Dear Prudence

My Fiancée and I Are Second Cousins

My family won’t stop making incest jokes.

Man and woman holding hands
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Benjamin le Roux on Unsplash.

Dear Prudence,

My fiancée and I grew up in the same small city. We went to different high schools but attended the same college. My fiancée doesn’t have any living grandparents. My mother is very nosy and did some digging in my fiancée’s family. It turns out that her maternal grandmother is the sister of my paternal grandmother, making us second cousins. Everyone was mildly shocked by the connection, but my fiancée and I really don’t care. My mother is freaking out about the “incest” and has made “flipper baby” comments. My sisters have made “keeping it in the family” jokes, and it is very irritating. No matter how much I tell them to quit it, they won’t. My fiancée thinks they don’t like her and all this is a smoke screen. We have plans to move out of state so she can pursue her master’s. Is she right? How do I deal with my family?

—Not a Punchline

Your fiancée could be at least partly right: There may be more behind your relatives’ behavior than mere dislike, but they’re certainly not making cruel, disparaging comments about your future children or the nature of your relationship because they respect her and want her to feel welcome. But I don’t want you to get bogged down in establishing whether your mother and sisters “like” your fiancée, because what’s at stake isn’t just their internal emotional state but how they’re treating her and, by extension, you. You’re right not to be bothered by what is basically noninformation: You’re not in much more danger of high-risk pregnancies than any two random individuals are, it’s legal in every state to marry a second cousin, you weren’t raised in a family context, and you never thought of each other as relatives. The fact that your mother went looking to stir up trouble when she researched your fiancée’s family certainly isn’t a good sign; you say she’s “nosy,” and I wonder if she has a history of trying to interfere in your romantic relationships.

Moving out of state will help put some real distance between you and your relatives, but that doesn’t mean you can’t admonish them now for their weird, inappropriate, often ableist jokes. You’ve already told them to stop to no avail, which means it’s time to pair words with actions and end conversations early or turn down invitations to get together, and be very clear about why: “I get it. You think it would be funny if we had children with disabilities and that there’s something incestuous about our relationship. We don’t see eye to eye about either of those things. You can either keep making the same two jokes over and over again, or you can be a part of my life with my fiancée, but you can’t do both.”

Dear Prudence,

I have extensive tattoos from my neck to my knees. As a child, my brother “accidentally” dumped hot grease on me. I spent months in the hospital, and he went on to kill neighborhood pets. I ended up cutting off all contact with my family as a teenager after they let him back in the house once he left juvie. The tattoos cover the burns and have given me control over my appearance. My work started taking me into more “straight-laced” sections of society, and I get double takes, disgruntled expressions, and awkward questions. I have had people demand I explain why I would do this to myself—after all, I am such a “pretty girl.” They get shamefaced very quickly after I tell them I was burned badly as a child. I dislike bringing this up, but especially because then some people want to know what happened. I have tried very hard to separate myself from my past, and it hurts to keep bringing it up. I can’t afford to tell these people to just mind their own business, since I do depend on them for my income. Other than just dressing like a nun, how so I diplomatically tell them off?

—Tattoo Talk

It’s a little trickier to thread this needle with clients than with co-workers, since “keeping the customer happy” is often an important component of making sure you get paid. But that doesn’t mean you can’t deflect personal questions. Some people seem to think that if a tattoo is visible on someone else’s skin it’s an invitation to ask that person whatever they like. Those people are mistaken. “Oh, I don’t talk about my tattoos at work” is a cheerful-enough deflection that offers the question asker the plausible fiction that it’s not them who are being rude, but it’s just that you have a work policy you have to obey. This will also spare you from having to share personal details about your childhood trauma with people who have already demonstrated an interest in gawking and treating you like an exhibition piece, which is understandably painful to you. I’m so sorry! (And to anyone who has ever badgered someone, particularly a young woman, about their tattoos: Knock it off!)

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Dear Prudence,

I recently confronted my wife about her emotional affair with a co-worker after discovering texts on her phone. After that first confrontation, I discovered she was still messaging him. After the second time, she swore it was over and that she genuinely wants to work on our marriage. (I’m working on the issues that she said made her feel like she had to seek out someone else.) I want to believe her, and I want our marriage to work, but I’m having a difficult time trusting her. I don’t want to be the person asking to read her text messages, but I also want to know she isn’t still communicating with him. It’s been a few weeks now. How should I approach this?

—Newly Suspicious

You can start by acknowledging, both to your wife and to yourself, that not trusting her a few weeks after learning about her betrayal of your trust is a perfectly reasonable response. That doesn’t mean you have to start monitoring her, going through her phone every night before bed, or treating her coldly. But you don’t have to force yourself to get over this, and you can’t manufacture trust that hasn’t been carefully and painstakingly earned.

I don’t know if you two are seeing a couples counselor yet, but since your wife says she really wants to prioritize your marriage, it sounds like she’d be open to visiting one, and you might find you’re better able to develop ideas together about how to reestablish trust in a therapeutic setting. You will occasionally need time away from your wife, to share your anger with her (which is not the same as endlessly punishing her), and to ask her for reassurance or honesty or distance, sometimes all at the same time. You will sometimes have to say, “I don’t know how to take you at your word that you’re not in touch with him anymore, because you’ve said that before and it wasn’t true.” For her part, your wife will have to figure out what combination of honesty, vulnerability, patience, and care she can offer you in order to make up for the harm she’s caused you. The good news is that you both want the same thing. The bad thing is there’s no quick solution you can arrive at in a few weeks that can undo the damage caused by a substantial breach of trust.

Help! Social Media Makes Me Anxious. How Can I Social Distance Without It?

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

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Dear Prudence,

My husband, our infant daughter, and I recently bought a house in a neighborhood near where I grew up. For the most part it’s a really lovely, artsy, up-and-coming area. We’ve met our direct neighbors on both sides, and everyone’s been super nice. The issue is with our new neighbors across the street. Their house is the eyesore of the neighborhood—overgrown bushes and trees, broken-down cars parked along the street, etc. Most of that I can brush off, but what I can’t seem to let go of is that I see them smoking cigarettes in front of their two elementary school–age daughters. Smoking around children is so detrimental to their health. Personally, I am allergic to cigarette smoke and very sensitive to it. Also, my grandmother smoked until it killed her, and my mother and all of her siblings have lifelong respiratory issues due to their exposure. I can’t imagine there’s any tactful way to ask these people to stop smoking in front of their kids, but perhaps you have a suggestion?

—Smoking Neighbors

First, it’s worth considering the use of euphemisms likeup-and-coming” to describe gentrification, displacement, unequal distribution of resources, increased policing, and so on. What does that phrase deflect? What does it elide, gloss over, soften? Who is inherently dismissed—who’s down, and who’s not coming along for the ride? If you’ve never spoken to your neighbors across the street, and your attitude toward them is one of a benevolent overlord who generously “brushes off” the fact that they don’t own new cars or have a lot of time and money to spend on gardening, my guess is that they’re going to experience any attempts on your part to remind them that secondhand smoke is dangerous as rude, contemptuous, and interfering. You have no relationship with these people, and you’re not offering any practical help quitting one of the most addictive substances on earth or solutions for addressing the very real, very serious underlying causes of nicotine addiction. Yes, secondhand smoke is very dangerous. Yes, smoking is bad for both smokers and the people they live with. But being admonished by the stranger across the street who already looks down on you for having an unkempt yard is not going to help. Leave your neighbors alone.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“You’re just a stranger who also thinks their yard looks tacky.”
Danny Lavery and Nicole Cliffe discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I am a white, queer, cis woman who has recently moved from a temporary, contract-based position to becoming a full employee in my office. A new contract employee has been brought on to take over my projects, and I am responsible for training him regarding the process. He is also new to the area and trying very hard to befriend me. I do not want to be friends with this man. He is a younger, straight, cis white man who is very “nice” but has also internalized a lot of racist, sexist, and toxically masculine ideas and gives me the impression that he has never been challenged on any of them (or challenged on anything? Ever?) in his life. I’ve seen the engagement photos he had taken at a plantation. He told a black female co-worker she reminded him of Wanda Sykes (she looks and sounds nothing like Wanda Sykes) and asked what I would consider to be a rude question about her hair. I’ve had to stare blankly in response to “jokes” about co-workers with “funny-sounding” names and teenage girls who “had no business” driving large trucks.

How do I maintain a professional relationship with this guy I have to work so closely with, who periodically leaves me dumbstruck with the casual way he says and does racist things? And what is my responsibility to challenge him when this happens, particularly on behalf of our nonwhite co-workers? But he’s very nice, you see, everyone in my fully white department likes him, and my frustrations aren’t exactly something I could take to HR or articulate easily in an office environment. What should I do?

—Not So “Nice”

You have the benefit of being a full-time employee and in the position of training him, and while that doesn’t make you his boss, it certainly gives you standing to do more than stare blankly when he makes racist jokes. Just say, “That’s racist”—or sexist, or even just “not something I need to hear about at work”—and “You need to stop.” Don’t worry about how “nice” he must really be underneath it all—that’s not your problem. He’s a fully grown man who thinks former slave plantations are a fun place to throw a party and that the workplace is a great forum for his racist jokes. You have every right to tell him not to disparage female colleagues at work, and you don’t have to go to HR first, or get the approval of other people who like him, or even worry about whether he likes being corrected. At the very least, he will probably get a little defensive! This is fine. (It might also help if you email yourself a quick description of what was said so that you have a record.) If he persists in his defensiveness, or if he starts going out of his way to say racist or sexist things in your presence, then it’s time to move to HR. But it’s absolutely your right, and your place, to intervene directly with him first.

Dear Prudence,

I am telecommuting as a result of the pandemic. My husband was given extra paid time off by his job and is bored out of his skull. He is constantly in and out of the bedroom where I am working: He wants to bring me tea or he forgot his cellphone or he wants to show me a meme or he wants me to take a walk with him. It is driving me nuts. I need to concentrate and can’t. Yesterday we fought because he brought me tea and I told him I didn’t ask for tea. I told him he needs to leave me alone and he got huffy. I love my husband, but I am actually missing sitting in traffic because I get to be alone with my thoughts!

—More Social Distancing, Please

It may be cold comfort to know that you’re not alone, but I have to imagine there are a number of couples, roommates, or family members who are realizing they have wildly incompatible ideas about what it means to work from home and what constitutes “taking a break.” It may help to set aside a time to meet for a break so he knows when he’ll have a companion in his boredom again: “I’m in meetings until 1, but we can take a walk (or make some tea, or sit and chat) for 20 minutes after that?” You might also want to have a bigger-picture conversation about what working from home will look like for the two of you for the coming weeks (possibly months). But just because he’s bored doesn’t mean you can drop your own work and entertain him, so see if you can find solutions together that keep both of you content.

Classic Prudie

I work in a small office, with a staff of maybe 10. I have worked here for about eight months as in a low-level production-oriented assistant position. A week ago, I walked by the 2nd floor bathroom and saw a co-worker of mine bringing out the office newspaper. She put the office newspaper back on the bench in the first floor. Personally, I am kind of disgusted by her sense of entitlement in thinking that she had a right to treat the office bathroom and the office newspaper as if they were hers. I also am at the bottom of the totem pole, the only male in my office, and am extremely embarrassed to mention anything. The co-worker wasn’t my boss, but she is a friend of my boss. How do I make it clear that this is an inappropriate thing to do in the office, not just because I have personal hygienic objections to it, but because I assume others would if they had any idea this happens?