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Slate: Advice from 'Dear Prudence'
Dysfunctional Families, Sad Birthdays and Boorish Bachelor Parties

Emily Yoffe
Slate Advice Columnist
Monday, October 5, 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, was online Monday, Oct. 5 to take your questions on manners, morals and more.

You may also read previous Live Q&As with Prudie.

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

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Kansas City, Mo.: My sister and I (both in our 50s) bought a house together two years ago so we could share caregiving for our 80-year-old mother. I stipulated that I wouldn't permit my sister's ex-husband to visit the house - he's a lifelong alcoholic, has verbally, mentally and sexually abused my sister, made sexual advances to both my mother and my other sister, and despises me because I don't take any guff from him. My sister still loves him, still refers to him as her husband (they were divorced 22 years ago), talks to him on the phone every week, and is astonished when the rest of our family refuses to invite Ex to family dinners/holidays. (Yes, I think she desperately needs counseling, but whether she ever gets it or not, I'll still love her.) However, she agreed that Ex would be barred from the house. Sis has two adult sons; the younger one has a restraining order to keep Ex away from his home. My older nephew and his wife also refuse to have Ex at their home. They recently had their first child, and made it very clear to Sis and I that they don't want Ex around their baby. Sis, oblivious as always, invited Ex to the hospital to await the baby's birth - nephew and wife were livid, but chose not to make a scene, and weren't brave enough to confront Sis about it. Here's the problem: Sis and I volunteered to provide free babysitting on the weekends. Sis just told me that she invited Ex over this weekend to see the baby, because "he hasn't seen her since she was born." I seriously doubt she's cleared this with my nephew and his wife. I realize I'll have to have yet another conversation with her about Mom and I not wanting Ex in the house for our own reasons. But should I warn my nephew and his wife about the invitation? It's up to them to set the boundaries with Sis and Ex, and I can't interfere with that. But they're trusting me with their infant daughter, too, and I don't think Ex should be here unless they say it's OK.

Emily Yoffe: Letters like yours make me think that "family" is overrated as a way to organize society. I will not raise the obvious issue of why you would live with someone who likes to bring an abusive sexual deviant around so you can have the conversation about why you don't want him around on an endless loop. That said, yes, you must tell your nephew and his wife about the invitation -- they are entitled to know their mother is violating their explicit instructions about caring for their daughter.

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Chicago: Prudence,

I'm an attractive (not to sound narcissistic, but you'll understand as I continue) 26-year-old female and have been dating my boyfriend for 5 years. He never, EVER, tells me that I'm attractive. Not in bed, not when we're at weddings, not when we go out on dates. I have talked to him endlessly about it, and he says he thinks it but he just can't say it. Sometimes he'll try and it's pretty obvious that he's only doing it so he doesn't get yelled at later, but then he'll stop until I have to remind him again. I need to be told that I'm attractive, not because I have low self-esteem, but because it makes me MORE attracted to him. I'm at the point where I don't want to do anything in bed with him because he doesn't make me feel sexy. Plus it does hurt when I hear him talk about other attractive people (actresses, people we know, random strangers on the street...). He also doesn't do the cute things guys do, like send me a cute note about how much he loves me, or get me flowers when I'm having a bad day...Fine, I watch too many rom-coms, but still, he doesn't do anything out of the ordinary to make me feel special. He seems to be happy with doing pretty much nothing and watch a lot of football. I love him, but I don't know what to do, is this something I should accept as his personality and I'm just overreacting, or just a byproduct of being in a long relationship, or is this a relationship deal-breaker and I need to get out?

Emily Yoffe: This sounds like a great relationship! You are constantly yelling at him to tell you how attractive you are, he is constantly zoning out of the relationship to watch sports. You are constantly expecting he'll snap to it like Matthew McConaughey in the final reel. He is constantly disappointing you. Also you don't like to have sex with him anymore. All this isn't the description of a long relationship. It's the description of a long, lousy relationship. You both sound like you need to move on, but I'm not sure you've each extracted the lessons from this one you should have to make the next one better.

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NY: An old college friend of mine calls frequently to agonize over problems I would kill to have. Some recent examples: On her luxury vacation to Bali, should she stay at the resort on the beach, or the inland one with the great spa? When she takes six months off next year to write her memoirs, should she do it from her home, or go stay at a writer's retreat? Should she get a personal chef, or is the personal trainer enough?

Her wealth is family money -- she's spent the nine years that I've known her as a part-time grad student and has never held down a full-time job.

She is a sweet, caring friend. But my jealousy (combined with irritation over her lack of self awareness) is making it really hard for me to interact with her. I haven't returned her calls in two weeks.

I don't want to end this friendship, but I also don't want to spend 70% of it resenting her good fortune. Help.

Emily Yoffe: She is a sweet, caring, spoiled, and oblivious friend. Traits that weren't so grating in college, grate more now, and you are free to move her to a more peripheral friendship status. As for the problems she presents you with, just be more blunt. "Cynthia, it's wonderful that you have the financial comfort to have to wrestle with such issues as whether you need your own chef, but I'm afraid this is the kind of dilemma for which I have no insight." But with problems like this, I'm sure her memoir will be gripping. What's the title, "Trust Fund Baby"?

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birthday girl!: Dear Prudie,

It's my birthday and I'm feeling down. Any tips?

Thank you!

Emily Yoffe: Happy Birthday. However, once you're past the stage in life in which your parents plan a birthday party for you, you learn it's up to you to decide what your birthday will be like, and how much weight you want to put on it. So, call a friend and see if he or she can join you for dinner. If not, take yourself to a movie, splurge on a massage, or, especially since you are feeling down, get some exercise -- take a long walk in a lovely part of town and be grateful you are alive and healthy on such a beautiful day.

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Rockville Md.: 4 years ago my nephew graduated high school. Nobody invited me to the graduation party (in California) and when this became apparent, my SIL called and simply stated "of course you're invited" -- when I asked the date and time she said she didn't know. We've never spoken since then. Now my nephew is graduating college. My aunt told me she made plane reservations. My nephew has never learned manners or to build a relationship -- he occasionally answers my emails but never initiates and probably won't think to invite me. I love him, regardless, and always strive to be a supportive relative (my brother passed when my nephew was 13). Should I just send my nephew a card sometime this spring? Call him and tell him he needs to invite me if he wants me there? Ignore the whole situation? I could care less about seeing SIL. I've tried to be her friend; I've tried to be a civil relative. Neither works. Thanks!

Emily Yoffe: Again, I'm wondering about why we keep flogging the idea of having families. I'm afraid it sounds like there's a lot more to this story than you're saying here. That's bizarre about the high school graduation -- but even more bizarre is that you haven't spoken to her in the four years since. And from the tone you strike here, I'm betting you have the capacity to give offense without even being aware of it. Think about it -- he's just started his senior year, and you're already working up a head of steam about not being invited to his graduation in the spring. However, your nephew is an adult now, so continue to try to build a separate relationship with him. Forget about the party and just try to find out about his life and plans. It sounds as if it would be a good idea not to expect much in return, however

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Stop the squeaking!: My upstairs neighbors have a very loud bed. I don't just mean what it sounds like I'm talking about- I'm woken up every time they roll over or sit on it. And it's bizarrely loud and earplugs don't drown it out. Is there any tactful way to deal with the situation? It's not quite loud enough to call the cops and I doubt apartment management would want to deal with it either. But I can't help but think that if I went up there and told them their bed is extremely loud, they'd tell me to go to hell for wanting them to get a new bed. At least, if someone said that to me, I probably would.

Emily Yoffe: If you know the neighbors, you could approach them and in a very abashed way say you have one of those sticky problems that arises from apartment living. Explain that though they may not hear it (but how couldn't they?) the springs of their mattress squeak all night right over your head. Say it's so loud that even earplugs don't help. Explain you know a new mattress is a big expense, but perhaps there's some fix they can make because the sleep deprivation is getting to you. If you don't know them, you could knock on the door, bring a bottle of wine to introduce yourself, then similarly explain your problem. And you need to think about why someone politely bringing up a legitimate complaint would make you want to tell that person to go to hell.

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Bachelor party: Boyfriend went off to bachelor party this weekend and there were strippers and a lap dance and some pretty boorish behavior on the part of others. He was forthcoming about what went on and I took it all in. He's also aware (at least now) that I find that sort of bachelor party behavior distasteful. We didn't argue, but we talked about it a lot. He understands my view, but says it's a "guy" thing. Not that he's going to go out and do this regularly, but he will probably go with the crowd next time a bachelor party invitation arrives. I love and trust him, but this sort of activity leaves me most unsettled. Is this worth fretting over?

Emily Yoffe: I suppose you could be grateful that your boyfriend didn't come home missing a front tooth (a la "The Hangover"), or that someone in the the group didn't accidentally kill one of the lap dancers (a la the underrated "Very Bad Things"). I share your distaste for the world of strippers and lap dancers. (Yeah, yeah, I know I'm a woman, but I also think that unless a porn habit is obsessive, most women should just ignore it if their husband or boyfriend looks at porn occasionally.) However, your boyfriend told you what went on, he's obviously somewhat uncomfortable with it, but doesn't want to remove himself from the group. It's certainly not worth fretting over or making demands about if this is simply something he does with his pals at bachelor parties.

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Tucson, Ariz.: I'm 35 and two months ago began dating a 24-year-old. Things are great when we're together - time flies for us both. Trouble is, when we're not together it is often very difficult to arrange time with her. I'm lucky if I see her once per week. She sounds genuinely enthusiastic about getting together but then has/makes other commitments, work & social, that can get in the way all week. Last week I was offered early Saturday dinner before she had to have drinks with her roomie. (I declined & told her to have a good time.) This is mixed in with enthusiastic planning of future dates, discussions of family and friends, and so on. I can't decide whether this is just a shy 24-year-old's way of getting a handle on her 35-year-old love interest or there's a more serious problem I'm missing. Can you shed some light?

Emily Yoffe: Sounds like you're at different stage in life. She's getting a kick out of dating an older man, and you may be an interesting part of her rotation. But you're tired of the rotation, and she's making you dizzy. Since it's only been two months, it's hardly time for a talk about 'Where this is all going'. Sounds as if you should continue dating others, maybe some women closer to your own age who aren't sending such confusing signals.

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Anywhere, U.S.A.: Dear Prudie,

I need some perspective here. My husband just got word that his time at his current employer may be running out--he could be let go in a matter of weeks. He's already had feelers out for new jobs in his field, and he seems optimistic about getting something else fairly quickly. Failing that, we can squeak by on my salary for a while, provided we cut way back on non-essentials.

However, I'm feeling waves of panic at the thought of him being unemployed, especially since I'm two months pregnant. There have been layoffs at my employer too, although no one in my department seems especially concerned. I don't want to talk to family or friends about this until we have a plan--I don't need to worry about my mom freaking out on top of everything else. But in the meantime, what can I do to be supportive and upbeat for my husband and keep myself from having a nervous breakdown at the same time?

Emily Yoffe: Sadly, you are right you could be anywhere -- and everywhere. I completely understand your sense of panic, especially since it is heightened by the roiling your body is going through due to your pregnancy. Of course this is a terrible time to feel insecure. But keep in mind your husband hasn't lost his job yet, he's on top of searching for work, and he's optimistic about his prospects. When you feel the panic start to rise, just remember he is doing everything he can. You've thought through the contingencies, and they're survivable. Then examine your panic. Your anxiety doing nothing except making you miserable, and flooding your little one with stress hormones (I am not saying this to make you more panicked!). Think of it this way -- it is your job to calm yourself down now. If that means plugging in soothing music when the worries start, or taking a walk, or writing down a list of all the things that are going right, then force yourself to do that. The anxiety is serving no purpose, and you will feel better about everything once you accept that the thing you can control best is how you react to events you can't necessarily control.

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Birthday blues: I think every child should have birthday parties. There should be cake, balloons and loving attendance. It seems a nice thing to show a child that his/her birth is a special thing to this world. I worry, however, about adults who still attach importance to the trappings of a birthday. Get over it. Other people are not living their lives to celebrate you. Celebrate yourself. Throw yourself a party or, better yet, find a way to donate a "party" to a homeless shelter or local kindergarten or ASPCA. Try to think of your birthday as less honoring you than you honoring the world you live in with others.

Emily Yoffe: Great idea about celebrating your birthday by making it mean something to people/creatures in need. And I'm one of those minority of people who doesn't really care about birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine's Day, etc. who thankfully is married to someone who feels the same.

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Anonymous: Hi Prudie,

Are friendships/relationships supposed to be a struggle to make work?

I feel like as I make my way through this world, I have to have my game face on to either fight for my place or protect myself from being taken advantage of. From the big things (school/college, work, where I live) to small things (dry cleaning, grocery store, gym) I feel like its always a struggle... And it's exhausting.

I thought I would be able to find solace in my relationships. I'm not talking about not working hard at it or just sitting around waiting for things to happen. But I feel like I have to fight to be treated as an equal or be noticed in most of my relationship. If I don't call, then no calls get returned. If I don't buy a plane ticket, then we don't see each other. When things happen, I don't get the opportunity to explain or even given the benefit of the doubt.

I feel like after struggling through life, relationships would be my safe haven. Am I just not being realistic?

Emily Yoffe: Would you want to be in a relationship with someone who was constantly on the alert for being taken advantage of at every encounter? Yeah, Larry David of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has made a successful career out of being this kind of person. But you sound like Larry David without the laughs. No, it's not supposed to be that hard. Get up tomorrow and say, "Today, I am going to assume in none of my encounters is anyone trying to take advantage of me," and see how that goes. Cognitive-based group therapy might help give you some tools for seeing where you make life more difficult than it should be.

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Munising Mich.: There's this guy that I've been friends with since my college days -- he's smart, well-educated, funny, and nice. As the years go by we've grown very close to each other. I would love to date him (and I know he'd like to date me) , but there is one problem -- he has horrible hygiene. He rarely showers or brushes his teeth, wears dirty clothes, and eats very poorly (fast food every day). I have tried bringing up the subject before but he's brushed it off. The other day he tried kissing me and I had to turn my head because his breath was so bad. Now he's hurt and not talking to me. What should I do?

Emily Yoffe: It sounds as if his not talking to you is a blessing. This guy has a colossal problem, so why in the world would you want to date someone you wouldn't want touching you because of his bacterial load? Since you've been friends for a long time, forget about romance and just tell him what you've told me. This kind of thing is sometimes a flag for mental illness. He not only needs to clean up his act, he needs to find out why he's going through life this way.

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TN: My fiancé and I are planning a wedding for next fall and I'm already fretting over a delicate family situation. My fiancé's step brother has a severe mental illness and history of drug abuse. He is in his 30's and relies completely on his mother and my future father-in-law for support. We are considering sharing a large house with the wedding party for our destination wedding. I'm certain my fiancé's father will cover the cost of the house rental. And I'm certain the step brother will want/be invited to stay in the house with us. The problem: he doesn't do anything. He's a slob, and a disaster. I really don't want him staying around my nieces or taking up a room that someone from our wedding party could use. Am I being unreasonable to request that he find another place to stay during the wedding festivities?

Emily Yoffe: Thanks for the reminder of the problems inherent in the destination wedding. There you are, trapped for days with your loved ones, including those who illnesses, behavior, and even looks mar the exquisite tableau that you envision for your perfect day. If you in-laws are renting a house for the immediate family, then no, you cannot request that your husband's step brother be told to pitch a tent on the beach because he is a mentally ill, troubled person. Because he is troubled, a few people should be told to discreetly keep an eye on him. But guess what, this guy is going to be your brother-in-law, so get used to it.

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No gifts, please: One more time... what's the 'rule' on this when you receive an invitation that indicates no gifts?

I've been invited to a low-key/modest 25th wedding anniversary - cousins.

I'm inclined to follow directions, mostly bc I don't know what to get.

Any thoughts?

Emily Yoffe: "No gifts, please" is not code for "We're registered at Tiffany." They don't want presents, they simply want your presence.

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Olney, Md.: Emily, this isn't a question, just a comment. With the two questions about bad family relationships, you appear to be down on families at the moment. My husband of 49 years & I have three grown, married daughters. They all live within an hour of us. Saturday all 6 of them were at our home. We played cards, had pizza & birthday cake, and a great time was had by all. The grandkids weren't there, but they had other plans--not a problem. My husband & I--and the kids--miss our parents a lot; we loved them very much.

I just wanted to pass on that there are some happy, functional families around.

Emily Yoffe: Thank you! It's a good reminder that people generally don't write about what's right in their lives. Your Saturday sounds great. And it makes me wonder, was Tolstoy wrong when he wrote, "All happy families are alike"?

A happy week to all. Thanks for your letters and talk to you next Monday.

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