Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Sep 10, 2012

Important note to readers: We are moving the Dear Prudence chat from 1pm on Mondays to 12pm noon on Mondays, as of August 13th. Going forward, the Dear Prudence chat will begin at noon on Mondays.

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 took your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

My husband and I, newly married, recently moved to the same town in which his bachelor brother lives. My husband travels frequently on business and encouraged me to invite his brother over if I ever felt lonely. He also told his brother to "watch our for me." One night I caught his brother peering in my bedroom window. He told my husband that he thought he heard me cry out and wanted to make sure I was okay. A few weeks ago, he showed up in the middle of the night and said he wanted to make sure I was alone. The final straw came last night, when I was showering. I turned around, and there was my brother-in-law! He claimed he hadn't known I was home and my husband told him where to find our hide-a-key. The issue is that my husband believes his brother's explanations rather than my feelings that his brother's behavior crosses the line. He has asked his brother to back off "a bit." Is it reasonable for me to expect more? How can I make a case for my feelings -- that his brother is a creep-- without coming off like a harpy?

First, you need to call a locksmith and get your house re-keyed in case your brother-in-law, Norman Bates, has made a copy.  Then you need a new hidey hole for the key and you must get your husband to  agree not to tell his brother where it is.  What you describe -- the man at the window escalating to the man in the bathroom, is right out of the playbook of every slasher movie ever made.  I don't want to unduly alarm you, but frankly, I'm alarmed.  And if your husband isn't, then you are married to a dolt.  You cannot wait until you are actually crying out, "No, Norman, no!" Sit your husband down and say it's possible that since he's a man, he doesn't understand how utterly violated and vulnerable a woman would  feel by his brother's behavior. But he has to recognize that what is brother is doing is terrifying you. If he doesn't immediately tell his brother that he's been wildly out of line and should only be coming over if he has an invitation, then I'm sorry to say that you should pack and get yourself a living situation in which there is no one unexpectedly greeting you as you step out of the shower.

Dear Prudence: I had a fling with an acquaintance many years ago. She became pregnant, didn't tell me, and I only recently found out I have an 8 y/o daughter. Her mother is married and my daughter thinks he is her biological father. I can't begin to describe how angry and devastated I am for missing out on my own child's entire life to date. I want to get to know her and establish a father-daughter relationship over time, but my family seems to think this would be cruel and traumatic. They all say that the little girl is happy with the only father she knows, and it would be selfish of me to disturb that knowledge. I've been doing some research and I can definitely pursue my paternal rights for visitation. The mother knows this as well, and has begged me not to. I want to do what's best for my daughter but I also want that to be having me in her life. Is it wrong to now step in and claim my role as a father?

I appreciate this letter because I have so often heard from the people on the other side of the equation. That is, from women who have had affairs and have children fathered by men other than the person they're married to, men who have been held out as the  biological father.  Yours is the strongest possible argument for why keeping the secret is so potentially dangerous. How much better it would be for a  child to know from her earliest years about her origins so that a stranger bearing DNA doesn't unexpectedly show up and blow up her world. I think you should have another private conversation with the mother, and maybe even father (although I'll not it's not clear here whether he knows he's not the father) which you try to make as absolutely non-threatening as possible. Ask her, or them,  to try to understand this from your perspective -- you have a child who you want to know.  You can say that while you do have legal recourse to be part of her life, of course it would be best for everyone if your daughter was told the truth freely and you have not made any decision about pursuing legal action.  Then let her and her husband think about it.  If they refuse, then frankly, although I am generally in favor of the truth, I'm going to have to agree with your family and say that at least for now, you should back off. You know your arrival, particularly announced on legal letterhead is going to be traumatic for a child who is happy and probably doesn't want to get to know you.  Sometimes there are situations with no perfect resolution that inevitably cause pain, and this is one.

Dear Prudence, My husband is  a wonderful man -- we have been married for three decades now and have been together since we were high school sweethearts at the age of sixteen. He's hardworking and generous, and spends much of his time caring for his ailing aunt. But not long ago he decided to start carrying a purse. (a very feminine looking and expensive Coach purse!) He says it's so much more convenient than trying to stuff everything he has to carry on him into his pockets. And there are a number of things he has to have on him at all times, like his inhaler for his asthma,  some medications, and blood testing kit (he's also diabetic) in addition to the everyday things like his keys, cell phone and wallet. I wouldn't care about the purse (I actually agree that it's much more convenient) except for all the strange looks we get. We live in an area that isn't exactly known for its tolerant people, and while I'm more than confident that my husband is definitely not gay, I'm afraid that, judging from the icy glares directed at us, a lot of people get the wrong idea. How can I convince my husband to put his purse away for good?

Forget other people and their "wrong ideas," you need to think about your husband's fashion choice and why it's bothering you.  There are endless bags he could carry -- from backpacks to briefcase-style -- that would serve the same purpose for him.  Surely he knows he is carrying a purse, and he wants to carry one, despite the glares.  So you two needs to have a frank talk about why.  If he sincerely says he was just looking for something roomy enough for all his stuff and this was on sale, you can say you know it says something about you and your perception of gender roles, but you wish he'd carry something more neutral and you'd be happy to shop for that with him.  If he says the purse makes him happy in a way no backpack could, then after 30 years he owes you a more thorough conversation about why.

I'm dating a wonderful man who I love very much. Our relationship is loving, fun, comfortable, and full of trust, and we've started discussing marriage. I was very happy in the relationship until about six months ago, when we befriended another couple, Jen and Mark. Like us, they are in their late 20s and have been together for four years or so. But their relationship is like a fairytale romance. They gaze adoringly into each other's eyes and it's like no one else in the world exists. From what Jen's told me, their sex life is incredible. They finish each other's sentences. The connection between them is almost tangible. I've never seen a couple like them... it's like something out of a movie. I love my boyfriend immensely, but when I'm around Jen and Mark, our relationship seems inadequate by comparison. Should I endure the pain of breaking up with my boyfriend in order to seek out my own Prince Charming, or learn to appriciate what I already have? -- Damsel in Distress

I'm struck that to you Jen and Mark sound like a fairy tale because to me they sound like kind of a nightmare.  If my husband were finishing all my sentences I'd be saying a lot, "Do you mind if I complete my own though?" And if he was staring at my face all the time, I'd assume he was trying to signal me that I have spinach in my teeth.  You are young, but surely you recognize that Jen and Mark are outliers. Their behavior is what you see when people first fall in love, the kind of goofy madness depicted  in Shakespeare's romantic comedies.  Fortunately for people's ability to get their work done, and not to have their friends rolling their eyes at their mind-meld, this kind of singular focus tends to wear off. That doesn't mean people can't remain madly in love for years and decades. It doesn't mean a sexual connection has to wane.  But recognizing there are very few Jens and Marks does mean that you don't have to engage in your own insanity by dumping a wonderful man who makes you happy in order to search for some romance novel fantasy of a guy who will think of nothing but you. Surely if you found one after a while his behavior would prompt you to say, "Can you get a hobby that doesn't involve gazing at me?"

Dear Prudie, I live in a two bedroom house at a popular tourist location. I frequently receive requests to stay in the spare bedroom from my family and friends. I don't mind so much those with whom I am close. But I feel annoyed by the constant stream of emails from former classmates I haven't spoken to in years, or friends of friends I've never met who were told "Jean has a guest room - you should ask if you can stay there!" Since when did it become acceptable to invite yourself to stay for several days in the house of someone you don't know well? Is this not a major breach of etiquette? -Signed, My home is not a hotel

It hasn't become acceptable, techology has just made it easier to track people you used to know. Have a list of nearby hotels and motels and when you hear from people who you once sat next to for algebra, write back to them, "I hope you have fun while you're in town. I'm unable to put you up, but he's a list of good places for you to book a room."

Actually, if the child was born during the marriage of the mother and the non-bio father, the bio father may have no rights at all. Each state is different - but in Virginia, a non-parent cannot claim parental rights when a married couple had a child during that marriage. The husband is presumptively the father, and only the husband or the wife can contest that - not an outsider to the marraige (EVEN if he is the bio father!) If the child was born before the marriage, the bio father may have rights. But that depends on what evidence he has that he is actually the bio father.

Thanks for this update, which indicates the letter writer needs to clarify his legal understanding. Yes, we are missing crucial information as to whether this child is the result of an affair during the marriage and whether the husband even knows his paternity is in dispute.  If the wife was married, unless she and her husband were sexually estranged, there's a question as to whether the letter writer can even be sure he is the biological father.

My oldest niece is a twin, but she doesn't know it. Her twin sister died when they were eight months old. Immediately my sister and her husband erased their deceased child's existence from the planet and demanded that our family do the same. Now my niece is fifteen, and I think she might know about her twin sister. She has begun to ask me how many siblings she has, and she asks if I'm lying when I tell her two (her younger brothers). She asks why there are so few pictures of her from when she was younger than eight months. Given that she has access to the internet and a sea of people who know about her twin, it's likely that she's learned some basic information but doesn't know how to ask for more. When I broach the topic with my sister and her husband, they insist this is the way they want to do things. I feel trapped in this unraveling lie. What should I do?

How misguided these parents have been to deny the existence of their late child and to keep the truth from their daughter. I understand they must have been in agony at their loss, but pretending their child was never born was the wrong way to try to mitigate everyone's pain. You should go back to your sister and say that the questions her daughter is asking you are strongly indicative that she knows, or suspects, the truth.  That she had a twin is a discoverable fact, and it would so much better if this fact were told her by her parents than if she dug up the records herself. Then say given the age of your niece and the questions she is asking, you wanted to tell your sister that you no longer feel comfortable being part of this deceit and if the girl keeps pressing you, you are going to tell her the truth.

Another red flag from the first poster's note, coupled with the husband's request of the brother "watching out" makes it sound like this could be some trust issue of the husband toward his wife. Could it be he's actually encouraging the brother of some level of spying to make sure nothing's going on while he's out of town (entirely unjustified either way, I'd say)

Good point, and double creep alert! This new wife needs to get some immediate clarity here and if what you suggest is what she finds, she needs to quickly get out.

Dear Prudence, My husband and I had a little girl three months ago. She's the sweetest baby ever and we are both crazy in love with her. I am currently breastfeeding and if you can imagine my life is consumed with either feeding her or pumping, so I can have enough milk for when I go to work. The problem is that my husband has a hard time disassociating my breasts from their current job (making milk), so our sex life has been rather absent lately. When I brought this up a few weeks ago he admitted that he has a hard time getting turned on because my breasts are constantly in his face feeding the baby therefore he has a hard time associating them as a sexual object. This same issue happened when I had my son five years ago --  we hardly had sex during the time I was breastfeeding, but then it was back to normal once I stopped. I personally don't see why it's such an issue and want us to be intimate. With my son I stopped breastfeeding at seven months and one of the main reasons was because of our lacking sex life. I don't want to stop that early with my daughter so I feel he should get over this strange feeling he has. Do you have any advice in this area?

It's really too bad your husband can't embrace life in all its messy mammalian abundance.  At least he is able to articulate his reason to you, and you know from experience that fortunately this is a self-limiting quirk on his part.  Another aspect of this is that once your baby starts on solid food at about six months, even if you continue breast feeding that will naturally tail off, so the lactation won't be so much in your husband's face.  I am not defending your husband or his behavior! But even if I suggested therapy, by the time you finished exploring all the issues raised you might be concluding the breast feeding anyway, and the return of your sex life would be seen as a therapeutic success. You and your husband can talk about this issue, which is great. So your husband should be able to hear  from you that while you understand his feelings, you have feelings, too, and not being a sexual person until you wean is frustrating for you.  Ask him to loosen up his hand-off policy -- kissing and cuddling should be pleasant for both of you and might lead to more intimacy. Try to have a sense of humor about this with each other -- you don't want this to lead to even greater distance just as you expanded your family.

He does not owe her a more thorough conversation about why, because even if the purse truly does make him happy that still only speaks to her discomfort about gender roles. If he had a green backpack and she wished he'd carry a blue one, if he says, "I'm fine with the green backpack," that does not mean he owes her a more thorough explanation.

If he's carrying a woman's purse because he has given himself permission to start using women's accessories, and possibly clothing, that is something a husband is obligated to discuss with his wife.  If he would be just as happy with a blue or green backpack as a purse, it is not too much to ask him to use one.

I got married four months ago and am now 13 weeks pregnant. Ever since we found out about the pregnancy, my MIL has been calling me almost nonstop. She is one of those people who could talk for hours with a brick wall. She will chatter incessantly with me occasionally muttering responses. She sends me pictures throughout the day on her cellphone - completely meaningless photos of what she's eating, wearing, a cute dog at the park, her friends and relatives, and so on. If I don't reply she'll call me and ask me what I thought. It's impossible to hang up because (1) it's so hard to get a word in and (2) if I say I have to go, she'll reply with something like, "oh yes of course, I know you're busy dear. And here I am going on about Uncle Bob's knee surgery. Did you know his insurance didn't cover that? In fact, his daughter had to...." We talk almost every day, sometimes up to three times a day, with each call lasting at least 40 minutes. I don't want to insult my husband's mother so I haven't said anything to him yet. What can I do to discourage her calls? I'm so stressed my hair is falling out and I feel panicky whenever I hear my cellphone ring.

Being able to handle someone who wants your attention non-stop will be good training for motherhood. I usually suggest with in-law problems that the grown child of the offending parent take the lead in having the discussion. So first ask your husband to intervene. He can explain that you're very busy and just don't have time for daily chats. He can add that the two of you will call once a week to give her updates.  It could be, however, that your husband is thrilled that is time talking to his mother has been diminished since she found fresh meat.  People like your mother-in-law are vampires who will suck away your time, energy -- and hair! -- if you let them.  If you're husband won't do the dirty work, then you need to tell her you'll have a weekly conversation with her, but otherwise you don't have time to talk. Then ignore her calls and do not feel guilty about not picking up.  When you do talk, after 15 minutes tell her that's it's been delightful hearing from her, but you have to go. Then hang up.

My ex-wife had an affair while I was serving overseas and became pregnant. She divorced me to be with her baby's father, but he left her and returned to his wife before the birth of their son. For reasons unknown to me, my ex-wife told her son (and I presume many other people in her life) I was his father and that I abandoned them. When her son turned eighteen, he sent me a long letter telling me about himself and insulting me for abandoning him and his mom. Since then he has sent me more letters, phoned me, and tried to get in contact with me several times a year. I am married with children of my own, and I ache for the loss this boy feels. At the same time, I do not want a relationship with him, and I don't think it's beneficial to anyone for him to continue to contact me. I have communicated with him briefly to tell him this, and I make sure to let him know he's done nothing to make me feel this way. I always stop short of telling him his mom lied to him. My wife thinks I should tell him the truth, but for some reason it feels spiteful to me. Obviously I've bungled my handling of this completely. Please let me know if you have any suggestions.

Oh the tangled web we weave when with DNA we do deceive.  I agree with your wife that this boy is owed the truth, and you should finally spit it out, preferably in a phone conversation with him.  It will hurt him to know that every parent in his life has behaved abominably, but at least he can start dealing with it.  In order to emphasize that you think he is entitled to the truth about  his origins, offer to take a DNA test.  That at least will clarify for him who has let him down.

Maybe the MIL is just a lonely woman, in which case the LW could try to show her a bit more compassion, especially since no doubt the LW and her husband will expect the MIL to be a (free) babysitter in the near future? I'm being sarcastic but I have noticed expectant mothers and brides sometimes have this "me me me" attitude, and maybe the MIL is just happy she has a preggo DIL and is trying to be her friend. How many of us would LOVE to have a friendly MIL????

I think very few  would like to have a mother-in-law so friendly that the stress of spending all your time handling her is making you go bald. The compassionate way to handle people with no boundaries is to establish some. Then even if they don't like it, they can start to understand there are rules for how to behave and the rules apply to them, too.

Please help me....my parents are super conservative religious....they converted when I was 10. I'm 15 now. I never really felt the same, but I pretend to go along, or else I'd be in a lot of trouble. Their new religion is really conservative about anything to do with sex. Well, I totally messed up. I'm a guy, and well, my mom walked into my room one night when I was masturbating. OK, I wanted to die, but she screamed and went and got my father. They were really mad, lectured me about how wrong it is, and just won't let it go. They told they pastor, and he has recommended that the send me to the country for a while. His brother has a farm, and I'd be expected to do a lot of manual labor in addition to going to school. I don't want to leave my friends, and I don't want to work on a farm, just for doing something that the health books I peeked a look at (at a friend's house) says is normal behavior. How do I get out of this!

You've let it go, and now they won't.  You should not have to be sent away because you're engaging in behavior that is totally normal.  It is so normal that parents should be more concerned if their teenage son doesn't start handling such urges himself.  I hope you have some relatives who  have not converted to this punitive religion who might be able to intervene on your behalf.  If not, I think you should go to your guidance counselor at school and explain that you are in danger of being kicked out of your home and you want to be able to continue at the school. It could be that you might be able to live with a generous friend's family until your parents develop more compassion for their own child.

Kate Atkinson's first novel," Behind the Scenes at the Museum," describes just this situation, of a twin being erased and the remaining twin eventually finding out. Might be instructive for the parents or for the aunt/uncle.

Or the niece! Giving her this novel  would be quite a way to let her in on the past.  However, I recommend giving her the clearly articulated truth.

I found out that I have a five month old grandson. His mother is not my daughter-in-law, but a woman with whom my son had a brief affair. My daughter-in-law and I have a fantastic relationship and I can't even begin to describe how furious I am with my son for hurting her. It is even more upsetting because my daughter-in-law has been unable to get pregnant for three years. My son and his wife have known since the first trimester about the baby's existence, but have decided to stay together and have nothing to do with the baby. I would really like to get to know my grandson and be a part of his life. I've talked to the mother and she said that while she's okay with being a single parent, she would love for her child to have a connection with his paternal grandmother. I know I need to be honest to my son and his wife if I were to continue my relationship with my grandson. How do I start such a difficult conversation?

I wonder how your son intends to have nothing to do with this child.  Surely he understand he's going to have to at the very least financially support his boy.  I had a letter last week from a young woman who was the out of wedlock child. She   did have a relationship with her father,  but one which was dictated by his still-angry wife.  I reiterate, if  your husband has a child by another woman your decent choices are either to divorce your husband or lovingly (to the best of your abilities) accept the child.  Grandma, you need to have an honest conversation with your son and daughter-in-law and say that while you understand the pain the birth of this child has caused,  you are concerned about an innocent child who doesn't deserve to grow up estranged from half his family.  Say you intend to be a grandmother to this boy, but you understand if they wish that you don't inform then further about this relationship.

Thanks everyone.  And if you've neglected to tell your kids who their real fathers are, re-read this chat!

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Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She 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.

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