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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Texting Female Co-Worker: I found out recently that my husband has been texting with a female coworker for over a year. I knew they texted about work but now know they were texting mornings, evenings, and weekends about random things. None of the texting is romantic, sexual etc. but this has really made me feel betrayed. I knew nothing about the friendship and constant contact. He frequently tells me about texts he receives from other friends but this person was never mentioned. He maintains that they are just friends and nothing was hidden from me. How do I let this go when I feel like he has lied by omission for so long.
A: Maybe I’m just an misanthrope, but I don’t understand the thrill of an open line to exchange life’s banalities. You say your husband and his colleague are texting endless messages about their day, so it sounds like you’ve read the entire oeuvre. You’re the one in the marriage, so you have to sort out whether your husband is just one of those people who’s compulsively welded to his phone, or whether he is getting some kind of frisson by texting messages to her such as, “Why is the person in front of me at Starbucks always buying for the whole office?” In these circumstances there can develop a semi-intimacy which is not quite right, but also leaves no indictable trail, either. Your husband is in constant contact with a female colleague and they’re not discussing sales reports. I’m inferring that your question about how you let this go is one that has been imposed on you by your husband who insists there’s nothing for you to be concerned about. But at the very least he owes you an honest exchange about this. It is fair for you to say you feel blindsided that he has a seemingly close relationship with someone at work whose name he’s never mentioned and with whom he stays in frequent touch during your private time.
Dear Prudence: Disgusting Dinner Companion
Q. What Constitutes Molestation?: When I was a child, my father would do something that would make me incredibly uncomfortable. He would suck and nibble at my earlobe. I never said to stop because I would just freeze in my discomfort. The first time he did this there were people around. I was 6 or 7 and sitting on his lap and even then it seemed wrong, but his sister and her kids were in the room and no one said or did anything, so I thought it must be my problem. Later he started doing it when he came in my room to say goodnight. By this time my brothers and I were visiting him on weekends as my parents had split up. Every night I stayed at his house I would dread that moment. As I got older I started pretending to be asleep and holding the blankets tightly over my head. When I was 14, I stopped going to his house on weekends. I never said anything to anyone growing up because I was embarrassed and thought I’d be told I was making a big deal out of nothing (my family copes with everything through minimization and denial). When I was 18 I told my mom about it and she treated it like it wasn’t a big deal. She said she didn’t remember him having some sort of ear fetish when they’d been together so there was no way it was sexual in nature and I must have just misunderstood. Then she said I should stop making a big deal out of it since I didn’t even go to his house anymore. That was 15 years ago and I still freak out if my ears are touched and feel dirty and ashamed. My husband accidentally got too close last night and I broke down crying and didn’t want him near me. We talked about my past and he was loving and supportive, but neither of us is sure whether or not my dad actually did anything wrong. He pointed out that my reactions are like that of someone who had been molested but when no one has touched your private areas, does it count as molestation?
A.: Your mother confirms your father had an ear fetish, then goes on to say that this proves what he was doing wasn’t sexual! [Update: Yes, I know “didn’t” is the opposite of "did." I address this reading error below.] You had more insight as a 6-year-old into what was going on. You instinctively understood that you were being violated and that your father was getting some kind of sick pleasure from this. Then, as a young teenager, you managed to find the wherewithal to protect yourself by withdrawing from your father’s life. But even when you eventually told your mother why, she minimized what had happened to you. Please see a therapist to talk all this through. Not just the fact that indeed your father was molesting you—he clearly was getting sexual stimulation from touching you against your will—but the fact that no adults in your life listened to you or protected you from this creepy, sick transgression. It’s wonderful that you have a supportive husband who understands. I think that a good therapist will allow you to feel more comfortable in your body and in your marriage.
Q. Re: Ear fetish: You read the letter too quickly—the mother said that she didn't remember the father having an ear fetish. Otherwise, I agree with what you wrote.
A: Yes, reading comprehension is important! Sorry about that. So, the mother can confirm that her ex-husband didn’t fetishize her own adult ears. Yet she was unable to listen with them to the fact that something awful was going on whenever her daughter visited her father and that her daughter was afraid when he came into her bedroom at night. The father was a perpetrator. The mother was unable to support her daughter and offer help. I hope the letter writer will finally find someone who understands what she went through and will help release her from its grip.
Q. Lunch Expense—Eating Out Dilemma: Every day at work, I go out with two co-workers for lunch. I am naturally quiet and shy, and I really enjoy eating lunch with them. I am not enjoying, however, the cost of these lunches. Last month, I spent over $100 on lunch! Also, eating out isn’t that healthy, and I’ve noticed that I’ve started to put on some weight. I’d like to bring in a salad two-to-three times a week. We go to a mixture of fast-food and sit-down restaurants, and I don’t see why it would be a problem for me to bring my own salad if we go to out. Is this too gauche? The guy in our group would never pack a lunch, so not going out isn’t an option. I’d like us to agree in advance that certain days of the week we’ll go to fast-food places so the food I pack won’t go to waste. What’s the best way to bring up this topic?
A: I hope you’re not the person at the movies watching an alternate feature on your iPad. It’s one thing to bring a special bottle of wine to a restaurant and pay a corkage fee. It’s another to bring in your own food and expect the establishment to supply you with utensils. If you spend every lunch hour with the same two people and you don’t even feel comfortable enough with them to discuss alternate lunch plans, then you’ve got the backbone of a piece of lettuce. Once the weather is nicer, you can suggest you all occasionally get your own food and meet outside in a park, for example. If they aren’t interested, then you’ve got to face the fact that a couple of days of the week you may be on your own for lunch. Maybe you can even screw up your courage and sit with some of the other kids in the high school cafeteria—I mean co-workers in the office’s coffee room. The problem here doesn’t sound like your finances or your weight. It’s that you can’t imagine a life in which you don’t eat lunch with these co-workers every single day of the week.
Q. Nosy Ex-Boss: I’ve been getting calls from my now retired boss for about a year now. Thankfully not at home as I have a unlisted number and he didn’t have my new cellphone number. But he calls me one-to-two times a month at my work numbers wanting to chat. The issue is I really don’t want to talk to him. He does (thankfully) stick to just polite chat about his family and work-related projects. But we've become so busy I can’t carve out 20 minutes to chat. If I don’t pick up he just calls around until someone else does. We’ve talked to our supervisors about this but it doesn't seem to do any good. I don’t want to be horribly rude. I don’t see how I can convey that to him without sounding like I’m being cruel to a retiree who comes across as bored and lonely.
A: I can understand that your supervisors feel that adults in the workplace should have the skills to politely decline to talk to someone who no longer supervises them. If all of you actually liked the guy, why don’t a group of you have lunch with him every few months? In the meantime, when he calls you can say, “Derek, you know better than anyone what the deadlines are like around here. I can’t talk now. But I’ll get a small group together for lunch in early spring and we'll get back to you with a date for it.”
Q. Moving in With Boyfriend, Plus Cats: My boyfriend of more than a year and I have recently started discussing moving in together. The problem, I have two cats and he has a daughter with a minor cat allergy. The mother (several states away) has custody of the child, with the daughter visiting her father for a few weeks in the summer. I have a relative with a cat allergy who frequently stays at my home and is fine as long as I vacuum thoroughly and keep the cats out of their bedroom. I’ve also offered to have a professional cleaning service come before his daughter visits. He says it’s not good enough and that the cats will have to go. I respect him wanted the best for his daughter. However I feel it is unfair to make me give up my cats, whom I love and have had for 10-plus years, and forever live in a cat-free home, just for someone who will only be affected by the cats for at most a few weeks out of the year. Am I not being sensitive to the needs of a child or is he not caring enough about my happiness?
A: What a tenuous relationship—only seeing your father for a few weeks a year. I wonder why he doesn’t get to see her over Christmas, on spring break, or long weekends, etc. However, in answer to your question, don’t do any moving now. When the daughter comes, get your place professionally cleaned, and have her come over and see if she can stand it. It might also be that an over-the-counter allergy medication, approved by her doctor, could get her through limited time with the cats. But if your letter is an illustration of your ability as a couple to try to work things out, you may permanently want to keep your own place.
Q. What Can an Auntie Do?: A terrific friend of mine is in an abusive relationship with her husband. About a year ago, he attacked their teenagers (one hers, one his) and she took them and left. But she went back and of course it happened again. She at least took my advice and called the police this time, but omitted that he was holding a knife. I'm happy to take them all into my home, but his daughter is only 17 and my friend doesn’t have parental rights. My friend’s son is going to stay with me for now, but my friend is planning to stay in the house with her stepdaughter until she turns 18. These kids are like family and I'm so afraid for them. Is there any more I can do to help?
A: You have good reason to be terrified about a father who would threaten his children with a knife. At least your friend now recognizes the severity of the problem. But unfortunately, on some level she continues to protect this man who is a potentially lethal threat. First call the National Domestic Violence Hotline and get advice for how best to protect everyone. You are potentially in jeopardy if this man gets wind you are harboring one of the kids. The police absolutely need to know how dangerous the attack was. You could tell them yourself, but it really is important that it comes from a direct witness: your friend. Maybe you can offer to go to the police with her so she doesn't feel so alone. Your friend and her stepdaughter might need to be in a shelter—this man could get very enraged if he thinks his estranged wife is keeping his daughter from him. Call the hotline now so this family can start getting the protection it needs.
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