Meet the Bigots
Prudie counsels a man who fears introducing his family to his beloved's crude clan—and other advice-seekers.
Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe writes: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Polar-Opposite Families: I'm totally in love with a beautiful woman and plan on spending the rest of my days at her side. The problem? Our families couldn't be more different! Me: upper-middle-class Jew from a liberal background, highly educated relatives who are very tolerant and level-headed but very proud of their traditions. Her: family of lower-middle-class Catholics with poor educations, very conservative and close-minded, with a penchant for saying alarmingly inappropriate things about Jews and other minorities in my presence.
Personally, my girlfriend's family's behavior isn't such a big deal to me, as I am completely secular (more like atheistic) and am very laid back. I don't take offense, because I know I'll only be seeing these people on major holidays and other such family events, where I'll just grin and bear it until we two escape back to our comfortable insularity from them.
My problem is how to mingle the families when (and if) we decide to. They'll have to meet sometime, and I'm increasingly worried that it's going to turn ugly once each side figures out where the other stands. My parents will behave just as I do, but some of my relatives will take exception to anything anti-Semitic or bigoted, and I know it's only a matter of time (likely a matter of minutes) until one of her family members says something off-color. Likewise, any discussion of politics, social issues, money, or really anything else adults talk about is pretty much guaranteed to spark a melee. Talking to her family about their comments is completely out of the question for reasons I will not go into (but you can probably guess, given your advice-column experience), and I don't feel it's fair to penalize my own family for being the more tolerant of the two.
A: How wonderfully open-minded and tolerant of you to consider marrying a woman who comes from such a bunch of knuckle-draggers.Here's what I've learned from this letter: You and your family are enlightened and educated. Your girlfriend is beautiful. Her family is a bunch of dumb, racist buffoons.You may be exactly on the money, but I'm wondering if your girlfriend is as appalled by her family as you are, or whether there are things about them she abhors as well as things about them she loves. Does she share your view that your contact with them will be limited to a quick holiday hello, long enough for you to becalled a Christ killer as you head for the door? I am not defending racists and anti-Semites. But I'm wondering if in between their rants, they ever say anything that qualifies them as decent people in your eyes.
You can decide to ignore their remarks, challenge them, or explain you can no longer listen to them and leave. You can let your educated,enlightened family make their own decisions about how to respond. You and your girlfriend can talk about strategies to make these visits more comfortable. Maybe she can remind her family that you are Jewish, and it would helpful if they could cut down on the insults.Again, I'm not defending bigots, but maybe you can work on sounding like less of a snob.
Dear Prudence: My Girlfriend's Most Annoying Habit
Q.My Boyfriend's Mother: I've been dating a wonderful guy for about a year. He's very close to his parents, visiting them at least once a month (we live a five-hour drive away) and traveling with them on vacations. He and I had discussed traveling abroad together for our first trip, and he recently told me that his parents would coincidentally like to travel to the same area and that we could go together. I like his parents and have spent quite a lot of time with them in the past year, but I can't imagine traveling with my boyfriend's parents abroad for my only remaining vacation time. We have already traveled with them twice over long weekends. The primary guilt-inducing factor is that his dad has an illness akin to Parkinson's, which will only get worse with time. His health has been getting worse steadily, and he may be confined to a wheelchair in a year. He has described his mom as having a "strong personality," meaning that she won't take "no" for an answer, and I have to agree. How do I set (and possibly help my boyfriend set) healthy boundaries with his parents? Did I mention that we're both over the age of 30?
A: It's lovely that your boyfriend is close to his parents and that you are sensitive to the fact that his father has a progressive illness that is going to take away some of his independence. However, all this doesn't mean that you two aren't entitled to your own independent vacation or that going on one means he's a bad son.Yes, your boyfriend needs to have better boundaries. It's discouraging that he's explained to you that his mother won't take no for an answer, so you must comply with her demands.But that's where he's at, so all you can do is set better boundaries for yourself.Explain that you care about his parents, enjoy spending time with them, and understand the difficulties of his father's health. However,it's totally fair for you two to vacation by yourselves, and that's what you want your overseas trip to be.If he says he can't go without his parents, then try without rancor to explain that you two will be better off taking separate vacations.It will be illuminating to see if he'd rather say no to you or to Mom.
Q.Unsure How To Respond to "I'm Fat" Comments: I work in luxury retail, and many of my clients are older and fuller-figured women. I'm naturally very thin. Often these women make comments to me like "You're so skinny, I wish I had your figure. Look how fat I've gotten!" or "Aren't these varicose veins horrible?" or "You must not eat, you're so thin." I'm not complaining that I'm skinny, but these comments make me uncomfortable and unsure how to respond. I usually either smile and change the subject or ignore it completely. What I want to say is "Keep it to yourself, lady!" but obviously that wouldn't go over too well. Is there a better way to handle these awkward situations?
A: These remarks are the older woman's way of making light of the depredations of time, especially when confronted with a vision of what used to be.You need a bunch of reassuring, more or less sincere responses if you want to make the sale.So here are some answers for the situations you present: "Actually, you look great. This suit shows off how small your waist is." "Your legs are terrific, and if you're concerned about your veins, a taupe or smoky-colored hose would work well with this dress and give youa touch coverage." "I do eat—I'm lucky I just burn it up. My mother tells me I should be sure to enjoy these high metabolism years!"
Q. Reston, Va.: I have a 30-ish sibling with a health issue that has prevented him from working for the past four years. My parents support him—his own townhouse, car, new clothes, food, medicine, etc. They do everything for him (laundry, groceries, errands, etc.) Although his illness is real, he also spends a lot of time on his social life (out on the weekends, going to bars, etc.) and dates. In contrast, my wife and I (who live 10 minutes away) are trying very hard to stay afloat in this economy with small children, a house we paid for on our own, cars we paid for on our own, etc. We don't receive much help (even babysitting). I can't help but feel as though I am penalized for being functional, and I feel a great deal of animosity toward my family. Now, my parents are starting to ask me to help out my "poor" brother more, when my own family is already stretched incredibly thin for time/money. If it were up to me, I'd tell my brother to start acting like an adult and do more for himself. My parents would be horrified and upset. Any advice for getting through this tactfully?
A: If your brother is capable of hanging out at bars and going out on dates, I'm wondering why he's not capable of doing his own laundry and getting his own groceries.It sounds as if despite his real problems, your parents are only exacerbating his dependency. They're probably worried aboutwhen they're no longer around and are trying to line you up to fill in for them.
You need to have a talk with your parents about the present and the future. Explain that despite his illness, it would be beneficial for the entire family if your brother took more responsibility for himself. You can say you love your brother, but you don't have the financial or emotional resources to take care of him, and you in fact think more energy needs to go into helping him be a productive member of society. If they don't want to hear your message, that's their business. But you need to make sure they hear yours that you can't take him on.
Q. Bad Parenting: Is it ever OK to say something to a parent who is mistreating their child? My daughter is in a dance class, and I see the same parent every week waiting for her boyfriend's child. As she waits with her own 2-½-year-old, I have seen her push the child to the ground for stepping on her purse, whack her in the head after being hit by the child (she then told her, "It's not OK to hit"), put her in time-out for crying (after she yelled at her for being fidgety), etc. I feel uncomfortable being in the same room while this is going on and not saying anything about it, but at the same time I realize that anything I say will probably not go over well. My daughter has been in the class for two years, this parent is a newcomer, and I don't plan on leaving just because of this parent's behavior. Any suggestions?
Photograph of Prudie by Teresa Castracane.