Your Most Pressing Relationship Etiquette Questions, Answered

Real Simple’s etiquette expert, Catherine Newman, offers her best advice on your love quandaries.

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I’ve been dating my boyfriend for four years. My mother has been asking when we will get married. While my boyfriend and I are pretty sure we will at some point, we just don’t place the same importance on marriage that my mom does. Recently she has been getting pushy and even brought it up publicly. My boyfriend is at his wit’s end. How can I politely tell her to leave us alone?
—C.C.

Parents pressure kids about marriage for all kinds of reasons: because they want to imagine that their future is settled; because they want grandkids; because they want something fun to look forward to or to brag to their friends about; because they presume that marriage is the only proper path for a serious relationship. If you know your mother’s agenda, you might tailor your response to it: Reassure her that your partnership is healthy or that marriage is on the horizon; tease her gently about wanting a grandchild; encourage her to throw a big dinner party where her friends can casually meet your boyfriend. Maybe your mother imagines that she’s being subtle—and you can point out her mistake. “Mom, believe me, we know that you want us to get married. But pressuring us publicly is not going to speed things along. If anything, it’s making my boyfriend kind of nervous.” But make this last point only if you absolutely must. Surely your mother has your best interests at heart, and approaching her with compassion and understanding is preferable to emotional blackmail. Reassure her of your happiness and encourage patience—in her and your boyfriend both.

Is it rude to ask my husband to shower or brush his teeth before sex? I’ve been married a long time, and I love him unconditionally. But these little things still make a difference for me, even if the request kills the mood a tiny bit. Should I just get over it?
—S.P.

In the heady first days of a sexual relationship, all those natural love drugs—happy neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin—let you smell the world through rose-scented glasses, so to speak. But this changes over time unfortunately (your unconditional love notwithstanding), and morning breath just starts to smell like…morning breath. So try this: Don’t nag your beloved or suggest that he stinks. Instead, muster good sexual courtesy by spinning your desire into something steamy: “Let’s take a shower together first,” you can suggest, popping a Tic Tac in each of your mouths. If you frame the request more as playful foreplay than hygienic drudgery, he will surely feel more excited than repulsed. And as my own husband just pointed out, reading over my shoulder: “If it’s shower or no sex, he’s definitely going to want to shower.”

A close friend has a long history of dating a guy, falling in love with him, and then getting her heart broken. I have tried to be a good friend by listening to the ups and downs of each relationship, but I am exhausted. Each one is invariably the best guy she’s ever dated. And things always end badly, and I am sad for her. But I’m also frustrated. I think she uses men for her emotional needs and doesn’t always behave wisely, and I don’t feel as if I can help her use better judgment. How do I set boundaries for myself and get a break from this emotional roller coaster?
—C.O.

A friend of mine who’s a therapist likes to say simply, when I’m waffling about some issue that she’s heard me waffle about a million times before, “This is not new information.” It helps me notice that I’m repeating an old pattern and (though she doesn’t say it) that I’m boring her. One way or another, you’re going to have to clue in your friend that this is an ugly pattern and set some limits, because while you’re a wonderful and supportive friend, you also risk being an enabler: someone who makes it possible for your friend to keep pursuing an unhealthy habit. What you say depends on how you feel about the friendship. Is it an otherwise healthy one, with this troubling dynamic as only one element of it? Point out the rut that she’s in, and say what you write here—that you feel frustrated and need a break from her romantic drama. You might also recommend that she see an actual therapist because you don’t have the skills to support her effectively. But if this is a one-way ticket to picking up her Humpty Dumpty pieces, then you might want to tell her so: “I love you, and I know you’re having a hard time, but I need our friendship to be more balanced.” Ideally, encouraging her to manage her self-involvement will set other positive changes in motion. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll have set some important boundaries—and modeled that for her as well.

My boyfriend’s mother has suggested a few times that they (his parents) get together with my parents. I don’t think my boyfriend and I are anywhere near marriage, so it seems unnecessary and formal for our parents to meet. And my parents are not the type to get together with the parents of their child’s boyfriend. I think it would open a door of obligatory visits for them. I feel bad for not following up on her suggestion, but I also don’t want to feel pressured into the stressful task of trying to wrangle my parents into a lunch date. What is the kindest way to proceed?
—I.G.

The first time I met my husband’s father, back when we were newly dating, he threw open his big, friendly midwestern arms and said, “Welcome to the family!” My own parents, meeting this then boyfriend, extended only a cool New York hand to shake. Different families have different styles, and you are right to recognize the potential awkwardness of this meet-up. I would say as much to your boyfriend’s parents—or nearly as much. “You guys are so friendly and outgoing! Alas, this is not how my family works. Can we hold off for a while?” If it’s more comfortable, you could talk to your boyfriend about asking his parents to back off a bit, which will give you an opportunity to discuss these differing family MOs. Believe me, if you end up staying together, this will not be the last time you need to navigate them.

Do you think it’s OK for me to (very infrequently) have sex with my ex-husband? Neither of us is involved with another person. But I do think the repercussions are harder for him—he’s more attached to our history than the other way around.
—J.G.

You still have sex, and you care about each other? Your divorce sounds better than a lot of marriages I know. Still, your question intersects with a more fundamental ethical issue: Should you be the one to decide what’s in the best interest of another adult? My philosophy Ph.D. husband is inclined to say no. “Her ex is a grown-up” is how he put it. “She shouldn’t presume to protect him from himself and potentially deprive them both of something they enjoy.” But I’m not so sure. If he is longing for you or holding out hope for a reunion, then sex might be confusing. Because desire doesn’t overlap too much with reason. The line of what he knows might form an intelligent graph, but what he wants might look more like a drawing of his own heart. Try taking him out for coffee and, with everybody’s clothes on, asking him if he thinks the sex is actually a good idea. If it turns out you’re on the same page—how it feels and what it means—then go for it. But if he hesitates, it might turn out that ex-with-benefits isn’t a sustainable role.

Want to Ask Your Own Etiquette Question?
Submit your social conundrums to Catherine at realsimple.com/modernmanners. Selected letters will be featured on the website each month.