Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Oct 22, 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. Let's get to it.

A little after my wife and I reconciled from our separation, we discovered she was pregnant. Although we were having marital problems, we were going thorugh marriage therapy and I genuinely wanted to give it another try. I was, of course, over the moon about becoming a father. Things were starting to look up, until I discovered an ultrasound scan report which showed my wife was further along in the pregnancy than she told me. After a bitter, heated argument she confessed she conceived the baby with someone else while we were separated. She said she thought she was acting for the best because she knew I would be happy about the pregnancy (one of the many reasons why we initially separated was because I wanted to start a family and she didn't). To cut the long story short, I decided to get a divorce. Since I moved out, my wife has been spreading malicious rumors that I abandoned her and "our baby." She's been hospitalized due to complications in her pregnancy and I got a lot of hate mails/calls from her family and friends for not showing up. I don't want to get caught up in a dirty fight so I have been ignoring these. But I'm getting increasingly angry that she is smearing my reputation through lies. Should I clear my name, even if it means airing our dirty laundry in public?

It's one thing to be the bigger person, it's another to let a compulsive liar ruin your reputation.  The story she's telling is that upon discovering she is carrying your child, you decided to divorce her.  This makes you look like a heartless cad now, and you will be even more despicable when the child is born and you want nothing to do with it.  I think you need to get in touch with your soon-to-be ex and tell her you know she is under physical and emotional duress, but you hope she can see that spreading what will be provably false stories about you will only hurt all of you, including her child, in the long run.  Explain that even if she is not in a continuing relationship with the father of her child, she needs to establish paternity so that the baby can  at least get financial support.  Tell her you've said nothing to date, but because you are not the cruel  person she is portraying as, you are going to begin to tell people the truth.

Then you can tell people simply  that the baby was conceived with another man while you were separated, a situation that lead to your decision to end the marriage. You don't have to add the damning filigree that she tried to mislead you about the child. Since she sounds possibly pathological she will probably have a whole counterfactual account to challenge yours.  But your simple assertion, and refusal to engage in character assassination,  will at least put serious doubt in people's minds.  If she continues to hold you out as the father after the birth, check into your legal rights to demand a paternity test to show that you are not responsible for the child.  Oh, that poor child, to be born of such a manipulative mother.

Last year, my husband and I had a small Halloween get-together for some family. We left the door unlocked for our 12-year-old niece to come in if we were still getting things ready. She called and told us she would be more than an hour late. My husband forgot to lock the door, and figuring we had a little more time, we got down to business. Our niece popped the door open - much earlier than she told us she would be - and saw me paying "lip service" to her uncle. Since then, the gossip has spread through the family. I have received cards of an adult nature from my husband's family, and during family outings, most of the jokes are centered around oral sex puns. My husband and I have both asked them to stop, we have even left family gatherings. It has been months since I've been to any gathering with his family. I have recently started getting Halloween cards in the mail in which his relatives have written things like, "Don't let it be a repeat of last year!" I am exhausted with defending myself. His sister is throwing the Halloween party this year, and I am definitely not going. My husband is on the fence. But I'm worried that if we don't show, this heckling will just continue - by e-mail, mail, whatever. What should I do?

Folks write your own trick or treat jokes.  I understand the most shocking part of your letter is not that you decided to have oral sex while leaving the door unlocked for expected company, but that a tween showed up early to an event. At least your husband's family finds this hilarious instead of you two being excoriated for your behavior and an exorcism suggested.  You're right that the anniversary of the great event is bound to blow things out of proportion, but I think you should go andlaugh it off. Then  at the end of the evening your husband should announce the joke has gone limp and the statute of limitations has expired. He can say you've both been good sports about this, but the word play about lip service has to stop or else as far as family gatherings are concerned you will both stop coming.

My husband's first wife cheated on him throughout their marriage. He's been battling how difficult it is for him to trust women ever since their divorce. We've gone to counseling separately and as a couple to cope with how his difficulty trusting me has impacted our relationship. We love each other very much, though, and when I became pregnant with our first child last winter, I thought he finally trusted that I have never and will never cheat on him. Then he asked me for a prenatal paternity test to ensure the baby was his. His biggest fear is raising a child that isn't biologically his own. I was hurt by his request, because it implied he still seriously mistrusted me. He thought if I had nothing to hide then it shouldn't be a big deal, and he told me he trusted me, but needed absolute assurance. We argued about the paternity test for most of my pregnancy, but he lay off shortly before I gave birth to our daughter in July. Things have been wonderful ever since, until I discovered evidence that he and his mother ran a paternity test without my knowledge. Of course our daughter is his. Now we're fighting again. He's apologized for not trusting me, but I cannot stop feeling betrayed that he would do this behind my back. I don't know where we can goes as a couple from here. Am I overreacting?

Despite what this column might indicate, almost all men really are the father of the children they think they are the father of.  You may love your husband very much, but I wish you'd paid more attention to the klaxons in your relationship.  Being incessantly punished for the misdeeds of a previous spouse is not a good basis for a healthy relationship, and you had plenty of warning that you were being doubted. I bet if you wanted to check, you will find your husband regularly scans your cell phone and computer to try to gather the non-existent incriminating evidence. That he and his mother did some genetic testing behind your back must have been a punch to your solar plexis.  You now have a child with this man, so I assume you want to salvage your relationship and try to establish some framework of trust. Head back to the therapist right away. He  needs to understand that while he's obsessed with you cheating on him, he's shown himself to be the great deceiver.

Dear Prudie - I've been married for twenty years, and we're now both in our late forties. For the past three or four years, my wife has taken to hanging out around the house naked. She defends it as a more natural state of affairs, and reluctantly agreed to put towels down on the couch, etc. She's less diligent about closing blinds ("there's nothing wrong with nudity, it's natural," etc.). I've tried to be supportive, and researched naturism, even going so far as to find a couple clothing optional clubs in the area. When I told her, instead of being pleased, she accused me of just wanting to go there and ogle other naked women! This isn't my thing, and I was just trying to be supportive, and this is the thanks I get. The problem is that during all my research trying to understand her point of view, I had really gotten interested in trying out a naturalist club, I'm just not into the mundane nude at home experience. How do we reconcile our different perspectives?

I went under cover to a nudist club for Slate, and let me assure you and your wife there is nothing less sexy than a whole lot of middle-aged naked people.  I bet you could testify that having your wife let all hang out on the couch while you're watching  the presidential debates probably makes you focus even more on federal gas drilling policies.  Since you are accomodating her clothing-optional policies, ask her to sit down at the computer with you and read about the nudist clubs in your area.  The websites will make clear these are ogle-free zones. And  I assure you, most of the flesh will make you as far as fashion is concerned, the Taliban has it right.  Neither of you have to make a committment to becoming naturalists, but since she's halfway there,  ask if she'll agree to spend a day at a club with you with the understand she can head to the car and slip on her underwear any time she is uncomfortable.  If she refuses, then you should drop your own drawers. Maybe having to pick your pubic hairs off the couch will convince her to take the nudity elsewhere.

My husband had numerous affairs with strippers, and now my twenty-something son is dating one. My husband's infidelity ended five years ago. Our marriage has mostly healed, and now we're happy together and very much in love. A few days ago my daughter called me and told me she found out that her brother has been dating a stripper for almost eight months -- he is in love with her. He finally introduced his girlfriend to his sister last week, and the girlfriend freely admitted her profession. I called my son to confirm what his sister told me, and he doesn't seem to care about his girlfriend's profession. He told me she strips to pay off her college loans and that she wants to become a doctor. He wants to bring her home for Thanksgiving. I told him I would not allow a stripper in my house. I know I sound judgmental, but the only strippers I have ever known have had no qualms about sleeping with married men. I worry this woman will use my son for financial gain or will cheat on him. Strippers also bring up very painful memories for me. My husband agrees with me. We think it's our right to determine who can and cannot come to our house for important family gatherings. My son is very upset with us and has threatened not to come home for the holiday. Am I being too rigid or unreasonable?

At least when this young woman gets to medical school she will have plenty of expertise in anatomy.  (And I thought most strippers are doing it to pay for law school!) Unless your son's girlfriend also slept with your husband, you are being priggish and condescending and your husband is comically hypocritical.  I can see saying you don't want a drug dealer in your home, otherwise it's really none of your business what your son's girlfriend does for a living.  I assume you're savvy enough to know that barring her will not make your son contemplate his error in romantic judgment while passing the gravy. It will mean he'll skip the entire event, leaving you to stew about your silly self-righteousness.  Your son wants to bring a guest, so be a gracious hostess and don't make any remarks when this girl says she prefers breast meat.

My husband is a sex addict, he's been to therapy and tells me his addiction is under control -- he swears he is no longer cruising the craigslist "casual encounters" or emailing escorts and women seeking casual sex. Trust obviously has been breached, and I need to know that finally, he is being honest and truthful with me. I already caught him lying to me once since his therapy ended, and although he swears it won't happen again, I don't trust him. I want to install a stealth computer monitoring program on the PC he uses -- my question is whether this kind of intrusion is justified by the circumstances, it is something I would never do if my husband didn't have a history that makes me unsure if my health is at risk and my marriage is a sham.

He's just proven to you he's not being honest and truthful, since you caught him lying after his supposed successful therapy.  You know who and what your husband is, so the question is who you are and what has this marriage done to you.  You know that being an electronic parole officer is not going to make your husband faithful and reliable.  You say he has put your health is at risk and your marriage is a sham. So the real question is not whether your snooping is justfied, but when you are going to decide to get out.

He also needs to check his legal rights. In some states (like Texas), the child is PRESUMED to be his because it was conceived during the marriage.

Interesting.  Since he's in the middle of a divorce, he should make sure his lawyer is on top of this.

My three-year-old son has been battling a life threatening disease since May. He has already undergone one aggressive surgery as well as brutal medical treatments to combat the disease. Since the diagnosis his father and I have struggled to balance our son's care with the needs of our five and one-year-old daughters and my teenaged stepchildren. Neither of us wants to become inattentive parents to our healthy children, but sometimes our son's emergency medical needs take precedent over those of our other kids. This past week, our son's doctors told us he would need another high-risk surgery to further combat his disease. They scheduled the surgery for the same day as my stepdaughter's fall dance recital. My stepdaughter loves dance, and it's her main extracurricular activity. This recital is the first time she has a solo performance, so it's a very big deal to her. My husband could theoretically go to the dance recital after our son goes in for surgery and be back from the dance recital around the time that our son comes out of surgery. My stepdaughter and her mom really want my husband to be there, and I know he wants to see his daughter dance, too. But I have asked him to stay with me during the surgery, because this isn't something I want to experience on my own, and I'm also terrified something might go wrong during the surgery. My stepdaughter is very upset, as is her mom, and my husband feels like he's in a no-win situation where he has to let down one of his kids. I have never asked my husband to "choose" our children over my stepchildren, and I never wanted to have to ask that. But I think that our son's high-risk surgery takes priority over the dance recital. I'm in need of someone who is unbiased to give me some advice.

I'm so sorry for the agony you're going through and I hope your son is headed for recovery.  Of course you want to be good parents to your other children, but this is not a normal time and you only have so much attention and emotional energy to go around. I hope other family members are stepping in to give support to you and your husband and especially to the other kids. If not, do not be shy about asking for it. Often people don't know what to do, so you should say, "Can you take the kids to the playground on Tuesday? We have a doctor's appointment that afternoon." If you haven't, set up one of those websites for people going through medical treatment that have calendars and wish lists so people can sign up to bring you meals or run errands, etc. It's understandable your stepdaughter wants her father to be at her big event, but I really wish his ex was acting like an adult. She should have explained to the girl that as much as dad wants to be there, a medical crisis is one of those things that has to be attended to.  Too bad the ex is only making things worse. Perhaps a compromise is that your husband provides the technology to make sure the recital is filmed  -- he could even watch it streaming.  It's also possible that  depending on how you feel and whether you have a family member or dear friend to be at the hospital with you, that you would be okay with having your husband go to at least part of the recital.  This would mean that your husband puts his phone on vibrate so he can receive a message from you if need be.  Also, please ask at the hospital for a support group for others going through the illness of a child. Airing  your feelings and getting advice from people who truly understand will make you feel less alone.

Hi Prudie, My mother has strong opinions - and a strong belief in expressing them. I am in my mid-30's and learned long ago to let my mother vent/rant and make neutral comments until the conversation turns to something else. However, my mother recently affixed a strongly worded Pro-Life bumper sticker to her car. On numerous occasions, strangers have made comments in parking lots or flipped her the bird when driving. This upsets her greatly. I think that if you put a strongly worded opinion on an emotional subject out for anybody to see then you open yourself up to criticism. How do I explain to her that not everybody cares about her opinion and not everybody will give her the wide berth that our family does? My father passed away years ago and my brother more or less ignores our mother when she gets on a rant, so it is up to me to address this issue.

I don't know why you have to explain this to her.  I hope your mother is functional enough to see for herself the truth of your insight.  If you're driving with her, tell her to ignore the remarks or actions of other people -- engaging could be dangerous. If she won't, refuse to go on trips in her car. Your brother's strategy is a good one. It doesn't sound as if your mother wants insight, she just wants a sounding board. But she will only hear her own voice if you just walk away.

My mom asked me to accompany her to a distant relative's 60th birthday celebration. She has a big family and we never really interacted much with her side, so I thought I'd go to meet some of my relatives. While I was eating dinner I looked up and saw my boyfriend's mother. I was surprised to see her and went over to say hi. Suddenly, my mom came over and began chatting with her, introducing me as her daughter. It turns out that my mother and my boyfriend's mother are actually first cousins! My boyfriend and I had been dating for a year and we were starting to talk about our future together. I don't know what the laws are, but even if it's legal for us to marry, I feel creeped out by the idea of my mother-in-law also being my second cousin. My boyfriend is devastated and says it doesn't matter. I feel heartbroken with the idea of breaking up but I feel like it's not right. Would it be completely gross if we, stayed together?

I think it would be ridiculous for you not to stay together.  My understanding is that the laws on cousin marriage are only about first cousins;  I think they should be repealed because this is not the state's business.  There's nothing to be devasted or creeped out about -- the whole thing is actually kind of funny.  If you and your boyfriend eventually decide to marry, you can get genetic counseling before you have children, which will likely be reassuring to you both. But no one should do more than shrug about kissing second-cousins.

My fiancé and I got engaged a few months back. A few months prior to that, his sister had announced her pregnancy. We felt it was a respectful length of time and announced our engagement. She was immediately seeing red and started being passive-aggressive to me. The problem? Our wedding is four months after her child's birth, and she feels like it should be at least a year later. My fiancé seems swayed by her argument. I've told him that even though she will be traveling for the wedding, there isn't much difference between traveling with a four-month-old or a year-old child. His sister is also already talking about having her second and third child soon. I asked him if we're expected to wait five years until all of her bundles are grown up before we can get married. I think she's just jealous because she feels her thunder has been stolen. She was the only girl growing up, and a spoiled one at that. I don't talk about the wedding in front of any of his family and try to keep all conversations focused on her to placate her. Am I wrong not to bow down and to keep our April wedding?

How derelict you have been.  Of course you should cancel your wedding plans -- your fiance's sister might still be breast-feeding! It's so insensitive of you to think someone should get married under those circumstances. After her baby is born, ask immediately for your future sister-in-law  to create an on-line spread sheet showing her fertile days and the times she has intercourse. That way you can antipate her reproductive schedule and plan your nuptials accordingly.

Alternatively, unless your fiance finds the wherewithal to stand up to his crazy sister, you might want to reconsider whether she should become your never-to-be-sister in law. "Respectful length of time" to announce your engagement?  Someone needs to clue in the sister that she doesn't have some lock on good news and other people's lives go on irrespective of her milestones.  Stop placating this idiot (again, another poor child with a whacked-out mother) and tell your fiance her behavior and demands are out-of-line and you aren't gong to play along anymore.

Dear Prudie, Almost four years ago, I was raped by an ex-boyfriend. Since then, I met and married my husband, who knew about the incident from the beginning of our relationship. In the time we've been married, I've gone to countless hours of therapy, and spent two years on anti-depressants before finally feeling stable enough to go without them. However, these emotional advancements have come at one cost: I am not interested in sex, at all, whatsoever. It has gotten to the point where I haven't had any sort of intimate contact with my husband in over a year. I was never particularly sexual, so it doesn't bother me, but it hits my husband hard. I feel sort of guilty, and think that my husband deserves better, but at the same time, he has occasional fits of rage, which he blames on 'too much stress from no sex'. I'm very confused, I really think my husband deserves a healthy relationship, but I'm not willing to put myself through the hell I went through just to get back to being a functioning human being. The idea of sex sends me into a panicking tailspin of shame and anxiety, and yet, the progress I've made is significant enough that I'll not throw it away. What is the best way to keep my sanity, and have a healthy relationship?

Please find a new therapist.  From your description you are terribly stuck and four years later have not been able to put your life together.  I wish I knew more about your husband's "fits of rage." Does he rage at you because of your celibate marriage? Do you feel threatened?  Or does he pop off when the remote won't work and ascribes his anger to sexual frustration? In any case, you need to do way more work on yourself before you can consider functioning in a helathy relationship.  Your marriage is so far from that unless big changes can be made, dissolving it might be the best thing.  Perhaps your husband is staying because he thinks you're too fragile to leave, but this marriage is leaving both of you so frustrated and even fearful that it's doing nothing of you any good. 

My first cousin married her second cousin, and they are well into a happy and healthy marriage with beautiful and healthy little babies. There's nothing wrong with planning a future together.

Thanks for this. I agree this should be a non-issue.

My sister's husband is going to jail for sleeping with one of his underage students. My sister does not want to divorce him and they will work on their marriage while he is in jail. The issue is that my kids adore their aunt and uncle, who don't have children. My sister and brother-in-law wants to visit with my kids as much as possible before my BIL goes away for a few years. My husband and I are not comfortable with letting my BIL around our kids, even if we don't believe the kids are in any danger from him. His student was sixteen, and that's really weird and gross to us. How do we explain our newfound feelings for my BIL while letting my sister know we still love and support her?

You explain to your sister that her husband is going off to jail for sexually violating a minor and you've got problems with him.  You say you want to support her through this, and she of course will remain close to your children, but you're still processing what he did and you can't carry on as if nothing had happened. If she doesn't get that, well, it helps explain the mentality of a Dottie Sandusky.

Dear Prudie, My husband and I are expecting with our first child in the summer. We are absolutely ecstatic! My mother will play an active role in watching the baby when I have to go back to work, but the idea of my mother-in-law caring for our baby in her home scares us! We both love her and we are very happy of her 10-month sobriety, but are much closer to my parents. MIL's house is incredibly dirty; my husband even got food poisoning after eating dinner at her place recently. I just can't imagine allowing my child to crawl around on the rarely vacuumed floor. Although she has stopped drinking, she still smokes, as does her live-in boyfriend. She also allows my husband's younger brother (22 years old) to free-load and smoke marijuana in the house. I don't believe she realizes how dirty her home is. How do I tell her that her home is not an environment that I want my child in, without causing hurt feelings? -Perplexed and pregnant.

You tell her that you're more comfortable having her come to your house. It doesn't matter that things aren't equal with the two grandmothers. Your mother is great, your mother-in-law barely functions. That means you limit your mother-in-law's contact with the baby to times you can supervise. She's got a drug user in the house and she's not even a year sober. Do no be bullied into letting her babysit.

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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