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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Boyfriend’s Family: My boyfriend warned me ahead of time that his family was a handful, but nothing could of prepared me for Thanksgiving. N-words and gay slurs and an uncle who referred to Secretary Clinton by the worst word toward women imaginable. I am not trying to be a snob, but I can’t comprehend raising a child around these people. Although we are in med school a thousand miles away, we are thinking about settling down near his hometown. I talked to him about the outright bigotry his family embraces, and he is both embarrassed and also nonapologetic—I shouldn’t judge them for, amongst other things, referring to our president in a manner that you wouldn’t even publish. He’s a great, decent guy, but his family is not one I would want to be a part of, and I’m having a hard time reconciling the two.
A: Even if one’s family is composed of the rudest, crudest racists and misogynists, it can be a big leap to ask someone to write them off. Fortunately, your boyfriend ended up being nothing like these people. He’s embarrassed by them. But he also feels some instinctive sense of loyalty to the people who raised him, and whom he knows in a more complicated way than you possibly could. I can understand your wanting him to denounce these idiots wholesale, but you should be able see how that might have felt presumptuous to him. You say he’s your boyfriend, not yet your fiancé. So it seems premature to start dictating that you want to limit the exposure of your nonexistent children to them. You have made your understandable shock clear, so now you should back off. Let him spend some time considering what it must have been like to see his loved ones through your eyes. That will be more powerful that your trying to get him to sever ties with the only family he has.
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Q. Hearing Intimate Moments From Neighbors: I own and live in a semiattached house in a large city. The house adjacent to mine is owned by an landlord and rented out. The tenants and I share the wall between our master bedrooms. In a nutshell, I hear EVERY MINUTE of their intimate encounters. I’m in no way asking how to get them to stop. They are consenting adults and can be as intimate as they wish. My question is what to do about being woken up several times a week by their cries of ecstasy. I have so far been able to resist knocking my knuckles on the wall to alert them to their racket, but I’m an early riser and am really not interested in learning on a four-or-five-night-a-week basis how good the male partner is. Please advise.
A: These people can be identified the smiles on their faces and the bags under their eyes. You own, they rent. So you’re the one who’s going to have to invest in the sound proofing. Get a consultant and find out what can be done on your end to muffle the joy. Once you do that, if you still can hear the blow by blow, you need to go over and have a conversation with them. You can say that unfortunately the walls between your homes aren’t thick enough, and that the sound between the bedrooms leaks through. You can say you’ve mitigated this as much as you can, but for their privacy, and your sleep, and if they could keep it down (per Bill Clinton, you don’t have to specify what “it” is) you’d all be more comfortable.
Q. Abused Friend: My friend from school is being abused at home, where she lives with her grandparents and her mother. I’ve known for a few months that her grandma calls her names, and makes fun of her, but I thought very little of it because they were only words. Recently though, her grandma has become more and more violent, to the extent of burning her personal belongings, and burning her with cigarettes. I want to call Social Services, but I am afraid they will take her away and put her up for adoption, in which case I may never see her again, or they will investigate, decide it’s not abuse, and then it will make things worse for her. Also, she has confided to me that she doesn’t want to leave, just kill herself. I am very afraid for her well being, but I’m afraid to lose her. What should I do?
A: What a tragic situation and of course your friend is terrified to stay and more terrified of what would happen if she left. However, this girl is in imminent danger. Her grandmother has committed crimes against her that should be prosecuted. Please tell your parents, and together you should all go to the principal of the school right away to get started on getting this girl safe.
Q. Re: Boyfriend’s Family: I don’t think the OP is wrong for considering her future with boyfriend. It doesn’t sound like the boyfriend is willing to limit contact with his family, so these folks are going to present quite a problem in the future, should the OP and boyfriend marry. Certainly all the letters you receive from people having in-law problems should be a flashing red warning to your readers about how important it is to choose your partner carefully. OP is right to be concerned, and I would advise her to hold off on making future plans with her boyfriend unless/until the issues can be discussed and resolved to her satisfaction.
A: Sure I see you could make the argument that she should get out now if this is his family and he’s not ready to call them out on what they are. However, few family relationships come with such an easy on-off switch. He could be thinking, “Well I grew up with these people, and I’m nothing like them. I’m not ready to sever relations with them because of fear of exposing our not-yet-conceived children to their grandparents.” It’s no defense of his family to say that he might have understandably started feeling defensive because she was asking him to see them only as an outsider would. Now that he’s introduced her to them, it’s opened up a conversation between them. I don’t think it’s time for an ultimatum.
Q. Family Drama: I am a single, successful career woman who has been dating a wonderful, charming man for the past two years. With the holidays approaching I have a problem—my boyfriend would like to be included in my family events. However, my parents and siblings absolutely abhor my boyfriend. They disapprove of our significant age gap, his divorce, his behavior based on meeting him once at a party, where, in their opinion, he drank too much. They consider him a cheap, womanizing drunk who is taking advantage of me. At Thanksgiving he wondered whether I would like to have him accompany me to family dinner. Now with Christmas looming—how am I going to tell my atheist boyfriend that my family will have a fit if he shows up for midnight mass?
A: This is the season of people behaving abominably. It’s time you did some truth-telling to both sides. You have to let your boyfriend know that you’ve been struggling with your family’s disapproval of him. Explain they dislike the age difference between you and his divorce. Tell them they have always been hyper-judgmental and you are having a very hard time dealing with their negative remarks about him. Then you tell your family that you have been in love with a fine man for two years who is a permanent part of your life. If they want you to part of theirs, it’s time they behaved with the true spirit of the season and welcomed him into their homes. If they refuse, then you should say you are going to have to start a new tradition of being with kind and loving people for the holidays. So you and your boyfriend will be celebrating Christmas together away from them.
Q. My Sister Won’t Get a Divorce From Her Cheating Husband: My sister’s husband “Ben” cheated on her with one of her best friends, “Kelly.” Apparently the affair has been going on for years and Kelly’s 6-year-old son is the result of this relationship (what was a shock to everyone, especially to Kelly’s husband). Since the affair became public my BIL and Kelly have left their spouses and started living together. My sister is devastated, but keeps saying she still loves Ben and wants to win him back. Ben used to work for my family’s company, but has left his job and has been struggling financially since. In a desperate attempt to save her marriage, my sister has been giving Ben expensive gifts and even significant amounts of money from time to time. How can I make her come to her senses? She refuses to get a divorce! Ben is a scumbag and she deserves much better! I understand that she still has feelings for him and that maybe she is afraid of being single after so many years, but Ben is not worth her effort and humiliation. Please help.
A: Ah, love, that all-purpose excuse for being treated like crap. You have to accept that some people can’t be helped. What you can do is reflect reality back to her. When she starts going on about how much she misses him, you can say, “Sure, it’s hard to end a marriage. But he’s now living with the mother of his child, so things don’t look too promising.” Eventually tell her you just can’t be a sounding board about Ben. Say he’s treated her so terribly that it’s too painful for you to hear her strategies for getting him back.
Q. Re: Calling Social Services for abused friend: Cigarette burns are serious abuse, and this kind of physical violence usually only escalates. Please call Social Services TODAY. You can remain anonymous, Social Services will investigate and they will take this complaint very seriously.
A: Good point. I hope this letter writer can get her parents involved in this—this is too much for a teenager to handle alone. The parents could then call Social Services. I also think all of them should go to the principal immediately. It’s important for people who know the abused girl to be alerted so that she is not simply descended on by strangers.
Q. May I Have Your Daughter’s Hand in Marriage?: My girlfriend’s parents have always been wary of me. I’m not a Christian (she and they are), I’m 40 (she’s 25), I’m divorced and a father, and she and I have struggled over my close relationship with my ex-wife. Their friends have sometimes been more open about their disapproval of me and their belief that my girlfriend could do better. What speaks in my favor is how happy I make my girlfriend and how well I treat her. I believe her parents respect me for that. I want to marry my girlfriend, and I’m wondering whether or not I should ask her dad for her hand in marriage. I think it’s an archaic practice, but I know it matters to him. Among my girlfriend’s family and their close friends, the story of how a man asked a father for his fiancée’s hand in marriage is almost as important as the engagement story. I’m trying to get over what I feel—that it’s sort of ridiculous to ask a man’s permission to marry his grown financially independent daughter—and trying show my (hopeful)-future-in-laws that I’ll be a good husband to their daughter.
A: I’m wondering if during your courtship with your girlfriend you’ve noticed you’ve been excluded from holiday gatherings. If so, and you’re the boyfriend of the previous letter writer, I’ve got news for you: Her parents can’t stand you. From what you’ve laid out here, it doesn’t sound to me as if marrying this young woman sounds like such a good idea. You don’t share religious views, which are important to her. Her family doesn’t like you and you’re intimidated by them. You’re considerably older, you have kids, and most important, she doesn’t like that you remain close to your ex, the mother of her children. That is a serious problem that will only escalate once you marry and especially if you have children together. It could be that you really enjoy having a much younger girlfriend. But maybe she’s not actually ready to step up and take on the responsibility of helping you raise your children. I know you weren’t asking me for approval for her hand, but I’m not giving it, either.
Q. Mother Spoiled Engagement Surprise: My boyfriend recently asked my parents for approval to marry me. My mother was so excited, she decided to fill me in on the happy news. While it came as no surprise to me, I still informed my mother that it’s not protocol for parents to tell their daughter about this sort of thing. After that I let it go. Meanwhile, other family and friends who have heard about the story are mortified and have chastised my mother for not keeping this a secret. My mother is now upset and keeps trying to defend her actions. What is the proper etiquette?
A: So a future mother-in-law actually likes the guy her daughter is going to marry and now everyone is piling on her for spoiling the secret. Tell everyone to back off and tell your mother you’re sorry she’s getting so much blow-back. Look, I dislike the whole business of it being totally up to the man to decide when two people are getting married. I’m assuming the proposal didn’t come as a total shock and that you two had had conversations along the way that you wanted to spend your lives together.
Q. Parents’ Cookbooks: My parents passed away this year and I have been sorting through their things with my two siblings. My parents have three children, three children-in-laws, 10 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. After years of cooking and hosting, my mother had many cookbooks she relied upon for recipes. I love hosting and it would mean a lot to be to have and use these cookbooks. My siblings think the cookbooks should be divided among the remaining children and adult grandchildren. I understand that everybody has fond memories of Grandma’s cooking and holidays, but I am the only person who would actually use them and follow her notes. I asked my siblings if they were willing to trade, like they could have her Christmas ornaments or other things and I could have the cookbooks. They did not seem pleased with this suggestion. I am really upset at the prospect of my mother’s cookbooks being passed to people who will not appreciate them (and potentially get rid of them). Any other suggestion for dealing with this?
A: “Did not seem pleased” is different from utterly opposed. Either everyone actually is interested in the cookbooks, or your family is taking the notion of dividing everything equally too far. Dividing things up according to interest can be fair even if it means some people get all of one thing and none of another. You may have a sibling who loves the art on the walls while you have never been able to stand it, so you’d be delighted not to have to deal with getting rid of the paintings. Reopen the discussion after you’ve done an inventory of the house and you have a better idea of what people want. It could be that people could make tentative lists of the things that are most meaningful to them. Then you could make the case that you have the shelf space and interest to keep your mother’s cookbook collection all in one place. You can add that doing so would give you the opportunity to follow her own version of the pumpkin pie recipe you all love. If you come at this more gently, you might just get your way.
Emily will be answering reader questions on Reddit on Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 1 p.m. ET.