Dear Prudence

Step a Little Closer

Prudie advises a letter writer in love with a stepbrother.

Danny M. Lavery, 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 prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the new Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

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Danny M. Lavery: Hello, everyone! Let’s chat.

Q. In love with my stepbrother: When I was 18, my mom remarried a guy with a son my age. My stepbrother and I didn’t know each other well back then, but after returning from college, I’ve realized that I have a huge crush on him. He’s single, funny, mensch-y, smart, and very good-looking. I think he feels the same way about me, and we totally flirt. If he weren’t my stepbrother, I would definitely ask him out, but I see that there are infinite potential problems here. First off, if we break up it will be insanely awkward, but it’s also kind of weird and incestuous. (On the flip side, we’ve barely known each other five years, so he’s not REALLY like my brother.) Prudie, please tell me not to date my stepbrother so I don’t keep thinking about it!

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A: I can’t quite honor your request to issue a firm nolle prosequi, but I do think you should approach the prospect of dating your stepbrother with extreme caution. As you point out, if things don’t work out between the two of you, it will certainly complicate your family get-togethers. That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with your feelings for him. You’ve never lived together, you weren’t raised together—in no way is this situation incestuous. Unusual, maybe, but not incestuous. Certainly no worse (and perhaps even slightly better) than Cher and Josh in Clueless. It’s not quite clear if you’ve moved back into your mother’s house (“returning from college” is a little vague). If you have, you should certainly wait until you live on your own to pursue anything. It’s one thing to date an adult stepbrother; it’s quite another to date him in your childhood home, with your mother and stepfather in the next room.

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Q. Wife wants to re-explore bisexual feelings: When my wife and I met, we were both busy professionals who didn’t want children. We were a great match sexually—we’re both experienced and adventurous and very open about our paths. We became exclusively monogamous before we married and have been so ever since. Twenty-two years later and we still have a great life together and have sex regularly. But recently, my wife told me she would like to re-explore her bisexual feelings. She said she wanted to stay married but wanted to have relations with “any woman, at any time without recrimination or consequences from me.” I, on the other hand, was to honor our monogamous vows.

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I love her and I do understand that sex with me is different than sex with a woman, but I see this as infidelity. She does not believe we need couples counseling, as this is just about exploring something I was aware she had done in the past. I asked whether I could think for a few days and then give her an answer. My answer at this point is to give her complete freedom and a divorce. I am not sure if the “horse has left the barn,” but I have a feeling she has picked out a pony to saddle. Can you give me a better choice or a better understanding of her thoughts?

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A: I think your wife is being more than a little underhanded. Bisexuality does not entitle a person to demand an open marriage without warning or discussion. (Also, if your wife thinks doing anything without recrimination or consequences is possible, she’s in for a rude awakening. All actions, even little ones, have consequences!) If you’re not interested in a marriage where she’s free to sleep with any woman she likes but you’re required to be monogamous, tell her so. I don’t have a better choice for you, I’m afraid—either she’ll decide your happy, decades-long marriage is worth continued monogamy, or she won’t, and you’ll part ways.

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Q. Brother with alcohol dementia: My brother showed up at my house last summer after his ex-wife kicked him out. We knew something was wrong with him when he arrived. After taking him to multiple doctors and spending 10 days in the hospital with him while he was having hallucinations and withdrawals, we now know he has alcohol-induced dementia. We have helped him move into one independent living facility with some assistance, had him checked into a mental health facility for a week, and now he’s in a very nice assisted living/memory care facility. My problem is that he calls me 30 to 40 times a day to ask me to bring him items or do errands for him, calls family members and says all this has happened because of me, and then makes up stories about what he has done or how he is being treated. How do I not get wrapped up in the day-to-day drama of his life and what he is going through?

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A: You’ve done your absolute best for your brother, and he’s currently receiving round-the-clock medical attention as a result. You’ve cared for him remarkably, and I think you should give yourself the freedom to ignore his calls, and even consider blocking his number. You can still visit him regularly, and even unblock his number long enough for you to call him once in a while, but don’t leave the door open for him to overwhelm you with requests. He’s being well cared for, and it’s time for you to take a step back from the day-to-day management of his life. Consider calling or visiting just a few times a month. You can still care for your brother without giving in to the constant demands brought on by a deteriorating, paranoid mind.

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Q. Was I a mean girl?: I am 62 years old. I recently received a Facebook message that was a diatribe about how cruel I was to a girl in high school. The message was fairly long and gave a few different specific examples of how mean I was. I do not remember this woman at all. I went through my old yearbooks and found her listing. It didn’t have a picture. She was at our school for one semester. She wasn’t in any clubs I was in. I asked the friends I had in high school whom I still keep in touch with if they remembered her. They do not.

If I behaved badly to this woman, I would like to apologize. However, I do not want to apologize for something I didn’t do. The specifics mentioned were things like “brushing past me in the hall,” which was a “show of disrespect.” I can see that I might have brushed past somebody in the hall, but I certainly never meant any disrespect. So on one hand, if I hurt her feelings I’d like to apologize. However, I don’t want to say something like “If I hurt you, I’m sorry,” because that isn’t a real apology. I can’t help wondering if she really meant this email for me. She was at the school for only a short time, and I don’t think I ever had a reputation for being mean—“stuck up,” we called it back then. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking that I didn’t hurt a girl so badly she’d nurse a grudge for over 40 years. Is there a way to phrase a response where I acknowledge her pain, apologize for any hurt I caused, but suggest she might not have the right “mean girl”?

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A: This is not an instance where you need to carefully re-evaluate how you view your own past behavior. You’ve confirmed your memory with other people and official records, and you barely knew this person. If the worst thing she can remember about you is that you once brushed past her in a hallway almost 45 years ago, you’re under no obligation to apologize or even respond. The fact that she’s cataloged people she went to school with for a few months and may have bumped into her during passing period as her enemies suggests that she is unwell, and there is nothing that you, an absolute stranger, can do for her. Leave the message alone, and don’t trouble yourself by trying to imagine some forgotten wrong you must have committed to earn her decades-long ire.

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Q. Fur better or worse?: I keep a photograph of my pets at my office desk. My job is not particularly exciting, but one of the things that keeps me going is telling “tall tails” about my animals whenever a customer inquires. Most recently I claimed that my kitty was a distant relative of a line of felines belonging to a famous Hollywood star. I find it so exciting and gratifying when a customer takes the bait and believes my white lie. Even more exciting is when they press for details and I have to weave a brilliant, plausible story on the fly. Is this normal behavior or should I knock it off?

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A: It would be awfully uncomfortable if you were ever caught in one of those lies, particularly if two customers came in at the same time and compared notes on the different stories you’d fed them, but if you don’t deal with a lot of repeat customers, and you’re not spending half the workday claiming your dog was a great-great-great descendant of Laika, you have my reluctant permission to make up stories on occasion. You’re certainly not the first person to pass the time at a slightly dull, undemanding job by making things up. I hope you can find a job that requires you to use more of your mental energy and imagination someday soon.

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Q. Too good-looking: I have a problem that much of your readership might scoff at: I’m really good looking. I’ve been paid to model, and I get offers to do more quite frequently. I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t a positive influence in my life. It’s led to great personal satisfaction, and it’s helped me get ahead, professionally. The problem I’m encountering is that I’ve reached a plateau. People in my professional life aren’t taking me seriously. I have several ideas and projects that I’d like to pursue, ones which I’m sure will have a positive impact, but I keep getting spoken down to and placated, then invited out for cocktails. How can I be taken more seriously? Do I need some sort of facial scar or to put on 20 pounds?

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A: I don’t want to be flippant, but I think I see a solution to your problem within your letter. If you’re reaching resistance at work due to your looks, but you’re getting repeated requests to do paid modeling gigs, why not try modeling professionally?

Q. Aunt behaves inappropriately toward me, ignores boundaries: My aunt continually disregards my boundaries, and keeps pushing for a close relationship. Her behavior makes me so uncomfortable that I will not see her more than once every few months. She wasn’t a big part of my childhood, but I live within one hour of her now, and have for 10 years. Her inappropriate behavior includes: nasty gossip about my mom and my sister, asking intrusive personal questions, and snooping through my apartment (closet, laptop, mail, bedroom, and purse). I’ve repeatedly told her to stop this, but it’s like she doesn’t even hear me. Her snooping got so bad that I haven’t let her into my home for four years. Lately, she has been demanding that I spend more time with her. When I decline, she leaves me voicemails or emails about how “disappointed” she is in me, or how she wishes we could be closer (she usually sends these when I’m at work, or late at night). I told her that I wouldn’t respond to strange or rude messages. However, she is tenacious, and starts again every few months. In her latest voicemail, she says she wants a “heart-to-heart” with me, without any other family members or my fiancé present; this is setting off huge alarms for me, and I won’t meet with her. Do you have any advice about how I can put a stop to the weird messages and uncomfortable behavior? So far, she seems completely impervious to anything I’ve said, or to the fact that I won’t engage with her odd and unsettling behavior. I wish she would either seek professional help or leave me alone.

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A few other details: My aunt tells me I’m her favorite niece, and that she knew from the moment she saw me as a small child that I was “special to her.” She remembers my telling her she should move closer to my parents when I was 9 and uses this to base her assertion that we ought to be “close,” even though I do not remember this and think it is a pretty common thing for a 9-year-old to say. She sometimes laments that I am no longer the way she imagined I was when I was a child. I can’t begin to tell you how unsettling it is to hear that kind of thing from someone you hardly know.

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A: You don’t have an aunt—you have a stalker. I’m so sorry. If your mother and sister aren’t aware of her disturbing behavior, I hope you can tell them what’s been going on and enlist their help and support. If they do know about it, and haven’t done anything to help, they may be more interested in enabling your aunt’s irrational, demanding behavior than in keeping you safe. A relationship with your aunt is obviously out of the question. Any one of these behaviors should set off red flags; seeing them all at once makes it clear that she has no respect for privacy, boundaries, or your well-being. The fact that she’s angling for a one-on-one meeting is more than a little frightening: She’s clearly escalating her behavior and you have every right to protect yourself.

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You’ve made it abundantly clear that her repeated demands are unwelcome and you’ve been more than reasonable when it comes to accommodating her. At this point, you need to make it clear both to your aunt and to the rest of your family that her attentions are unwanted and that you are not interested in further contact. Enlist your fiancé and any sympathetic family members in helping you keep to your resolution, and ask them not to give her any clues as to your whereabouts if she attempts to get to you through them. Block her number, and do not answer her calls. If she attempts to get in touch with you in other ways, document them. Do not respond to her; she’s looking for a reaction and will only step up her attempts if she gets one. If she grows threatening or suggests violence, contact the police. Your greatest allies in dealing with a stalker are documentation and support from family and friends.

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

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