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Four years ago, I had an affair with my cousin’s husband. The fallout was exactly what you’d imagine: godawful. I felt terrible about it at the time and apologized immediately. My cousin severed ties with me and most of my immediate family. Recently our grandmother died from COVID, and we were all together for the funeral. My cousin was perfectly polite, and I was reminded of my immense guilt that I hurt her and broke up her marriage. I would like to send a note apologizing for my part in the dissolution of her marriage but am not sure it’s a good idea. I also realize sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie and don’t want to bring up a painful memory for her unnecessarily. I would ask my parents, but I don’t want to open an old can of worms with them. We’ve moved on, but I know they feel pain at losing their niece at my hands. Any advice you can give would be appreciated.
The key here is that your impulse to send this apology note did not arise from a realization that you had failed to apologize comprehensively four years ago, nor from an indication from your cousin that she was interested in reestablishing a relationship, or in having a conversation that went beyond basic politeness. You were simply reminded of your guilt. That’s understandable, given the circumstances, but I don’t think it’s a very good reason to try to contact her. She was fairly clear about not wanting to speak to you (or anyone in your family) four years ago, and since she hasn’t followed up after the funeral with either you or your parents, it’s reasonable to assume she still feels now the way she did then, and the only reason she spoke to you at the funeral was because she didn’t want to violate social conventions. Were you to try to speak to her again, I fear you would only cause her additional pain and make her feel responsible for managing your guilt. The kindest thing you can do for your cousin, the clearest way you can honor your commitment to not add to the pain you’ve already caused her, is to respect her wish not to speak to you.
If the idea of not saying anything to anyone feels unbearable, or if you worry you’re going to endlessly punish yourself, I’d encourage you to speak with your close friends or a therapist about your feelings. You might even consider the possibility of revisiting the subject with your parents. You say you don’t want to open an old can of worms with them, but since they are in a relationship with you and your cousin isn’t, there’s much more room there for potential honesty, making amends, and healing. You can proceed cautiously and begin by asking them if they’re even interested in speaking on the subject again. Speaking with these other people instead of your cousin may not fully address your guilt, but it will go a long way toward treating her with respect and compassion. You deserve relief from your guilt—you do not deserve to spend the rest of your life in shame and self-loathing—but you cannot seek that relief from the person you harmed, since she’s already made her wishes very clear on that front.
Help! My Niece Stole From My Neighbors. Her Mom Blames Me for Her Getting in Trouble.
Danny M. Lavery is joined by Noah Kulwin on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.
I’ve met someone who fills me with warmth and kindness and care. I met her family for the first time this past weekend, and it went great. They invited me to an upcoming vacation in Hawaii, and I’m thrilled. I’m a survivor of domestic abuse from a previous relationship that spanned physical, verbal, and sexual violence. It’s taken quite a bit to even admit that. My current partner, “Jane,” is also a survivor of sexual assault and, from what I can glean, parental abuse. Her father used to be an alcoholic and regularly hit Jane and her sister. She’s told me she’s worked to forgive her father, and I support her 100 percent.
However, I just couldn’t help but notice Jane’s extremely short fuse with her dad over the long weekend or watching her squirm away from one of his unannounced hugs. After I left, there was family tension around the election that culminated with her and her father getting in a yelling match about the definition of rape. He stomped toward her, screaming, and poked his finger in her chest. She’s shaken that he’d use violence to intimidate her again after years of not doing so. It’s been a couple weeks, and she’s sort of let it go. I know it’s not my role to care-take this, and I do have a lot of respect for her mom, and sort of forced respect for her dad. Her mom is playing mediator, pleading with her husband to be more understanding on topics he really doesn’t know anything about (Jane has not revealed her assaults to her family).
I need help with boundaries and understanding my place. I support Jane and will continue to advocate for her physical and mental well-being. I also know that if I were there (or say, will be there on the upcoming vacation), I’m not sure I could keep my mouth shut to a man yelling at his daughter. I am not encouraging Jane to share her story of sexual assault. That’s her choice. But I am finding myself caught on how to support her, and this issue feels newly and intensely stirred up.
—Keeping My Mouth Shut
I must begin by contesting your claim that this weekend meeting Jane’s family went “great.” I don’t think it did. What’s more, I don’t think you believe it went great, either. I suspect you’re desperate to be supportive of Jane, worried about alienating her after you’ve both suffered so much abuse, and frightened of acknowledging anything that might get in the way of declaring their family situation “healed.” But the visit you’ve described was not an example of forgiveness, growth, meaningful change, or respect. You saw continued abuse, silence, enabling, and secrecy. You saw your partner so uncomfortable with her father’s physical presence that she “squirmed away” when he hugged her. You know that after you left, a man who physically abused his children suddenly screamed, intimidated, and prodded his grown daughter during an argument about rape. You saw Jane’s mother attempt to placate her abusive husband by “pleading” with him not to erupt in rage, which is nothing like mediation, but clearly part of a very old family pattern that’s grown up around his abusive behavior. I hope you will reconsider your decision to respect Jane’s father. You may choose to treat him with basic politeness or diplomacy for Jane’s sake, but nothing in your description of his past and present behavior merits your admiration, begrudging or otherwise.
You are right to let Jane decide whether to disclose her history of sexual assault to her family, and I think she’s right not to trust them with that information. Your instinct to offer support rather than instruction as to how Jane should manage her relationship with her relatives is a good one too. But do not mistake denial for healing or fantasy for support. You can acknowledge what troubled you about this latest visit without calling Jane’s decision to forgive her father into question, and be clear about your concerns for an upcoming trip without making unreasonable demands of her. Expressing reservations about taking a family vacation with people you’ve only met once and you know to have recently behaved violently is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. You can express such reservations lovingly and with great respect for the difficulty of Jane’s position. You also have your own history of trauma that’s relevant here, and you should honestly discuss your concerns that if her father were to erupt at her in front of you, that you would find it urgently necessary to intervene.
Frankly, I don’t think you should go on this trip. It’s too much, too soon, and it sounds like a recipe for disaster. It may be difficult to have such a conversation with Jane, but it would be much worse to go on that trip because you feel uncomfortable stating the obvious. Jane can choose to forgive her father for his abuse, even if he’s never apologized for it and continues to act violently in the present. But acknowledging reality or setting limits on your own contact with him does not contradict that forgiveness.
In one of the rare upsides to the pandemic, I have reconnected with a friend. We’ve been video chatting every two to three weeks for the past few months, and it’s been great. The first time we talked, it somehow came up that I had recently realized I was bi. They mentioned that they had recently begun dating women and nonbinary people. (For context, I’m a cis woman, and this friend is nonbinary; historically we have both only dated cis men.) I’m developing feelings for this person and feel like they have recently been subtly signaling romantic interest in me. But I’m not sure if I’m reading this right. We live on opposite sides of the country and are not the sort to travel during the pandemic. Also, I have a pretty low sex drive and am worried about disappointing them in that regard whenever we might actually be able to see each other in person. Another worry is that I don’t have a lot of sexual/relationship experience for someone in their 30s.
On the one hand, this is the first time I’ve developed romantic feelings for someone in a long time, so I sort of want to say something. On the other hand, I’m worried about ruining our friendship if I’m reading this wrong. And even if it turns out we are on the same page, I’m not sure how we would make this work in a pandemic without a clear end in sight. How do you think I should approach this?
Approach this with the assumption that signaling possible romantic interest is not a friendship-ruining proposition! You may decide you’re not ready to say anything until after the vaccine has been made widely available (or some other pandemic-related milestone), which would be perfectly reasonable. But plenty of friendships have survived a brief conversation about romantic possibility, and what you’re contemplating telling them is relatively low-risk. It’s not as if you’ve been desperately in love with them for years and don’t think you can continue your friendship if they don’t return your feelings. You’ve recently reconnected, you’re in the habit of discussing unexpected changes in your dating lives, and you have reason to think they’re at least a little interested in you. You don’t yet know what expressing such interest might look like, which stands to reason, because you haven’t discussed it with them yet, and your present circumstances are a little unusual. Again, that’s a good thing, not a reason to keep your mouth shut.
I often hear from people who want to ask out a friend but feel like they shouldn’t unless they have a perfect sense of how such a relationship would proceed. That is too high a barrier to expressing interest! You can cross those bridges when you reach them, but don’t assume that a relatively low libido or a relatively small number of exes precludes you from ever trying to date someone you like. Give yourself permission to express romantic interest at some point in the future. You don’t have to do it today if you don’t feel ready. But neither do you need to exhaustively map out an entire romantic future, ensuring a road ahead that’s free of any bumps or complications, in order to say: “I think we’ve been flirting a bit lately, and I’ve really liked it. What do you think?”
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.
More Advice From How to Do It
Recently, I was visiting my brother and sister in our home state, and we were joking about something sex-related. We were talking about taboos, and that led to talk of incest, and I said I thought it was sort of an overstated taboo—that most people seem to declare their disgust at it in a way that seems over the top. In a lot of the world, cousins get married, and the most common legal argument against incest about genetic risks isn’t even that big of a deal beyond very close familial relations, etc. Plus, incest porn is very popular, so the universal stigma it carries seems exaggerated because people feel shame. We were having wine, and it was mostly a devil’s advocate kind of debate, but I could tell they were both a little uncomfortable. (They’re both straight and married, and I’m a bisexual man and single, for context, so I’ve always been the button-pushing one.)
This brings us to my problem. Since it was on my mind and I was a little buzzed, I decided to please myself to a little faux-incest porn in the guest room later that night. To be clear, I am not interested in having sex with my brother and sister. I barely even watch that kind of porn, honestly, but I was a little horny and my mind was where it was. Well, my brother used my laptop the next day to pull up some tickets, and I had only minimized the window from my adventure the previous evening, not closed it. You can guess what happened. I watched in slow motion as he inadvertently opened the window, looked at it in shock for a moment, and then quickly closed it. It was brutal. I can’t be sure, but I think he told my sister about it, because the rest of the weekend was awkward, like there was an elephant in the room. I am afraid they think I have a real incest fetish and/or want to sleep with them! Should I raise this with my brother and explain? If so, what do I say?