Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below 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. Step-marriage: I’m a 28-year-old woman and have been married five years. My husband and I have a great marriage and can’t see ourselves with anyone else. We moved to a new town and have made new friends, and some want to know how we met. I tell them we met in high school, but there’s more to it than that. We are also stepsiblings. My mother married his father when we were teens, and that is how we met. We kept it from them, and they found out when we were away at college. We lived together while in school and married after graduation. They were upset, but eventually accepted it. Should we tell others we are also stepsiblings?
A: I hope the marriage of your mother and his father has worked out as well! You two are not biologically related and you weren’t raised together—there’s nothing to be ashamed of regarding your relationship, and you have committed no violation of the incest taboo. But as you’re probably aware, your story at the least engenders raised eyebrows and fascination. (I once knew a couple who had the reverse situation from you. Her divorced mother and his widowed father met at their wedding and went on to marry each other.) When you’re talking to new acquaintances, sticking to “We were high school sweethearts” is sufficient. With people you get to know well, your story will unfold more naturally, if you care to get into it. And I’d like to know if holidays are easier or harder when you never have to divide them because both sides of the family live under one roof.
Q. Buckle Up or Get Out?: I have a rule in my car—buckle up or the car doesn’t move. Once in a while, I drive someone who gets really upset at this rule. They tell me they’re adults and are free to make their own decisions. I tell them it’s my car, I’m driving, so I feel liable. (Maybe I’m even legally liable, I don’t know.) I’ve had this rule ever since I got my license, but I feel even more strongly about it since I had an accident and was told that the only reason I didn’t die is because I was buckled up. I don’t know if I should stick firm to this rule—they are adults and responsible for their own (stupid, life-threatening) decisions, but it’s my car and I’m doing them a favor. Are they right and I should relax this rule?
A: I can’t believe you have found such a steady stream of morons to take the passenger seat. Do not relax this rule. Children legally must be buckled, but check your state law as to whether adult passengers must be, too. If so, that would allow you to say you are not going to get ticketed for this infraction. But even if you can’t cite the law, you can cite common sense. If your passengers don’t care about their safety, that’s on them. But what’s on you is that if an accident happens, an unbuckled body becomes a missile and you’re not going to drive anyone who would endanger you.
Q. My Son Wants to Reconnect With His Alcoholic Father: I left my abusive and alcoholic husband five years ago. My son and I moved to a new city an hour away to start fresh. It was the best decision I ever made. My son is now 12 and has thrived in the last five years. His father has not contacted him once during this time. I have nursed my son’s heartache over having a “nonexistent” father. We’ve had difficult years, but have gotten through them. He’s healthy, intelligent, positive, and has a wonderful sense of humor. Last year I accidentally texted his father instead of my boss (they share similar names). His father called me, was verbally abusive, and said I took his son away from him. We still have joint custody, hoping that someday he would reach out to his son. Well, early this spring, his father texted me to check in about “Jack.” We began to exchange texts weekly about Jack. Things were friendly, and Jack was able to meet his father last June, with the agreement that Jack’s uncle also be there. The visit was fine. A few weeks ago, I agreed to let Jack text his father. Again, things were fine until last week. His father sent a series of mean texts to me and my son. We both backed away, and I asked his father not to contact us unless he was willing to be civil. My son still wants to have a connection with his father and asked if he can see him again. Even with my ex-BIL present, I am having a hard time with this. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to say no to my son, but I have been there for all the bad days and don’t want him to go through the same hurt all over again. He realizes that his father is not well and takes it for what it is. What should I do?
A: You need some professionals to help oversee this situation. First, you need to contact your divorce lawyer—or another attorney—because you need to revise an open-ended custody agreement with an abusive alcoholic who abandoned your son. Next, you need a social worker, therapist, or some other similar professional to talk to you and your son—together and separately—about resuming some kind of contact, while recognizing the need for safety, supervision, and limitations. How painful to be abandoned by a parent! Your son surely will never have a consistent, supportive relationship with his father, and that’s something he needs to be able to talk about and come to terms with. He also needs to recognize that his father’s lack of love is all about his father’s limitations and not his own lovableness. Your son needs to have qualified people around who can help him navigate this situation and who can recognize and act if it’s time to limit contact with this troubled man.
Q. Re: Stepsiblings: I completely agree with what you said: There is nothing wrong or creepy about what they did, but some people will be likely to clutch their pearls and pry. Better keep the whole story for trusted friends!
A: Thanks. And yes, this is a juicy story that is easily misconstrued and unnecessary to tell those you don’t know well and trust.
Q. How Do I Explain My Living Situation Is OK?: I’m in my mid-20s and still live with my parents. I’m usually employed and lead an independent lifestyle, make my own doctor’s appointments, see friends, go to class, etc. I contribute to bills when I can. I also suffer from severe bipolar disorder with psychotic features. I don’t do well on my own—housework piles up and the house becomes dirty to an unlivable extent, I stop taking my meds, I stop showering, I start drinking heavily, etc. My parents are not my caretakers, but living with people who know me is definitely beneficial—they know when I’ve stopped taking my meds and can say, “Hey! You’re off your meds, you NEED to start taking them again,” or can say, “Hey, it looks like your meds aren’t really working, you should call your doctor.” I know eventually I’ll have to leave the nest (I’m hoping I’ll have a partner to move in with), but right now this works for me. However, I’m starting to reach the age where it looks funny that I’m still living at home, even for the Boomerang Generation. What can I say to people who criticize me? I’m generally open about suffering from bipolar disorder, but I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty with everyone I meet. What about my parents’ friends who think I’m taking advantage of them? Should I listen to them and move out? If not, what should I say?
A: You need to perfect the nonplussed look and the nonresponse when people criticize you for this or have the gall to make accusations. It’s one thing to talk about your disorder and your living situation with family and friends. It’s another for ill-meaning people to grill you. I will also note that you have to be careful not to mishear benign questions as criticism. If people are just making conversation and mean no critique, you can deflect their inquiries with simple statements such as “This situation works for all of us right now.” What you’ve set up sounds wise and beneficial for all of you. Handling major mental illness is a lifetime undertaking, and while you are developing skills that will lead to greater independence, you have also put in place a system to ensure your excellent functioning. It must be a relief for your parents too, knowing that you are well and not having to worry about whether you are taking your medication, etc. Stay put for as long as it is right for all of you. I certainly hope you have a therapist you can discuss this with, and that she or he can talk through steps you might take to eventually live on your own—when that makes sense. In the meantime, do not give credence to the critics.
Q. Not an Airbnb: Is it ever acceptable to rescind an offer of hospitality? My boyfriend picked up a friend from the airport who had asked if she could stay for a few days. We had assumed that she would be tired from an 18-hour flight, go to bed, then spend time with us the next day. Instead she stayed for about an hour (this was in the evening), then asked for a ride into town to go drinking with “her friends” (we were not invited). She said she would be a few hours and get a cab home. Instead she was gone all night. She slept most of the following day, then stayed out again all of the following night. When we said we were hurt that she didn’t prioritize spending time with us, she promised to “make it up to us” by spending time with us when she comes through again in a couple of weeks. She was supposed to stay with us for another weekend then. We’re just kind of disgusted. Is it OK for us to rescind the offer?
A: It sounds as if you were in luck that this rude person didn’t want to make time for you. So you provided chauffeur and sleeping accommodations, and she took advantage of your guest room to sleep off the night before. When you brought your unhappiness to her attention, she didn’t follow up with flowers and an abject apology; instead she offered to crash at your place again and be nicer this time. It is perfectly fine for you to say that when she comes through town, if your schedules mesh, you would love to get together for a meal, but that unfortunately having her spend several nights at your place won’t work, and she needs to find another place to stay.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!