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I am a married man with two wonderful teenage daughters living in a tranquil suburban neighborhood. A few months ago a nice couple, "Mike" and "Mary," moved in next door along with their eight children. The family is devoutly Christian. The children are home-schooled, well-behaved, and reserved; and the girls dress modestly. Our families have dined together and get along well. As part of their chores, my daughters do most of the yard work. It's hot here much of the year, and they typically wear short shorts and tank tops or bikini tops. The other day Mike said he wanted us to have a "serious" discussion and told me he caught his boys watching my girls from a bedroom window. He asked if I could please have my girls not wear such revealing clothing if they're going to be outside, as he is trying to protect his kids from "certain elements of the world" and doesn't want them influenced by "overly sexualized displays." When I told my wife and daughters, they were offended. Is it unreasonable to ask my daughters to cover up a bit? I've had problems with difficult neighbors in the past and feel sometimes it is necessary to make small sacrifices in order to keep the peace. My wife thinks I should kindly tell Mike to shove it. What should I do?
You say it's hot where you live, but I'll bet the temperature really soars in the boys' bedroom when your daughters come out in their bikini tops and daisy dukes and start mulching. Mike has quite a task ahead to keep his American, suburban children from discovering the enticing qualities of members of the opposite sex. A tranquil neighborhood in Riyadh might have a dress code he'd prefer, but then he'd have a little problem with religious observance. I think there's something in a book Mike probably reads often about neighbors and not coveting, so it actually seems that the sin is emanating from his side of the fence. It's too bad you didn't respond to his request by saying you are disturbed to hear his sons are peeping at your daughters as they go about their chores. Mike may prefer that your daughters dress like the fieldworkers in Millet's The Gleaners, but he's out of line for actually making clothing suggestions. However you want to phrase it, make clear to Mike your obligation to be neighborly does not require you to lead his boys from temptation.
Dear Prudence: Imaginary Romance
My husband, "Bill," has a cousin, "Shannon," whom we both dislike. She is clearly in love with him. At every family gathering, she pulls him aside to whisper in his ear, touch him, and even try to feed him bites of food right in front of me and her own husband. The first time Shannon and I met, she asked me if Bill and I had had sex yet. (I don't remember what confused answer I gave her.) Since then she refuses to acknowledge my presence. Bill always rebuffs her advances. Recently Bill confided that right after his mother died, when he was 9 years old and Shannon was 12, she used to lock him in the bathroom with her and molest him. Bill begged me not to confront her or tell the rest of his family, and I agree that it might be more painful than helpful to bring up something that happened when they were both children. Bill says he feels a sense of dread whenever she's around. He's always been too easygoing to stand up for himself, so I feel obliged to help him out. I don't want to cause a scene in front of his family, but I need to let her know that her behavior is not going to be tolerated anymore. What should I do?
—Cousin From Hell
Shannon does not love your husband; she is a disturbed person who has been victimizing him long enough. There he was, a grieving boy who had just lost his mother, and along came this sick cousin, further eroding any sense that the world was safe or made sense. Even though your husband is a grown man, evidently when he sees her he is overwhelmed with the feeling of being stuck in the locked bathroom, unable to defend himself. You can help him start working through how to stop Shannon, but he may need some professional help. After all, you say in general he has trouble standing up for himself. If he's reluctant, suggest a cognitive therapist, who instead of having him revisit the trauma of his abuse can have as a goal working with him on tools for being more assertive. In the meantime, help your husband see that he doesn't have to take Shannon's behavior anymore. He is an adult now, and she has no power over him. He needs to recognize she is just a pathetic, twisted person who needs to be told off. He can practice saying something like, "Although we are both going to be at family gatherings, from now on you need to stay as far away as possible from me." I understand your husband's desire not to air what happened long ago, but unfortunately, neither of you know if he was her only victim. Please tell me this woman doesn't work with children! For a girl to have behaved the way she did also sends alarming signals that she might have been abused herself. Your husband's family may be filled with enough secrets and lies to seed another Stieg Larsson trilogy.
I lived in a small town for almost 25 years, raised four children, farmed, and taught at the local high school. Much of my identity and happiness was focused on my place in that world. After my husband and I divorced (I left after 23 years of him being a grouch), I was devastated and lonely. But I picked myself up and was happy enough, even though I missed having a special someone who loved me romantically. I thought I'd spend the rest of my life being a grandma to my future grandchildren. Then, three years ago, I reconnected with a male friend from high school. We fell in love and got married. Because of the economy and his profession, it was best for me to move to his big city in Texas to live. He's my best friend, our love life is great, he cherishes me, and we both feel we are two of the luckiest people on earth. But I get so homesick sometimes that it hurts. I miss seeing my kids and my friends, I miss the landscape and the farms. I can't fully enjoy my husband because I miss my "home," and I wouldn't enjoy my "home" because I would miss him. What should I do?
By your own account, you're one of the luckiest people on earth. You're a middle-aged woman who dumped a toad and found a Prince Charming. You may miss the rural life, but how foolish to half-live your current life while pining away for a world that will itself slowly cease to exist. Inevitably your friends will retire or die, farms will be bought and sold, even your children will find other opportunities, and some of them will likely move away. You should fix up your guest room and encourage your small-town family and friends to visit the big city. Take them to museums and restaurants, let them savor all your new life has to offer. Perhaps, if circumstances eventually permit, you and your husband can buy a small vacation place back in your old hometown. Even though you live in a city, if you start carving out your place there, with a job, volunteer work, or classes, you may eventually find that there's no place like your new home.