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.)
Q. Ex-Husband’s Nervy Request: My marriage broke up three years ago when I discovered my husband had been cheating on me and the woman he was seeing was pregnant. We divorced, they married, and I moved on. I’m now dating a wonderful man and share custody of my 6-year-old son with my ex-husband, “Joe.” Since I consider them both to be dishonorable and immoral people, I have as little to do with them as possible, but I am cordial for my son’s sake. Joe and his wife recently had a second child who apparently has some serious health problems. They’re spending a lot of time at the hospital, and Joe asked me if I could watch their daughter since I live close by and she would be with her brother. I categorically refused since I cannot believe they had the nerve to even ask me. Still, Joe has repeated the request several times. I know they don’t have much family nearby and it’s a difficult time for them, but I fail to see how that is my problem. My best friend supports me, saying I’d be the world’s biggest sucker to relent, but my sister has been guilting me about this since it came up at our book club last week. Am I being “vindictive” as my sister says, or am I simply standing up for myself and refusing to play the fool (again!) for these two?
A: I have a friend who was in a similar situation (minus the sick child). Her husband left her shortly after her second baby was born to marry the young woman he had impregnated. My friend then went on to treat this new child wholly as her children’s sibling. All of the kids were constantly in and out of each other’s homes. I talked to her once about this—in awe—and she said that whatever her ex had done, the children were innocent and she wanted her kids to think of themselves as part of an extended family. Her children are now college age, and her compassion and generosity has paid off in the beautiful, loving, open relationship she has with them. They must be so grateful they never had to walk across the land mines of their parents’ enmity. Your son has two new half-siblings. One is ill. Yes, your ex and his wife behaved abominably; the children didn’t. You are perfectly entitled to tell Joe this is his mess, and he needs to deal with it. But if you embrace your son’s sister, you will not only be helping out a hurting little girl but will be teaching your son priceless lessons in magnanimity and transcending pain.
Q. Dishes Disagreement: When we got married, my wife—a wonderful person whom I love deeply—and I agreed on a household division of chores that has worked pretty well until recently. One of my tasks is to wash the dishes, and she’ll gather things in the sink when they’re dirty. It turns out, however, that she’s convinced that anything that our 1-year-old son touches is consequently filthy. He loves exploring the cabinets, so I frequently walk in to discover basically every pot we own piled in the sink. After an argument about whether this was necessary, I installed child locks on the cabinets, but that’s only made things worse, as she now assumes that any cabinet she finds open (for example because she forgot to close it while cooking) has had its contents rifled through by dirty fingers. Rather than wash every pot we own almost every day, I started simply waiting until she was somewhere else and then returning the unused items to the cabinet. When my wife realized what I was doing, however, she started pouring bacon grease on everything so that there could be no disagreement about whether it needed to be washed. I think that this is incredibly obnoxious; she insists that she’s just making sure that I do my job; both of us are really annoyed. How do we de-escalate?
A: Once bacon grease enters a conflict, it’s certain to get very messy. Child locks for safety are one thing, but banging pots and pans with wooden spoons and pouring water in and out is a great source of fun, discovery, and play. It would be a shame if this were closed off to your son because of your wife’s germophobia. Her reaction is bizarre and way out of bounds. I assume your wife doesn’t view your home as a biohazard because your toddler runs his germy fingers over the place. If she is obsessed with pot cleanliness, then it’s time for you two to trade off a couple of duties so that she can attend to them herself without demanding that an airlock be set up in your kitchen.
Q. Lying to Friend About Terrible Celebrity: I am an assistant to a celebrity photographer in New York. Recently, my boss and I photographed a certain A-lister who one of my friends is obsessed with. This celebrity’s public image makes him out to be witty and gentlemanly. However, during the photo shoot, he was inappropriate with me (a college-age woman) and very snappish to my boss and the other assistant. My friend is hounding me for the full story of how it went, and so far I’ve avoided telling her, using the excuse that there’s a lot to tell and that I’m very busy. On the one hand, I don’t want to tell her the truth because I know that she would be really hurt to learn that her idol treated us so terribly. On the other hand, I don’t want to lie to her, and I think that her obsession with this guy is a tad unhealthy. What should I do?
A: What you should do is follow the rules this column has laid out for questions about celebrities and tell us who he is! It sounds as if you are a new employee of this celebrity photographer if you were taken aback that the A-list celebrity was a lech and a jerk. That is almost a job description for an A-list celebrity. In addition, I’m surprised your photographer boss hasn’t explicitly laid out some rules of employment, the first one being the importance of confidentiality. If the photographer’s assistants were to be the sources of gossip that got out, that could have serious effects on your boss’s career. You should have a ready-made list of statements for the people who are going to hound you for the inside story about the celebrities you meet: “He was wonderful. He was very professional and rather quiet.” “She couldn’t have been nicer or less pretentious.” Talk to your friend, give her a bunch of harmless generalities, then end the discussion by saying that’s all there is to say.
Q. Re: Dishes Disagreement: Frankly it sounds to me like the wife has a pretty serious problem and should probably see a counselor. This is NOT normal behavior.
A: Several people are mentioning that if this is out-of-character behavior for the wife she may need a medical checkup. Good point and I concur. Their child is only a year old, and she may be having some postpartum symptoms or dealing with more serious issues that manifest themselves with the dishes.
Q. Secrets and Lies: I have been married almost 20 years. About a year ago, I attended a work party with my husband and noticed how his co-worker was enraptured by him. She is single and new to our city. Over the past year she has called on my husband to run errands for her or to drive her to appointments. She regularly hosts small get-togethers at her house, which seem to be attended exclusively by married men from the office. I’ve told my husband that her lack of boundaries and female friends makes me uncomfortable. Recently he told me he had to go back to the office at night, but I snooped on his phone and know he was actually at one of her parties. I feel angry about his lie, and guilty about my snooping. Should I let it go or try and clear the air?
A: You can tell your husband you’re going to let this go, but it may be hard to get that message across if he’s busy picking up cocktail supplies for the Mad Men homage at the single gal’s place. You snooped because of probable cause, and you found highly incriminating evidence. I can’t imagine how you ignore what’s happening. I think you should tell him you were suspicious, you snooped, and it looks like he’s having an affair with the enraptured colleague. Try to stay calm as you listen to his explanation, but make sure you let him know firmly that the time for lying is over.
Q. Re: Working With Celebs: Tell your friends and family up front that you won’t be discussing celeb clients, period. Then for those who refuse to be satisfied with no information, stating “S/he was my favorite ever to work with” will quickly make the point that you won’t give up any details, juicy or otherwise.
Q. Less-Help Hubby: When my husband and I started dating I knew his housekeeping habits were atrocious. But, like most women, I thought I could change this. We have been married for two years now, and in that time I have asked, begged, bribed, negotiated, told, commanded, hinted, and pleaded with him for help with dishes, laundry, etc. If I want our seven-speaker surround sound system tweaked, he’s all over it. If I want him to do dishes, it takes at least two days and one fight before he does most of them and I do the rest. We just moved to a new city for my job and have decided to try and have a baby. However, I am reconsidering this decision since we decided he would be the stay-at-home dad. If he won’t help when it’s just us …
A: The time to deal with atrocious habits in a potential spouse are before the wedding. Getting married is unlikely to make a compulsive cheater faithful, or a spendthrift prudent, or a slob neat. As today’s chat notes, sometimes marriages come asunder over big things (your husband impregnates someone else) and sometimes it’s the dishes. If you went into your marriage knowing he was a slob and to keep your home looking the way that was important to you, you did most of the housework, that would be one thing. But two years in, you are driven mad by being his maid. I agree that this is not the time to bring a child into this situation, unless you are willing to come home from work and start setting straight the tornado your husband and child create each day. Get some counseling, preferably with someone with a cognitive therapeutic approach. See if a referee who sets homework and goals can help you two live better together before you become three.
Q. Re: Dishes Disagreement: When my sons were small, I had an unlocked cabinet in the kitchen filled with pots, pans, plasticware, etc. just for them. When they were done banging and playing, it all went right back in. A once a week wash worked fine.
A: Great idea! Thanks.