Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Nov. 16 2009 5:00 PM

Must We Bear Hugs?

Prudie counsels a woman wary of her father-in-law's inappropriate embrace—and other advice seekers.

(Continued from Page 3)

These include not only herpes, but also HPV, which can cause cervical cancer in women, and genital warts. It's a good argument for being able to really TALK to your partner about difficult things before sleeping with them.

Emily Yoffe: This is about the woman who hasn't told her boyfriend she has herpes, despite going with him to get tested for STDs! It's true, laboratory results can reveal some things about one's sexual health, but not everything. And they don't reveal anything about people's character.

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Baltimore: About 10 years ago, my husband and I cut off contact with his mother and stepfather. It was the result of more than five years of them treating me very badly. The final straw was an incident when they offered to watch our children for the evening and the next morning my kindergartener called me "bitch" because Grandma and Grandpa told him it was my nickname. My husband confronted them, it turned into a huge argument, and ended with us leaving their home with hubby telling them not to contact us until they were willing to treat us with respect. In all these years, they have never contacted us.

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The problem? We learned through relatives that the financial downturn hit them very hard. My husband is feeling guilty that they haven't seen their grandsons in a decade and that they are in such trouble. He is talking about contacting them over the holidays and I don't want him to. They have never shown any remorse for how they treated us or indicated that they have changed. I'm afraid that allowing them back into our lives will cause all the old fights and problems they caused to resurface. I also resent the thought of taking any piece of the comfortable life that my husband and I have built for ourselves and giving it to these horrible in-laws. If we don't get back in touch, I'm afraid my husband (her only child) will feel overwhelming regret when his mother someday dies and that some part of him will hold me responsible for the lack of contact. So what should I do?

Emily Yoffe: The decision to break off contact clearly came after years of intolerable behavior. No one should put up with in-laws telling a grandchild his mother's nickname is "bitch"! And here you are 10 years later and your mother and step-father-in-law have never tried to reconnect, even though it meant the loss of contact with their grandson. Yet, it's very hard for a grown child to think about a parent dying without having had a final chance to reconcile. The problem here is that your in-laws show no sign of either remorse or wanting to reconnect. Yes, your husband could make some overtures, and he and your son could have a meeting with them—you can stay away. But if this happens, you and your husband should agree that he will go very slowly, he will resume the estrangement if his parents start up their old way. And that this is not about bailing them out financially. They sound like people who are poor at learning the consequences of their actions, and since they haven't even asked for money, why should your husband offer?

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Memphis, Tenn.: I am not asking for advice, but for an explanation. I read your columns regularly, and time and again questioners are seeking advice about situations in which they or their family members are acting in such obviously dumb, self- defeating, dysfunctional ways. I often marvel at the ridiculous things people will get insulted over or will let get in the way of their relationships. Yet, despite the obvious stupidity of these behaviors, I look around and see them repeated by my own acquaintances, relatives, siblings, parents, spouse and alas, myself. What is wrong with the human race?

Emily Yoffe: The Bible, Shakespeare, et al. tried to tackle this one, so I'm not sure I'm going to improve on their observations about why we keep getting ourselves in the same messes over and over. In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt blames our divided selves on the neocortex. We've got this late-breaking (in evolutionary terms) brain tissue that has allowed us to conquer the planet, but that also has given us a divided self—it's responsible for that chatter in our heads that tells us we shouldn't make that stupid remark, or eat that cake. It also allows us to get all huffy over the most trivial thing, because we've got our splendid reputations to defend. Maybe it's our smarts that makes us stupid—and there's no escape!

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Free range farting: A little eucalyptus or lavender oil dabbed just below one's nostrils can cover a multitude of sins.

Emily Yoffe: Or dabbed on Dad, perhaps.

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. And I hope you all have a week of only delightful fragrances!

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