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.)
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Q. No Marriage: My boyfriend and I have been together for two years and just moved in together. We’re both 30 years old and have no plans to marry. My boyfriend’s parents won’t take no for an answer, and after we move in together they asked us when we wanted the wedding. We told them we weren’t getting married, but they complained that we were being ridiculous. This crazy argument went on for a few weeks when his parents upped the crazy by a notch. They’ve booked their church for our “wedding” for next year and have also reserved a ballroom at a large hotel (deposits are due at the end of the week). They want us to decide on a band, flowers, food, etc. We told them that they can hold the wedding, but we won’t be there. My boyfriend’s mom also gave her travel agent my phone number and she’s already left a couple of messages asking when I can come in to plan our honeymoon. This is beyond weird. What else can we do to convince them that we are not getting married? My boyfriend has been as forceful with them about this as I have, so it’s not a case of us sending mixed signals.
A: I don’t have a subscription to Brides magazine, so I don’t know if they’ve covered the ins and outs of a ghost wedding. There’s probably not a lot that’s been written about the etiquette of the non-bride who is not getting married whose boyfriend’s parents have become (non)in-lawzillas. What your boyfriend does is tell his parents that sadly they will lose all their deposit money if they go ahead with this farce. If they become monomaniacal on the subject of the wedding colors and floral arrangements, your boyfriend might have to tell his parents you two aren’t communicating with them anymore until they come to their senses. If they go ahead without you, let’s hope that at the last minute they can find an engaged but broke couple on Craigslist who would love a wedding extravaganza and can step into your gown and your boyfriend’s tux.
Q. Family Secrets?: I am a middle daughter in a family of five girls and three boys, now aged 62 to 49. My oldest sister, a gifted psychiatrist with both an M.D. and a Ph.D., has had nothing to do with the family for 30 years. She did not come to our father’s funeral and my children, now in their 20s, have never met her. Our mother is now suffering from dementia and we are scrambling to afford her care. I traveled 400 miles to this sister’s city to ask for her help, and what she told me floored me. She said our father molested her and two other sisters for years. One of them committed suicide at 28 and the other, who eventually weighed over 300 pounds, died at 53 following routine surgery due to her massive weight. She says our mother knew about it, but did nothing. My surviving sister and I were never molested. The oldest feels guilty about the others’ deaths because she chose to run rather than bring him to justice. She refuses to give a penny toward our mother’s support, saying Mom is going to burn in hell for all eternity so why not let her get started early? Obviously neither parent nor dead sister can corroborate or disprove these allegations, although we may have missed some signs. For example, the sister who committed suicide left a lengthy letter with fond memories of our mother and all her siblings, but not our father. Clearly my surviving sis and I need therapy, but we’re too frozen to even do that. If our dad did this it should be made known, but how can we tell? Should we at least tell our brothers? Any help in sorting this out would be greatly appreciated.
A: As you described going for your encounter with your sister, I had a sick feeling about what you were going to discover. Your sister, the psychiatrist, surely knows that the causes of your two other sisters’ deaths: suicide and morbid weight gain, are textbook responses to the crimes committed against them. Also textbook is the mother who knew and didn’t want to know, so became an accessory to her children’s destruction. But all of you are casualties in some way of your father’s monstrosity. Your family was shattered, but all of you have lived under a veil of secrecy and deceit. Your sister, the doctor, had an inner core of resilience that got her out, and sadly for her relationship with you and the surviving siblings, she felt cutting off all contact was her only option. Of course you have been shaken to your core, and I suggest you start sorting out this new understanding of your family by calling Stop It Now, an organization that deals with child abuse. They can help you start the conversation about how to move forward and point you in the direction of a therapist with expertise. I absolutely think your brothers should know. It’s time, for the first time in decades, that your family deals honestly with your legacy. At the least this revelation creates an opening for you and your other siblings to maybe begin to have a relationship with your oldest sister and even her children. That could be the blessing to come out of all this tragedy.
Q. Not a Bridesmaid: This is trivial, but I’m struggling to get past it. I don’t have many friends and my closest friends don’t live nearby. When I got married, my friends flew from far away to be here. Now, my best friend is getting married and didn’t make me a bridesmaid. I knew she had a lot of friends, but I thought I’d at least be a bridesmaid. She brought it up on the phone and the decision had clearly caused her a lot of stress, so I let her off the hook. I said it was not a big deal, that I understood. It sounds like I missed the cutoff, and that someone from our friend group is already represented, so I’ll just be a guest. I love her and I don’t want to cause her any stress, but I am heartbroken. She was my maid of honor and now I know where I really stand in her rankings. I wanted to stand up for her, to be there for her the way she was for me. I’ve never had my heart broken, but I think it must feel a little like this. I have to travel for this wedding and I’m worried I will be crying in the pew for the wrong reason. Can you say something to help me shake this off?
A: I know a nice couple who’s not getting married and there’s an empty bridesmaid dress that might fit you perfectly. I have heard from so many miserable, broke, berated bridesmaids that part of you should consider yourself lucky that you are free to just enjoy yourself as a guest. I understand that when you think someone is your best friend, when she was your maid of honor, and you don’t even make bridesmaid, that comes as a shock. But please stop thinking of this as a ranking. It’s actually a painful opportunity to look at yourself and your difficulty making friends. It sounds as if those people you are still close to are from your childhood or possibly college. They’ve moved on and expanded their social circles, but you haven’t. So address that deficiency. Also recognize that if this is the worst your heart’s ever been broken, you are one lucky person.
Q. Anxious, Germophobic GF: I’ve gone out a few times with a nice woman. She’s bright, kind, and attractive. But she also has major social anxiety and is severely germophobic. She carries Lysol wipes everywhere and, for example, wipes down flatware when we eat out. She also puts a cloth on the chair before sitting down. Movies and sporting events are out of the question. Even the Kennedy Center is a challenge. While I’m sorry she has such a constricted life, I’m not sure I’d ever be willing to share it. She points out that if we were to marry she could be disabled in an accident on our honeymoon and then I would have to take care of her, which is true. But I’m nowhere near ready to approach the “M” word and the whole situation is making me uncomfortable. Does this make me a jerk? I don’t want to be guilted into a relationship I can’t handle.
A: You’ve been on a couple of dates with someone nice who sadly suffers from some debilitating mental conditions. So she’s bringing up marriage by way of explaining if you think she’s got problems now, she could be in even more dire shape after the wedding and you’d be obligated to care for her. You yourself may be suffering from Nice Guy syndrome. You simply are not obligated to keep dating someone you don’t want to be involved with. But before you part, tell her that she’s lovely and that you hope she gets some help for problems that are interfering with her enjoyment of life.
Q. Re: Make-believe marriage: I can’t wait until five years from now, when boyfriend’s parents decide they don’t like girlfriend. They’ll find a judge, court reporter, witnesses, and separate lawyers for both boyfriend and girlfriend so they can end their pretend nuptials with a pretend divorce ...
A: I love this! HBO, I think you’ve got a premise for a series.
Q. My Sister Shares My Sex Life! Please Help!: A few months ago I made a very difficult and painful decision to leave a very long-term relationship. I loved my BF more than anything but it was going nowhere. My sister and BIL allowed to me to stay with them until I could get on my feet. After weeks of crying myself to sleep, I found comfort in another man. We were both coming out of serious relationships and had no desire to be in a relationship—we just wanted companionship. After a few encounters, I ended the “companionship” because I missed my BF. We reconciled our relationship and I am happy to say that we are now engaged. While I did not cheat (I made it clear our relationship was over), I am ashamed of my actions. And I would prefer to keep my fiancé in the dark because it would only cause him a great deal of pain. My sister cannot keep her mouth shut! She has told my very nosey and gossip driven cousin and I am sure she is not the only one who knows by way of my sister. How should I approach this subject with my sister?
A: At this point I think the question is: How do you approach this with your fiancé? I agree when a relationship is over, what the now-free parties do is none of each other’s business. But you weren’t actually done, you were really on a hiatus, and by now far too many people know that you sought meaningless companionship. Yes, it’s none of their business, and you should tell you sister how hurt you are she’s spread your private news all over town. But she and your cousin sound like such busybodies that you don’t want to be blindsided when your now-fiancé comes to you and says, “Who’s this Justin everyone is talking about?” If the fact that you saw someone else when you weren’t with your fiancé ends your relationship yet again, then maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.
Q. Daughter’s Wild Playmate ... and Her Chilly Mother: My daughter is one of only two children in her Sunday school class for 6-year-olds. She hit it off with the other girl, and one day the girl’s mother (who had been quite standoffish) invited us over for a play date. A good time was had by all, and we reciprocated the following week. I pretty much left the kids on their own to play in my daughter’s room. When the mom came to pick up “Marjorie,” the little girl objected by jumping on the furniture. The mother laughed off my admonitions to please stop, saying that she has two older kids and I really needed to pick my battles. My daughter was only too happy to see her friend go, as she was very upset—and I soon saw why: Marjorie had essentially ransacked my daughter’s room, dumping out the contents of the bureau drawers and pulling all the clothes off the hangers. Since then, I have not seen the mother, but I am not too happy about ever running into them again. As my daughter and Marjorie are the only students in that class, I am not sure how to deal with any social interactions with this family in the future. Changing churches is not an option.
A: There’s no reason to change churches. There’s also no reason to socialize again. Your daughter was very unhappy when her new playmate came over and destroyed her room, so sometimes nascent friendships just don’t work out. Maybe Marjorie is just an undisciplined hellion, but maybe she is acting out for other reasons and deserves some compassion. But the Sunday school year has got to be ending soon and let’s hope there won’t be any more play date invitations. But if one is extended, ask your daughter if she’d like to go to Marjorie’s house or not. If she goes, and it’s fine, then you can reciprocate. If you do, have the girls play where you can keep tabs on them, and have no compunction about telling Marjorie the rules of your house, or ending the play date early if she can’t comply. As for how you behave when you see the family, you just behave normally and stay cordial.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!
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