Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Q. My Husband Is Mourning His Dead Mistress: Three months ago, the woman who was having an affair with my husband died suddenly from an accident. I found out about the affair only two days after her funeral. I thought she was simply a co-worker and I was wondering why my husband was so disturbed and emotional. He quit his job, saying it was too traumatic to go to work. She was in the early weeks of pregnancy when she died and my husband doesn't know whether he or her husband was the father. So, on top of everything, he's also grieving for a baby which may or may not have been his. I find it extremely difficult to be emotionally supportive when he wakes up at 3 a.m. crying and trembling—yet I don't have the heart to yell at him like I want to. He says she's dead, so there's no reason for me to feel jealous or threatened, and asks for my understanding as he grieves. We've barely talked these last weeks because I don't know how to respond to my husband when he cries and says he misses her and wishes she were here, then also how much he loves me and that he never intended to leave me. I asked him to visit a marriage therapist together and he said he's "not ready" to work on our marriage, and thinks he needs to see a grief therapist instead. Do I need to give him time to mourn the loss of his mistress? Or should I demand he focus on our marriage?
A: You cannot impose a schedule on someone else's grief. So I think you should let your husband fully experience his—alone. If you are being asked to be an understanding source of solace while he mourns the loss of his mistress, a woman who was possibly the mother of his child, then that is an emotional burden that's simply outside the bounds of what one spouse can ask of another. He's told you flat out he can't work on his marriage because he's too torn up about the death of the woman he loved. So I think you should tell him to move out while you each figure out what you want out of your marriage and life. In addition, I hope he is independently wealthy, or has fantastically in-demand professional skills, because quitting his job over her death indicates he's gone off the deep end. I can't imagine how he's going to explain that departure to potential employers. Of course you're reeling over these events, so if he won't see a counselor with you, consider going alone. And you've left us all wondering: Does the grieving widower have any idea what his wife was up to?
Q. Celebration Overload: I have three sons in their late 20s and early 30s. The oldest is married with a young child and my youngest is engaged. Since it has been quite some time since I went through these rituals, I expected them to change. I just didn't expect them to change quite this much. What used to be nice, simple ceremonies have turned into much longer events. My son and daughter-in-law had professional engagement photos taken, numerous bridal showers, a wedding followed by a reception, professional maternity photos taken, a "gender revealing party," a baptism, professional family portraits, and a first birthday party. Frankly, I think this is celebration overload and, in its own way, detracts from the seriousness of these events. I miss the days of one bridal shower, a ceremony in a church, and cake in the church basement. I know how delicate the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship can be, so I have not said a word about these events and attended them all graciously. But the thought of going through this number of events for two more kids is exhausting. Is this just the trend of celebrations now and I should go along with it? How do I graciously be a part of their lives while inwardly cringing at another over-the-top celebration?
A: Your answer is contained in your question. You just graciously celebrate while inwardly cringing. I agree with you, Mom, that a return to contained and modest celebrations is to be much hoped for. This is the second letter I've gotten about the amazing development of the awful gender-reveal party. As I previously asked, what's next, the baby-making party? You have to accept that the days of the DIY wedding are gone. But I agree that turning marriage into the Normandy Invasion (actually, that took less time to plan and launch than most weddings) is an absurd waste of time and money. Let's face it, usually the bride/mother is the driver behind these events, so as a mother of sons, you want to preserve your relationship with your offspring and their wives. So slap on a smile and be grateful to be included.
Dear Prudence: The Happy Hooker
Q. Mean Girls: My cousin and I are both in our 40s and grew up together. We live a good distance away, but every few months, my work takes me near her house and I'll visit and stay overnight. Her two children, who are their early teens, are horrible to her. In the few hours I'm there, they insult her looks, her cooking, and her intelligence. First it was the older one, and now her younger sister is doing the same. It seems like anything that comes of out of my cousin's mouth warrants a snide retort from one child or the other. Her husband is part (or the cause) of the problem. He says nothing when they make their comments and occasionally will "joke" along the same lines. Sometimes I will wade in with a neutral comment like "I think dinner is great. If you don't like it, why you try cooking next time?" but that's it. She says nothing to defend herself; occasionally she might protest with a "that's not nice" but it's very mild. I can tell, though, that she's hurt by these remarks. My cousin is a quiet and kind person who has never had a bad word to say about anyone. I am appalled by this developing dynamic. I know teenagers can be trying, but this behavior seems off the charts compared to other kids I've known. I really want to say something to these children, not just for my cousin's sake, but also because they're becoming very mean girls. I feel they're now old enough to be addressed as the young women they're becoming and understand the implications of their actions. But, is it my place (as a family member) and what would I say if I did take them aside?
A: I think you should first talk to your cousin. It's true that most teenagers will test the boundaries of civility and the safest place for them to do it is in their home. But in their home the adults are supposed to explain what is and isn't acceptable behavior. Given the husband's contribution, it also sounds as if a malicious family dynamic is at play here: Martyr mom does everything for us, and in exchange she earns our contempt. Next time you know you'll be in town, tell your cousin she needs a night off and you'd like to take her out to a restaurant for a chance to get some adult time. Then tell her gently but firmly what you've observed. She may be too sunk into this mess to act, but sometimes an outsider's perspective can suddenly shine a mirror on a situation. Then next time you do eat at their house, you should feel free to be more direct to the girls. When they insult their mother, in a neutral tone say, "That's a rude thing to say. Your mother is my friend, so just as I hope you would stick up for a friend who was being treated terribly, I'm going to ask you to stop insulting her."
Q. Re: Celebration Overload: It's not always the bride who wants this huge lavish event. I may be one of few, but I didn't have a bridal shower. We didn't want a religious wedding that could take longer, but my mother-in-law demanded it. My mother and I aren't close so I didn't give in to what she wanted; however, I wanted to make my mother-in-law happy so we caved to whatever she wanted. My husband and I both agree that the wedding is actually about the parents of the groom and bride, and not the actual couple getting married. Please know that the bride may just be railroaded into doing what someone else wants.
A: Ah, no, the wedding is about the couple getting married. It's true that people who foot the bill can make demands. But if you are being railroaded into doing things you don't want to do, then you say no and decline the money. I hope you and your husband can start standing up for yourselves now, before you come to the conclusion that raising your children is really about what the grandparents want.
Q. Husband's Night Terrors: My husband has a pretty good life. He was raised by nice parents, enjoys good physical health, has a job he likes, we have a happy marriage, he has friends and, as far as I know, has never been the victim of any kind of serious crime or trauma. Nevertheless, he wakes up, at a minimum of one night a week, screaming, thrashing, and terrified. It's as if he has PTSD. With our first child expected in a few months, these night terrors have become an almost every-night occurrence, and it's fraying my nerves and causing me to lose sleep. I'm worried about him, although during the day he's one of the happiest people I've ever met. It would seem odd to tell a therapist, "I'm happy and have no real problems, but I have night terrors."