Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jun 24, 2013

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 takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

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

Some three decades ago, I killed a man. He had broken into my home, armed, we struggled, he died. It was clearly self defense and, frankly, I have no regrets or remorse. A few months ago, my wife's brother did an idle Google search and discovered a report on the incident, which he's shared widely in the family. He's also taken to calling me "killer." Normally, I'd be amused but some friends and family have reacted quite negatively, with one breaking all ties, another telling my wife that they'd rather not have me around their children, and a couple seemingly eager to either psychoanalyze me or get the gruesome details. How do I get people to understand that I am not interested in dredging up the past and that something that happened long ago has very little bearing on who I am today? I'd happily write off the rude and the stupid but these people are important to my wife.

Apparently these friends and family would prefer that you yourself had been killed by the intruder, so they could then honor your memory as a tragic victim. I understand our country is divided over many issues, guns particularly among them, but surely even the most ardent gun control activist can recognize that when an armed intruder is in your house, Robert's Rules of Order do not apply.  Since this nonsense appears to be going on in your wife's family, I think the first line of defense should be that she  step up and defend you -- unarmed, preferably. She should say to her brother, and the others who are now giving you the cold shoulder, how disturbed she is at this dredging up of a terrible encounter from years ago and the blatant misunderstanding of what happened.  She can briefly explain you encountered a gunman in your own home, defended yourself, and of course no charges were brought. She should say she hopes everyone can be grateful you're alive and that neither of you want to discuss this incident further. When you encounter the psychoanalytic couple, just say it was a terrifying event you have no desire to relive. If after this the shunning continues, then you're well rid of these insanely judgmental people.

Dear Prudie, I have been close friends with 'Jessica' for about four years, we met in college and I have also traveled to stay with her family for vacation. Her parents separated when she was young, and she basically considers her stepfather her 'dad.' I think she has had some , but very little, sporadic contact with her real father over the years, but I don't know very much about that, and I am not entirely sure what their history is. She hasn't volunteered a whole lot of information, and I am afraid to ask. But last week, I received a Facebook message from someone who says he is her father, asking me if I am close friends with Jessica and saying that he wants to come for a surprise visit, but that he needs someone to help him plan it. Prudie, I don't know what to do! I am not even sure that she wants him to visit at all, but what if she does, and I ruin a wonderful opportunity for them to be reunited because I don't help?

Creep alert! Who know who this guy is, but if he's Jessica's father, this approach confirms that she's been better off having him out of her life. Let's assume he is the dad. If so, this is a bizarre and disturbing way to try to resume contact with his daughter. You should immediately forward this message to Jessica and get confirmation that it is her father. If it is, you should tell her that you are very uncomfortable having been contacted by him and you are leaving it up to her and her family to handle this. Don't respond to his request and block him so you don't get any more. Think about this -- you have gotten an invitation from a middle-aged stranger to get together with him and help him plan a surprise party for his estranged daughter. This guy is the definition of someone you never want to meet.

Dear Prudence, Since giving birth to my first child six months ago, I've become very uncomfortable with my sexuality. I have a wonderful partner and there is no tension in the relationship, but I now have an aversion to the idea of having sex. Besides being afraid of the physical act after the usual childbirth injuries, I keep thinking about all the sexual violence I've read or heard about in the news. If I think about sex, I want to put it out of my mind and gather up my baby and protect her. What should I do to get back to normal? -Scared of the birds and the bees

Please contact your gynecologist right away and describe what's going on with you. This sounds like it could be a post-partum depression and you want to attend to this immediately. Sometimes this disorder manifests as terror of bad things happening to your child and dwelling on all that's terrible in the world. You also need a thorough physical check up and advice post-partum sexuality and recovery from any birth trauma.  Please do this today. There is help available for you, and you should be enjoying this sweet and tender time of life, not living in dread.

My cousin is angry at my family for mourning the loss of my Mom, if you can believe that. My Mom was 75-years -old when she died and my cousin told me that it's ridiculous that anyone's sad at her passing, "it's not like she was 30 years old with three young kids." I responded by saying "Are you serious" and almost decked her (I wish I would have, but my kids were with me). I don't know why she made the comments, she barely knew my Mom. To top it off, she's contesting the will by claiming that she and my Mom were extremely close. She feels she's entitled to most of what my Mom is leaving, which is not a small amount. She never visited my mom when she was sick and the only time they were in contact was during family events (wedding, funerals, etc.). She's already told her friends (some of them are mutual) that she's expecting to retire soon (she's only 45) because of a huge inheritance. How do I deal with this person?

Restraining order? Your cousin sounds disturbed and not interacting with her at all is the best way to go. Be grateful you didn't deck her; the last thing you need is to have an assault charge against you regarding this woman. You should definitely warn the people handling your mother's estate that this loose cannon is rolling around  and may make some unsupported claims about an inheritance, just so they are ready to deal with this idiot.

Several times in the last month, my husband has gone through my closet (we each have our own) and made comments about the amount of stuff I have. He doesn't understand that many women, myself included, like to accessorize, and use different purses or shoes to match our outfit. Once, he even started putting things aside to donate! Purses are the main "problem" in his opinion, but I really don't have that many, and they are organized to my satisfaction. At least I could understand if I was taking up his space, but this is my space. He has been on an organizing binge lately, and I think my closet is in his crosshairs again. Before he gets in there again, I'd like to have a couple of ideas as to how to divert him. Even with this very annoying quirk, I love him, but this is driving me crazy. The real problem for me is the lack of respect for my space. Suggestions?

I have an idea: You could install Ssscat, a cat deterrent device, in your closet so that your husband gets the message to stay out of your space.  Of course, you'd have to remove the items you want access to during this training period. I'm finding it hard to believe this is a singular, new obsession of your husband's. It's pretty weird for a guy to start prowling his wife's closet all of a sudden and culling her accessories. You say he's been on an "organizing binge." So I'm wondering if this is a clue that your husband possibly has some OCDish issues in general. Whatever the case you need to explain to him that even when two people live together, they need to respect each other's space, objects, and privacy, and unfortunately, he is not welcome in your closet because he has violated the sanctity of your lair. If this continues, get thee to a marriage counselor because maybe it would help him to  hear from a neutral professional that it's not okay to give away your wife's purses.

My fiance and I are going to be married in March. A lot of my family has to travel to our wedding, so I've let them know already if they are invited and given formal invitations. My aunt (my mother's sister) and uncle had a very long and painful divorce. He was an alcoholic and would abuse her in front of me and my cousins as kids. It has been about seven years and I have no desire to have a relationship with my ex uncle. However, he found out about my wedding and has been pestering me and my other family members as to why he is not invited. He claims he is a changed man and I am cruel for not giving him another chance. I always have vivid and terrible memories of him. Should I give him a chance? On a side note, all of his children are invited since we are all still very close and my aunt says it's my choice (although she seemed extremely uncomfortable).

A long-divorced uncle with whom you have no relationship and of whom you only have bad memories has really not changed if he is pestering you for an invitation to a wedding that's nine months away.  If he were a jackass who was still married to your aunt, it's only under the most extreme circumstances that you wouldn't invite him.  But once someone is divorced from your relative that person no longer gets an automatic place on the invitation list. Just ask Sarah Ferguson, who had to watch the last royal wedding on the telly while her ex and her daughters attended.  Tell your ex-uncle that you're happy his life is better but the guest list is closed, then close off any further conversation.

It is not unusual to have an aversion to sex after childbirth, especially while you are breastfeeding. The sex hormones have not yet kicked back in. See your doctor of course, to rule out other problems, but this may resolve itself when you stop nursing.

It's true that one's hormones have a lot to do with this, but what this mother describes is way beyond a lack of lust. She's repelled by the idea of sex and is dwelling on how to protect her infant from future sexual assault. That state of mind needs addressing.

My grandma is in her early 80s and lives alone in a huge, dilapidated house that she grew up in. The home is not safe -- it has very steep stairs, rickety railings -- she has fallen and broken bones a few times in the past few years -- there is mold, she cannot keep it clean. Yet she refuses to move elsewhere. Family responds by traveling great distances, several times a week, to help her -- these are people with jobs, special needs kids, spouses who are terminally ill. In short, they are getting run down and exhausted and it is a huge burden on multiple families. I also worry that she will more seriously injure herself or even die because of this house and her refusal to move. I can't think of another situation where family would go to such great lengths to help someone stay in a situation that is literally harming and is likely to kill them. Do you think this is enabling? Would it be cruel to tell her that some of the assistance/the visits/etc. won't happen unless she downsizes to something safer , goes into assisted living, or moves in with a relative (at least one of her children has offered this)? We are at the end of our rope.

I love going to real estate open houses, but occasionally I see a once-valuable property that is in a state of decay and disrepair. I always wonder where the other family members were while the home -- and presumably the owner -- was falling apart. But as your case shows, it can sometimes be very difficult to help a recalcitrant old person and people back away out of misplaced love. Your grandmother may not have dementia, but clearly she is incapable of making good decisions for herself, so her loved ones have to make them for her. This could require getting power of attorney and taking over her living situation. Perhaps the house needs to be sold to help pay for her to go to a facility where she will be safe and cared for. I know many old people and their loved ones think going to a nursing home is the cruelest kind of abandonment, but a clean, well run place is so much better than a dangerous mold-filled wreck. You're not actually independent if you're falling down and requiring over-taxed family members to attend to your every need.  It is a kindness to make sure your grandmother is being well taken care of. And I hope her lesson is learned by the generation behind her as they face their own old age.

Dear Prudie - I just ended a year-long, long-distance affair. In the course of discussing our longstanding marriage problems, I told my husband about it so that we could go into marriage counseling and start from a place of honesty. Except I haven't been completely honest about the details of the affair because I don't want to hurt him further. For example, I was intimate with the other guy on nine occasions, but I told my husband there were just two. And I minimized the emotional connection and I had with the other guy and made it sound like it was meaningless, when I pretty much fell for him, in reality. I am only offering information when he asks me questions. Am I doing the right thing or should I just come completely clean?

Go to the therapist and while there come clean. It will be easier to do in a place where you are supposed to air your most difficult problems and where you have someone there to mediate for both of you.  It may be that that "place of honesty" ends your marriage. That's a possible consequence of falling in love with someone else.  Enumerating the exact amont of intercourse with the other party is not necessary -- it's bad enough that you know the precise number because obviously each time was so meaningful. But you can't tell your husband this was a brief and meaningless fling when he's entitled to know it was a long and meaningful one.

I lost my wife due to cancer on Jan 1, 2012. I understand my in-laws' situation and the loss of their daughter. Even before my wife got sick they weren't very supportive to my family because we are an interracial couple. Her parents are still old school, even though in public they accepted our marriage. After I lost my wife they asked my son (21-years-old) to take some stuff from my house, some of which belonged to my wife and other things to her aunt. I did not know about this until my son informed me three months later. I haven't had any communication with my in-laws since my wife passed away. I am not interested in seeing them anymore. I have 12-year-old daughter and I'm not interested in exposing her to them and the way they have treated us in past. Sometimes I feel it's wrong, but mostly I want to just avoid them and move on with my life.  Any suggestions on how to handle this?

They sound like lousy people who manipulated your son to violate your trust.  I understand your wanting to cut off ties, but you have to look at this from the perspective of your  daughter: What is her relationship with your in-laws and what would it mean to her to be estranged from them?  You don't elaborate on the poor ways they have treated your family. It could be they are totally irredeemable people and your daughter will be better off having them out of her life. But it could be that as lousy as they are, your daughter has a better relationship with them than you, and she would feel a grave loss at being cut off from this side of her family. Your daughter is still young, but she is old enough for you to talk about this with her. You can tell her you've  had your problems with her grandparents, but you know they love her very much and you want to make it possible for her to see them if that's what she wants.  If she does, use all your maturity to facilitate this while keeping a wide berth from them yourself.

You can't "get" a power of attorney- it must be given by the person willing to give authority to another- and that person retains the ability to withdraw the power of attorney at any time. The only way to use the law to force someone to take such action would be a declaration of incompetency by the court- which is not easy to obtain

It could be that in this case the family could hire a social worker to help explain to grandmother that the current situation is unsustainable, and that her family loves her wants to help her make decisions to keep her comfortable and safe. If grandmother would prefer to break her bones in a moldy wreck of a house, then it might be time to escalate and have the incompetency declaration made. She certainly can be told that the current situation cannot be sustained and the family will order meals on wheels and other social services to do the feeding and checking in on her, because they can only show up occasionally.

It makes me wonder if the people who cut off ties with the poster who used deadly force in self-defense also don't associate with police officers and soldiers. You'd think at a minimum they'd ask for details before cutting off contact!

Good point! If any of them are ever confronted with an armed intruder, to avoid hypocrisy they shouldn't call the police, but a therapist and a mediator.

Dear Prudie, My wife "Sue" was a heavy smoker for years but managed to quit before we moved to this area nearly 20 years ago. Sadly, she still died of lung cancer earlier this year at age 52. I think anyone who watches someone die of lung cancer would quit smoking on the spot, but I digress. Sue never wanted anyone to know her "dirty little secret," though I think the fact she was able to quit was a major accomplishment. While I promised to keep her secret, I now hear smokers say, after all, Sue died of lung cancer and she never smoked. I'd like to tell them the truth, "Actually she was a heavy smoker for many years" as a cautionary tale. On the other hahd, I realize some people who never smoked still develop lung cancer. Your thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks,.

I know your wife wanted to keep the fact that she was a former smoker a secret, and like you, I don't understand why. But surely she wouldn't want her death to be used as example by smokers that lung cancer is a random event and her death had nothing to do with their habit. I don't think it's dishonoring your late wife's memory to tell these people that unfortunately, your wife's death was  cigarette-related. I think it's fair to say you were really proud that she  quit a heavy habit years ago, but unfortunately, the damage had already been done.

My fiance and I have been renting our current house for about six months. We have taken to opening our windows now that the weather has gotten warmer. There is a multi-generational family that lives next door, which includes a year-old baby, and we can basically hear everything that goes on in their home through our windows. The problem is that we hear the caretaker, which could be the young mother or maybe another family member, constantly being cruel to the baby. She tells the baby to "shut up", calls it a crybaby and stupid, and mocks its crying. Obviously, this makes the baby cry more and it happens very frequently. I never hear any slaps or sounds of physical abuse, so I'm not sure if this would warrant a call to child protective services. We have never spoken one word to the family and they don't seem very friendly, not to mention the constant fighting that we hear amongst the adult family members, so I am not very comfortable bringing the issue up with them. Is there anything that I can do in this situation? It's awful to listen to and I really feel bad for the baby.

Please call the Child Help hotline, 800-4ACHILD, to get some advice as to how to proceed. This whole family sounds toxic, and how heartbreaking to know that a baby is being raised in such a cruel, dismissive way. The people at the hotline should be able to give you advice on what social service agencies in your area could possibly intervene and how you go about reporting this. But sadly, I'm not too optimistic that in the absence of clear physical abuse there's going to be much that will be done to break this chain.

My wife and I separated last year on amicable terms, at her request, after I confided in her that I am gay. I insisted in that I am in love with her and wanted to stay with her as well as with our two preteen daughters but she made it clear that she would not stay with a gay man. My question is how and when should I tell my daughters that I am a gay man? They deserve to hear the truth from me and not from someone else, but my wife insists that she doesn't want them to ever find out, since it would be too painful for them, since it has been too painful for her. Please help. Almost out.

It surely is going to be less painful for your daughters to find out the real reason their parents marriage ended then to wonder forever what happened and know there is some big secret that's being withheld. Ending a seemingly happy marriage is painful, and finding out your partner has a different sexual orientation from what you thought is wrenching. I hope your wife finds her way to the Straight Spouse Network; she needs to hash out what has happened to her with others who have been there. But she simply cannot demand that you keep your sexuality a secret.  Even though you are headed toward divorce, seeing a counselor to help you two get on the same page as far as your children are concerned will be a big help for all of you over the years.

Dear Prudie, My parents have frequently made bad financial decisions and they fell on bad times about a decade ago. This was around the same time when I had graduated college and got my first job and I have been supporting them ever since. I pay for their mortgage and bills and also send them extra money for expenses.  I recently found out that the property my parents own in our country of origin is worth quite a bit of money. I've encouraged my parents to sell it so they can live more comfortably, but my father is emotionally attached to the house and doesn't want to sell it. Meanwhile, I am expecting my first child soon and the upcoming expenses will make it very difficult for me to continue supporting my parents. I have tried hinting this to them but they have taken no action to sell the other property or to address my concerns about future money. I am willing to continue paying for their mortgage and bills, but I want to stop sending them anything extra. Is that reasonable of me or should I be expected to continue sending them money because I have set a pattern and enabled them to depend on me?

Enclose a note with your next payment that this is the final one. You really don't owe these bloodsuckers an explanation, but you can say that with a child -- their grandchild! -- on the way you must now look out for your own family's finances.  You can tell your parents it puts your mind at ease to know they have a valuable property that they can sell to help support them. A decade of financial blackmail is long enough and you have to start thinking long-term about putting money away for your child's college education, and your own eventual retirement so you never become this kind of vampire.

My sister got married last year, and shortly after the marriage, she divulged to me that her husband has a sex addiction that he's been hiding for years. And he had cheated on her before and after the marriage. After a few months of counseling, she told me that she was leaving him. He refused to get get more counseling and didn't seem to see how his addiction was a problem for her. But then she never left. And now she's inviting me to visit for a long weekend. Prudie, I feel uncomfortable visiting without knowing what went down. Is that selfish of me? Staying with them in their house just feels... awkward.

She confided in you, so now it's fair for you to be honest with her. You can say you aren't asking to pry into the intimacies of their marriage, but given what you were told, you're having a hard time imagining hanging out with her husband and pretending he's a good guy. Then see what she says. It could be that what your sister really needs is for your to be supportive and as unjudgmental as possible. That will also allow you to retain your ability to try to get through to her and explain that staying in this marriage is likely to bring only misery.

Thanks, everyone. I'll talk to you next week.

In This Chat
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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