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

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Nov. 16 2009 5:00 PM

Must We Bear Hugs?

Prudie counsels a woman wary of her father-in-law's inappropriate embrace—and other advice seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. A transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: My husband and I have been married 8 years. I dislike arriving at (and leaving) my in-laws' home at the holidays because my father-in-law's hugs are too long, tight, and personal. After several years of wondering if I was just hypersensitive, I learned, over a few beers, that my two sisters-in-law feel the same way. We three are married to my father-in-law's three sons, who are all solid, decent men who respect women.

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Our husbands were appalled at learning this about their dad's hugs. They've considered speaking to him about it, but he's the type of person who would laugh it off.

How can I still visit my in-laws, but skip the hug? I love my wonderful mother-in-law and all the other children & relatives who attend holiday functions. I'm not a big hugger, but I don't mind hugging everybody else when I see them a few times per year. Maybe I have to stop hugging everybody, so that I can avoid the father-in-law hug? Neither of my sisters-in-law will be around for the holidays this year, so I won't have the security of others feeling the same way. I've thought about being "sick" so that I can't hug anybody, but I can't do that every holiday.

What to do? My husband will talk to his dad if that's the best thing to do, but we're not convinced it would do any good. I don't want to boycott this family because they've been nice to me in every other way.

We've also considered asking my mother-in-law to speak to him, but at heart he's a chauvinist and probably wouldn't listen to her. Also, I'd hate to bother her with this because she's got some health problems and deserves to just enjoy her family at the holidays.

Emily Yoffe: It would be ideal if the three sons sit down with Dad and say succinctly just what you've said, "Dad, this is a very difficult and awkward conversation, but we need to have it. When you hug our wives they are uncomfortable because it's too tight, too long and too personal. We need you to back off." Dad can laugh, but he's been warned. And since he's been warned, you three daughters-in-law are then free to sidestep the hugs, or have your husbands run interference. And please, keep a close eye on the grandchildren when Dad's around. Maybe Dad limits his off-limits activities to hugs of adult women, but maybe his wanderings don't have an age limit.

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Cabo Rojo, P.R.: I never thought I'd ask anyone or myself this question, but I must, and you seem to be the right person to answer it. I'm a 57-year-old gorgeous professional blonde woman, with lots of brains and also many plastic surgeries. To begin, I got a beautiful full C cup breast augmentation, later I acquired lovely rounded buttocks implants and at 56 I had a partial facelift that left my face looking as young as I feel, which borders on forty. My students at school think I look in my twenties and everyone thinks I look super sexy and natural. Sure, only my doctors and close relatives know the truth! The problem is after my second divorce, I've become timid and insecure about actually having sex with a new man because I don't know what I would say, if they asked why I had all these surgeries. Now after getting so many added assets to the many natural ones I myself used to have, has made me feel too perfect to be true or artificially beautiful, which might be interpreted as being superficial or insecure. Why is it that becoming the physical person I always wanted to be, without flaws, still leaves me feeling unhappy and scared?? Please, help me understand the problem I'm confronting because somehow finding the solution escapes me.

Emily Yoffe: If you're 57 and you've been cut and sucked and stuffed head to toe in order to achieve your goal of becoming flawless, and now you're afraid you're too perfect to have sex with (I'm trying to understand your problem, and I think that's it), you can stop worrying. No one who's had as much "work" as you've had looks natural anymore. You may be scared because you realize you've invested so much in your shell, that you're not sure what's inside anymore, besides silicone. You sound like you may have body dysmorphic disorder. Michael Jackson probably was a sufferer, too. The best I can offer you is that you stay away from the knives, and spend far less time in front of mirrors. Then find a therapist who has a special knowledge of this disorder to help you be content with being a middle-aged woman with a good brain and many accomplishments.

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Baltimore: My husband and I have an etiquette disagreement. He insists that when you go to a cocktail party where food is being passed, you are supposed to decline it. Direct quote: "The food is there NOT to be eaten." He actually gets annoyed with me if I accept a stuffed mushroom.

I think this is beyond ridiculous. If I were hosting such a party, I would be disappointed to see my work/money go to waste, and would assume that there had been something wrong with the food.

Can you please offer guidelines on what is acceptable to eat in public?

Emily Yoffe: Does your husband also think books are not to be read, diapers are not to be changed, checks are not to be cashed, greetings are not be returned, etc. etc. Since you don't mention other bizarre beliefs of his, I hope this is just a strange quirk in his circuitry. Tell him you're eating the mushrooms, and if he doesn't like it, he can stuff it.

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Somewhere out there: My girlfriend and I had an exclusive relationship for about two and a half years until last week. She's nice, but I wouldn't want to marry her or anything. We're in our twenties. Anyway, I told her last week that we should start seeing other people. I meant other people in addition to each other. I didn't want to stop seeing her entirely. She knew what I meant, but she said that if we start dating other people, she doesn't want to be physically intimate with me anymore. That got me really angry, and we had a big fight. It wouldn't bother me to be physically intimate with her while I dated other girls, so why should it bother her? How can I make her see how foolish she's being?

Emily Yoffe: You don't want to marry her or anything, and now she doesn't want to sleep with you, or anything. In this case two anythings appear to add up to nothing. I understand your desire to keep having sex with her while you look for more exciting partners, but as the old joke goes, "You can't have your Kate and Edie, too."

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