Dear Prudence

My Future Sister-in-Law Asked Me to Help Pay for Her Wedding

She said I owed it to my sister because I treated her badly when she came out as a teenager.

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Dear Prudence,

Our parents are pretty old-fashioned and saved money for the future weddings of both their daughters. My wedding was called off when I learned my would-be husband had impregnated two different women. This was years ago. My sister is now engaged to “Meg,” whom I’ve never liked, because she’s always asking people to “spot” her for food, drinks, tickets, etc, and then forgetting to repay them. But she makes my sister happy, so I tried to be happy for them. They were supposed to be married in March, but that obviously didn’t happen because of the pandemic. They have had trouble getting their deposits back since several of the businesses went under, including the venue. Our parents are tapped out of money, and I know they feel awful about it. Meg—not my sister—approached me about my old wedding funds. She said the money must be “tainted” for me and was a sign that I was clinging to the past and unable to move on, that it would be a blessing to make my sister happy by giving it to them, and that I owed it to her because I treated her badly when she came out as a teenager. I admit that I was horrible to my sister when we were in high school. I lashed out at her and considered her sexuality an “easy target.” Once I grew up, I apologized to my sister, and she forgave me. I thought we had moved on. I told Meg I needed time to think.

I am terrified of saying the wrong thing and giving Meg ammunition against me. My sister loves her. I don’t want to even tell my parents because I know they will be upset on my behalf, and I don’t want to alienate my sister. But this conversation with Meg just sent up so many red flags. What do I do? Just pretend it never happened? Offer a few thousand as a bribe?

—Shaky Sister Support

Talk to your sister directly, and focus less on the money and more on your relationship. It’s wise, at this stage, to be circumspect about how Meg broached the subject with you, because you don’t want to alienate your sister unnecessarily or come across as though you’re trying to get Meg in trouble. But there’s a real opportunity to learn what your sister actually feels. Tell her: “Meg recently approached me to ask for money for your wedding and suggested that there’s still something unresolved between the two of us. I wanted to hear what you had to say. I know apologies don’t erase the past, and I don’t want to force you to talk about this if you don’t want to. But I’m so sorry for how I treated you when we were teenagers. I was horrible to you, and I treated your orientation like a weak spot that I could exploit to hurt you. I’m ashamed for all the ways I hurt you, and if there’s anything you want to revisit, or think we missed the last time we talked about our childhoods, I’m available for that conversation.”

Maybe your sister still feels resentment or anger despite having offered forgiveness in the past. Maybe she’s willing to discuss it, or maybe she’s not. Maybe she’ll be shocked that Meg brought this up, and maybe part of her hoped that Meg would break the ice. But you don’t have to agree to Meg’s terms, either that money is the only form of redress available to you or that Meg gets to initiate or participate in a conversation that concerns you and your sister. If your sister wants to ask you for some money, and you feel prepared to offer it in a spirit of reconciliation and solidarity, that’s one thing, but that’s an arrangement you can attempt to make with her yourself.

Dear Prudence,

2020 has been the best year of my life. That’s the problem. The country is reeling from a pandemic, rampant unemployment, and violent racism, but in the last six months my husband has finally found a depression treatment that works, which has wildly improved our marriage. I’ve finally found a job that pays well and that’s enabled us to move out of poverty. Now that I have health insurance, I was able to treat a chronic injury and start exercising again. I’m no longer in constant pain. To top it all off, a nasty and manipulative relative died. I know that sounds callous, but you wouldn’t believe what she put us through. We’ve been hanging on by our fingernails for years, and suddenly our quality of life has skyrocketed, during one of the worst periods in modern American history.

I’m trying to keep this low-key. I’ve been wearing masks in public, I practice social distancing, have been donating generously to a number of charities and nonprofits. But I feel like I’m pretending to grieve when I’m not. Yesterday on a Zoom call, someone asked how everyone was holding up during these tough times, and someone else responded, “Wow, [LW] looks great!” I realized I was smiling, even glowing. Is there something wrong with me? If so, how do I fix it?

—Right Feeling, Wrong Time

There is nothing wrong with feeling happy, even when other people are suffering. Oftentimes people who are suffering also experience happiness! You’re experiencing relief from physical pain, freedom from financial anxiety, release from a painful familial relationship, and renewed joy in your marriage—all of that is good, meaningful, and worth celebrating. You didn’t cause your relative’s death, and you’re not hurting anyone by experiencing a rush of relief after the fact. You caught yourself smiling at an odd moment during a single Zoom call, which is hardly a sign that you’ve been regularly misreading other people’s feelings or dismissing their struggles.

If you’re familiar with the book of Romans, it might help to remember that Paul’s exhortation is not simply to mourn with them that mourn but also rejoice with them that do rejoice. The world does not need you to suffer in order for you to do good, help others, contribute to the cause of collective justice, or safeguard public health. Set aside some time each day, or each week, to celebrate your progress and good fortune, either with your husband, by yourself, or a trusted friend who’s up to the conversation. Continue the work you’re already doing, look for ways to help friends and strangers wherever possible, and don’t begrudge yourself good things. Wouldn’t you be happy for a friend whose marriage was improving, who found relief from an injury, or who was able to start saving money? Be as happy, then, for yourself.

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Dear Prudence,

My mother is a difficult woman to like. She went out of her way to make us cry as children, often over things as petty as what our favorite colors were. When I was 14, my boyfriend beat me until he broke my front tooth, and she said she understood why he did it. Age did not mellow her, but she has suffered from cancer and a stroke. All four of her kids collaborate on caregiving so we can live with the balance—we give money generously and try to limit our face-to-face time.

The problem is my youngest brother’s wife, who ignores our agreement and wears herself thin accommodating my mother’s demands. Almost every hour she’s not at work, she’s running errands for our mother, driving her around, and enduring her cruelties. She doesn’t have to. We’ve made provisions for professionals whose buttons my mother can’t push as easily, but my sister-in-law insists you can’t fob off family on strangers and then gets increasingly resentful that me and my siblings don’t step in. It’s caused vicious fights between her and my brother, and my brother and the rest of us. I do feel guilty that my sister-in-law has taken up the slack that we won’t, but there’s a reason we won’t. And we all agreed to this initially. What can we do to make our sister-in-law either back off or make her life easier without actually doing any of the things she wants us to? We offered to pay her the money we give to various services, but she rejected us angrily and didn’t talk to us for a week. (Please don’t say we should just grit our teeth and take over visiting our mother. It would end badly. I do not trust myself around her and haven’t spent more than two hours at a time with her since she threw me out at 17.)

Nothing could be further from my mind than telling you to grit your teeth! Instead, you should recreate that week where you didn’t speak to your sister-in-law, and she didn’t speak to you. You don’t have to cede the moral high ground to her just because she’s been relentless, demanding, and emotionally manipulative. Your sister-in-law is not being helpful when she insists all four of you sign up for regular doses of vitriol and abuse simply because she’s decided to make that her second full-time job. You have nothing to feel guilty about. Knowing that intellectually might not make your feelings of guilt evaporate instantly, but you and your siblings have formulated a plan that provides for your mother’s well-being and your collective peace of mind. You haven’t reneged on any promise or abandoned a thriving relationship out of indifference or malice. You aren’t harming your abusive mother by limiting her opportunities to further abuse you.

Your sister-in-law may kick, and your brother may raise a fuss, but you and the rest of your siblings should make it clear that the subject is no longer up for debate. If your sister-in-law reintroduces the topic or calls to demand you ferry your mother around town so she can yell at you, consider it an extension of your mother’s abuse and draw a hard line: “I’m not going to have this conversation with you again. I’m hanging up now.” You don’t have to convince her that your agreement is a sane, healthy one. You just have to make it clear to her that you’re no longer interested in hearing her opinions on the subject.

Help! My Disney-Obsessed Mom Is Trying to Hijack My Wedding.

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

Subscribe to the Dear Prudence Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dear Prudence,

My partner and I (we’re both women) just moved in together after dating long-distance. We’re usually really good about discussing and resolving our problems. She’s not out to most of her conservative family because she’s worried about rejection. My parents aren’t in the picture, but my sisters are wonderful, and I came out at 16. I don’t mind being unknown to my partner’s family, but now that we live together, she wants to FaceTime her mom regularly and pretend I’m her roommate. I can’t do it. The thought makes me sick to my stomach. Usually I go to our spare bedroom, which we use as an office, when she calls her mom.

Today, I was planning on working in the living room, and she said, “I’ll FaceTime my mom when you go to the office.” It made me feel awful. I asked if she was going to call her mom every day. She said it was OK, that she was disappointed but could handle it—but then she started crying and went into our bedroom. I realized that my request might have reminded her of her last, very abusive relationship, where she was forced to cut off her family and friends. I wish I had thought about this when we started talking. I don’t want her to stop talking to her mom, but it just makes me feel awful. How can we handle this so I’m not being controlling, and also don’t fall apart every day? We’re both working from home right now, most businesses are all still closed, and it’s super hot in our city.

—Sad About FaceTime

There is nothing abusive, nor reminiscent of abuse, in refusing to pretend to be your girlfriend’s roommate, or in asking her how often she wants to call her mother, or wanting to agree in advance which room you’ll work in when she makes those calls. You two are trying to navigate a difficult situation and acknowledge multiple competing interests, but you are not forcing her to cut anyone out of her life. You’re not responsible for her previous abusive partner’s behavior, and you’re not controlling her by voicing your own feelings and objections now. It doesn’t sound like she’s claimed you are, but that these fears are bubbling up for you independently, and I hope you can dismiss them whenever they surface. You can love and support her as a survivor of abuse without considering yourself tantamount to an abuser when you delineate your own needs or limits.

These calls may be occasionally, even often, painful for the both of you, but it’s not a sign you’re doing something wrong. It’s simply a painful situation. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to live with a partner who’s not out to their family. It may be that someday you two will break up because of this incompatibility. If you do, it will not be because it’s controlling to avoid joining these FaceTimes as a “roommate.” You can offer your her patience, affection, and comfort when she’s distressed, and you can approach this conversation lovingly and nonjudgmentally, but you do not have to minimize your own response, desires, and limits in order to support her.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“There is nothing you can do to Eternal Sunshine your girlfriend’s past out of her mind.”
Danny Lavery and Calvin Kasulke discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I’ve been dating a great guy for about six months. We’re aligned on values, communication style, interests, and goals of a relationship. But he never answers the door in a reasonable time frame. We only hang out at his place (I live with roommates, and we want to decrease our risk), and it’s still too early for me to have a key, so I just knock when I arrive. Sometimes he’ll leave me waiting for five or 10 minutes outside. I’ve tried texting him my arrival time, texting when I’m parking, and giving lots of advance notice, but it doesn’t work. He is perpetually late, and I’m pretty sure he’s cleaning up his place or finishing a task while I wait outside. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it really bothers me! We live in a place with extreme weather, and I’m usually not dressed to stand around for 10 minutes. But mostly, it feels disrespectful of me and my time. Is this worth digging in my heels?

—Delayed at the Door

This would drive me wild. I’m all for flexibility when it comes to the occasional lateness, but there’s a big difference between reading a book or people-watching while waiting for someone at a café and shivering (or melting) on your boyfriend’s front porch while he ignores your texts every time you come over. I’m not sure how extensively you’ve discussed this with him, but if you haven’t, now’s the time to ask what’s going on behind the door. It’s possible he’s regularly worried or ashamed about the state of his home, in which case there might be an opportunity to connect and grow closer. But you can still object to this practice, regardless of the motivations that may lie behind it. It is disrespectful of your time, and runs counter to hospitality, especially since he doesn’t even text back or call out “Be there in a minute, just finishing up a DIY project.” I’d talk with him during some neutral time, when you haven’t just crossed the threshold, and tell him that you’ll be setting a knocking-and-waiting limit for future visits. (Five minutes strikes me as reasonable, but you could certainly go lower.) You can tell him you’re not trying to be punitive, but that you’ll respect your own time, even if he doesn’t. That’s not sustainable in the long run, since you don’t exactly want to drive all the way over to his place only to go home after five minutes, but it might clarify your compatibility further.

Dear Prudence,

My adult son and his girlfriend, “Mara,” have been staying with me due to the pandemic for the last two months. Last week, Mara accidentally used my contact solution. It’s a particular cleaner with hydrogen peroxide, and you have to let the contacts soak for six hours at a minimum, until it neutralizes into a saline solution. The bottle has a bright red cap and a warning label, but Mara did not read it or speak to me before using it. As a result, she burned one of her eyes. It’s been a week, and her vision is apparently still blurry.

My son has asked me to pay for Mara’s eye doctor appointment. I am living off of Social Security, and I don’t have the money. Besides, Mara used something without asking and then disregarded the very visible warning signs on the bottle. This has caused heightened tension in the midst of an already stressful time. Who’s in the right here? And, assuming I don’t end up paying, how do I heal this rift with Mara?

—Peroxide Problems

If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money. She can call her optometrist’s office before making an appointment to see if they have any advice about what she can do in the meantime and to try to arrange a modified payment plan. It’s terrible that she burned her eye, but it didn’t happen as a result of negligence or misinformation on your part, and you’re not responsible for her carelessness. I can sympathize with her carelessness—it’s the sort of mistake anyone could make—but you can, and should, tell your son that you can’t pay for her doctor’s visit and encourage the two of them to make other arrangements.

Classic Prudie

My mind is still reeling. My fiancé confessed to me last week that his younger niece is actually his child. He had a short affair with his brother’s wife, who conceived the month her husband was away. They ended things just before finding out she was pregnant, and she lied about the dates to cover it up. My fiancé knew all this and said nothing because he didn’t want to break up their family. My fiancé’s brother is a good guy and I genuinely like him. I’ve never seen a man so devoted to his wife and children. I don’t know if I can spend the rest of my life being a part of this lie. My future in-laws are a close-knit family and everyone frequently gets together. They actually had a family dinner a few days ago which I’ve avoided because I don’t know how I can look at either my fiancé’s brother or his wife in the eye. I also have complex feelings about the “niece”—biologically speaking, she will be my stepchild! I love my fiancé so much but how can I marry into his family knowing what I know now?