Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below 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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good morning, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Questioning a Secret Past: My mother introduced me to an intern working at her legal firm. He’s athletic, funny, and wickedly smart, and we’ve been dating for a few weeks. Last Friday at happy hour a co-worker, who went to college with him, said he spent his whole time there drinking, doing drugs, and having sex with anyone he could find, woman or man. He’s told me he wasn’t very happy in college (it was a small, religiously affiliated Southern school) but won’t say anything further than that. Because of his co-worker’s gossip, I’m now scared he’s some kind of ticking time bomb and I’m going to come home one day and find him under the UPS delivery man. Should I just let this go and move forward, or should I try to confront him about his past, no matter how awkward it may be?
A: You’ve met someone terrific who was impressive enough to be hired for the summer at your mother’s law firm. You’ve known him for a few weeks. So on the basis of some office gossip, I don’t think you should be “confronting” this nascent beau. He doesn’t owe you any explanation for what he was up to during his college years—he let you know he was unhappy, and that’s honest and the rest is private. If you two decide to become intimate, then you should know each other well enough to have a conversation about your STD status, which is the actionable, relevant piece of information. I very much doubt you will find this guy under the UPS man because the only packages UPS men seem to be interested in are those they can quickly drop off. As you get to know this guy better, you will, well, get to know him better. Maybe he will want to reveal more about his college years; maybe he just wants to put them behind him. What matters is the person you’re getting to know now.
Q. Mommy Dearest: This week I’m graduating with my Ph.D. and my family is traveling from across the country to celebrate. However, I’m dreading their visit. Whenever we’re alone, my mother harps on my appearance: my weight, my hair, my makeup, and my clothing. But when the family is all together, she’s so sweet and supportive, while I’m left hurt and angry. When I try to tell my brothers and dad what she does to me, they say I’m making it all up. I moved 3,000 miles and limit visits to avoid her, but now I know she’s going to do her best to tear me down on what should be a happy occasion. What can I do besides throw a temper tantrum and ban her from my home and celebration?
A: You found a good solution for your mother’s furtive abuse: keeping 3,000 miles between you. So on this occasion, you have to do the same on a smaller scale. If she approaches you privately with her nasty critique, pretend your legs are airplanes, and take off. You’re an adult woman, so there is no need for you to revert to throwing a tantrum. If your mother starts in on anything besides, “I am so proud of you,” simply turn and walk away. If she follows, keep walking. You say she only does her shredding in private, so simply keep yourself in the presence of others when she’s around. You can also decide to inform her of why from now on, you’re walking away. Give her some words of hard-earned wisdom that you didn’t learn in school: “Mom, I’m not going to listen anymore to the nasty things you have to say about how I look. That part of our relationship is over.”
Q. Secret Love Child of Dying Brother-in-Law: My brother-in-law, who is dying, gave me a letter to hold on to for reading after his death. I couldn’t resist temptation and opened it, only to discover he fathered a secret love child with a married woman. The child is raised by the mother and her husband, and my brother-in-law occasionally sent money. He wrote me in case my sister discovered the child’s existence and needed to know the details and to pass on how sorry he was. Now that I know, I can’t un-know. I feel like I am burdened with a huge lie and fear my sister will hate me for keeping this from her. Should I tell her now while her husband is alive to answer any questions or keep my mouth shut?
A: Your brother-in-law may have serious character flaws, but he is also a poor judge of character. If you felt you couldn’t hang onto a confidential letter, you should have told this dying man that he needed to find another confidante. So now you’ve peeked, Pandora. I strongly dislike the impulse to keep the existence of one’s offspring a secret. However, this is not an issue for you to decide the truth must out. You don’t know the circumstances under which this child has been raised—maybe he or she has never been told there is a different biological father. So by speaking up, you would be blowing up many lives for no purpose other than that you want to. It’s true you can’t un-know what you know. But you can keep your mouth shut. Get another envelope, reseal the letter, and put it away. If after your brother-in-law’s death, something about this comes up, then you hand the sealed envelope to your sister and say your brother-in-law gave this to you without telling you what the letter contained—which is the truth. Maybe the story of the love child will never come out. Maybe it will. If it does, then be supportive of your sister while you tell her truthfully that her husband never talked to you about this.
Q. Re: Questioning a Secret Past: I had a really tough time in college and drinking and sleeping around were definitely part of my coping mechanisms. Once I was able to break free from the environment, I absolutely got a handle on that and it was such a relief to start dating someone who didn't know that unfortunate part of my life. Give him the benefit of the doubt that it was just a tough moment in time and let him gradually open up to you about it.
A: Great point. Lots of people go through a troubled time during their youth, and people should be able to leave those years behind.
Q. Re: Mommy Dearest: Totally agree with your advice. If, for some reason, she cannot avoid being alone with her mother, she can pull out her smartphone and say she wants to record Mommy’s advice to share with the rest of the family. Either Mommy will shut up, or daughter will have proof when Dad and brothers refuse to believe her.
A: Love this!
Q. Mean Moms: I have a funny, kind 10-year-old daughter who is friends with most of the girls in her class. There is a clique of about eight girls in the class that are tight, and my daughter is friends with them (as well as many other classmates). Five of the moms of this clique are very tight and not very nice to the other three moms. They get together frequently but do not include us. If the moms are gathered at a school event or game, the moms will often make and talk at length of plans on the spot, with the others of us there, with no effort to include us or even acknowledge our presence. I’ve been searching for the right short, snappy statement that would communicate “You’re being rude—make your plans when I’m not in the conversation.” Typically, I just walk away when this starts, but they don’t get the message, and I’m tired of it.
A: You already have the perfect short, snappy comeback. You turn your back and walk away. When confronted by rude people, silence is not only succinct but effective. You don’t want to socialize with these other women, so let them make their elaborate plans and be grateful you’re not being roped in. But you actually do want to maintain superficially pleasant relations with them for the sake of your daughter. She is navigating rocky shoals successfully. She’s managing to be friends with a broad group of girls. If you were to make enemies of the mothers, it’s possible these nasty women would encourage their daughters to start excluding your daughter. So keep that smile slapped on your face and be grateful you can limit your time with these annoying people.
Q. Sex: My husband and I have two young kids and both work 50 hours a week, but we stagger our schedules in order not to have our kids in day care full time. I get up at an ungodly hour to go to work (for my first job). We also exercise four times a week. When we have sex, he wants to put everything we have into it and commit a minimum of 45 minutes to it. As a result, even though it’s good for me, I actually dread it. I’m even starting to dread weekends because instead of getting to relax as soon as a free minute arises—he’s right there ready to go. The less we do it, the longer he wants it to go. And the longer we go, the less I want to do it. I’ve tried talking to him about the benefits of a quickie (we could do two or three times a week instead of one) and then “going all out” once every week or two—but this is somehow just rejection for him. What do I do to stop the cycle considering that talking appears to be utterly useless?
A: Surely you can drop one of your weekly workouts if you two are humping and pumping for 45 minutes at a time. An “all out” session is great if everyone is on board. It’s not so great if you are dry and sore and fantasizing about getting your husband out and getting a load of laundry in. Your husband seems to operate on the principle that you are contractually obligated to give him a certain number of minutes of sex per week. But this is not a friends and family plan, it’s punitive. I agree there’s something weird in his rejection of a few short happy encounters during the week. You explain to him that you’re wrung out, exhausted, and sore. You say that your satisfying sex life is going south because of his demands and inflexibility. You say unless he can really start hearing you, you are going to go to a counselor for help and advice. Say you hope he joins you, because he is turning what should be a source of connection and release into a sense of dread.
Q. Re: Questioning a Secret Past: If your friend did attend a religious college, it is possible that the co-worker you’re getting your information from might not be a super reliable source. It’s my experience that drinking and premarital sex can be seen as a much bigger deal than it actually is when it comes to people with a very conservative worldview.
A: Good point that his “shocking” behavior at this conservative, Southern, religious school could be based on rumors, and that his activities would considered G-rated at many other places.