Keeping a scandalous family secret.

Advice on manners and morals.
May 14 2009 6:59 AM

The Hand-Me-Down Husband

I've discovered a scandalous family secret. Should I tell my wife who her father really was?

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Dear Prudence
My deceased father-in-law, "Joe," was almost 20 years older than my mother-in-law, "Milly." It came to light a couple of years ago that Joe had been previously married—it wasn't discussed openly, but it wasn't a big deal. However, in looking through a genealogy Web site recently, I came across something startling. In the record is Joe's divorce from his first wife, "April." Records from April's subsequent marriage confirm that April was Milly's mother! In other words, before Milly married Joe, he was her stepfather—Milly was about 5 years old when he married her mother. Furthermore, Joe's divorce from April came after he got Milly pregnant with my wife's oldest sister. Now that I have this information, I don't know what to do with it. Do I talk to my mother-in-law and not let anyone else in on the secret? Do I show my wife what I found and let her ask the questions if she wants to? Both Joe and April died a few years ago. Milly lives nearby—we have a very good relationship with her, and our kids love their grandma, so I don't want to spoil things.

—The Son-in-Law

Dear Son-in-Law,
What you don't do is at the next family get-together say to your mother-in-law: "Milly, you know we've never heard the story of how you and Joe met. It must be very romantic—why don't you tell us?" Also, on her next birthday, you don't give her a box set of the works of Woody Allen. The real issue here is whether you tell your wife. I'm not for universal revelation (see the answer to the next letter); there are some circumstances in which a hidden truth is better left that way. If you do tell her, it will, at the very least, profoundly shake her understanding of her origins. But her family is mired in deceit, and now that you know, on balance I think it's best that you don't add to it. If this comes out and your wife realizes you've known for years, she will feel further betrayed. Learning this sordid story might also explain some family mysteries—let's say, why Milly never had any relationship with her own mother. If your wife does ask her mother what happened lo those many years ago, maybe Milly will quote Woody Allen. He justified his affair and eventual marriage to the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, the woman with whom Allen had children, by saying, "The heart wants what it wants."

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My wife and I have been a couple for a little more than three years. I find her beautiful, funny, and intelligent. The one problem I have is that she's overweight. When we met, I was a bit out of shape because of a sedentary job and long commute. Since then, I have a new job where I can be more active and bike to work. I'm nearly back to the shape I was in several years ago. My wife was overweight when we met and has remained so. I realize that some of this has to do with the stress of her job and her general (unfounded) feelings of inadequacy. Because of this, and the societal prohibition against telling a woman she's overweight, I feel unable to tell her what I am thinking. But her weight keeps me from having the physical desire for her that I want to have. I have surreptitiously tried to get her to be more active through hiking, biking, and working out at the gym, but she's resisting. I want to love and lust after my wife. How can I tell her this?

—No Idea How To Tell My Wife

Dear No Idea,
Thank you for the opportunity to plug my new book, Slim Your Spouse: The No-Fail Way To Turn Your Loved One From Hippo to Hot.Actually, every time I tackle this issue, I increase the ranks of letter writers who are angry that I haven't discovered the solution to making their spouse slender and sexy. You chose someone tubby, and tubby she remains, so you've got a pretty scrawny leg to stand on as far as complaining about the shape she's in. You say you feel inhibited from discussing this with her. It would be honest to tell her that her body turns you off, but unless you no longer want to be in this marriage, such brutal truth-telling is simply destructive. If you stop thinking of this as strictly a weight issue, that will give you a way to address it directly. You obviously feel healthier and have more energy since you became active, so tell her you want her to join you in this part of your life; add that doing something physical will help her deal with job stress. She may be too self-conscious to go to the gym, so suggest that you two take evening and weekend walks or bike rides as a start. Make this fun for both of you—which means no mentioning the scale or bringing out the tape measure. If your wife starts talking about getting in shape, have her look at the weight-loss books of Dr. Judith Beck, which aren't about eating plans but about creating a different relationship with food. But let's assume she never achieves the figure of your desires. You say your wife is beautiful, funny, and intelligent—those qualities would seem to outweigh her weight.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I am a senior in high school and stuck in the midst of prom season. Everywhere I turn, other girls are talking about dresses, and makeup, and dates. My problem is that, unlike most of the other girls, I have no interest in attending prom. It's not that I don't have a date, or a dress for that matter; I just don't get the whole "prom" thing. When other girls hear that I don't intend to attend, it stirs up a flurry of questioning and disbelief; they don't seem to understand why I wouldn't want to go. Do you have any advice for how to deal with these people? Or should I just bite the bullet and go to please everyone else?

—Not a Prom Queen

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Dear Not a Prom Queen,
Don't go to please everyone else—go to please your future self. I felt the same way as you (I was really good at being alienated), so I didn't go to my high-school prom. It helped that no one asked me, but still, I shouldn't have let that stop me. I'm sure I would have had a good time. But even if I hadn't, every time I watched a prom scene in a movie or saw kids in stretch limos on their way to the prom, a part of me wouldn't say, "Why was I such a cluck not to go to my own prom? I don't even know what a prom is really like." You don't even sound as alienated as I was, just indifferent to the whole rigmarole. Good—this also means you're the kind of person who won't become hysterical when the cocktail napkins at your wedding reception are the wrong color. You have only one high-school prom. Don't miss it.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I am excited to be graduating from college, but I dread dealing with who attends my graduation. My parents are divorced. My dad cheated on my mom and is now married to the woman he had an affair with. It took me many years to deal with his affair and remarriage, but I am slowly rebuilding a relationship with him and his wife. My mother was devastated by the affair, betrayal, and divorce. She has told me that if my dad's wife shows up to my graduation, she will throw a fit, start a fight, or leave. She says that since I'm her daughter, my graduation is her event, and if my father's wife is there, I am taking this right away from her. I want my mother at my graduation, but I don't feel it is fair that she is dictating who will be able to come to my major life events. What will happen when I get married? Have a child? Am I being insensitive about my mother's feelings toward my father's new wife? What do I do?

—Trapped

Dear Trapped,
You say the divorce was years ago, so it's way past time for your mother to move on. Let your parents sit in different sections, but your mother has to recognize that there will be times she has to be in the same satellite-map quadrant as her ex. She declares your graduation her event, so you're right to assume that this will be her attitude about your wedding, your children, and the rest of your milestones. You might as well start letting her know now that she's got that wrong. Tell your mother you understand that she'll never forgive your father, but he's your father, and you have a separate relationship with him. Say all of you have to accept the fact that he's remarried. (And unless you hate the woman's guts, it might make it easier for you to accept it if you started referring to your father's wife as your stepmother.) Tell your mother you want her at your graduation and you know she'll make the best of it. If she refuses to come, that's painful, but that's her choice. Don't let her blackmail you. Just say, "Mom, it would mean the world to me to have you there, and I will hold a ticket for you." I'm not defending cheating, but your mother's behavior may contain a clue as to why your father wanted out.

—Prudie

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