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Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Nov 26, 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.

Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving.  This weekend I went to the stores and did my part for the economy. So much so that my card was declined when I was buying socks.  A call to the credit card company had them explaining to me they became suspicious because I appeared to be "in a frenzy."

When my ex and I were married, we had trouble conceiving and years of heartache. I thought our marriage was strong enough to survive this, then I discovered he was having an affair with my sister. We had a huge, traumatic confrontation and my then-husband and I decided to move and make a fresh start. A few weeks after we moved, my sister gave the news that - surprise! - she was pregnant. My ex then divorced me to start a family with her. Because I'd just started a new job and had a mortgage, it was financially impossible for me to leave. I stayed in the new city by myself and eventually made friends and settled there. My parents were also very hurt and angry, but when the baby came they mellowed and reconciled. My niece is now five and I have never met her. We take turns attending family functions because I can't bear to be in the same room as them. Recently my parents gently asked if I would consider having a Christmas dinner with my sister. I told them I would think about it and I really did. I took a deep breath and went on my sister's Facebook page for the first time. There, I saw hundreds of happy pictures of them as a family. My ex-husband kissing her after she'd just given birth, photos of the happy first birthday party, family trips, etc. She was tagged in a status update from my ex - "Celebrating another amazing anniversary with my beautiful wife, thank you for giving me so much happiness and our perfect daughter." I literally vomited after reading that. After five years, is it time for me to get over it and try to force myself to at least tolerate their company?

It's no wonder what you saw made you sick to your stomach. The violation against you was enormous.   However, I don't think you should conclude that the only way you could be with them is to have a bunch of air sickness bags with you. You have been in a bubble of denial for the past five years, so a tidal wave of evidence of the happy family life you feel these cheaters stole from you is bound to be overwhelming.  If over the past few years you'd had some minial contact with them and knew your niece slightly, you would be in a different place emotionally now. Yes, you might have still concluded you want nothing to do with them, but you would have make that decision from a more rational place. So give yourself time. You may want, possibly with the help of a therapist or even a friend, to give yourself some desensitization therapy. Instead of consuming picture of the past five years at one gulp, over the next few months, you could look occasionally at pictures of your niece. She is the innocent party here, and focusing on her might enable you to see that painful as it is, something positive  has come out of all this. But Christmas is too soon for this.  If you are going to find yourself being able to be in the room with this reconstituted family, it would be better to do it at a less loaded time -- say a weekend in February with no connotations of holiday joy. Whatever you decide vis a vis your sister, be proud that you have moved on and built a happy life for yourself. (And how often to brothers and sisters-in-law get it on? Just a few weeks ago I got a letter from a guy who impregnated his brother's wife, but the brother remains none the wiser.)

Last year my friend's girlfriend disappeared with their two young children. He was desperate to find them, but he did not trust the police so he did not involve them. I saw his girlfriend a few weeks later when I went to visit my sister a few hours away from where my friend and I lived. She seemed to be working at a hair salon. I called my friend and told him I'd seen her and where. My friend tracked his girlfriend down, followed her home, and killed her and one of their kids before taking his own life. I had no idea his girlfriend fled because he'd been abusing her; nothing ever indicated to me that he was controlling or violent. Even so, I am haunted by my mistake. I have fallen apart over the past year. I cannot hold down a job or maintain relationships. Two innocent people are dead because of me, and a child will grow up an orphan because of me. No one knows my involvement in the case. I fear a counselor would push me to confess to the victim's families. Maybe that is what I deserve: to be hated by them. I do not know what to do with myself.

I can understand your agony. While it is too late for this tragedy, it's good for anyone concerned about a friend or family member's domestic crisis that if someone does not want to police involved when that is the obvious place to turn, alarm bells should ring.  You need to start taking steps to get on with your life. Naturally, you are awash with guilt, but your own ruination will do no one any good. You know you acted in all innocence  -- there are plenty of cases in which one parent absconds with the children leaving a decent parent bereft. You obviously would never have tipped off your friend had you known he was a maniac. First, I think you should  have a consultation with a criminal defense lawyer. I'm not saying you are criminally liable, but you need to get these potential issues resolved. Then you do need to talk to a counselor. You must figure out a way to deal with your guilt and rebuild a productive life. This event will always be a scar across your psyche, but being destroyed yourself only makes one more person a victim of that monster.

I am about to relocate to another state. My brother and his wife live in our soon to be home town and have generously offered me and my family a room until we find our own place. However, they have large nude portraits of themselves - one of my brother and another one of my SIL - hanging in the main hallway. They are not posing in any sexually suggestive way, but you see everything. Last time we visited my son was a toddler and the pictures weren't an issue. He is now five and I feel it's inappropriate for him to see nude portraits of his aunt and uncle. Is it rude if I ask them to take down the pictures? I'm all for giving kids age-appropriate sex ed, but I fear this is just too much too soon.

This isn't sex ed, it's art appreciation.  You simply can't ask your brother and sister-in-law to cover  their portraits the way former Attorney General John Ashcroft had the partially nude Sprit of Justice covered with drapes.  Your son will likely take a cue from you so if you don't take notice of the paintings he might not even focus on them. But if you find him staring, fascinated, then open the discussion by saying, "Those are interesting paintings, aren't they?" And whatever he says handle it with humorous ablomb. Keep in mind there's no age at which it's too son for a kid to understand that everyone is naked under their clothes.

My brother and sister-in-law invited our family and four other families over for Thanksgiving this weekend. We all brought side dishes, wine, desserts, and drinks so that they only needed to cook the turkey. When the meal was done, my sister-in-law came up to me and asked me to make sure to leave a check before we left. I asked her what the check was for and she said it was for hosting the dinner. She said $100 per couple should cover it. I was floored. The turkey only cost about $30 and everyone else bought at least as much in side dishes and wine. She told me there are a lot of costs that guests just don't see. In order to avoid a scene, I wrote her a check (I know at least one other family reluctantly paid her as well). I asked my brother what that was about and he didn't know anything about it. $500 to cook a turkey and host a dinner seems a bit steep to me - what should we do?

You should make other plans for Christmas if this chisler has invited you to celebrate that holiday. If you normally exchange gifts with them, consider that $100 for breast meat to be sufficient for the season.  It's true there are hidden costs to hospitality, but invited guests are normally not expected to cover that month's mortgage. Your sister-in-law is a nut, and if you're ever invited for another gathering, tell her you'll supply your own peanut butter and jelly.

I will soon begin chemotheraphy to battle cancer. My husband and I have three children under six, so we'll need childcare help over the coming months. My parents, who live thirty minutes away, would love to watch our kids when I am too sick to or when my husband needs to work. I would prefer this arrangement. My husband thinks his ex-wife Madeline should watch our kids, since she lives ten minutes away. He and Madeline have two teenagers together, so spending time with Madeline would mean recieving additional support from their older brothers. I enjoy a fabulous relationship with Madeline, and she is a fantastic mom. But I still want my parents to be our children's primary babysitters while I'm undergoing chemo. Part of me selfishly worries that my kids will begin to prefer Madeline when my hair falls out and I'm kind of scary because of the drugs I will be taking. I also feel more comfortable with my parents for reasons I can't explain; I feel like I won't be as worried about being sick or having rough days in front of them. I could use some outside perspective on this.

I'm so sorry you are going through this and I wish you a swift and complete recovery.  You are blessed with several people who can step in to help with the kids, run errands, cook meals and otherwise keep life as normal as possible. However, not one of these people will replace you in your children's hearts, no matter how upsetting it is to see you ill.  Please do your best to prepare your children in an age appropriate way for what's ahead. (Readers any book suggestions or advice on this?) You do not have to choose between caregivers, and your husband should be sensitive to your desires. But if your treatment is a long haul it sounds as if it would be good to organize shifts of your parents and Madeline. Keeping your kids active and happy and surrounded by the many loving people in their lives will be the best medicine for all of you.

Dear Prudence It has recently been brought to my attention that my 35-year-old son is being accused of sexually molesting the son of my best friend. At the time their ages were 13 (my son) and 4 (her son). I am shocked and shaken but at the same time I believe my son who says it is not true. My best friend is upset as well and wants my son to admit it and apologize. Prudence, I am at a loss of what to do. I feel as if a 40 year friendship is going to end. Both families just found out about it as my godson just told his mother. We are all trying to deal with this. My daughter says we should all get the proper counseling if needed and move on with our separate lives. She says nothing can be done legally since my son denies it anyway. I am terrified of what might can happen and mourn a potentially lost valued friendship?

I think your daughter is right. This is a situation in which the truth may never be known  (and the statutes of limitations has run on the potential crime). If your son absolutely denies the accusation, of course he's not going to apologize. And your friend seems naive to think that an apology would wrap things up and the friendship could continue. What a devastating turn of events; talking it through with a neutral party can help you deal with the fallout.

My friend was unemployed for a couple of months before I recommended him for a position at my company. This job pays him significantly better than his last. After a period of financial stress and uncertainly he is really splurging out - he bought a brand new TV, he's treating his family and friends with gifts, and he's talking about booking a vacation to Mexico next summer. He's been shopping almost every week and I can see he's making the most out of his higher income. However, our employer privately confided that due to various unforeseen circumstances, he may have to make several positions redundant, including my friend's new role. I am of course not allowed to disclose this to anybody, but I am worried for my friend. He is on a good salary so if he starts saving now, he shouldn't be in too much trouble while he looks for another job. I tentatively asked if he was concerned about finances after being unemployed and he said he wants to enjoy his money for another month or two before he starts serious saving. He might not have a job by then! Any way I can tactfully tell him he should save his money without giving anything away?

The most junior person hired at a company during a fragile economy should have the sense to realize good fortune may not last forever.  You've already broached the subject of your friend's spending frenzy, and he responsed that he wants to indulge himself.  You're under no obligation to give further lectures on belt-tightening, especially if it might mean you're violating the terms of your own employment. 

I was an unmarried teenager when I gave birth to my now eight-year-old daughter Mandy. I am now engaged to Peter, a wonderful man who loves me and adores Mandy. The issue is Peter's parents. This don't care for Mandy, and they don't think much of me because I was in a position to give birth as an unwed teenager. They have lectured me a few times about premarital sex and the like. Christmas is coming up, and my future mother-in-law has informed me that she and her husband will not be buying presents for Mandy, neither will Peter's siblings. Mandy's not entitled to presents, but since Peter's family does a big Christmas get together, Mandy will see a bunch of kids get presents while she does not. It's hard to explain something like this to a kid. Peter's pretty upset with his family, but they're still his family, and ditching them would be incredibly painful for him, obviously. Do you have any advice?

Peter may be a wonderful man, but I hope one of his good qualities is that he is capable of standing up to his parents on behalf of his future wife and stepchild. There is still a few weeks left before Christmas, so  I Peter needs to have a sitdown with his parents informing him that you and your daughter are going to be a part of the family and if his parents want all of you to be in their lives -- and that includes the grandchildren to come --  they need to stop making invidious comparisons among the grandchildren.  Since Mandy is a new arrival it would be fine  if they simply get her one thoughtful gift, but to deliberately leave her on the sidelines is unconscionable.  If they back down, then you and Peter should each buy her a gift for under the tree so she doesn't feel left out. An 8 year-old is also old enough to be told that joining a new family can be a awkward and uncomfortable but that you and Peter will be looking out for her.  If you go and Peter's family behaves dreadfully, you and he should have a signal that enough is enough and make an early exit from the non-festivities.

I am a 28 year old woman. Last month, my parents were killed in an automobile accident. We were very close, and it has been very hard for me, but I am doing as well as can be expected. Now that the holidays are upon us, I'm struggling to make plans. Thanksgiving was a big deal in our family. My parents hosted up to 25-40 people every year for as a long as I can remember. This year, I opted out of the holiday; just my boyfriend and me, pajamas, chinese food, and Netflix. I don't yet know what I'll be doing in December. Here's the problem; everyone I know is asking about my holiday plans, and inviting me to "family" events. I understand that they're trying to be helpful and supportive, and I very much appreciate the invites from family and close friends, but I'm getting invites from people I barely know. Many of these people are my students' parents (I teach high school) but some of them are random people who work in the community center my school rents space from.  I really do appreciate that people are trying to help, and it's nice to know so many people care, but it's very upsetting to have to field these questions over and over. Every time I talk about it, I choke up, and I really don't like being "on display" like that at work, especially in front of students. Do you have any advice on how to duck these well-intentioned but intrusive questions/invites?

I'm so sorry for your loss. Of course you are in agony, but over time you will be grateful that you have been so embraced by your community. But it's natural that dealing with outpouring is impossible right now.  I think you should designate a few good communicaters to spread the word that while you are grateful for everyone's generosity, for now you are finding it most healing to deal with your grief alone. It could be that a listserv notice is sent on your behalf to fellow faculty and another goes out to parents explaining your holiday (non)plans. It could also include the name of a charity your parents cared about in case people wanted to make donations -- often people want to something useful. You will continue to have to deal with person to person discussions, but just say while you appreciate their concern and it's all so raw you just can't talk about your loss right now.

Our prayers go with you for healing. Two suggestions: American Cancer Society has a good selection of advice and resources for helping kids deal with a parent's cancer: Second: sit down now with your husband and define the kind of care you want. Make sure that he understands what YOU want and need, not what he assumes (in all love) you want and need. When you are napping or in bed, do you want the kids to come play on the bed? How do you want to handle visitors, dropped off food, flowers etc. (e.g., create a book where caregivers can log messages and notes, a place where they can gather cards for you to read when you want to, etc.) Think about this stuff now, write it down, plan ahead so that you both understand the kind of care that works FOR YOU. Everyone is different in what feels nurturing and helpful (on the best of days). Having some of this worked through in advance will not make things easier, but it will keep from making them harder.

Great advice, thank you. Sounds like you've been there.

I find this advice to be a little strange. Yes, the niece is an innocent party, but what does that have to do with anything? The niece isn't being punished one bit by not getting to know her aunt. It would be far worse for the aunt to try and reconcile if she doesn't really want to, and can't forgive what her sister and husband did. Honestly, if it were me I'd rather just let the niece think I'm the weird, estranged aunt and move on with my life. Just because a person is your sister and that sister has a kid, that does not mean she they must have a relationship.

I'm not saying forgive or even reconcile. It's true that the LW may just decide to go through life never being in the room when her sister, ex, and niece are there. But eventually the time will come -- a parent's bedside, a family wedding, a funeral -- when either the sisters  decide who will go or who won't, or the LW will have to be face to face with each other.  I'm  suggesting it might be better to defang this situation before then, if the LW is willing to entertain the idea. It's also possible she might be able to normalize the fact that this niece exists.

My good friends Erica and Tom remain close to my verbally abusive ex-boyfriend Todd. They witnessed Todd's treatment of me - cursing at me and calling me a [expletive] because I brought him the wrong brand of beer at a party - a number of times. Although they were appalled by Todd's behavior, they never called him on it or intervened. I know they both struggle with social anxiety and being assertive towards friends, and we have had talks about why they never said anything to Todd. I know part of the problem was that I forgave Todd too many times, and they followed my lead. The last time Todd blew up at me, he did so in a public place in our college's property, so he was expelled. He found a job in the same town, and now he , Erica and Tom get together a few times a month. I know how immature it is to ask people to take sides, and I know I have no right to dictate with whom Tom and Erica are friends. It still wounds me that they remain friends with Todd, though, and I don't know how to stop feeling hurt or mistrusting them.

Since you kept forgiving Todd you are displacing responsibility for your relationship onto Erica and Tom. However, since they witnessed what an abuser he was, it's appalling in its own right that they remain close to him.  But they do.  Imagine the conversation in which you ask them to dump him.  Since they keep their friendships separate, unless they are regaling you with reports of Todd's amusing banter, they could reply that it's really none of your business whom they see when they're not with you.  If their friendship with him bothers you so much, then maybe you need to cool yours with them.

Dear Prudence, My best friend from childhood is getting married in six months, and I am the matron of honor. I have been struggling with infertility, and was planning on trying in vitro in the spring. Well, to my surprise, I am unexpectedly pregnant. Obviously, my husband and I are thrilled. My family is thrilled. My friend is absolutely furious. She is angry that I will "spoil" her wedding pictures by being about eight months pregnant, and she is worried that I won't fit into any dress that matches her plan. She is accusing me of intentionally ruining her big day. I want to simply tell her to get lost, but her family is close to mine, there is a lot of history there, and I worry about the repercussions between our families if I was to cut her out of my life. Frankly, I wish she would just "fire" me as MOH, and make things easier. I have tried to explain to her, I didn't plan on this pregnancy, as I really thought I would never get pregnant on my own, and I had hoped she would be happy for me, as she knew everything we were going through. She just doesn't get it though, and continues to play the victim here. I could *almost* ignore her selfishness here, except she has started making comments along the lines of, "Well, you may not even be pregnant when the wedding comes. With all your fertility issues, you may just miscarry, so no big deal." I almost lost my mind at that point. I am beyond stressed about her and this wedding after all of this. Is it too late for me to just say no?

Your best friend hopes you miscarry so that you can properly devote your energies to her perfect day and not to your impending motherhood. What more do you need to know? It doesn't matter that the two families are close, someone has to clue this bride into the fact that she's become a gargoyle. You inform her right away that because of your pregnancy you will not be able to attend her wedding, period. No excuse making for your thoughless reproduction plans, no snide comments that you're thinking the wedding might not come off because you hope the groom realizes he's about to hitch himself to a lunatic.

I wrote you several weeks ago about discovering I was pregnant at 45 (childless by choice couple). I've since terminated the pregnancy. My husband did not want to have a baby, and I was unsure. I felt I had only bad options. I made the most prudent decision given the circumstances, but am having an incredibly difficult emotional time in the aftermath. I already have a good counselor, but I feel like I need more intensive assistance for a week or two, maybe a month. Are you aware of any places that offer such help? I've researched two, but each are an astounding $40,000 for 30 days! PS I am not Christian and religious therapy is not for me. Thank you for your kind guidance before, and hopefully this time too.

The organization Exhale offers support for free.  I can't imagine what kind of organization charges more than $1,000 a day to help you get over an abortion.

I am throwing a baby shower at my house for a friend with a guest list of 10+ people, most of whom I do not know. All the food is going to cost quite a bit so I want to ask guests to split the costs. Is it breaching hostess etiquette to ask? Should I shoulder the full cost since it is being held at my home?

If you feed them turkey apparently you can charge $50 a head.  If you couldn't afford to host, you shouldn't have offered. If you would like to split the cost, see if you can get another friend to co-host with you.  Food for a dozen or so people should not break the bank. Just make it a mid-afternoon dessert and cheese affair.

Another thing to keep in mind is this will be a lot of support to expect from one person. In all likelihood, it will be a mix of the parents, the ex-wife and other friends / family that will pitch in with support. A great resource for us when supporting a family member with cancer and young children was which allowed the mom to define the tasks and kind of care she wanted and those of us that wanted to help the opportunity to see where we were most needed.

Another good suggestion, thanks. This allows the family to post news of the recovery and for people to sign up to bring meals, run errands, etc. without bothering the recovering person with lots of phone calls.

Maybe she was looking into in-patient therapy.

She weighed her choices and made what she decided was the best one.  Spending 30 days and $40,000 to keep going over this in some hospital-like setting seems extremely counter-productive.

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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