Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and conclusion:
My husband and I are at crossroads about how to confront our sons about a discovery we made while visiting their shared flat. They are stepbrothers technically—note the word “technically.” My husband and I are both widowers who met and bonded at a support group for single parents surviving after cancer.
My son was 10 when I met my husband and 12 when we married. My stepson is 9 months younger, so they are very close in age. After a somewhat rocky start (both boys were grieving and trying to adjust to a new family norm), they became the best of friends, inseparable from about age 13. They even took the same classes together in high school so they could spend more time together, and made sure to go to the same university.
My hubby and I went on to have four more kids, three girls and a boy, so our lives got pretty hectic. Because our older sons were teenagers when our house became baby crazy, I admit my husband and I probably let the older two fend for themselves a bit more than usual, especially with four young kids in the house.
They are both adults now (25 and 26), live a state over, and rent a flat together. We went to visit them once COVID restrictions had eased, and my husband accidentally walked into the second bedroom (in a two-bedroom flat) thinking it was the bathroom, and discovered it was set up as an office. My husband’s curiosity got the better of him and he snuck around, discovering one king-sized bed in the only other bedroom that contained both of their stuff.
My husband didn’t say anything in front of the kids, but told me about it when we got home the following week. He had been mulling it over and decided it best not to tell me until after our holiday was over. We haven’t told the boys, but have been distraught over it. My husband is convinced they are sleeping together, which makes me feel sick. Yes, they are stepbrothers, but have been raised together since they were 9 and 10. My husband’s mind went straight to them sleeping together, but maybe it is nonsexual codependency? Because we were so busy with the younger kids, maybe in their teenage years they just got closer and closer, maybe they weren’t handling the grief over their respective losses as we thought they were?
My husband argues that they have never brought home girlfriends, and we should have noticed the signs earlier. What signs? To me there were no signs. But if my husband is right, how do we handle this? Did it start when they were underage? Did it start when they were adults, at university? Honestly, we don’t know and it has made me feel so sick, and like such a bad mum.
Should we confront the boys about it? Or act like we have no idea what is going on and hope for the best? Is it just a very close friendship they grow out of as they get older and meet women? Please give us some insight on how to handle this as I feel so lost. We have the four other kids to think about as well; I am not sure I would want them exposed to what would be an unhealthy relationship if our worries are confirmed.
—Concerned and Confused Mama Bear
Dear Mama Bear,
Thanks for your question, and I hope you don’t mind being the first person to get a crowdsourced answer. Starting this week, I’ll be choosing one letter from Thursday’s column to share with our readers and a few thousand of my closest friends on Twitter, who will then help inform my perspective. So, I did that yesterday, and now I feel prepared to answer. (And starting next week, these answers will be available for Slate Plus members only, so sign up now to never miss out.)
Some people who responded thought your question was fake, which, if it is, good job. I think what made it seem realistic to me was the reaching you did to come up with alternative explanations like “nonsexual codependency.” Those felt like desperate attempts to make this relationship something other than what it appears to be: romantic and sexual.
The reason I asked for help with your question was that it made my head spin a bit. My first thought was that these are two adults who aren’t hurting anyone (I still think that), so I was primarily debating whether there would be anything to be gained by letting them know that you suspect they’re in a relationship. But I felt like I was missing something, and the responses I received helped to clarify what that was: There were a couple of assumptions baked into your letter that really needed to be challenged.
1) That these young men think of themselves as brothers and therefore, this is incest.
A few readers responded that this reminded them a lot of the famous 2012 Prudie column about “twincest.” But this is actually very different. Several people pointed out that the boys were tweens, not infants, when they became “brothers,” and so they actually might not have siblinglike feelings toward each other at all, even though you and your husband wanted to create one big happy family:
“One thing this illustrates is how even if parents think their children relate as siblings in a blended family, the children may not see their relationship as sibling-like at all — hence parents’ shock is based on their expectations, not necessarily the kids’ reality” —@jhedelstein
“If this were two best friend whose families were incredibly close growing up and they spent most of their pre/teen years together, would this be so distressing to the parents? They aren’t related; they didn’t spend ages 0-10 together, and they have a different mom/dad.” —@angryangryalice
“They’re adults who have known one another since forever and found each other and assuming a deep love after awful loss. The parents should be happy that they have one another and leave it alone.” —@HeatherBarmore
2) That being gay is bad and/or temporary.
Others rightly highlighted the strong whiff of homophobia in your letter. You’re not just upset because they’re related, you’re upset because they’re both men. The fantasy that they will grow out of this “and meet women” (rather than other men or anyone with whom they don’t share siblings and parents) was a red flag. It’s not hard to imagine that their awareness of your attitude about gayness might help explain why they’ve chosen to keep this a secret:
“Let them come to you and get thyself to counseling for that underlying homophobia you got going on, mom.” —@875Thyme
“Lw & lw’s spouse might consider therapy &/or pflag to find out why they think the stepsibs relationship is unhealthy imho its adorably sweet meet cute story for the sons, bottom line address your own issues 1st b4 thinking ur son will open up to you” —@denisemklein
“maybe it’s non-sexual codependency” ma’am how is that better than if they are in a happy sexual relationship?? (i think i know the answer!!!!!)” —@cryingbaseball
Now of course, it’s not always ideal to date a stepsibling, because, as we have seen in previous letters, things can get awkward at family events if the relationship falls apart. But that ship has seemingly sailed. And the good news is, if they are a couple, this wasn’t just some one-off hookup or fling. If they’ve made these arrangements in their apartment, it seems they’ve been very close for a very long time and are making things work.
That doesn’t mean this isn’t surprising and uncomfortable to you. You saw them as brothers, and you’ll need to adjust. As Jack Arnott put it in a comment on the site, “You might need to recalibrate, take a step back, and see it from the other side, and take into account how these young men are acting; nothing in the letter indicates that they are anything but happy and healthy especially (gestures broadly) given what we are going through.”
So how do you get there? Before you say a word, you should first get to a place—through reading, therapy (“I know the answer always includes therapy but this answer absolutely NEEDS THERAPY!!!!!!!!!!!! SO MANY THERAPY! ALL OF THE THERAPY! Not to introduce shame but to help process how to go forward. Omg,” as @nerdista put it), support groups, quiet reflection, or whatever it takes—where you are ready to hear that they are two people who may have lived in the same house when they were younger but don’t see themselves as siblings. And you should especially stay quiet if you can’t get past your homophobia and truly believe and feel that it is OK to be gay.
When and if you are ready, inquire with curiosity and no judgment. @readingtheend had good advice on this: “they should raise it with the kids in a curious and non-judgmental way: ‘Hey, we saw you’ve only got one bed. are the two of you involved? do you want to talk with us about that?’ rather than a shaming/punitive way (‘this is so unhealthy & you can’t see your siblings anymore’).”
And remember that if you want to deepen your relationship, it will require more than just tolerance. I imagine your sons want to feel supported by you in a way they haven’t before. You’ll need to have a larger conversation, probably involving an apology, about how they were left to their own devices while dealing with major losses while you parented the younger kids. Oh, and say you’re sorry for snooping.
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