Dear Prudence

Kissing Cousins

In a live chat, Prudie advises a man whose niece is unwittingly engaged to his son.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo 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

See Emily live! She will be talking to Slate editor David Plotz and taking questions at Sixth and I in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11. For tickets and more information, click here.

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Possible Cousin Marriage: Over 20 years ago I had an affair with a married woman who became pregnant with my child. She reconciled with her husband and they raised the boy as their own. I have not had any contact with my biological son, at the husband’s request. No one in my family knows I have a secret son. Two weeks ago I found out my niece (my sister’s daughter) is engaged, and the groom to be is none other than my biological son! Prudie, I am livid that my son’s mother and her husband did not stop this relationship in its early stages. “No, Bobby, you can’t date that girl because she’s your biological cousin” is all it would have taken. I contacted the woman and she swore she didn’t know our son was marrying my niece since my niece has a different last name. I asked her what she planned to do to stop the wedding and she said she’s doing nothing! Our son doesn’t know anything, and according to her, cousin marriage is harmless! Prudie, how do I bring this up with my niece and her parents? I have never had any contact with my son, and I don’t think I should approach him about it. He doesn’t know his father is not his biological father. I don’t want my niece to live in incest because of my past mistake. Please help.

A: This is an opportunity to repeat my frequent reassurance to fathers: Dads, a statistically significant percentage of you actually have sired the children you think are yours. There’s no reason to doubt the mother of the groom when she says she didn’t realize the bride was related to you, especially if there’s been no big family gathering to celebrate the impending nuptials. You think you have a simple, easy way for the mother of the groom to stop the romance by saying, “Bobby, your father is not your father, and your fiancée is your cousin!” But if you think this through, explaining all this will entirely upend his family, and now yours, and at this late date in the wedding planning you can understand that the parents want to stick with their original plan to keep quiet about Bobby’s biology. I do think that people are entitled to know their origins and keeping these secrets has the potential for blowing up, as you are now seeing. But as it stands only three people know you’re the biological father of the boy, and while it may take all your will power, I think it should remain that way. Cousin marriage is common in much of the world and I think the remaining laws against it in this country should be repealed. Yes, there is an elevated risk of passing on genetic disorders, but it absolute terms it is very small. Two young people are in love and planning to make a life together. I think you should let that be.

Dear Prudence Classic Video: Crushing on the Boss

Q. Where Compassion and Etiquette Collide: I have a friend who suffered tremendous brain damage in a car accident several years ago. He went from being at the very top of his game as a professional to living in an adult foster home. Recently, he discovered Facebook and many of his old friends. The problem is, he frequently comments on posts and some of his comments are very offensive: homophobic, racist, paranoid, etc. While those people who knew him are fine, many of my friends do not know him or his back story. It feels unkind to block him, delete his comments, or censor him, as I am told by mutual friends that Facebook is his greatest social outlet these days. But I also don’t like being put in the position of not challenging racist or homophobic comments that I disagree with; that feels wrong as well. I should add that pre-accident, he was none of those things. On one post, I tried a gentle/humorous reproach, but was met with some rants and argument that made the issue worse. What is the balance between compassion and not appearing to accept or condone comments that I do not accept or condone?

A: What an agony to see a vibrant person so damaged. You say that Facebook is his main social outlet, but I’m wondering if this is because he’s lacking in actual social contact. It’s understandable that people who knew him would feel stricken at seeing this transformation, but maybe you could organize a group of his friends to drop by a couple of times a month. If you have a big enough gang, any one of you would only see him for an hour or so every few months, but contact with people from his old life might be a great tonic for your friend. What he’s doing on Facebook is a result of his brain damage. As you say, those of you who know the back story understand, but you are not obligated to keep up unacceptable rants, no matter the reason for them. If you have to block, delete, or limit him, so be it. I’m wondering if he might find a better outlet by having a more active Facebook presence of his own. Maybe a group of old friends could agree to post on his page several times a week so that he feels part of something and has less need to comment on the pages of others. Your friend is trapped in a hell, and can’t really understand the point you might want to make about his Facebook posts. But there are larger issues here, and good alternative ways for you to express your compassion.

Q. Don’t Want to Know: My husband’s friend came over to our house with his girlfriend. Since both of them ended up drinking (not drunk, but probably enough to go over the legal limit), they stayed the night at our place. The friend decided to go in for a shower, and, after running the water, he called his girlfriend, who followed in and showered together. Both my husband and I were in the lounge, next to the girlfriend, when this happened. I find this bizarre and rude. Whatever they decide to do in the guest bedroom is not my business but I didn’t need to know they were going to shower together. My husband thinks I’m overreacting and says it’s not a big deal. Who’s right, me or my husband?

A: These people were simply concerned about your water bill! If they got some pleasurable rub-a-dub-dub in, what’s it to you? If you search your memory bank maybe you will recall a time that you, too, wanted to shower with your husband. So instead of being so churlish, get inspired and tell your spouse that maybe you two should save some money and get sudsy together.

Q. Potential Baby: My parents live about two hours away from my husband and me. We see them approximately once a month and I am an only child. My husband and I have been married for eight years and during this time we have been very adamant about not having children. However, very recently, we have been discussing the possibility of having a child. Here’s the issue: My parents have recently decided to put their house on the market and move about four states away and I’m torn whether or not I should tell them that there may be a grandchild in their future. Obviously, due to unforeseen health, physical, and emotional issues, a baby may not happen and I don’t want them to put their lives on hold for a possibility. Also, I don’t want this to be a guilt trip and an “eleventh hour” plea to get them to stay closer because I truly want them to be happy and be in a place where they will enjoy. However, for example, if nothing is said, I think if they move in April and find out I’m pregnant in May, they may be quite hurt and feel blindsided. Should I tell them about a possibility and if so, how to do it in a tactful way?

A: If you have a child and know your life would be better if your parents were nearby, and so would theirs, I think this is a perfectly reasonable discussion to have. You have to be clear you are not making a plea, and as they well know there’s no guarantee that a grandchild will be produced. But if they would thrill to being close enough to help with a baby, then they might feel there was some kind of bait and switch with your previously stated non-reproduction plans. I think this is a conversation best had between you and them. You lay out here very tactfully what you want to say, so just follow that script.

Q. Re: Kissing cousins: Regarding the engaged cousins, are there any likely circumstances where they would need to get DNA tests for medical reasons (maybe screening for hereditary conditions), in which case they would suddenly discover they are related? If so, it seems like somebody should tell them now.

A: That’s an interesting point. This is something I’d like someone with expertise in genetic counseling to weigh in on. Would a counselor say, “Hey, did you guys know you were cousins?” (And would that be clear?) Or would a counselor simply report potential reproductive risks without commenting on any consanguinity?

Q. Wife vs. Wedding: My wife and I just booked a trip abroad. My wife has waited her entire life to be able to travel and we finally have the time and money to make this happen. My brother just announced his engagement not long ago, but at last check, he and his fiancée had no date in mind. When my wife and I mentioned in conversation this weekend that we had finally booked our trip for June of next year, my brother and his fiancée got very quiet before he said that they had just put a deposit down on a package for a destination wedding over approximately those same dates. Now my wife and I are being pressured by my family to change our trip and attend the destination wedding instead. My wife hasn’t said anything, but we both know there isn’t money to do both, and I know she’s disappointed. My mother says we owe this to my brother because he was my best man, and it is a family wedding and missing it isn’t an option. I am of course thrilled for him and was prepared to do whatever it took to attend his wedding, but it breaks my heart to see my wife so sad that there’s yet another setback to this trip. What’s the right thing to do?

A: I dislike destination weddings for exactly the reasons described here. The bridal couple chooses where they want to honeymoon, then everyone else has to schlep there at great expense and suck up a lot of vacation time to accompany them. But I equally dislike problems that come with this kind of disclaimer: “My wife hasn’t said anything.” For goodness sake, man, start talking! You two have a lot to figure out. Is the destination of the wedding a place you would generally be happy to go? Can you recoup any of your deposit? Would your absence mean a terrible breach with your brother? You have plenty of time for discussion, planning, and rebooking. Sure, your brother’s plans are annoying, but missing your sibling’s wedding is the kind of thing that’s best avoided. If you decide to go to the wedding, don’t catastrophize this to mean your dreams of travel are forever crushed. Start saving and planning for a future trip.

Q. Re: Genetic testing: I had genetic screening when I was pregnant and they specifically asked if there was any chance we were related. It had to do with calculating the probabilities of various genetic conditions to see if specific testing should be carried out. Certain ethnic groups are more susceptible to heritable diseases, and if both partners are potential carriers, then more testing would be suggested.

A: If this couple is asked, they’re obviously going to say, “No.” And these two are young, so genetic screening might not even come up.

Q. Mean Girl: I recently went out to dinner with old friends I’ve known since we were teens. We get together for dinner on one another’s birthdays. One friend in particular considers herself a “truth teller” and can be quite blunt with her opinions. During dinner, I mentioned that I’d tried a new hair stylist. My friend told me that my hair did not look good, and the stylist did not do a good job! She asked others at the table to weigh in, told me I would look younger if I styled my hair differently and even invited the waitress to critique my hair! I’d like to say I gracefully shut down the conversation, but I responded angrily and things became quite awkward. We all finished dinner and I apologized for losing my cool. No apology from my friend. I don’t want to lose a friendship over this, but I was hurt, angry, and embarrassed! I really felt ambushed and caught off guard. I don’t want to pretend this never happened but I don’t think a heart-to-heart talk will do much good.

A: It’s funny that these self-described “truth tellers” always have something bad to say. Your friend sounds awful and yes, it would have been better if you’d simply said, “Thanks, I’ll take this under advisement. Does anyone have any Labor Day plans?” But you apologized, she didn’t, so that says a lot. It sounds as if this group only sees one another occasionally, so let this go. You will be prepared next time to deflect whatever unpleasant insights she has to offer.

Q. How to Keep Someone From Drinking at My Wedding: Many years ago at a family member’s wedding one of my cousins got quite drunk, made a scene, and caused some embarrassment. Over the years she has not improved her self-control. Nevertheless due to pressures from my family we’re inviting the cousin. How can I keep another incident from occurring? Can I pull this family member aside and say she cannot drink? Do I tell the bartender to not serve this person? I’m trying to minimize drama while maximizing happiness for everyone.

A: It’s a wedding, so you don’t want to post her picture at the bar with a sticky note saying, “Ginger ale, only.” Keep in mind when someone loses it at a wedding, she only causes embarrassment to herself. For everyone else, it’s something to talk about on the ride home. If your cousin is an alcoholic, I doubt pulling her aside and saying, “Don’t drink,” will work. What you need to do is have one or two designated minders. These people will keep tabs on your cousin and if she starts to get obstreperous will have a word with the bartender about cutting her off, and take her by the arm and try to keep her calm.

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