Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Aug 19, 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. I look forward to your questions.

Dear Prudie, over 20 years ago I had an affair with a married woman who became pregnant with my child. She reconciled with her husband and they raised the boy as their own. I have not had any contact with my biological son, at the husband's request. No one in my family knows I have a secret son. Two weeks ago I found out my niece (my sister's daughter) is engaged, and the groom to be is none other than my biological son! Prudie, I am livid that my son's mother and her husband did not stop this relationship in its early stages. "No Bobby, you can't date that girl because she's you're biological cousin." is all it would have taken. I contacted the woman and she swore she didn't know our son was marrying my niece since my niece has a different last name. I asked her what she planned to do to stop the wedding and she said she's doing nothing! Our son doesn't know anything and according to her, cousin marriage is harmless! Prudie, how do I bring this up with my niece and her parents? I have never had any contact with my son and I don't think I should approach him about it. He doesn't know his father is not his biological father. I don't want my niece to live in incest because of my past mistake, Please help.

This is an opportunity to repeat my frequent reassurance to fathers: Dads, a statistically significant percentage of you actually have sired the children you think are yours.  There's no reason to doubt the mother of the groom when she says she didn't realize the bride was related to you, especially if there's been no big family gathering to celebrate the impending nuptials. You think you have a simply, easy way for the mother of the groom to stop the romance by saying, "Bobby, your father is not your father, and your fiancee is  your cousin!" But if you think this through, explaining all this will entirely upend his family, and now yours, and at this late date in the wedding planning you can understand that the parents want to stick with their original plan to keep quiet about Bobby's biology. I do think that people are entitled to know their origins and keeping these secrets has the potential for blowing up, as you are now seeing. But as it stands only three people know you're the biological father of the boy, and while it may take all your willpower, I think it should remain that way. Cousin marriage is common in much of the world and I think the remaining laws against it in this country should be repealed. Yes, there is an elevated risk of passing on genetic disorders, but it absolute terms it is very small.  Two young people are in love and planning to make a life together. I think you should let that be.

Dear Prudie, I have a friend who suffered tremendous brain damage in a car accident several years ago. He went from being at the very top of his game as a professional to living in an adult foster home. Recently, he discovered Facebook, and many of his old friends. The problem is, he frequently comments on posts and some of his comments are very offensive: homophobic, racist, paranoid, etc. While those people who knew him are fine, many of my friends do not know him or his back story. It feels unkind to block him, delete his comments, or censor him, as I am told by mutual friends that Facebook is his greatest social outlet these days. But I also don't like being put in the position of not challenging racist or homophobic comments that I disagree with, that feels wrong as well. I should add that pre accident, he was none of those things. On one post, I tried a gentle/humorous reproach, but was met with some rants and argument that made the issue worse. What is the balance between compassion and not appearing to accept or condone comments that I do not accept or condone? 

What an agony to see a vibrant person so damaged.  You say that Facebook is his main social outlet, but I'm wondering if this is because he's lacking in actual social contact. It's understandable that people who knew him would feel stricken at seeing this transformation, but maybe you could organize a group of his friends to drop by a couple of times a month. If you have a big enough gang, any one of you would only see him for an hour or so every few months, but contact with people from his old life might be a great tonic for your friend. What he's doing on Facebook is a result of his brain damage. As you say, those of you who know the back story understand, but you are not obligated to keep up unacceptable rants, no matter the reason for them.  If you have to block, delete, or limit him, so be it. I'm wondering if he might find a better outlet by having a more active Facebook presence of his own. Maybe a group of old friends could agree to post on his page several times a week so that he feels part of something and has less need to comment on the pages of others.  Your friend is trapped in a hell, and can't really understand the point you might want to make about his Facebook posts.  But there are larger issues here, and good alternative ways for you to express your compassion.

My husband's friend came over to our house with his girlfriend. Since both of them ended up drinking (not drunk, but probably enough to go over the legal limit), they stayed the night at our place. The friend decided to go in for a shower and after running the water, he called his girlfriend, who followed in and showered together. Both my husband and I were in the lounge, next to the girlfriend, when this happened. I find this bizarre and rude. Whatever they decide to do in the guest bedroom is not my business but I didn't need to know they were going to shower together. My husband thinks I'm overreacting and says it's not a big deal. Who's right, me or my husband?

These people were simply concerned about your water bill! If they got some pleasurable rub-a-dub-dub in, what's it to you? If you search your memory bank maybe you will recall a time that you, too, wanted to shower with your husband. So instead of being so churlish, get inspired and tell your spouse that maybe you two should save some money  and get sudsy together.

Hi Prudence, My parents live about two hours away from my husband and me. We see them approximately once a month and I am an only child. My husband and I have been married for eight years and during this time we have been very adamant about not having children. However, very recently, we have been discussing the possibility of having a child. Here's the issue: my parents have recently decided to put their house on the market and move about 4 states away and I'm torn whether or not I should tell them that there may be a grandchild in their future. Obviously, due to unforeseen health, physical, and emotional issues, a baby may not happen and I don't want them to put their lives on hold for a possibility. Also, I don't want this to be a guilt trip and an "eleventh hour" plea to get them to stay closer because I truly want them to be happy and be in a place where they will enjoy. However, for example, if nothing is said, I think if they move in April and find out I'm pregnant in May, they may be quite hurt and feel blindsided. Should I tell them about a possibility and if so, how to do it in a tactful way?

If you have a child and know your life would be better if your parents were nearby, and so would theirs, I think this is a perfectly reasonable discussion to have.  You have to be clear you are not making a plea, and as they well know there's no guarantee that a grandchild will be produced. But if they would thrill to being close enough to help with a baby, then they might feel there was some kind of bait and switch with your previously stated non-reproduction plans. I think this is a conversation best had between you and them. You lay out here very tactfully what you want to say, so just follow that script.

My sister has recently got engaged to a man I've never met. I'm happy for her as she sounds happy. She has now asked me to be her matron of honor and with my understanding of the responsibilities, I feel I cannot properly fill the duties. When I was getting married, she showed up hungover to my shower, cancelled my bachelorette party the day of as "she had to work", only to find out she went to be with her boyfriend, and purposely told me a later time for a bridesmaid dress appointment so she had her dress picked out by the time I got there. I know its silly to hold a grudge and yet when we spoke about it, she said we are not close and she had no interest meeting my halfway in making an effort in our relationship. Now she has asked me to stand up in her wedding and I feel like I cannot perform the duties, give a speech about a man I don't know and all that being in a bridal party entails. Can I nicely explain to her that I appreciate the gesture but cannot fulfill this role in her wedding?

In this case your sister's inconsiderateness turns out to be considerate. When you talked to her about feeling abandoned  during your wedding preparations she stated she had no interest in nurturing your relationship. That's pretty much a "Get Out of The Wedding Free" card.  Before you say no, however,  look into your heart and at your past with your sister. If stepping up for her now would be a healing thing, then consider doing it, but go in with clear guidelines about the time and money you will be able to expend. If you know that agreeing will only mean manipulation and unpleasantness, then decline. If you don't accept the honor, make sure it doesn't sound like a tit for tat. You can tell your sister you are thrilled for her, can't wait to meet the guy, and look forward to the wedding. You can say you would be happy to help organize a shower, for example. But explain that since you know your schedule and you know what the duties of matron of honor entail, she needs to find someone who really has the time to carry them out.

Regarding the engaged cousins, are there any likely circumstances where they would need to get DNA tests for medical reasons (maybe screening for hereditary conditions), in which case they would suddenly discover they are related? If so, it seems like somebody should tell them now.

That's an interesting point. This is something I'd like someone with expertise in genetic counseling to weigh in on. Would a counselor say, "Hey, did you guys know you were cousins?" (And would that be clear?) Or would a counselor simply report potential reproductive risks without commenting on any consanguinity?

Dear Prudie, My husband and I recently discovered that his sister is engaged to be married. In most cases this would be good news, but my sister-in-law is mentally ill and so is her fiance. They are both in their 40s and apparently met in a day-time therapy hospital for adults. The very positive part of this is that we have never seen her happier. Previous to meeting her fiance, my SIL was usually very silent and withdrawn whenever we saw her. Now, she is a bit more social and seems healthier. When she was in college, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Even on medication, she has never been able to live on her own, and will never be competent enough to do so. I have not yet met her fiance, but from what another family member has said, he is also not well enough to ever live on his own. He currently lives in a half-way house for the mentally ill. His family lives in another state. We don't want to break them up, but if they married, they'd become a very serious emotional and financial burden on the whole family. I don't know if they've really thought it through. So, do you know if there's a way to prevent them from marrying without violating their rights? Since neither is competent, can they actually enter into a legally binding contract together? I feel like an awful person for asking.

I hope both your sister and her fiance have case workers. If not, they need them. Once they have professionals involved in their care, all the issues raised by a potential marriage can be discussed. You simply assume their marriage will create a burden for the rest of the family. But I'm not clear why that's the case. Yes, it could complicate the benefits they receive and their living situation, so that is why they need professional guidance, maybe even the counsel of a lawyer. It could be that weighing everything, what might be best for these two is not a legal marriage but some kind of committment ceremony that they felt recognized their relationship. Instead of approaching this as a likley disaster, take the tack that it's good news that these two have found each other and all of you who love them want to help support their relationship in the way that most benefits them.

Dear Prudence, At a recent family wedding, my brother-in-law made a total fool of himself. He is supposed to be a recovering alcoholic, but there was no recovery involved during this event. He started drinking the minute he arrived and took bottles with him when he left. Worst of all, his wife (my sister) gave him permission to drink! What in the world was she thinking? I want to say something to sis about enabling her husband, but my own husband says I should leave well-enough alone, that it won't do any good and will only increase family tensions. Prudie, what would you do in my shoes? Would you speak to my sister? And if so, what would you say to make her see that her husband needs help and she is only making things worse?

First of all, your brother-in-law wasn't drinking because your sister gave "permission." She may be the worst kind of enabler, but the decision to put glass to mouth was solely his. I'm not sure I understand what your husband's "well enough alone" means because what you describe is sick. You saw alarming behavior by your brother-in-law and I think you're right to address your concerns to your sister. Approaching this with the attitude of, "Sis, I'm astounded at your denial and enabling," will not get you very far. Stay low-key, concerned, and factual. You tell her that it was upsetting to see that Jerry is off the wagon and that he was out of control at the wedding. Say you're concerned about his health, her life, the potential for a driving catastrophe, and all the other bad things that can happen when an alcoholic drinks again. You can say if she needs support, you'd be happy to go to an Al Anon meeting with her. If she tells you to buzz off, then you've done what you could. And if you're together with them again and Jerry's drunk, make sure he doesn't get behind the wheel.

Dear Prudie, My wife and I just booked a trip abroad. My wife has waited her entire life to be able to travel  and we finally have the time and money to make this happen. My brother just announced his engagement not long ago, but at last check, he and his fiancee had no date in mind. When my wife and I mentioned in conversation this weekend that we had finally booked our trip for June of next year, my brother and his fiancee got very quiet before he said that they had just put a deposit down on a package for a destination wedding over approximately those same dates. Now my wife and I are being pressured by my family to change our trip and attend the destination wedding instead. My wife hasn't said anything, but we both know there isn't money to do both, and I know she's disappointed. My mother says we owe this to my brother because he was my best man, and it is a family wedding and missing it isn't an option. I am of course thrilled for him and was prepared to do whatever it took to attend his wedding, but it breaks my heart to see my wife so sad that there's yet another setback to this trip. What's the right thing to do? Torn

I dislike destination weddings for exactly the reasons described here. The bridal couple chooses where they want to honeymoon, then everyone else has to schlep there at great expense and suck up a lot of vacation time to accompany them. But I equally dislike problems that come with this kind of disclaimer: "My wife hasn't said anything." For goodness sake, man, start talking! You two have a lot to figure out. Is the destination of the wedding a place you would generally be happy to go? Can you recoup any of your deposit? Would your absence mean a terrible breach with your brother? You have plenty of time for discussion, planning, and rebooking.  Sure, your brother's plans are annoying, but missing your sibling's wedding is the kind of thing that's best avoided. If you decide to go to the wedding, don't catastrophize this to mean your dreams of travel are forever crushed. Start saving and planning for a future trip.

Hi Prudence, I have recently met the most wonderful man. After crossing paths a few times, we began dating, and have been practically inseparable for the past three months. I don't think I'm idealizing him - he's not perfect, but his faults seem so minor and innocuous. We don't agree on everything, but share basic values, and are very affectionate and romantic. We are in our late 30s and would like to have children. He says I am the best thing that ever happened to him and would get married tomorrow if I said OK. How can I balance due diligence and seizing the day? My parents got engaged after only three months and are divorced now. How do I know when I've waited long enough to discover a horrible dealbreaker that may (hopefully) never come?

I got married after four months and next year will be our 20th anniversary. That said, it's obviously better not to rush things. But when you're in your late 30s and want children, you just don't have time to be leisurely about this. I like the fact that you say he's wonderful but you don't say he's perfect and you don't agree about everything. I understand in that rush of first love being inseparable, but if you're doing your due diligence, it's important not to make a world of just you two, but to spend time with each other's friends and even family if they are nearby. Look back on your past relationships. If you tended to fall hard then discover awful  things, be aware of this pattern. Get an accounting of his romantic past. It's helpful if you can have your first fight and see what that reveals, but obviously you don't want to go picking one! This kind of whirlwind requires being mature enough to honestly balance heart, gut, and mind. Fingers crossed for you that this works out.

My boyfriend of six years and I are getting married in two months. He is a wonderful person, whom I feel deeply in love with, but in the past week we've reached an impasse that may cause us to call the whole thing off. When his parents were visiting last week, I got into a terrible argument with his mother, in which I (admittedly) screamed and acted irrationally. I feel that she never gives us enough personal space, is hyper critical of me, and gets upset often over minor things that don't seem like a big deal, and my frustrations with her came to a head. I've apologized and been trying to resolve things with her since the argument, but unsuccessfully. We just don't seem to see eye-to-eye on anything, which is a deal-breaker for my (hopefully) future husband. He doesn't want to get married unless we're getting along. Also, he thinks I'm completely in the wrong, while I think we are both to blame for the argument that happened, and it bothers me that he can't see my side. What can we do to get past this?

And here's an example of how two people can know each other forever, then find out maybe they are ill-matched. As you know, it's never a good idea to totally lose it, especially with one's impending mother-in-law. I can't adjudicate the blow up. Maybe she really lays into you, your boyfriend doesn't defend you, it was too much and you just snapped. If it's not your fantasy that she treats you badly (and forget the defense, "She treats everyone this way") then I don't understand why your fiance is unable to see his mother's role in this. I also don't like the sound of your boyfriend standing on Olympus demanding everything be perfect and that fixing it is on you.  You've invested a lot of time in this relationship, so if you two can't get over this impasse, see a counselor to help you clarify whether you want to spend the rest of your lives together or you want out.

I had genetic screening when I was pregnant and they specifically asked if there was any chance we were related. It had to do with calculating the probabilities of various genetic conditions to see if specific testing should be carried out. Certain ethnic groups are more susceptible to heritable diseases, and if both partners are potential carriers, then more testing would be suggested.

If this couple is asked, they're obviously going to say, "No." And these two are young, so genetic screening might not even come up.

are his finances transparent? I certainly would be sure.

Good one! Yes, they should know what's in each other's bank accounts, their respective credit scores, etc. That may seem mercenary, but I've heard from too many people blindsided by finding a new spouse comes with a six-figure financial hole.

Dear Prudie, I recently went out to dinner with old friends I've known since we were teens. We get together for dinner on one another's birthdays. One friend in particular considers herself a "truth teller" and can be quite blunt with her opinions. During dinner, I mentioned that I'd tried a new hair stylist. My friend told me that my hair did not look good, and the stylist did not do a good job! She asked others at the table to weigh in, told me I would look younger if I styled my hair differently and even invited the waitress to critique my hair! I'd like to say I gracefully shut down the conversation, but I responded angrily and things became quite awkward. We all finished dinner and I apologized for losing my cool. No apology from my friend. I don't want to lose a friendship over this, but I was hurt, angry and embarrassed! I really felt ambushed and caught off guard. I don't want to pretend this never happened but I don't think a heart to heart talk will do much good.

It's funny that these self-described "truth tellers" always have something bad to say. Your friend sounds awful and yes, it would have been better if you'd simply said, "Thanks, I'll take this under advisement. Does anyone have any Labor Day plans?" But you apologized, she didn't, so that says a lot. It sounds as if this group only sees one another occasionally, so let this go. You will be prepared next time to deflect whatever unpleasant insights she has to offer.

Dear, Prudie: I'm several months divorced after a long,  painful marriage to a fundamentally decent, loving man who could not overcome his demons and addictions - at least not with me.  After therapy and al-anon, I am very ready to move on with my life and start dating again. Recently, three suitors have expressed interest. Two could easily be just fine "for now" casual reintroductions to the world of dating. One fellow I have known for decades to be a wonderful man and someone with whom I can see (now that Im single) that I have promising physical, emotional and intellectual chemistry (And butterflies! At 40! I'm delighted but it's just as scary as it is euphoric.) Here's the "but" - he owns the condo Im leasing for at least the next year. Friends have mixed feedback. Most say go for it and play things out slowly - that we're mature adults and it  will be fine. But I'm extremely torn. Any sage advice? Stern warnings? Here's hoping you will weigh in!

You're 40 and have quickly attracted three appealing suitors, so you don't need much advice. Sure, go for it -- carefully. If things end badly, all you have to do is send the rent checks on time then clear out when the lease is up. I'm hopeful this potential romance won't end up as a tenant-landlord dispute.

Thanks, everyone. Have a good rest of August. I'll be back the Tuesday after Labor Day, September 3 at noon.

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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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