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. Lying to Boyfriend: I have been dating a great guy for about a year and half. Our relationship is going really well, and we're both very happy. There's just one problem: I've been lying to him ever since I met him. We originally met in a bar, and I never thought I would see him again, so when he asked about my background, I told what I thought was a harmless lie. I told him my parents were killed in a fire when I was a child and I was raised by my aunt and uncle. In reality, I come from an ultra-fundamentalist family that subscribes to a very strict sect of Evangelical Christianity. I'm one of 13 kids, and I left when I was 18 to avoid marrying. Ten years later, I know I made the right decision for me, but I feel terrible about lying to my boyfriend. Recently, he's been asking to meet my aunt and uncle, and the lie has spread to his family, who believe me to be an orphan. I'm not welcome at home, so it's not like my boyfriend would ever need to meet them, but every time it comes up or it's alluded to, I feel guilty all over again. Should I tell him the truth? And if so, how?
A: It's way past time for you to own up—you should have corrected this story after the second or third date. Tell your boyfriend there's something that's been weighing heavily on you ever since you met, and you have to let him know the truth. Explain that you had to leave your family to protect yourself and you are not welcome by them. So in a way your relationship is dead, although they actually aren't. Let's hope your boyfriend is understanding of the fact that your childhood was so traumatic that even speaking about it has been something you've wanted to avoid.
Q. Abusive Friend: I have been friends with "Kathy" for over five years. She tends not to make the best choices in life, and today that has landed her with a 3-year-old son she did not want, in severe debt, divorced, unemployed, and living unwanted in her mother's home. I have supported her through it all because we are friends, but recently I don't know what to do. Every time I am with her, she will hit or scream at her son. It doesn't matter if we are in a nice restaurant—she has smacked his face or pulled him out of his high chair to hit him. The last time I saw her, she hit him HARD (hit him in the face so he fell to the ground) no less than 10 times in two hours. I know if I had said something at the time it would not have gone well, and she has said her son looks just like her ex-husband, and it makes her "sick." What am I obligated to do in this situation? I feel she is really harming this child both physically and emotionally.
A: Sadly, here's the weekly "I've been watching a mother abuse her child and I don't know what to do" question. This woman is an immediate danger to her son, and it's way past the time to have a conversation with her about her mothering skills. When you realize your side of the conversation would be, "'Kathy, when you try to break Billy's jaw or tell him the sight of him makes you sick, I think maybe you need to rethink how you deal with the stresses of having a child," it's time for action, not conversation. Call child protective services and don't hold back on telling them how out of control this mother is. The story of what this child is enduring is making me cry.
Q. Social Conversations: I am a 30-year-old woman and have been a consultant for six years. My job has allowed me to learn about topics in both business and public affairs. In social situations, sometimes friends or family will bring up topics ranging from compensation and benefit structures to environmental policy. If have expertise, I try to explain the issue or topic if the speaker seems to be misinformed. At times, the person looks annoyed that I am trying to be helpful to them. Am I not being helpful? Am I acting like a know-it-all? Should I just pretend that I am not knowledgeable about a particular issue next time?
A: The wonderful comedian Irwin Corey* used to bill himself as "The World's Foremost Authority." Your career has allowed you become one in real life, but you're right, sometimes in social conversation people are just sounding off, and they don't necessarily want a lecture on benefit structure from the world's foremost authority. So pick your spots as to when you want to display your superior knowledge about, well, everything.
Q. Sweets at the Office: After many years of being overweight, I'm finally down to a healthy weight. My doctor has told me that I can lose more if I want, but to just not gain any of the weight back. That said, I've been watching my diet rather closely. My question is about sweets in the office. Regularly we will have pizza, donuts, cookies, cake, cupcakes, etc., about once a month or so. I partake when I can, but most times the food is not something I want to eat. Quite often I'm the only one not eating, and it is becoming noticeable. Don't get me wrong. I eat regularly throughout the day, but I just don't want yet another slice of pizza or cheesecake, especially if I already indulged the night before for a friend's birthday party or wedding. How do I tell well-meaning co-workers that I don't care for anything they're serving? It's especially awkward as some of these treats are homemade, and I don't want to offend anyone. When I first started, I would eat this stuff to be nice, but now I know the frequency and I can no longer do it.
A: "No thanks, but it does look delicious." Unfortunately, we live in a world in which no place is a food-free zone, so there's no way you're going to maintain your weight loss if you eat every time food is offered. No one else can force you to put food in your mouth. Just be pleasant but firm in your refusal.
Q. Therapy: How can I tactfully tell a therapist that after a year I don't feel like we are getting anywhere and plan to find someone else? I feel like I spend 50 minutes talking about what happened during the time between visits—but not addressing my anxieties. Heck, I could probably have the same results by buying a case of beer and asking my friends to come over and listen. Her philosophy is to focus on the present day, but I feel if there is an issue from my past that makes me anxious now, shouldn't we address it?
A: You could cancel the next session and leave a message saying you have decided to move on. Or if you feel after a year of wasting your time, you owe her an in-person goodbye, you could explain you are discontinuing therapy because you feel you've gotten everything you can out of it. Part of the therapeutic process is recognizing when it is not working and moving on.
Q. Older Boyfriend Won't Commit: I am 25 years old, and my boyfriend is 37. We have been dating for a year and a half. I want to move in with him so that we can take the next level in our relationship, but I think he is afraid of commitment. He says he wants marriage and kids one day, but he's already 37 and doesn't seem to be making any moves to attain those goals. He wants me to wait six more months and then revisit the topic. I love him and want to be with him, but six months is a long time to wait when it isn't even a guarantee he will be willing to let me move in. Also I am not from this state and would not stay here if it wasn't for him. What should I do?
A: Your boyfriend is not quite leveling with you, but he's making it very clear that for him the next level is keeping things just as they are. If that's OK with you, then enjoy his company for now. He's 37, and you say has so far fended off serious commitment, as he seems to be doing with you. It sounds as if you're starting to feel ready for one. You've invested 18 months with this guy, which isn't that long, but how much more time do you want to spend with someone whose ultimate goals seem incompatible with yours? Keep in mind that moving in with someone like this could actually be an impediment to getting married and having children. There you are in a pseudo-marriage, but without the legal commitment. He may feel very little incentive to change that.
Q. Mom Wants To Buy the Entire Supermarket as a Way of Saying I Love You: My mom, like millions of mothers across the world, expresses her love through food. When she visits my home (about four or five times a year) she will bring a bag bursting with food and go grocery shopping several times. I've asked her not to stock up my fridge, but she merely interprets this as "rather than buying 10 boxes of chocolate soy milk, please buy me seven boxes instead." It gets to a point where my pantry is so packed I don't even know what is in it, and a lot of the food ends up in the trash after its expiry date. I've tried to go grocery shopping with her to limit her purchases, but then she'll go again when I'm not present and buy beyond what's necessary! Is there an effective way of telling her, as lovingly as possible, to stop buying me so much food?
A: You've tried to stop her, but her pleasure in demonstrating through food how much she cares outweighs your protestations about wasting food. Surely, your area has a food pantry for people in need. So after Mom's left, rebag the unexpired groceries and drop them off for someone who will appreciate them.
Q. Thank-You Notes: I have a twentysomething niece who doesn't seem familiar with thank-you notes. She lives in another state, so I generally mail her gifts for special occasions like Christmas, birthdays, graduations, etc. She recently had a baby, and I sent her a couple of rather nice gifts: car seat and stroller. Needless to say, when she called on both occasions to advise, "I got the box but haven't opened it yet," I was irked. Since most of her gifts are ordered online, a nice description, how much she liked the gift … something … would really be appreciated. However, mum's the word. It's always, "I got the box." Am I overreacting, or is a simple thank you passé?