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.

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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Sacramento, Calif.: I have been dating a man for almost a year. Before we became sexually involved, we both got tested for some STD's and the results were negative. But I have never had the guts to tell him that I have had genital herpes for many years. I take daily medication so I won't have outbreaks or pass the virus on to him. The problem is, I feel really guilty for not being honest. At this point, is it better to tell him later than never, or just let sleeping dogs lie?

Emily Yoffe: How is it when the two of you were getting tested for STDs that you neglected to mention, "Hey, guess what, I've got one!" This isn't a sleeping dog, this is a sleeping virus, and yes, while you've got it under control, wouldn't you rather be the one to tell him, then have him stumble on a bottle of your acyclovir and wonder what else you haven't told him. This isn't going to be a pleasant conversation, but the good news is that you've demonstrated how low his risk has been because of the care you've taken. Nonetheless, you need to come clean, even if doing so puts your relationship at risk.

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Mexico: Hi Prudie, I hope you take my question as I have been struggling with this issue for years without finding a solution. I am 29 years old and my boyfriend of six years and me have been wanting to get married. The problem is my father. He is a very traditional, macho Mexican man who won't have his daughters marry anyone. I understand he is being unreasonable, since I think is normal to get married but the problem is should I tell him and risk him disowning me and having my entire family suffer his rage (I know he will take it out on my mother and siblings) or should I get married secretly and not tell him. I want peace in my family but I am not willing to sacrifice my own happiness. What am I missing here? Thanks!

Emily Yoffe: If such a tradition was truly traditional, the human race wouldn't have lasted long enough to pass on this tradition. I find it hard to blame on your father's culture, because every culture expects their offspring to find someone suitable and celebrates when that happens. There's something seriously wrong with your father and all of you need to stop letting him hold you hostage. You're 29, you don't need his permission to wed. If he will "take it out" on the rest of your family, they need to flee. Read the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her monstrous father didn't want any of his children to marry, but she wrote some of the language's most beautiful love poems when she defied him, and ran off to Italy with her poet, Robert Browning.

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Arlington, Va.: Re: Long Hugs from FIL. I bet you get a lot of responses to this! This kind of person knows you will try to stay polite at all costs. The best thing to do (perhaps after the sons' talk) is to say loudly, Stop. Don't do that again please. (I would include the please only the first time, and maybe not even then).

I had a great-uncle do the same thing to me and all my cousins, and we were all too young and respectful of elders to say anything. I've often wished for a time machine to correct that. This guy is being slick and is not participating in a social behavior. Standing up to him is paramount.

Emily Yoffe: I like your suggestion that after the grabby father-in-law been warned, to call him out and stop him if he persists. You're so right, many people get away with horrible behavior by taking advantage of others' natural instincts not to cause a scene.

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Fairfax, Va.: Re: eating at cocktail parties. Husband sounds like he's been told at some point in his life that he was eating too much, hogging the good stuff or whatever, and has over-reacted. Yes, it is inappropriate at a cocktail party to try to make a dinner of the food that is passed, but you certainly can and should eat some of it. Anything else insults the hosts.

Emily Yoffe: I remember now that a variation on this was a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. Larry David rebuked Christian Slater for violating the rule about hogging the caviar. The answer for the caviar hoggers is to take less, not put a "no food" injunction on everyone.

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New York, N.Y.: I got married to a great guy a little more than 2 years ago, and received many wonderful gifts. I wrote about three quarters of the thank you notes, but never finished that last quarter. I still feel very guilty about this, but my husband says that it's too late to write the remaining letters and it would just be more embarrassing to do it now than to not do it at all. Do you agree? Is there anything I can do?

Emily Yoffe: What a perfect opportunity to turn a late thank you note into an early Christmas card. Sit down and finish the notes. Apologize for your tardiness, tell the gift-givers how much you've enjoyed the gift, fill your friends in a little on the past year, and wish them the best for the holidays.

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Washington, DC: Can you give me advice on how to get my Blackberry-obsessed boyfriend to a) put the phone down more when we're together and b) to call me more rather than texting? He's driving me batty! Thanks so much for your help.

Emily Yoffe: I'll take B) first. If he needs to communicate something to you, what difference does it make if it's a text or a call?

As for A) you need to say something like, "Darling, I love being with you, but we're really not together if you're texting the entire time. Let's put away our PDAs when we're out for the evening." Then if he keeps thumbing, keep your cool, get up and say, "I see you've got a lot of important texts to deal with. So I'm going to go home now. Let's get together when you're not so pressed."

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Bern, Switzerland: Hi Emily, totally love your columns! I have a problem concerning flatulence: I've been with my boyfriend for 6 years now and get along quite well with his parents. So do they with me, to the point that my boyfriend's Dad apparently considers me to be enough a part of the family to loosen up on his manners. What I mean is: He's farting when I'm around. Quite often. Loudly. Extensively. Last summer, we spent two weeks with them in a cottage on vacation, and I was totally stressed out, constantly waiting for his next fanfare. They have invited us for next summer, and this is already ruining the anticipation for the vacation. Not going isn't really an option, since my boyfriend would be devastated. In addition, his Dad recently has started farting around in OUR flat when he's over.

Now, I know you are quite lenient when it comes to reigning in one's bodily functions, but I'm from a family where this was a total no-go, and it really stresses me out. My boyfriend considers it totally disgusting, too, but of course got accustomed to it during the last 30 years, and it's his dad.

I feel totally awful because otherwise, he's a very nice and generous person. Any suggestions?

Emily Yoffe: Tell Dad to come on over to my house, he'd fit right in. So Dad's a wonderful guy who's been free-farting all his life. I'd say time to break out the Febreze, light the incense, plug in the fans, possibly invest in some gas masks. Your boyfriend should also have a private talk with his father explaining that not everyone is comfortable with his constant rendition of "Breaks Like the Wind." Have your boyfriend say that when Dad's with company it would really help if he acted as he would in any social or work setting, and exercised some sphincter control. But Dad's been at this for decades and he obviously considers you one of the family. Maybe you can wear a pomander ball around your neck.

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Re: New York, N.Y.: Why is it whenever I see these letters about forgetting to write thank you notes it's always from the woman? Does this woman know that her husband was a recipient of the gift as well? The burden to write thank you notes falls on the COUPLE, not just one party. Perhaps if this were a dual responsibility, more thank you notes would cease to be forgotten.

Emily Yoffe: Good point. The remiss thank you note writer should not be listening to her husband when he tells HER it's too late for HER to write the notes. She needs to say, "Honey, here are half the notes. We'll finish them tonight while we watch the game." Man up, men and say thanks!

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: How do you deal with a girlfriend's racist family? I'm Jewish and black (I'm Ethiopian, if you're thinking that combo is unlikely), two strikes against me. Her family detests me and makes of point of making racist and anti-Semetic jokes whenever I'm around. My girlfriend has confronted them about this, but they just laugh at her. The other person in the family who isn't a bigot, is the mother, who gets furious with her husband and sons when they belittle me. I limit my time with these people to a minimum, but sometimes I do have to attend a family reunion. Is there anything I can do to at least get them to shut up about how bigoted they are?

Emily Yoffe: Limiting to the point of complete absence sounds ideal. But for those times when you feel obligated to go to something with your girlfriend and you are the recipient of their racist, anti-Semitic bilge, give a stony look, a sad shake of the head, and turn and walk away.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Re: Blackberry obsessed boyfriend. Also, this woman should realize that if this is anywhere near the beginning of the relationship, it shows that he is way more interested in checking his options than being with you. I dealt with a man like this. Save yourself the heartbreak and end it. He should want to be focused on you, not have to be told to be focused on you. My current boyfriend will ignore his phone for days when we are spending time together. Maybe this a 2009 sign of love.

Emily Yoffe: Ah ha! This is that David Brooks column in which he says people who are on actual dates will continue to check possible better options throughout the night! And you're right, in 2009, ignoring the Blackberry is better than reciting, "How do I love thee?/ Let me count the ways."

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Boston: To the person embarrassed about not writing thank-you notes—I neglected to send a sympathy card several years ago to a family friend whose son died. I've felt awful about it ever since. Recently I screwed up the courage to talk to her about it and apologized. I feel MUCH better now. If you never send the notes, it will nag at you for a very long time. Just swallow your embarrassment and send them.

Emily Yoffe: So right. Even if a lot of time has passed, it's always worth it to make the gesture you wish you'd made.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Re: farting. Or, do what my family does: Next time he farts, say loudly, "Phew! Who farted?" Say it in a way that makes everyone laugh. Then we he 'fesses up, say, "You really gotta warn us next time so we can open the window." If this doesn't make him cut down on farting, at least you'll get some fresh air.

Emily Yoffe: Actually, they should rent my beagle. Half the time it is her, the other half we blame it on her.

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re: Sacramento: This is a good reminder that many STD's are not tested for, or don't show up on tests.

These include not only herpes, but also HPV, which can cause cervical cancer in women, and genital warts. It's a good argument for being able to really TALK to your partner about difficult things before sleeping with them.

Emily Yoffe: This is about the woman who hasn't told her boyfriend she has herpes, despite going with him to get tested for STDs! It's true, laboratory results can reveal some things about one's sexual health, but not everything. And they don't reveal anything about people's character.

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Baltimore: About 10 years ago, my husband and I cut off contact with his mother and stepfather. It was the result of more than five years of them treating me very badly. The final straw was an incident when they offered to watch our children for the evening and the next morning my kindergartener called me "bitch" because Grandma and Grandpa told him it was my nickname. My husband confronted them, it turned into a huge argument, and ended with us leaving their home with hubby telling them not to contact us until they were willing to treat us with respect. In all these years, they have never contacted us.

The problem? We learned through relatives that the financial downturn hit them very hard. My husband is feeling guilty that they haven't seen their grandsons in a decade and that they are in such trouble. He is talking about contacting them over the holidays and I don't want him to. They have never shown any remorse for how they treated us or indicated that they have changed. I'm afraid that allowing them back into our lives will cause all the old fights and problems they caused to resurface. I also resent the thought of taking any piece of the comfortable life that my husband and I have built for ourselves and giving it to these horrible in-laws. If we don't get back in touch, I'm afraid my husband (her only child) will feel overwhelming regret when his mother someday dies and that some part of him will hold me responsible for the lack of contact. So what should I do?

Emily Yoffe: The decision to break off contact clearly came after years of intolerable behavior. No one should put up with in-laws telling a grandchild his mother's nickname is "bitch"! And here you are 10 years later and your mother and step-father-in-law have never tried to reconnect, even though it meant the loss of contact with their grandson. Yet, it's very hard for a grown child to think about a parent dying without having had a final chance to reconcile. The problem here is that your in-laws show no sign of either remorse or wanting to reconnect. Yes, your husband could make some overtures, and he and your son could have a meeting with them—you can stay away. But if this happens, you and your husband should agree that he will go very slowly, he will resume the estrangement if his parents start up their old way. And that this is not about bailing them out financially. They sound like people who are poor at learning the consequences of their actions, and since they haven't even asked for money, why should your husband offer?

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Memphis, Tenn.: I am not asking for advice, but for an explanation. I read your columns regularly, and time and again questioners are seeking advice about situations in which they or their family members are acting in such obviously dumb, self- defeating, dysfunctional ways. I often marvel at the ridiculous things people will get insulted over or will let get in the way of their relationships. Yet, despite the obvious stupidity of these behaviors, I look around and see them repeated by my own acquaintances, relatives, siblings, parents, spouse and alas, myself. What is wrong with the human race?

Emily Yoffe: The Bible, Shakespeare, et al. tried to tackle this one, so I'm not sure I'm going to improve on their observations about why we keep getting ourselves in the same messes over and over. In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt blames our divided selves on the neocortex. We've got this late-breaking (in evolutionary terms) brain tissue that has allowed us to conquer the planet, but that also has given us a divided self—it's responsible for that chatter in our heads that tells us we shouldn't make that stupid remark, or eat that cake. It also allows us to get all huffy over the most trivial thing, because we've got our splendid reputations to defend. Maybe it's our smarts that makes us stupid—and there's no escape!

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Free range farting: A little eucalyptus or lavender oil dabbed just below one's nostrils can cover a multitude of sins.

Emily Yoffe: Or dabbed on Dad, perhaps.

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. And I hope you all have a week of only delightful fragrances!

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