Slate: Advice from 'Dear Prudence' on Narcissistic 75-Year-Olds, Long-Lost Sisters and the Myth of 'Meant to Be"

Slate's advice columnist, Prudence, counsels a woman who is conflicted about a fellow mother's hard-drinking ways. Video by Slate
Emily Yoffe
Slate Advice Columnist
Monday, August 31, 2009; 1:00 PM

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, will be online Monday, August 31, at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions on manners, morals and more.

A transcript follows.

You may also read previous Live Q&As with Prudie. Yoffe is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.


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


Spokane, Wash.: Dear Prudence,

I have been in love with a very close male friend of mine since we became friends as children (almost seven years ago). I have always been reluctant to tell him how I feel for fear of rejection and ruining our friendship. My solution has always been to endure the pain of this impossible romance and then part ways with him when college came around. My logic was that there would be another chance for me to find the love of my life.

My problem lies with the fact that we happen to be looking at similar schools. During my college search I have consistently tried to eliminate him as a factor in my choice but I am afraid that if I do attend the same university as him I will never be able to let the possibility of a relationship go. My question is: Should I A) attend whatever university I like and accept the fact that he will (or will not) continue to be part of my life B) Avoid him and go to another school and try to restart my love life or C) Go to the same college as him and continue to build up the nerve to tell him how I feel?

-Too Young To Be In Love

Emily Yoffe: I love that your generation demonstrates that males and females can truly can be just friends. It's wonderful to see the mixed-gender gangs you form and how easy you all are with each other. But sometimes you take it too far! Inevitably particular males and females are going to be attracted to one another. This is good for humans as a species, and for aging Americans hoping that people will continue to create young workers to pay for our Social Security benefits. Perhaps your close male friend secretly feels the same way about you, but both of you have been unable to speak because you live under the prohibition of not ruining a beautiful friendship.

Well, you should consider ruining it, and take the risk of telling him you realize you have feelings for him that go beyond friendship. Before you do so prepare yourself that it's equally possible he doesn't share these feelings, and so you have to be able to graciously tell him you accept that and want to continue to be friends. Then in either case, you should look at schools completely apart from him, and make your decision solely on the basis of the school that's right for you. Whether or not he's there, whether or not you're in love, it's a good idea for high school students to be open to the new life that college presents to them.


Midwest: Hello, Prudence

My sister has excluded me from her life. She's back for a one week (not exactly sure how long) respite from Iraq and visiting with her family. I have tried calling her and she hangs up on me.

I have read several books on sibling rivalry and alienation and believe there is nothing more I can do to try to repair the relationship.

Do you agree? We were 14 months apart at birth and I used to hit her as a child. I have tried apologizing but she demonizes me so there is no remedy. I do have two nephews but since we are not close I have seen them only a few times (including during the entire 2 year period when I lived in the DC area). I have never been invited to my sister's house. Should I just give up?

Thank you.

Emily Yoffe: You could try once more by sending her a letter saying you are pained by the estrangement between you, that you are so proud of her and what she's accomplished in her life, and that you would like to repair your relationship and develop one with your nephews. You could even say you know you weren't the sister you should have been when you were little (jeez, the statute on that should have expired), but you are both adults now and you would like to have a chance to start over. Then after you're sure she's gotten the letter, call or email. If she still hangs up or doesn't reply, then yes, sadly you need to accept she simply wants to be your ex sister.


Washington, D.C.: I am 31 yrs. old and most recently, have been having vivid dreams of my ex- high school boyfriend who was my first everything. First love, first sexual partner, first heartbreak. He enters my mind from time to time, but I think this is very odd to have reminiscent moments of him so often and to feel so strongly for him after such time has elapsed. I have been in a loving relationship with another man for the past 7 years and know I should not be longing for ex. We saw each other at a reunion two years ago, had a long talk and kissed -- he wanted more, but I refused. I am wise enough to know that we both have changed and grown, and you can't pick up where you left off. Still, a part of me thinks we were meant to be. I think a lot may have to do with how I hurt him back then. I love my current boyfriend and he is a good man. So, what is wrong with me and what can I do to get my ex out of my mind?


Emily Yoffe: This sounds like a warning for the letter writer hoping to turn her high school friend into her high school boyfriend. Actually I find it hard to believe you two aren't communicating daily on Facebook. My mail has convinced me that site's true mission is to convince former high school beaus that they should chuck their current relationships or marriages and pick up where they left off in the back of the their parents' station wagon. It's perfectly normal that seven years into a relationship (ever heard of "The Seven Year Itch"?) some of the excitement has gone out of it. But the excitement never went out of that old high school relationship, the pimply glory of which can be evoked by a song on the oldies station. You also primed yourself for longing for what was by your illicit kiss. The best way to deal with this is to simply recognize the cliche you've fallen into. But maybe also, you're wondering where your seven year relationship is going -- are you going to marry? Do you want to have kids? Concentrate on the good man you've built your adulthood with rather than mooning about the guy you dumped back when.


Alexandria, Va.: Help! My father, who's 75, is going through a late-midlife crisis. He's trying to recapture his youth, which would be fine, but he now wants my mother to recapture hers. She had a double mastectomy 25 years ago but never had reconstructive surgery; he's insistent that she get it now. It's a serious process that would require two bouts of general anesthesia, which is a big deal for a 70-year-old. She agreed, but backed out at the last minute after discussing it with my siblings and me and deciding it wasn't worth the risk. My father stopped speaking to her, telling her she was condemning them both to old age. She's hurt he would place brand new hooters (and he wanted her to get big ones) ahead of her safety. I love my father, but he's suffered bouts of depression and irrationality his whole life, and my mother has always coddled him. He's like a narcissistic child who never had boundaries, and until now my mother never really said no to him. He doesn't leave the house much and just sort of sits and broods and isolates himself. Now he's not speaking to my siblings and me -- he blames us for talking her out of it. My brother is getting married soon, and we doubt he'll come to the wedding. He won't get professional help on his own, and my mother refuses to insist. What, if anything, can we do?

Emily Yoffe: You all can continue to be loving and supportive of your mother, but as you describe it their dynamic is that he is a pouty baby and she coddles him. His recent demands don't sound out of character -- you say his whole life he has been an irrational, narcissist, and that your mother has enabled this. You could encourage your mother to see a therapist on her own to help her sort out her feelings about her life. Maybe a therapist will help her with some strategies to get your father to at least get a mental health evaluation. But it's going to be hard to get Dad to recognize just how appalling he is acting. The book "The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists" will help you understand your father better and to see that while you can't change him, you can decide how you respond to him.


Pittsburgh: A few weeks ago my husband and I announced that we are expecting our first child. I would imagine that the word has spread to most extended family members and family friends. My brother is getting married this weekend, and I will be seeing many of those family and friends for the first time since the big announcement. Also, I would expect that there are some of them that have not yet heard the news.

While I am, of course, appreciative of the inevitable congratulations, I don't want to take the focus off of my brother and his soon-to-be wife for their special day. Any advice on staying out of the limelight?

Emily Yoffe: Is your worry because your brother and future sister-in-law have an advanced case of My Day-ism, and you are anticipating lifelong antipathy from them over your rude and thoughtless decision to procreate during their wedding season? Or do you yourself believe that brides are entitled to be divas and you know you would have been angry at the temerity of a another relative showing up at your wedding with exciting news? In either case, what you do is accept everyone's good wishes as you would at any family gathering. You already know you shouldn't hog the spotlight, but neither do you have to hide your bushel under a bushel.


excluding sister: If she's on a "one-week respite from Iraq" presumably the last thing she needs is more stress in her life, which repairing an estrangement would constitute. She may be in the wrong, but this seems like the absolutely wrong time to raise the issue.

Emily Yoffe: Okay, good point. But she's not saying, "Sorry, I just can't deal with your or our relationship now. We'll talk when my tour is over," she's hanging up. And with their mother in Iraq, it probably would be nice for her sons to have an aunt in their life. I don't think writing a loving letter that the sister can think about can hurt.


Hodge, Mo.: Dear Prudie -

I'm in a sort of awkward situation with my wife of a year. We work together (she is also my boss) at a tiny company that she has owned for longer than we have been together. She is sensitive, smart and wonderful, and I love her very much. A few weeks ago, I walked in on her business partner (whom she trusts a great deal), and the other woman who works in the office making fun of her in a truly mean way, though they didn't realize that I was within earshot. Not only is one of them her business partner, but also someone she considers a friend. Do I tell her she's being deceived? Or just clam up and pretend I know nothing?

-Hiding in Hodge

Emily Yoffe: It really depends on the nature of what you heard. If it was a mean imitation for example that was more along the lines of blowing off steam than undermining your wife, you should probably let it go. Everyone does something like this from time to time(although one owner should not do it with a subordinate about another owner). But you should continue to keep your ears often. However if what was said was something that makes you doubt the actual good will of your wife's partner, then you should tell her.


Platte City, Mo.: Dear Prudie,

My boyfriend of 6 months tends to be a little on the perverted side at certain times of the night. Even on the phone or on MSN. I am not really comfortable with his pervertedness but don't have the heart to tell him to stop when it gets out of hand. Is there anyway I can stop him without hurting his feelings or making him feel rejected?

Emily Yoffe: You could try saying, "Honey, please stop being a sexual deviant." On second thought, you need to clarify what you mean by "pervert". If he tells you his fantasies about little girls, you surely want to make him your ex boyfriend. But if he just likes to talk explicitly to you in settings that make you uncomfortable, you need to explain that just makes you uncomfortable. Maybe the "perverted" talk is okay with you in the bedroom, but not on the phone. The key is being able to talk about how you want to talk to each other.


re: Iraq sister: While I think sending a letter is a good idea, please, please, please wait until she returns home for good from her tour. Getting an emotional plea of this sort could really take her focus off her job - which is likely tied to her safety and the safety of others. It's just not a good idea to try to open up old wounds (even to heal them) while someone is deployed.

Emily Yoffe: Good point. She can write the letter now to help her deal with her feelings, then hold it until the sister is back for good.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Dear Prudie,

I'm a single, female, late twenty-something that is currently completing graduate school and hopes to eventually teach at a university. I am proud of my accomplishments, but I have met people (friends of friends, possible dates, etc.) that have responded to my answer of what I'm doing in life with a snarlish, "Wish I could've gone to college -- but mommy and daddy couldn't afford to foot the bill."

They're wrong though -- I put myself through all of my schooling through scholarships, multiple jobs, and internships. My parents have never paid for my schooling. I find it hurtful that people assume I'm a rich snob that is buying her way through college. What can I say to these people? Should I say anything? Am I being too sensitive?


The (soon-to-be) Blue-Collared Doc.

Emily Yoffe: "My mommy and daddy couldn't afford it either. I put myself through school."


He's not just a narcissist: Sounds like dementia to demand a 70-year-old woman get big hooters.

Emily Yoffe: No, he could just be an old narcissist.


"Still, a part of me thinks we were meant to be": I wish we could get rid of this pernicious myth once and for all. "Meant to be" is so often an excuse for behaving badly or selfishly.

Emily Yoffe: Great point. Let's toss it on the same heap we toss "closure".


Chicago: I'm looking for an objective opinion on a delicate situation. Almost 2 years ago, my sister lost a pregnancy in her second trimester. It was devastating for everyone, but she and her husband had a second, successful pregnancy and now have a 7 month old girl. The problem is, she still talks -a lot- about the child from the first pregnancy, and even signs his name to birthday and holiday cards. She is always quick to point out that she is the mother of two children, which is very unsettling -- especially to many young cousins who are too little to understand the situation. I've thought about talking to my sister and asking her -- at least -- to stop using the child's name on birthday cards and presents, and also to express concern about how this behavior might eventually impact her daughter, but I'm not sure how to broach the subject. Should I keep my mouth shut?

Emily Yoffe: Yes you should very delicately talk to your sister. It's terrible she miscarried late in the pregnancy, but she sounds truly stuck, and it is deeply disturbing for her to sign cards with the name of a baby that died before it was even viable. Do not tell her to stop talking about herself as the mother of two or suggest she's going to mess up her new baby. Just say you're concerned she's still feeling grief over her miscarriage. Before you talk to her find some support groups for women who have miscarried, then you can suggest she might be helped by talking out her feelings with others who have gone through this.


San Bernardino, Calif.: Help!!!! read my daughter's text and she and her boyfriends are "touching" each other. No sex YET, but I am sure they are thinking about it...she is only 15. How do I talk to her and make her understand that is not a good idea, she is too young for sex.


Emily Yoffe: If you haven't been talking to her all along in her life about what she's doing, and about her feelings and relationships, it's hard to start now by saying, "I read your texts, and first and second base are fine, but NO HOME RUNS!" Instead of seeing this as you telling her not to have sex (ask Sarah Palin how well that works), see this as the opportunity to talk to her about her life, and to discuss actions and their consequences.


New York: My boss' sister recently died and she is incredibly broken up about it (understandably). Less understandable is the fact that my boss is keeping tabs on who has sent what in the way of condolences - even though she's away dealing with the funeral she has been going over the list with her assistant, who, of course, tells some of us in the office. My boss' comments range from "I can't believe Mary only sent that tiny bouquet" to "I've known Dan for years and he doesn't even bother to acknowledge my loss?" My boss and I are not close, and I actually report to two other supervisors more often than to her, but she is known to hold personal grudges for a long time, and so I now feel obligated to "send something." Factor in the info from her assistant, I'm inclined to go for something bigger rather than smaller, to avoid her sullen attitude later. My partner and I got into one of those silly fights that couples have about this: his argument was that she's being a pill about the whole thing and a card should suffice, but I'm really worried that this could have a negative impact on my work life. What do you think, card or giant bouquet of whatever flower means "sorry for your loss?"

Emily Yoffe: Sorry for her loss, and sorry she's your boss. Send a note of condolence and then make a contribution in your boss's sister's name to some appropriate charity (your contribution can be $10). Make sure it's a charity that sends a notification that a gift has been made in honor of a loved one.


Albuquerque, N.M.: Dear Prudence,

My husband is retired, while I still work; we've been married for nearly twenty-five years. Now that times are lean, he wants to sell a bunch of old gold odds-and-ends jewelry that we've accumulated throughout the years. He has several pounds of "stuff' in a lock-box that his late father gave him; it had belonged to his grandparents and great-aunt, presumably, but he has no real idea who it belonged to, and it has no sentimental value to him. I have my grandmother's jewelry box with several really good items which have a lot of sentimental value to me, besides the monetary value. The problem: instead of selling HIS stuff, he wants ME to sell my mother's, grandmothers', and great-grandmother's jewelry, which I wanted to pass down to my daughters and granddaughters. He has much more than I do, and it means very little to him, but he somehow thinks we should sell the little bit I have that means something to me, while he hangs onto his more valuable, more plentiful, and meaningless cache. I think maybe deep down he doesn't want my kids to benefit, also, since they don't get along with him, and they avoid their stepfather when they can. I'm thinking of just giving my kids their grandmothers' jewels and letting him do what he wants with his stockpile. This will cause problems with this man, however, and I have to live with him for now. What are your thoughts on this?

Midas's Wife

Emily Yoffe: No wonder your kids don't get along with him -- he sounds like a controlling jerk. Yes, you decided to live with him, but you don't have to be held up at gunpoint by him and turn over your valuables. Sure, give the jewelry to your kids now before he gets them to the smelter -- which from the tone you take about him may be where this marriage is headed.


Los Angeles: Dear Prudie -- I think I'm asking one of the classic questions in reverse... is there anything I can do to get my dad to call -me-? My dad and I are very close, but the only way we talk is if I call him. He is retired, lives alone, and has time to call me. Whenever I've asked him to pick up the phone occasionally (I ask less than once a year), he says he will, but also that he doesn't want to bother me. I respond, "If I'm busy, I won't answer. So don't worry about it." I know some people would be thrilled not to be hounded by parents' calls, but I sometimes resent that he doesn't call me. I'm an only child, so already feel a lot of responsibility for him, and think sole caller is one responsibility too many. (For what it's worth, my husband's parents also rarely call, citing the same concern about bothering us. But they LOVE when we call. What is up with this?) Thank you for any advice you can offer!

Emily Yoffe: For whatever reason you two have parents with phone phobia. As you acknowledge, that is far preferable to having parents who are phoneophiles. So just accept you are the one who has to dial. Calling him takes a couple of seconds -- then you're connected and all is well. Yes, you would love the demonstration that he's thinking of you, but just accept that calling isn't his style.


Seattle: I live in another part of the country than my family, and so my visits are infrequent. Recently, my mother came to visit me and I was saddened by the changes in her personality since the last visit. While previously a career woman who took pride in her appearance, she has (in her 60's) gained a tremendous amount of weight, now has poor dental hygiene, and appears to be suffering some hearing loss for which she will not go to a doctor. Additionally, she has developed a habit of incoherent, endless rambling (to anyone nearby). Our family has a strong tendency for Alzheimer's and one of my friends suggested that my mom might benefit from testing, but how do I approach this subject with my mom, when even my attempts to get her to go to a doctor for her hearing are belligerently refused?

Emily Yoffe: You must get her to go, even if it means flying across the country to make an appointment and accompany her to it. Something alarming has happened to your mother, and she needs a full physical and mental evaluation. Surely you can enlist other family members to help you with this task. If your mother has Alzheimer's a treatment and supervision program needs to be put in place before she endangers herself. Your mother may not even be competent to take care of her own affairs. You need to find that out right away, and also intervene to get her the kind of help that will preserve her functioning as long as possible


Washington, D.C.: Emily, Some of these situations have to made up, right? I mean, damn.

Emily Yoffe: Real life is more amazing than we can even imagine.

Thanks everyone -- talk to you next week!


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