Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Oct 08, 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 took your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

My mind is still reeling. My fiance confessed to me last week that his younger niece is actually his child. He had a short affair with his brother's wife, who conceived the month her husband was away. They ended things just before finding out she was pregnant, she lied about the dates to cover it up. My fiance knew all this and said nothing because he didn't want to break up their family. My fiance's brother is a good guy and I genuinely like him. I've never seen a man so devoted to his wife and children. I don't know if I can spend the rest of my life being a part of this lie. My future in-laws are a close knit family and everyone frequently gets together. They actually had a family dinner a few days ago which I've avoided because I don't know how I can look at either my fiance's brother or his wife in the eye. I also have complex feelings about the "niece" - biologically speaking, she will be my stepchild! I love my fiance so much but how can I marry into his family knowing what I know now?

Have I got a movie for you! Spoiler alert, but next year be sure to take the entire family to a screening of "August: Osage County" based on the Pulitizer Prize winning play. Let's just say when the major plot twist is revealed, there should be enough squirming in the seats to loosen the bolts.  Often in cases where the man who thinks he's the father is not the father there is the potential for a genetic time bomb to go off if some future medical issue in the future reveals the questionable paternity. But in the case of brothers, it's far less likely that even a cheek swab -- in the rare event it should it ever come up -- would point to your fiance's perfidy. Of course this revelation is shocking and you are looking at the family you about to join in a new and deceitful light.  I'm generally in favor of the truth, but with caveats. In this case there's nothing to be gained by the truth blasting apart this family. And I hope you are only the third person to be let into the circle of this secret, and that you remain the final one.  As despicable as your fiance's behavior was, it does speak to his love for you and his desire to have an honest start that he told you.  You do not have to make any decisions now. You should be honest with your fiance and tell him that this is news that's going to take you a while to process. But please fight the "complex" feelings about your niece. Morally, legally and every other way she is the child of your future brother-in-law and sister-in-law and if you go ahead and marry your fiance you should be able to look on this girl with love and equanimity.

Dear Prudence, David and I have been best friends since we met in undergrad. When we were accepted to grad programs at the same university, we got an apartment together. Two days ago, David was killed in a car accident. I have been devastated ever since. When I looked up David's online obituary, I was shocked to see myself listed as his fiancée. As close as we were, there was never anything romantic between us. David was gay. The only person I really know in David's family is his brother, and I called him to ask him why I was listed as his fiancée in the obituary. His brother explained that his parents are ultra-conservative and very religious and, even though they knew David was gay, they never quite accepted it. I guess people in his hometown town knew he was living with a girl, and his parents explained away this "sin" by saying we were engaged, rather than saying we were just friends or even just roommates. The funeral is Tuesday, and I don't know if I can go or not. I know David would have hated the lie his parents told, but I also know he loved them very much and wouldn't want them to be hurt. I'm not sure what people would say if his "fiancée" didn't show up for the service. But I am also not comfortable accepting condolences from people for something that is a lie. I know how much David struggled with coming out to his parents and how he fought for acceptance. There is a part of me that would like to demand a retraction and correction of the obituary. Another part of me says to let it go because David is beyond hurting now. What should I do? Signed, Confused and hurting

Go to the funeral and quietly accept people's condolences. You have lost one of the dearest people in the world to you,  and however mixed your feelings about his family's behavior you should be at his funeral to pay your respects and be comforted by those who loved him.  The immediate aftermath of the sudden death of a vibrant, young person is not the time to be making demands on the grief-stricken family, however misguided their actions.  I agree it's terrible that his family felt it necessary to make up a  lie in order to present a more acceptable face to the world. Fortunately, that world is changing and had David lived it's likely that over the course of his life his parents might have been able to accept a partner of David's. But that chance is gone and his parents are suffering the worst torment imaginable. Go to the funeral and hug and cry. If there are people insensitive enough to ask you for details of the "wedding" just shake your head and say you hope they understand it's something you can't bring yourself to talk about now.

Dear Prudy, my girlfriend and I recently moved in together and I discovered an odd quirk. Once or twice a week she'll retreat to the bathroom and take a "shower" for an hour or two. Like literally 120 minutes. Our place doesn't have nearly that much hot water and so I asked her how this works. It turns out that she goes in there, builds a little nest out of towels, turns the shower on, and just lies there and reads or naps with cold water running, and then takes a couple minute shower. Apparently she's done it since she was a child and just finds it relaxing. Prudie do you know how much water this uses?! She'll use several hundred gallons of water per session! Thousands a month! When I talked to her about the waste she just said that this is how she likes to spend her money (she insisted on paying the water bill when we moved in together and now I know why) and that lots of human activities are wasteful, but that since she's not even in the shower for most of the time the water's not being polluted (not sure about that) and that she does give to a water-related charity. Should I chalk this up as a quirky indulgence and that there are worse things than the shower running for hours at a time?

One great pleasure of this column is that just when I think I've heard everything I realize, Oh no, I haven't. The cold-water-shower-reading-nest is a new one on me, and I've got goosebumps and pruney skin just thinking about it.  It's too bad your girlfriend didn't grow up in a house that only had bathtubs. Then she just would have soaked in a cold tub and while all her books may have gotten soggy the water bill wouldn't rival that of the Hoover Dam.  It's generally a good idea to indulge your loved one's harmless quirks. Also keep in mind that a lot of people have passionate hobbies: motorcycles, skiing, buying shoes -- that are  far more expensive than a weekly, private Niagra.  For now I suggest that when your girlfriend says she's feeling particularly dirty and it's time for a long shower,  you don't stay home steaming about the running water, but let off steam by going out for a long run.

Dear Prudie, My father-in-law was convicted for a white collar crime and spent 3 years in a federal facility. Our children are 6 and 4 and they are permitted to spend time with my father-in-law in a group setting where at least my husband or I are present. My father-in-law is not a violent man, but we know that prison can change people and we do not want to take any risks. We plan to explain my father-in-law's conviction - and consequences - in age appropriate ways. The issue is that my parents think that my father-in-law should have zero time with the children at all and refuse to have them in their home or attend a gathering with them (like my daughter's 7th birthday in a few weeks). My parents think that since my father-in-law is a criminal, one the the prices that he should pay is limited access to family. They have threatened to sue for grandparent rights, claiming that we are unfit parents by exposing our children to a felon. Any advice for this situation?

Given the scope of our economic meltdown and the people at the top who were making millions selling fantasies, I think it's a shame that more families aren't dealing with your dilemma of what to do when the family's financial executive gets out of prison. You say your father-in-law did time for a white collar crime.  Sure prison changes people, but I doubt your father-in-law is flexing his prison tats and hanging out with his homies from Dead Man Inc.  You should tell your parents they need to back way off.  Your father-in-law paid his debt to society and he is absolutely no threat to your kids. Say what will be damaging is if they bring a groundless lawsuit that tears your family apart and ends up causing their own estrangement.

My grandmother is, well, a racist. She is now dying and although she has her share of flaws, the rest of our family thinks we should just make her last remaining weeks/months as comfortable as possible. That's why I decided not to tell my grandmother that the man I'm about to marry is black. To me it makes no sense to get her worked up and upset when she is dying. Grandma lives four hours' drive away and has never met my fiance, and she's unable to travel to attend the wedding. My fiance, however, is deeply offended over this issue. He thinks my grandmother should be told he is black. Furthermore, he wants to meet her so she has an opportunity to get to know him and realize her stereotypes and prejudice are wrong. I've explained to him that her racism is so deeply entrenched that his meeting her a couple of times won't change anything. He thinks she should be told anyway, out of principle. We are in such strong disagreement over the issue that he's thinking of postponing the wedding until he can meet my grandmother. I think it's ridiculous. What are your thoughts?

If this were a Tyler Perry movie you'd bring your fiance to meet racist granny and the shock would kill her on the spot. Both you and your fiance have compelling points of view, and this kind of situations is where a marriage is tested. You're both right,  there's no compromise postion, and one person has to give.   It can be a shocking thing for young people growing up to realize their lovable grandma or grandpa has a devasting flaw, be it racism or homophobia or whatever. While there will always be humans who mouth hateful things about members of other groups, the generation for whom these assumptions were the acceptable way to think is dying away. What could be better evidence of how things are changing than that the granddaughter of a racist is marrying a black man? I think you should tell your fiance that everything he says is right and true, and that if the world were a fair place meeting him would cause a transformation in one old person. But having known your grandmother your whole life you don't think so, and you don't want to make a long trip in order to see him treated terribly by a woman who doesn't have long to live. Tell him that you recognize your grandmother's flaws and you love her in the way you can love such a person. But that you're glad your children will grow up in a world that has far fewer grannies to deal with.

Prudie, thanks for taking my question and your advice. But your first sentence was not necessary. We know what he did was wrong, but he served his time, and we are all trying to move on. Comments like that are unhelpful, especially coming from somebody who I specifically asked for help

I'm sorry you took offense, but I won't retract my thought that I think it's a shame there aren't a lot more people paying their debt to the rest of us by wearing orange jumpsuits.

My closest friends of 35 years are swingers. This has probably gone on for about 20 years, and they seem happy. She told me about it about 20 years ago, and they were both shocked when I didn't think this was great! I decided early on that since they were consenting adults, and kept this well away from their three kids and out of the house, it wasn't my place to judge. She quit telling me some if the details after picking up on my discomfort, and the one time she directly asked my opinion, I was honest and said I thought they were playing with fire. For the past couple of years, it was clear they had formed a relationship with another couple, which was obvious to me - weekends away, etc. the problem is, they now want me to MEET this couple, and in fact had set up a surprise drop-in by them at their home, which was cancelled at the last minute. I am terribly uncomfortable with meeting the other couple, but I don't know how to avoid it! How does one greet the people your married friends are sleeping with?

It's amazing that at this point in life the fire is still roaring and the heat is not just hot flashes.  Your dearest friends have a wild sex life and you've made clear you want to know nothing about it. Apparently they need a reminder. So be blunt: "Mildred I thought I made it clear that I don't want to hear about  what you and Sheldon do in your spare time. I'm glad you've found some people you're compatible with, but we don't want to drop by for a  surprise meeting of people with whom you drop your drawers."

It's not clear whether or not she's actually in the shower while the water is running. Maybe she just likes the sound of the water? Perhaps a noise machine might work for her. After the drought we experienced this year, there'll be more water rationing on the way. I suggest they find a way to not use so much water. It's not just a matter of expense, it's a matter of saving a precious resource.

I think that's worth exploring. Even if she tries to make up for her habit by donating to water charities, she herself is wasting a ton of water. The boyfriend can *gently* suggest she  explore ways to create the relaxing atmosphere she is seeking without draining the resevoir.

Melanie's husband ran out on her and their four young children two years ago. My husband, our kids, and I live down the block from Melanie and know her well. When her husband left I reached out to her to see if there was any way I could help her out. We began doing things together as friends and as moms with our kids. Sometimes my husband also helped Melanie with minor home repairs. I always admired him for his willingness to help Melanie. A few days ago I discovered a series of emails between Melanie and my husband, detailing their "mostly unacted upon" attraction to one another. They do not want to hurt me, and my husband said in the emails he would never leave me. But they cannot escape their attraction to one another. I confronted my husband, and we agreed that if we are going to save our marriage Melanie needs to go. However, I feel guilty because my husband is the only father figure Melanie's kids have. I also don't want to tell her I know about her and my husband; I just want to cut off all contact with her.

I hope your husband recognizes what a decent person he is married to and how indecent his attraction (however common such things are) to Melanie.  Good for you for being worried about the innocent children.   And shame on Melanie and your husband for potentially shattering another set of kids.  I think there's a compromise situation here in that if Melanie's kids are friendly with your kids there's no reason that they cannot continue to enjoy each other's company. It's you and your husband who are going to have nothing to do with Melanie. You don't have to go into details with this woman, but you can have a brief  conversation with her saying something like, "For obvious reasons our friendship is over and Jack will not be doing handyman duty for you any longer.  I don't want to hurt your kids more than necessary so they are still welcome in our home. You are not." 

My younger sister, "Lisa" is 21 and has been married to "Luke" for 7 months. Coincidentally (or not), she is seven months pregnant with their first child. Lisa and Luke dated less than three months before getting engaged, and I had misgivings about him from the start. He is a decade older than Lisa, has been married twice before (both ended in divorce), has a terrible credit history, and has made various misogynistic statements. I put my reservations aside, as my sister seemed genuinely happy and in love. I am friendly toward Luke since he is part of the family, although he is not the type of person I would spend time with on my own. We have never talked much more than exchanging pleasantries and small talk, and not often, as they live two states away. Fast-forward to last night, when I received a private message from Luke through a social networking site. The message was brief, but said "I just wanted to let you know that I love you with all my heart" and "you make me smile with the things you say." It made me feel very uncomfortable, and I have no idea what prompted this revelation. Do you think this is more than a brotherly expression of love? Should I respond? Should I tell my sister? Perplexed Sister-in-Law

You can say something like, "Because my sister is pregnant with your child I will not show this message to her now and upset her. If you ever send me anything like this again, I will show her." Let's hope after the birth Lisa starts being more vigilant with birth control so that she doesn't have a bunch of kids with a guy who's guanteed to make everyone's life miserable.

Dear Prudence, Halloween is coming and my neighborhood group is busy planning our annual Halloween party. We make sure to have activities to please all ages, and it is much looked forward to throughout the year. Costumes are not required, but strongly encouraged. We give out prizes for most original, most scary and funniest. It seems as if we may have to add a new category this year though: Sleaziest. Kimmy and family moved into the neighborhood a few years ago. Jaws dropped their first Halloween when she took her children out trick-or-treating dressed as a Playboy bunny -- complete with a tail. Even worse was her showing up at the Halloween party dressed that way. We couldn't get a single dad to run the apple-bobbing game because they were all standing around ogling Kimmy and drooling on their clown shoes. Last year she showed up as Little Bo Peep with a skirt so short her bloomers showed and her breasts were practically falling out of her corset top. That might be fine for an adults only party, but there were children present! I overheard my 14 year old son talking with some of his friends the other day and it seems that an invitation to our neighborhood party is the hottest ticket among that age group, just because they all want to see what Kimmy will be wearing. I am thinking of paying a visit to Kimmy and kindly explaining to her that she needs to cover up for this year's party. My husband thinks I should just mind my own business (wonder why?). Would it be rude of me to talk to Kimmy? Rumor has it that this year she's "dressing"as Lady Godiva. Signed, NOT an old prude

Don't just talk to Kimmy, be generous and go over there with the perfect costume sure to win all the prizes: Kimmy's very own burqa!  Of course you couldn't get the Dads to supervise apple-bobbing what with all the melon-bobbing provided by Kimmy.  Mom, lighten up. Kimmy and her costumes are the stuff of neighborhood legend. Even  though you don't want to compete with her, the more amused you are by the whole situation, the better  you will feel.

Dear Prudence, I am a professional woman in my mid 20's. I have a colleague in his late 40's who sits two cubicles away from me. He is contstantly easedropping on my phone calls, then coming up to me and talking to me like I was personally telling him this information. Recently, he has approached me and asked me about a personal trip I've had with my boyfriend that I never discussed with him. He also sent me an email late at night asking me if I could have lunch with him this week or next week. I am a friendly person, but this guy's behavior gives me the creeps. How do I tell him to butt out in a friendly way, as I have to walk by his desk every morning? - Heebie Jeebies

Next time he mentions something he's overheard say, "I'm sorry my voice must be carrying. I will keep it down because I don't want to bother you.  Excuse me, I have to get back to work." As for the lunch dates just say, "Sorry, I'm busy."  Stay cool and professional and keep your responses minimal. If he escalates, take your complaint to a supervisor.

I have fallen in love with a wonderful woman, but I harbor a secret I'm terrified will send her running in the other direction. Seven years ago a vengeful ex-girlfriend falsely accused me of raping and beating her. She either hurt herself or convinced someone to hurt her. I was arrested, and my parents spent most of their savings on the lawyer who finally exonerated me. Eventually the cops figured out she lied, though at that point many people at our small college saw me as a rapist. I have undergone extensive counseling and am in a much better place now, but no amount of therapy can calm my fear that when they hear my story, people will go running in the other direction. I love my girlfriend but do not know how to begin to tell her about the false rape accusation. If you are kind enough to answer this question, I seriously hope it doesn't inspire gender-bashing or hyperbole from readers. I just need advice about how to confess this secret.

You've been through a terrible trauma and it's something you should share with someone you love. Even though you've had therapy it sounds as if you've absorbed much of the shame that was heaped on you. Perhaps a new therapist can help free you more. Of course you want to put this behind you and not dwell on it, but a righteous indignation instead of fear should inform your feelings.  Before you tell your beloved, rehearse what you want to say -- you will not be convincing if you speak with an air of terror.  Remember you, not your ex, was the victim.  Say you want her to know about a terrible episode in your life because it's something important you experienced and because you wouldn't want her to hear a distorted version from someone else.  If you have some legal paperwork about your exoneration you can offer to show her, explaining  you know such cases can raise doubts in people's minds, and you don't want her to have any about you.

It might be that your brother-in-law intended to send the message to your sister. Consider responding with "Luke, I think you must've meant this message for Lisa." Even if the message was meant for you, hopefully the short reply will be enough to stop him. And, if he replies, "No, it's you I love," then send Prudie's suggestion.

Good point and suggestion. Several people have suggested that Luke's message was meant for his wife and went awry. Let's hope so, because at best he sounds like a bad bet.

My aunt is currently in the process of a divorce after finding out her husband of 20 years had been sleeping around with escorts for the last several months. He has always played the ladies man-rubbing up against waitresses, making passes at his sisters in law (and me at times). For the sake of family peace nothing was ever said. Now that she is divorcing him, do I tell her that he molested me ten years ago? Few people in the family know, and after it happened the family took cautionary measures to ensure he was never alone with me or any of the young kids again. Last summer, however, I mistakenly went to their house (I'm in my early twenties) and he arrived home before my aunt, and he used the opportunity to rehash the occasion on which he molested me and accuse me of being homosexual for not sleeping with him. Do I tell my aunt about all this, or do I just keep thanking my lucky stars this creep is out of my life?

I think you should consider telling the police. Sure, it might not be a prosecutable offense any more, but sometimes there are open files on ultra creeps like your former uncle.  I continue to fail to understand how "family peace" leads people to turn a blind eye to sexual predators among them. Is saying, "Bill can you pass the gravy, please?" really more important than saying, "Bill, get your hands off her and the cops are on the way." Go ahead and tell your aunt, tell everyone. It could be that you shake out more stories the authorities might like to hear.

Why doesn't the letter writer take her calls somewhere more private? If she's a professional twenty- something (like myself) I'm sure she has a cell phone that she could walk outside to have her private calls on. Then this creep would no longer be privy to any eavesdropping information. Just a suggestion.

A good suggestion -- thanks.

Prudie, You seem rather blithe to the issue that a man has been lied to, and is raising a child that is not his own. That's a huge deception, and I can't believe you would just accept that situation if you were in the man's place.

I think I made clear the brother and sister-in-law who got it on are despicable. But I do not see the point in clarifying this by blowing up an entire family for no purpose. 

Get over it. Your 14 year old son and your husband like to look at breasts. This should not come as a surprise to you. This is one day a year and everybody would have more fun if you could relax.

Agreed.  And as several readers pointed out, at least Kimmy is not dressing as part of the Honey Boo Boo clan.


Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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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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