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: Happy Valentine's Day, everyone. I look forward to your romantic dilemmas. My own question is: Will my husband snag that last, dying bouquet from the flower vendor at the Metro?
Q. Single and Bitter on V-Day: I am single and bitter. Not just today, but in the past couple of months, I've realized it. I am trying not to spew my bitterness on other happy people, because they deserve to be happy, but today it feels like I'm dodging emotional bullets left and right. How do I deal with happy people being happy without going off on a negative tangent?
A: So everyone out there is blissfully happy, and you are the only person alone on Valentine's Day? You probably know you should take a deep breath, look around you, and be glad that today no one told you, "I'm sorry, it's malignant," or any of the myriad difficulties that millions of people deal with every day.
Keep in mind that no happy person is stealing your happiness. Happiness is not a zero-sum game. And despite your single status, surely there is a movie or a good book or a hot bubble bath you could treat yourself to tonight. And while you do that, be grateful that being alone on a silly holiday is the worst of your problems.
Dear Prudence: Housewarming Blues
Q. Valentine's Day Is Stupid: I feel really dumb asking about this, as it's a simple and easy problem to have. My fiance loves me very much. However, he doesn't understand why Valentine's Day needs to be celebrated at all, and from what I can tell, doesn't even plan to get flowers. In fact, I haven't gotten flowers in two years. Now, I love him very much. He's just the most unromantic person I've ever met. So, I'm going to marry this guy and I assume his attitude toward these things won't change. How do I deal with it? I'm actually considering giving myself flowers, which is what I did when I was single.
A: So you're the person who's going to take that last bunch of flowers, leaving my husband to come home empty-handed! I'm married to a great guy who, I promise you, is more unromantic than your fiance. Although I never get flowers or gifts or surprise dinner reservations, my husband once revealed that he thinks he actually is very romantic. It turns out that because we have so much fun together, he thinks just talking late into the night is romance. I've come to accept he's right. So buy yourself flowers, maybe some lovely irises instead of roses, and be happy with your unromantic romantic.
Q. Online Dating Dishonesty: I was corresponding with a fairly attractive girl online for three weeks when I finally asked her out, to which she agreed. Two days before our date she showed me a picture of a ... less attractive girl, admitted that was her true appearance, and asked if I was still interested in meeting. I was unfazed by the revelation, however, because I was easily able to tell that she just trying to fool me. I laughed it off, proclaiming that I saw through her, but she continued talking as if she really were this "ugly" girl, and the more it went on the more I felt that it wasn't just a joke, that this was a deliberate attempt to deceive. Eventually I got her to admit that she was lying. She explained that she wanted to test how superficial I was before we met. I felt insulted at having been subjected to this "test" and told her I was going to have to think about things. She apologized. The next day I called her up and cancelled our date (24 hours advance notice), believing that I needed to get to know her more before trying to meet again. She didn't take this well and, after saying I had made a big deal out of things, broke off contact. Did I overreact to her stunt?
A: Ah, the double-reverse Cyrano! So you meet someone attractive online, your conversation clicks, and before you get together in person she does a big reveal that she's actually not the person in the photo. I wonder if she just copied a picture of an unattractive person she found online or if she used a photo of a friend? "Hey, Denise, you're a dog, do you mind if I borrow your picture and pretend I'm you to see if this guy I met online just likes me because I'm so good-looking?"
It may be true that this woman actually is physically attractive, but she's rather ugly and manipulative on the inside. You haven't even met and already she's "testing" you because you were so superficial as to like her looks. You did not overreact. But I disagree that you need to back up and get to know her better. You now know everything you need to know, and I wouldn't waste any time getting to know more.
Q. Breaking Up With a Best Friend: Two years ago, my (now ex-) husband cheated on me with my (now ex-) best friend. "Vicky" blamed me for what happened, saying it wouldn't have happened if I knew how to take care of my husband better. I'm not in contact with either of them anymore. My ex-husband is a jerk and frankly I feel lucky to be rid of him. But strangely enough, I miss Vicky. Before their one-night stand, I thought of Vicky as my sister. When she was struggling financially, I gave her money. When anything happened—from having a bad day to my grandfather's death—I shared all that with her. Half my childhood and college memories involve her. I find myself thinking of Vicky as I would an ex-boyfriend. I follow her Facebook page and wonder what she's up to. I have no doubt our friendship is irreversibly destroyed. But I miss our friendship and good times. Do you have any advice for someone who's getting over a broken friendship?
A: You're a living version of the old Henny Youngman joke: "My best friend just ran off with my wife. And boy, do I miss him." Since you seem only too glad to be rid of your ex, it sounds as if Vicky, in her underhanded, deceitful way, did you a great favor by helping remove him from your life. Since she would violate your trust so grotesquely and then blame you for it, she also did you a favor by removing herself from your life. Yes, it hurts to lose a best friend and confidante, and it's not easy to find a new one, but you're better off having evicted Vicky.
Defriend her and remove any other social network means of contact. If her name comes up with mutual friends, say you'd rather not hear about her. Concentrate on strengthening your ties to people who don't think sleeping with your husband is a good way to let you know your marriage is in trouble.
Q. Co-Worker's Affair With Married Man: I work with a newly divorced woman who is in her late 20s. She decided to end her marriage by having an affair with another man. Since her separation, she inappropriately tells many of us at the office about her sexual conquests and other sordid details of her personal life. A few months after she split from her husband, she met a married man on a flight to another city. They immediately hit it off and have been having a long-distance affair for the past month. He is planning a trip to see her so that they can have a weekend together, but my thoughts are filled with his poor wife and family. I'm sure he and his wife have their issues, but as a married woman, and mother of two, I can't help but feel bad for this cheating man's family. I have been able to deduce how to reach this man's wife and am really tempted to send her an anonymous e-mail telling her about what I know. I realize this is really none of my business, but I am getting really sick of hearing how happy my co-worker is from having a relationship with a married man. Am I completely out of line here?
A: Your co-worker is out of line, and you will be too if you pursue your desire to tell the wife. I'm not universally against informing someone that his or her spouse is cheating. But usually it is a situation in which you know a friend is being deceived. I would stay away from injecting yourself into a second- or third-hand situation. The person you should confront is your co-worker. Maybe enlist one other colleague to go to her and say her babbling about her sex life in the office is inappropriate and a distraction, and all of you would appreciate it if she kept her escapades to herself.
Q. Can This Marriage Be Saved? My husband and I have been together for almost nine years, married for three, and have no children. Two days ago, he told me that he's known his entire life that his gender identity is female. This confession didn't come willingly; I had accused him of shutting me out of communication about our dwindling sex life, which I had attributed to a stressful job, approaching middle age, and maybe low testosterone—this is something I never once suspected and was completely shocked. He could barely say the words. He insists, and I truly believe, that he loves me and he is attracted to women and more specifically me. I love him and can't imagine my life without him in it. He is an incredible person and has supported me through my own struggles with depression and anxiety. Do couples get through this? I don't even know exactly what my question is, but I'm hoping that you have some advice for me, because I am feeling lost and can't help worrying about what comes next.
A: I always wonder about the spouses who have known "all their lives" that they were gay or want to be the opposite sex, and neglected to let the spouse in on this news before the wedding. This is obviously a life-changing revelation for both of you, and you are in no position now to have to decide how the rest of your life will play out. Let's say your husband decides to pursue a sex change. This will require many consultations with a therapist, and some of these should include both of you. You can also find online communities of spouses who have been through this, and you should seek their support. You can't know what your question is now, because your husband has just exploded this bombshell. So accept that you are going to be feeling shell-shocked for quite a while, and turn to people who can help you get through this.
Q. Relationship With Husband: What does it mean when I tell my boyfriend that I'm worried that he'll treat me the way he treats his family, and he replies, "You'll never do stupid things the way they do, so I won't treat you like that" ... and then flash-forward 10 years when I say to the same man, now my husband, "I thought you said you'd never treat me the way you treat your family," and he replies, "Well, I never though you'd start doing dumb things like them."
A: It could mean you're married to a jerk. It also serves as a good warning to young lovers out there that you need to assess the entirety of your beloved's character. If he dotes on you, but likes to torment your dog, take that into account.
I don't know if your husband is the one person in the family everyone dreads being around, or if he comes from a globally dysfunctional family and his part has always been to point out everyone else's stupidity. It is very hard not to bring family baggage into a marriage, and it sounds as if your husband arrived with a steamer trunk. So now this means telling him your marriage is being damaged by his treating you in a demeaning fashion, and that you two need a third party to help you find a better way.
Q. I Used To Date My New Boss's New Wife: About six months ago, I finally landed my dream job in a new city. About two months ago, the manager who hired me retired, and his replacement will begin next month. As it turns out his new wife, who will also be working for this same firm in a different division, is someone I dated briefly—but very passionately—about six years ago. (Her husband won't be her boss, but she will be working on the same floor and will use many of the same facilities we do—it will be impossible to avoid interacting with her.) Our relationship did not end well, and we haven't had any contact since 2005; I just re-read some of our last e-mail correspondence, and it was quite ugly. I feel very bad about what happened and am fully willing to apologize and claim responsibility for how we ended things. (There wasn't any abuse or infidelity or dishonesty on either of our parts; I think the problem was that we lived in different cities and led different lives and couldn't find a way to make it work, so we picked fights with each other because the anger was easier to deal with than the heartbreak.) The new boss has a reputation for being something of a micromanager, and I would have enough trepidation about him anyway without this issue. My hope, of course, is that we can all be adults about this and not let this get in the way. I am considering writing a short e-mail to my ex congratulating her on her new job, offering an apology for how we left things, and saying that I'm looking forward to working with her. Would that be appropriate? I would not write anything to her that she couldn't share with her husband (assuming he knows about this). The point of doing this is to soften the blow of that awkward moment when we encounter each other in the workplace the first time. What do you think? Is this presumptuous of me? Should I just start looking for a new job? By the way, I really am sincerely happy for her new marriage—while I regret the way we broke up, I do think it was for the best, and I really do respect her and care about her, though of course I'm not expecting that we will ever become close friends again—I'm just trying to determine if there's something I can do to make this less awkward.
A: Yes, the situation is awkward, but you're way overthinking this. Your bad breakup six years ago was clearly a blessing because it freed her to find a much more suitable partner. You should proceed from the assumption that you're all adults, you all have pasts, but your private lives are not going to interfere with your ability to professionally discharge your duties. I don't think you should even bring this up with your new boss—it's really his obligation (assuming he knows you dated his wife) to make some off-hand remark that clears the air and indicates this is not a problem. If he doesn't, just assume everything is fine. And when you run into your ex, greet her cordially and as naturally as possible.
Q. Relationship: I have a rather bizarre problem for you. I have been with my boyfriend for almost two years, and we've discussed marriage/engagement quite a bit. Most women would be excited about moving in that direction, however, every time this topic comes up, I get completely nauseous. The first time this happened was while in a bookstore a few months back. I was looking for a cooking mag, and when I walked by the bridal magazines, I started feeling sick. I am in my late 20s, and I live with my boyfriend, and while a part of me doesn't want to have to "start all over again" I wonder if this is some "gut feeling" that I am with the wrong person because I have always wanted to get married. My relationship with my boyfriend is generally great, however we have had some problems in the past and like most couples worked through them. Some of our "issues" made me wonder if he and I were even right together because the root of these problems involved basic differences in our personalities. I haven't told my boyfriend about my bridal nausea, and no, I am not someone who is just obsessed with expensive weddings. What should I do?
A: It may be that your gut is telling you to get out. It also may be that you were having a bout of indigestion when walking by the bridal magazines, and now it has become a Pavlovian response that doesn't really reflect your feelings. Try to get control of this now habitual physical response. Tell yourself that the nausea is a learned reaction, and try musing on marriage when you're doing something you enjoy: yoga or running, etc. Once you can think about it without feeling sick, you will be better able to consider whether your boyfriend is the person you want to plan your life with.
Q. To Call or Not To Call? A lot of trucks or service vehicles have that bumper sticker asking, "How's my driving?" with a number to report complaints or compliments. Recently, I've been behind or near some vehicles where the driver was operating dangerously (cutting people off, talking—and clearly distracted doing so—on a cell phone, straddling two lanes of traffic without responding to honking). What do you think of reporting such behaviors? Part of me wants the driver to pay for putting others at risk, and part of me would feel horrible if someone lost their job over an incident. Although these are bad driving behaviors, we all make mistakes. But what if it's a perpetual problem? So where do you come down—report or no?
A: As a Valentine's Day service to try to make sure no one loses a loved one to an irresponsible trucker, do take down the phone number and call and report the incident in as much detail as possible when it is safe to do so. A trucker on a cell phone is a menace who should be retrained or taken off the road.
Q. Dating: My boyfriend and I have been together just a month now. His best friend, who is a woman, has made it apparent that she feels threatened by me. She calls him "an emotional partner" while he refers to her as "his little sister." I have no doubts as to the faithfulness of my boyfriend, and I believe him that he is not at all interested in her. But I have noticed that she is cold to me and competes for his attention when we are all out together. I wouldn't dream of asking him to stop hanging out with his friend. I do think he needs to be clear with her, though, about the fact that he is not interested in her. How do I bring this up to him without it coming across as an attack on his friendship?
A: You've only been going out for a month, so you should just relax and see how things develop. Referring to oneself as "an emotional partner" is dangerously close to referring to oneself as "an emotional vampire," so this best friend may be trouble. But her relationship with your guy long predates yours, so you should just be confident about how your relationship is going. However, especially in the early stages of a romance the couple is usually spending a lot of time together getting to know each other. If all your sessions are threesomes, then you have grounds not only for complaint, but for possibly moving on.
Q. Forgetting the Ex: About a year ago, I split up with my girlfriend of nearly a decade. It was the best decision of my life. I have since met and fallen in love with a wonderful woman and moved cross-country to be with her. The problem is that I have recurring thoughts about my ex on an almost daily basis. They are not nostalgic, longing, or reminiscent; they are simply reminders (for example, I'll see the model of car she drives). Most disturbingly, I have had sex dreams about her (and our sex wasn't even that good in real life). Though I wish her well, I have no desire to speak to her, see her, or even think about her. I just want to stop thinking about her, but I can't. Is this normal after an eight year relationship? Is there anything I can do to stop being reminded of her?
A: Yes, it's normal. You shared a life with someone for eight years, so even if you're thrilled there won't be eight more, the time together isn't simply erased. Your sleeping brain sounds as if it is doing some extra duty of working her out of your system, so don't we disturbed by your erotic dreams. As for your thoughts, just accept them and let them pass: "Hmm, yup that's the same care Jeanie drove. Glad I'm not driving in it with her anymore." Eventually, you'll realize, "Oh, that reminds me of Jeanie—and I haven't thought about her for weeks."
Q. Illegal Porn: While looking for a movie to put on my iPod on the family computer, I saw a really disturbing title. "Wild. Teen (S-E-X)" What should I do? I have a feeling this movie might be illegal, and I am kind of scared to be around my dad right now. I don't want any divorce/court/prison-type things to happen, so I am clueless. I have two 5- and 7-year-old brothers, and I haven't told anyone. HELP!
A: As disturbing as your discovery is, I doubt there is anything for you to be scared about. Yes, the idea is creepy, but men viewing porn is very, very common. Your father would probably be more mortified than you are scared when he discovers you came upon his porn-viewing. Take him over to the computer and show him what you saw and say, "Dad, I found this when I was searching for a movie, and obviously it upset me." Let's hope he's grown up enough to apologize and make sure it doesn't happen again.
Q. Do I Really Have To Date? I'm in my 50s, and after unpleasant endings to several romances, I'm quite happy to be single. I do whatever I like, and I have wonderful friends. But I still get the "you never know when you'll meet the right man" speech from almost every married woman I know. I've gotten tired of telling them I REALLY am not looking, and that my life is pretty darn great. Even saying that I really don't want to discuss it anymore does no good. Frankly, even if Mr. Right came along today, I'm pretty certain I'd let him keep right on going. Why do people, especially women, feel they have an obligation to cheer you up (even when you're quite happy) with the news that Mr. Right is coming along soon?
A: It does sound tiresome—why don't people understand that what makes them happy isn't necessarily for everyone. If it keeps coming up, all you can say is: "I know you're trying to cheer me up, but I don't need cheering because I love being single. So, who do you think is going to end up running Egypt?"
Q. Appropriate Gift? My 13-year-old daughter thought I was out of my mind because I was going to get my wife a gift certificate to get her car cleaned inside and out. My daughter told me that was totally inappropriate for Valentine's Day. OK, I stipulate that a car wash is not a romantic gift. But ... I buy my wife flowers on a regular basis and have for 26-plus years. We go out regularly and I am a good, considerate husband. I thought that after a long, ugly winter, maybe she would like her car cleaned. Tell me: Would the carwash have been such a bad gift? (By the way, I ended up getting her a hand cream she likes.)
A: It sounds as if you and your daughter have a great relationship! I'm not crazy about a gift certificate to a carwash—however, if you'd taken her car and gotten it detailed yourself, then put a jar of hand cream on the front seat, that would have been a great Valentine's gift.
Q. Response to Single and Bitter: I must be a weird person, but I'm going through a divorce at the moment, and I love spending time with my married friends (they're lots of fun), but it might also be because it gives me hope that I will find someone to love and who will love me again. In the meantime. I have a 4-year-old, work, and my hobbies that keep me occupied and happy. If I don't find someone, then it wasn't meant to happen, but I'm a big believer that you get back what you put out, and your vibes are just sending people running away from you.
A: Lovely! Thank you.
Q. Boyfriend Is Attracted To My Physical Opposite: I've been dating a wonderful man for a year, and things in general are good. I am having trouble moving forward in the relationship because a month ago, while we were out having some drinks, my boyfriend confessed that he's generally attracted to dark–haired, darker-skinned women. I am a pale-skinned natural blonde. He says he finds me more attractive than anyone else he's ever dated, but I wonder if he said that because I got so upset. Since then, his confession is weighing on my mind. Am I reading too much into this?
A: It really depends on how it was said. Was he confessing that he still feels drawn to his type and is surprised he's with you? Or was he saying he always had a type, but when you came along he realized he was done typecasting? Since you're still worrying over this, bring it up (not tonight, however!) and say it's been bothering you. If he reassures you that part of what's been so interesting about your relationship is that you blew everything he thought about his "type" out of the water, then accept that in this case blondes do have more fun.
Emily Yoffe: Thank you all for the fascinating romantic intrigues, and Happy Valentine's Day!
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