Dear Prudence

House of Pain

Prudie counsels a mother who regrets moving the family back in with her abusive parents.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone! I hope all your in-laws and co-workers have been on their best behavior this week. Let’s chat.

Q. Moving back in with my parents has been a nightmare!: Due to deployment, my two small children and I are living with my parents. Free rent for 15 months sounded like a great way to get us out of debt. Since we have moved here it has been a nightmare. It’s only been a week. My children are being belittled and yelled at, my parents are physically rough with them, I have no privacy, and my mother walks in on me in the bathroom constantly; she waltzes into my room without any word or warning. (I’m waiting for her to find something embarrassing, as my husband is gone after all.) If I don’t spend all of my time with the family in the living room, I am labeled as rude and ungrateful. I had a very hard childhood with verbal, sometimes physical abuse, and I don’t know why I thought this would be a good idea. I thought they had changed. My parents are both aggressive and stubborn. If I bring up my issues I’m afraid of the reaction. Do I try talking to them, or do I find an alternate arrangement?

A: If you can afford it, find an alternate arrangement, as soon as you can. If there are any financial or housing resources you can rely on during your husband’s deployment, take them. Paying down your debt can wait. Your parents’ patterns of abuse are not going to be fixed with a single conversation, and you owe it to your children (and yourself!) to live in a house where they are safe.

Q. Everyone has dumped my friend—except me: My wife and I have been best friends with Max and Laura, another married couple, since college. They struggled with infertility for over a decade until, a few years ago, they made the painful decision to stop trying. Right after Christmas Max came to me and confessed he’d been having an affair. The other woman is pregnant and will be keeping the child. Laura had a breakdown when he told her; they’re divorcing. Everyone they know has cut Max off. He has no friends when, even though he behaved horribly, he really needs one. I love Max, even though I’m pretty disgusted with him. I want to remain his friend, but I don’t know how to explain this to my wife (or to Laura). Any suggestions?

A: Oh, this is a challenge. I don’t even know Max, and I still want to cut him out of my life. But we all have friends who have done things we disapprove of, and I think you can make it clear you think what he did to his wife was wrong without banishing him from your life forever. If you keep Max as a friend, there is a very real chance you will lose Laura. This may or may not be fair, but I think you should be aware of that possibility before you move ahead. To whatever extent you decide to keep Max in your life, I think you should do Laura the kindness of not mentioning him; she has the right to not have to think about or see him. To your wife, tell her what you told me—that you hate what Max did but you still love him and want to be there for him. It may be that your friendship with Max will have to become a bit more one-on-one from now on; I doubt you will be able to invite him to many dinner parties. But it’s your choice to make. Just as Laura and your wife have the right to exclude Max from their society, so too do you have the right to keep him as a friend, as long as you don’t try to force anyone else into making the same decision.

Q. Smelly situation: I have a friend (20-plus years) who smells. It is a sickening smell, and I believe that it emits from her ladybits. Whenever I have tried to broach the subject, she gets defensive and won’t speak to me for weeks. Is there another way to help without her taking any more offense?

A: I don’t believe there is. Normally this sort of question ends, “How can I bring this up without hurting her feelings?” but you’ve already done both of those things repeatedly. You have done your due diligence and explained to your friend (hopefully kindly) that she frequently produces an offensive odor. You are no longer presenting her with new information by continuing to bring it up. If she refuses to speak to you when you try to broach the subject, I think you have your answer.

Q. Mother and son are the happy couple: I work with a lovely woman in her late 60s. She was widowed a few years ago. Her 36-year-old son, who lives with her (and his father before his passing), and she are inseparable. He has a good job dealing with the public but seems somewhat introverted. He has dated few women. My colleague and her son shop together, work out together, dine out, and travel together. I feel like someone needs to suggest to her that this relationship, while great for her, is making it too easy for him to avoid stepping outside his comfort zone. They have no family and a small social circle. Do I say anything? If so, what?

A: I cannot imagine telling a widowed co-worker that I think she is too close to her son. There’s simply no way you can tell a woman you work with that you disapprove of her relationship with her adult child, no matter how much you think it would be better for him to move out. You aren’t related to her, and the two of them aren’t hurting anybody. They do sound unusually close, but if he’s able to maintain a separate dating life and the two of them seem happy, I don’t see the problem. The size of his comfort zone simply isn’t your business.

Q. Prepping for a hypothetical funeral: I’m 24, and I have so far had no close family members or friends pass away during my lifetime. Therefore, I have never needed to attend a funeral, and I don’t really know what to wear to one. I know sometimes funerals are seen as a celebration of life as well as a time to grieve, so sometimes black is appropriate, and sometimes it isn’t. My question is, what is an appropriate outfit to wear to a funeral? Skirt and dress, or are pants OK for a woman? Would it be a good idea to shop for a good “funeral outfit”—preferably one that could double as business casual so I could wear it to work?

A: Pants are fine. If a particular funeral is billed as a “celebration of life” there may be a dress code specified. If you’re not sure black is called for, muted tones like navy and dark gray are fine too. I can’t think of a reason not to find a suit that doubles as office wear; there’s no reason you can’t mourn and be practical.

Q. To tell or not to tell?: After I started a new job a month ago, a co-worker (“Jane”) invited our small team to a party at her house last week. When I arrived, I was shocked to see a guy I met online two months ago. We went on a few dates and slept together, but I ended it because I wasn’t feeling it. Turns out the guy is the long-term, live-in boyfriend of my co-worker. I played dumb during the party, but two days later he texted me, apologizing that our worlds collided and saying that he wanted to see how I felt. I responded that he should instead talk to Jane. (If it were an open relationship, I think he wouldn’t have tried so hard to keep it a secret.) I saw Jane at work since, and she has been her usual upbeat self: So I am pretty sure her boyfriend told her nothing. I don’t know what to do—how can I work with Jane on a daily basis and keep this knowledge of her horrible, cheating boyfriend to myself. I want neither for her to be unnecessarily hurt, nor do I want to jeopardize our working relationship by letting her know what happened between me and her boyfriend.

A: What a louse. If she weren’t your co-worker, I’d encourage you to let her know what kind of man she’s living with, but since you work together, I don’t think it’s worth risking your job. There’s no telling how she might respond, and it could make your office unbearably uncomfortable for the both of you. You can’t tell Jane her boyfriend cheated on her without explaining that it was with you, and I can’t imagine how you two would be able to work together after that. Keep a friendly distance from her, and don’t go to any more parties you know Jane’s boyfriend will be attending. If he’s this bad at covering his tracks, odds are she’ll get wise to his cheating sooner rather than later.

Q. Brother-in-law concerns: My brother-in-law (let’s call him “Jack”) is 34 years old and has no job. In fact, he’s never had a job for as long as I’ve known him. He lives with my father-in-law. When the time comes that my father-in-law can no longer care for Jack, there will be nobody to support Jack except my husband and me. This is unacceptable to both me and my husband. While we would go above and beyond to help family that have fallen on hard times, we don’t want to help someone who has refused to help himself for so long. It’s not the kind of behavior we want modeled for our children either. Every time we bring this up to Jack, he yells to the point that it actually scares me. We’ve suggested therapy, helped him create some sort of résumé, and even found jobs for him to apply to. But you can only lead a horse to water. Is there anything we can do now to ensure we are not taking care of a 50-year-old man-child in the future?

A: You certainly don’t have to take in your brother-in-law against your will. It sounds like you’ve made your intentions clear to Jack, but I wonder what, if anything, you’ve said to your father-in-law. If you haven’t told him already, do so now. It’s a sorry situation your husband’s family has found themselves in, but you’ve been honest about your plans from the start and have nothing to apologize for. You don’t have to drag him to therapy or update his résumé for him. He’s a fully capable adult who’s chosen to depend upon his relatives, and I don’t think you should get in the habit of trying to find a job for him, lest he take a mile where you offer an inch.

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