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. Let's get to it.
Q. Young Adult Squabbling: Our daughter and her boyfriend, both mid-20s, have a generally snarky tone when talking to each other—sarcasm, insulting things said in a tone meant to convey a joke, etc. At family gatherings that include our son, all three talk this way and it escalates. It seems shallow, too, with no one actually saying what they mean. If anyone takes offense, the insulter invariably responds with, "Just kidding." My husband and I find this tiring and negative. Thanks to a recent move, we anticipate getting together for dinner several times a month. Any suggestions for getting these kids to be pleasant to each other? Ironically, daughter does not take criticism well. I'm thinking of saying "Kindness!" every time one of them gets nasty, but I fear that I'll be saying it every 30 seconds.
A: There is a line between talk that's rude and insulting and conversation that's a mutually amusing form of teasing. If it's the former, that makes the evening a misery. If it's the latter, well, then it's a style of discourse you don't like but don't want to necessarily outlaw. However, a family dinner should allow everyone to be themselves while operating within certain parameters of decorum and respect. At the beginning of the next dinner, you and your husband should say, with as much good humor as you can, that you understand the three of them engage in a kind of verbal gymnastics that you two aren't accomplished at. Explain that while you can appreciate some of it, a whole evening of cuts and feints gets wearing, so you'd appreciate, for the sake of everyone's enjoyment, if you could also shift into plain old conversation. And if one of them answers with a cleverly sarcastic remark, respond, "Touché—but I mean it."
Dear Prudence: Keep Your Hands to Yourself
Q. Roommate's Lack of Hygiene: How do I tell my roommate to do her laundry and take a shower? We didn't choose to live together—it was randomly assigned. It's still the beginning of the year and I don't want to cause drama with this girl, but she's got six weeks of laundry piled up in our room, and she showers about one time a week. It's got nothing to do with being "green" or anything. Our room stinks. Please help.
A: Part of one's college education is learning to live with and negotiate the quirks of others. But that does not include having to wear a gas mask to sleep because your room is a barnyard. You need to first address this directly with your roommate. "Courtney, our room smells, and something has to be done. If you're not going to do your laundry, you have to at least seal it up in garbage bags and find somewhere to stash it so I don't have to see it and smell it. And there's no other way to tell you this except directly: You need to improve your hygiene. You are not showering enough and you have body odor. You're a great person, so you don't want your lack of cleanliness to be the only thing people notice about you." Then see if she improves. If after a couple of days she doesn't, go to the resident adviser and say you tried to deal with this yourself, but your living situation is intolerable. This degree of lack of hygiene could also reflect a breakdown in this girl's mental state, so if she continues to be filthy, she needs some attention from adults.
Q. Re: Snarky Kids in mid-20s: LW writes, "Thanks to a recent move, we anticipate getting together for dinner several times a month." Offspring in their mid-20s and their parents need to cut the apron strings. That sounds like way too much togetherness to me.
A: Good point. I read past this because I see my in-laws weekly! But if everyone's so unhappy at these dinners, drop the get-togethers to once a month.
Q. Canceling a Wedding: My fiance and I are scheduled to get married in a few months. Wedding planning has gone from bad to worse, and I feel there's very little chance of us actually enjoying our wedding day. We haven't sent out invites yet, so it's not like we'll be inconveniencing our proposed guests, but we have sunk some money into it. I would rather just cancel the thing and take the money loss, but he wants to continue, even though everything would be very last-minute, and few people would be able to come. How do I explain this too him so that he understands? I've tried before, but all he can see is the money we've already spent, not the money we'll lose if we continue forward.
A: Making yourselves miserable and spending tons more money to try to "recoup" the money you've already sunk into this makes no sense. That money's gone, so realize you two aren't cut out for the wedding business, but what you want is to be married. Then just get married. Maybe have a tiny ceremony with just immediate family, or do it at city hall. Then, when you feel you want to, throw the kind of party you want in order to celebrate—maybe a backyard barbecue or something that doesn't involve choosing your colors and making seating charts.
Q. Entwined With a Twin: My twin sister and I have shared everything out entire lives and have been very close in the past because of this. Recently we both graduated college, and while I was lucky to have majored in something that appeals to employers, she has assumed she would live a lifetime as an academic. When she didn't get into the Ph.D. program of her choice, she spiraled. I invited her to live with me while she gets her life figured out. Now she expects me to pay for everything! She acts like she is entitled to a piece of the happy life I'm working on building because we share everything. She is deeply in debt to me already and spends what little money she does make on herself, letting me and my live in boyfriend pay for bills and food. At the same time, she is viciously jealous of me for having a reasonably well-paying job as well as a stable home. This is taking a toll on my relationship with my boyfriend (whom she also regularly abuses), and everyone says she's using me. But she has no where else to go! I can't kick her out to the street, and our parents are of no help as neither of them has a job, either. I want to help her so much, but I can't take this abuse for much longer; she's turning my happy life wretched. What should I do?
A: You and your boyfriend are wretched, and she's behaving wretchedly. You are not doing her any good by feeding and housing her while allowing her to abuse you. She is a college-educated young woman—I understand that in this marketplace, that doesn't necessarily mean all that much, but you were able to find gainful employment. If she considers her job to be eating bon bons you paid for and insulting you because of it, being kicked to the curb will be the kind of kick in the pants she needs. Be blunt. Tell her living together is making all of you miserable, then set a deadline—and stick to it—for her to find other accommodations.
Q. Pedophile: My 13-year-old daughter just told me that her friend has met a "boy" online who is e-mailing, texting, and calling her on her cell phone. The parents of this girl are oblivious to the situation and absolutely do not monitor her Internet usage, nor have they acted on the fact that she has gone beyond her minutes every month since the beginning of the summer, when she met the boy. My daughter has just told me about this situation because it's really upsetting to her—the school has tried to educate them on just this type of situation, and she is definitely picked up on some of the warning signs (strange terminology coming from the friend; and she has seen some of the texts and has even said hello to the boy when they were Skyping—his face not shown of course). I don't know how to proceed. My daughter is, of course, worried that she will come off like a tattle tale and alienate her friend so badly that no one will know what is going on. I don't know if the parents will feel embarrassed, judged, and threatened if I go to them directly so was thinking of contacting the school principal, but I am afraid they will feel threatened by that. What do you think is the most effective action at this point?
A: This girl has to be stopped before she goes off to meet this "boy" and has her childhood ruined. Explain to your daughter you have to tell her friend's parents for the girl's own safety. You can tell your daughter that, yes, her friend might resent her, but protecting someone's life is the highest value here, and you are proud of her and grateful she told you. In this case, I think a little white lie is OK, and she could tell her friend that her mother overheard some of their conversation about this and forced her to tell. Then you should go to the parents and say this is a difficult conversation, but if your daughter were in the same situation, you'd want someone to tell you.
Q. Wedding Cancellation: One thing to keep in mind is that, difficult as wedding planning can be, it's a great chance to see how you two work together to negotiate family, friend, time, and money pressures. This may not be the case here, but sometimes giving up on the wedding is a bad idea because you can't give up on careers/childrearing/marriage as easily, and a lot of the same issues will come up.
A: True, but if in this case the wedding planning means trying to deal with other people's pressures and demands, and putting on a show that's just feeling more and more like an expensive farce, then one way to negotiate yourselves out of this is to say, "Guess what, we're doing this our own way, and saving a ton of money in addition."
Q. Youth Sports—Out of Control Parents: How does a youth sports coach handle clueless parents? I coach little league baseball, youth football, and youth basketball. The parents of the good athletes go crazy if their kid doesn't play every minute of every game, and the parents of the marginal to nonathletes go nuts when their kids are on the bench. I try to balance the point of view that hardworking athletes should be put in the position to win, but I also want to give less-skilled kids a chance to play and improve. It's the parents that are the biggest challenge, buying expensive equipment and then assuming because little Johnny has new catcher equipment that he should be the catcher or because little Mike's older brother played quarterback that Mike should play quarterback. What's the best way to deal with these people?
A: Print up bogus schedules that send the parents off to distant playing fields far from where their children's games are being held. You express very well here what you're trying to do: Give the excellent players a chance to shine while letting the less-skilled have a chance to improve. It's important for you to be a backboard when it comes to criticism and let it bounce off you. Listen sympathetically, say you understand their point, but you're doing your best to balance everyone's needs. You also might want to have a potluck meeting with just the parents and go over the rules and expectation. And if it doesn't get any better, take up knitting as a hobby and drop coaching.
Q. Young Adults: Original poster here—daughter used to live several states away and we saw each other twice a year. Is dinner every other Sunday really too much? We enjoy our children—individually they are intelligent, funny, hardworking, and good dinner companions. It seems to be the group dynamic that changes the tone and returns them to preteen sniping. THEY enjoy the dinners very much. Husband and I would just like a more positive atmosphere with genuine communication.
A: No, it's not too much—if everyone's having a good time. Since you say your children enjoy the dinners, could it be that they are funny in a way you just don't get? If they really are sniping, that's one thing, but if they're zinging each other in a battle of wits, can't you just enjoy your warriors a little more? In any case, you have every right to say, "Time out! I want a little bit of some straight, nonclever, boring conversation for a while, so please indulge me."
Q. Future Brother-in-Law Won't Tell His Teenage Kids He's Marrying My Sister: My sister is marrying a man who refuses to tell his teenage children from a previous marriage. The wedding date is in a few weeks, and he hasn't said a thing to them, even though it has been planned for months. He has no plans to invite them, although he has shared custody and sees them every week. I am beginning to think he is expecting my sister to keep it a secret. As it stands, he will have no family representation at the wedding while she has invited her entire family. I see this as a red flag. But, although I've told her she should insist he tell them so they don't resent her later on, she is just going along with this. What, if anything, can I do?
A: I find it hard to believe that up to now your sister has done a complete vanishing act whenever the kids come over. In any case, once she's married, presumably she's going to be hanging around the house, so someone is going to have to answer the kids' question, "Ah, who's this lady Cynthia?" You should go ahead and have a talk with you sister in which you make clear you wish her all the happiness in the world, but you're concerned about her fiance's inability to let his kids in on the wedding plans. Then you've said your piece, so at the ceremony, you can keep your peace.
Q. Vegetarian Etiquette: My partner and I have a friend who is about to celebrate a milestone birthday. He has planned a dinner at a restaurant that specializes in exotic meat dishes (think hearts and entire piglets) and then after-dinner drinks at a nearby bar. My partner and I are both vegetarian, so we responded by saying we would be happy to meet for drinks afterward but would prefer not to attend a dinner at this restaurant, because we don't eat meat. It is not because either of us is so vehemently anti-meat that we cannot stand to be around it in everyday situations, but this restaurant is clearly for carnivores and we have a feeling that we might kill the vibe. Also, my partner is very sensitive to the sight of people devouring whole animals from a dinner plate (she recently had to politely excuse herself from a lobster dinner we attended) and doesn't think she would be able to suppress at least some kind of reaction to the sight of some of the dishes they serve. We received an e-mail in response that included the dinner menu and extolled the vegetarian options (think green salad). I don't want to offend our friend, but I also don't want to spoil the celebration. Are we wrong to skip the dinner? What should we say to him if he keeps pressing us to come along?
A: Then the check comes, and everyone splits the bill, and you have the honor of paying $125 each for a green salad, a baked potato, and a glass of wine. Just tell your friend you want him to be in carnivore heaven without having to worry about the sensitivities of you herbivores and that you look forward to hoisting a glass to his milestone later in the evening.
Q. Children: Recently I found out that I was pregnant. It was very early on, and my husband and I reached a consensus that we are not ready financially or emotionally for a child. We are in our late 20s and still trying to establish ourselves in our respective careers. It still was not an easy decision. After we terminated the pregnancy I felt fine about the decision—emotionally and physically, it all worked out. Here's the problem though. One of my dearest friends just told me she is pregnant. She is due to have her child the same week I would have been due. This news hit me in the gut. I'll be able to watch her go through pregnancy at the same rate I would have. She will have a child that will be the same age as the child I would have had. I am happy for her. She and her spouse are financially secure and have been married for a few years. My husband and I agreed that the abortion would be just between the two of us, and since my friend lives in the same VERY small town in which I grew up and my parents still live, I don't want to take the chance of explaining to her why I might be acting a little weird. Any suggestions with how to cope? I want to be a good supportive friend while she goes through her first pregnancy.
A: You don't act weird. Surely, as you made the decision to terminate your pregnancy, you realized that all around you women your age—even your friends—would be happily getting pregnant. You say after the abortion, you were confident it was the right decision. So now what you do is act as you would act toward your friend if you'd never gotten pregnant—you are thrilled for her and relieved you are waiting to start your family. If you can't do this on your own, find a support group for people who are coping with post-abortion regret. You also need to talk with your gynecologist about finding an extremely reliable form of birth control then use it religiously so that you never have to go through this again.
Q. Doctor? Neighbor: In our neighborhood, we have a man who insists on being called "Doctor." He will tell trades-people and others to "please use my proper title." The thing is, he was an optometrist, not a medical doctor, as he seems to want people to believe. And he surrendered his optometry license and paid a $10,000 fine when he was found to have groped women clients. It has been about 12 years since then. Now he goes on speaking tours and writes articles, sometimes identified as an ophthalmologist in private practice. I am bothered by the fraud and wonder how this man can be stopped. He has children who are in school—and I worry about the eventual discovery that their dad is not a doctor. Some of the neighbors moved here after the story broke, so there is a very awkward silence (lie) on the part of those of us who know the story.
A: This guy is a sick creep, but what business is it of yours that he makes the plumber call him, "Doctor"? And as long as he is not actually seeing patients, who is his lie hurting? (I'm betting the lecture circuit for former optometrists is not that lucrative.) It's sad for the kids to have such a person as a father, but why would gossiping about him help them? As for neighbors who mention that he's an ophthalmologist, you can say your understanding is that actually he's a former optometrist. That should get the neighbors Googling.
Q. Roommate in Need of Better Hygiene: While this roommate appears to have issues, it may be worthwhile to consider a couple of other options—it sometimes takes some adjustment to the communal shower room, for one, and this girl may not know how to do laundry. Take it from me—my roommate thought that the washing machine contained its own detergent, so she never added any!
A: Please, parents, while you are grooming your kids to get 800s on the SATs also teach them the fundamentals of basic grooming. They need to learn than laundry is not done by the laundry fairies, that buttons don't sew themselves on shirts, and that meals are something they are capable of cooking.
Q. Re: Youth Sports: Having coached a youth sport as a nonparent for a decade now, I understand the frustration, but PLEASE don't quit. All sports need more coaches. A couple of pointers I have picked up over the years: The better you can write out specific expectations and criteria in advance, the better. For example, with the quarterback situation, describe the selection criteria (run times, etc.). This has the added advantage of motivating some kids to work harder in the important areas. Consider using your less-skilled athletes more in games where the outcome is fairly certain (you pretty much know you will win or lose either way). This gives them a chance to improve their skills and gives the better players time to rest (be sure to tell their parents that). As far as dealing with them day to day, the best thing to do is not engage while they are angry. Ask them to write out their specific concerns so that you can develop the best strategy for addressing them. Chances are that they are either too lazy to bother, or they will start and when confronted with a written list of their stupid, trivial concerns, they'll reconsider their anger.
A: OK, this is better than my idea of sending the parents to an abandoned field. Thanks for the excellent suggestions.
Q. Won't Tell Family About Wedding: View from the fields: My dad did this to me when he remarried ... didn't tell me or anyone in my family until the day before the wedding, to which we were not invited. His new wife's extended family were all present. I was quite hurt by my father's action, and the whole experience colored my impression of my new stepmother. Where was her judgment? I would advise the new couple to invite people from both sides. Or, if dynamics make this too awkward, elope. That, I could understand. But not being excluded from my own father's wedding.
A: I, too, found out my father remarried months after the event, although I was an adult when this happened. At least it was instructive for setting the tone as to what was to follow. But the father in this letter has teenagers who come weekly! This is a disturbed situation, and I feel sorry for the kids.
Q. Relationship and Babies: I'm 28 and have been happily married for three years. A few months ago, through the help of a therapist, my husband told me that he doesn't want to have children. I've always wanted children and never would have married him had this been his stance while we were dating (he told me he wanted them). Obviously I'm upset and angry that such a huge life decision has just been made for me. We've avoided talking about it since, but it's eating me up inside. Is divorce our only option?
A: Something in your marriage got you both to a therapist. Then he dropped this bomb on you, and you say you haven't talked about it since? Get back to the doctor's office if that's the only way, and start talking. Divorce is certainly a clear option if you know you want to have children. But before you decide that, figure out how your "happy" marriage got into such a state that you two are unable to talk about life's most important decisions with each other.
Q. Language Barrier: My dear and delightful fiancee comes from a family who, shall we say, falls more on the rural side of the tracks than my more urbane, college-educated relatives. Her familial legacy includes several bits of country jargon, including the use of "seen" in conjunction with "I"—as in "I seen that movie the other night." Frankly, it drives me nuts. Am I overly sensitive to the proper use of verbs, or should I mention to her that she's got it wrong and should work on correcting it? I've avoided being a language prig most of the time, but this one really gets under my skin.
A: Try to put out of your mind and your tone that you come from educated, sophisticated people and she comes from uneducated hicks. But for her sake and yours, correct her. Next time she says it, in a matter-of-fact tone, say, "Honey, it's 'I saw' not 'I seen.' "
Emily Yoffe writes: And I seen that my time is up. Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.