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.)
Q. Dreading Wedding Bells: One of my close friends just announced his engagement to a woman he's been dating for a few years. We're happy for him, but many of us can't shake the feeling that he's making a mistake. In essence, the woman makes fun of him a lot in front of his friends, and not in a loving way. Our friend often looks uncomfortable when this is happening but says afterward he's very happy with the relationship. She talked for several minutes about how he always gets her the wrong presents (including the engagement ring), makes fun of his clothes, etc. The couple lives in Chicago while the rest of us are on the Eastern Seaboard, so none of us has spent a tremendous amount of time with them. (They stayed with me for two nights last week, the first time I had met her.) My question is, should someone say something to our friend? He says he's really happy, and nobody wants to ruin that for him, but some of us worry that this marriage is doomed from the start. On the other hand, nobody wants to be the friend forever marked as the one who tried to kill off the relationship. What do you advise?
A: Think of what happens if you don't say something. Because he lives in another city, every time you see him, it will probably be with her. Then after spending the evening listening to her put-downs and insults, you will eventually feel, "I love him, but I can't stand her, and I'm not sure I can spend time with them as a couple." I'm a big advocate of teasing—but it has to be mutual, fun, and good natured. This sounds one-sided and nasty. It's odd when someone you like picks someone for a partner who seems so unsuitable, so unlikable. But I think one of you has to speak up—gently—and express your concerns. You can say you know he is very happy with her, but after the last get-together, you were left feeling very uncomfortable with the way she treated him. Say you know you are stepping into dangerous territory by saying this, but you care for him too much not to point it out. Maybe he'll reassure you he finds her remarks hilarious. Maybe you'll have touched such a sensitive nerve, and he cuts you off. But I think your friendship is worth the risk.
Dear Prudence: Help! I'm Scared of Getting Herpes.
Q. Marriage Falling Apart: A few months ago, my husband raped me in the middle of the night. He was asleep during the attack, and he believes that it is a disorder called sexsomnia. Obviously the rape has me questioning whether or not I want to stay married to him. I feel like I will never be able to get over this and I will live in constant fear for the rest of my life. I have done some research, and it only scares me further. I have decided to not have children with him because I would knowingly be endangering them. He also has vivid nightmares that often end up with him thrashing around the house. He is taking medication and is in therapy, but I do not believe that I will ever trust that he is cured. To make matters worse, I have recently started having an affair, because I needed someone to take away all of the pain. I don't want to be an adulteress, but I don't want to be in a marriage where I am afraid to sleep in my own bed. I have tried to break things off with my husband, and he refuses to let go. He knows about the other man and thinks that we can still save what we have. I still care about my husband, and I want to honor the commitment I made to him, but when I look at him all I see is a monster. Is there any hope that I can fall in love with him again, or should I cut ties and move on?
A: To review: Your husband forced himself on you sexually while he was asleep. You don't feel safe sleeping in your own bed. You think of your husband as a "monster." For emotional comfort, you have started having wide-awake sex with someone else. You want out, but your husband won't "let go." And you don't know how to answer, "Can this marriage be saved?" It sounds like a nightmare for all concerned. Obviously, your husband has a serious sleep disturbance, and thank goodness he is seeking medical care. Comedian Mike Birbiglia has a similar disorder, which caused him to plunge out of a second-story hotel room in the middle of the night while asleep. He writes about it in his book, Sleepwalk With Me. His version is funny; yours is not. The most important point here is that you are physically, emotionally, and mentally out of the marriage except in a vestigial way. If you could accept that your husband's actions were not his fault and that treatment can control them, then—if you stopped cheating on him—you and he could possibly have a chance. That sounds like way too many "ifs." Especially since the thought of spending the night, let alone your life, with him has you lying awake gripping a baseball bat for protection. It sounds like your husband can never again be your dream lover, and you'd better get separate beds at separate domiciles.
Q. Signs?: If you have done whatever you can to get any kind of income and you haven't been able to find a stable job, do you take it as a sign that perhaps you're supposed to be unemployed? I'm at my wits' end, and this is how I'm thinking, more to save my sanity than anything else. What do you think?
A: No! I understand that people who find themselves in dire circumstances go through all sorts of mental tricks to explain the reasons for their situation. But what you're suggesting is self-defeating and counterproductive. You have to separate out two issues here: Are you just caught up in a disastrous economy which has thrown millions of skilled, productive people into unemployment; or do you do something to undermine yourself at work? To find the answer, check in with friends and co-workers and ask them to be honest and direct. What you hear may be encouraging, painful, or a combination of both. If you get yourself into jams at work, then you have to focus on fixing this. But if your situation is simply one that's larger than you, do not conclude unemployment is your destiny. That will only undermine your capacity to keep plugging away. Look for support groups for people in your area, or your industry, who are looking for work, or find other free employment counseling services. The human and psychological toll of this recession is enormous, but don't let it defeat you.
Q. Co-Worker Eating Off My Plate: I work in a small, close-knit office. There is one "boss" to speak of, but we all work mostly independently. Most of our staff have advanced college degrees. My problem occurs during lunchtime. There have been quite a few times that the "boss" reaches on my plate and takes some food. I don't mind sharing; I mind her hand in my food! Once she reached in an individual chip package and grabbed a handful of chips. We often put fruit or chips in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves, but it feels rude and intrusive when she puts her hand in my plate. I think it would hurt her feelings if I said something, but it really bugs me! Advice?
A: My letters indicate bosses hold a kind of elevated position in the office in which they feel free to clip their toenails during meetings; use subordinates as therapists, errand runners, and sex surrogates; and now use them as food vending machines. If you don't want someone grabbing your food, you need to say so. First of all, try to sit far away from "Mary" during lunch. Second, once she starts reaching, try to head her off and say, "If you want a bite of my food, let me put some on your plate." If she continues grabbing explain, "Mary, I don't mind sharing, but please tell me instead of just taking some. Thanks." Being the boss does not exempt people from basic standards of behavior.
Q. Talking About How I Talk: I am a professional and successful married woman in my mid-30s. After relocating due to my husband's job transfer, I landed a challenging and enjoyable position with an interesting company. That's not the problem. It's how I talk that is. I have a speech disorder, which worsens when I become nervous or stressed (spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological speech disorder shared by half a million people in this country). My speech is easily understandable, but it is odd. Those in my office have readily adapted and think nothing of it. However. My clients are a different story. I'm living in an area with little diversity, which may add to the problem. Whatever the case, what are my responsibilities in terms of alerting people to the fact that my odd speech is not a result of nervousness or shyness but the unique way I form words? Do I even mention it? Is it even their business? Speech disorders are rarely publicized and often ridiculed in films and on TV, so in one way, I see myself as an ambassador for change. On the other hand, I don't particularly want to be an ambassador; I just want to do my job. What is the best, most graceful way of handling situations when people mock how I speak, say they can't understand me, treat me as if I am less intelligent or worse yet, as if I am an emotional basket case. If one more person pats my back and tells me to "calm down," I fear I will scream.
A: You shouldn't have to explain, but it will be a relief to your clients, and probably yourself, if you do. What's surely happening now is that your dysphonia is all anybody hears and leaves people wondering, "What's wrong? Is she that nervous? Should I tell her to calm down?" etc. After you start a conversation or presentation with a new client, early on, in a casual, confident aside, explain that your voice may sound a little odd because of a minor neurological disorder which affects your vocal chords. Say that if they are ever unable to catch something you say, to please not hesitate to ask you to repeat yourself. By acknowledging this disorder, and not making it taboo, I'm sure you will ratchet down your anxiety and their discomfort, and leave your clients feeling both comfortable and impressed with your confidence.
Q. Bullying Parents: For the last two months, I've been living with my parents in the wake of a nasty breakup. At first they were supportive and didn't talk much about it, but now they've decided that calling me every name under the sun mercilessly is the route to go. Every day, when I try to talk to my parents, I get called a failure, a cow, and a piece of crap (for lack of a better word) all because I didn't end up marrying the toxic person I was with. I just don't get it. What do you think I should do in my current situation?
A: Move. Maybe you were with a toxic person because you grew up in a toxic home. You should sort these issues out with a therapist. But first, pack up your belongings and find a friend to bunk with while you get a place of your own.
Q. An Affair To Remember?: A colleague and I got pretty smashed after a business dinner and ended up getting quite intimate—though stopping short of actual intercourse. Part of me regrets it, and part of me is intrigued. We work on the same projects but several states apart and rarely see each other except on travel a few times per year. We will be at the same meeting in a few weeks. Neither one of us has mentioned it, except for vague references to hangovers the day after it happened. We are both middle-aged and in long marriages that, speaking for myself, are fine but very routine. We are professional peers, so no power abuse is going on. I can't decide if I should take this further or pretend it never happened. I don't want to make a fool of myself. Any advice?
A: Stay sober at the next meeting and act like a married professional. If your marriage has fallen into a rut, rutting with a drunken colleague probably isn't the most productive way to deal with it. Think of things to do that will get you out of your routine besides having an extra-marital affair.
Q. Well-Meaning Family Member: What suggestions do you have for dealing with a family member who is too involved with scheduling everyone else. We live in the same town, and whenever anyone we both know comes to town, she starts an e-mail chain trying to organize when people can see each other. Or when I mention that my husband and I might head out to visit his grandmother, all of the sudden she is making calls around to arrange when other family can get there for dinner. She even makes plans for events she cannot herself attend. She has good intentions, but I feel like she's inserting herself where she need not. Am I rude to think I don't need a social secretary?
A: As with anyone who keeps sending chain letters, it's incumbent on you to break it. You can do it implicitly and explicitly. If she starts inserting herself into dinner plans, just reply, "Darla, my husband and I have our social schedule set already. Thanks." But probably she will not get the message, and you'll have to have a talk with her, in person, in which you explain that you appreciate her social organizational skills, but you are starting to feel as if she is your social secretary. Say there are events a few times a year which you appreciate her lead in organizing, but otherwise you want a looser social life, and you'd appreciate if she'd do less.
Q. Friends Do Tell Friends: Just a thought here ... I could have been that guy 20 years ago. Head over heels in love with someone who started treating me poorly (mostly ignoring me when others were around). I was so confused and questioned whether I was right in my perception. But the day after a party, two of her friends independently told me how shocked they were at her shabby behavior. That ultimately led to me breaking off a relationship I thought was headed to the altar. The upshot ... she was in the midst of throwing me over for a guy at work. Didn't know that for a couple of years.
A: We're always told that if you speak up to a friend about their appalling love choice, that ends the friendship. That's always a possibility, but as you describe so well here, sometimes your friends speaking up is an important sign that you're headed for a lot of pain.
Q. Relationships: I am dating my very first boyfriend for the second time around. We had 30 years apart. We are both divorced and close to retirement age. The love is there and is very intense, and everything is great, except he drinks more than I like. My ex-husband both drank and did drugs, and I am very leery about people who cannot control their intake of these substances. We have broken up once over his drinking, and he stopped for a few months, but now he is creeping back up in intake. He asks for patience, and he says he is drinking a whole lot less. Part of the problem is that one cannot make another stop drinking or smoking or whatever, and you become the "bad guy," which ruins the relationship. I know all this. What he is doing now is 4-5 times a week 1-2 drinks. Now, to some this is a normal amount, but to me, it is too often. I would marry this guy in a minute if he didn't drink, and I know he really loves me. How much patience is called for, or is it time to cut and run?
A: Based on what you say here, there is no evidence that your guy has a drinking problem. Many people enjoy a drink or two in the evening—he's not even drinking seven days a week. Does he feel he has a problem, or are you just imposing the template of your first husband on your boyfriend? Why should he become a teetotaler just because you were married to a substance abuser? It sounds as if you have a lot of issues to sort through from your first marriage before you could make a success of a second.
Q. Judge Not?: A few weeks ago, I offered to help a friend straighten up her home before she had surgery. She's done a lot for me, and I thought this is was the least I could do. Her home was more than just disorganized—it was disgusting. She had dirty clothes (including underwear) thrown about, a refrigerator that was so bad I that I almost became physically ill, and dishes that hadn't been washed for months. To say the least, I was stunned. My friend suffers from depression but chooses not to medicate, so this is as good as it's going to get. The irony is, she said, "I know I could ask you to help because you won't judge me," but I see my friend in a totally different, dirty light. Prudence, I know that depression makes people almost unable to do anything, and I am trying to keep that in mind, but I want to limit my time with her now, even though I don't go to her house. This is sad for two reasons: 1) She's very kind and again has helped me in the past. 2) I realized I am more judgmental than I thought. And for what it's worth, I mentioned it to my son—and he told me when he went to her house (a little over a year ago) it was the same way—including the dirty underwear. I did not know about this. Now I'm livid. So how do I get past this?
A: Some friend you are. You offer to clean up her filthy home, and she accepts because she knows you won't judge her, and now you're livid because it turns out her house has been filthy for a long time. Get over your ridiculous anger and be the kind of supportive friend to her she has been to you. After she recovers from the surgery, explain gently to her that the kind of disorder in her home was a sign to you that she would truly benefit from treatment for her depression. Explain depression is a medical condition every bit as much as the condition she's had surgery for, and to let it fester and keep her from enjoying her life is painful for you to accept. Offer to help her find a therapist. You did a good deed by cleaning her home, disgusting as it was. Remember her kindnesses to you as you try to return it in kind.
Q. Facebook Use by Co-Worker: I have a colleague in my department who posts comments about work on Facebook. These are not "I love my job" comments. They are more in the "my boss/co-worker/organization just did something stupid" category. This is someone who is in HR and counsels others to be careful about what they post on social-networking sites. I know about these postings because my significant other has been friended by my colleague. I told my S.O. not to tell me about any further work comments he sees. He asked me not to talk with my colleague or her supervisor about the postings because it will be obvious who told me about them. Should I just stay out of this, or should I mention it to the "big boss" so that he can decide whether or not this warrants action? I am torn, but worried about our department, since other colleagues have started to respond to the postings. And my apologies in advance to all of your readers who might think I am talking about them.
A: Just as the title "boss" seems to sometimes entitle people to put their hands in your food, the title "human resources executive" seems to sometimes entitle people to act in destructive ways toward the company or individual employees. You should go to the boss and explain—no need to name names—that you understand from friends that some people are posting opinions or other comments about the company on their personal Facebook pages. Say it sounds as if there needs to be a companywide understanding about what's appropriate company commentary on Facebook.
Q. Difficult Teacher: We are two-and-a-half months into the school year, and I'm afraid my relationship with my son's kindergarten teacher is going from bad to worse. She is a late-middle-aged (approximately 65) grandmotherly type. In fact, with parents at open houses, she openly promotes herself as "grandma." With my son, however, and with several of the more active, and to be fair, less mature, children in the class, she is impatient, unnecessarily strict, and quick to take personal offense over their comments. Her classroom management is ineffective, and the room parents who are there most days report that she shouts at the children a lot. I understand that teaching, especially this age group and in this political climate is extremely difficult. I have all the respect in the world for this profession. I exchange e-mails with this teacher frequently, and we have already conferenced with the principal and school counselor once. As a group, we came up with an intervention plan for my son. The teacher abandoned that plan after one week, however, and did not tell me or my husband until last week, when she sent a behavior write-up home. I try to keep the tone of my e-mails and my conversations with her professional and respectful, but it's getting to the point where I'm ready to demand that my child be moved to another classroom. As a parent and a professional yourself, can you give me any tips on navigating this situation?
A: The time for conferences is over, and it's time to get your son moved—and probably this teacher removed from the classroom. This woman is damaging your son's self-esteem and his pleasure at going to school. She yells at kindergarteners and takes their comments personally? She sounds utterly incompetent and more than overdue for retirement. Surely you aren't the first parent to complain, but removing an ineffective, even damaging teacher is not always an easy thing—so it doesn't get done, and children suffer. Meet with the principal, go over all the failed attempts to make this work, and say your child needs to be moved now. Also say this teacher is hurting other kids. If nothing happens, take it up the chain, all the way to the superintendent's office if need be.
Q. Social Secretary: My mother does this with all her family members and gets very, very angry if she is thwarted (and I'm 52!). I don't think it is something that can be cured by one conversation; my brothers and I handle it by expressing appreciation for her efforts while remaining unmoved and doing what we would have done anyway. We are careful to maintain a tone with her that is respectful, relaxed, and completely nondefensive (since being so would put us back into the "child" role).
A: You're right, this is not a one-conversation issue. After the conversation, you must take your own action. Thank you for this example of how to successfully draw boundaries around a difficult relative.
Q. Useless Co-Workers in C.A.: Working in a cube farm, I inevitably notice that two of my co-workers do absolutely nothing. All they do all day (literally), after arriving at work somewhere around 10:30 a.m., is sit in each others' cubicles and gossip and talk about personal stuff (and, being in a cube farm, it's distracting to everyone around). My other co-workers have noticed it, as well as noticing work assigned to these two does not get done. How do we bring this up to management without seeming childish or like tattletales?
A: Given the unemployment rates, it's always amazing when you hear there are people who think they should draw a paycheck for gossiping and shopping online. Their work is not being done, which is leaving the rest of you in the lurch, and they are distracting the people who are trying to work. Two or three of you (more than one, so it doesn't seem personal, not so many that is seems like a cabal) should talk to a supervisor and say this is a problem that needs attention.
Emily Yoffe writes:And speaking of getting back to work ... thanks, everyone, for spending your lunch break with me. Talk to you next week.