Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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. My Son Adores His Plus-Size Wife, and My Mother Despises Her: My mother has always had an unreasonable dislike for excess weight. She hardly eats and harangues her daughters and daughters-in-law each time they have a baby to lose the weight immediately. Three years ago, my eldest son brought home his bride-to-be, a sweet, lovely, voluptuous girl. My wife and I loved her instantly, but we worried about my mother’s reaction. Sure enough, she made some comments, to which my son calmly replied that if she was not polite to his beloved, she would not be invited to the wedding. My mother was furious, and my son ended up having a destination wedding to avoid the drama. Though we see my son and DIL regularly, he has not spoken to his grandmother since. They spend holidays with my DIL’s family. My mother will not promise to hold her tongue about my DIL’s “horrid fat.” In desperation, I at one point offered to pay for a personal trainer or even gastric bypass, but that only led to a huge argument with my son. Now, my mother has cancer and just months to live. I would love to have one final family gathering with every member in attendance, but my son will not attend without his wife, and he will not bring her if it means she will be subjected to unkind comments. I can’t persuade my mother to change her ways, but is there something I could say to my son to convince him to suck it up this once for the sake of family harmony and good memories?
A: The memories aren’t going to be good if on her deathbed Grandma opens her eyes, looks at your son and his wife, and says, “At least in heaven, everyone is thin.” Your mother has a mental disorder and unfortunately, she likes to try to impose that on the other women in her family. I hope most of these women have been able to roll their eyes and dismiss the sick and cruel talk from your mother. You say you recognize how awful she is, yet, in order to mollify your mother, you offered to pay for a gastric bypass for your daughter-in-law? Dad, you’re lucky your son still speaks to you. You can apologize to your son and say that you know your mother has had a lifetime problem, but her life is coming to an end, and you’re making one last request that he make an appearance by her bedside. If he won’t, you let it go, because he is entitled to say that his grandmother has crossed a line in a way that means he has had to cross her out of his life.
Q. My Parents Hate My Boyfriend: I am a 27-year-old woman who has been in a wonderful relationship for the past year. The problem? My parents despise my boyfriend. He is (among their objections) of mixed race and from a lower-middle-class family. Any attempts to raise a discussion with my parents end in arguments. They want me to break up with him and find someone more suitable with a similar family background to mine. I continue to hold my ground, but it breaks my heart to be at odds with my parents. I am Chinese, and so I am expected to obey my parents. My boyfriend doesn’t know about this. Is there a way forward with my parents, and should I tell my boyfriend?
A: I often hear from people who are children of immigrants who are being pressured to live up to cultural expectations from the old country. But if the old country was so great, what are the parents doing in the new country? You have to politely stand up to your parents. You tell them if their main goal in life was your finding a traditional Chinese husband, they made a huge error by raising you in the United States. You explain this diverse society has—to your delight—brought your way a wonderful young man whom you love. You tell them they don’t have to love him, but they have to treat him with courtesy and respect, and if they can’t, unfortunately that means you will be making yourself scarce.
Q. Repay an Ex? A couple years ago my now ex-boyfriend loaned me a large amount of money when I was in a tight spot. He gave the money without my asking; there was no contract or terms of payment discussed. I told him I would eventually pay him back, but he also said he realized that when giving me this money he might never see it again. I cut him out of my life a year ago because our six-year on-again/off-again relationship was not giving me what I needed in a partner and making me miserable. I feel so much better with him out of my life, and I often joke that the money he loaned me is an A-hole tax. However part of me feels guilty. Prudie, should I just let this go as a lesson for both of us, or do I eventually approach him to discuss repayment?
A: You haven’t heard from him about the money, and he gave it to you as a loan but with the understanding it could be construed as a gift. So payback is in your court. Whatever you decide to do, I don’t think you should open up discussions with someone you no longer want to speak to. You need to consider what you feel is your moral obligation, and if that means paying him back, you save the money until you can do it. Then you simply send him a check with a note explaining that you wanted to clear this debt.
Q. Re: My Son Adores His Plus-Size Wife, and My Mother Despises Her: There’s no family harmony or good memories when some members of the family get to be cruel and insulting and other members of the family get to “suck it up.” Accept that Mom has isolated her grandson and his wife by her own actions, tell your son that you understand, and move on.
A: Agreed that the grandson is taking a very justifiable stand, and the father just has to accept his mother is the cause of this estrangement.
Q. Flirtatious Wife: I noticed over the course of several months that a buddy of mine’s wife was overly flirty, hanging around me a bit too much in social situations, a little too touchy. I recently made a comment to my wife about it. My wife told me she noticed it too and thinks this woman has the hots for me. While flattered, I assume it’s a passing crush. In the meantime, should I be avoiding her? It will be hard. We are in the same group of friends and avoiding her means avoiding most of my friends.
A: Flirting is a private language: the lowered eyes, the hair toss, the lingering glance, the playful smile. All you have to do when you’re around this woman is to demonstrate an utter inability to speak this language. You play it straight, ignore her moves, make sure you’re not alone with her, and act like you have no idea what message she’s sending. If she makes a pass or offers an explicit suggestion, you shut her down: “Madeline, I have no romantic interest in you. I will do you the favor of pretending this never happened, and it better never happen again.” Fortunately, your wife gets this, so you two can present a united front. Presumably, when the flirty wife fails to get a rise out of you, she will move on to another target.
Q. Re: Repay an Ex? How is it not a “moral obligation” to pay someone back who’s loaned you money? What is the “lesson” that she thinks he’ll learn from this: Don’t trust your partners?
A: The ex-boyfriend has learned the lesson I often preach: Do not loan money to family and friends without being able to accept you may be giving a gift. When you loan money to your nearest and dearest, especially with no clear terms for repayment, you have a good chance of never seeing it again. I agree that paying it back is the right thing to do. But the person who makes the loan and wants it back, should make this clear. It sounds as if he has already written it off.
Q. In Love With My Husband’s Brother: I am a 35-year-old woman with a history of abusive relationships. Then I met my husband who is kind, intelligent, dependable, and has provided for me well. Unfortunately, the relationship lacks intense physical and emotional chemistry. I decided with my biological clock ticking, and my history of chasing chemistry resulting in bad relationships, that I had to put that aside and go for a responsible relationship. My husband’s brother, “Josh,” recently returned from overseas to live in our city. My husband and Josh are close, and we all spend a lot of time together. I have fallen in love with Josh. Josh is also smart, responsible, and kind, and we have natural and undeniable chemistry. I think my husband suspects we get along a little too well. I feel I’ve met my soul mate. Nothing physical has happened between Josh and me, but a few “moments” strongly suggest that the feelings are returned. I have no idea how to move forward without tearing apart their family or ending up alone or unhappy.
A: What you do is get yourself to a therapist to figure out why you need something bad in order to be excited about a relationship. Your “undeniable chemistry” with Josh is surely based on the emotional havoc that pursuing a relationship with him would wreak on everyone. Cheating on your husband with his brother may make things hot for the two of you for a little while. But ultimately everyone will get burned, and likely you’ll be the one left out in the cold. You know you’ve crossed an emotional line, but fortunately, you haven’t crossed a physical one. So stop right now. Get some help, and find out if you can be the kind of wife your husband deserves, or whether you should do him the favor of getting out of his life. And whatever you do, leave his brother alone.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a great New Year.
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