Dear Prudence

My Sister-in-Law Says I’m “a Communist Who Wants to Kill Babies”

My brother wants me to talk to her. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

Woman looking shocked while another woman's arm is pointing at her
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

My sister-in-law and I have very different political views. Actually, my entire family and I have very different political views: I’m liberal, and they aren’t. My parents and I had a very intense argument before the last election, such that we’ve mostly avoided discussing politics ever since. I usually only see my sister-in-law with my parents, as we’re not very close. During the most recent election, my brother told me that my sister-in-law and my mother spent a lot of time sharing conspiracy theories. She left our family group text and unfriended all Democrats on Facebook. She told my brother and mother that she wants nothing to do with me because I am “a communist who wants to kill babies.”

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My brother says she has lost her mind and told her that I am no such thing. My mother, to her credit, told her to get a grip. If it were just my brother, I could deal with avoiding my sister-in-law and be fine. However, they have an 18-month-old daughter, whom I love as if she were my own. I have no children, and I am her only aunt. I would be devastated if my sister-in-law prevented me from seeing my niece. My brother wants me to “talk to” my SIL. I’m at a loss. She is already pretty irrational, but this is taking it to a whole new level. Should I try to talk with her? What in the world can I say? I know there is a real possibility that she wouldn’t even speak to me, much less listen to what I have to say.

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—Not a Communist

That was my first concern, too: You say your brother wants you to talk to his wife, but it’s not at all clear that she shares that desire. It certainly wouldn’t do your relationship any good if you tried to foist a conversation on her that she didn’t want to have. I’m also not too sure you should be giving your mother much credit here. She apparently drew the line at calling you an infanticidal communist (a low bar to clear, but one she cleared nonetheless), but up to that moment had been a regular confidante for your sister-in-law, encouraging her to invest in various conspiracy theories and to demonize people like you. She’s more than a little responsible for this situation, even if she finds its current iteration slightly distasteful.

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If you want to maintain a relationship with your niece, I think your present strategy is probably the best one. Give your sister-in-law a wide berth, be polite when interactions are unavoidable, focus on your niece, and decline any suggestions that you give her a call to say, “Hey, just so you know, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party.” That’s no guarantee that she won’t ever try to keep you from seeing your niece, I’m afraid, but there’s nothing you can do to guarantee that. Hopefully, in such a case, your brother would be willing to do more than say, “Hey, you’re nuts” to her and ask you to try to fix the situation. But I think you should prepare yourself for continued volatility on her part, and continued cravenness on your brother’s, sorry as I am to have to make such a prediction.

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Dear Prudence,

Many years ago I was head over heels for “Mr. Truelove,” but he was unwilling to commit. We were off and on for a long time, until I found out he wasn’t being exclusive with me, and it totally broke my heart. He said that he didn’t take me seriously as a girlfriend, and it dented my confidence in my intuition, as our chemistry seemed off the charts. I eventually met someone else, and we were together for a long time.

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Over the years, Mr. Truelove apologized for his behavior, admitted that I was the love of his life, and went into counseling. We eventually became good friends. Many years later, I’ve now split with my long-term partner. Over lockdown I’ve been talking with Mr. Truelove over Zoom every week, and we’ve become very close. He’s much more open and honest. I feel myself falling for him again, but I’m not sure how much of it is in my head. I feel afraid to approach the subject because it might ruin the hard-won friendship that we have now that I cherish, but I can’t shake this feeling that we have unfinished business and could make each other happy. What should I do? Tell him how I feel hoping he’ll reciprocate, wait for him to make a move, or just forget it and get on Tinder the moment the pandemic abates?

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—Dive In or Stay Onshore?

Your fears make a great deal of sense. Declaring yourself presents a real risk. Mr. Truelove may not feel the same way and reject your overtures, or worse, repeat his errors of the past by initially seeming to reciprocate and then growing distant or evasive, while you in turn grow bewildered and desperate, until even your hard-won friendship is unrecoverable. While you cannot predict or control his actions, you can ask yourself in advance what sincerity would look like from him and what expectations you could bring to a new romantic relationship that you might not have been aware of or prepared to insist on when you were younger. That’s not to say you can or should insist on an immediate avowal from Mr. T but that if you two did decide to try dating again, you could make your expectations around exclusivity and transparency known from the beginning.

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But only you know whether a friendship where you never admit your romantic feelings to him feels like one you might enjoy in the long run. Investigate your own feelings, and try to honestly assess whether you think you could happily continue in a platonic friendship with the man you’ve anonymized as “Mr. Truelove.” What if he started dating someone else? Would the friendship seem tenable then? Since you two have managed to repair a genuine friendship over something much more painful than an unreciprocated crush in the past, and since you find him consistently open and honest now, I think you have reason to hope he will be, if nothing else, respectful and kind in the event of a declaration. But the risk will still exist. It cannot be done away with preemptively.

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If you haven’t read Persuasion (or read it lately), I’d recommend giving it a glance before deciding anything, not because I think it will contain a direct answer to your problem, but because you might find solace and inspiration in Anne Elliot’s restless internal condition:

Soon, however, she began to reason with herself, and try to be feeling less. Eight years, almost eight years had passed, since all had been given up. How absurd to be resuming the agitation which such an interval had banished into distance and indistinctness! What might not eight years do? Events of every description, changes, alienations, removals, – all, all must be comprised in it; and oblivion of the past – how natural, how certain too! It included nearly a third part of her own life. Alas! with all her reasonings, she found that to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing.

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Dear Prudence,

My mother is 78 years old and is refusing to be vaccinated. We live in different states. Her excuse is the one time she got ill from a flu shot. Now she’s saying that she is allergic and cannot have vaccines at all. She has exaggerated that single story so now it includes a hospitalization. She was not hospitalized. This also happened over 30 years ago. She has type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. What can I do to convince her to get the vaccine?

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—Reluctant Patient

The best way to help your mother is to figure out what fears are underlying her half-true story, rather than trying to poke holes in it. That’s not to say you should pretend to believe her because it’s more expeditious, merely that an attitude of concern and patience will get you further than “Come on, Mom, knock it off—we both know you’re not really allergic.” Stress that the decision is hers to make, so she doesn’t feel crowded, but ask her to go into greater detail about her fears. What did it feel like when she got sick from that shot 30 years ago? You can correct her if she claims to have been hospitalized, but do so briefly and matter-of-factly, as if she had accidentally mixed up a phone number, rather than as if you’d caught her in an outrageous lie. Ask her if she’s spoken to her doctor about her concerns about vaccine allergies. If she hasn’t, offer to schedule a remote consultation on her behalf: “I think it would be really helpful to ask these questions of a doctor, and while I can’t make this decision for you, it would mean a lot to me if you’d be willing to have this conversation and make sure you’ve gotten all the latest medical information before you make a decision.” You can offer to sit in and take notes, too. Her hesitation and anxiety seem obvious and understandable—she’s elderly and has plenty of health problems already. Usually the best way to counteract anxiety is with specificity, a nonjudgmental ear, and plenty of support. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll get her to make an appointment, but it’s your best chance at getting her to open the door. Good luck!

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More Advice From Care and Feeding

Over the weekend, my parents and I had a falling-out with my favorite cousin and his wife. They are very religious, and we have always avoided the topic. My cousin, having consumed quite a bit of wine, misinterpreted something I said about the Adam Rippon–Mike Pence story and thought I was slamming Christians in general. He freaked out and verbally attacked my parents and me (dropping F-bombs in front of my 8-year-old). That’s all bad enough, and I’m angry at my cousin on my own behalf.

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The real issue is that before they packed their bags and took off, my cousin’s wife (whom I have known for 30 years!) woke up my 14-year-old transgender son and proselytized to him about finding God and Jesus and about how he is really a beautiful young woman. I didn’t find out until the next day, but now I’m livid!

I know that deep down they are good people; I’ve known them for decades and was even in their wedding as a teenager. We’ve never had an incident even remotely like this my whole life. I know that his wife meant well in her own totally inappropriate way. But I feel like I failed my son for letting this person be close enough to him to say something like this, and I don’t know that I will ever trust these people again. I have a big, close family, and it will be awkward and uncomfortable the next time we see them (which thankfully won’t be soon). But I feel like I will be pressured eventually to forgive and forget in order to keep the peace, but I feel like I can never let them near my son again. My usual instinct is to forgive and move on, but the mama bear in me is absolutely raging. What do I do? I love these people, but they crossed a line that can’t be uncrossed.

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