Dear Prudence

Petting Sounds

My brother-in-law tried to eavesdrop on us having sex.

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Dear Prudence,
Recently I went on a trip with my partner and three other couples, including my sister and brother-in-law. One afternoon everyone went into their respective rooms for some downtime and my partner and I debated fooling around. Then we overheard my brother-in-law in the living room say to my sister, “I’m gonna go listen to them have sex!” We heard him attempt to tiptoe over quietly where he stood outside of our door for 10 or 15 minutes. My sister did tell him to leave us alone, but she went to her room shortly thereafter. I’ve never liked my brother-in-law and now I’m humiliated, disgusted, and don’t want to spend time with him ever again. Do I say something to my sister? This isn’t the first time he’s been inappropriate; last summer he seriously suggested wife swapping. He and my sister fight incessantly and he has no respect for her, so I don’t know if she would even say anything to him, or if anything would change if he did. I think if she did talk to him, he would still blame it on me. How can I prevent this from happening again? How can I prevent this from hurting my relationship with my sister?

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—Dear Prudence

Wanting to maintain a good relationship with your sister should in no way stop you from taking steps to ensure your own comfort and dignity. It would have been fine and even preferable for you and your partner to have confronted your brother-in-law the moment you heard him creep up to your bedroom door. You should absolutely say something to both of them now. There’s no need to rely on your sister as a go-between. Tell them you overheard him trying to catch the two of you having sex, that you heard her attempt to dissuade him, and that it made you feel humiliated and disgusted. Tell them that his comments about wife-swapping in the past have made you deeply uncomfortable, and that you’d like him to apologize and knock it off (I also strongly suggest that you stop going on trips with either of them).

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Your sister probably won’t like this. Your brother-in-law will likely blow up, or get defensive and try to suggest you misunderstood what was supposed to be “just a joke.” This should not affect your decision to speak up. You have excellent reasons to refuse to be in his company, and you should not try to downplay your discomfort or excuse his behavior just because you don’t want to get into an argument. I understand you are also worried for your sister and her apparently miserable marriage, but staying silent does her no favors.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’m a white woman married to an American-born Pakistani man. We’ve both been feeling rattled by the election and have each taken separate measures to uphold our political and social ideals for the future, including making monthly donations to organizations who support our beliefs. Beyond this, I’ve started to volunteer helping refugees in our area and have begun wearing a Black Lives Matter button on my coat. We live in a predominantly white county in a swing state that went red this year. I feel that this button is a small but persistent way to demonstrate my support of the movement while also challenging my community. My husband does not want me to wear it because he’s worried about my being harassed in public. I stay home with our son—I don’t wear this to an office, just places like the grocery store, bank, library, etc. I explained my reasoning behind it and he agreed to drop the issue but still shows some signs of disapproval when I get dressed to go out. Am I in the right here, or is the button an ineffective way to support the movement?

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—Not Hiding It

It can certainly be argued that there are more concrete things that white people can do to support Black Lives Matter and civil rights organizations than wear a button (some of which it sounds like you are already doing), but I don’t think that your husband’s concern for your safety while wearing one should sway your decision. There simply isn’t an epidemic of white people facing harassment or violence for expressing support for Black Lives Matter. The main thing to bear in mind, I think, is to remember that wearing a pin is the first, not the last, thing you should do—it expresses your support, but it does not, in and of itself, support anyone directly.

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* * *

Dear Prudence,
My wonderful, sweet, generous friend is currently battling late-stage cancer that has metastasized through her entire body. We are all devastated by her illness and have been giving all we can to support her financially and physically. My husband and I, though we don’t have a lot of spare money, give as much as we can afford to to help to ease her burdens. She is now asking for financial help to send her to a “cancer clinic” known for being run by a quack doctor using pseudoscience. I’m angry that this kind of place is allowed to exist, giving false hope to terminal cases and draining their much-needed money in the process, but I know how desperate she must be. How do I show her love and support without contributing financially to this charlatan?

—Cancer Quack

I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, giving money to enrich a known charlatan who is willing to profit from your dying friend’s fear would be painful, especially since you have already contributed financially to her (genuine) medical costs. On the other hand, it is incredibly difficult to tell someone that their last-ditch, dying wish is a fraud. She may, in fact, already know on some level that this treatment is hopeless, but is simply unable to turn away from even the slightest chance that something might help her (I am assuming that this particular form of quackery is effectively neutral rather than actively harmful; if that is not the case, then you should by no means consider supporting something that would hurt her). I do not feel inclined to tell you to be brutally honest with a dying, frightened woman. Part of what is so deeply evil about cancer quackery is that it robs the dying and their families of the opportunity to spend final moments together, to face reality, no matter how frightening. It is not kind to offer false hope to the desperate. But it is not much more pleasant to advise a friend with metastasized cancer to “face reality.” I do not have a good answer for you, I fear. Mostly I am very sad for you and your friend.

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If, given the above caveats, that you think this venture will give your friend peace and solace to have “tried everything,” and it is possible for you to contribute a small something, you might wish to consider doing so. It would not be impossible to do so and also tell her as gently as you can that you are skeptical of the treatment as much as you support all her choices. Then continue to show up, to hold her hand, to help keep her house clean and feed her pets and listen to her when she wants to talk and make sure her family members and the people caring for her take a few minutes to eat and take a shower. That is all you can do.

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* * *

Dear Prudence,
I just reconnected with a former teacher, now a successful businessman who wants to mentor me in my new field. He has invited me to a holiday party. Also in attendance will be his much less talented brother, recently fired from his job as university president at my alma mater after two years of incompetence, during which he wrecked the endowment and alienated the faculty.

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I was on the alumni club committee that urged his ouster. The letters were signed by the entire alumni club, but it wouldn’t be too hard for him to figure out my role. Turning down the mentorship offer is difficult since it is an honor to be singled out by this man, and, “Sorry, I can’t accept this invitation because I helped get your brother fired” could make the party somewhat awkward. Should I think up an excuse, come down with the flu at the last minute, or can you think of an alternative?

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—You’re Great, but Your Brother’s an Idiot

I wouldn’t be so quick to assume your would-be mentor thinks his brother was unjustly fired. He may be perfectly able to separate his interest in your career from his brother’s unsuccessful turn as a university president. Even if he isn’t, however, and this is something you may always feel some anxiety about, I think you should be straightforward about this possible conflict. While I’m sure the alumni club was a valuable voice, I doubt your letter was the deciding factor in his firing, and there’s no way you were the only ones calling for him to be removed from the position. You can acknowledge the connection without claiming that you got his brother fired: “I really appreciate your offer to mentor me. I hope you don’t think it’s a problem that I was on the alumni club when your brother was university president.”

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Even if he were to blame you for his brother’s firing, it’s not as if you two work at the same company, and I assume you don’t think he’s the kind of person who would try to damage your career just because his brother made a bad university president. Since you think it would be fairly easy to make the connection between you and his brother, I think it would be a mistake to either back out of the mentorship or hope he just never finds out. Address your concern, then go to the party with a clear conscience.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I hate my brother’s wife. I have a perfectly good reason for this: She told my friends, boss, and everyone at the place I volunteer at that I had an STI for no reason I can perceive. (It wasn’t true, but even if it had been, that wouldn’t have been any of her, or their, business.) Obviously I will need to get over it eventually if she stays with the family. However, this came to a head last month and Christmas is coming up, when the whole clan gets together. I just can’t do it. Maybe next year I will have cooled down enough for frosty silence, but this year all it will take is one smirk from her for me to lose it. So do I have to tell my family (some know, some don’t) why I am skipping, leading to them picking sides one way or the other, or just lie that I am sick and leave it to my brother to tell them if he feels it necessary?

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—I’d Rather Deck You Than the Halls

Good Lord. I don’t think you “obviously” need to get over this, if your sister-in-law has never explained why she spread that lie about you, or apologized for it. What she did was bizarre, inappropriate, hostile, and deeply unkind, and you have every right to not want to celebrate Christmas with her. You should feel enormously free to skip the family gathering this year, and to give your reason why: “Karen told my employer and co-workers that I have an STI, which was both embarrassing and untrue and caused a great deal of professional and personal difficulty for me this year.” I cannot imagine how this could lead any of your family members to have to pick sides—the only reasonable side is the one that does not fabricate rumors about other people’s STI status. If anyone does take her side over yours, you have valuable information about what kind of a person they are. The fact that you have not yet thrown a punch in your sister-in-law’s direction speaks volumes about your restraint, and I commend you for it. Spend Christmas somewhere peaceful and Karen-free this year.

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* * *

Dear Prudence,
We are spending this Thanksgiving with my in-laws. They are nice people, but conversationally challenged. I can spend days with them, and the only questions I will be asked are, “How are you?” when I arrive and “Would you like something to drink?” They can talk—they just don’t seem to want to talk to me. I ask questions about their lives, and generally try to engage them, but I usually end up listening to whatever they are talking about. I could not be in the room at all, and it wouldn’t matter to them. They always seem happy to get together, but then uninterested in my presence. I’ve tried not saying anything, but either they are happy to sit in silence or they divert to someone else (the questions they ask each other are more in-depth). At my family holidays, people engage each other on a number of topics, and no one is left twiddling their thumbs. I wonder if there’s anything to be done about this, or do I just bring a book and read if they’re just going to ignore me anyway?

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—Nothing to say

This is a wonderful opportunity for your partner to support and include you, and for you to say what your needs are. If this column reaches you before you reach your in-laws, tell your partner that you regularly feel left out of their family’s conversation, despite your best attempts to ask questions and get to know them better. Ask him or her to help include you in the conversation, to make connections whenever possible, to ask you questions or volunteer information they know would interest both you and some of their family members. This is a part of your partner’s job as a partner. You’re not looking to become the center of attention, you just don’t want to be screaming into a void all by yourself.

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