Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Overbearing, Creepy In-Law: My husband and I, newly married, recently moved to the same town in which his bachelor brother lives. My husband travels frequently on business and encouraged me to invite his brother over if I ever felt lonely. He also told his brother to “watch out for me.” One night I caught his brother peering in my bedroom window. He told my husband that he thought he heard me cry out and wanted to make sure I was OK. A few weeks ago, he showed up in the middle of the night and said he wanted to make sure I was alone. The final straw came last night, when I was showering. I turned around, and there was my brother-in-law! He claimed he hadn’t known I was home and my husband told him where to find our hide-a-key. The issue is that my husband believes his brother’s explanations rather than my feelings that his brother’s behavior crosses the line. He has asked his brother to back off “a bit.” Is it reasonable for me to expect more? How can I make a case for my feelings—that his brother is a creep—without coming off like a harpy?
A: First, you need to call a locksmith and get your house re-keyed in case your brother-in-law, Norman Bates, has made a copy. Then you need a new hidey hole for the key and you must get your husband to agree not to tell his brother where it is. What you describe—the man at the window escalating to the man in the bathroom, is right out of the playbook of every slasher movie ever made. I don’t want to unduly alarm you, but frankly, I’m alarmed. And if your husband isn’t, then you are married to a dolt. You cannot wait until you are actually crying out, “No, Norman, no!” Sit your husband down and say it’s possible that since he’s a man, he doesn’t understand how utterly violated and vulnerable a woman would feel by his brother’s behavior. But he has to recognize that what is brother is doing is terrifying you. If he doesn’t immediately tell his brother that he’s been wildly out of line and should only be coming over if he has an invitation, then I’m sorry to say that you should pack and get yourself a living situation in which there is no one unexpectedly greeting you as you step out of the shower.
Q. My Husband Carries a Purse!: My husband is a wonderful man—we have been married for three decades now and have been together since we were high-school sweethearts at the age of 16. He’s hardworking and generous, and spends much of his time caring for his ailing aunt. But not long ago he decided to start carrying a purse (a very feminine looking and expensive Coach purse!). He says it’s so much more convenient than trying to stuff everything he has to carry on him into his pockets. And there are a number of things he has to have on him at all times, like his inhaler for his asthma, some medications, and blood testing kit (he’s also diabetic) in addition to the everyday things like his keys, cellphone and wallet. I wouldn’t care about the purse (I actually agree that it’s much more convenient) except for all the strange looks we get. We live in an area that isn’t exactly known for its tolerant people, and while I’m more than confident that my husband is definitely not gay, I’m afraid that, judging from the icy glares directed at us, a lot of people get the wrong idea. How can I convince my husband to put his purse away for good?
A: Forget other people and their “wrong ideas,” you need to think about your husband’s fashion choice and why it’s bothering you. There are endless bags he could carry—from backpacks to briefcase-style—that would serve the same purpose for him. Surely he knows he is carrying a purse, and he wants to carry one, despite the glares. So you two needs to have a frank talk about why. If he sincerely says he was just looking for something roomy enough for all his stuff and this was on sale, you can say you know it says something about you and your perception of gender roles, but you wish he’d carry something more neutral and you’d be happy to shop for that with him. If he says the purse makes him happy in a way no backpack could, then after 30 years he owes you a more thorough conversation about why.
Q. My Home Is Not Your Home!: I live in a two-bedroom house at a popular tourist location. I frequently receive requests to stay in the spare bedroom from my family and friends. I don’t mind so much those with whom I am close. But I feel annoyed by the constant stream of emails from former classmates I haven’t spoken to in years, or friends of friends I’ve never met who were told “Jean has a guest room—you should ask if you can stay there!” Since when did it become acceptable to invite yourself to stay for several days in the house of someone you don’t know well? Is this not a major breach of etiquette?
A: It hasn’t become acceptable; technology has just made it easier to track people you used to know. Have a list of nearby hotels and motels and when you hear from people who you once sat next to for algebra, write back to them, “I hope you have fun while you’re in town. I’m unable to put you up, but he’s a list of good places for you to book a room.”
Q. Re: The Man Purse: He does not owe her a more thorough conversation about why, because even if the purse truly does make him happy that still only speaks to her discomfort about gender roles. If he had a green backpack and she wished he’d carry a blue one, if he says, “I’m fine with the green backpack,” that does not mean he owes her a more thorough explanation.
A: If he’s carrying a woman’s purse because he has given himself permission to start using women’s accessories, and possibly clothing, that is something a husband is obligated to discuss with his wife. If he would be just as happy with a blue or green backpack as a purse, it is not too much to ask him to use one.
Q. My Niece’s Secret Twin: My oldest niece is a twin, but she doesn’t know it. Her twin sister died when they were 8 months old. Immediately my sister and her husband erased their deceased child’s existence from the planet and demanded that our family do the same. Now my niece is 15, and I think she might know about her twin sister. She has begun to ask me how many siblings she has, and she asks if I’m lying when I tell her two (her younger brothers). She asks why there are so few pictures of her from when she was younger than 8 months. Given that she has access to the Internet and a sea of people who know about her twin, it’s likely that she’s learned some basic information but doesn’t know how to ask for more. When I broach the topic with my sister and her husband, they insist this is the way they want to do things. I feel trapped in this unraveling lie. What should I do?
A: How misguided these parents have been to deny the existence of their late child and to keep the truth from their daughter. I understand they must have been in agony at their loss, but pretending their child was never born was the wrong way to try to mitigate everyone’s pain. You should go back to your sister and say that the questions her daughter is asking you are strongly indicative that she knows, or suspects, the truth. That she had a twin is a discoverable fact, and it would so much better if this fact were told her by her parents than if she dug up the records herself. Then say given the age of your niece and the questions she is asking, you wanted to tell your sister that you no longer feel comfortable being part of this deceit and if the girl keeps pressing you, you are going to tell her the truth.
Q. Re: “Wanted to make sure I was alone” overnight: Another red flag from the first poster’s note: coupled with the husband’s request of the brother “watching out” makes it sound like this could be some trust issue of the husband toward his wife. Could it be he’s actually encouraging the brother of some level of spying to make sure nothing’s going on while he’s out of town (entirely unjustified either way, I’d say).
A: Good point, and double creep alert! This new wife needs to get some immediate clarity here and if what you suggest is what she finds, she needs to quickly get out.
Q. MIL the Phone Stalker: I got married four months ago and am now 13 weeks pregnant. Ever since we found out about the pregnancy, my MIL has been calling me almost nonstop. She is one of those people who could talk for hours with a brick wall. She will chatter incessantly with me occasionally muttering responses. She sends me pictures throughout the day on her cellphone—completely meaningless photos of what she’s eating, wearing, a cute dog at the park, her friends and relatives, and so on. If I don’t reply she’ll call me and ask me what I thought. It’s impossible to hang up because 1) it’s so hard to get a word in and 2) if I say I have to go, she’ll reply with something like, “Oh yes of course, I know you’re busy dear. And here I am going on about Uncle Bob’s knee surgery. Did you know his insurance didn’t cover that? In fact, his daughter had to …” We talk almost every day, sometimes up to three times a day, with each call lasting at least 40 minutes. I don’t want to insult my husband’s mother so I haven’t said anything to him yet. What can I do to discourage her calls? I’m so stressed my hair is falling out and I feel panicky whenever I hear my cellphone ring.
A: Being able to handle someone who wants your attention nonstop will be good training for motherhood. I usually suggest with in-law problems that the grown child of the offending parent take the lead in having the discussion. So first ask your husband to intervene. He can explain that you’re very busy and just don’t have time for daily chats. He can add that the two of you will call once a week to give her updates. It could be, however, that your husband is thrilled that his time talking to his mother has been diminished since she found fresh meat. People like your mother-in-law are vampires who will suck away your time, energy—and hair!—if you let them. If you’re husband won’t do the dirty work, then you need to tell her you’ll have a weekly conversation with her, but otherwise you don’t have time to talk. Then ignore her calls and do not feel guilty about not picking up. When you do talk, after 15 minutes tell her that’s it’s been delightful hearing from her, but you have to go. Then hang up.
Q. Re: Erased Deceased Twin: Kate Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, describes just this situation, of a twin being erased and the remaining twin eventually finding out. Might be instructive for the parents or for the aunt/uncle.
A: Or the niece! Giving her this novel would be quite a way to let her in on the past. However, I recommend giving her the clearly articulated truth.
Q. Re: MIL Phone Stalker or Just a Lonely MIL?: Maybe the MIL is just a lonely woman, in which case the LW could try to show her a bit more compassion, especially since no doubt the LW and her husband will expect the MIL to be a (free) babysitter in the near future? I’m being sarcastic but I have noticed expectant mothers and brides sometimes have this “me me me” attitude, and maybe the MIL is just happy she has a preggo DIL and is trying to be her friend. How many of us would love to have a friendly MIL?
A: I think very few would like to have a mother-in-law so friendly that the stress of spending all your time handling her is making you go bald. The compassionate way to handle people with no boundaries is to establish some. Then even if they don’t like it, they can start to understand there are rules for how to behave and the rules apply to them, too.
Q. Help My Parents Are Religious Nuts!: Please help me … my parents are super-conservative religious. They converted when I was 10. I’m 15 now. I never really felt the same, but I pretend to go along, or else I’d be in a lot of trouble. Their new religion is really conservative about anything to do with sex. Well, I totally messed up. I’m a guy, and well, my mom walked into my room one night when I was masturbating. OK, I wanted to die, but she screamed and went and got my father. They were really mad, lectured me about how wrong it is, and just won’t let it go. They told they pastor, and he has recommended that they send me to the country for a while. His brother has a farm, and I’d be expected to do a lot of manual labor in addition to going to school. I don’t want to leave my friends, and I don’t want to work on a farm, just for doing something that the health books I peeked a look at (at a friend’s house) says is normal behavior. How do I get out of this!
A: You’ve let it go, and now they won’t. You should not have to be sent away because you’re engaging in behavior that is totally normal. It is so normal that parents should be more concerned if their teenage son doesn’t start handling such urges himself. I hope you have some relatives who have not converted to this punitive religion who might be able to intervene on your behalf. If not, I think you should go to your guidance counselor at school and explain that you are in danger of being kicked out of your home and you want to be able to continue at the school. It could be that you might be able to live with a generous friend’s family until your parents develop more compassion for their own child.
Q. Forgiveness: I’m looking for guidance about remaining friends with someone who knew about my spouse’s affair but did not tell me. “Jana” has been my wife’s best friend for almost 20 years. They’ve always said they’re more like sisters than friends. Some months ago my wife began cheating on me, and after a few months she told Jana about her affair. Jana apparently felt uncomfortable being placed in that position and did not approve of the affair. She encouraged my wife to end it. But she never told me. Now that my wife and I are trying to reconcile, I’ve found it difficult to forgive Jana for her role in the affair. She’s apologized profusely to me and explained why her loyalty to my wife overrode her loyalty to us as a couple. But I feel like I can never trust Jana again and am not sure how to recover from the affair while she’s still my wife’s closest friend.
A: I understand that you are displacing your anger, but there is nothing to be angry at Jana about. As much as Jana may be your friend, too, she and your wife have the more serious friendship. She bluntly told your wife she disapproved of her behavior and refused to support it or be her confidante. She was not obligated to then tell you. Jana is not the one who has betrayed your trust, your wife has. As hard as it may be, concentrate on repairing that relationship.
In a new approach, we’re publishing the chat transcript in shorter, more digestible pieces. You will still be getting all the questions and answers, and we may even publish bonus letters Prudie didn’t get to address during the chat hour. Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of this week’s chat!