Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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. When Karma Actually Happens: I am in my late 30s and still keep in touch with good friends from high school. “Jim” and “Arlene” were married to each other right out of high school. Jim then cheated on Arlene while they were married with Arlene’s best friend “Maureen.” Arlene left Jim and he and Maureen got together, and while they never married stayed together for years. Needless to say Maureen was not thought of highly and many wished karma to take action on her. Well just this year Maureen died after a long, horrible battle with cancer. Jim left Maureen while she was battling cancer because he “could not handle it.” Many people have been saying, well karma came and there it was, and I have to admit that I have thought the same thing. As someone who personally has been cheated on I have wished much worse on the cheater and the mistress. But is it wrong to feel that she got what she deserved? I think people saying that are terrible but in the back of my mind I cannot truly disagree and I feel horrible for feeling that way.
A: You’re old enough to have noticed that death comes to the cheater, the pure, the gossip. You’ve also probably observed that the idea of some tit for tat design behind it can be difficult to discern. (Although if there is karma, it will be a doozy for Jim.) Maureen betrayed her friend and helped cause the end of a marriage, then died young and agonizingly. I do not think these two events are related. Sure, the people who disliked Maureen may have felt she got what she deserved, but there should be a serious limit on this kind of crowing. I think when you hear such crowing you should say something like, “I’m not defending how Maureen treated Arlene, but I am sorry about her death.”
Q. Meet My Wife, Mariam Webster: I adore my wife. She is brilliant, hilarious and a wonderful conversationalist, but she routinely mispronounces existing words and invents new ones in earnest, like yesterday’s gems: “inspicuous” and “bomblastic.” She’s not trying to be funny when she does this. I’m a professor of English, and I have an urge to correct her at times, but I also don’t want to be a jerk. If it were me, I’d want to be corrected, but she’s very sensitive about her educational background and a childhood learning disability. Some of our dearest friends work in my field, and when my wife does this in their company, I can tell from the looks on their faces that this has become an inside joke for them. I know they love my wife and probably find her habit charming, but it bugs me that everyone knows it but her. I am conflicted about how to address this with her. What should I do?
A: Anyone who can coin “bomblastic” deserves an 800 on the verbal portion of the SAT. Professor, you knew this about your wife when you married her, so it only seems fair to grandfather in her neologisms. You say your wife had a “childhood learning disability”—but if she has some form of dyslexia, say, that doesn’t go away, she just has learned to cope. Sure, you’d want to be corrected, but you know your wife and know she wouldn’t. Who cares if your friends get in the car and say, “Bomblastic—now that was fantastic!” Do not exchange knowing glances with your friends, just delight in your wife’s ability to keep the language fresh.
Q. Giving Wife a Free Pass: So, my wife just turned 50 and I offered her a free pass to find a man or woman and have a fling. I would be fine with her doing it with me there or on her own and telling me about it afterward. We have used this fantasy for most of our 14 year marriage. Now that I offer it to her, she’s mad, saying I must not love her. I do and it is a big turn on. Am I a bad husband?
A: I assume your wife is thinking that for your next birthday you’re going to suggest she doesn’t have to buy you anything, she just has to give you a free pass. After 14 years of fantasizing together and getting mutually turned on while never acting on this fantasy, I hope you can understand your wife’s concern about your suddenly wanting to make this a reality. She’s hurt, so apologize! Do all the blah-blah-blah about how she is the only one who you want to be with and you don’t want her with anyone else, that you feel like a jerk for making her feel otherwise, etc., etc. Oh, and look up “projection.”
Q. Re: When Karma Actually Happens: On the subject of karma, hopefully the people who are crowing over this woman’s painful death from cancer realize that their own karma just took a dramatic downward turn. As a cancer patient, I am appalled by their “she deserved it” mentality. People with cancer are not all bad people who did something to deserve this!
A: Great point about the pernicious school of thought that blames people for contracting illness. I also love your point about karma for people who celebrate the karma of other’s misfortune!
Q. Mom’s Unrealistic Backpacking Fantasy: My mother is in her mid-60s, a little overweight, and has never been physically active in her whole life. She has a very adventurous world-traveling friend that recently planned a cross-country Italian trek for them next year, that would require they walk 7 miles a day and sleep in hostels as they go from town to town. It sounds like it could be a great adventure, but my mother is a high-maintenance woman who has a low tolerance for discomfort, and refuses to do any exercise. She keeps saying that she is going to start training, but she will find any excuse not to do exercise. I want to gently tell her that this is not a realistic trip for her, but she would likely be very offended and get angry. How should I approach this? Should I even say anything?
A: Your mother’s friend is quickly going to understand the difference between spending the night in a hostel, and having a hostile traveling companion. This sounds like a classic folie a deux, and I don’t think you should add a trois. Your mother’s friend surely knows your mother is a demanding couch potato. In any case, this will become readily apparent about a quarter mile down the Amalfi coast. I suggest you stay out of this completely. Presumably before your mother has to be airlifted out of Italy, she will have bagged the hiking and checked into a five-star hotel.
Q. Pregnancy Heartache: My husband and I were overjoyed when we found out we were pregnant earlier this summer, and over the past two months we’ve gradually shared our news with a fairly large circle of friends and family. Sadly, last week we received a positive diagnosis of Down Syndrome. We are devastated, and after much discussion, research and reflection, we have decided to terminate the pregnancy shortly. We have told a few close friends and family members the full story, but we are struggling with the right way to communicate this outside of our inner circle, especially as we have many conservative family members who would disapprove of our choice. Should we just say we had a late miscarriage? I’d prefer not to get into details at all, but I worry about how I’d handle prying questions.
A: You just say that sadly you lost the pregnancy. Then you firmly shut down any further discussion. You can say, “This is too painful a subject to discuss. Thanks for understanding.”
Q. Help a Harasser?: I’m a tenured professor with a great job. A co-author and friend who is a talented scholar is looking for work, and in the past I was happy to talk to colleges and universities about how smart and productive he is. Here’s the problem: A little bird recently gave me a secondhand story that my friend sexually harassed Ph.D. students he supervised in another job. I’ve never seen this myself (perhaps not surprisingly, as I am also male), although he is a bit rough around the edges, and the story has the ring of truth. Should I decline to support him, which will be the kiss of death for a number of jobs? Or do I investigate somehow?
A: Since you are a co-author with him, his reputation and behavior at least indirectly reflects on you. You have heard disturbing news about him, so you have to bring it up. Tell him what you were told, and hear him out. If he completely denies it, you can press the fact that the story came to you that this was a pattern of behavior. Then you have to weigh what you think about his response and whether you are able to inquire further about the allegations. But if you think there’s something to it, you need to let him know he has to remove you as a reference.
Q. Re: Prying Questions After Losing a Pregnancy: I like the way you suggest shutting down the conversation. If they persist, I find a frosty “Why do you need to know this?” works well, too.
Q. On a Midnight Train to Poverty: I am responsible, debt-free, successful in a career I love, and have always been the primary breadwinner in previous relationships. But my boyfriend out-earns me by a long shot and lives an extravagant lifestyle. His choices are his business, but when we get married he wants to maintain his lifestyle and make me pay half. I am comfortable in my modest house and happily cook most meals while he lives in a large luxury home, owns three vehicles, and eats out daily (often without me). I’ve steered him toward smaller homes and I love to cook for him, but he won’t hear of it. I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine, but I can’t afford this guy! And I want to be his wife, not his roommate. I love him to the bones and don’t want to take advantage of him, and I understand that a 50/50 split is “fair.” It just prices me out of the marriage market. How can I make him love me enough to let me into his life without such a steep cover charge?
A: Since you’re referencing Gladys Knight and the Pips, I think you need to realize that while neither one of you want to be the first to say goodbye, if you stick with this guy your credit report is going to be a letter full of tears and the nitty gritty is that someone so cheap and ungenerous just isn’t the best thing to ever happen to you. You’re writing to me worried that you don’t want to “take advantage of him” while his plan will eventually bankrupt you. That doesn’t sound like love, that sounds like love overboard. If you two are heading toward marriage, before you get there, go to a counselor and get this resolved. If it turns out his idea of marriage is what’s his is his, and what’s yours is his, then you may have reached the end of your road.
Q. Update: Prudie, I wanted to give you an update. A while ago I wrote in asking whether I should tell my boyfriend about a past sexual assault, which felt too important to hide but I was worried the reveal would change our great sexual relationship. You and the commenters suggested I should, and you were right. He was wonderful and supportive—and not surprised, he had surmised as much from our conversations about sexual assault in the news. He actually said, “Did you think I didn’t know?” Our sex life has continued to be amazing, we’re moving in together, and I feel completely accepted and loved—and so glad I’m not hiding something important from him. So—thanks for the good advice and helping me get over my fear and trauma!
A: Thank you so much for this. What’s really important is your message of healing. You experienced a sexual trauma, got help, and now you are in a happy relationship that is sexually satisfying. That’s so important for others coping with this to hear.
Q. Re: Bomblastic: I’m going to start trying to work that into every conversation I have.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a great week!
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