Dear Prudence

The Most Popular Dear Prudence Letters From 2021, Part 1

A woman with a closed zipper over her mouth.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

This week, we’re looking back at the most popular Dear Prudence letters from 2021. Look for Part 2 tomorrow. And remember to join Slate Plus to never miss a Prudie column.

Dear Prudence,

My friend has always been delighted that she had a “rom-com” relationship. After being a bit of a wallflower in school and not very successful dating as an adult, she ran into an old schoolmate at our reunion and had a whirlwind courtship, marriage, and stepkids. I was recently told by someone that her husband had been burned by his (beautiful/popular/outgoing) ex and had told them at the reunion that he was going to “settle” for my friend when he saw her. The rationale, apparently, was she would be grateful, he would be comfortable, and the kids would be taken care of when with them.

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I didn’t want to know any of this, but now it is all I can think about when I am with my friend and she talks about her wonderful husband, his awful ex, and her bratty stepkids. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by telling her (for a start, it might not be true! Or it started out true and her husband did fall madly for her), but how do I stop thinking about it all the time? It is hard to avoid the topic, and I admit that after a few years of “Oh, you should have a meet cute like mine,” I was already a bit sour on the topic.

The real problem is that years after her happily ever after, your friend keeps invoking it, giving you the oh-so-helpful advice of “You should have a meet cute like mine.” If she tends to say that after you’re, say, complaining about a bad date, I think you should respond a little sharply: “You say that all the time, but it’s really unhelpful. That’s not something I can exactly sign up for.” Maybe she’ll think you’re just jealous—but that’s OK, even if it’s a tiny injustice! If you can get her to chill out on referencing her classic rom-com meet cute, you’ll be able to stop thinking about the gritty reboot version, too. —T.B.

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From: “Help! My Friend Doesn’t Know the True Story of How She Met Her Husband” (May 29)

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Dear Prudence,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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…

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Read the rest of this We’re Prudence column, from July 23, here. We’re Prudence is available for Slate Plus members only—sign up now to never miss a Prudie column.

Dear Prudence,

I’ve always thought that my 16-year-old son Trevor was a pretty normal kid. Gets along well with his classmates, does alright in school, plays sports, and is generally a good guy. However, something that I witnessed yesterday has shaken my image of him.

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I had just returned from work and needed to use the restroom, so I went to the closest restroom to the front door. This also happens to be the closest restroom to Trevor’s bedroom. The door was slightly ajar, and when I pushed it open, I saw Trevor on the toilet, masturbating with one hand and holding his iPad with the other. Already an awkward situation, but then I saw what was on the screen. It was, unmistakably, a Facebook photo of my wife at the beach in a bikini. I apologized and rushed out, and I’ve been thinking about this incident ever since.

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I know that teens are horny, but it’s hard to look at my son the same way after I saw him jerking off to an image of his own mother. I haven’t spoken much to him since this and haven’t yet brought it up, let alone mentioned it to my wife. I don’t even know if I should, given how uncomfortable it might make both her and Trevor. How do I address this, and is it worth discussing with my wife?

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I’m as disturbed as you are, but I think where I come down on this is: Pretend it never happened. However you would have treated Trevor and whatever you would have talked about with your wife before you saw this thing you were never supposed to see, do that. This advice applies unless you start to see actual, real-life, non-private, outside-the-bathroom behaviors that raise concerns about his wellbeing or his interactions with his mom. And I’m hopeful that you never will! Maybe I’m in denial on your behalf, but even though you say you’re sure you saw a photo of your wife, I want to believe there are other possibilities—for example, he was looking at the post above hers and, in his panic in the split second between when he heard you approaching the door and when you opened it, shifted his grip on the iPad and unintentionally scrolled down to your wife.

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But if anything comes up that suggests this was more than an isolated, perplexing incident, tell your wife what you saw and follow her lead when it comes to how to address Trevor. If this is indeed a real problem, it affects her the most. —J.D.H.

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From: “Help! I Can’t Believe What I Caught My Son Masturbating To” (Nov. 8)

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Dear Prudence,

My sister-in-law is obsessed with having a baby. It is all she can talk about or post online. She and her husband have tried IVF three times unsuccessfully, paid out-of-pocket by her parents. Both sets of parents have told them they can’t afford this anymore, so they turned to an unsuccessful crowdfunding.

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I have been very successful in the last few years and have bought a townhouse, new car, and a few expensive toys. I worked like a dog for years to get here, but I have been generous to my family, sending my sister’s family on vacation and paying for my parents to have their house re-piped. Now my brother and sister-in-law look at me and see dollar signs. They told me I “need” to pay for their next round of IVF. They said I owe them because I helped out the rest of the family (despite them living off our parents for six years counting), and it is my only chance to do good in the world. I don’t think there was even a “please” in the speech. I told them I needed to talk to my accountant and look at taxes. I am not giving them the money.

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The only place you messed up was when you told them you needed to talk to your accountant. It’s wrong to get their hopes up about something you aren’t going to do. But I’m glad you have decided not to fork over the money. I feel for them because I know from personal experience that needing medical help to have a baby can be very expensive and can lead to the most intense sense of unfairness and desperation you can imagine, a sense that the world owes you something.

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But reasonable people, even when they want something desperately, know that you can’t demand other people’s money. There are a lot of ways to have a family, and they will be parents if they really want to, with or without your help. Even if they’re committed to having a biological child, there are options. They should look into grants and loans for IVF. If they want to be irresponsible, they can even put the next round on a credit card. I hope they’re successful, and if they are, set the tone early that it’s not your job to support their child. —J.D.H.

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From: “Help! My Brother and Sister-in-Law Are Demanding I Pay for their IVF Treatments” (July 3)

Dear Prudence,

My daughter is getting married in six weeks. My husband and I are paying for everything. Since the happy couple are both professionals, they have many personal and work friends they want to invite. The venue holds 200 people, so my daughter, the groom’s mother, and I agreed six months ago upon the following division of guests: 50 each for the MIL and me, and 100 for the bride and groom.

When we recently started addressing invitations, MIL reported that she had sent out “save the date” cards to 120 people! I said we should leave the division as agreed—let MIL make explanatory phone calls. My daughter had a meltdown and reduced my number to 20, hers and the groom’s to 60, and insisted MIL “had” to send invitations to EVERYONE who received a save the date card! My family is local, so I hadn’t sent ANY of these cards.

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Prudie, I come from a big Polish family. Even my allotted 50 guests was insufficient, but 20 will result in leaving out our immediate family! I am angry that MIL put us in such a horrifying position. She didn’t even apologize—she just stated that her husband’s business partners had watched her son grow up, and their feelings would be hurt if they weren’t invited, and she had a big family, too. How do we resolve this?

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This is an absolute nightmare, and I’m so mad on behalf of you and your daughter. The fair thing to do would be to tell MIL she needs either to reach out to the extra 70 people she invited and let them know that there was a huge misunderstanding or kick in some money to accommodate and feed the extra guests. Her choice. Let her know that if she doesn’t make a decision, the wedding planner will admit and have seating for the first 20 of the people on her list and the others will be turned away.

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But it gets tricky because this is your daughter’s wedding, and you don’t want to create a conflict that will stress her out, even if you’re totally in the right (and paying the bill!)

So, I think the plan that will best accomplish the goals of 1) giving your daughter some peace, 2) getting a lot of points as the better, more reasonable in-law, and 3) making sure the wedding isn’t disaster, is this: Ask the bride what she wants to happen and tell her you’ll support her either way. If she wants to roll over and accept her MIL’s outrageous (and honestly, unforgivable) behaviors, let her. Remember that she and her husband will still get to celebrate with 60 of their closest friends, which is a lot (and probably more people than you can even greet or have a conversation with). Their happiness is most important, and the division of extra guests between your friends and MIL friends isn’t going to make a huge difference to them. If you can get over this massive injustice to keep the peace, I think it will pay off in the end when it comes to your relationship with your daughter and her ability to enjoy her big day. —J.D.H.

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From: “Help! The Groom’s Mother Invited 70 Extra Guests to My Daughter’s Wedding” (Sept. 2)

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More From Dear Prudence

I’ve been good friends with a co-worker for many years. I’m a married woman, he’s a single guy, and over the years it feels like our lives have become so intertwined that I never get a break. We go to the same gym, he travels with my family and friends, and he has generally become a part of my social circle. He’s had some difficulty with boundaries and has slept with several of my married friends when they were going through rough patches in their marriages. I’m not worried this will happen to me, but I find that behavior really troubling.

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