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: Hello everyone. Best wishes for Passover and Easter.
Q. In-Laws: My boyfriend recently proposed, and I happily said yes. We've only been engaged for a few weeks, and suddenly things are on the rocks. His parents are constantly criticizing me for my lack of religion, my clothes, etc. I've learned to deal with that. But recently they came to meet my parents and told them that they had done a poor job raising me. My parents are wonderful people and I'm completely horrified that my prospective in-laws treated them so badly. My fiance says that I should try harder with his parents—I think he needs to tell them that they need to act with respect toward me and my family. We're at a stalemate, and I'm seriously thinking of breaking off the engagement. Am I wrong to expect that if my in-laws can't be respectful toward my family, then my fiance needs to draw some boundaries between me and his parents?
A: It's hard to believe that his parents' behavior—and your fiance's defense of them—is entirely new. You don't say they were lovely people before you got engaged who are only now realize you are contemptible. Were you ignoring all this during your courtship? Or since you've gotten engaged, have they gone to war with you? In any case, their insults are outrageous, and their attack on your parents borders on the sociopathic. As for "trying harder," I'm hoping your fiance doesn't mean you should let his parents dictate how you look and what you think, or that you should agree with them that your parents are an abomination.
It's one thing to have awful in-laws. But to get through it, your spouse has to recognize their awfulness and try to deflect the attacks. If what you're saying is accurate, you've just contracted to spend your life being emotionally battered by a bunch of lunatics. Tell your fiance what you've told me. Explain that you know he can't control his parents, but he can control how he responds to them. And if he doesn't stand up for you, then let's hope he can get his money back on the ring.
Dear Prudence: Pushy Lawn Mower
Q. Nosy Visitor: A co-worker and I study together once a week. At her request, we picked my apartment as our meeting place. Here is my problem. My co-worker has gotten into the habit of taking inventory of every item in the apartment from the minute she arrives. My husband and I are newly married, and we're in the process of slowly replacing our graduate student possessions with nicer stuff. You can imagine what fertile grounds our apartment makes for her inquisitiveness. Every time she zeros in on a new knick-knack, and no item is too small to escape her notice, she insists on knowing where we got it and how much we paid for it. Noncommittal responses are met with more persistent questions. It's gotten to the point where my husband and I are expected to recount the history of every new spoon or spatula in painful detail. Frankly, I find it a bit creepy. These questions are also extremely distracting when sprung in the middle of our study. Is there a graceful way to avoid or address this awkwardness? My co-worker is from a different culture, so I wonder if my husband and I are being unfair in our reactions.
A: This is why Starbuck's was invented. Either you get more direct in your answers: "Let's not talk about my apartment decoration. I'm uncomfortable discussing what I pay for my purchases. Thanks for understanding." Or you move the venue. If you go to Starbucks, or some other neutral territory, you'll probably get more work done as she won't spend a lot of time musing about how much the company paid for the new container for the cinnamon.
Q. Wedding Etiquette: I have been good friends with "Jeff" for almost 20 years. Jeff married a wonderful woman, "Cassie," a number of years ago, and I have become good friends with her as well. Unfortunately, Jeff and Cassie recently began the process of getting divorced. I'm very sad for them both. I can understand their issues from both of their perspectives and am not "taking sides." I am getting married this summer and am working on the guest list. I would really like them both to attend, but I don't want to make either of them uncomfortable. Is it acceptable to invite them both, even though it may upset Jeff?
A: Good for you for wanting to maintain the friendship with each of them. Go ahead and send the invitations. You can then mention in conversation with each that you wanted to let them know you've invited their exes. If Jeff can't be in the same room as Cassie, then he can politely decline.
Q. Changing Your Mind About Marriage/Misinterpretation Question: Do you have any advice for a woman whose boyfriend has suddenly decided that he no longer wants to get married? We moved in together over a year ago after discussing marriage a lot, including ring sizes, where we'd get married, etc. He told me the other night that he had never intended to get married again (he is five years out of a divorce) and that I "misinterpreted the conversations" about marriage in the first place. The marriage part isn't so important as him changing his mind after I moved in with him. I don't think I misheard him (since he also wrote notes to me expressing his desire to tie the knot, and I have those still). Any ideas? I know I need to talk to him, but I don't even know how to begin this conversation.
A: I know moving in together has been the prelude to marriage for many happy couples. But the many cases such as yours are why I often have qualms about it. Is moving in a trial to really evaluate whether you can live with each other's toothpaste squeezing habits before deciding to marry? Is it a way of acknowledging you're not ready to commit, but it's crazy to keep spending so much money on two domiciles? Or in your boyfriend's case, is it a way to temporize about a difficult decision? If a couple knows they want to get married, they probably should just do that, instead of moving in together with the kind of hope that marriage will be forthcoming. If you can find your way to be OK about not getting married, then just be happy living together. If you feel misled—I would—then start looking for your own place while you figure out how to equitably divide up your assets.
Q. Student Passing: I am an education student for high school, and I am currently student teaching a wonderful group of high school juniors and seniors. Unfortunately, one of my students came in and looked ill. I asked if he wanted to go to the nurse because he was pale as a ghost. He nodded, stood up, and just collapsed on the ground. He wasn't breathing. My mentor administered CPR while I was on the phone with 911 and some students went to get the nurse and security. Within seven minutes, he was out the door with the paramedics. After a few days in a coma, he passed away from complications with his heart. I feel terrible. I know I did what my body and training told me to do, but I feel like I could have done more. Maybe if I hadn't made him stand up, etc. How do I get over this guilt? The school counselor is not willing to see me because I am not a student, "just an intern." Please help!
A: What a heartbreak. I hope you know you did nothing wrong. In fact, this story tells how attentive and concerned you are about your students that you noticed the boy did not look well. Since you are a student yourself, please go to your college's counseling service and find a therapist to talk this through with you. It sounds as if it would also help if you were able to get information on this boy's medical condition, and receive reassurance that you—that everyone—did everything possible, but sometimes tragedies happen that can't be prevented. Please seek out, insist on, getting the help you need. You are understandably traumatized, but you will get over this and come to understand your guilt is misplaced.