Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we dive into the Dear Prudie archives and share a selection of classic letters with our readers. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns.
I’m a 24-year-old woman working my first job as a biomedical engineer in a big firm. My older brother is a janitor in our building. I have lunch with him once a week, and we’ve been seen together during the bigger office events, so everyone knows. This was never an issue until the senior manager of another unit said “Yes, I’ve heard of you, you’re the janitor’s sister” when I introduced myself. Since then, he’s not the first “stranger” who seemed to know about me first and foremost for that. It’s not said with explicit malice, but it makes me uncomfortable and several colleagues have urged me to distance myself from my brother at work to appear more “professional” (I hear “make people forget that your family is white trash” and it angers me). Is it professionally strategic to pretend he’s just another stranger at work? Or is this just novelty (I’ve been here four months) making people gossip, and should I just keep doing what I do and prove I’m “professional” by delivering results?
Why shouldn’t everyone know that your brother provides essential services to your company? I agree that “Oh, you’re the janitor’s sister” is an awkward and loaded remark, but not necessarily malicious. More likely, it’s a condescending acknowledgement of what you recognize is a novel situation. To these kinds of statements you can say, “Indeed I am. Dave’s the one who told me what a great place this is to work.” As for people who ask you to distance yourself from your brother, I understand your desire to distance yourself from them. But instead, I think you should say with a smile, “Without my brother, this office would cease to function. I’m proud of him.” You’ve only been at the company a brief time. Your focus, of course, is doing a great job as an engineer. But you also have the important opportunity of showing your colleagues what it means to be a gracious and mature human being. —Emily Yoffe
From: “Help! My Brother Is the Office Janitor. Should I Pretend Not to Know Him?” (March 31, 2015)
My husband and I moved across the country for his work. I hated the area. I became socially isolated, depressed, and venomous in my marriage. I recognized my part in a stressful relationship, sought therapy, found a new job. Our relationship did not improve. I asked if there was another woman. He said, “No.” A week later he came home one night, got drunk, and fell asleep on the couch with a death grip on his phone. I broke the cardinal rule of privacy and found out I was right: He was having an affair with someone at work. I packed up and left for a week. It was awful. I came back on the condition that he was not going to maintain any kind of personal relationship with that woman. Four months later, and of course they are “friends” now. My position is that with friends like that, who needs enemies; she’s on my permanent black-ball list. His position is that he is not doing anything wrong. There’s got to be a better compromise than “stop talking to her or we are getting divorced.”
I don’t believe that there is much of a compromise to be found between “stop having an affair” and “continue having an affair,” because, of course, your husband is almost certainly continuing his affair. He didn’t originally confess his affair to you; you found out about it. After you tried to leave, he broke the only promise he made to you about staying in contact with her. Now that you’re protesting his “friendship” with his ex, he’s digging in his heels and insisting he’s in the clear. He’s great at getting you to compromise, but it doesn’t sound like he has much interest in doing any compromising himself. (For what it’s worth, while I’m still against spouses going through their partner’s phones, I realize you had been pushed to the limit by his refusal to discuss the problems in your marriage.)
At no point in this process has your husband pursued honesty. He has always had to be blackmailed into it. He has made no gesture to you that would give me hope he would listen to your concerns and keep his promises in the future. Based on his past behavior, it seems extremely likely that he will continue to come home late, maintain whatever type of relationship he chooses with the woman he cheated with, and do exactly as he pleases without compromise until you decide to leave for good. —Danny M. Lavery
From: “Help! I Caught My Fiancé With His Sister.” (May 5, 2016)
After several years together, my fiance and I are finally getting married. A simple beach wedding is set for early spring. The trouble is, my mother is disappointed that we are not making a big deal of finally saying “I do.” Her most recent complaint is our lack of engagement pictures (or any pictures at all). She bought us picture frames and a gift certificate to be photographed so that we would not have any more excuses. What she doesn’t acknowledge is that my fiance and I look terrible together. Separately, we are fine. However, while I love my fiance with all my heart, our features just don’t complement each other. I am almost certain that I will despise any formal pictures of us. Instead of letting the gift certificate go to waste, I was planning on having pictures taken of just our kids. But I fear that my fiance will think that I am ashamed of him. How do I tell my husband-to-be that pictures of us are just not for me?
Let’s say he’s a Klingon and you’re a Romulan, believe me, no one cares that your forehead ridges might clash. Take a look at rocker Ric Ocasek and his wife, model Paulina Porizkova. All his angles are bad and all hers are good. You’d never put them together if you were making a match based on looks, yet they happily fill the same camera frame. Maybe you’ve been reluctant to mention that you’re engaged to a Cyclops, but if that’s the case, you’ve chosen him, so you must find him attractive. There is simply no way to express to your betrothed that there will never be a joint portrait of the two of you, because while you both look fine separately, together you’re a hot mess. That would make anyone think that maybe being permanently separated is the best course for you two. Your mother gave you a lovely gift, so humor her by getting some family portraits done—of all of you together, and of just you and your fiance. If the photographer, upon snapping you and your beloved, screams and clutches his eyes in pain, then I will acknowledge that you were onto something. —E.Y.
From: “Help! I Don’t Want To Take Photos With My Odd-Looking Fiance.” (Feb. 9, 2012)
My cousin “Richie” recently discovered through a popular DNA testing service that there’s a likelihood that the father who raised him, my uncle by marriage, was not his biological father. This would mean that his mother, my aunt, had an affair that nobody knew about. Both my aunt and uncle are deceased. Richie has always felt an “otherness” in his immediate family, so this news validated those feelings, and he’s delighted. He has begun to tell his siblings and other cousins. I support him but am a bit skeptical of the results and would like him to take a real DNA test. Richie says the results are enough for him, but I’d like to know for sure before older family members learn the news because I think, at least at first, they’d be deeply upset by it. Do I have the right to encourage Richie to confirm the results? And if so, what would be the best way to do that?
There are a number of reasons to be somewhat wary of DNA testing services, not least of which is data insecurity. I do think Richie has sufficient information to strongly suspect that his original results were accurate, but I agree that there’s likely to be plenty of emotional fallout. If you can find a way to gently encourage him to seek confirmation with a follow-up test supervised by a doctor, you should do so. (“Have you thought about confirming these results with a second test before you talk to the rest of the family about it? I don’t want to tell you what to do, so if I’m overstepping, please let me know and I’ll back off.”) But the fallout is likely coming either way, and there’s not a lot you can do to either avoid or ameliorate it. The most you can do is try to support Richie and let him make his own choices. If some of your older relatives end up getting upset, you can offer your support to them as well, but you can’t shield them from the question of his paternity, nor from his delight in finding out that he may have another biological family he never knew about. —D.L.
From: “Help! My Dad Found a Girlfriend Two Months After My Mom Died.” (June 20, 2019)
More Advice From Dear Prudence
As a first-grader I was given an IQ test, scored more than 160 and was declared a “genius.” This led to years of heightened expectations, profound failures, disappointed teachers and family, and ostracism (I was skipped two grades and did not fit in socially.) I’m now married and have a 4-year old daughter. Because she was somewhat shy and anti-social, we were advised to have her evaluated for autism spectrum disorder. They said she doesn’t have that, but she was given an IQ test. The psychologist literally came out to the waiting area shouting that she was “a genius!” I had a PTSD reaction to this, bundled her up and fled.