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.)
Emily Yoffe: I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. And I'm already filled with dread about hearing Dean Martin sing "Let it Snow" for the next three-plus weeks.
Q. Get My Obnoxious BILs to Stop: My wife and I spent Thanksgiving weekend with her family for the first time last week. I was appalled by the rowdy behavior of her two elder brothers. They just run roughshod over her and frequently use verbal jabs and physical roughness while interacting with her. One day, one brother picked her up and tossed her, fully clothed, into the swimming pool while the other laughed his head off. They have been treating her like this her whole life, so she knows no better and just laughs it off. She refuses to tell them to stop, but I do think they should, especially as we have a 1-year-old son who I don't want to see his mother being manhandled in this fashion. How can I convince her and them to stop?
A: You need to have a serious talk with your wife about her brothers' humor. I understand that you were appalled, but it is possible that for her this kind of roughhousing was a fun part of her childhood and that she loved the verbal and physical rough and tumble of adored older brothers. It's also possible she's so inured to it that she can't make a distinction between affection and abuse. I hope your wife's family lives somewhere tropical, or else a toss into the pool at Thanksgiving sounds like a recipe for hypothermia. But you have to get a real reading from you wife about whether this—and all the other stuff—was a frat house kind of fun she enjoys, or whether she doesn't know how to defend herself and say stop. Tell her how it all looked to you, and how disturbed and upset you were by it. And as an aside, be prepared that these two wild and crazy uncles may turn out to be your son's favorite people.
Dear Prudence: Hung Up on Hair Length
Q. Bitchy Resting Face: I am a kind, considerate person, and generally have a very happy disposition. I also suffer from what it is known as "bitchy resting face." It's pretty bad. I look either very unhappy, or downright evil, depending on one's interpretation. Friends have had to assure other people that I won't bite their heads off if approached! My husband is in the military, so every few years I have to start over from scratch with my social life, and it isn't easy when I look so unapproachable. What can I do? I can't walk around with a big, fake smile plastered on my face. It's exhausting and I'd probably look a little looney!
A: Please read, Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions, a fascinating book by social psychologist Marianne LaFrance. It's a look at why the looks on our faces are so important. I get what you're saying because when I was younger, people—including strangers—would urge me to smile. Yes, this is something people do to young women and, without exploring the inherent sexism of this, as you've discovered it's actually better not to look like an ogre. I disagree with you that your choices are BRF or a huge fake smile. It is possible for you to train yourself to adopt a more Mona Lisa look—a slightly upturned, intriguing expression that doesn't make you look like a clown, but doesn't put people off either. You can also enlist your friends who have stepped up to explain to others you're actually really nice, to help you in your facial muscle retraining. Tell them what you're trying to do and that you want their feedback. It will be a gratifying loop to have people respond to you as if you are the happy person you feel to be inside.
Q. Is This Issue of Religion a Deal-Breaker?: My boyfriend of three years, hopefully soon to be fiancé, has asked me if I would convert to his parents' religion so that they can accept me. His parents have always been very insistent on him marrying someone of their own religion/culture, and this would be a way for them to accept me and prevent them from disowning him. However, the prospect of essentially lying to them (he and I are both agnostic) is not appealing to me. Also, I worry that my agreeing to convert now also means agreeing to follow his parents’ wishes on other issues in our life together. I don't want him to lose his family, but I also don't want to get myself into a marriage where his parents’ wishes come first. Am I being close-minded in thinking this might be a deal-breaker?
A: Your boyfriend wants you to convert to a religion he no longer practices so his parents will like you better, so getting married is perhaps not the best potential outcome here. I agree with you that if during the three years you've been together he hasn't been able to establish a beachhead of independence, that is a terrible sign. That moving toward a possible proposal from him requires you to enter into a fake conversion is alarming. I don't like anything you're describing about your relationship. If you hope to marry him, this should be a discussion the two of you engage in as equals, not some waiting game for him to finally make up his mind. That he cares more about what his parents think about you than what you think about your own beliefs is also a bad sign. If you want to try to salvage this relationship, hash all this out with a counselor. But if it's this hard at this point, your prospects don't sound too promising.
Q. Sister-in-Law's Favorite: My sister-in-law favors her second child. The child has caught on to this and milks it for all it's worth. If she doesn't get what she wants, she turns on the waterworks. As soon as she does, the first one usually ends up with a spanking, a scolding, or a time out even if No. 1 has done nothing wrong. I have witnessed this a few times myself, and even though I speak up each time and let sister-in-law know that child No. 1 has done absolutely nothing wrong, she disagrees and rebukes her anyway. Others in the family have told sister-in-law the same. When I babysat the two girls, No. 2 tried the waterworks with me. When she realized it wasn't working, she simply whimpered and sulked and acted pitifully because she couldn't get her sister in trouble. What can I do to help sister-in-law treat the children equally without favoring her second child? It's troubling to me to see No. 1 constantly in trouble as well as the younger child enjoying it.
A: A small group of family members should talk to the husband about what's going on. These representatives need to make clear that grave damage is going to be done to both his daughters unless he intervenes and gets some counseling and his wife gets on board with some basic principles of child-rearing. Your sister-in-law has established a pernicious and destructive pattern and if it isn't broken, it will echo through both these children's lives, damaging the favored as well as the unfavored. In the meantime, the family should try to get some time alone with the older child to give her the positive reinforcement and love she so badly needs. If things don't change, the older girl also needs to hear from other adults that they disapprove of things her mother says and does. She needs to hear good things about herself and the sad truth that sometimes the people who should love us the most have problems of their own and don't do the right thing.