Help! My Wife Died in an Accident Years Ago. Can I Marry Her Sister?

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 15 2013 6:15 AM

Keeping It in the Family

How do I explain to people I’m marrying my late wife’s sister?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a widower in my mid-30s. Five years ago a drunk driver killed my wife. I was devastated. For the first couple of years I was in a sad, isolated, and withdrawn state. But the passage of time did help heal me. My wife’s younger sister moved to my city to begin her medical residency more than two years ago. She invited me to a few social events when she arrived and soon we became physically intimate. At first I was in shock, as she had been my sister-in-law. However, things developed and it is serious. There’s a problem, however: She’s never told her parents about us. I understand the topic is awkward and her parents and I have had a strained relationship. But she and I are planning to move in together and will be getting engaged, so it’s only a matter of time before they find out. We've discussed breaking the news to them thousands of times, and even sought professional advice. Each rehearsal scenario inevitably ends with us having to defend our relationship, something we both don’t feel is necessary. Are we right for believing that we shouldn't justify ourselves to her family and those who view our relationship as suspect or immoral? Or do they have a point that we've crossed a huge social boundary between brother-in-law and sister-in-law and we must hear them out?

—Not Taboo

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Dear Taboo,
I’m assuming you’re not a member of the Inuit or Chiricahua people. They and some other groups around the world have followed the practice of sororate marriage, in which a widower marries the sister of his late wife. (It’s a variation of the much more widespread tradition of levirate marriage—commanded in Deuteronomy—where a widow marries her late husband’s brother.) You, your sister-in-law, and her parents all suffered a sudden and grievous loss. It’s one that will always mark your life, but as has happened, you have been able to love again and move on. Your late wife’s parents must live with a different kind of pain. Of course they want their living daughter to happily marry. But her marrying you will complicate how they cope. Images of you with their late daughter will be hard to keep from their minds when they see you coupled with their younger child. I wish you’d said more about the reason for the strained relations with your in-laws. It would be instructive to know if they simply disliked you from the get go, or whether they irrationally hold you somehow responsible for their daughter’s death. Nonetheless, you’re absolutely right that it’s way past time they were informed of this 2-year-old relationship. Hearing this news will be an emotional event for them, so I think your fiancée-to-be should do them the courtesy of breaking it to them alone. Your late wife’s sister does owe her parents an apology for not being more open with them sooner. But neither of you should feel you need to justify yourselves or that you’ve crossed some boundary. I had a letter last year from a man whose older wife had died and whose stepdaughter wanted to become his lover. I felt that was violating a taboo. But you and your love don’t have anything to be ashamed of, so stop acting as if you do. Her telling her parents without you there will give them a chance to react and discuss this with her, even if it’s not a particularly pleasant conversation. After she hears them out, she has to explain that whatever their feelings, she loves you, you’re committed to each other, and she hopes they can reopen their hearts.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence Classic Video: Crushing on the Boss

Dear Prudence,
I’ve been dating a decent guy for two years now, but I’ve always been a little sensitive to the fact that there are really no “firsts” or “onlys” left for people our age. We’re experienced people—I’m 44 and he’s 46—so I can’t be his first or only sexual partner, wife, mother of his child, etc. If or when the relationship ends there will be nothing memorable for us to take away from it, except for one thing. Since we met we have talked at length about traveling to a special place that, due to work, distance, and finances, has always been only a dream. However, I’ve been secretly squirreling money away to someday get us there. I’ve been desperately holding on to this as our chance at having not just a “first” but also an “only” experience. My boyfriend is currently on a trip with a buddy of his and at the last minute they decided to go to the special place! I’m seething over his Facebook posts and photos. I just want to put his stuff outside for him to collect when he gets back. I know it’s not his fault, but I have nothing left to give. Am I wrong for feeling so indifferent toward this relationship now? All we have left is companionship, but I want more.

—Nothing Left

Dear Nothing,
I can understand how crushing it must be to nurture a secret plan to someday get you and your beloved (or maybe let’s call him Mr. Adequate) to the Annual Gathering of the Juggalos only for him to go and do it without you. So you’re left behind, looking at him on Facebook in full clown-face, spraying his buddy with Faygo. No wonder you want to put his personal effects onto the street. OK, maybe he’s not at a celebration of Psychopathic Records, but your complaints make you sound a little psychopathic. Sure, it would have been considerate of your boyfriend to give you a heads-up about the possibility of a detour to this magical place. But your keeping secret the plan to spring a special trip on him means you’re not entitled to be bitter about his taking advantage of the opportunity to go. You also seem inordinately focused on a bizarre scrapbook version of what makes a relationship. A romantic partner does not exist to provide you with a documentable series of firsts and onlys. That person should be the one with whom you most enjoy sharing the present. So if you want this relationship to continue, snap out of it, and when he returns tell him you want him to go back there someday with you, or that you two should plan a trip somewhere new and memorable. 

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
When I started junior high a classmate never missed an opportunity to taunt and make fun of me. In class she would laugh hysterically and make disparaging remarks while the teacher sat silently. I never knew why she targeted me except possibly that I was quiet and nonconfrontational. In the halls she would shove me into the wall or a locker and I was black and blue because of her abuse. No adult ever helped me, my parents didn't believe me, and it continued until we graduated from high school. We went to different colleges and I haven't seen her since. Now it’s more than 30 years later, I'm having surgery next month, and she is a nurse at the small hospital where I'll be. I know from friends who work there that she works on the floor where I'll be a patient following my surgery. I can contact the nursing supervisor at the hospital and request that she not be assigned to me, but I suspect it would lead to a lot of questions, and in spite of everything I have no desire to cause her problems. There's a pretty good chance she's changed since then, seeing as how she chose a profession that is associated with caring and compassion. But when I think of the hell she put me through, I don't want her to touch me or participate in my care. What should I do?

—Panicked Patient

Dear Panicked,
I have gotten letters over the years from people who are anguished by their bullying of an innocent classmate. Often they have said they were abused at home and were acting out their own troubles on someone vulnerable. I’m betting there’s a good chance this is the case with your classmate, and not that she’s a Nurse Ratched who went into her line of work so she could turn rectal thermometers into instruments of torture. Thanks to your friends’ inside information, you know the place of employment of a classmate you hated and haven’t spoken to in more than three decades. But even if you live in the same area, it's obviously big enough that you've never run into each other, and if you've married and changed your name it's possible your identity won't even register with her. If you were to call the nursing supervisor and say you don’t want a particular nurse to touch you because she bullied you in high school decades ago, it would likely only tag you as a head case. You were treated terribly by this classmate, but just as appalling is how the adults in your life enabled this abuse. I hope you’ve worked through this experience of abandonment. Instead of worrying about nursing shifts, bring a good book, line up some friends to visit, and focus on your recovery at home. If you get your old nemesis as a nurse, you don’t even have to acknowledge you recognize her. But if she says she knows you, keep the conversation brisk and focused on your needs.

—Prudie

Update, 3:19 p.m.: Mea culpa. I agree with my many critics in the comments section that no matter how much time has passed, the patient shouldn't have to worry about her former bully. She should contact the nursing supervisor prior to her surgery and say that for personal reasons she doesn't want Nurse X caring for her during her stay. She doesn't have to elaborate beyond that. Thanks to those who've pointed out my error.

Dear Prudence,
I am a 24-year-old woman living in New York City. Recently, a longtime family friend of my parents came through town for business, and we made plans to go to dinner to catch up. Afterward, he wanted to see the new apartment that my parents helped me buy. After talking for a while "Dan" began steering the conversation in a strange direction, bringing up things like his disbelief in monogamy (even though he has been married for 45 years). Before I knew it, he was coming onto me. I refused his advances and we awkwardly parted ways. In a few weeks, my parents are coming to town to cheer Dan on in the New York City marathon, and they plan to throw him a celebration at my apartment. I cannot decide if I should tell my parents that Dan, a grandfather in his 60s they’ve respected for more than 30 years, tried to cheat on his wife with me. I fear that telling my parents will cause more trouble than it's worth. It will be very uncomfortable to be around Dan, but certainly not traumatic. Should I let him off the hook or turn him in?

—Confused

Dear Confused,
Grandpa Dan sounds plenty confused himself. All these years he’s been assuming that ever since you were a little girl, you’ve been dreaming of the day you would be grown up enough that you two could be together, sharing your mutual disregard for monogamy. Dan is probably just your run-of-the-mill creep who makes passes at uninterested young women (even those he’s known since they were born). But since he’d have to be crazy to think you would respond, I’ll put out the possibility that he may be exhibiting signs of some neurological problem. That latter assumption gives you the perfect opening to raise this with your parents. You can say you had such a disturbing experience with Dan that you’re worried there may be something wrong with him. Then tell your parents what happened. You can say that because of this encounter, you hope they understand it’s impossible for you to host a party for him at your place. Yes, this will be awkward for everyone. I hope your parents let the old goat wheeze to the finish line, uncelebrated by your family. But be prepared that maybe they’d prefer to paper things over and have the party in a private room at a restaurant. However, if they insist on going through with it at your place, you’ll truly understand what it means to have someone help you buy an apartment. If that happens, tell them you’ll be out enjoying the city.

—Prudie

More Dear Prudence Columns

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Loss and Forbidden Love: My stepdaughter hit on me after my wife’s death. What should I do?” Posted April 5, 2012.
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More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts

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My Daughter To Be My Daughter-in-Law?: In a live chat, Dear Prudence offers advice on a surprising dating arrangement, birthmark removal, and mistresses at funerals.” Posted April 16, 2012.
Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone: In a live chat, Dear Prudence advises a man who cheated and is so afraid his wife will leave that he stalks her every move.” Posted April 9, 2012.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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