Dear Prudence

Unbearable Betrayal

In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman whose husband left her to start a family—with her sister.

Emily Yoffe.

Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on 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

Emily Yoffe: Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving. This weekend I went to the stores and did my part for the economy. So much so that my card was declined when I was buying socks. A call to the credit card company had them explaining to me they became suspicious because I appeared to be “in a frenzy.”

Q. Is It Time To Get Over It?: When my ex and I were married, we had trouble conceiving and years of heartache. I thought our marriage was strong enough to survive this, then I discovered he was having an affair with my sister. We had a huge, traumatic confrontation and my then husband and I decided to move and make a fresh start. A few weeks after we moved, my sister gave the news that—surprise!—she was pregnant. My ex then divorced me to start a family with her. Because I’d just started a new job and had a mortgage, it was financially impossible for me to leave. I stayed in the new city by myself and eventually made friends and settled there. My parents were also very hurt and angry, but when the baby came they mellowed and reconciled. My niece is now 5 and I have never met her. We take turns attending family functions because I can’t bear to be in the same room as them. Recently my parents gently asked if I would consider having a Christmas dinner with my sister. I told them I would think about it and I really did. I took a deep breath and went on my sister’s Facebook page for the first time. There, I saw hundreds of happy pictures of them as a family. My ex-husband kissing her after she’d just given birth, photos of the happy first birthday party, family trips, etc. She was tagged in a status update from my ex: “Celebrating another amazing anniversary with my beautiful wife, thank you for giving me so much happiness and our perfect daughter.” I literally vomited after reading that. After five years, is it time for me to get over it and try to force myself to at least tolerate their company?

A: It’s no wonder what you saw made you sick to your stomach. The violation against you was enormous. However, I don’t think you should conclude that the only way you could be with them is to have a bunch of air-sickness bags with you. You have been in a bubble of denial for the past five years, so a tidal wave of evidence of the happy family life you feel these cheaters stole from you is bound to be overwhelming. If over the past few years you’d had some minimal contact with them and knew your niece slightly, you would be in a different place emotionally now. Yes, you might have still concluded you want nothing to do with them, but you would have made that decision from a more rational place. So give yourself time. You may want, possibly with the help of a therapist or even a friend, to give yourself some desensitization therapy. Instead of consuming pictures of the past five years at one gulp, over the next few months you could look occasionally at pictures of your niece. She is the innocent party here, and focusing on her might enable you to see that painful as it is, something positive has come out of all this. But Christmas is too soon for this. If you are going to find yourself being able to be in the room with this reconstituted family, it would be better to do it at a less loaded time—say a weekend in February with no connotations of holiday joy. Whatever you decide vis-a-vis your sister, be proud that you have moved on and built a happy life for yourself. (And how often do brothers- and sisters-in-law get it on? Just a few weeks ago I got a letter from a woman whose fiancé impregnated his brother’s wife, but the brother remains none the wiser.)

Q. Sister-in-Law’s Hospitality: My brother and sister-in-law invited our family and four other families over for Thanksgiving this weekend. We all brought side dishes, wine, desserts, and drinks so that they only needed to cook the turkey. When the meal was done, my sister-in-law came up to me and asked me to make sure to leave a check before we left. I asked her what the check was for and she said it was for hosting the dinner. She said $100 per couple should cover it. I was floored. The turkey only cost about $30 and everyone else bought at least as much in side dishes and wine. She told me there are a lot of costs that guests just don’t see. In order to avoid a scene, I wrote her a check. (I know at least one other family reluctantly paid her as well.) I asked my brother what that was about and he didn’t know anything about it. $500 to cook a turkey and host a dinner seems a bit steep to me—what should we do?

A. You should make other plans for Christmas if this chisler has invited you to celebrate that holiday. If you normally exchange gifts with them, consider that $100 for breast meat to be sufficient for the season. It’s true there are hidden costs to hospitality, but invited guests are normally not expected to cover that month’s mortgage. Your sister-in-law is a nut, and if you’re ever invited for another gathering, tell her you’ll supply your own peanut butter and jelly.

Q. Am I Too Prudish?: I am about to relocate to another state. My brother and his wife live in our soon to be home town and have generously offered me and my family a room until we find our own place. However, they have large nude portraits of themselves—one of my brother and another one of my SIL—hanging in the main hallway. They are not posing in any sexually suggestive way, but you see everything. Last time we visited my son was a toddler and the pictures weren’t an issue. He is now 5 and I feel it’s inappropriate for him to see nude portraits of his aunt and uncle. Is it rude if I ask them to take down the pictures? I’m all for giving kids age-appropriate sex ed, but I fear this is just too much too soon.

A: This isn’t sex ed, it’s art appreciation. You simply can’t ask your brother and sister-in-law to cover their portraits the way former Attorney General John Ashcroft had the partially nude Spirit of Justice covered with drapes. Your son will likely take a cue from you, so if you don’t take notice of the paintings he might not even focus on them. But if you find him staring, fascinated, then open the discussion by saying, “Those are interesting paintings, aren’t they?” And whatever he says handle it with humorous aplomb. Keep in mind there’s no age at which it’s too soon for a kid to understand that everyone is naked under their clothes.

Q. Confused in Ariz.: It has recently been brought to my attention that my 35-year-old son is being accused of sexually molesting the son of my best friend. At the time their ages were 13 (my son) and 4 (her son). I am shocked and shaken but at the same time I believe my son who says it is not true. My best friend is upset as well and wants my son to admit it and apologize. Prudence, I am at a loss of what to do. I feel as if a 40-year friendship is going to end. Both families just found out about it as my godson just told his mother. We are all trying to deal with this. My daughter says we should all get the proper counseling if needed and move on with our separate lives. She says nothing can be done legally since my son denies it anyway. I am terrified of what might can happen and mourn a potentially lost valued friendship?

A: I think your daughter is right. This is a situation in which the truth may never be known (and the statutes of limitations has run on the potential crime). If your son absolutely denies the accusation, of course he’s not going to apologize. And your friend seems naive to think that an apology would wrap things up and the friendship could continue. What a devastating turn of events; talking it through with a neutral party can help you deal with the fallout.

Q. Boundaries After a Death: I am a 28-year-old woman. Last month, my parents were killed in an automobile accident. We were very close, and it has been very hard for me, but I am doing as well as can be expected. Now that the holidays are upon us, I’m struggling to make plans. Thanksgiving was a big deal in our family. My parents hosted up to 25 to 40 people every year for as a long as I can remember. This year, I opted out of the holiday; just my boyfriend and me, pajamas, Chinese food, and Netflix. I don’t yet know what I’ll be doing in December. Here’s the problem; everyone I know is asking about my holiday plans, and inviting me to “family” events. I understand that they’re trying to be helpful and supportive, and I very much appreciate the invites from family and close friends, but I’m getting invites from people I barely know. Many of these people are my students’ parents (I teach high school) but some of them are random people who work in the community center my school rents space from. I really do appreciate that people are trying to help, and it’s nice to know so many people care, but it’s very upsetting to have to field these questions over and over. Every time I talk about it, I choke up, and I really don’t like being “on display” like that at work, especially in front of students. Do you have any advice on how to duck these well-intentioned but intrusive questions/invites?

A. I’m so sorry for your loss. Of course you are in agony, but over time you will be grateful that you have been so embraced by your community. But it’s natural that dealing with outpouring is impossible right now. I think you should designate a few good communicators to spread the word that while you are grateful for everyone’s generosity, for now you are finding it most healing to deal with your grief alone. It could be that a listserv notice is sent on your behalf to fellow faculty and another goes out to parents explaining your holiday (non)plans. It could also include the name of a charity your parents cared about in case people wanted to make donations—often people want to do something useful. You will continue to have to deal with person to person discussions, but just say while you appreciate their concern and it’s all so raw you just can’t talk about your loss right now.

Q. Re: “you could look occasionally at pictures of your niece. She is the innocent party here …”: I find this advice to be a little strange. Yes, the niece is an innocent party, but what does that have to do with anything? The niece isn’t being punished one bit by not getting to know her aunt. It would be far worse for the aunt to try and reconcile if she doesn’t really want to, and can’t forgive what her sister and husband did. Honestly, if it were me I’d rather just let the niece think I’m the weird, estranged aunt and move on with my life. Just because a person is your sister and that sister has a kid, that does not mean they must have a relationship.

A: I’m not saying forgive or even reconcile. It’s true that the LW may just decide to go through life never being in the room when her sister, ex, and niece are there. But eventually the time will come—a parent’s bedside, a family wedding, a funeral—when either the sisters decide who will go or who won’t, or the LW will have to be face-to-face with each other. I’m suggesting it might be better to defang this situation before then, if the LW is willing to entertain the idea. It’s also possible she might be able to normalize the fact that this niece exists.

Q. Post-Abortion: I wrote you several weeks ago about discovering I was pregnant at 45 (childless by choice couple). I’ve since terminated the pregnancy. My husband did not want to have a baby, and I was unsure. I felt I had only bad options. I made the most prudent decision given the circumstances, but am having an incredibly difficult emotional time in the aftermath. I already have a good counselor, but I feel like I need more intensive assistance for a week or two, maybe a month. Are you aware of any places that offer such help? I’ve researched two, but each are an astounding $40,000 for 30 days! P.S. I am not Christian and religious therapy is not for me. Thank you for your kind guidance before, and hopefully this time too.

A: The organization Exhale offers support for free. I can’t imagine what kind of organization charges more than $1,000 a day to help you get over an abortion.

Q. Baby Shower Cost: I am throwing a baby shower at my house for a friend with a guest list of 10-plus people, most of whom I do not know. All the food is going to cost quite a bit so I want to ask guests to split the costs. Is it breaching hostess etiquette to ask? Should I shoulder the full cost since it is being held at my home?

A: If you feed them turkey apparently you can charge $50 a head. If you couldn’t afford to host, you shouldn’t have offered. If you would like to split the cost, see if you can get another friend to co-host with you. Food for a dozen or so people should not break the bank. Just make it a mid-afternoon dessert-and-cheese affair.

Q. Re: “I can’t imagine what kind of organization charges more than $1,000 a day”: Maybe she was looking into in-patient therapy.

A: She weighed her choices and made what she decided was the best one. Spending 30 days and $40,000 to keep going over this in some hospital-like setting seems extremely counterproductive.

Q. Guardianship and Family Planning: Years ago, my wife and I agreed to be emergency guardians to my sister’s children. At the time she and my brother-in-law wanted two. My wife and I, who do not want children of our own, agreed because my brother-in-law is an only child. We are their only choice and, we felt we could handle two children in the unlikely event of the worst happening. Now my sister is pregnant with her fourth child and made a comment about us having guardianship of all four of these kids. We love our nieces and nephew, but four kids is too many. After a lot of discussion and thought, my wife and I decided together that we would not be able to take all four in the event of my sister’s death. We would still be willing to take two of them in. When I broke the news to my sister, it did not go well. She feels it is our duty as a loving aunt and uncle to give her children a home if she no longer can. Are we bound by family obligation with no say regardless of her reproductive choices?

A: First of all, the likelihood that you will have to raise this brood is minuscule, so it might be worth it to let it go based on the actuarial tables. But if this is truly concerning you, and since you’ve already raised this subject, you could tell your sister that you’d be more comfortable if she would at least explore alternatives. Many people make turn to friends when this issue arises because there is no one suitable in the family. But do not push this. Your sister has her hands full right now and planning what to do if her children become orphans is not her top priority. If the absolute worst were to happen, just reassure yourselves you’d figure out the best way to handle it.

Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

Discuss this column with Emily Yoffe on her Facebook page.

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.