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Divorce Before Dating?

Should you get that "piece of paper," plus chatty hygienists and returned gifts.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)
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I am in my mid-40s and have been separated from my husband for more than a year. We have no intention of getting back together but have not filed for divorce, as it's less expensive to keep the status quo. We have one child and share custody. I would very much like to have a man in my life and have dated a few times (only when our child is with Dad). Do I have to get divorced in order to date? I would feel comfortable dating a single, separated, or divorced man - just not a married man still living with his wife.
M.J. in Lynnfield

You'd have to get divorced in order to date me, but that's me, and I'm the wrong sex and not on the market anyway. People will have different beliefs about the importance of being officially divorced and the ethics of dating while you are still legally married. What is not negotiable, in any way, is equality and honesty. You're good on equality, obviously, as you say you wouldn't mind dating a man in the same situation. You also need to be open from the very beginning about your status. No fair springing the fact that you're married on the third date.

You are, however, going to miss out on some great guys by staying legally married. For many people, that "piece of paper" means something - if it was important for you to marry your husband, rather than simply living together, why isn't it important for you to divorce him? Even if a man has no ethical qualms about your behavior, he may well be cautious about protecting his heart. He may wonder if the fact that you are still married doesn't betray some lingering attachment and if reconciliation between you and your husband is possible. If she can't commit to a divorce, Great Guy may well ask himself, how can I expect her to commit to me?

I recently had my teeth cleaned and was held hostage in the chair for well over an hour - not by poor oral hygiene but by an extremely chatty hygienist. I knew I was in trouble when she would stop working, take off her mask, and lean back in her chair and describe in detail something I had no interest in. What do you do in a situation like that? I had hoses coming out of my mouth and couldn't even reply!
J.M. in Longmeadow

You could have started taking the hoses out of your mouth. I bet that would have gotten her attention. I wouldn't recommend this approach with a chatty operating-room nurse ("Just rip out that IV! That'll show her"), but I doubt anything horrible would happen if you pulled that tiny vacuum out of your cheek pocket. If that seemed unwise, you could have raised your hand and waved it about. The hygienist's behavior was completely inappropriate, and you had every right to stop it and ask, "Can we get back to my dental work? I'm afraid I have a schedule, and this can't take forever."

Often in medical situations we become paralyzed by the role of "patient" and forget that we have a right to speak up, to ask questions, to assert our boundaries. Or, even if we know this, it seems awfully silly to do so with hoses in one's mouth, or while wearing a johnny, or while scooching to the edge of the table. This is an attitude that should be overcome. Remember, while it may seem odd and undignified to you to be lying supine in the hygienist's chair with hoses stuck in your mouth and wraparound sunglasses protecting you from the exam light, your hygienist sees people like that all the time. That's how people look most normal to her; she probably imagines the presidential candidates that way when she watches the debates. So go right ahead and assert yourself, and don't be embarrassed.

At my lovely daughter-in-law's recent birthday party, I gave her a card with a monetary gift inside as well as a gift box of clothing. At the end of the party, she handed the clothing back to me, saying I had given her enough. I felt hurt. I was brought up always to accept any kind of gift. From now on, I'm considering giving her only gift cards and money and not wasting another ounce of time or effort on her. What do you think?
M.K. in Carver

I think you need to back off your anger and find out what's up. Her behavior seems very strange to me, but it sounds as though you've already leapt to the conclusion that she meant it to be hurtful. This isn't a helpful attitude, especially with in-laws. Instead of getting angry, why not call her and find out what was behind her actions? Approach her with honest curiosity and a desire for reconciliation: "You know, it's been bothering me ever since the party that you returned the clothes I gave you. Maybe our families handle gift giving differently, but I've never had anyone do that to me before. I'm sure you didn't mean anything negative, but I'm having a hard time processing what happened. I'm also having a hard time figuring out what to give you for Christmas! Can we talk about this?"

My Word!

The holiday season will be upon us before you know it. If the prospect of shopping dismays you, or if you've been the recipient of too many well-meant but clueless gifts in the past, why not suggest to your friends and relatives that you make charitable donations in each other's names instead? There are thousands of good causes out there - and the giver gets a tax deduction, to boot! (Thanks to the multiple readers who suggested this solution to holiday-gift dilemmas.)

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

Read Miss Conduct’s blog at boston.com/missconduct. Also, chat with her at boston.com every first and third Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m.

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