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: I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. And I’m already filled with dread about hearing Dean Martin sing “Let it Snow” for the next three-plus weeks.
Q. Get My Obnoxious BILs to Stop: My wife and I spent Thanksgiving weekend with her family for the first time last week. I was appalled by the rowdy behavior of her two elder brothers. They just run roughshod over her and frequently use verbal jabs and physical roughness while interacting with her. One day, one brother picked her up and tossed her, fully clothed, into the swimming pool while the other laughed his head off. They have been treating her like this her whole life, so she knows no better and just laughs it off. She refuses to tell them to stop, but I do think they should, especially as we have a 1-year-old son who I don’t want to see his mother being manhandled in this fashion. How can I convince her and them to stop?
A: You need to have a serious talk with your wife about her brothers’ humor. I understand that you were appalled, but it is possible that for her this kind of roughhousing was a fun part of her childhood and that she loved the verbal and physical rough and tumble of adored older brothers. It’s also possible she’s so inured to it that she can’t make a distinction between affection and abuse. I hope your wife’s family lives somewhere tropical, or else a toss into the pool at Thanksgiving sounds like a recipe for hypothermia. But you have to get a real reading from you wife about whether this—and all the other stuff—was a frat house kind of fun she enjoys, or whether she doesn’t know how to defend herself and say stop. Tell her how it all looked to you, and how disturbed and upset you were by it. And as an aside, be prepared that these two wild and crazy uncles may turn out to be your son’s favorite people.
Dear Prudence: Hung Up on Hair Length
Q. Bitchy Resting Face: I am a kind, considerate person, and generally have a very happy disposition. I also suffer from what it is known as “bitchy resting face.” It’s pretty bad. I look either very unhappy, or downright evil, depending on one’s interpretation. Friends have had to assure other people that I won’t bite their heads off if approached! My husband is in the military, so every few years I have to start over from scratch with my social life, and it isn’t easy when I look so unapproachable. What can I do? I can’t walk around with a big, fake smile plastered on my face. It’s exhausting and I’d probably look a little looney!
A: Please read, Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions, a fascinating book by social psychologist Marianne LaFrance. It’s a look at why the looks on our faces are so important. I get what you’re saying because when I was younger, people—including strangers—would urge me to smile. Yes, this is something people do to young women and, without exploring the inherent sexism of this, as you’ve discovered it’s actually better not to look like an ogre. I disagree with you that your choices are BRF or a huge fake smile. It is possible for you to train yourself to adopt a more Mona Lisa look—a slightly upturned, intriguing expression that doesn’t make you look like a clown, but doesn’t put people off either. You can also enlist your friends who have stepped up to explain to others you’re actually really nice, to help you in your facial muscle retraining. Tell them what you’re trying to do and that you want their feedback. It will be a gratifying loop to have people respond to you as if you are the happy person you feel to be inside.
Q. Is This Issue of Religion a Deal-Breaker?: My boyfriend of three years, hopefully soon to be fiancé, has asked me if I would convert to his parents’ religion so that they can accept me. His parents have always been very insistent on him marrying someone of their own religion/culture, and this would be a way for them to accept me and prevent them from disowning him. However, the prospect of essentially lying to them (he and I are both agnostic) is not appealing to me. Also, I worry that my agreeing to convert now also means agreeing to follow his parents’ wishes on other issues in our life together. I don’t want him to lose his family, but I also don’t want to get myself into a marriage where his parents’ wishes come first. Am I being close-minded in thinking this might be a deal-breaker?
A: Your boyfriend wants you to convert to a religion he no longer practices so his parents will like you better, so getting married is perhaps not the best potential outcome here. I agree with you that if during the three years you’ve been together he hasn’t been able to establish a beachhead of independence, that is a terrible sign. That moving toward a possible proposal from him requires you to enter into a fake conversion is alarming. I don’t like anything you’re describing about your relationship. If you hope to marry him, this should be a discussion the two of you engage in as equals, not some waiting game for him to finally make up his mind. That he cares more about what his parents think about you than what you think about your own beliefs is also a bad sign. If you want to try to salvage this relationship, hash all this out with a counselor. But if it’s this hard at this point, your prospects don’t sound too promising.
Q. Sister-in-Law’s Favorite: My sister-in-law favors her second child. The child has caught on to this and milks it for all it’s worth. If she doesn’t get what she wants, she turns on the waterworks. As soon as she does, the first one usually ends up with a spanking, a scolding, or a time out even if No. 1 has done nothing wrong. I have witnessed this a few times myself, and even though I speak up each time and let sister-in-law know that child No. 1 has done absolutely nothing wrong, she disagrees and rebukes her anyway. Others in the family have told sister-in-law the same. When I babysat the two girls, No. 2 tried the waterworks with me. When she realized it wasn’t working, she simply whimpered and sulked and acted pitifully because she couldn’t get her sister in trouble. What can I do to help sister-in-law treat the children equally without favoring her second child? It’s troubling to me to see No. 1 constantly in trouble as well as the younger child enjoying it.
A: A small group of family members should talk to the husband about what’s going on. These representatives need to make clear that grave damage is going to be done to both his daughters unless he intervenes and gets some counseling and his wife gets on board with some basic principles of child-rearing. Your sister-in-law has established a pernicious and destructive pattern and if it isn’t broken, it will echo through both these children’s lives, damaging the favored as well as the unfavored. In the meantime, the family should try to get some time alone with the older child to give her the positive reinforcement and love she so badly needs. If things don’t change, the older girl also needs to hear from other adults that they disapprove of things her mother says and does. She needs to hear good things about herself and the sad truth that sometimes the people who should love us the most have problems of their own and don’t do the right thing.
Q. Baby Gifts: This past year my brother and SIL lost their newborn. Last Christmas the family bought said newborn (while in utero) a lot of gifts, celebrating the upcoming birth. This year she is pregnant again (second trimester). We really don’t know what’s proper for Christmas this year. We don’t know if we should give gifts for the baby or not.
A: Talk to your brother about this and tell him the family wants to be sensitive to where they both are at. You can imagine the complicated and conflicting emotions they are going through. But it’s perfectly standard not to buy lots of gifts for an unborn child. I think it sounds like a better idea to bring the baby gifts a few months from now when there’s a healthy baby to celebrate.
Q. Re: Manhandled wife: I have seen many families that do interact this way with each other. Verbal and physical jabs. The key is does your wife participate or is she just the target? If she enjoys participating and is involved in a back and forth, I see no harm at all. Unfortunately some of these types of relationships can turn very bitter if one person is the target and does not participate other than to receive verbal and physical jabs.
A: Yes, the key is how all participants really feel. And that means separating out feeling pressure to go along with a style of interaction that you hate. But it also means that what can look appalling to an outsider is a blast for the insiders.
Q. Friendship: I have a friend that consistently gets involved with married men. I can’t keep quiet anymore about how awful I think this is on so many levels. I know it all stems from her incredibly low self-esteem but it needs to stop. She always says she wants to find a man but because she’s always involved with these married guys she never does. How can I tactfully and forcefully tell her enough already without wrecking our friendship?
A: The next time she confesses that she’s found someone who’s good husband material—because he’s already someone else’s husband—just tell her what you think. You say that you find cheating deplorable and that she’s gotten herself in a very destructive pattern that’s going to mean she never finds an available man. If that wrecks your friendship, so be it. Your contempt for her behavior is going to destroy it anyway.
Q. Re: Sister-in-law’s favorite: Speaking from firsthand knowledge: Please give the older girl time away from her mom and little sister. The best confidence builder for me was going on “dates” with my father; a run to the hardware store or to pick up pizza still make me smile 60 some odd years later.
A: I agree the older child needs time alone with supportive adults. But hearing your story makes me sad that there are parents who knowingly allow a spouse to emotionally damage their children.
Q. Wedding Gift Etiquette: My stepsister is getting married and I don’t live in the area my family lives, so getting to the wedding and hotel costs will run me around $1,000. I have been told that because she’s family I am required to provide a gift that’s worth at least $100. I feel as though I could get them a small gift and my presence would be sufficient. This is a couple who makes good money and the wedding is primarily paid for by the parents so I also don’t feel it should be an obligation for a gift in the first place. What is appropriate?
A: Of course it’s better to attend family weddings. But if you don’t have the $1,000 to do it, then you need to decline. That will free up some money to send a gift and a heartfelt note. If you are planning to go, then whoever is your etiquette adviser needs an etiquette adviser. There isn’t a minimum price of admission. You get something you can afford: a picture frame, a set of salad tongs, some trivets. And if you go, remember this is someone’s joyous occasion and not the opportunity for you to pile a quarry’s worth of chips on your shoulder.
Q. Friend’s Ex-husband: Last year, a close childhood friend divorced her husband. It was messy, and since I had a relationship with both, I found myself in the middle at times. It’s been a while since the divorce was finalized, and I maintain the very close relationship I’ve always had with my friend. Her ex-husband, however, has not been in my life except to invite my husband and me out for a few events. The first invite was extended not long after they separated and I said flat-out that I didn’t think it was the right thing for me to do, but might be OK if more time could pass. The most recent one left me feeling a little stumped. My friend acknowledges that it’s weird for her, but she doesn’t want her ex-husband to lose friendships due to her indiscretions (she was the cause of the breakup). I really do value this man as a friend, he’s a great person, and he was basically the victim in this situation. That said, is it poor form for me to maintain any kind of friendship with him? Do I keep the friendship to myself, or do I have an obligation to tell my friend when he contacts myself or my husband?
A: When friends split up it can be an open question as to who gets custody of the friendship. Sure, you have a long pre-existing relationship with your friend, so you are maintaining that. But I don’t see any reason to cut off the ex if you enjoyed his company. It’s perfectly reasonable for him to invite you and your husband to join him for an evening. It would be one thing if he were the cheating rat (that was your friend, apparently) but I don’t see why he has to sever all his ties with his core social group. If you see him and he spends the evening pumping you for information about his ex, or venting, then you can tell him you can’t participate in that conversation. But if he’s just reaching out because he doesn’t want to spend all his time alone, you should see him. You can tell your own friend that you’ve decided to see her ex occasionally and let that cover it; you don’t then have to inform her of each get-together.
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