Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jan 27, 2014

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. I look forward to your questions.

Dear Prudie, After meeting my sister-in-law, my brother washed his hands of our family and his former friends. We used to be quite close and to the extent of my knowledge there wasn't a specific incident that led to his current behavior other than meeting SIL and adopting her lifestyle and family. While I acknowledge that his life is his choice, I'm struggling to deal with the impact his abandonment has had on my parents. For example, when my brother married he only invited a handful of his relatives and friends (we didn't even take up a whole table at the reception) to a 300 person ceremony and my immediate family appeared in exactly two of thousands of photos. My mother cried for weeks afterwards and family friends constantly talk about staging an intervention. My brother and his wife never visit my parents and he only calls if my SIL is not around. Now they have a small child and my father refuses to acknowledge the child to keep from getting attached and my mother's heart is broken with not being able to have a relationship with her grandchild. The situation is only made worse by a plethora of pictures and comments online to the tune of "My mother is the best grammy ever!" and "(Baby) is so lucky to have such an amazing family!" in reference to SIL's folks. I hate having all the holiday appearances and grandchildren needs fall on my shoulders, but more importantly, I hate seeing my parents hurt without knowing the reason why. What can I say or do to help the situation?

I'm going to take your word that this is not a case in which your brother is distancing himself from an abusive or overly controlling family, but that your sister-in-law is engaging in a systematic campain of alienation of affection. These situations are both heart-breaking and baffling for the family left behind. For some reason, certain people are vulnerable to a cult-like romance in which the new partner dictates who is acceptable and who is not. We recognize more clearly when it's a husband who isolates his wife from her family and friends that he's dangerously controlling. From your description, your brother is being terribly manipulated by his wife.   Unfortunately, your brother willingly signed up for this. Either his wife has him convinced that your family is toxic, or he realizes he will pay too big a price at home if he tries to see his family. That he does call when his wife is out indicates he has a glimmer of understanding that his situation is not normal. Your brother is an adult and presumably competent, so painful as it is, your family might have to recognize there's not much you can do. Perhaps you, however, can act as a bridge. If you're in the same town, suggest lunch with your brother. Tell him how much you all miss him and say that now that you're both parents you want the cousins to get to know each other. Don't lay on a guilt trip, but see if there's an opening to get the kids together, which could lead to more contact generally. I think your father's position vis a vis the child is counterproductive. Your family does not want to give your sister-in-law evidence to build her case that you are all cold and unloving. So all of you should mark the baby's birthday with gifts and cards. You should occasionally call or email neutral good wishes, even if they are not returned. And all of you should stop looking at the social media announcements of your sister-in-law, which aren't so much a news feed as a daily twisting of a knife in a wound.

I recently became pregnant after four years of fertility treatments. Needless to say, my husband and I are overjoyed. We were so excited to share the news with our families. Then literally the day after we announced our pregnancy, my SIL texted everyone to say she just found out SHE was pregnant (with her third). I am so upset. She has known about our trouble with conceiving and has always been supportive. I thought she would be more considerate of our news, especially since she's done this twice before. We are meeting up for a family gathering soon and I don't know how I can face her. All the grandchildren on my husband's side are girls and I don't know how I'd feel if she had the first grandson and I had a girl like everybody else. Please give me tips on how I can act normal around her while I'm seething.

When you all get together, you could suggest you'll reserve an ice floe to float away her little bundle of joy in case the baby turns out to have XY chromosomes. I hear from a lot of women struggling with infertility who find it a struggle to be around happy, fecund friends and family members. But there's something perverse about someone who finds she is pregnant and wishes to wave a magic wand to make disappear any other gestating family members. I don't know if the tone of your sister-in-law's email was, "Ha-ha, forget Jennie's baby, I'm having a third!" or "Hey, more good news. I'm pregnant, too. It will be so much fun to have cousins who are like twins!" Whatever the case, you need to act as if you personally believe the latter sentiment. Each year about 4 million babies are born in the U.S. and nearly every one of them is thought to be the most precious gift imaginable -- which each one is. But parents should understand everyone else's child is equally important and anticipated, be it the first or the third. My best tip for how you can act normal is to recognize you are acting abnormally, and that you decide your are going to be happy to have a close, knowledgeable person you can turn to when you have questions about the miracle that's happening inside you.

Dear Prudie, For background, I have Asperger's syndrome, or mild autism as they call it now. While I still have some difficulties in social interactions, with constant practice and some therapy, I have gotten to the point where I can generally pass without more than an occasional raised eyebrow. This experience, however, has me second guessing myself. I am a large, rather imposing fellow with professional experience in security. About three months or so ago, I received a card (a legitimate snail mail card) from a very nice young lady who I know through work, stating that she had had a dream about me, in which she and some female friends were being harassed and I showed up and drove them away. I let her know that I had received it through a Facebook message, because I really didn't and don't know what to say. Having stumbled across the card again while cleaning my apartment, I am once again asking myself A) if there was a better way to have responded to it and B) if it was considered normal to send that type of card in the first place. A little clarification would be most appreciated. Signed, Socially Awkward (acknowledged)

It is considered normal to send such a card if the person sending it is perhaps a little shy and socially awkward herself and is trying to think of a safe way to initiate a romantic feeler without the danger of getting all flustered in a face to face conversation. That, at least, is my reading of this. Your response was perfectly appropriate, but also sent the signal that you didn't want to pick up on her signal of possible romantic interest. So now the question is: Do you want to? If you are interested in getting to know this very nice young lady better, it is not too late to find out the meaning behind the note. I suggest you send her an email or private Facebook message, saying that you recently came across her card and it made you feel good to think she feels you would protect in a dangerous situation. You can suggest that the two of you get together for a very safe lunch or coffee and offer a couple of dates.  And if this works out, you better let us know!

Dear Prudence, My boyfriend and I live in a fairly large home by ourselves (it's his parents) whereas our circle of friends still live with their parents. We are all in our early 20s so this is quite normal. Because of our situation, my boyfriend and I often host parties or dinner at our house where we sometimes provide food and/or alcohol and clean beds for our inebriated guests to sleep on. (We are never EVER invited to other people's homes as they are not as free as us to have guests over.) However I have started resenting these nights as many times one or more of our friends does not bring any gift to be shared with friends on the night. This means that many times I have prepared dinners for a number of people who do not bring so much as a bottle of wine to the meal! Moreover, the morning after I have to get up and clean the entire house, change sheets or make beds together with just my boyfriend (and sometimes even completely alone) because all of our dear friends get up and leave without lending a helping hand. This weekend has been the pinnacle of this behaviour. Four of his friends dined and stayed with us overnight, went home then came back for a second dinner and once again slept in our home. Not once did they help clean the house, leaving their beds messy. They also offered just one gift over the weekend whereas they enjoyed two dinners. Am I too sensitive or is this acceptable behaviour? I love their company but the nonstop cleaning at the weekend is driving me insane! Weekend Cinderella

Your friends have hit the jackpot -- free food, free booze, free beds, free detox! Maybe you need to get a neon sign for your home declaring it The Leech Motel.  I'm surprised your "friends" haven't balked at your only offering the modified American plan and started screaming, "Where's lunch?" It's one thing that you're the only people in your circle with a place that you can entertain, but if you at parents in residence, you have to ask yourself if these people would still socialize with you.If you don't mind doing some entertaining, you  need to make some new rules starting this weekend. First of all, decide how often you want people over. If it's once a month, say so and explain that other get-togethers will have to be off the premises. Then say from now on parties are going to be potluck, and assign dishes to people. Say you're moving to BYOB, and since you're sick of all these Goldilocks sleeping in your beds, tell people they are going to need to cut themselves off before they are unable to drive. Yes, this may drive some of your friends away, but it's time they started getting lessons in reciprocity and self-control.

My cousin and I were born 2 days apart and our moms were even in the same hospital room. We went to the same school and were often in the same class growing up. We even shared birthday parties. We thought we were really special being "cousin-twins". The letter writer should be excited that her child will have a "cousin-twin" too and remember that attention isn't a lump sum. There's plenty to go around.

Lovely -- thank you!

Dear Prudence, My brother got married last spring to a woman that seemed very nice, but I did not know her very well. My family and I recently moved closer to my brother. Now that I am spending more time with my sister-in-law, I've noticed she has a peculiar adherence to rule following. For example, last week we attended a book club at a local bookstore. When we arrived, she immediately checked the vehicles parked in the handicapped spots to make sure they had handicapped placards visible. One vehicle did not, so she called the police non-emergency line to report this vehicle. In another example, we went shopping for clothing to wear to my parents anniversary dinner and another shopper left a pile of clothing in the dressing room. My SIL approached her and asked her to return the clothing to the designated spot. In both of these instances, my SIL was not negatively impacted by these individuals. She also does not work as a police officer or at the department store. When I was discussing this with my husband, he said that he noticed the same thing, and dubbed her "the world's hall monitor." Is this something worth discussing with my brother? Should I discuss this with her directly? This behavior makes me want to only spend time with her during family events only.

This is the week of the crazy sister-in-law. Brothers, before you walk down the aisle, please ask yourself, "Am I about to marry a nut?" I like your husband's designation of her as the world's hall monitor. And oh, how everyone loves a hall monitor! I've read some interesting primate studies (which range from monkeys to humans) which show that without a certain number of such individuals taking it upon themselves to enforce societies rules, the cheaters, miscreants, and selfish run rampant. However, that doesn't make it pleasant to socialize with your own personal, MP. And someone with those tendencies also needs to learn how to reel it in or risk alienating everyone around her.  None of you know your brother's wife very well, and despite these two incidents, you need to simply spend more time with her to have a fuller picture of her personality. So I don't think you should sit down with your brother right now  and tell him to stop her one woman citizen's brigade. But if she does something you think is out of bounds when you're together, you can certainly say, "Cindy, I get that this is annoying, but let's just let it go and get to where we need to be."

Two weeks ago today, my mom was hit by a car speeding up to beat a red light. The driver was a 19YO kid who stopped at the scene and gave his statement. My mom was a pedestrian and the kid may have been driving over the 45mph speed limit. THANK THE LORD my mom is expected to make a full recovery, but she broke most of the bones on her left side, her pelvis, her tailbone, just to name a few. She was recently moved from the hospital to an acute in-patient rehab facility. According to the police officer at the scene, the driver was not ticketed and the case is considered closed. i don't believe in revenge and thoroughly believe in forgiveness, but I find myself feeling angry that the driver got to walk away while my mom's life, my dad's life, my life, my kid's lives are dramatically changed by this event. Some days I want to contact the kid (his info is on the police report); other days I pray that I can learn to forgive him. My mom is expected to make a full recovery (although pain may be an ongoing issue), but she won't walk for 6-8 weeks and will have to go through therapy for longer than that. How do I let go of this anger? The accident could have been a lot worse, so I am thankful that my mom is just suffering from broken bones.

I do not understand how almost killing a pedestrian while speeding doesn't even merit a ticket! Your family needs to hire a lawyer. The lawyer can look into what happened and potentially get this case reopened. Yes, we can be grateful the driver stopped, but a reckless young man needs to be held to account for causing massive injuries. A lawyer can also tell you whether you have grounds for a civil suit. You are not seeking revenge, but justice.

You may have already weighed in on this, but I was wondering if you had an opinion. I was in the restroom of a casual dining restaurant recently. There were four stalls, one of which was accessible/ADA compliant. All of the stalls were full, and there was a line of a few people. A woman in a wheelchair came in with her husband. When the person who was in the disabled access stall came out (she had gone in before the woman in the wheelchair entered), the woman and her husband rudely and nastily told her off for using the disabled access stall. So, my question is: is this correct etiquette? Should no one ever use a disabled access stall, just in case someone disabled needs it? I always believed that the idea was to give equal access, which would mean that disabled persons would have to wait in line like the rest of us (though I believe they should be able to skip to the front of the line when the disabled access stall becomes available). Perhaps I'm being insensitive, however. (Also, I am an attorney, and, as far as I know, there is no legal requirement of patrons of an establishment to leave the stall free, as there is with a parking space. I believe it is simply an etiquette issue.) Thanks!

The sister-in-law in the letter above is right that handicapped parking spaces are to be left open and used exclusively by disabled drivers. But I believe the stall situation is different. People are quickly in and out of a stall, and if no one in line in the rest room is in a wheelchair it just hangs everyone else up not to use all the stalls. I disagree with you that the disabled person should just wait in line. When someone who needs special facilities shows up, that person gets priority and  he or she goes to the head of the line. In this case, it sounds as if the woman and her husband only had to wait a minute or so for the stall to open, and the woman using it didn't know someone with special needs would be coming in. It's unfortunate that they made a scene over a marginal inconvenience. I hope the woman coming out of the stall simply apologized, and then literally and figuratively washed her hands of the situation.

The writer says the driver "MAY have been going over the speed limit." (S/he wasn't there, so how are we to know?) The mother may have stepped right in front of the car; s/he doesn't say. The police investigated this, and found the driver not to be at fault (no ticket). That's why they're called accidents. It's unfortunate, but the kid may very well be not-at-fault, and the mother, despite her injuries may have been.

Several people are raising this point. Yes, the daughter wasn't there and we only have her word that the driver was speeding to beat a red light.  Maybe Mom was stepping into the crosswalk while looking on her cell phone. The other day I was driving downtown and a middle-aged woman stepped in front of me -- not even at a crosswalk! -- doing just that. Fortunately, I was going slowly and saw her coming. This inattention on both side is really scary. But if there was excessive speed and inattention to a pedestrian on the part of the driver, I do think it's worth it for the family to check this out legally and make sure that fault -- or not --was properly assessed.

For the architects/builders that decide how a bathroom is laid out, every municipality I have dealt with has rules about how to design a bathroom. They instruct to First: calculate how many stalls are required (that depends on people in the building, type of establishment etc), SECOND: make a percent of those stalls handicapped. Therefor a non-handicapped person should use the handicapped stall without guilt or being yelled at, since that is what the building code intended. - M2C

Thanks for confirming the stalls are for everyone, unlike the parking spaces. Another writer pointed out that someone might have a not-so-visible handicap but needs to use the handrails.

Dear Prudie, My husband and I are in our late 20s, have been happily married for over several years now, own our home, are financially stable, and both pursing PhDs in our prospective fields. Over the holidays we offhandedly mentioned that we may consider having children sometime in the next few years and possibly before we finish graduate school. My in-laws were utterly horrified! They immediately lectured us what a terrible plan this was, how they were not ready to be grandparents, and that we needed "real 9-5 jobs" before we should ever consider expending our family. While we don't need anyone's approval can't help but be a little offended by their strong negative reaction. They also seem determined to convince us we are still "college students" and not adults, which is utterly ridiculous considering we both teach college classes as part of our responsibilities. Is this a normal reaction for parents with grown children? Or are my in-laws delusional?

Can you please clone your in-laws and use them to replace the parents who incessantly harrass grown children about when the grandchildren are coming. You raised the issue, thus inviting the reaction. But normally the reaction is, "I'm going out to buy the crib!" I agree that being horrified at the prospect of two responsible, married adults producing your grandchild is unusual and out of line. So now having opened the topic, you need to close it. Tell them you've heard their objections, you're sorry you brought up this issue, and you don't want to discuss your reproductive choices any more.

Oh, please read The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. A lovely novella about a young man with Asperger's learning to adapt to a romantic prospect. (In fact, everyone should read it, the original poster and everyone else!)

I don't know the book, but thanks for the recommendation.

Dear Prudie, I have a question that I am sure some moms out there can relate. I am married to a wonderful, smart man who also is a surgeon he recently finished his residency. I also work full time and have been working the entire time he was in medical school and during his residency which is how we were able to avoid the massive student loans most medical students have. We have two children one is in first grade and our daughter is 2 so she goes to daycare. My biggest problem is anytime we meet with his work friends who are doctors they're all married, their wives all stay at home I hear comments like well you should finally stay at home you all can afford it now or do you really want other people raising your daughter I just love that I am here experiencing every moment of my child growing up. I find these comments so rude, I actually enjoy working and also like making my own money. I also grew up in a country where we didn't have a lot and I always felt like we should work so we can save because nothing is guaranteed in this world. The biggest reason however is the fact that if I stayed at home I would be pretty much 100% responsible for taking care of everything, right now we both work so we split all the housework 50/50. My question is how to deal with some of these comments without feeling like a bad mom anytime I come home from these get togethers. Thanks

Someone needs to send a memo to these mothers that this mommy war threatens to run longer than the War of the Roses. I think this is not so much a matter of what you say to these friends, but getting new friends. Surely, about half your husband's classmates were women, so if you start socializing with some female doctors you're going to get a different perspective on being a working mother.  I also hope that if you regularly see these women, you've listened politely and said what works for them is great, and you're doing what works for you. If that's not acceptable to them, if they won't then let it go, you need to tell your husband that you have to drastically cut back on socializing with this particular group because it's unpleasant to be lectured about your choices.

You're right, I wasn't there. The driver didn't get a ticket because the police couldn't prove how fast he was going or whether he did run the light. The witness I spoke with said that the driver sped up to beat the red light and my mother had already started crossing. The driver said he was "unable to stop in time". It's not part of police protocol in our city to ask if the driver was using his cell phone. My question was about how I can to work through this anger I feel towards the driver because he got to walk away and my mom has to learn to walk again. I actually work for an attorney who could advise me in this case, but my dad is against pursuing a lawsuit and my mom is on the fence. Because my mom is expected to make a full recovery, damages are limited and in my state, you can't sue for just pain and suffering.

You could work to change the protocol in your city about cell phones. How can this be irrelevant information? Whether or not the young driver was on the phone, we know that tons of carnage is caused by inattentive drivers, and if you want to channel your distress into action, work on changing this. For your own peace of mind, if you can have a conversation with your employer about your legal options and what pursing them would entail, you can understand better what it would mean to make the case to your parents to pursue this. But listen to your father, who has decided to focus not on what happened, but on what to do now. And now you have to be grateful that as bad as this is, you didn't lose your mother. She will eventually be okay. Maybe this terrible situation was because both pedestrian and driver made a mistake at a fateful moment. You can't undo that. You can only help your mother -- all of you -- move forward.

Thanks, everyone. And stay warm this week -- big chill coming.

In This Chat
Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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