Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 3 2009 2:58 PM

Love To Hate You, Baby

Prudie counsels people caught in dysfunctional relationships—and other advice seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com every Monday at 1 p.m. to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon—let's get to it!

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St. Louis: My long-term boyfriend and I are so lucky to have a great friend who is the head chef of a 5 star restaurant, and we love him dearly. The problem is, his longtime girlfriend whom he has a two year old daughter with is mean and treats him terribly, mostly behind his back. He has invited us to his restaurant next week to sample his new dishes. I'm sure when the guys go to the bar to have a drink, she will start in on me about all his bad qualities like she always does. She mostly complains about him not buying her something that they can't afford, or how he won't stay home with the baby while she goes out and parties. What do I say to her so that we can all remain friends, but I don't feel like I am betraying him?

Emily Yoffe: It's outside the realm of this chat, but I would like someone to explain why humans seem driven to mate with people who are rotten to them. You can say, "Lisa, I know every relationship has problems, but I think Brad's a great guy who's trying really hard to make a living and take care of you and your daughter." If she then wants to proceed to convince you how terrible he is, just say, "We're here to have a good time and enjoy Brad's food. I'd rather not talk about your troubles."

Butte, Mont.: My husband and I have been married for almost three years and together for almost six. We have two young boys together, ages 2 and 6 months. For the most part we have a loving relationship, except his jealousy. It drives me crazy. Recently, he is going to a technical school all the way across the country and will be there until the end of August. The entire time he has been gone, it has been a constant barrage of him accusing me of being unfaithful and just being down right mean, saying things like "You don't make me happy" or "You don't care." If he calls and I can't answer the phone, he assumes the reason is I'm with another guy! I have never cheated on my husband nor had any inclination to ever want to, but his ex-wife did. But no amount of reassurance helps. When I finally have had enough of this, his defense is always the same, "Let's get a divorce." Is there a way to help him get over his jealousy and malicious behavior, or should I go ahead and throw the towel in?

Emily Yoffe: And here's another example. Butte, there's an emotional and logical disconnection to your letter. You've been with a guy who for six years, whenever you're out of his sight, abusively accuses you of being unfaithful to him. I assume you noticed this "quirk" before you decided to marry and have two children with him. I wonder if you had to choose a female obstetrician so your husband wouldn't accuse you of having sex with the doctor while you were in labor. All I can suggest is a good therapist, a willingness on his part to want to save the marriage, and a recognition that he's destroying his family with these irrational rages. In the meantime, you should stop reassuring him and just say you aren't his first wife, you've never cheated and you never will, and you are not going to continue the discussion with him when he starts hurling accusations.

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Topsail Beach, N.C.: When you need advice on a purchase, call the given phone number, and are transferred to an offshore source that you cannot understand, is it appropriate to ask for a person that has English as a first language? I don't want to be rude; however, if the problem is not resolved, the company from whom I made the purchase will not receive anymore of my business.

Emily Yoffe: Did you see "Slumdog Millionaire"? That movie will give you insight into how for some of the people far away who are answering your calls, these stressful jobs are a way to get into or stay in the middle class (same for the people here answering the calls). You're right, you should not be rude. You could say, "I'm sorry our connection is not great. Could you please talk a little slower and louder so I can hear you better?" If things are still incomprehensible, you can thank the person for his or her help and say you would prefer to speak to a supervisor. And the company from whom you made the purchase is unlikely to stop using overseas call centers no matter what your future purchase decisions.

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Dry Land: Can a relationship work if you aren't sexually compatible? My hunch is yes, if both people can agree on some sort of give and take system so that two people aren't disappointed all the time. But then I think maybe I am just fooling myself. Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: If the relationship is not a sexual one, then sure! If it is sexual, I'm not sure what kind of give and take system you're talking about—"I'm taking time off from the relationship so I can find someone who can give me some sexual satisfaction?" That's sure to make the two original parties wonder why they're together in the first place. If this is an exclusive romantic relationship that ends with embarrassed disappointment every time you get in bed, and you think you can make that work, then I'll go with, yes, you're fooling yourself.

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Washington, D.C: I work in a shared office space, and for some reason women are using the restroom for more of a conference room/cell phone lounge than a potty.

This is awkward for me! I like privacy when I'm using the toilet. Any advice?

Thanks, Prudie!

Emily Yoffe: I work at home, so I'm lonely and slightly dotty from talking to myself all day—but you remind me of one pleasure of not working in an office. It would be good if office bathrooms had high school-type monitors who instead of checking for smoking or drugs could say, "Just do your business and get back to work!" But I'm afraid you do not want to take on this function yourself. You're just going to have to live with the incompatible facts that the bathroom is now a call center and you have a shy bladder. Perhaps there are other less crowded bathrooms in the building, or a fast food restaurant nearby where you could go occasionally when nature calls.

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A Coast: My bf of several years moved across the country last fall, and I just officially ended our quasi-long-distance relationship. Having had these months to adjust to being alone again, along with the knowledge that he's 3000 miles away, I feel comfortable with this decision and confident it will stick this time. (I'd tried breaking up with him a few times before.)

The problem is that I'm an introverted, slightly misanthropic 41-year-old woman who enjoys activities like reading and watching old movies. Any time I've tried to force myself to get "out there," I've given up after a short time. In fact, even when I was a child, my mom would get on my case to meet more people, etc. At this point in life, I am happy with who I am and believe that my not-a-people-person temperament is hard-wired. It's just as hard to make new friends as it is to find a new romantic interest, especially since most of my peer group is well into marriage and child-rearing. The common approach of getting introduced to people through friends isn't very fertile ground these days.

So, am I destined to be alone forever? How can I balance my essential lone wolf nature with my genuine desire to find a life partner?

Emily Yoffe: There are all sorts of specialized online dating services (I have been amused to read non-Jews sign up for JDate because the women think Jewish men make good husbands and the men think Jewish women will give them the push they need). So readers, is there a dating service for people who don't like other people?

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: I work for a small business with two co-workers and my boss. Recently one co-worker's father passed away, and a donation was sent to a local charity in his memory. We received a thank you note from his mother (someone we have never met, by the way), which was addressed and directed to my boss. Although I would never say anything, it really bothered me that this 50-year-old man couldn't acknowledge the donation himself. Am I off base here?

Emily Yoffe: I'm not going to devote this week to the "thank-you note" controversies—although after my exhortation last week to write them after receiving baby shower gifts, I was showered with e-mails from people saying it's rude for people to want or expect thank-you notes. I say to these people they should keep not sending them and this problem will solve itself because your friends and loved one will stop giving you gifts.

However, in this case a thank-you note was sent by a grieving woman on behalf of her family and you're complaining? Give me a break!

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Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend just told me he's not sure that he wants to have children after all. We have been together for a year and a half, and have started talking about getting engaged and looking for a place together. When we've talked about the future, children have always been in the picture, and I was clueless, until yesterday, that he actually was unsure he really wants them. I love him, but I know that I definitely want children. I am not sure how to figure out if I can stay in the relationship and get married without knowing if he will ever be ready to have kids. How do I approach this? Thanks for your guidance.

Emily Yoffe: He hasn't told you he doesn't want to have children, instead he's conveying that now that children aren't just some abstract possibility, but are starting to take form in his mind (if not yet in your womb), he's realized he's scared to death. This is perfectly normal, and it's healthy that he could express this to you. So don't escalate this into something it's not—yet. Tell him you appreciate his honesty. Say one of the things you love about each other is that you know you can each say things that are hard and not necessarily welcome, and they will be heard openly.

Tell him you want to talk more about this with him—you can say you hadn't realized this before, so you both need to work through the questions having children or not brings up. Then listen, and discuss without rancor and without telling him that he's crushing your dreams. Part of his concerns surely come out of worrying what kids would do to your relationship, so the way you handles this will say a lot about how you would handle the difficulties of child-rearing. As you work through this, you should put on hold moving forward on engagement and living arrangements. Let him know that children are a vital need for you—but the two of you now need to figure out if you needs are in sync before you make major decisions.

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Seattle: In re: "Dry Land"...

If a couple that loved each other in all other ways wasn't finding it in bed, couldn't sex therapy help?

Emily Yoffe: It's definitely worth a try.

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Dating sites: I haven't tried it, but Geek to Geek (gk2gk.com) comes recommended by friends.

Emily Yoffe: Here's a recommendation to the woman who both would like to find love and have someone who understands that being alone is deeply satisfying.

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Philadelphia: I've reconnected with a female friend from high school online who is now married with children. However, she e-mails me every day, and sometimes multiple times a day.

There is nothing untoward or risqué whatsoever about the conversations. But a friend of mine thinks it was odd that a married woman with children would be e-mailing me every day. I've wondered if her husband knows she's doing that and if I should ask. But I don't want to make the conversation get weird if isn't already. What's your take on this? Is this OK?

Emily Yoffe: It used to be that people who wanted to have affairs with old high-school friends had to wait five or 10 year intervals to run into them at reunions. Now, thanks to Facebook, life is just one big high-school reunion. Like you, I don't know what her intentions are, but it doesn't sound as if you need or want multiple daily updates from her. You don't have to say, "Marcia, are you trying to have an affair with me?" but you can say, "Marcia, it's been great reconnecting, but I'm afraid daily personal e-mails are distracting me from my work."

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Detroit: Here is a question that is bothering me a lot. I recently learned that my FIL is continuing a long term affair. I knew there was an affair but did not know that the relationship continued. He is also very close to his mistress's children. What bothers me is that he openly seeks to develop the relationship with them when visiting us, even inviting them to our place. My husband is very hurt but will not say anything or talk to anybody about it. My MIL behaves as if nothing is going on. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Emily Yoffe: I would stay out of your in-laws' marriage except to the extent he wants to use your place to further his cheating. Your husband needs to step up (and if he won't, you should) and say, "Dad, we love to see you, but I cannot be drawn into helping you conduct a relationship with another woman and her children. Your personal business is your own, but I'm afraid you can't use our home in the pursuit of it."

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Washington, D.C.: Please help me with my in-laws. They are always late. Whether it's dinner at our house or dinner requiring reservations, they show up at least a half hour late. Even outings to the zoo or the park—late, late, late. I used to tolerate this, but now that I have a toddler, being late can really wreak havoc. My little one is usually done eating by the time they arrive, which means someone (i.e., me) has to entertain him for the remainder of the dinner. And they consider it extremely rude to order food before everyone is present. I find it extremely rude that they are always late and never apologize. What can I do? I've tried telling them dinner was at 6 p.m. (when it really was at 6:30 p.m.); they were not amused when they found out I had done this.

Emily Yoffe: In-laws, shape up!

You and your husband have to have a united front and explain now that you have a toddler, your schedule isn't as flexible as it used to be—you're sure they can remember what it was like!—so you have to start eating at the appointed time, etc. So if they show up really late at the zoo, the visit with their grandchild will unfortunately have to be cut short. It's their choice to change or not—but if you stick to your time table, you won't be driven so crazy by them.

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Washington, D.C.: I've been seeing someone for eight months. While he's hasn't dated other people since we met, and I haven't dated anyone else in awhile, he doesn't want to define our relationship as exclusive. I haven't really thought about it until now since I'm also quite wary of rushing into things, but it came up during vacation with his family, and the nonexclusive label is starting to feel a little silly. It's clear from his other actions that he cares about me (and it's mutual). Should I pay attention to his actions and not worry about it, or does this strike you as a lack of respect/sign that he doesn't think I'm as great as you'd want a partner to think you are?

Emily Yoffe: Ah, the relationship that leaves you in the perpetual present. At eight months, you're past the getting-to-know-you stage and heading toward the I've-given-up-getting-to-know-anyone-else. But even though you two are de facto exclusive, he refuses to acknowledge this. If you are going to be together, the two of you need to be able to, at appropriate intervals, discuss the relationship and your expectations. So tell him that it's starting to make you feel you two are on different tracks because you're ready to make this relationship exclusive and see where it goes. If he refuses, then you have a better idea where you stand and if you want to stay.

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Arlington, Va.: My mother called me yesterday asking for my advice on what could be a potentially sticky situation.

My uncle has been out of work now for six months (he lives in an area of the country that's been particularly hard-hit by the recession), and my mother was wondering if she should offer him a loan. This isn't something my uncle has asked for, but is something my mother is considering purely out of the kindness of her heart, to show my uncle that he has family who would be willing to help out in his time of need.

While I think it's a nice gesture in principle, I actually don't think she should do it. I say this because having debt between family members can get very ugly and out of hand, and it might be years before the debt could be paid back.

What are your thoughts?

Emily Yoffe: I think it's a lovely gesture on your mother's part to extend a family TARP to her brother. It's important, however, for her to offer an amount of money she is comfortable parting with possibly forever. Then, if they want to go ahead, they should get on paper their understanding for a schedule of repayments—even if it's long-term—so there isn't any confusion about the fact that if your uncle becomes solvent again, your mother will get her money returned.

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Columbus, Ohio: I am one of five children. Our Dad died a few years ago. The youngest (a late surprise for our parents) is starting college. When the four older kids started college, my parents bought us a reliable second-hand car. We are all settled into well-paying careers, and I thought to repay my parents for our great start in life—no college debt, full support, and a decent car—we could club together and buy our youngest sibling a set of wheels. Two of my siblings think this is a great idea. One doesn't want to participate. How do we handle this? Do we tell our little sister the car is just from three of us and possibly wrecking her relationship with the fourth? We considered letting our Mom be the "giver," but she would know that financially that wasn't possible. Help!

Emily Yoffe: Today is the "nice families dilemmas"—how refreshing. That's a lovely gesture. Just say the gift is from the whole family.

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Dating service for introverts: Some (pre-Internet) years ago, uncertain how to find nice, serious men interested in a monogamous relationship, I joined two dating services: the Classical Music Lovers' Exchange and Single Book Lovers. Single Book Lovers was full of people who liked to read and not a lot more. This might be worth a try. The Classical Music Lovers were nice and somewhat nerdy. Perfect for me.

Emily Yoffe: I know a married couple who met through Classical Music Lovers. Thanks for the good tips!

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Philadelphia: "it's been great reconnecting, but I'm afraid daily personal e-mails are distracting me ..."

But I'm not looking for it to stop. The fact is, it's not distracting, and I like exchanging e-mails with her. I work out of home and have very few friends and acquaintances, so it's nice to get e-mails. I know, I'm kind of a sad sack. But she doesn't live near me and I'd never wreck a marriage.

Emily Yoffe: It all may be perfectly innocent, but it sounds as if you don't quite think so, and don't wholly want it to be so. If she discovers that it just so happens she's going to be coming to your town for some cockamamie reason, don't say I didn't warn you.

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks so much everyone. Talk to you next week.