Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jun 17, 2013

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

I have a skin condition that causes me to look really red, like a bad sunburn. I've talked with my dermatologist, but unfortunately it's incurable with no treatment options. Sometimes if I'm really stressed or if I've been physically exerting myself it flares up, and I'm loathe to go out in public. I've had complete strangers go up to me and trumpet, "Wow! Your face is really red! I mean, REALLY red!" I try to brush it off by saying, "Well, that's what I get for taking a cruise..." However, last weekend I was shopping with a friend when an older man came up to me to (loudly) comment about how red I was. He even called his wife over to look! I uncharacteristically snapped and swore at him, calling him things I can't type here and getting in his space until he quickly slunk off. To be honest, it felt good to let him know what I really thought of all of these awful comments! My friend was shocked at how rude I was and told me that I shouldn't have done that. She knows about my skin condition and has heard the comments before, but when I told her he deserved it and I was sick of being polite, she told me she had to go and left the store. Prudie, I'm so sick and tired of these comments. I'm also upset that my friend doesn't understand how embarrassing and frustrating it is to have people constantly commenting on my appearance. What should I do?

It is truly astounding that strangers think they have a right to invade the privacy of those with unusual conditions, disabilities, or who have children of a different race, etc. Over the years I've had many questions from these beleagured troops on how to deflect nosy strangers. The most helpful advice has come from others in the same circumstance, who often advise quick disengagement. Simply walking away can be the best strategy. That way you have underlined the rudeness of the inquiry without the emotional cost to you of engagement.  Others have suggested a quick, "Excuse me, I don't talk to strangers."  But the key is to have a go-to response that allows to deflect the inquiry and get on with your day.  I totally understand that on this occasion this man was so rude that he flipped a switch in you which caused you to make a scene.  However embarrassed your friend was, surely she should have been appalled by the crudeness of the man who insulted you, and should have understood that sometimes things are just too much and we snap. Of course,  you don't want to make a habit of letting fly, but if giving this guy the business this one time gave you a sense of relief, then he sounds like a particularly deserving recipient.  Now that things have calmed down, you could reach out to your friend and explain that being pointed at like a circus freak simply made you snap, and that you're sorry she had to witness a scene that upset her. If she isn't understanding, then she's not much of a friend. I'm also wondering, however, how much of a doctor your dermatologist is. Of course he or she may be right and there may be simply nothing to do about your condition. But I think this requires a second opinion to make sure your are not missing out on any possible new treatments.  I also think you should look into temporary cosmetic fixes. There are skin foundations that are used to cover birthmarks which may be a good solution for you. You say your condition is sometimes so bad you don't want to go out it public, but it's terrible to feel constricted that way. It could be with a few minutes of cosmetic art, you could much more confidently blend into the crowd.

My husband and I have had a disagreement lately. I see no problem walking around my house in my undies (and sometimes less), not really caring if the curtains are opened or closed. My husband (who won't leave the bedroom without being fully dressed) thinks this makes me perverted since "anyone can look through the windows and see." I think that as long as I don't see anyone outside (and I do double check) and I'm hardly doing a dance in front of the window, then it's no big deal - typically I'm walking from point A to point B. Am I wrong for thinking there's nothing wrong with what I'm doing in the privacy of my own house?

If walking around scantily or unclad in your own home makes you a pervert then the definition of that word has more elasticity than a bra strap. Couples often differ on what constitutes a comfortable level of hanging out when hanging around. Your husband sounds like a Richard Nixon walking on the beach in a suit type. You apparently feel any wardrobe is a malfunction when it comes to relaxing.  I think partners should give each other a lot of leeway, but also respect respective sensibilities. If watching the playoffs on the couch in the nude is okay all around, great. But if one partner finds that distracting, the other should put on a robe, or some minimal clothing.  Of course you are entitled to walk around your house minimally (or not at all) dressed. But even if you scan the horizon to make sure no one is nearby, you can't prevent others from coming along, glancing in your window, and getting an eyeful.  For extended time around the home, you might be willing to compromise and wear a bathrobe, or shorts and a tee shirt, so that you're relaxed but not on display.

How do I interact with my brother and the extended family who treat him as a hero (he was in the military) when I recently found out he molested my sister as a child? He was 14 and my sister was 11, I was 10. Long story, but I heard a rumor from another sister and confirmed it with the one who was molested. He brushed it off as "playing doctors." My sister has had a long relationship of fear and strange reactions to him, which now make sense. She is 54 and he is 56 now. We are a large close-knit family, share a family camp, gatherings, etc.  Funny, but I always kept him at a distance even when younger. I didn't trust him. He always teased us in a way I thought was cruel. He is a nice enough guy now, served his country in the military, has a wife, children, and grandchildren. What do I do with this information? Do I bring this out in the open? Confront him privately? 

The most looming question is whether your brother's molestation was confined to that one sister, or whether he has "played doctor" possibly with generations of little girls. At this point, I don't know how much more you can do than keep a close eye on his interactions with the young people in the family, and have several of you who know the original story also make sure your brother isn't alone with any of them. It sounds as if your molested sister is still suffering from the after effects of her violation -- compounded by the fact that all of you feel forced into jolly family get-togthers. For advice on what to do, I suggest you, and preferably both you and your sister who was abused, contact either the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network or  Stop It Now.  It sounds as if your sister needs therapy to work through what happened and to have a strategy for when she finds herself with her brother. The rest of you need to figure out how to proceed and whether there is continuing danger. Even if a family is close knit, that doesn't mean you are required to be permanently tangled with someone who makes you ill. But you want to talk this all out with people knowledgeable about abuse and how families react when, or if, these long-hidden secrets are unearthed.

Hi Prudie! When I was young, my father had an ongoing affair (he is now married to the mistress) that eventually led to my parents' divorce. I don't think my Mom ever really moved past it although she is remarried to an amazing man who I love dearly. My father and I have never been very close but have built a cordial relationship in the last few years. I'm not sure how to handle my mother on this as she blows up whenever she hears about any interactions with my stepmother (dinner, a christmas party, funerals, etc). I understand that the affair was painful but they've been divorced for 15 years and she's moved on to a better relationship with a better man and is living her dream life. (I don't know how my stepfather deals with her on this matter, it has to be hurtful.) My brother also finds my mother crazy about this but has chosen to generally pretend our stepmother doesn't exist to keep the peace with mom - which I find absurd. How do I maintain my very close and wonderful relationship with my mother while still having one with my father and stepmother? My parents still talk on occasion so I can't just hide it. Thanks so much!

Your father hurt her a lot, but 15 years later, and living her dream life with a more suitable man, it would be nice if your mother could start thinking, "This all worked out for the best." However unhappy the marriage, it is simply unfair, and very bad parenting, for one parent to try to ruin a child's relationship with the other parent.  Your mother is not entitled to dictate how close you are to your father or how warm your relationship with his new wife. Your father at least is doing you the favor of not trying to harm your relationship with your mother and her new husband. So you need to make some boundaries with Mom, and it would be good if your brother would join you in this.  You don't have to rub things in her face, but you can start acting as if it's perfectly normal to see your father and his wife on holidays or at large family events -- or even for dinner. If your mother blow up, the first few times you have to say, "Mom, I  know your marriage to Dad ended badly, but it was a long time ago, you're both happier with other people, and he's still my father." If that isn't good enough, you have to reevaluate your "close and wonderful relationship" with you mother because in part it requires your being bullied about your having any relationship with your father, and that's not wonderful. Refuse to listen to her rants or have her dictate who you can and can't see. Yes, this will be hard because you have a long pattern of kowtowing to her emotionally. But it will be better for everyone if you stop. And it sounds as if husband number two must be a saint.

Dear Prudie, I'm having an ongoing discussion/argument with my husband regarding his seatbelt use - or rather, lack thereof - and I'm hoping you can help me! We are in our early 30s and husband grew up being taught from both his parents that seatbelts don't make a difference. His mom had an aunt who was unable to get out of a car after a nasty wreck because she became entangled in the belt, and died. This was of course tragic, however it was many, many years ago, and safety regulations have changed, but husband doesn't listen to that argument. Husband himself rear-ended someone when he was in his early 20s, and just happened to walk away with just a few bruises, and he will use this to say, "see? I wasn't hurt, and I won't be hurt". Between this and my FIL's small town "i've never worn them, you can't make me" attitude, my otherwise completely logical and amazing husband refuses to wear a seatbelt. We now have a child on the way, and I've point blank told him once that child is born, he will be wearing the belt at all times, to which he rolls his eyes and acts like I'm spewing conspiracy theories. I've tried explaining it's for the baby's safety as well as his, and he just replies, "well of course the kid will be buckled in!" How can I possibly convince him that his not being belted can endanger the life of everyone else in the car as well as his own life? --Half Buckled

Of the four people in the car the night former Princess Diana died, the only one who lived was the one wearing a seat belt. Your husband and his parents simply couldn't be more wrong.  Now that your husband is about to become a father, it might be worth it to do some research on seatbelts to present to him -- the National Transportation Safety Board and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are a couple of places to start. The story of his aunt's death is a family legend, but who knows how true it is, and likely this is an old story and seatbelt technology has improved exponentially since then. I hope your husband knows he will be breaking the law if he refuses to wear a seat belt, particularly while driving with a child.  Wearing a seatbelt is no more a  matter of personal preference than deciding on what the speed limit should be.  But if logic won't work, action might. From now on, refuse to drive with him unless he buckles up. Of course this might be inconvenient, but you can explain he is putting your new family at risk by exposing himself to the dangers of being unbelted.  If an accident were to happen, he would be an uncontained missile in the car. Explain to him that you  would rather not be caring for a new child and a brain-damaged husband, and you are not going along for the ride unless he obeys the law.

A few months ago, my twelve-year-old daughter stole a book from a grocery store. A security guard caught her, and because the store (thankfully) decided not to press charges, her mom and I handled her punishment. I do not think my daughter will shoplift again, and while I want my daughter to understand what she did was wrong, I don't think it's productive to continue to shame her for her mistake. Her stepfather thinks differently. My ex-wife's husband used to be in the military and is now a cop, and he thinks very poorly of criminals. He continually brings up the shoplifting incident to his friends and his family, and he will discuss the moral demerits of my daughter's behavior. My daughter feels humiliated each time he discusses her crime, and she has begun to think of herself as a bad person. My ex-wife claims she has spoken to her husband about how much he discusses the shoplifting incident, but by and large, nothing has changed. I have deep concerns about my children's stepfather, and I'm not sure how to let my ex-wife know how serious I am about this without starting a major feud. What steps should I take next?

It sounds as if you and your ex handled this situation very well, but it can't be put to rest because The Great Santini of a stepfather keeps psychologically bashing your daughter. I'm wondering if the incident itself wasn't your daughter's way of acting out against this judgmental, punitive person in her life. I agree you're in a delicate situation since attacking the person your wife has married is bound to not go over well with her. I think you should discuss this with a counselor who specializes in stepfamilies. You need some strategy for dealing with the stepfather, and particularly for helping your daughter. She likely could use the help of her own counselor to help her sort through this situation. If things get bad enough, you may need a legal strategy for getting primary custody. You need to make clear to your daughter that you don't like what her stepfather is doing and saying, you want her to be able to talk this out with you, and you will do your best to try to bring this up with her mother. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone is being bullied by the new stepdad.

Along with research and putting her foot down, the wife could present her stubborn husband with one of those tools that shatters car windows and slices seatbelts in case of entrapment. I think they can go on a keychain.

Great suggestion.  The husband knowing he can slice through the seatbelt might be enough to mollify him into wearing one. A nice, fat moving violation fine might also help.

Thanks. I'll check into those organizations for sure. I would like to know if I should confront my brother with this knowledge. Also, I am quite certain that he has not molested any other young relatives. He cheated on his wife quite often over the years but they both seem okay with that, so I've withheld judgement except for thinking "yuck." I'm guessing that's how he got his jollies as an adult. Also, I want to let you know that my sister is getting counseling now. She suffers from acute depression and was unable to work last year due to it. Now she has breast cancer. I think the depression may be the childhood trauma surfacing.

Talk to the experts, but you have to figure out what you want this confrontation to accomplish, because it certainly doesn't sound as if your brother is going to cop to doing anything more than "normal" childhood playing. Your big, happy family seems to have a lot of dark secrets (this is a well-noted phenomenon). It sounds, however, as if your energies should be directed toward helping your sister, not toward trying to get something out of your brother he is not not going to give. It is a relief to think that there haven't been other victims.

I worked as an EMT several years -- we've never unbuckled a dead person in an accident. We did see people thrown out of cars who were killed, and people who bounced around the inside of a car and were real messed up. Very very rarely a person will get trapped inside a burning car, but that's very much the exception. For the most part, cars in an accident only blow up and burn in the movies, not real life. I call anyone who does not put a child in a carseat a potential murderer.

Thanks for this from someone who has been at the scene of many accidents.

Prudie, I'm a 24 year old woman who recently moved back home with my parents. My step brother is 31 years old and has never left the nest. After moving in, I noticed that my dirty unmentionables began disappearing. Last week, after entering my step brothers room, I found an article hanging beneath his pillow. He's been my brother for almost 15 years. I don't know how to approach this. I love him, but I'm seriously creeped out. What should I do?

Do everything you can to get your finances together and move out. A stepbrother in his thirties whose never left home and steals his sister's dirty underwear -- well, I hear those staccato violins squealing in the background.  I'm not suggesting you personally are in danger, but there's something seriously off with stepbrother and you and your laundry would be better off at your own place. But his problem sounds larger than locking up your hamper. If your parents aren't dealing with why their son never fledged, there is some serious pathology going on. Maybe it's time to talk to your parents about what's going on with Norman. Until you go on your own way, maybe you could put a lock on your bedroom door. Certainly you can leave a note on your basket of dirty undies, "Norman, hands off."

I'm writing because my daughter, who is 4-years-old, is feeling isolated because of me. I have always had a hard time making and keeping friends. Even in grade school I had very few friends. I always felt like I didn't belong anywhere, and I still carry that with me as an adult. My husband and daughter are my comfort zone. So now that I have a child my problem, for lack of a better word, is affecting her. Every day she wants to do things that normal kids do, but sometimes I physically can't go out the front door or even answer my phone when it rings. The thought of arranging play dates terrifies me. Prudie, I don't know what to do, my daughter is suffering because of ME. Signed, My Daughter is Lonely

Despite your social problems you manage to connect with another person and form a loving marriage, so give yourself credit for this and use it as a platform to build from. Good for you for recognizing your own limits and not wanting them to interfere with your daughter's happy functioning.  It sounds however, as if you're suffering, and that has to be addressed. A cognitive behavioral therapist might be a good choice because the treatment would be focused on giving you exercises to help you overcome your difficulty in going out and socializing. You could tell your therapist one of your goals is to interact more with other parents so that your daughter has access to playmates. I hope your little girl has been in pre-school and that she is signed up for summer programs. That gives her easy access to other children and get togthers.  Try trading off small activities with other mothers. You could offer to take two of the girls out for lunch and to the playground one day, in exchange for the other mother doing it another. And it's a little sexist to expect all childhood activities are filtered through moms. Let your husband step up and arrange playdates, too.  Instead of beating yourself up, recognize what you're doing well for your daughter, and address what you can do better.

From the OP, thank you for the support and ideas, and from the other commenters. I definitely feel more confident in telling him this is a non-negotiable, starting now! (as for moving violations, he's lucked out, and only had a couple.)

Great. Start putting this into action right away. Sometimes there are things for which there is no compromise, and seat belts are one.

Dear Prudence, After trying for nearly two years, including months of fertility treatments, my husband and I were thrilled to find out that I was pregnant. Our friends, family, and co-workers have shared in our excitement. One co-worker in particular was kind enough to give me enough maternity clothes to last the entire pregnancy. To show my gratitude, I sent her a thank you card and a gift certificate to one of her favorite haunts. Unfortunately, at the second trimester ultrasound we got some very bad news. The baby has a birth defect that is "not compatible with life." (The birth defect was caused by a random genetic mutation and not the fertility treatments.) If I were to carry the pregnancy to term, he would live for a few hours at most. Rather than subject him to this suffering, my husband and I have decided that the most humane option is to terminate the pregnancy. When the timing is right, I would very much like to try to get pregnant again. While grieving this turn of events, I've also been preoccupied with how I should handle the maternity clothes. Do I offer to return them, and if so, how do I have that conversation? It's a trivial matter compared to everything else that is going on, but I am loathe to offend someone who has been so generous with me. Heartbroken

I'm so sorry for your news, which is so sad and painful. There's nothing unusual in being in an overwhelming situation and finding yourself focusing on a small, even trivial matter because the big things are just too hard.  You didn't say your co-worker loaned you the clothes, you said she gave them to you. You thanked her generously.  So there's nothing you need to do about this gift.  Your co-worker would certainly hope -- as you do -- that in due time this gift will again be useful.  So put the clothes away and don't give them another thought. If you need to talk to others who have been through what you are going through, consider contacting Share, which is a support group for pregnancy and infant loss.

Thanks so much, 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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