am at another person's home, I don't know what to say, so I keep quiet (even though it doesn't feel right) or leave. And what about when I'm in a neutral place? By the way, my son is almost always with me and everyone I associate with knows he has autism, but that doesn't stop people from using the R-word. Please tell me how I can respond when I hear this word used in everyday conversation.
A: You need to say something in as neutral a way as possible. If the word is being used to describe someone with an intellectual disability, you need to say something like, "I'm sure you didn't mean to be insulting. But retarded is an outmoded word that many people find offensive." Then offer what you prefer as a better term. If it's being used as a general insult, you should also speak up and explain that word is so hurtful that you'd prefer not to hear it.
Q. My Mother, My Stalker: In the last five days, my mother has called me 22 times. (I counted up the calls from my caller ID.) She calls to tell me about something she heard on the radio, to ask me how my headache from two days ago is doing, or to tell me she meant to ask me something but can't remember what it was. If I don't answer my cell, she'll call the house and then my work phone. If I don't answer any of them, she'll wait 10 minutes and do it all again. And if a few hours go by, and I don't connect with her, she starts leaving what my husband refers to as "messages of misery," where she begs me to just please, oh please, return her call. I have two kids and a full-time job. I don't have the time or the energy to be my mother's whole life. She was always a hoverer, but since she retired a few months ago, the calls have ramped up to this crazed level. I have asked her to back them down to a few times a week, but she gets hysterical about how I don't care about her and I end up apologizing out of guilt. But it's reached the point where it has become physically exhausting for me. I know she is lonely and possibly depressed, but I don't know what to do next. I just know that this cannot continue as it is.
A: Your mother needs a complete physical and psychological work up. It's a little concerning she's calling to tell you she can't remember why she's calling. Since she's always been a "hoverer," she may have underlying emotional problems, but she sounds completely out of control, and you need some medical intervention to figure out if she's cognitively impaired or if she's got other problems that might be helped through medication and counseling. So before you switch to an unlisted phone number, get her evaluated.
Q. RE: Biological Clock: While I don't disagree with your advice, there's something in this woman's tone that disturbs me a little. If she's "bursting into tears" every time she sees another person's baby, what will she do if they have trouble conceiving? It seems to me like her life might be hinging a bit too much on parenthood.
A: Good point. Others are also pointing out it's not prudent to start reproducing in the absence of health insurance.
Q. Etiquette: Whenever we are out and about, my husband and I sometimes run into people that we knew from high school/college. The problem is, we do not always remember their names, so it makes it difficult to introduce the other spouse to the individual. So, one of us invariably stands by awkwardly while the other has a brief conversation. So, my question is, how do we handle introductions with people we only sort of remember?
A: Let me assure you as the decades go on, you will start hoping all of your friends join the military, so that their names will be pinned on their chest and you won't have this problem. Here's how my husband and I get around this. We agree we will not wait for an introduction, but when one of us is engaged in conversation and the other walks up, the spouse who is joining puts out his or her hand and introduces him or herself to the other person. That way, whomever you are talking to will say his or her name to your spouse. Voilà, now everyone knows each other's names—until the next social event when you have to go through this procedure all over again.
Q. Neighborly Issues: I live in a large apartment complex, and there is a man who hangs out in the lobby with our front-desk attendant. At first, I thought the guy was friendly; now I think he's creepy. He always compliments me, but it's in that creepy-guy way. He's a bit older, and I don't know how else to say it, but I think he might be a bit slow. He makes me horribly uncomfortable, and the other day, while I was out for a run, he pulled his car over, honked at me, and told me how beautiful I looked while running (Prudie, I look nowhere near beautiful while running.) It's to the point where when I see him in the lobby, I enter the building another way, but there are times I can't avoid him. What can I say to get him to stop without insulting him or coming off as a total jerk? Do I bring it up to the building manager, since he is always hanging around the lobby?
A: Absolutely discuss this with the building manager. The guy at the desk may indeed have problems that deserve understanding, but that doesn't mean you should feel like you have to sneak in and out of your own home in order to avoid his "compliments." Surely, he is making other women in the building uncomfortable. The front desk attendant is working, so if this other guy is his friend, he shouldn't be socializing all day, anyway. Mr. Hanging Out needs somewhere else to hang.
Q. Pregnant and Drinking: I'm pregnant and—with the blessing of my doctor—occasionally have a glass of wine with dinner. I am completely comfortable with this and am confident that I'm not putting my baby at risk. So, how to deal with rude and nosy people who make it their business to comment on this?
A: For people you know, you can say, "My doctor and I have talked about this, and an occasional glass of wine is fine," then decline to discuss it further. For strangers, you can say, "Excuse me, you're interrupting my dinner." Fortunately, if you're that visibly pregnant, you only have a few more months to deal with this problem.
Q. Wedding Etiquette, Ruined Dress: Last weekend, my boyfriend and I attended the wedding of two of his friends. We had inquired as to appropriate attire and were simply told "suits and ties for men and dresses for women." However, we did not receive notice that the wedding would be held outdoors with the ceremony requiring guests to sit on the ground in a dirt clearing. The reception also featured a large campfire, with smoke permeating the tables and dance floor. Had we been advised the event would be backwoods casual, I wouldn't have worn my new silk dress and wrap. I contacted three dry cleaners, and they all told me that between the dirt and grass stains and the intense smoke residue, my $600 garment cannot be restored. My boyfriend is offering to pay to replace the dress, but he's already paid nearly $1,000 for our accommodations and transportation for the wedding, and I don't feel it's his fault as he wasn't warned of the wedding's "untraditional aspects," either. Who is responsible for the ruined dress?
A: Only thoughtless idiots tell people to wear their finest to throw logs on the campfire. Although I kind of like the idea of replacing the wedding cake with s'mores. Too bad your boyfriend was not more of a Sir Walter Raleigh. That way, he would have sacrificed his jacket for you to sit on so you didn't ruin your dress. You should also have felt free to forgo sitting the circle and stood on the periphery to protect your dress. (You actually should have felt free to slowly back away and make an escape to your car.) The bride and groom had an obligation to warn people their wedding theme was "Boy Scout Jamboree." But they didn't, and now your dress is ruined. At least get it dry-cleaned and see if it comes out wearable. Don't force your boyfriend to pick up the tab; just shrug off your smoke-permeated shrug and accept this is just one of those things.
Q. Elderly Father Who Is Ill: My elderly father is in declining health with problems that have minimal chance of improving. This is something that I have accepted as he has lived a wonderful life. Our mother passed away when we were all in high school, but our father remarried 30 years ago and our stepmom is wonderful to our father. However, the issue is my two brothers who do not seem to want to deal with the fact that our dad isn't going to get better, only worse. In fact, they go weeks (probably longer) without calling him. He was recently in the hospital but has been out for two weeks, and as far as I know, they have not even called him. It is so hurtful to both my dad and stepmom, but I am not going to mother my brothers by telling them to call. They both have very loving, caring wives, but it isn't up to them to badger their husbands. Any ideas? Meanwhile, my husband and I seem to be their only emotional support. In this day and age of cell phones, BlackBerrys, and e-mail, I just don't get it but don't know how to handle it. Is it always the "daughter" that has to deal with this type of issue? Do men just get a "hall pass"?
A: You need to have a family pow-wow, in person would be best, since your father is declining and no one knows how much longer he will be able to even enjoy a visit. Tell your brothers you think they need to come into town and see your father. If they won't come, then have a conference call in which you explain the end is arriving, you know they are very busy, but you need their support and help—as does your father and stepmother—as he declines. It might help to suggest a possible schedule: Tim calls Mondays and Thursdays and Bob calls Tuesdays and Saturdays. If they won't step up, then that's too bad for them, your father, and you, but try not to let this poison your relationship with them when you're father's gone.
Q. RE: Biological Clock: Hi, it's me again :-) Health insurance is the one thing we do have, thankfully. And we actually do know that we'll have some troubles conceiving (genetic predispositions), which is part of the reason I want to get a start on things early. We're also thinking about adopting in the future.
A: All the more reason for you two to be able to talk about this with each other (preferably without bursting into tears) to figure out how much of the hesitation on your husband's part if is financial concerns, how much is feeling not ready, etc. And I reiterate that wise outsiders you trust can help you work through your financial concerns and figure out what's a reasonable timeline to start the baby-making.
Q. The R-Word: I feel for this woman, but when I buy mulch that retards weeds, do I need to apologize for that? Should we just remove that word from the dictionary?
A: Talking about retarding the growth of weeds is a great way to preserve a useful word.
Q. Biting: My daughter was having dinner with a good friend and her boyfriend when the boyfriend, who is quite a heavy drinker, became irritated with my daughter over something minor, reached over, and bit her. I'm not kidding. It left a bruise that was still visible a week later. My daughter's friend thinks my daughter is overreacting in saying she wants nothing more to do with the boyfriend. (He has verbally attacked a number of his girlfriend's friends in recent months.) My daughter also learned that biting apparently has a role during their intimate activities. My wife and I think our daughter ought to have pressed charges for assault. What's your take?
A: If the guy is starring in True Blood his behavior could be dismissed as method acting. Otherwise, I agree your daughter was assaulted and calling the police would have been a good idea. If he'd broken the skin, she would have needed prompt medical care—a bite can release all sorts of dangerous bacteria into the blood stream. In any case, the boyfriend is a very sick alcoholic. Your daughter is absolutely right to tell her friend she will never be in his presence again. Let's hope the girlfriend wises up because dating a vampire in real life is bound to end badly.
Q. Leave or Stay? My boyfriend of five years and I are in our 30s. While I live on my own, he never moved out of his parents' home after college. He lives and works in a small town, and I attend graduate school a two-hour ride away. We meet on the weekends and generally get along well, but after so many years together, we recently started talking about the future. That is exactly where the problems for me start. I do not want to move to his tiny village in the middle of nowhere with no employment opportunities for a Ph.D., and he does not want to move out (essentially anywhere else). Instead, he regularly praises his family, their big house, dogs, etc. Recently the ambitions of his family were spelled out in a conversation with his grandma. They include a daughter-in-law with modest (if at all) career ambitions living with them under the same roof and, most importantly, kids. He has been vague about whether he can imagine living in a different city and has rather close ties to his family, i.e., whenever he is away from home, he calls his mother daily. After graduate school, I will inevitably move someplace else and all the potential places are even farther away from his home. He often asks me, "Why do you put our relationship at risk? Am I less important than your career?" The truth is, I love my research, it is part of my personality, and I do not want to be forced into compromises that I will not be happy with. Is there any chance this relationship can work? Should I move on and look for a person who is less family-bound and can imagine moving together?
A: I hope your career is more important than this failure-to-launch mama's boy. Maybe your studies were so consuming that sticking with this relationship was an easy default. Now you're launching yourself into an exciting career. Do this unencumbered with someone who still sleeps under his high-school-football banner.
Q. My Son the Recluse: I am a mother of adult children and am having concerns about my oldest son. He seems to have become a recluse: After making a bunch of money in business, he bought 60 acres in rural Maine, built a house there, and pretty much never leaves. He lives alone and has no job (but substantial savings) and no telephone, TV, or Internet. My daughter recently spent a week with him, and she said he only leaves his property to buy groceries—and even then, he stockpiles them to avoid leaving the house again. He spends his time reading or doing things outdoors and almost never has visitors. This has gone on for nearly two years. (He is 34.) I'm not sure whether he may have mental problems that I should try to help with or if this is a lifestyle choice that I should respect. He was always a bit socially awkward as a boy, but I would never have expected anything this extreme. And he seems to be perfectly content, as far as I can tell, so I don't know if there's anything wrong with the way he is living, despite its oddness. What do you think I should do?
A: I think you should ask him if you can visit, and do so in the spirit that you will enjoy some time at his beautiful rural retreat. See how you feel after seeing first-hand how he lives. If you find you are concerned that he's too isolated, talk to him about this. Accept there may be nothing you can do but that being able to get him to talk—nondefensively—about his choices is at least a start.
Emily Yoffe Writes: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.