Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Fiancé's Niece Is His Love Child: My mind is still reeling. My fiancé confessed to me last week that his younger niece is actually his child. He had a short affair with his brother's wife, who conceived the month her husband was away. They ended things just before finding out she was pregnant, and she lied about the dates to cover it up. My fiancé knew all this and said nothing because he didn't want to break up their family. My fiancé's brother is a good guy and I genuinely like him. I've never seen a man so devoted to his wife and children. I don't know if I can spend the rest of my life being a part of this lie. My future in-laws are a close-knit family and everyone frequently gets together. They actually had a family dinner a few days ago which I've avoided because I don't know how I can look at either my fiancé's brother or his wife in the eye. I also have complex feelings about the "niece"—biologically speaking, she will be my stepchild! I love my fiancé so much but how can I marry into his family knowing what I know now?
A: Have I got a movie for you! Spoiler alert, but next year be sure to take the entire family to a screening of "August: Osage County" based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play. Let's just say when the major plot twist is revealed, there should be enough squirming in the seats to loosen the bolts. Often in cases where the man who thinks he's the father is not the father there is the potential for a genetic time bomb to go off if some future medical issue in the future reveals the questionable paternity. But in the case of brothers, it's far less likely that even a cheek swab—in the rare event it should it ever come up—would point to your fiancé's perfidy. Of course this revelation is shocking and you are looking at the family you about to join in a new and deceitful light. I'm generally in favor of the truth, but with caveats. In this case there's nothing to be gained by the truth blasting apart this family. And I hope you are only the third person to be let into the circle of this secret, and that you remain the final one. As despicable as your fiancé's behavior was, it does speak to his love for you and his desire to have an honest start that he told you. You do not have to make any decisions now. You should be honest with your fiancé and tell him that this is news that's going to take you a while to process. But please fight the "complex" feelings about your niece. Morally, legally, and every other way she is the child of your future brother-in-law and sister-in-law and if you go ahead and marry your fiancé you should be able to look on this girl with love and equanimity.
Q. Felon Father-in-Law: My father-in-law was convicted for a white-collar crime and spent three years in a federal facility. Our children are 6 and 4 and they are permitted to spend time with my father-in-law in a group setting where at least my husband or I are present. My father-in-law is not a violent man, but we know that prison can change people and we do not want to take any risks. We plan to explain my father-in-law's conviction—and consequences—in age-appropriate ways. The issue is that my parents think that my father-in-law should have zero time with the children at all and refuse to have the family in their home or attend a gathering with them (like my daughter's 7th birthday in a few weeks). My parents think that since my father-in-law is a criminal, one of the prices that he should pay is limited access to family. They have threatened to sue for grandparent rights, claiming that we are unfit parents by exposing our children to a felon. Any advice for this situation?
A: Given the scope of our economic meltdown and the people at the top who were making millions selling fantasies, I think it's a shame that more families aren't dealing with your dilemma of what to do when the family's financial executive gets out of prison. You say your father-in-law did time for a white-collar crime. Sure prison changes people, but I doubt your father-in-law is flexing his prison tats and hanging out with his homies from Dead Man, Inc. You should tell your parents they need to back way off. Your father-in-law paid his debt to society and he is absolutely no threat to your kids. Say what will be damaging is if they bring a groundless lawsuit that tears your family apart and ends up causing their own estrangement.
Q. Swinging Friends: My closest friends of 35 years are swingers. This has probably gone on for about 20 years, and they seem happy. She told me about it about 20 years ago, and they were both shocked when I didn't think this was great. I decided early on that since they were consenting adults, and kept this well away from their three kids and out of the house, it wasn't my place to judge. She quit telling me some of the details after picking up on my discomfort, and the one time she directly asked my opinion, I was honest and said I thought they were playing with fire. For the past couple of years, it was clear they had formed a relationship with another couple, which was obvious to me—weekends away, etc. The problem is, they now want me to MEET this couple, and in fact had set up a surprise drop-in by them at their home, which was canceled at the last minute. I am terribly uncomfortable with meeting the other couple, but I don't know how to avoid it! How does one greet the people your married friends are sleeping with?
A: It's amazing that at this point in life the fire is still roaring and the heat is not just hot flashes. Your dearest friends have a wild sex life and you've made clear you want to know nothing about it. Apparently they need a reminder. So be blunt: "Mildred I thought I made it clear that I don't want to hear about what you and Sheldon do in your spare time. I'm glad you've found some people you're compatible with, but we don't want to drop by for a surprise meeting of people with whom you drop your drawers."
Q. Confessing My Darkest Secret: I have fallen in love with a wonderful woman, but I harbor a secret I'm terrified will send her running in the other direction. Seven years ago a vengeful ex-girlfriend falsely accused me of raping and beating her. She either hurt herself or convinced someone to hurt her. I was arrested, and my parents spent most of their savings on the lawyer who finally exonerated me. Eventually the cops figured out she lied, though at that point many people at our small college saw me as a rapist. I have undergone extensive counseling and am in a much better place now, but no amount of therapy can calm my fear that when they hear my story, people will go running in the other direction. I love my girlfriend but do not know how to begin to tell her about the false rape accusation. If you are kind enough to answer this question, I seriously hope it doesn't inspire gender-bashing or hyperbole from readers. I just need advice about how to confess this secret.
A: You've been through a terrible trauma and it's something you should share with someone you love. Even though you've had therapy it sounds as if you've absorbed much of the shame that was heaped on you. Perhaps a new therapist can help free you more. Of course you want to put this behind you and not dwell on it, but a righteous indignation instead of fear should inform your feelings. Before you tell your beloved, rehearse what you want to say—you will not be convincing if you speak with an air of terror. Remember you, not your ex, were the victim. Say you want her to know about a terrible episode in your life because it's something important you experienced and because you wouldn't want her to hear a distorted version from someone else. If you have some legal paperwork about your exoneration you can offer to show her, explaining you know such cases can raise doubts in people's minds, and you don't want her to have any about you.