Dear Prudence

I Think I’m in Love With My Brother’s Wife

And it looks like they’re going through something.

Man with hearts for eyes
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Dear Prudence,

You know how some people are fine, absolutely unobjectionable, but you just don’t click with them? You don’t dislike them, but you don’t much like them either—you just don’t think about them much at all. That’s how I’ve always felt about my sister-in-law, “Janice.” She was kind of dull and a bit smug, but my brother loved her. I passed her the gravy at Thanksgiving and was glad I didn’t have to spend the rest of the year with her. Well, now I’m in love with her, and while it’s not directly connected, her marriage to my brother is in trouble. (For the record, I doubt that Janice is my soulmate. We’re badly suited, whereas she and my brother are usually a power team-up. It’s just a whole bunch of stuff at once, and then the pandemic, that’s heightened everything. But I feel like she’s my soulmate.)

I had a really bad car accident a few years ago, lost my job, got dumped, and developed a drinking problem. When I hit rock bottom, my family was there for me, but it was Janice who stepped up the most, who let me cry on her shoulder, who drove me to my physio appointments. So now, lonely, desperate for affection, and still all banged up, I am in love. And it looks like my brother and Janice are going through something. There’s a terrible part of me, maybe 5 percent, that wants to take advantage of it. But the rest of me wants to be a good friend, a good in-law, and a good brother. I’m not sure how to navigate this without making things weird, damaging my family relationships, or possibly taking advantage of the situation to get what I want. Should I tell Janice how I feel and then distance myself? Distance myself and just look like I’m ungrateful for all her help? Pretend to be disinterested and just play the role of good brother-in-law?

—Opportunity Knocks but Once

The first thing to do is refocus on the support you can draw from sources that aren’t your brother’s wife, not because you need to start ignoring her as a matter of principle, but because you need more than one person you can rely on for help. That might mean asking others to drive you to your appointments, looking for 12-step recovery meetings (or non-12-step alternatives), crying on a rotating cast of shoulders, and seeking out ways to help others when you can.

It’s not my place to tell you whether you are or aren’t in love with Janice. Perhaps more importantly, love can sometimes be accompanied by self-interest, or neediness, or dislike, even contempt. But you seem fairly aware that your newfound love for Janice didn’t arise from reevaluating those qualities of her you dislike or a desire to care for her the way your brother does, so much as an overwhelming sense of gratitude for her care and attention in your moment of crisis. That doesn’t make a strong foundation for a committed romantic relationship.

Prioritizing non-Janice emotional outlets will make it easier to find ways to step back from her (possible) marital crisis without suddenly going cold and ignoring all of her calls. Don’t punish her for being kind to you by withdrawing, or by burdening her with an unexpected announcement that you’re kind of in love with her, even though you still sort of don’t like her, and don’t think you two are suited for each other anyway. (I’m reminded of Mr. Darcy’s first ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth Bennet: “ ‘I might as well inquire,’ replied she, ‘why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?’ ”) Trust that she has friends and family of her own she can turn to for advice and counsel who are better-suited than her husband’s brother to help her with whatever problems she may be facing in her marriage. Ask yourself if part of your desire to stir the pot comes from any resentment toward the rest of your family for not “stepping up” the way Janice did when you hit rock bottom, and find a therapist if you still can’t shake that 5 percent of you that wants to see if you can get an affair going.

Help! My Husband Hates My Brother and Wants Me to Choose Between Them.

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

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Dear Prudence,

I am expecting my first child and recently had a virtual baby shower where I opened gifts over video chat with friends and family. It was a lovely day despite the unusual circumstances, but one of the presents left me shocked.  A younger cousin graciously sent a gift with several useful gadgets and a package of onesies. But I was stunned to see they were emblazoned with the logo of a particular car company. My father was killed in a work-related car accident involving one of their vehicles when I was young, and our family filed a wrongful-death suit against the company. My cousin was a toddler at the time, but I’m fairly sure she’s aware of the circumstances, since her father was a witness in the lawsuit. I just can’t imagine why she chose that particular brand. She can be a bit naïve, but she is very sweet, so I don’t think it was on purpose. I tried to react nonchalantly before moving on to the next gift, but I broke down in tears later because it brought up how much I miss my dad. He would have loved to be a grandfather. I am writing the thank-you cards, and while I genuinely appreciate the other gifts she sent, I don’t know what to say about the onesies. Is it OK to just lie and then throw them in the trash?

—Grateful but Heartbroken

Yes, it is. You’re also free to say something privately to your cousin, if you think it would help relieve your distress, or to deputize another relative to say something on your behalf. (That same relative can also donate the onesies to your local Goodwill or women’s shelter so someone else can use them.) It’s whatever feels best for you. The gift sounds like an honest moment of forgetfulness, and I’m sure she’d want to be reminded of the context, even if she feels mortified at first, so she doesn’t make such a mistake again. You can tell her: “I’m sure you didn’t realize this, but these onesies are from the same company we filed suit against when my father was killed, and the association’s too strong for me to be able to use them.” But you don’t have to say anything, especially since it was part of a group of other presents you’ll be able to put to use, and you’ve got enough on your plate as it is.

Dear Prudence,

I rent a house with three other people. I pay a bigger portion of the rent for the master bedroom with the private bathroom. It is also the only bathtub in the house. “Jon” lives upstairs. He has an on-again, off-again relationship with “Sarah,” and they have one kid together. Sarah has two other kids with someone else, but she brings all three over here all the time. We live near a public lake and park. The kids do not like showers, so Sarah tries to use my bathroom during those visits. I hate it because her kids can’t keep their hands to themselves and Sarah refuses to supervise them properly. My bathroom is en suite, and there’s no door between the tub and my bedroom. I don’t want to have to worry about running into kids changing or taking a bath.

I have tried talking to Jon about it, but Sarah just bulldozes him. Jon needs to side with her or else he “doesn’t love” her. It is “too hard” to take her kids home dirty and bathe them there (apparently she lives with her parents, and there is never any hot water). Last time, I locked the door and ignored Sarah while she tried to pound the hinges off. I came out after she left. Jon asked me and I lied that I’d had my noise-canceling headphones on. I don’t want to keep doing this. None of us are really friends, so I am afraid to bring it up with my housemates. I don’t really care if Sarah and the kids are in the public spaces. I don’t want them in mine. Help, please!

—Stay Out

First, the good news: You do not have to be friends with your housemates in order to have a house meeting or to establish ground rules for guests. That’s also the bad news, which is that you’re going to have to have a house meeting where you establish ground rules for guests you can all agree upon. That doesn’t mean you’re all going to like those rules or that Jon’s going to have a good time enforcing them, but even a partially unsatisfying compromise, honestly hashed-out, is better than a mix of contradictory, unspoken objectives. Even if Jon can’t or won’t commit to maintaining house rules when his sometimes-girlfriend comes over, you don’t need his permission to keep houseguests out of your room. Nor is it your responsibility to figure out how or when Jon and Sarah clean their kids after they go to the park. Since they can still use other bathrooms both in your house and hers, you’re not preventing them from accessing basic hygiene. “Sorry, you can’t use my bathroom, but there’s another one downstairs” is all you have to say. The questions of how much Jon loves Sarah or whether there’s something wrong with the water heater at her parents’ house are not yours to resolve. You have a straightforward problem with a pretty simple answer. All you have to do is be clear with your housemates about it.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From How to Do It

I’ve recently become “official” with a guy I’ve been with for a few months (hetero, in our 20s). He’s a little bro-y, you could say—he was in a frat, his friends are mostly loud men, he likes beer and football on the weekends, and so on. Not my usual type, but he’s quite sweet and attentive to me behind closed doors, especially in bed. However, there’s one thing that keeps getting to me: He often says things about other women that are crude at best and misogynistic at worst. He’s made comments about an overweight woman eating fries at a bar; he called a friend of mine a slut (a word she’d happily use for herself, but he did not say it that way); he made a weird joke speculating about how two lesbians we know have sex. Every time he does this, I shut it down and tell him that’s an unacceptable way to talk about women, and he always seems genuinely surprised, agrees with me, and apologizes. I think part of it is just the social environment he’s used to, where this kind of talk is apparently common. But I wonder if I’m too easy on him because I want to be with him and he doesn’t treat me this way. What do you think? Typing this out, I know he sounds awful, but these comments are not an everyday occurrence, and I think his willingness to acknowledge his mistakes is a good sign.