Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Apr 21, 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, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

I am a middle daughter in a family of five girls and three boys, now aged 62 to 49. My oldest sister, a gifted psychatrist with both an M.D. and a Ph.D., has had nothing to do wth the family for 30 years. She did not come to our father's funeral and my children, now in their 20s, have never met her. Our mother is now suffering from dementia and we are scrambling to afford her care. I traveled 400 miles to this sister's city to ask for her help, and what she told me floored me. She said our father molested her and two other sisters for years. One of them committed suicide at 28 and the other, who eventually weighed over 300 lbs., died at 53 following routine surgery due to her massive weight. She says our mother knew about it, but did nothing. My surviving sister and I were never molested. The oldest feels guilty about the others' deaths because she chose to run rather than bring him to justice. She refuses to give a penny towards our mother's support, saying Mom is going to burn in hell for all eternity so why not let her get started early? Obviously neither parent nor dead sister can collaborate or disprove these allegations, although we may have missed some signs. For example, the sister who committed suicide left a lengthy letter with fond memories of our mother and all her siblings, but not our father. Clearly my surviving sis and I need therapy, but we're too frozen to even do that. If our dad did this it should be made known, but how can we tell? Should we at least tell our brothers? Any help in sorting this out would be greatly appreciated.

As you described going for your encounter with your sister, I had a sick feeling about what you were going to discover. Your sister, the psychiatrist, surely knows that the causes of your two other sisters' deaths: suicide and morbid weight gain, are textbook responses to the crimes committed against them. Also textbook is the mother who knew and didn't want to know, so became an accessory to her children's destruction. But all of you are casualties in some way of your father's monstrosity. Your family was shattered, but all of you have lived under a veil of secrecy and deceit. Your sister, the doctor,  had an inner core of resilience that got her out, and sadly for her relationship with you and the surviving siblings, she felt cutting off all contact was her only option. Of course you have been shaken to your core, and I suggest you start sorting out this new understanding of your family by calling Stop It Now, an organization that deals with child abuse. They can help you start the conversation about how to move forward and point you in the direction of a therapist with expertise. I absolutely think your brothers should know. It's time, for the first time in decades, that your family deals honestly with your legacy.  At the least this revelation creates an opening for you and your other siblings to maybe begin to have a relationship with your oldest sister and even her children. That could be the blessing to come out of all this tragedy.

My boyfriend and I have been together for two years and just moved in together. We're both 30 years old and have no plans to marry. My boyfriend's parents won't take no for an answer, and after we move in together, they asked us when we wanted the wedding. We told them we weren't getting married, but they complained that we were being ridiculous. This crazy argument went on for a few weeks when his parents upped the crazy by a notch. They've booked their church for our "wedding" for next year and have also reserved a ballroom at a large hotel (deposits are due at the end of the week). They want us to decide on a band, flowers, food, etc. We told them that they can hold the wedding, but we won't be there. My boyfriend's mom also gave her travel agent my phone number and she's already left a couple of messages asking when I can come in to plan our honeymoon. This is beyond weird. What else can we do to convince them that we are not getting married? My boyfriend has been as forceful with them about this as I have, so it's not a case of us sending mixed signals. 

I don't have a subscription to Brides magazine, so I don't know if they've covered the ins and outs of a ghost wedding. There's probably not a lot that's been written about the etiquette of the non-bride who is not getting married whose boyfriend's parents have become (non)in-lawzillas. What your boyfriend does is tell his parents that sadly they will lose all their deposit money if they go ahead with this farce. If they become monomaniacal on the subject of the wedding colors and floral arrangements, your boyfriend might have to tell his parents you two aren't communicating with them anymore until they come to their senses. If they go ahead without you two, let's hope that at the last minute they can find an engaged but broke couple on Craigslist who would love a wedding extravaganza and can step into your gown and your boyfriend's tux.

Dear Prudence: My husband and I are at a divide when it comes to basic hygiene while sick. Whenever he has a cold, he will audibly suck the mucus from his nose to his throat, and then cough it up into a tissue that he keeps on hand! It totally grosses me out, but he thinks this is normal and the only way to get rid of the mucus. He refuses to take any medicine for no reason other than that he's stubborn and wants to let his body do its job. I was raised to believe that audibly sucking mucus back into the throat is just bad manners. Surely spitting phlegm into a tissue that's lying around is unsanitary. I was taught to go to the bathroom to flush it in the toilet, in private. Who is right? Signed, Grossed Out

You might have to check with my husband on this. I'm just recovering from a two week siege with bronchitis and he's put up with my hacking, hucking mess. But I agree there are limits on how gross the sick person can be, and there are few sounds more repulsive than the gatling gun regurgitation of mucus. Sometimes, there's nothing else the sufferer can do. But making a habit of hanging out on the couch and sounding like you're a cat coughing up a hairball is not going to endear you to your loved ones. But if your husband won't try to put a lid on it while in earshot of you, then you just need to leave the room -- and maybe even someone has to sleep on the couch. You say your husband is too stubborn for medication, but if he had a viral illness, basically all you can do is wait for your body to heal and treat some of the symptoms. As for the tissue issue, again, sometimes the sick person has to deal quickly with what's erupting. But afterward this germ-filled effluvia should be promptly disposed of.

This is trivial, but I'm struggling to get past it. I don't have many friends and my closest friends don't live nearby. When I got married, my friends flew from far away to be here. Now, my best friend is getting married and didn't make me a bridesmaid. I knew she had a lot of friends, but I thought I'd at least be a bridesmaid. She brought it up on the phone and the decision had clearly caused her a lot of stress, so I let her off the hook. I said it was not a big deal, that I understood. It sounds like I missed the cutoff, and that someone from our friend group is already represented, so I'll just be a guest. I love her and I don't want to cause her any stress, but I am heartbroken. She was my maid of honor and now I know where I really stand in her rankings. I wanted to stand up for her, to be there for her the way she was for me. I've never had my heart broken, but I think it must feel a little like this. I have to travel for this wedding and I'm worried I will be crying in the pew for the wrong reason. Can you say something to help me shake this off?

I know a nice couple who's not getting married and there's an empty bridesmaid dress that might fit you perfectly. I have heard from so many miserable, broke, berated bridesmaids that part of you should consider yourself lucky that you are free to just enjoy yourself as a guest. I understand that when you think someone is your best friend, when she was your maid of honor, and you don't even make bridesmaid, that comes as a shock. But please stop thinking of this as a ranking. It's actually a painful opportunity to look at yourself and your difficulty making friends. It sounds as if those people you are still close to are from your childhood or possibly college. They've moved on and expanded their social circles, but you haven't. So address that deficiency. Also recognize that if this is the worst your heart's ever been broken, you are one lucky person.

During my senior year in high school, I had an affair with Mr. Milo, one of my teachers. I think I learned from the affair and do not feel like it harmed me unduly. Two months ago, Mr. Milo was arrested for sleeping with a junior at my alma mater. He will probably go to jail. My boyfriend knows about the affair and thinks I should come forward to show that Mr. Milo has a history of being predatory. I do not want to expose myself by revealing I slept with him. Am I morally obligated to come forward?

I bet Mr. Milo has a long string of students he seduced, some, like you, who think it was both wrong and thrilling. But what a teenage girl might think makes her special can actually be very destructive, and thank goodness this predator has been caught. He became a teacher so that his place of employment would supply him with an ever renewable resource of underage girls. Prison is a just punishment for such people. I think you should come forward. But you don't have to decide all at once on how much you want to participate in the case against him.  Contact the prosecutor's office and say you would right now like to talk confidentially with them. It may be they wouldn't need you to be a witness, but you could be very useful toward their building a case and understanding his m.o. You are lucky that you don't feel scarred or used by your experience.  But you also must be cognizant of the damage such predators do, and this is your opportunity to stop other young women from being exploited.

I can't wait until five years from now, when Boyfriend's parents decide they don't like Girlfriend. They'll find a judge, court reporter, witnesses, and separate lawyers for both Boyfriend and Girlfriend so they can end their pretend nuptials with a pretend divorce ....

I love this! HBO, I think you've got a premise for a series.

Hi Prudie! Things have been a bit tense in my relationship lately. I take some of the blame since I have been out late a lot more than usual in the past few months with my new hobby. Well, last night I got home (late) and my boyfriend was livid. He said "You know this little hobby of yours has gone too far. Why can't you for once do something for me?" I probably deserved it, but I shot back a sarcastic "Like what?" - at which point he jumped me. Now, I admit I didn't exactly do anything to stop him and I certainly willingly participated, but deep down I didn't really feel like I was comfortably complicit with the whole thing. I left in a huff this morning and we haven't talked about it, but we have symphony tickets tonight and I have this bad feeling I might cause a scene. What should I do?

And here we have a textbook case in failure to communicate. You have a new, unnamed hobby that keeps you out late at night. You know this is annoying your partner, but instead of you two talking about it and coming to some understanding, you disappear and he seethes. Then you come home, you both treat each other with hostility, and he initiates revenge sex. I'm not sure what you're asking me about this. Do you want to know if what happened qualified as a sexual assault that you should call into the police? Or did he violate some basic understanding of your relationship and you feel you can't continue in it? As for the former question, your acknowledge that you didn't stop him and you "certainly willingly participated" -- even if deep down you were uncomfortable. So you gave sufficient consent to keep this a private matter.  Some couples enjoy these kind of anger-fueled sexual encounters, but at best you had mixed feelings about it. So get them out in the open. Yes, you have symphony ticket -- and maybe if you're hearing the 1812 Overture it would suit the mood. But tell your boyfriend that you two need to talk before you go to the concert hall. If you things are so bad between you, forgoing the symphony is a small price to pay for addressing some profound issues in your relationship. And if you have a bad feeling you may cause a scene, you certainly don't want to steal the thunder from the timpanist.

One thing to consider: that this poor girl seeking justice may not be believed unless there's corroboration. She may well be going through a kind of hell right now, needing someone to come forward.

Good point. Surely he's preyed on more than two girls, but I agree that the letter writer -- though I understand her reluctance -- should consider his current victim.

I've been married just over two years, and if you had asked me two weeks ago I would've said my husband was near-perfect. We'd been trying for almost a year to get pregnant, so I was over the moon to show him the positive test result. Then everything came crashing down when he asked me to take a paternity test for his "peace of mind." I've never given him the slightest reason to doubt my fidelity (which he acknowledges) and he doesn't have a history of being cheated on, although I am his first serious relationship). But he says he just can't bond with our child until he knows for sure it's his. I absolutely refuse to do a test during my pregnancy - there is a (very) small chance of miscarriage that I'm just not willing to take for a non-medical reason. He agreed to wait till the birth, but has now turned into a different person - distant and polite. I know that the next step is counseling, except I'm at the point that I'm not sure I even want to save the marriage. What sort of dad is he going to be if his love and trust for me is so conditional? Part of me is strongly tempted to say "You're right, this child is not yours" and just raise it myself. Am I over-reacting?

There's a strange mental disorder called Capgras delusion in which a person thinks a loved one has been replaced by an imposter.  But you are actually living this -- your husband has been replaced by a cold, hostile, accusatory lunatic. He doesn't even have the excuse of having some kind of pregnancy-related hormonal disturbance.  I don't blame you for feeling, "Who is this stranger?" But the stranger is your husband who until this bizarre personality change was a the love of your life. You need to tell him you two need counseling now, that you have never been so shaken, and that he is making you questionthe foundation of your marriage. If he won't go, then you have to go by yourself.  Do not make any major decisions right now.  Let's hope that long before your child is born, your husband will have returned from what turns out to be a temporary derangement.

I thank the higher powers every day that my daughter Emma is in recovery from the eating disorder that almost took her life and that she has found a medication and a counselor that help her manage her clinical depression. She is sixteen and has a bright future in front of her, and I worry that her stepmother Celia is interfering with her improvement. Celia obsesses about her weight constantly, even in front of Emma. Emma has asked her to not count calories in front of her or invite her to go on diets, but Celia persists. She also chastises Emma for her "negative outlook" (i.e. her depression) because she comes from a loving, well-off family and doesn't have a "good reason" to be so unhappy. My ex-husband has talked to Celia about how her behavior hurts Emma, but she hasn't changed. He doesn't want to "push the issue" too much, because they have kids together too. I'm at my wit's end. Short of suing for sole custody, how can I protect my kids?

Please ask for a private meeting with your daughter's counselor to discuss the effect Celia might be having on her. It likely is the case that your ex can't control what his new wife says or does, particularly if she has her own weight issues. But it may be that particularly during this very delicate time of recovery, Emma just shouldn't be hanging out with Celia. Your husband may have to arrange to see his daughter apart from his new family. In any case, the counselor needs to know what's going on and help you all come up with a plan to keep Emma's recovery on track.

Prudence, this husband is holding something back - like he has been told that he couldn't have children. That is the only logical explanation for what he's doing. he thinks he can't be the father - so he was stunned when the pregnancy test was positive. She needs to get him to level with her.

I agree there's something going on here, but if he in fact thinks he is infertile, than the whole marriage is based on a lie because he obviously never told his wife that. And he is the actual father of this child. Yours is one theory, but there could be lots of other reasons for this sudden personality change.

As a former prosecutor, I have to agree that this type of incident would be extremely difficult if not impossible to prove it a legal setting. As a former victim advocate, I also have to add that although not meeting the legal definition of rape or sexual assault these type of incidents can be profoundly upset. I think following your suggestions is a great start but I would add that it couldn't hurt to seek some professional help to help you work through the feelings that can arise from these type of incidents.

Of course, if the letter writer continues to feel disturbed and violated, then she should talk this out. If she wants to continue in her relationship, it sounds as if as a couple they could use a neutral party to help them figure out how to respectfully work out conflicts.

Dear Prudie, I've gone out a few times with a nice woman. She's bright, kind and attractive. But she also has major social anxiety and is severely germop0hbic. She carries Lysol wipes everywhere and, for example, wipes down flatware when we eat out. She also puts a cloth on the chair before sitting down. Movies and sporting events are out of the question. Even the Kennedy Center is a challenge. While I'm sorry she has such a constricted life, I'm not sure I'd ever be willing to share it. She points out that if we were to marry she could be disabled in an accident on our honeymoon and then I would have to take care of her, which is true. But I'm nowhere near ready to approach the "M" word and the whole situation is making me uncomfortable. Does this make me a jerk? I don't want to be guilted into a relationship I can't handle.

You've been on a couple of dates with someone nice who sadly suffers from some debilitating mental conditions. So she's bringing up marriage by way of explaining if you think she's got problems now, she could be in even more dire shape after the wedding and you'd be obligated to care for her.  You yourself may be suffering from Nice Guy syndrome. You simply are not obligated to keep dating someone you don't want to be involved with. But before you part, tell her that she's lovely and that you hope she gets some help for problems that are interfering with her enjoyment of life.

I'm new to my neighborhood, and my next door neighbor whom I haven't met has a wind chime that on the most blustery nights, can keep me awake. I left a signed note (no one was home) requesting they at least take it inside after sundown, but one week later and nothing has changed. Was I out of line, and if not, how can I follow up without starting a feud?

I know you fear being smacked about the head with windchimes, but you've got to do this in person. Instead of a disembodied note, you have to become a real person with real ears and real bags under your eyes.  Ring the doorbell some evening and come armed with a box of chocolates or bottle of wine. Say you are new to the neighborhood, you wanted to introduce yourself, and you're sorry to combine this with a request to silence the chimes late at night. You may hear from your neighbor that no one has ever complained before and everyone loves the tinkling. Stay pleasant and say that while you do appreciate the sounds, unfortunately, at 3:00 a.m. they keep you from sleeping.  If the neighbor won't cooperate, see if you can get through the night by drowning out the chimes with your own counterprogramming: a sound machine set on "waterfall".

A few months ago I made a very difficult and painful decision to leave a very long term relationship. I loved my bf more than anything but it was going nowhere. My sister and BIL allowed to me to stay with them until I could get on my feet. After weeks of crying myself to sleep, I found comfort in another man. We were both coming out of serious relationships and had no desire to be in a relationship -- we just wanted companionship. After a few encounters, I ended the "companionship" because I missed my bf. We reconciled our relationship and I am happy to say that we are now engaged. While I did not cheat (I made it clear our relationship was over), I am ashamed of my actions. And I would prefer to keep my fiance in the dark because it would only cause him a great deal of pain. My sister cannot keep her mouth shut! She has told my very nosey and gossip driven cousin and I am sure she is not the only one who knows by way of my sister. How should I approach this subject with my sister?

At this point I think the question is: How do you approach this with your fiance? I agree when a relationship is over, what the now-free parties do is none of each other's business. But you weren't actually done, you were really on a hiatus, and by now far too many people know that you sought meaningless companionship. Yes, it's none of their business, and you should tell you sister how hurt you are she's spread your private news all over town. But she and your cousin sound like such busybodies that you don't want to be blindsided when your now-fiance comes to you and says, "Who's this Justin everyone is talking about?" If the fact that you saw someone else when you weren't with your fiance ends your relationship yet again, then maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

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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