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

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Sept. 14 2009 3:04 PM

Will Therapy Change His Woman-Bashing Ways?

Prudie counsels a woman with a sexist fiance—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. I look forward to your questions.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I recently became engaged to a man I truly and wholeheartedly love, cherish, and just downright enjoy being around. There's no question that he's "the one." He did say something the other day, though, that has given me some pause. A while ago, I had mentioned to him that I felt he may be slightly sexist toward strong, assertive women. There had been a couple of times when he has referred to an assertive woman in person or on the TV who is not exactly friendly but more so civil and professional as a "bitch." I don't take issue with the word bitch as much as when I feel it's ascribed to someone who doesn't deserve it. I don't consider myself a feminist by any means, but I told him that if the woman had been a man and acted the same way, I'm sure he wouldn't have minded. The other day, we met with a wedding coordinator who was not nice, per se, but assertive and businesslike. Needless to say, he didn't like her and actually said to me, "You know, I think you may be right about me not liking assertive women." I asked him why he thought he had an issue with them, and he responded that he didn't know.

So I guess my question is: Should I do anything further about this? As a counselor himself, I know he'd be open to the idea of going to counseling to perhaps get to the bottom of this. If we had a daughter, I'd want to encourage her to be strong, confident, and assertive, so I'd like my future husband and I to be on the same page.

I'm a little surprised by this whole thing, too, because I am assertive and, let's face it, a bit of a smartass.

Emily Yoffe: He's a counselor!? What does he tell his female patients—stop being "hysterical" and act more feminine? I suppose you could assertively insist that your fiance go to a therapist with you, preferable a strong, no-nonsense woman, and see if that doesn't scramble his assumptions. It seems clear your boyfriend is a sexist if he categorizes as "b--ches" virtually all women who don't display his preferred soft and kittenish style. You may not object to the "b" word, but I do (and I think you do, too). It is a categorical dismissal solely based on sex. Since presumably he has had training in questioning underlying assumptions, perhaps simply continuing to draw his attention to his reaction and asking him to examine it might actually get him to make some progress. Millions of people have changed their beliefs about race and sexuality in recent years. You could also point out that he's chosen a strong, assertive woman, and if you have daughters, you'd like them to be that way and hope he would, too. And what's with saying you're not a feminist? I assume you believe women should be able to exercise their full capabilities in the world, which is the essence of feminism.

Albuquerque, N.M.: So I hired a P.I., who posed as an erotic masseuse, on my partner. My partner played along over e-mail while never being explicit himself. They arranged to meet, and he showed up at the appointed time. When he returned to his apartment (after all, the masseuse was a ruse), he wrote her an e-mail repudiating some of her sexier suggestions. He is now upset at ME for "violating his trust," even though he lied several times about his plans with her—and claims he ultimately made the right call. Any advice?

Emily Yoffe: Hey, did you just see the movie Extract? This is a (spoiler alert) crucial plot twist. The protagonist hires a male prostitute to see if his wife will cheat, and if she does, then he has carte blanche to cheat himself. It doesn't turn out well in the movie, as it is unlikely to in real life—as you can see from your results. You are also missing a whole lot of back story here. Why hire the private investigator? What kind of P.I. also does erotic massage (OK, the good kind!), and was your partner at all suspicious that a random masseuse contacted him? My advice is to stop hiring outside consultants and talk directly with your partner about the troubles in your relationship.

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Missouri: I am having a tough time deciding how to handle some animosity in my family. I'm a white woman married to a black man. We've been married a year and have been together for six. Much of my extended family (two uncles in particular) have never accepted our relationship. I don't see them all that often—mostly at family reunions and Christmas. Every Christmas, my husband and I go to the family get-together and are ignored by more than half of the people in the room. Any attempt to discuss this with more open-minded family members is hushed; they'd rather sweep it under the rug and act like nothing is happening. My uncles used to storm out whenever we arrived, but they've taken to sulking and glaring in the later years. My question is, my husband and I plan to have kids soon, and while I feel that we, as adults, can handle this environment, I don't think it's fair to subject a child to it. Should I stop attending these events? Say something about it? Take my future children and hope for the best?

Emily Yoffe: I don't think adults should have to handle this environment. Enlist some more enlightened family members to speak to the uncles and explain to them that it's Christmas, not a Klan meeting, and their behavior is simply unacceptable. If they won't behave decently, it really is incumbent on your parents to withdraw from the big family gathering and say that they are going to celebrate separately because they will no longer stand for the treatment of their son-in-law. If you can't get any support for this, then tell your family you're spending Christmas with your in-laws, with friends, or volunteering at a homeless shelter—that is, anywhere you will be treated with a warm welcome.

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Huntington, W.Va.: Yesterday, my friend and I were waiting on a movie that was going to start in about two hours. She had commented that after a stressful day that she needed a drink. We went into a restaurant, and she proceeded to order two very strong margaritas for herself. We laughed and started talking about wine. She commented that she doesn't get drunk after having a whole bottle in one sitting. After she finished her drink, she ordered another one and some nachos. Before we left to go to the movie, I had to talk her out of getting another one. This time, I didn't think it was OK. Did I mention that it was 2:00 in the afternoon? A week before, she had two cups of tequila. Often, I find her talking about needing a drink or about getting drunk. I'm a little worried about my friend now. We're only in our 20s, and I would like her to reach her 30s without a serious problem.

Emily Yoffe: Someone who "needs" to get drunk at any time has alcohol problems. And someone who is doing this at 2:00 in the afternoon is well on her way to alcoholism, especially if she's boasting about how she can handle an entire bottle of wine at a sitting. Tell her you're very concerned about her drinking and it appears to have veered out of control. If she won't listen but continues to behave this way, tell her you aren't going to be able to socialize with her because she's no fun when she's drunk. You should also alert others in your group about your concerns, especially if she likes to get behind the wheel.

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Strong assertive women: I don't see this as a sexist problem. I don't like people who are arrogant ... you know, the ones who know everything and try to tell you they know everything. Very often it is a man acting like this, but women do too. So maybe the fiance just doesn't like people who are overbearing know-it-alls. He does need to clean up his language, though.

Emily Yoffe: But the letter writer observes he has that reaction only to women. And it's not clear that he is reacting badly to obnoxious women, just that he just finds assertive women (but not men) to be intolerable. The "b--ch" appellation is a give-away that there's a problem here.

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Bethesda, Md.: My daughter loves drawing very much, but every time she draws, her father will say "art is useless." That is definitely wrong and hurts my daughter's feelings.

How can I make my husband stop making comments like that?

Emily Yoffe: Is this the first inkling you've had that you're married to a troglodyte? It sounds as if your husband needs some parenting classes so that he can learn ways not to crush your daughter's spirit—ask at your school or look online for some recommendations. He also needs to start reading about being a father. Get him some books by T. Berry Brazelton, Penelope Leach, and Haim Ginott for the basics on being an encouraging, supportive force in your daughter's life.

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Anywhere, USA: Lately I have been dismayed by the tone that political "discussions" have taken. Perfect strangers get nasty with each other on public transportation, friends get rude at outings, etc. It isn't like I, too, don't have strong opinions about the hot topics of the day (health care and immigration), but man! I am so sick (and, frankly, embarrassed) by people's lack of civility that I don't know what to do. Any tips on how to either stop angry "discussions" or respond to people who want to engage me (or others) in a heated argument?

Emily Yoffe: Definitely move to the back of the car if someone on the subway starts ranting about immigrants or health care. I agree it is too bad that people can't engage in lively discussion—and learn something from one another—without having it degenerate into name-calling and sloganeering. When things start getting heated, call a time out and say, "I'm actually interested in the policy arguments of people who have viewpoints other than mine, but if we're going to start shouting at each other, neither of us is going to learn anything." Then, if that doesn't get things back on topic, just say you need to drop it, and look for a more neutral topic—but stay away from the weather unless you want to go at it over cap-and-trade.

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Winchester: Help! My husband and I have no money, and our anniversary is tomorrow. Any fun ideas to celebrate that don't involve money (or a lot of time to plan?). We also have to work, although we might be able to leave early. We are both out of ideas but feel the pressure to celebrate somehow.

Emily Yoffe: Let's see, what is it that a happily married couple can do together to celebrate their union that doesn't cost any money and can be done spontaneously when they get home from work? I'd better try to remember because my 15th anniversary is the day after tomorrow, and we haven't made any plans either.

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"And what's with saying you're not a feminist? I assume you believe women should be able to exercise their full capabilities in the world, which is the essence of feminism": Bless you for clarifying that, Emily! I can't tell you how many times I've heard young women say while they support equality, they're "not feminists"—someone has been very successful in creating a nasty definition of a basic good ideal.

Emily Yoffe: I agree it's unfortunate that "feminism" seems to have been hijacked to mean a certain set of political principles. I'd like to see more young women—of every political stripe—say they're feminists, instead of, "I'm not a feminist, but ..."

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New York: To Harrisburg: My father used to be a lot like your fiance, and my mother sometimes worried, too, about what would happen if they had daughters. Well, surprise, they had two, and my sister and I are two of the most assertive, feminist b----es you can imagine! And he loves us to pieces and cheers us on every step of the way. So, yeah, counseling is in order, but just wanted to give you some encouraging words!

Emily Yoffe: Let's hope the fiance here turns out to be a cheerleader for strong, assertive women like your father.

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Hurting, USA: My husband and I are separating. I know it's best for the family (we have a young son). It's hard but I can see the better days ahead.

I don't know how to tell people, even my parents. I've kept our struggles quiet and have felt isolated from friends, so it might seem out of the blue. I don't want to rehash everything with everyone. And part of me feels like a huge failure. I'd like to just send a mass e-mail to friends (not to my parents and sister, of course) explaining things once and without many details.

Is this OK? Is there a better way?

Emily Yoffe: You don't have to rehash everything with everyone, but you certainly need people to listen and offer comfort—surely you know people who have divorced and can help you see you'll make it through the worst parts. So start opening up to select friends. You can also decide how much you want to reveal, then tailor that for your audience. In general, you can say, "Dave and I have realized we're making each other miserable and it's affecting our son, so, sadly, we've decided separating is for the best." Obviously, with your family you want to give a fuller explanation, but no one is entitled to the gory details. You don't have to send a mass e-mail—just start telling people, and you'll be surprised how quickly the word gets around.

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Washington, D.C.: My best friend just announced, out of the blue, that she's getting divorced. She said there's no precipitating crisis—no affair or abuse—just that they are bored and fight about little things. We're both in our mid-30s with small kids, and I know how stressful marriage can be at this point, but I think she's making a big mistake. (And with a husband who's a divorce lawyer, I have some perspective on the matter.) How can I convince her to give it another shot?

Emily Yoffe: I don't know if this is for you, letter writer above, but this is how it may look from the outside. First of all, don't set out to convince her, but listen to her. As you listen, you may discover there are more profound problems in their marriage than at first appear. But after you listen, you can then surely encourage her to pursue every step available to preserve their marriage. Say your husband brings home every day stories of how devastating divorce can be and that you hope that if her reason is boredom and picking at each other, that she and her husband do everything they can to get through this rough patch together.

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For Huntington: I never felt the "need" to get drunk in the middle of the day, but I definitely didn't know my limits when going out with friends. I'd also sneak massive glasses of wine up to my room so that my roommates wouldn't comment on my drinking alone. This pattern continued for a while and landed me in the hospital on a couple of occasions. I could have gotten help a lot sooner but didn't at any given time because I didn't feel READY.

When I finally hit my rock bottom, I knew I needed help. Sounds like your friend is going to WANT help before help is effective, but I would try broaching the subject with her (and if she gets defensive, it's very likely she's embarrassed because she knows she has a problem).

For what it's worth, today is my 26th-month sobriety anniversary (two years, two months), and I'm 26. First-hand experience right here!

Emily Yoffe: Congratulations on your sobriety. You're right that people who aren't "ready" aren't going to be receptive to their friends' message, but the friends have to deliver it all the same. Doesn't "hitting bottom" mean you realize you can no longer ignore what everyone has been telling you?

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Washington, D.C.: I am a third-year graduate student at a large university. One of my responsibilities is to serve as a teaching assistant. I run four discussion sections of 50 students each per week in addition to grading their papers, holding office hours, etc. The other day, I encountered a situation I did not know how to handle.

I am morbidly obese, though I'm working very closely with a nutritionist and dietitian to make healthy changes in my life. My weight makes me extremely self-conscious because I feel I'm constantly judged on it. During a discussion section on Friday, I heard a student make a derogatory remark about my weight to another student when I turned to write something on the chalkboard, and before I knew it, the entire class had heard the joke and was laughing. I was mortified. I didn't know how to handle it. I tried to get the class back on topic, but I was visibly shaken and any effort to regain control of the class was futile. The last 15 minutes were miserable, and I actually had to let the class go early because I just couldn't focus.

How should I have handled that situation? And how can I go back in the classroom this week?

Emily Yoffe: Hmmm, don't you have the power of grading the jerk who made the comment? OK, I'm not suggesting you do that, but just keep it in mind when you feel that idiot has the upper hand. If you know who made the remark, you can pull that student aside and say you heard what he or she said, and that insulting people is not allowed in your classroom. It's also more than likely this week's class is not going to be a replay and everyone will be slightly embarrassed at themselves. So you can just try to put it out of your mind and go on with the class. But if you sense there is a continuing awkwardness, or even barely suppressed levity, disarm them by bringing it up yourself. You can say something like, "Last week, I noted that there was an observation in class that I'm overweight. I didn't pursue that as a topic of discussion because it's self-evident that I am. So let's talk about things that you're actually here to learn."

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San Francisco: I have a friend who recently adopted a beautiful baby girl. She seems to be having a really hard time adjusting (very similar to postpartum depression), and I'm trying to figure out the best way to help her. Her husband and mother are being supportive, but they're both overwhelmed with how rough of a time she's having. Any advice?

Emily Yoffe: Having an infant is overwhelming, and some women get more overwhelmed than others. It does sound like your friend might be experiencing the equivalent of postpartum depression, and you should suggest she talk to her pediatrician or gynecologist about this. If she's not amenable, mention it to her husband and/or mother. Help is available, but when you're in a downward spiral, it's hard to recognize you need it.

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Re: Winchester/anniversary: Prudie, have you remembered it yet—what people can do to celebrate their anniversary for no money? How about announce it on Facebook and then complain loudly next week about not getting enough gifts? Does that sound good?

Emily Yoffe: I'll see if I can come up with the answer. And you're right, it's a virtual obligation to announce such things on Facebook.

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Is he wrong?: Let me start out by saying that my husband and I have a fabulous relationship. But my husband is very up front about the fact that if I lose my figure (e.g., gain 10 pounds), he will not be as physically attracted to me. His position is completely logical, but I still can't help but wish he were one of those men that would desire me no matter what. Emotional and personality attraction just do not intersect with physical attraction.

Is he wrong? Is my anxiety about this over-the-top? I take care of myself, but you never know how your metabolism will change, not to mention the effects of having children.

Emily Yoffe: He's agreed not to go bald, or get a gut, or have a thatch of wiry black hair grow from his ears, or have one of those necks that droops over his shirt collars, right?
Given that I get many, many letters that begin, "My spouse has put on 100 pounds in the past 10 years," a part of me understands your husband's worries. But you need to tell him you are as concerned about staying in shape as he is concerned about your staying in shape—and vice versa!—and that beyond that, you agree not to demean each other about the normal shifts that come with aging.

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I was a T.A.: If something like that rude insult had happened to me, this is how I'd start class next week: "Let me tell you about my obligations to you as your instructor—it's a responsibility I don't take lightly. I'm obligated to be fair, upfront, helpful, honest, and respectful to you. In exchange, I ask the same of you. If anyone does not think this is a fair agreement, speak to me or professor Jones after class in private. Now onto the syllabus, because we have a lot to cover before exams."

Emily Yoffe: Excellent! And the students will feel like worms, which they should.

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Small-Town Iowa: I recently went to a counselor (provided free through my university) about an abortion I had this summer. It was a very painful experience but something I felt necessary, gave a lot of thought to, and talked over with the father of the baby, whom I am engaged to.

The counselor apparently had strong anti-abortion beliefs, having adopted two children herself due to infertility, and berated me for my decision.

I was already hurt, confused, and depressed over the emotions I felt after the abortion. Now I am even more so. Will this pain go away, or was my counselor right:Will I live with guilt forever?

Emily Yoffe: Report this counselor to the university. She is entitled to her opinions, but she is not entitled to violate the tenets of her profession because of her personal beliefs. She should have immediately told you she is not the right therapist for you and referred you to someone else. Then have the university find someone who will actually help you work through this experience so that you don't feel stuck.
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Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you (assertively) next week.

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