Dear Prudence

My Sister Won’t Come to My Wedding if I Wear White

My husband and I married five years ago at City Hall after his cancer diagnosis. Now we’re planning a “public” wedding, and my sister says it’s ruining hers.

A white wedding dress on the left and a dark dress on the right.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tarzhanova/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Jaengpeng/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,

I am getting married this fall, although my partner and I got legally married five years ago after he was diagnosed with cancer so that he could benefit from my health insurance. We went to City Hall, only told close friends and family, and explained that once things calmed down we’d have a formal ceremony and party. My partner is now three years in remission, and we’re very happily planning our “public” wedding. Everyone’s been happy for us except for my sister—she’s apoplectic. She recently became engaged and is getting married a few months after us (she started planning hers after we started planning ours) and feels like our plans will cheapen her “real” wedding. She keeps saying that we are tricking people into attending a fake wedding (even though our wedding website lays out the whole story) and is constantly sending me etiquette articles about how weddings like this are unacceptable. Even though we are having a low-key event, she has sent me several notes saying that my selfish plans are wasting money that could have otherwise gone to charity and that everyone in the family is talking about how this is a gift grab (which I don’t think is true).

She has announced that if I plan to wear white, she will not be coming and will not invite me to her wedding. My mother thinks that she is being ridiculous but says that I should choose a different color to keep the peace. I wasn’t set on wearing white (which my mother knows), but this absurd request has me wanting to wear a traditional gown out of spite. My sister and I are not close but have also never had a contentious relationship. I really don’t know where this comes from. My sister has been regularly calling my mother in tears about my plans, and—while it feels ridiculous to even be writing this—I think is very serious about her threats. Given that dress color is not something that I feel strongly about, do I choose a different color to avoid conflict? Do I wear white and tell my sister she can’t hold me hostage? Or do I just refuse to tell her what I’m wearing and let her know that she’ll find out on the day of the ceremony, if she decides to come? This is what I am leaning toward, and I think it will result in her not coming, which I find very, very sad.

—Wedding Rage

The most important point to stress here is that your sister has no right to dictate what you wear on your wedding day. You should wear what you like best. Her behavior would be rude and inappropriate even if this were a true second marriage, but given that your first wedding was rushed because of your partner’s cancer diagnosis, her words and actions strike me as unusually ghoulish and heartless. And even if you agreed not to wear white, I don’t think that would put a stop to her objections and unreasonable demands.

Your mother’s in a difficult position, but when one person is behaving reasonably and the other outrageously, it’s a mistake to ask the reasonable person to meet the outrageous one halfway. So your first move should be to tell your mother that you’re no longer accepting secondhand messages through her from your sister. Hopefully she’ll hear this with some relief, but no matter how she takes it, hold firm. Whenever your mother says, “Your sister called today. She was really upset, and she wanted me to tell you—” you politely interrupt her and make it clear this is not up for further discussion.

The only conversation you need to have with your sister is a clear, brief offer: “I love you, and that’s part of why your behavior lately has been so confusing and hurtful. It would mean a lot if you could attend and be happy for me and [Partner]. If you can’t do that—if, for example, you try to dictate how I dress or forward me another article about how I shouldn’t celebrate my marriage because it’s in poor taste—I will take that as your way of letting me know you don’t want to attend. I’m not taking anything away from you by celebrating my marriage. Your determination to make things more difficult and painful for everyone is really sad, and it’s hurting me. I hope you stop.”

Dear Prudence,

My oldest friend, “Max,” is one of the most important people in my life. He’s the first person I felt safe coming out to (he’s a gay man, and I’m a gay woman), and he let me stay with him when my parents kicked me out. He was the best man at my wedding. He’s thoughtful, empathetic, and the most supportive friend imaginable. That’s why it’s so bewildering that he’s such an awful boyfriend. He treats the men he dates like trash. He cheated on his last boyfriend, a lovely guy named Sam, with Sam’s best friend. He’s described arguments with exes where he’s clearly been lying to and belittling them and gets very defensive when I’ve pointed that out.

Recently, he was talking to me about how lonely he is and said he’s sometimes jealous of my happy marriage. I told him he should stop cheating on and mistreating his partners. He got really upset, and we don’t often fight or even disagree. He left after saying I didn’t understand how hard it was to be single and that I obviously didn’t appreciate how hard his “difficult” relationships have been for him. Prudie, they are difficult because he treats his boyfriends like garbage. The last guy was absolutely lovely, and I almost wanted to warn him away after seeing how in love with Max he was. Max has since been in touch saying he’s sorry for snapping at me in our argument and wanting to meet up. I want to see him, but I don’t know if it’s time to really, seriously talk to him about the way he treats his boyfriends. I find it so jarring when he is such a good friend and seemingly great person in every part of his life, but it’s very hard to like him when he starts talking about the latest relationship he’s destroying. Should I say more? Just ask him to stop telling me about his dating life? It’s really damaging my opinion of him.

—Great Friend, Lousy Boyfriend

There’s certainly an argument to be made for not interfering in your friend’s dating lives, but this behavior sounds serious enough and happens often enough that it’s changing the way you view Max as a person. If it were a matter of constantly talking about one-off dates or asking you for advice he never intended to take, you’d be able to try “Let’s agree not to talk about your dating life” as a policy. But this has been going on for a pretty long time and has disturbed you seriously. And even if Max were to agree to such a policy, you’d still be left with a nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach. Since you and Max have a long and loving history, I think there’s room for you to maneuver, although it’s going to be a difficult conversation no matter how gently you broach the subject.

I think you should take him up on his offer to meet up and let him know that, while you’re also sorry for snapping, you don’t regret anything you said to him and you want to stress the seriousness of your position: “I’ve tried to bring this up with you before, and I’ve dropped it because you’ve gotten defensive. But I need you to listen to me. By your own admission and based on what I’ve seen from you, the way you treat your boyfriends is cruel, deceitful, and degrading. It’s also totally at odds with the person I see when we spend time together as friends, where you’re fun, easygoing, warm, and compassionate. I don’t know how to reconcile the two. I hope you seek help for this, because I think you need and deserve help. But I cannot pretend I don’t notice it, and I can’t pretend it doesn’t affect the way I see you.”

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Dear Prudence,

My teenage daughter has a life-threatening medical condition and can no longer live at home. We live in a very small town, and some people know that she no longer lives with us, but my husband and I are very vague about her circumstances. It is essential that we protect her privacy. This has been enough to shut down the conversation with everyone except one person: “Karen.” Karen is a gossipy co-worker of mine, and I don’t trust her. At work and around town, she regularly asks me invasive questions about my daughter. It’s evident that she talks to others too, because she pieces together the information we’ve given others. My daughter is the only subject she speaks with me about—ever. We never even have any reason to talk about work. My tactic for dealing with her is to reply with the most bland of responses and walk away. I think it is possible that she does not realize what she is doing, as she is not very self-aware.

However, after a particularly upsetting series of questions from her at the grocery store last week, I am at the point where I may need to be more direct and tell her to stop, but there is a big part of me that suspects that she does know what she’s doing and that being frank about the matter would just encourage her repulsive behavior. My general feeling after my encounters with her is that she is a self-righteous, bloodsucking voyeur. I know I have no objectivity in the matter. How do I proceed?

—Nosy Co-Worker vs. Sick Daughter

“I don’t want to talk about my daughter’s medical condition. Please don’t ask me any more questions” is all you have to say to her. If she does anything other than apologize and knock it off, like trying to justify herself or criticize you for setting a limit, just walk away. You’re already more than halfway there, so I don’t think it’ll be especially difficult to make this final shift in how you deal with her. It really doesn’t matter if she has good intentions (or thinks she has good intentions). The important thing is to remove the plausible deniability factor by telling her these questions are unwelcome. Once that’s been said, she’ll either have to knock it off or you’ll have the ammunition you need to go to HR: “My colleague won’t stop asking personal questions about my daughter’s medical condition, even after being told to stop.”

Help! I Found Out My Boyfriend Did Blackface in College.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Faran Krentcil on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

Dear Prudence,

In general I have a great relationship with my mother. We are very close, she’s mostly very supportive, and currently I live with her while I get on my feet after some big life changes. I am nonbinary, and I’ve been out since I was 19 and out as bisexual since 16. My mother, despite being a very religious woman, is supportive if disconnected from it. She’s attended our local Pride parade once at my request and had a good time, but we don’t really talk about it. What bothers me is she doesn’t really accept my name change. When I came out as nonbinary I tried one name for about eight months before switching to my current name, which I’ve been using for three years and will likely use for the rest of my life. She calls me by this name but has made it clear I hurt her by changing my name. When people gush over my name (it’s unique and pairs in a really funny way with my last name), she will interject, “Well, their real name is [Redacted].” And it makes me intensely uncomfortable and unhappy. How do I talk to her about this? She feels hurt because I’m “rejecting” the name she picked when I was born. I just don’t connect to that name, it makes me very uncomfortable to be called it, and it makes me feel small and ashamed.

—New Name

I imagine at least part of your reticence to bring this up with her is due to the fear that, since she feels hurt by your name change, you’ll end in a stalemate of hurt feelings. But that’s not the case! She feels hurt because she’s taking your autonomous adult identity personally. You feel hurt because she undermines that autonomy in front of other people, infantilizing and demeaning you by telling everyone that only she has the right to determine what your name is. One of these hurts is not like the other. Moreover, she seems particularly compelled to trample over you whenever someone new gets excited about your new name. The joy that your new name produces in others makes her angry and determined to control everyone around her.

The best way to approach this with her is to acknowledge your love and compassion for her without conceding her “right” to choose your name for you as an adult: “Mom, you need to stop telling other people that’s not my real name when I introduce myself. You chose that name for me before I was born, before I developed a personality or a life of my own. I love you, and I’m grateful to you for taking care of me, but making decisions about my own future as an adult isn’t a rejection of you or your parenting. Telling strangers my birth name is my ‘real’ name is demeaning—especially since you only seem to do it when somebody else says how much they like my new name. I’ve been letting this go for three years because I’ve been hoping you’ll come around, but you haven’t. You need to stop doing it.”

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Maybe if he really takes this seriously, starts seeing a therapist, addressing his issues, you can find a way forward.”
Danny Lavery and Nicole Cliffe discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

On occasion, my partner or I will say or do something minor when we’re out in public that upsets the other person. Neither of us would ever cause a scene in public, but I’m struggling with how to address this. My partner has expressed that his preference is for the offended person to take the offender aside and express their thoughts at the time. While I appreciate the value in not letting anger fester, I don’t think it’s always practical. It’s often difficult to discreetly ask for a conference. And even if you can find a quiet corner or empty room, a public setting isn’t conducive to the thoughtful (and thus, sometimes lengthy) discussion that conflict resolution often requires. I also don’t want to spend a lot of my time at a social engagement arguing (or at the least, having a discussion that may read to others as an argument) because being with a couple that’s fighting is incredibly uncomfortable for all involved. But saying nothing and waiting doesn’t seem right either. I’m bad at hiding my emotions, and he (and others) would be able to tell that something was bothering me. These types of situations don’t come up often, but when they do, I’m never sure how to handle them.

—Pull Him Aside or Pull It Together?

I agree that it’s good manners to save the real fights for when you’re in private so other people don’t have to serve as audience members or referees, but if it’s over something as relatively low stakes as a badly judged joke, I don’t think there’s anything impolite about saying something in the moment, as long as you keep your tone relatively composed. “Oh, that hurt my feelings—I wish you wouldn’t say that” is perfectly appropriate. If you want, you can establish a general rule that, whenever such moments arise, you two can commit to acknowledging whichever party’s feelings are hurt in the moment and saving any follow-up questions, justifications, or arguments for when you’re at home. Since you say this doesn’t happen often, I don’t think you have to worry about becoming the sort of couple that tightly alludes to the argument brewing just below the surface while everyone else pretends not to notice. You’re a far way from Martha and George yet!

Dear Prudence,

I am a highly organized person who plans events for a living. I’ve always been prepared and anticipated and handled other people’s needs, usually joyfully. My therapist says that’s why I’ve attracted low-functioning people who need a high-functioning partner and friend, and that honestly never bothered me before. Suddenly and shockingly, however, I’m having a bout of depression, and I just don’t want to do everything anymore. I’m burned out, I’m tired, and I need to pull back. I love my family, friends, and partner, but I have trained them all over decades to expect that I will be the one to handle everything. I know I need to start taking things off my plate, but the thought of delegating seems overwhelming. Every time I try, they either procrastinate the task so unreasonably that I’m forced to step back in, or they have so many minor questions that by the time they’re fully briefed I could have completed it many times over. I know what I need to do, but I am botching the execution, which only makes me more depressed and resentful, too. My friends and family seem eager to help but are, I guess understandably, a little thrown that suddenly the dynamic has shifted so much. Any advice on how to turn this around? I know I could seek out more responsible folks to hang with, but that is just not something I’m able to tackle right now.

—Put That Burden Down

Let them procrastinate unreasonably! And refuse to answer their questions! I don’t mean you should ignore your friends’ calls or pretend not to hear your partner when they ask something, but explain that the reason you’re handing these tasks over is because you’re tired and burnt out and you want them to use their own best judgment and resources to get things done, not just take a series of orders from you. I’m sure the idea of letting something get done late, or imperfectly, or even quite badly or not at all sounds stressful, but I think it’s an important stage in the development of a brand-new dynamic, where your friends and loved ones learn to rely on themselves where historically they’ve always relied on you. If at times they seem dismayed or resentful or helpless, you can certainly have a thorough conversations about shared expectations, what you’ve been going through, and what needs to change, but you don’t have to solve their dismay.

Without assigning bad motivations to your friends and family, this whole “gee whiz, how I could I possibly figure this out on my own” act is designed to get them out of work they don’t want to do. I’ve certainly done that in my own life; this is not to my credit! Don’t let yourself get tricked into thinking, “Well, I always used to do X, Y, and Z for them, so I guess it’s a little unfair to just suddenly stop doing X, Y, and Z overnight. Maybe I could keep doing Y and Z for another six months … ” They will figure this out without you. They are responsible adults with access to the internet and other resources. Once someone’s agreed to do something for you and you’ve given them the basic outline, if you need to remind them that you’re not available to troubleshoot, do so cheerfully and without apology.

Classic Prudie

I’m in my early 30s, and I’ve found the man I want to marry and start a family with. He feels the same way. We still live apart for one reason: my cat. My boyfriend is extremely allergic to cats and needs a fur-free home. I’ve had my 8-year-old cat his whole life. I love him, and this breaks my heart, but I am considering finding him a new home. The problem is my guilt, as well as the reaction of my animal-loving friends. They’re all completely incredulous that I would give up my pet. They say, “But he’s like your child!” and “You made a commitment to this animal.” To complicate the situation, I spend most of my time at my boyfriend’s place, so my poor kitty has been developing some behavioral problems because he’s frequently alone. I feel horrible. What should I do?