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 email@example.com.)
Q. SIL Hit On Me: My older brother (by 10 years) is married with a 2-year-old daughter. I am a senior in high school. Last week, I baby-sat for them (as I often do) from when school ended until my SIL came home from work. We always have had a fun friendship, I think she and my brother are a great couple, and I have repeatedly joked about how my brother outkicked his coverage and I hope I am so lucky some day. We joke, it's flirty but harmless, or so I thought. But she walked in last week, sat next to me on the couch, grabbed my hand, put it on a non-gender-neutral area and told me she had to have me right there. I freaked out and walked out. I called my brother and left a message, but his wife had already spun a whole different story, and now my whole family believes I am at fault. Nobody believes my version. Other than waiting until fall to go to college and get away from the madness, any tips to cope?
A: Your brother outkicked his coverage all right, right into the depravity zone. In the years I've done this column I've had every variation of family-member violation including son-in-law coming onto mother-in-law and daughter running off with stepfather. It's grotesque when siblings-in-law voluntarily get it on, but it's actionable when one tries to molest the other. You are caught in a terrible trap here. Your sister-in-law, once rebuffed, put out the word that her younger brother-in-law tried to make a move. And now no one is believing your story because of sexism. It's just easier to accept that a horny teen acted horribly than a young mother. You need to sit down with your parents and tell them exactly what happened. Say the physical violation was against you, and now she's compounding it by spreading malicious lies to save herself. Frankly, I think you and your parents should sit down with a lawyer and discuss this. A false accusation of sexual assault is a dangerous thing. If your parents won't support you, go to your guidance counselor at school, explain what happened, and say you need some adults to help guide you through this morass. You should not become a pariah because you have an unbalanced new member of the family.
Dear Prudence: Boss Turned Cougar
Q. Family Feuds: My grandfather died this winter after a long illness. It was incredibly stressful on my entire extended family, and tensions frequently ran high. Before Thanksgiving, there was a family blow-up—distressing information about his condition was put on Facebook before everyone had been informed. Angry (but true) things were said on all sides. Essentially, we all realized that for years we've been pretending we're a very close family while we all actually hate each other. Now, the worst offender uncle is making half-hearted attempts at reconciliation. Lots of "I'm sorry if I offended anyone" comments. I feel like now we're all finally in a place where we're being honest with each other about our genuine feelings: We just don't get along. I don't want to hear his apologies that he doesn't even mean, especially if the only result would be re-establishing the old status quo of being nice to each other's faces and then talking mercilessly about everyone as soon as they leave the room. How do I convey to the family that I'm not interested in faux-reconciliation? What do I do if I'm the only one who feels this way?
A: Your family has to decide if it would be better to finally be blown apart or if this atomization is an overreaction to the long, painful death of your patriarch. Unfortunately, there are many high-tension, back-biting clans. But it seems like a shame to entirely dissolve a family. Even bad-mouthers can be those who will come forward and help when another family member is in extremis. Since all of you are capable of being nice to each other's faces, that sounds like a good place to start. I hope there is a next family gathering and that you go. Then when someone leaves the room and the nastiness starts, you can be the one to say, "Let's try something new. Let's stop tearing apart the people who aren't here to defend themselves."
Q. Beating Walls, Not the Baby: I came from a mildly abusive family. My parents never gave me black eyes or broken bones, but there was always a violent physical expression of emotions. They were violent with each other as well. As a child, I replicated that behavior with my younger brother. I've since had a great deal of therapy and am now happily married with a beautiful baby. Our marriage isn't violent in any way. However, a baby can be and is especially trying, and our baby is wonderful, but very high-needs. I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with frustration and a desire to revert to the physical. I haven't had this problem in years! When this happens (I'm talking about extraordinarily bad days), I put her in a safe place, go into another room, and literally beat the walls. I would never hurt my baby, but I wonder if hitting the walls is just reinforcing that old violent response. Is this a bad way to deal with this, or just another way of surviving a fussy baby?
A: Good for you for breaking the chain of abuse. I know if the walls could talk they'd say, "Ouch," but you have addressed your family legacy of dealing with frustration physically. You're right that a baby, especially a fussy one, can test the patience of the most serene parents. It's great that you recognize when you are starting to feel overwhelmed and you remove yourself from your baby. But there is something rather desperate about literally pounding the walls. I wonder if you couldn't channel your frustration in more physically productive ways. Get a jump rope, some hand weights, and when you have to step away from the baby give yourself an exercise break. If you are alone with her most days, you, like any new parent, need a break. Hire a regular baby sitter and go do something that gives you pleasure—seeing a friend, taking a walk, reading a book, going to a movie. Make sure you and your spouse are getting a chance to go out and reconnect with each other. If you've stopped therapy, now would be a good time for a tune-up. Major life changes have a way of bringing back to the surface old pain. Speaking of which, I hope in the course of your therapy you've been able to address what you did to your brother, and that you apologized to him. Acknowledging your wrongs would be healing for both of you.
Q. Dating Advice for Those That Are Not Physically Attractive: Almost all of my past girlfriends have been funny, intelligent, interesting, and great people. I have stayed friends with many of them (even went to a few of their weddings). They have all been physically attractive. I've tried dating women that were not as physically attractive to me (but still had the other qualities) because I didn't want to be "that guy" and I believe that people shouldn't be judged on their looks. But I could never get into the relationships. I am friends with some amazing women who have great traits, but would not be considered physically attractive. Some of them confide in me that they have trouble finding good men and ask me for advice. I tend to give them general dating advice but I don't know how to do more than that. Their looks are probably the only thing holding them back; and since that affects who I date (and yes, I do dislike that aspect about myself), I don't know what, if anything, I should tell them.