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. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Fiancé’s Niece Is His Love Child: My mind is still reeling. My fiancé confessed to me last week that his younger niece is actually his child. He had a short affair with his brother’s wife, who conceived the month her husband was away. They ended things just before finding out she was pregnant, and she lied about the dates to cover it up. My fiancé knew all this and said nothing because he didn’t want to break up their family. My fiancé’s brother is a good guy and I genuinely like him. I’ve never seen a man so devoted to his wife and children. I don’t know if I can spend the rest of my life being a part of this lie. My future in-laws are a close-knit family and everyone frequently gets together. They actually had a family dinner a few days ago which I’ve avoided because I don’t know how I can look at either my fiancé’s brother or his wife in the eye. I also have complex feelings about the “niece”—biologically speaking, she will be my stepchild! I love my fiancé so much but how can I marry into his family knowing what I know now?
A: Have I got a movie for you! Spoiler alert, but next year be sure to take the entire family to a screening of “August: Osage County” based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play. Let’s just say when the major plot twist is revealed, there should be enough squirming in the seats to loosen the bolts. Often in cases where the man who thinks he’s the father is not the father there is the potential for a genetic time bomb to go off if some future medical issue in the future reveals the questionable paternity. But in the case of brothers, it’s far less likely that even a cheek swab—in the rare event it should it ever come up—would point to your fiancé’s perfidy. Of course this revelation is shocking and you are looking at the family you about to join in a new and deceitful light. I’m generally in favor of the truth, but with caveats. In this case there’s nothing to be gained by the truth blasting apart this family. And I hope you are only the third person to be let into the circle of this secret, and that you remain the final one. As despicable as your fiancé’s behavior was, it does speak to his love for you and his desire to have an honest start that he told you. You do not have to make any decisions now. You should be honest with your fiancé and tell him that this is news that’s going to take you a while to process. But please fight the “complex” feelings about your niece. Morally, legally, and every other way she is the child of your future brother-in-law and sister-in-law and if you go ahead and marry your fiancé you should be able to look on this girl with love and equanimity.
Q. Felon Father-in-Law: My father-in-law was convicted for a white-collar crime and spent three years in a federal facility. Our children are 6 and 4 and they are permitted to spend time with my father-in-law in a group setting where at least my husband or I are present. My father-in-law is not a violent man, but we know that prison can change people and we do not want to take any risks. We plan to explain my father-in-law’s conviction—and consequences—in age-appropriate ways. The issue is that my parents think that my father-in-law should have zero time with the children at all and refuse to have the family in their home or attend a gathering with them (like my daughter’s 7th birthday in a few weeks). My parents think that since my father-in-law is a criminal, one of the prices that he should pay is limited access to family. They have threatened to sue for grandparent rights, claiming that we are unfit parents by exposing our children to a felon. Any advice for this situation?
A: Given the scope of our economic meltdown and the people at the top who were making millions selling fantasies, I think it’s a shame that more families aren’t dealing with your dilemma of what to do when the family’s financial executive gets out of prison. You say your father-in-law did time for a white-collar crime. Sure prison changes people, but I doubt your father-in-law is flexing his prison tats and hanging out with his homies from Dead Man, Inc. You should tell your parents they need to back way off. Your father-in-law paid his debt to society and he is absolutely no threat to your kids. Say what will be damaging is if they bring a groundless lawsuit that tears your family apart and ends up causing their own estrangement.
Q. Swinging Friends: My closest friends of 35 years are swingers. This has probably gone on for about 20 years, and they seem happy. She told me about it about 20 years ago, and they were both shocked when I didn’t think this was great. I decided early on that since they were consenting adults, and kept this well away from their three kids and out of the house, it wasn’t my place to judge. She quit telling me some of the details after picking up on my discomfort, and the one time she directly asked my opinion, I was honest and said I thought they were playing with fire. For the past couple of years, it was clear they had formed a relationship with another couple, which was obvious to me—weekends away, etc. The problem is, they now want me to MEET this couple, and in fact had set up a surprise drop-in by them at their home, which was canceled at the last minute. I am terribly uncomfortable with meeting the other couple, but I don’t know how to avoid it! How does one greet the people your married friends are sleeping with?
A: It’s amazing that at this point in life the fire is still roaring and the heat is not just hot flashes. Your dearest friends have a wild sex life and you’ve made clear you want to know nothing about it. Apparently they need a reminder. So be blunt: “Mildred I thought I made it clear that I don’t want to hear about what you and Sheldon do in your spare time. I’m glad you’ve found some people you’re compatible with, but we don’t want to drop by for a surprise meeting of people with whom you drop your drawers.”
Q. Confessing My Darkest Secret: I have fallen in love with a wonderful woman, but I harbor a secret I’m terrified will send her running in the other direction. Seven years ago a vengeful ex-girlfriend falsely accused me of raping and beating her. She either hurt herself or convinced someone to hurt her. I was arrested, and my parents spent most of their savings on the lawyer who finally exonerated me. Eventually the cops figured out she lied, though at that point many people at our small college saw me as a rapist. I have undergone extensive counseling and am in a much better place now, but no amount of therapy can calm my fear that when they hear my story, people will go running in the other direction. I love my girlfriend but do not know how to begin to tell her about the false rape accusation. If you are kind enough to answer this question, I seriously hope it doesn’t inspire gender-bashing or hyperbole from readers. I just need advice about how to confess this secret.
A: You’ve been through a terrible trauma and it’s something you should share with someone you love. Even though you’ve had therapy it sounds as if you’ve absorbed much of the shame that was heaped on you. Perhaps a new therapist can help free you more. Of course you want to put this behind you and not dwell on it, but a righteous indignation instead of fear should inform your feelings. Before you tell your beloved, rehearse what you want to say—you will not be convincing if you speak with an air of terror. Remember you, not your ex, were the victim. Say you want her to know about a terrible episode in your life because it’s something important you experienced and because you wouldn’t want her to hear a distorted version from someone else. If you have some legal paperwork about your exoneration you can offer to show her, explaining you know such cases can raise doubts in people’s minds, and you don’t want her to have any about you.
Q. Felon Father-in-law OP: Prudie, thanks for taking my question and your advice. But your first sentence was not necessary. We know what he did was wrong, but he served his time, and we are all trying to move on. Comments like that are unhelpful, especially coming from somebody who I specifically asked for help.
A: I’m sorry you took offense, but I won’t retract my thought that I think it’s a shame there aren’t a lot more people paying their debt to the rest of us by wearing orange jumpsuits.
Q. Creepy Colleague: I am a professional woman in my mid 20s. I have a colleague in his late 40s who sits two cubicles away from me. He is constantly eavesdropping on my phone calls, then coming up to me and talking to me like I was personally telling him this information. Recently, he has approached me and asked me about a personal trip I’ve had with my boyfriend that I never discussed with him. He also sent me an email late at night asking me if I could have lunch with him this week or next week. I am a friendly person, but this guy’s behavior gives me the creeps. How do I tell him to butt out in a friendly way, as I have to walk by his desk every morning?
A: Next time he mentions something he’s overheard say, “I’m sorry my voice must be carrying. I will keep it down because I don’t want to bother you. Excuse me, I have to get back to work.” As for the lunch dates just say, “Sorry, I’m busy.” Stay cool and professional and keep your responses minimal. If he escalates, take your complaint to a supervisor.
Q. Brother-in-Law’s Expression of Love?: My younger sister “Lisa” is 21 and has been married to “Luke” for seven months. Coincidentally (or not), she is seven months pregnant with their first child. Lisa and Luke dated less than three months before getting engaged, and I had misgivings about him from the start. He is a decade older than Lisa, has been married twice before (both ended in divorce), has a terrible credit history, and has made various misogynistic statements. I put my reservations aside, as my sister seemed genuinely happy and in love. I am friendly toward Luke since he is part of the family, although he is not the type of person I would spend time with on my own. We have never talked much more than exchanging pleasantries and small talk, and not often, as they live two states away. Fast-forward to last night, when I received a private message from Luke through a social networking site. The message was brief, but said “I just wanted to let you know that I love you with all my heart” and “you make me smile with the things you say.” It made me feel very uncomfortable, and I have no idea what prompted this revelation. Do you think this is more than a brotherly expression of love? Should I respond? Should I tell my sister?
A: You can say something like, “Because my sister is pregnant with your child I will not show this message to her now and upset her. If you ever send me anything like this again, I will show her.” Let’s hope after the birth Lisa starts being more vigilant with birth control so that she doesn’t have a bunch of kids with a guy who’s guaranteed to make everyone’s life miserable.
Q. Re: Creepy Colleague: Why doesn’t the letter writer take her calls somewhere more private? If she’s a professional twentysomething (like myself) I’m sure she has a cellphone that she could walk outside to have her private calls on. Then this creep would no longer be privy to any eavesdropping information. Just a suggestion.
A: A good suggestion—thanks.
Q. Turning Down an Endorsement Request: The father of one of my daughter’s good friends in middle school has contacted me and asked me for an endorsement in the upcoming election. He’s running for a city council position. I am a prominent businessman and philanthropist in our large city, and so far he hasn’t been able to attract many big endorsements. The problem is, I think this man’s a lousy father, businessman, and person. I don’t want to endorse him at all. How can I tactfully reject his request so as to maintain our daughters’ friendship?
A: Tell him that as a matter of policy you’ve decided not to do endorsements for this race. If you have endorsed before and he mentions that, you can say that policies are sometimes in flux and this is currently where you stand. Surely as a businessman and philanthropist you have plenty of experience telling people, “No.”
Q. Re: Expression of Love: It might be that your brother-in-law intended to send the message to your sister. Consider responding with “Luke, I think you must’ve meant this message for Lisa.” Even if the message was meant for you, hopefully the short reply will be enough to stop him. And, if he replies, “No, it’s you I love,” then send Prudie’s suggestion.
A: Good point and suggestion. Several people have suggested that Luke’s message was meant for his wife and went awry. Let’s hope so, because at best he sounds like a bad bet.
Q. Pregnancy Blues: My wife “Alyson” and I are proud soon-to-be mothers. I’m pregnant with our first child, and our preparation for parenthood has been a wonderful experience up until now. Alyson has started to get a little touchy in the last month or so because of my pregnancy. She says she feels jealous that I’m the one who gets to carry our child, and now she wants to get pregnant, too! I’m trying to be as understanding as I can of her position, but I just don’t think we can handle having two babies at the same time. I really want her to carry a child of her own, but how can I convince her that the timing just isn’t right and wouldn’t be good for our little growing family?
A: I hope before you two embarked on parenthood you had some discussions about how many children you wanted and whether both or just one of your would carry them. If you have agreed that you would take turns bearing your children, remind Alyson that she will be up next. But for now you two need to concentrate on being the best parents you can be to the child who is on the way, rather than burdening yourselves with pseudo twins. If that doesn’t do it, find a counselor who is has expertise dealing with LGBT issues to help you two sort out some very important feelings. And it could be that dealing with an infant might solve some of Alyson’s desire to rush into her own pregnancy.
Q. Morally, Ethically, and Legally: Prudie, You seem rather blithe to the issue that a man has been lied to, and is raising a child that is not his own. That’s a huge deception, and I can’t believe you would just accept that situation if you were in the man’s place.
A: I think I made clear the brother and sister-in-law who got it on are despicable. But I do not see the point in clarifying this by blowing up an entire family for no purpose.
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.