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: Good afternoon. I'm looking forward to your questions.
Q. No Sympathy: I recently caught my Sunday school class off-guard when Hurricane Katrina was brought up, AGAIN! (*Sigh*) I made it known that I have no sympathy for anyone that lost homes, lives, loved-ones, etc., when Hurricane Katrina hit. My reasoning: 99 percent of those people made a CHOICE to live in an area that they knew was prone to hurricanes. Therefore, it was my opinion that I shouldn't have to feel sorry for someone that made a mistake and chose to live in the wrong area of the United States. Does this make me a bad person?
A: Do you teach at the Ayn Rand "It's Your Own Fault" Sunday school? When you teach the story of the flood, you must disparage God for instructing Noah to save the living creatures of the earth—according to you they all deserved to drown. By your reasoning, anyone who lives someplace prone to natural disasters (earthquakes, tornadoes, blizzards) should be left to their own devices when catastrophe hits. Perhaps you should instruct your students where the proper places to live are, since vast swaths of the earth put populations at risk. Maybe you want to open your home to the millions who must migrate if they follow your principles.
I'm assuming Katrina came up yet again because your students find your point of view morally indefensible. Good for them. Having such a discussion—and citing biblical texts to support various points of view—will make for a challenging, lively class. Although you are very certain about your lack of empathy for victims of the hurricane, I will leave unanswered your question as to whether you're a bad person. I just don't have enough information about you to draw such a sweeping conclusion.
Dear Prudence: Two-Timing Woman
Q. Colleagues Eating While Meeting With Me One-on-One: There are a couple of people at work who feel free to eat while I meet with them in their office or while talking on the phone, or who chew gum loudly while talking with me on the phone. This makes me nauseous and disgusted, as well as making me feel personally disrespected. I suppose those are two slightly different issues. They are both managers, as am I. The relationships are not cozy and collegial; I already feel somewhat disrespected by these two people. I'm pretty sure they would never do that with their boss, and I feel this is an unconscious way of them letting me know that they feel I'm not on their level (although we are all managers at the same level in the organization). One time I said: "Oh, I see you are busy eating. I will come back later." I can't always do that, however, as we make appointments to see each other. Not sure what to do. Any hints?
A: I agree that chomping in your ear is rude, but it's very possible they are not doing this because they hope to cause you to upchuck at work, but just because they're hungry. Unfortunately for American avoirdupois, the barriers to eating have broken down. It used to be food was consumed in specific places and times. Now all day long is a noshing festival and it's no longer seen as rude to chew and work at the same time. If you are having an extended conversation and the lip smacking is too much, you can say, as you have, "Dan, I don't want to interrupt your lunch, I'll call back later." But surely you are not nauseated at the mere sight of someone else eating—you're able to converse at restaurants, right? If you have problems with these guys, try to sort those out without involving a lecture about their table manners.
Q. Sexual Histories: I recently asked my boyfriend of over two years who his previous sexual partners are. He first dodged the question, then refused to answer. Is he correct that his past is none of my business or do I have a right to know the sexual history of a sexual partner?
A: You have a right to know if his previous sexual partners left a legacy in the form of an STD that potentially could affect your health. Other than that, you don't have a right to know about his intimate life prior to your coming along. Let's say you badger him to tell you. Soon you will be writing to me: "My boyfriend told me the names of his previous sexual partners. I know some of these women! Now I feel sick when I see them socially. And when we start to make love, all I can think of is his doing the same things with them. I wish I'd never asked. How do I get this out of my head?"
Q. Re: "I Shouldn't Have To Feel Sorry for Someone That Made a Mistake": Can you please point to the section of the Bible where Jesus preached this approach? Thanks.
A: Good question.
Q. Son's Reputation: My 23-year-old son is overseas doing volunteer work with youth. He's a very handsome, personable young man, and he tends to attract unwanted attention from some of the young girls he works with. I saw that a couple of these teenage girls had posted suggestive pics of themselves on his Facebook wall. I sent my son a message warning him to be careful and suggesting that he delete these girls' posts. He is now very angry at me. I think he's just embarrassed at the suggestion that he used poor judgment in allowing these girls to "friend" him and then post on his wall. I don't for one minute think he would do anything wrong with any of these young girls. Nevertheless, I believe he needs to guard his reputation carefully. Was I wrong to warn him? Should I have just kept my concerns to myself?
A: I doubt Mark Zuckerberg's hope when he started Facebook was that well-meaning mothers could monitor their grown children's professional and personal interactions from an ocean away. No one is wrong here. You're right that suggestive photos from underage girls on your son's wall could present problems for him and his organization. He should check and see if there's a policy about teachers friending students. Your son's also not wrong about being annoyed at your meddling—and don't be surprised if you suddenly find yourself in Facebook purdah. He wants to feel like a competent adult, and there's Mom saying, "Billy, take those photos down!" Let's hope once he gets over his annoyance, he thinks about the issues you've raised. And now that you've raised them, you and he need to have some kind of agreement about how—and whether—you communicate about what you see on his Facebook page.
Q. Grandparent: I have two sons who have begun to ask who their grandfather is and why they don't know him. I have explained he had a lot of problems that kept him from being a good father and he was not a part of my life growing up. He was an alcoholic, gambler, and drug user who beat us, but I haven't shared that with my boys as I feel they are too young to understand it. I have no hostility toward my father—I understand he had many problems, but at the same time I decided at a young age not to have him in my life. We run into each other about once a year at a store and will say hello, and that is the extent of the relationship. I know given his age and prior lifestyle and current health that he won't be around many more years. My question—do I bring my boys to meet him? I am afraid they will always have a void if he dies and they never met him. Or do I just continue as is and when they are older explain everything to them?
A: You have answered their understandable questions honestly—your father had problems that kept him from being a good father—and you should think of this as a continuing conversation, not something that gets a big reveal when they reach a certain age. You could sit down with some family photos and tell your kids some basics about your father: where he was born, what he did for a living (when he was employed), etc. If they are old enough to be asking question, they may be old enough to understand alcoholism—you can look at some resources at AA for explaining this to children. Then follow their lead. Knowing this is a conversation they can have may be enough for them for now. Resuming contact with your father is not a casual issue for you—it will be bound to stir up all sorts of memories and feelings you may rather let lie. So see how the conversations with your sons go and monitor how discussing your father makes you feel.
Q. Lazy Co-Worker/Friend: I became friends with a co-worker of mine shortly after she was hired, a little over a year ago. However, over time, I've realized that she is incredibly lazy and does as little work as possible, leaving everyone else in our department to pick up her slack. I like her as a person and enjoy chatting with her both at work and over the occasional drink, but I'm tired of having to do the work of two people when she's around. I've complained to my immediate supervisor and nothing changed, and I felt like a traitor. Part of me wants to take this to the HR department, but her mother works in HR, and I'm worried she'll reveal that I complained, and my friend will never forgive me. Even if she loses her job, I'd like to stay friends. How should I handle this situation?
A: I assume the fact that your friend collects a paycheck for doing nothing while you and others handle her duties is diminishing your positive feelings about her. I'm hoping you have plenty of friends, so losing the friendship of this woman won't diminish your social life. Since Mom works in HR, it might be best if two or three of you went to another HR person to explain that productivity and morale are being seriously affected by having such a slacker in your department.
Q. Two-Year-Old Marriage and Still a Virgin: I have a huge problem. I married my Mr. Absolutely Perfect two years ago, and we want to have kids in the near future. But I'm terrified of sex. It's not that I was raped or molested as a child. I am from a conservative culture and my parents always taught me sex was disgusting and evil—but I can't see how this is a problem, since all my five siblings were taught the same, and they have no problem changing this attitude after marriage! I feel like a horrible wife and I have tried to force myself to have sex several times, but each time I break into a sweat and begin to cry. My husband is more than patient about this and told me he will never do anything that makes me feel upset. I have tried therapy, but the therapist kept trying to discover some kind of childhood trauma that may have contributed, except there is none. My husband and I have no other marital problems, and I love kissing and cuddling. It's just sex that terrifies me. Is there any hope for us?
A: Contact sex therapist Joyce Penner at Passionate Commitment www.passionatecommitment.com, who treats couples from a Christian perspective. One of Penner's specialties is unconsummated marriages. Searching for a childhood trauma as the key to unlock you has gotten you to your second anniversary with your virginity intact. As a couple, you need a positive physical and psychological approach so you can fully participate in the joys of marriage. This isn't going to be an instant fix, but that you want things to be different, and that you have a loving, patient husband means that with some work you surely will get there.
Q. How Many Children Is Enough? My husband has his heart set on having a third child. We have two, a boy and a girl, and I feel like I am done. Before we got married we talked about how many kids we wanted and agreed we both wanted at least three. I feel like I'm backing out of my end of the deal, but I am concerned that having a third child is going to stretch me to the point that I am not as good of a parent to my first two. I don't want my husband to always look back with regret at what could have been either. How do I resolve this? I feel like it is constantly hanging over my head even though he rarely brings it up.
A: You don't want to try to make it to menopause while avoiding this conversation, thus making it moot. How many children people think they want before they marry is often revised by the joys of raising actual children after they marry. It's great your husband is not hassling you, but there's no reason to let this issue nag at you. You need to have a forthright conversation in which you say what you said here—you feel blessed with the two you have and any more blessing would do you in.
Q. No Sympathy: As one of the people who made a mistake and lost my home and many good friends to Hurricane Katrina, I want to thank you for your answer to this woman. I'm sure that she has never eaten seafood, because it is harvested daily by people who make the terrible mistake of earning their living on the coastline of North America. I'm sure she has no sympathy for soldiers either, since they made a mistake in their choice of profession. Firefighters, policemen, doctors, nurses, etc. deserve no sympathy for any tragedy that befalls them if you follow her line of thinking. I hope she never makes a mistake and needs to ask for help to survive.
A: Ah yes, the inevitable comeuppance for this Sunday school teacher should be good.
Q. Copycat Friend: I have a friend who likes to buy whatever I buy. She bought the same furniture, clothes, etc. She even bought the same car as mine. Whenever we see each other, she looks at my clothes and shoes and asks me where I got them. Do you think this is normal? Should I avoid her ?
A: The next time you see her you could say, "I just rented the most fabulous movie, Single White Female, have you ever seen it?" Of course all of us are influenced by our friends all the time. Seeing someone's flat sceen TV prompts you to buy yours. UGG boots can only be explained by this phenomenon. But your friend clearly takes it to a pathological level. When someone creeps you out, that usually signals it's time to end the friendship.
Q. Office "Friends": What's the best way to tell office colleagues that 40 hours a week with them is enough? I really don't want to go to happy hour after work or to games or movies with them on the weekends. How can I separate work and social without wrecking either?
A: "Thanks for your offer. I'm already booked, but have a great weekend." And just for the sake of not always being odd person out, occasionally join them for happy hour.
Q. Ex-Friends: Recently I've phased a friend out of my life. We'd been friends for almost a decade but experienced some normal growing apart along with some hurtful things that she's done to me over the years—capped off by an incident where I believe she got unreasonably upset with me. We have lots of mutual friends (essentially all my friends are also her friends), and when I say that we aren't really talking, they act upset and say they hope we can work it out. I don't know what to say to them. "I have no intention of working anything out" makes me sound like a jerk, as would listing off all the reasons I don't want to work things out. But I don't like the idea of all my friends thinking I'm fighting with this person.
A: You can say something like: "I agree it would be easier if we were friends. I do wish her all the best, but we're just two of those people who continually rub each other the wrong way, so it's best that we give each other a wide berth."
Q. Friendship: My best friend of 20 years divorced his wife in October. His friends and family were sad he had to go through such pain, but we unanimously thought it was the healthiest decision he could have made. His wife was a drug addict, stole from friends and family, and was a never-ending source of drama. She initiated the divorce, after she fell "in love" with an overseas, Facebook "friend." In short, it was a mess. Sadly, my best friend has decided to reconcile with his wife, and we are all shocked. I know it's his life, and what I say probably won't amount to anything, but I keep wanting to throw cold water in his face. Honestly, I feel like he's going back into the equivalent of a physically abusive relationship. Does a best friend bite his tongue and be supportive, or, at some point, do you say how you really feel?
A: Since it's got to be almost impossible for you to socialize with them as a couple, your friendship will be smashed if they reconcile, so you should speak up. Just say that you care for him very deeply and over the years it distressed you to see him so mistreated by his wife. You know separating was hard, but you were hopeful it gave him a chance for a better life. Getting back together is obviously his decision to make, but you had to let him know that you think the consequences for him will be terrible.
Q. Wedding Gifts: I recently received a wedding invitation with a poem written on the hotel address card. The poem stated, "If you were thinking of giving a gift, to help us on our way. A gift of cash towards our house, would really make our day." I thought that was rather tacky but another friend thinks it is no different than listing registries for the couple (although I have never received those lists in an invitation). Just wondering if I am out of touch with things and if this is a new "tradition."
A: It is a new tradition. Just as eating while talking on the phone is a new tradition, texting while driving is a new tradition, and thinking your getting married means your friends are ATMs is a new tradition. Invitations are about letting guests know the day, time, and place of a wedding, not about how you want to hit them up for gifts. Of course people will want to give gifts, but what the couple would like is conveyed socially, not included in the invitation.
Q. Facebook: I'm overseas doing some work with young people. How can I get Mom to quit giving me unsolicited advice about whom I am friending and what they post? I'm a man, damnit!
A: You are a man—so watch out for teenage girls who are flush with their new power to cloud the minds of men and clutter their Facebook pages with potentially troublesome images.
Q. Stop Asking If the Closet Is Open: I'm in my last year of college and have a great group of friends. I've been really good friends with one guy, "Tim," for a couple of years now, and we get along great. The problem is, many people who he isn't good friends with and don't know him well question his sexual orientation, and some of them, being my friends, ask me in course of conversation if he's "come out" to me or something else along those lines. He hasn't, but even if he had, I feel that it is totally inappropriate for me to discuss this with anyone. How do I respond to these questions when I'm asked?
A: "I don't know anything about Tim's sexual orientation." However, if he did come out, there'd be no reason to keep that a secret. In that case you'd say, "Yes, Tim's gay."
Q. Daughter's Cross-Dressing BF: My twentysomething daughter, "Claire," has been dating a wonderful man for about a year. "Brad" is gainfully employed, seemingly kind to her, and quite easy on the eyes. He's also a cross-dresser, or at least I strongly suspect that he is. His hair is shoulder-length and styled in a rather feminine bob, and I've seen him wear it in quite girlish ways: headband, up in a high ponytail, etc. I believe he curls it regularly. He wears light makeup daily. His typical clothes are borderline women's: capris, sandals, floral print tops, and the like. Last weekend my second husband (not Claire's father) and I ran into them at a local bistro, and he was wearing a sarong-like skirt with his hair up in a bun, hoop earrings, sandals with painted toenails, and so on. Frankly, he looked lovely.
My question is, how should I react, or not? We live in a progressive but fairly small Northern California city and it will quickly get around that Claire's beau is also a belle. I have no problem with his "look," but, at the same time, my husband and I have fairly prominent roles in the community and I'm not sure how it will go over if Claire shows up at an event with a man in a dress. My husband, who's less open-minded than I, has already made a couple of derisive comments. I'm also wondering how this will be presented to their kids, if they indeed have kids. I'm not sure how to raise this in a nonjudgmental way with my daughter: "So, have you and Brad picked out wedding dresses yet?" Should I just ignore it and hope that he's discreet in his fashion choices?
A: Stop worrying about how "the community" reacts—and tell your husband you understand his discomfort, but you don't want to hear put-downs of your daughter's boyfriend. You haven't said they're engaged, so instead of worrying about what to tell the grandchildren, have a talk—as nonjudgmentally as possible—about her relationship with Brad. Say something like, "Honey, it seems to me that Brad dresses very femininely, and possibly he's a cross-dresser. Can you tell me about this?" If she has nothing to tell, then drop it (and don't offer Brad any of your hand-me-downs).
Q. Reluctant Virgin: I find it hilarious that the parents who put the fear of sex into this poor woman, calling it "evil" and "disgusting," nevertheless managed to have six children!
A: True! Maybe feeling they were consorting with the devil was a turn-on.
Q. Number of Children: As a longtime friend says, "I wouldn't take a million dollars for one of my children—and I wouldn't give you a nickel for another one."
A: That says it, but it's probably not the best way for the wife to open the conversation!
Q. Wedding Woes: My boyfriend and I want to get married soon, but neither of us is financially able to pay for a wedding. I would like minimal input from my parents as they just finished paying for my twin sister's wedding. I am OK with a small wedding. I am just having a difficult time coming to terms with all of the "dream" items I will be without. No girl envisions a wedding with just 10 people. Do you think I will regret this for the rest of my life? Any suggestions on how to get the best bang for my bucks?
A: Have a tiny private wedding. Then when you're more financially set have a party to celebrate your first anniversary, or whatever. You can make it casual as a barbecue and without all the stress of a wedding you will enjoy it more. You will quickly realize having monogrammed cocktail napkins is a dream you can live without.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. And for those people who live in the Midwest who are about to be socked with an enormous blizzard—it's not your fault if your roof caves in!
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