Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Nov 05, 2012

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 assume we all feel like 4 year-old Abby on that viral video who's tearfully "tired Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney."

Hi Prudie. My mom was a teenager when she met my dad, who was 15 years older. I have fond memories of their marriage, but my dad died when I was six. Shortly after my dad died, his mom accused my mom of sleeping around and claimed that I'm not my dad's biological child. My mom was offended and, because of my grandma's verbal assaults, broke off contact. I'm now 19. Mom neither says anything good or bad about my dad's side of the family. I recently got in contact with my Grandma again, and though she says she's delighted, she wants a DNA test to confirm I'm her grandson. The reason? She thinks that because of the age difference between my mom and dad, my mom must have cheated on him. I'm really angry. At the same time, I really want to know my dad's side of the family. Should I submit to a DNA test?

Sadly, you don't need any lab work to know that your grandmother has failed the most basic test of human decency.  There apparently is no evidence, except for the rantings of a cruel old woman, that you are not your father's biological child.  In any case, you are your father's son, and if your grandmother wants you to spit in a cup to prove it, she deserves a figurative spitball.  How painful for your mother to have found herself a young widow who was then verbally assaulted by her late husband's mother. I understand your mother's decision not to subject herself to this abuse, but how sad that your grandmother prompted this estrangement.  It's perfectly understandable you want to get to know this missing half of your family. But surely it consists of people besides grandma. Contact some aunts, uncles, and cousins and say you are trying to reconnect with your late father's family. Let's hope not all of them have been poisoned by the matriarch. As for your grandmother's demands, you can say you simply will not demean your own mother by submitting to an unneccesary medical test.

Dear Prudie -- Four years ago, my mother and I had such a falling out over the election that we didn't speak for almost a month. She was so distraught that I voted for Obama that she said she "felt like a failure as a mother" because she "didn't teach me right from wrong." We patched it up and I vowed never to talk about politics with her again. Everything was fine until the campaign ads started rolling again, and now she insists on bringing up politics every time we get together. For the last month, she's been increasingly nosy and intrusive about who I plan to vote for and whether I "learned anything from last time." I've been telling her that I'm undecided, that I'm thinking of voting for a third-party candidate, and that I might not even go to the polls at all this year. (None of these are true.) But she won't let it go -- she keeps pressing me on who I'm going to vote for, and I know that if I refuse to tell her she'll figure it out. How do I keep the peace in my family after Tuesday without skipping the voting booth entirely? We're otherwise very close and get along perfectly the rest of the time, but she simply will not agree to disagree about politics and I do not want to have this argument every four years for the rest of my life. Help! Sincerely, -- Discreetly Democratic Daughter

Apparently your mother doesn't actually believe in our electoral system because she has designated herself your personal dictator.  You need to explain to her that whoever is elected to deal with the fiscal cliff, your relationship with her is headed 0ff a personal one because she refuses to respect your voting rights and your request to end her filibuster.  You can say that  apparently she has been so deafened by the cheering at the Romney rallies that she hasn't heard your pleas for bipartisanship and a respect for differing opinions. Say that if she starts in on another of her political rants, you  will invoke cloture by hanging up the phone or leaving the room and follow through. If she wants to damage your relationship because you disagree with her politically, she is making a very poor case for her side.

Dear Prudence, I'm a 16 year old girl who is overweight (size 8). Recently, I have met this great guy at my school, he's smart, handsome and really funny. He and I have talked a few times and I think he might like me. Here's the problem, holidays are coming up and I want to ask him if he wants to do something (go to a movie) but I don't know how! I've tried to ask but then I think something like -- oh I'm so fat, he'll never want to go out with me. My weight is something I have struggled with all my life, I was a size 14 a few years ago and have managed to bring it down, but I still worry about it. This guy is no supermodel either, but I still worry. I'm also worried about what would happen if he would say no. Prudie, we will be in the same class together until the end of next year! I don't want it to be awkward, or worse have him tell others what happened. What should I do? Should I risk it, and if so what do I say? Victim of Puppy Love

Number one, you are not overweight. Celebrate the fact that you saw your eating habits were not healthy and did something about it.  You're right, weight control is not a one-time event, but I'm concerned that way too much of your self-image is tied up in a dress size. I think you should get individual counseling with someone who specializes in weight issues, or consider joining a support group for teens. Your eating habits are something you need to be aware of -- all of us do -- but they should not fill you with fear or self-loathing.  As for the guy, it's  never easy to make the first move with someone you're interested in. It's especially hard when you have no experience doing it. So here's what will happen if you ask him to a movie and he says no: You two won't go out to a movie.  There, the world didn't end.  If he rebuffs you, sure it will sting, but that's all.  Can you really imagine this boy running around school telling everyone you asked him to a movie and mocking you? If so, he's a jerk and only awkwardness will be his. But if you've found him to be a good guy, even if he doesn't say yes, you shouldn't be so concerned about the fallout. Just tell yourself it's good experience to stretch yourself and do things that aren't easy. As for asking him, practice at home a few times what you're going to say so you're less likely to trip on the words. Then catch him alone and ask, "Hey, if you're around over Thanksgiving do you want to go and see the new James Bond movie one day? "

I fell in love with a married man and slept with him. Clearly one of my worst moments as a human being. When his wife found out about our affair we ended things. Somehow their daughter found out, and she has been harassing me ever since. She wrote me several long letters in which she told me how much she disliked me and how gross and pathetic I was. She messaged the letters to my Facebook friends before I made my friend list private. I think she got my phone number and began prank calling me several times a night, sometimes three times an hour around 2 a.m. I changed my phone number. Now she is showing up where I work (a department store) and coming into my area. She has done this twice. I am always hesitant to talk to her because the wife and my affair partner threatened legal action if I ever contacted them or so much as looked at one of their kids. I do not have the money to hire a lawyer to contact their lawyer. Should I accept this teenager's behavior as a consequence of the affair, or am I within my rights to find a way to get her to stop bothering me?

Yes you have learned a good lesson in poor choices. Especially since your erstwhile lover is such a creep that he is now threatening you with legal action on the basis of nothing. It's especially appalling that your boyfriend and his wife have allowed their daughter to be drawn into the drama. I know you don't have much money, but it shouldn't cost that much to have a short, one-time meeting with a lawyer to explain your situation and have a letter sent to the family explaining you are being harrassed and if it doesn't stop, you will have to go to the authories. Alternatively, if the girl  continues, you could just go directly to the police yourself and explain you are now being stalked.  You could also alert your manager and without going into details explain that this girl is stalking you at work and you would appreciate someone having a word with her.  Making  a mistake does not mean you should endure an unbalanced teen trying to mess up your life.

Dear Prudence, I have been dating an amazing man for three years. He recently proposed and I could not be happier. We are both so excited to plan our wedding. My fiance is five inches shorter than me, something that has never bothered me, but what does bother me are the rude comments I sometimes get regarding our height difference and now that we have told everyone about the upcoming wedding they have increased a bit. Most of our friends and acquaintances have said nothing but lovely things, but some have said things such as; "He is too short for you in the long run," and making rude jokes about him not being "man enough" for me. These comments make me furious, and I was wondering if you could help me come up with a great retort. So far I have said; "He is big where it matters," which is not very classy.

Sometimes the best approach is just to look bemused, stay silent, and let the stupidity hang in the air.  You could also say, "Thanks for your good wishes" or "Wow, what a small-minded thing to say."

PLEASE contact your other relatives! My father estranged us from his family for over 15 years. When I was your age (19) I decided to contact my aunts and uncles. They could not have made me feel more welcome as a member of the family. It opened the door to an eventual reconciliation between them and my dad, which never would have happened otherwise. Maybe if your grandma sees you interacting with everyone else in the family and hears about how much you are like your father, she'll drop this.

Thanks for this.  I'm glad it worked out so well for you. And chances are it will go that way for the letter writer. But he should also prepare himself psychologically for a less sanguine alternative.

Hi Prudie, My family is rather large (45 people on average for Thanksgiving) and my husband's parents are divorced and we try to see both of them at some point over the weekend. Our kids are 13, 11, and eight and in the past have seemed to enjoy spending the holiday weekend this way. Yesterday my 11-year-old daughter told me that she wants a "quiet" holiday. We have noticed that she is getting increasingly introverted over the past year or so, more likely to read by herself than play with her brothers and cousins. She told me that there are "too many people and too much driving." My husband and I are party-loving extroverts, so house hopping and driving six+ hours over the weekend is no big deal to us. But my daughter doesn't complain often and I know if she brings something up it is legitimately important to her. In small groups, and especially one-on-one, my daughter is a delight: creative, funny, and very smart. But in big groups she just fades into the background, possibly counting down the minutes until she can read by herself again. How do I balance my daughter's request that we tone things down with a) reasonable expectations from family to see us, b) the rest of my immediate family's love of going all-out, and c) not making the holiday all about her. My daughter's personality is so different from the rest of us that I don't know how to meet everybody's needs at once. Any advice? Any introverts want to chime in?

Usually you can spot introverts from an early age, so I'm wondering about what you describe as a change in your daughter.  It may be that she is finally feeling like she can stand up for her desire to curl up with a good book, but you should just make sure that she's not withdrawing for some other reason. But if you simply have an introvert on your hands, get the best-seller, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" so you can understand your daughter better and help her assert her needs.   You can tell her you appreciate that she understand herself so well and can articulate such things and that  you will do what you can to accomodate her. It could be there's no alternative but long drives on Thanksgiving, but she should be allowed to listen to a book on tape in the back seat.  And when everyone gets into the boisterous games and antics after the meal, once she's had her share, you can tell her she's free to go to a quiet bedroom and read. If the relatives start teasing her, explain to them that while the rest of you are recharged by big noisy event, for some people it just drains their batteries, so you're letting Lila take a much-needed break.

I am against torturing animals. I never thought I would need to clarify that, because I assumed most people oppose torturing animals. Then I met met my daughter's fiancé. I found out he was arrested twice as a teen for maiming and torturing animals - his own and others. He has apparently not had an incident since he has to do tons of community service when he was seventeen. He and my daughter claim his abuse of animals was a reaction to his stepfather's abuse of him. My daughter thinks it is ridiculous to care about something her fiancé did years ago. But ever since finding out, I have not been able to look at her fiancé the same way. Am I overreacting by not fully trusting him?

There is no defense of animal torture. There is also no defense of child torture. I understand your visceral response to the news of your future son-in-law's arrest as a boy, but you seem entirely incurious about his own abuse at the hands of his stepfather.  This clearly seems to be one of those cases in which an intervention helped set a troubled young person on the right path. That you found out about this indicates he has not buried this secret, but has been open about what he did and his regrets. I just hope this young man  has had some therapy because while the effects of childhood abuse can be long-lasting they can also be  mitigated by by caring and support.  So you should now offer yours. He offended, paid the price, and has not done so again. But accepting and kind to a man who is now walking on the right path.

My mother is 70 years old. My dad died two years ago. She has been very lonely ever since. My brother and I were overjoyed when she fell in love with Arthur, a man in her retirement community. Arthur proposed to her a few weeks ago, and they want to be married around Christmas. The ceremony will be simple with a lot of dancing and celebration afterwards. My mom is so excited about marrying Arthur. His kids cannot stand her and oppose their dad's marriage to my mom. They think he's remarrying too soon. Their mom died last December, so I can appreciate their sensitivity. But they have rudely rebuffed my mom's attempts to get to know them and have repeatedly told their father that my mom is not right for him. My mom is hurt, an Arthur is upset his children aren't happier for him. Arthur's kids will come to the wedding, but I worry they will sulk and spoil the celebration. Is their anything appropriate I can do to ensure my mom's and Arthur's wedding is respected by his kids?

All you can do is to be gracious and welcoming to them. If they choose to attend as a form of  boycotting the celebration, then they are sad and foolish and should be left to their own sulking.  It's too bad these adults don't realize that their father did not have endless time to mourn his loss, that he is not "replacing" their mother, and that winter love can be so warming.

Dear Prudence- My spouse recently found a stranger's lost wallet, with a lot of cash and credit cards, and turned it in to the police station. The owner sent us a thank-you note and a VERY generous check, I guess as a thank-you for turning in the wallet with its contents intact. We don't feel right taking the money, because we don't need it and we don't think we deserve a reward just for, you know, not stealing somebody's money. We are inclined to donate the check to a local charity (maybe the parks and rec department because we found the wallet in a park) but are struggling with how to phrase a thank-you note to the wallet owner. We don't want to cash the check without sending him some kind of acknowledgement, but "Thank you for the money, but we're giving it away" sounds kind of sanctimonious. Any ideas?

An honest person found a wallet, and a gracious one responded. This is a nice problem.  You should definitely send a thank you, say it was your pleasure to be able to return the wallet, and you are grateful for such a generous check. You can add that since the wallet was lost in the park, and you found it there, you are going to use the money to make a donation to the parks department since you all enjoy their services. You will come off as thoughtful, not sanctimonious.

My husband and I met and started dating when he was still married to his ex-wife. The first three years of our relationship were adulterous. Then I became pregnant and he divorced his ex. We married when I was eight months pregnant with our oldest daughter. Nine years later, we are very happy together, even though we will never be proud of how we began as a couple. Like most children, our kids (8, 6, 4) wonder how we met. My husband and I have always given them half-truths, but we know someday we will have to be more honest. When do you think that time should be? And should we ever be completely honest about how our relationship began? My husband and I do not want to tell our kids inappropriate things about ourselves, but we also don't want to make our relationship's origin story more salacious by making it a big secret.

You don't mention that your husband had children by his first wife. If he did, then I assume you've already explained that Dad was married before and got divorced. If he didn't have children, that uncomplicates the telling of your romance.  And you do have a story to tell apart from the inconvenient detail that their father was already married. Either you were colleagues and met at work, or you were sitting next to each other on an airplane, etc. So tell that story.   Your children are still very young and don't need to know the sordid details of your cheating.  At some point when the subject of divorce comes up you can tell them that Dad was married before he met you and he got a divorce.  You should keep your answers age appropriate and answer their questions honestly. Mostly you want to convey that you two are happy you met, happy you got married, and thrilled to be parents.

Over 25 years ago, I asked out a guy that I liked. Back then, girls absolutely did not ask guys out--all my friends thought I was crazy. But I did it and to my great surprise, he said yes. Years later, he told me that he wanted to ask me out but was too shy and nervous. We dated through high school and college and ended up getting married and have a wonderful son. Not to say that this will be your future with this fellow, but sometimes taking a risk can lead to good things. Good luck!

What a great story! I do not want to scare today's letter writer by making her think this one movie date is going to end up dictating the rest of her life. But it also shows that just because a guy doesn't ask doesn't mean he's not interested.  There are plenty of boys who don't know how to form the words, so  good for the girls who are brave enough to make things happen.

Recently we had family in from out of town staying with us. After we all went to bed, I heard a noise on my daughter's monitor and went to go check it out. I got halfway there and then heard, very clearly, my sister and brother-in-law having sex. They were not having sex in the guest room where they were staying; I think they were in the bathroom. I was mortified and went straight back to my bedroom. I am really uncomfortable with them having sex in the bathroom- what if my daughter was to wake up while they were in there to use the toilet? How do I even begin to approach with this them? Or do I ignore it and hope they have the good sense to keep it in the guestroom from now on?

I thought this was going to be a much more exciting letter about two family members not married to each other being caught cheating via the baby monitor.  It just may be that your sister and her husband closed the bathroom door and had vertical sex. It's also possible that they are so vocal that their bedroom sex got picked up by a sensitive radio device.  I'm trying to understand what you want to convey to them: "I think you had sex while visiting us. Nothing untoward happened. But my daughter might have been scarred for life if she'd had to make a wee-wee." You can see that this line of rebuke is going nowhere.  You should have the good sense to say nothing and be happy that your sister and her husband are still hot for each other.

My husband and his wife did not have kids together. We haven't seen her since the divorce was finalized, so there's no obvious "evidence" of my husband's first marriage. My worry is someday our daughter will find out about the circumstances of her conception and feel ashamed of being born. Should we ever tell her that her dad was still married when we conceived her, or is that an inappropriate thing for parents to address?

If everyone who was conceived before their parents made it to the altar the world would have a lot of shame-faced people crawling through life.  Maybe, years  from now, your daughter will do the math and realize you were close to going into labor by the time you made it to the altar. So then you tell her that you and her dad were in love but hadn't gotten married yet. If she's old enough, and she presses, you can tell her that her dad was married when you two first met. But that story is a long way down the road and you should not let your admittedly tawdry beginnings cloud your children's sense of themselves.

My husband and I threw a Halloween party this year. My brother-in-law and his new wife came to help pass out candy. That night I caught my sister-in-law's wife snorting cocaine in the guest bathroom. I admit it, I freaked out at her. I caused a scene in front of the guests, many of whom were young children. I asked my brother-in-law and his wife to leave the party, and now I'm concerned about allowing my sister-in-law around my young kids. My husband agrees with me. It shows extremely poor judgement to snort coke around small kids; I think it shows bad judgement to do cocaine at all. My brother-in-law and his wife say she only uses coke recreationally, maybe once a month, to have a little extra fun. They say cocaine is okay in small doses as long as you don't do it too much. And my brother-in-law says he would never let his wife do drugs while they were responsible for our children. Part of me doesn't even want this recreational "coke head" around my kids. Am I being too uptight? Is cocaine really as mild a drug as my in-laws make it out to be?

And I thought eating too much candy corn was the worst kind of Halloween indulgence.  Engaging in illegal activity on your property is a gross violation of your trust. However, once you found your sister-in-law giving herself a treat it would have been much better for you and your husband to quietly tell her and her husband to leave, rather than making a scene.  If you're wondering if you're being uptight, I will say say that cocaine is not the equivalent of eating an occasional doughnut and your sister-in-law sounds as if she has a serious problem. Your husband should talk to his brother and say you two don't want to ban them permanently, but you need a firm committment that neither will do drugs at your house ever again.  Then keep an eye on them when they come over. And don't ever let them babysit your kids.

I was just like this. I have about 65 first cousins on both sides of my family and we would always go see them around the holidays. It would destroy me because I would have to sit at the table and participate because leaving to go read was seen as "rude" or that I was "too good" to sit with everyone else. Now as an adult, I've found that the way to recharge during family get togethers is to go to the bathroom, lock the door, turn out the light and sit in the tub for five minutes. (It really helps if there are two bathrooms at the gathering spot). No one really seems to miss me for that short amount of time and it gives me enough of a recharge to keep on keeping on.

But as an adult you should be able to take a walk, or a break to read in a quiet room without having to feel like a fugitive.

Hi Prudie - I am struggling to come to terms with my promiscuous past, during which I slept with about 25 men. I am now on the straight and narrow and no longer sexually active (because I am single and not in a relationship) but I am still having trouble forgiving myself. Due to my behavior I am in a sexual addiction recovery program, where I am supposed to make amends to the people I harmed as one of the steps. However, I am not sure who was hurt (my experiences were all as an adult with other consenting adults), other than my extremely conservative family, to whom I have apologized for not honoring the values I was raised with. The truth is that I feel I got away with behaving very badly and have not had to suffer any consequences - and I feel terrible for it.

It may be that you were having all that sex because you were engaging in a compulsive behavior you felt was destructive to you. It may be that you were young and single and having fun.  If you want to lead a more sexually circumscribed life, then good that you realize that and can behave accordingly. However, it is none of your family's business who you slept with.  It sounds to me as if your biggest problem may be a repressive and punitive childhood.  You need to come to terms with that, and the fact that you aren't going to hell because you were intimate with two dozen consenting adults.

Hope I'm not too late - I was that kid when I was younger! Mom, if you can find quieter things to do with her that are still related to the holidays, that might help her to have fun and enjoy the season. Some of my favorite memories are of my mom and I baking or cooking, just the two of us, either in the evening or while the others watched TV or played games elsewhere in the house. And I agree with Prudie's "out clause" - we have a celebration that gets around 50 family members each year, and while I've grown into it, it was nice as a kid when my folks let me sneak away to read or go on a run when I got overwhelmed. See if you can find what resonates with her during this time of year - I bet she loves something about it, and you can probably make your own great traditions out of it.

It's so wonderful to have understanding parents. Thanks for this.

Thanks, everyone. 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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