Dear Prudence

Cutting Family Ties

How do I tell my long-lost siblings to get lost? They’ve dredged up painful memories.

Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Please send your questions for publication to (Questions may be edited.)

Got a burning question for Prudie? She’ll be online at to chat with readers each Monday at 1 p.m.  Submit your questions and comments here before or during the live discussion.

Dear Prudence,
I am the oldest of five children by four different fathers. My mother emotionally and physically abused all of us, but I received special attention. She told me how worthless I was and how much she hated me. When I was 12, my mother put the two youngest children up for adoption. I was placed in foster care and have had little contact with the family. I’m now happily married and have a successful career and caring friends. Through much introspection and the assistance of a good therapist, I have been at peace for many years—until recently. The two siblings who were placed for adoption found me a few months ago through a social-networking Web site. It turns out they have been in constant communication with my mother for several years. Neither of them recalls their early life, and I am hesitant to talk about it. I haven’t heard much from the brother, but the sister calls frequently. She desperately wants us to be one big happy family. I have repeatedly told her that can’t happen. Conversations with her leave me depressed, and I’ve started avoiding her calls. Childhood memories have resurfaced. I find myself caught up in that “worthless loop,” and then I feel guilty for not being able to let bygones be bygones.  The siblings and I don’t have anything in common besides blood. What do I owe them? How do I handle this?

—Not in the Family Way

Dear Not,
I often hear from people who’ve had a horrendous childhood like yours, grown up to make a successful life, decided for their psychological health to stop contact with their abusers, and now find themselves pressured by well-meaning family and friends to reconcile for purposes of forgiveness. Your letter is an excellent warning that being plunged back into the past by trying to “let bygones be bygones” can take a terrible toll. What you are experiencing sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder: the painful memories, the self-loathing and guilt, the depression. This is a perfectly natural response to disinterring something terrible. It’s understandable, too, that your sister (or, as you call her, “the sister”) is driven by her own deep need to redo her childhood. But her desire to reunite her family is making you miserable, and your needs trump hers. She’s an innocent party, but you simply can’t let someone with whom you have only a tenuous connection wear away your resilience. You had a start in life that would have crushed many people. But through your own hard work and self-insight, you made a life filled with love and satisfying work, and you must protect that. Tell your sister that you are glad to have gotten to know her and wish her all the best, but that you have your own family now and have no desire to be part of your birth family. You can apologize for sounding harsh, but explain that ending contact is vital to you for now. Then stand firm and don’t feel guilty. If you’re not currently in therapy, you might want to go back for a short tune-up to help sort out your current feelings and put your childhood back in its place.


Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have a more than 20-year age difference. We are very much in love and have a 4-year-old daughter. The problem is that my husband’s friends’ wives are very cold to me at social gatherings. Most of the women in the group are in their mid-40s, and I am not yet 30. My husband jokes frequently that his male friends think I’m “hot.” I don’t even consider myself pretty, but my husband insists that his friends are attracted to me, so I wonder whether that’s the reason for their wives’ cold detachment. But I don’t dress provocatively, and the only words I exchange with the husbands are pleasantries. We recently had the whole group over for dinner, and children were invited. I spent most of my time tending to the kids and playing hostess. The wives, while polite, kept their distance. I often find that the best way to avoid their rejection is to take care of the children, but I’m lonely. Any advice?

—Left Out

Dear Left,
Your husband is no help integrating you with his friends if at every gathering he goes about humming, “My gal is red hot, your gal ain’t doodly-squat.” You mention twice that he says how attractive the other men find you, so he must get a charge out of encouraging this undercurrent. You should tell him that you’d appreciate it if he stopped. You say the women are polite but cool. Sure, they may resent a dewy new wife in their midst, but they could also be distant because you are so obviously uncomfortable with them. It’s one thing if you look like the baby-sitter; it’s another if you take on the role of baby-sitter and withdraw from adult company. So get out of the playroom and act as though you belong at the grown-ups’ table. Also, you seem to be living in your husband’s world. But as the young mother of a 4-year-old, you should be making connections with other parents your own age and inviting them over. Let your husband have his turn at socializing across the generations. It might be instructive for him to have to drop the role of the stud with the young wife, and instead deal with feeling like the grandpa in the room.


Dear Prudence,
When my husband was in his early 20s, he got a rather large tattoo on his back of a tiger smoking a joint. Ten years later, we have a toddler and another baby on the way. My husband is a career military man and hasn’t done anything remotely illegal since joining the service after graduating from high school. My question is this: How do we address the issue of the pot-smoking tiger with our children? As teenagers we both rebelled and did things we now regret, things we don’t want our own children to do! But how can we deny our past actions when my husband has the proof tattooed all over his back? He doesn’t want to get the tattoo removed—it’s large, and removal would be expensive and difficult. What should we do?

—Stewed, Screwed, and Tattooed

Dear Tattooed,
It will be years before your children can make out the semiotics of your husband’s tiger tattoo, so stop worrying that after seeing their father step out of the shower they’re going to get the notion to turn their Pampers into rolling paper and get stoned just like Daddy used to. Elder statesman George Shultz, secretary of state during the Reagan administration, supposedly has a tiger tattooed on his posterior, and there’s no evidence it’s hurt his career or family. However, Shultz’s tiger surely lacks a joint. So my advice is that your husband leave his tiger but excise the marijuana. Pamela Anderson came to regret having her now-ex-husband’s name, “Tommy,” tattooed on her finger, so she had it changed to “Mommy.” Your husband can, for example, alter the tiger to make it look like it’s waving a flag instead of getting stoned. And no matter what you do with the tiger, be prepared that someday your kids will want to know whether you did things you weren’t supposed to do. When they ask, be ready to tell them some amount of the truth. Remembering your own youthful rebellions will help you survive theirs.


Dear Prudence,
While standing in line at the supermarket, I noticed that the zipper was down on the jeans of the young mother in front of me. I hesitated but ultimately decided to clue her in. I tapped her on the shoulder and, as quietly as possible, said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t want to embarrass you, but your zipper seems to have come down.” After glancing down, she thanked me, turned away, and fixed the problem. When I got home, I told my husband. He said I shouldn’t have said anything and just let her discover it on her own. That way, she could have comforted herself with the (false) hope that maybe no one had noticed. Did I unnecessarily embarrass this poor woman?

—Zip Your Fly, or Zip My Lip?

Dear Zip,
If you see me with my zipper down, or toilet paper stuck to my shoe, or a piece of spinach on my front tooth, please tell me. Everyone’s had something like this happen, and when you get home and realize how you look, you don’t think, Oh, nobody noticed, you think; Oh, God, everyone noticed! What you did was exactly right. And surely your husband would rather have someone at the office quietly say, “Zipper’s down” than get home and wonder how many people got a view of his tighty-whities.