Dear Prudence

Spite Wedding

My son eloped and I’m still stuck planning the charade of his nuptials.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
My oldest son is engaged to who I thought was a lovely, upstanding girl. I admit the wedding details have been difficult, and they had to change the dates twice due to family illness and other events, but I never thought they would secretly elope. Apparently last week, my son called up his brother and told him to come down to City Hall. They were going to get married with no family, no priest, only a clerk and some of her college friends. My son’s wife said the wedding was too stressful for her to deal with. I only found out because I overheard my youngest son telling his girlfriend about it! I am very hurt. I was denied and lied to. Neither of them know that I know and the thought of continuing to plan the charade of this wedding with my now daughter-in-law just makes me ill. Should I confront them or just go through with this charade?

—Had a Wedding Without Me

I hope, in a quieter moment, you can reread your own letter and see the clues as to why your son and daughter-in-law decided to elope. I’m sure you are also a lovely, upstanding person, but you have been “denied” nothing. Your son does not owe you a wedding. He and his wife are not planning a charade while snickering behind your back. They are planning a public celebration of a wedding they have already commemorated privately. It’s interesting to me that you mention your son got married with “no family” even though his brother was actually in attendance. I think what you mean is that he got married without you, and that’s what stings.

The larger ceremony is not somehow fraudulent because they decided to exchange vows in a more intimate fashion. The longer you think of your son’s wedding as an act of betrayal he committed in order to hurt you, the more needless pain you’ll put yourself and your family through. If you want to have an honest conversation with your son about the fact that he’s already gotten married, that’s one thing, but drop the idea of confronting them over a perceived wrong they didn’t commit. This is not about you, and treating it as such will only deny yourself the opportunity to share in your child’s happiness. Take a long walk and cry it out, or write an angry letter you then burn in the fireplace, or talk to a therapist, but find a way to deal with your sense of having been wronged on your own time. If you can’t stand the thought of keeping this secret for the rest of your life, consider this as an alternative to a furious confrontation: Keep this to yourself until the wedding, and then when you send off the happy couple at the end of the night, tell them, “I know you eloped, but I’m so glad we still got to celebrate your wedding together. Have a wonderful honeymoon.” This would shock and delight, rather than shock and upset them.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Twenty-five years ago, I was raped by my cousin. With the help of my minister, I took a break from college and delivered a baby girl and never told a soul. I gave the baby up for adoption and was promised anonymity. I transferred to a school on the opposite coast and only returned home for my grandparents’ funerals and the marriage of my brothers. I have since built a beautiful life—my own business, a loving marriage, and two sons. None of that matters anymore. There is a girl stalking my family because of some DNA registry. I have gotten letters at both my home and business, my parents have gotten them, my son has gotten Facebook requests, and she even had the gall to call me at home. I am sick, emotionally, physically, and socially. I don’t want this, I never wanted this, and it is bringing back every black memory of that year. My husband wants to file a restraining order and told my sons that this girl is “sick in the head.” I want my life back, I want to be happy again, I don’t want my skin to crawl when my husband touches me because I have flashbacks. I did the right thing—I had the baby and gave her up to a good family. I have told her I am not her mother and to leave me in peace. She won’t. She is vicious and relentless and exactly like her father. What can I do?

—The Past Never Dies

There’s so much more I wish I knew about this difficult situation. You don’t say what she has written that comes across as vicious, or whether it is simply her persistence coming off as pernicious, and it’s not totally clear how an independent DNA registry led her to you so directlyThat said, you have every right to decide never to have contact with your daughter, especially when that contact is so painful. But I also hope you can find a way to set a firm boundary without adding to your own suffering by ascribing your rapist’s character to a girl you barely know, who has no idea what circumstances she was born under and is likely just looking for answers or a connection. I think it’s wise for your husband to take on the role of making it clear to your daughter that the circumstances of her birth are very painful for you and that you have no interest in getting in touch. If after this she continues her attempts to contact you, particularly at work, go ahead and explore your legal options. But try to keep in mind it’s far likelier that she’s misguided and desperate than she has some sinister hope of harming you emotionally.

Either way, this painful past has become present again, and it might not just go away when your daughter does. You’re not obligated to go into detail about your past with your sons, of course, but without lying you can tell them this is a woman you’re not interested in speaking to, and enlist support from everyone else you’re close to. And if you are not already in grief counseling, I encourage you to start immediately. You’ve clearly been profoundly and repeatedly traumatized and deserve all the help you can get in dealing with your pain. Just because it’s been 25 years does not mean you are not still suffering deeply.

* * *

Dear Prudence, 
I’ve recently started dating the most amazing guy—he’s one of the most understanding, kind people I’ve met in years. So far our relationship is going great. The problem is he’s overweight and sedentary. I’m plenty attracted to him, but it’s causing problems because my life is very active. When my friends want to go hiking or biking, out dancing or rock climbing, I have to make a choice between doing what is fun for me or sticking with him in a car or a chair somewhere. I also find being so still ungodly boring. He definitely tries at times to keep up with us but really struggles. I’m not sure how to go about compromising on this.

—New Partner, Different Lifestyles

I’m not sure that you should! If you find the idea of spending a lot of time indoors in a recumbent position “ungodly boring,” and he doesn’t want to scramble across a kayaking field or hurl polo ponies at one another on top of a mountain, there’s not much of a meaningful compromise to be made. (What are his interests, by the way? Presumably he doesn’t just sit in various cars and chairs in total silence; I wonder if you’ve taken as much of an interest in his preferred leisure activities as he’s tried to take in yours.) You’re not just slightly more active than he is; you’re a full-tilt outdoorsist, he’s not, and what’s more, you can’t stand doing the things he apparently enjoys. If you find life at his pace to be nail-bitingly dull now, do yourself a favor and find someone understanding and kind who doesn’t make you feel wildly impatient. You’ll both be happier.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My parents divorced when I was 8 because the woman my father was having an affair with got pregnant with my half-sister. (The woman is now my stepmother.) My father paid child support but was never involved in my life or my brothers’ lives. He did not pay for our college education. Both my brothers joined the military, while I took out loans and worked to pay for school. I have gotten friendlier with my father’s second family in the past few years, especially my half-sister, who is a sweet girl. Then she mentioned that she’s deferring college because our father is paying for her to travel the world for a year, and she doesn’t have to worry about loans either, because he doesn’t want his daughter to be in debt.

I am doing fine. I have a good job and have almost paid off my own loans. But as my sister was prattling on, I saw red. I tried to change the subject but she wanted to know why I was not happy for her. So I told the truth in the ugliest way possible: Her mother screwed a married man whose wife worked to put him through medical school, and her precious Daddy screwed over his kids once he got a newer model. I asked her how she thought my brothers and I paid for our education or cars or apartments when we turned 18? How many of our games and plays and graduation he missed? It was a loathsome stream of vile accusations that I regret. I haven’t spoken to her or my father since then. I don’t know what to say or if I should say anything.

—Sour Grapes

I feel deeply for both you and your sister. First things first: It’s not your sister’s fault that your father treated you two differently, and she didn’t make him cheat on your mother. Moreover, she was only 10 years old when you went off to college and likely had no idea how you paid for it; you know it was unfair of you to unleash your frustration and anger at your father out on her. I sympathize with how much it must hurt, but you owe her a profound and immediate apology. I don’t know if you’ll be able to continue your relationship with the same closeness you shared before, but she deserves genuine contrition from you.

As for your father—I’m not entirely sure what I recommend you say to him. I’ve been recommending therapy right and left lately, and while it’s certainly not a cure-all, I think it would help you figure out what kind of relationship you want to have with your father, how honest you want to be with him, and whether you’re ready to have a frank, possibly devastating, conversation about how badly that hurt you as a child and young adult; a conversation he may still not be capable of having. Moreover, therapy could help you find a more purposeful way to deal with your anger and sense of abandonment, regardless of whether you and your father are ever able to have an honest reckoning with the past. Even if he’s never able to fully acknowledge the pain his obvious favoritism has caused you, you owe it to yourself to try to find a way to live that’s not simmering with resentment.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I am expecting my second child soon. We did not find out the gender and people (including longtime co-workers) cannot seem to stop commenting on my appearance and how it means I’m either having a boy or girl, trying to touch my belly, or suggesting names. People are also repeatedly asking if I’m dilated. Is it wrong of me to refuse to answer these questions or to simply smile and say “We will see”? I feel this is really personal information, but don’t want to come off as rude.

—Not Pushing Yet

By almost any metric, the rude person is the one who inquires after the state of another person’s cervix. (I’d be tempted to discourage them from further inquiry with, “I’m not sure. Want to check?” but that could backfire rather horribly.) No, it’s not wrong to smile and say “We’ll see!” when someone asks about your baby’s sex. That is perhaps the politest of all possible answers; you should also feel more than free to tell people not to touch your belly, no matter how pregnant you are. The rules of personal boundaries are not temporarily lifted just because you’re having a baby; you’re pregnant, not a petting zoo.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My father recently died after a four-year battle with cancer, and I miss him terribly. A few nights ago my pregnant sister-in-law posted a comment on Facebook about her dreams for her unborn child, ending with, “All I hope is that he grows up to be something worthwhile, not like a carpenter or a plumber.” My father worked in construction, but I didn’t want to get into it with her so I unfriended her and moved on. My sister did get into it. The two started an online quarrel that ended when my sister-in-law said that anybody “who wasn’t in a white-collar job” (like her father) was “useless.”

My brother is now asking me to get involved and make peace between his wife and our sister. To be honest, I’ve never liked my sister-in-law. She has a long history of this sort of behavior and blames it on a mental illness she has self-diagnosed over the internet, although she has never actually been to a psychiatrist or been treated for anything. Many of my friends say it is better to keep peace in the family, but is it worthwhile in a situation like this? For right now I told my brother to back off until we’ve had a little more time to grieve for our father. I have to wonder if this is something I even want to forgive.

—Troublesome Sister-in-Law

I’d have a hard time believing a human being wrote “anybody who isn’t in a white-collar job is useless” with their actual, human hands if it weren’t for the fact that letters like yours aren’t uncommon. Your brother has no business asking you to adjudicate a fight between his wife and your sister. That’s his job, one he seems happy to avoid. What your sister-in-law said was needlessly, almost unbelievably cruel, especially while you’re grieving your father’s recent death, and wholly unprovoked. If she’s interested in apologizing profusely for her comments (which I think is entirely unrelated to whether she decides to seek professional help for her potential condition), it’s up to you whether or not you want to accept her apology. But it’s not your responsibility to make her apologies for her.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I don’t have any longstanding friendships. I suffered from an untreated mental illness throughout my 20s which led me to sabotage relationships. I would either pull away and disappear completely or I would do mean things which resulted in their pulling away. My mental illness has been properly treated for the past few years. I’ve been stable and have worked really hard to rebuild my life. I’ve tried to reconnect with the old friends I lost during my 20s, and I’m just as likely to receive no response as a tepid one. Several times, I’ve been unfriended on social media. I’ve never explained what was going on with me for that dark decade of my life, and I’ve only offered vague apologies about not having been in contact. While I have a few great friends now, I still struggle in building and maintaining these relationships. It’s a skill I’ve had to relearn from scratch, which is surprisingly difficult to do in one’s 30s.

I’ve become upset recently over not having connections with these old friends and acquaintances. I’ve wondered whether or not I should try again, this time offering an explanation for my past misdeeds. How do I reconnect when I’m still struggling in this department? Should I keep trying even though I’ve received plenty of indications that these people are not interested? Is this something I should move on from and just continue working on moving forwards? I just feel so disconnected from much of my own adult history.

—Adult Alone

* * *

I think you can proceed with caution. You say some of your old friends have responded to previous attempts to get in touch with tepid interest. Start with them: Tell them you want to apologize for your past behavior, and that you are now receiving treatment for a mental illness, which has enabled you for the first time to try to repair the damage you’ve done. Keep it brief at first, and don’t overwhelm them with overlong justifications for everything you’ve ever done. Honestly acknowledge when you know you’ve hurt someone, and not just with vague mutterings about having been distant. Do so without the expectation that you will be able to resume all your old friendships where you left off. Be prepared, if you face disinterest or silence, to let these friends go, rather than demanding they offer up forgiveness. And bear in mind that you’ve been able to seek treatment, find better ways to manage your mental illness, and develop new friendships in the last few years alone—no mean feat. Even if you’re not able to resume some of these old relationships, making peace with your past and offering explanations to old friends you’ve hurt may set your mind more at ease.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’ve been dating a man for about a year-and-a-half. We’ve talked about moving in together, but I have one major concern: He doesn’t respect my job. I’m a research scientist for a state government, and my profession isn’t considered shady or unethical by most people’s standards. I like my job a great deal, which is mostly about evaluating whether or not certain state programs work. He feels very strongly that there’s no accountability in our organization, and whatever evidence we provide isn’t enough justification for our jobs. We can’t talk about it without arguing. Is this sticking point a deal-breaker?

—Just a Fight, or Something More?

I think so! Your boyfriend not only thinks that you should be fired, but you two are incapable of discussing what you do every day without fighting. You don’t sound like you plan on quitting anytime soon, so this isn’t likely to go away. He doesn’t merely dislike your job, but thinks you shouldn’t have it. How can you share a life with someone whose work you don’t merely disagree with, but can’t respect? The irresistible force has met the immovable object, and you should look for someone who doesn’t object to such a core aspect of your life.

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