Danny M. Lavery, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Pastor’s wife wants out of church: My husband and I have been married for 28 years, but our relationship has been at a brick wall for more than half of the marriage. For the past four years, we have lived under the same roof but completely separately, essentially as housemates. Up until now, I have made the decision to stay in the marriage because A) we have two daughters, both in their early 20s, and B) my husband is a pastor and I was once concerned about his image in the church community if we were to separate.
Aggression and worrisome behavior have now entered the equation, and we have both accepted that our union is no longer salvageable. I am ready to start dating and move on with my life, as my husband has been doing for more than half of our marriage, but he still isn’t ready to upset the church community with the news of our formal separation. Personally, I am done putting up a façade. I am ready to move on from not only the marriage, but also the church community, but ultimately I do want to be the bigger person and respect my husband’s image. How do I move on from the church in a respectful manner?
A: He doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to, and I think it’s very big of you not to want to tarnish his image, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep his secrets or lie for him anymore. You’re getting divorced, you’re moving on, and you’re ready to start dating. You can be honest without spreading the news in a salacious or punishing way; if anyone asks, tell the truth, but don’t go into detail. If the truth reflects badly on him, too bad for him.
It sounds like you’re interested in leaving this particular church for good; you’re not required to make an announcement or shake the dust of this unhappy marriage from your sandals at the church door. You can just leave. If there are particular friendships you plan on maintaining, or if you’re directly asked, you can keep your conversations about the end of your marriage honest without being unkind—“We’ve been separated for a long time, and have been housemates for the last four years. I’m ready to move on and start seeing other people, but I wish him the best.” Your husband’s image is no longer your problem. Just don’t go out of your way to discredit or smear him, and you’ll have more than achieved your goal of being the bigger person.
Q. Too picky about a nose picker?: My fiancé picks his nose. He has some sort of medical condition where he’s constantly stuffed up/sniffling every year from October to March. He thinks it’s just because of the cold winter air. I’d be fine with him picking his nose if he did it in the bathroom or in the other room, but we’ve had several fights about him doing it when we’re cuddling on the couch, sitting in bed, or working together at the table. To appease me, he won’t do it while we’re eating, but he thinks I’m not taking his medical issues seriously when I tell him to knock it off or go to the doctor. Help?
A: I am very sorry that your fiancé has sinus problems. I do not believe that “chronically picking his nose while eating and/or cuddling his significant other” is a very good medical solution. I do not believe that you should have to ask someone not to pick their nose while they are holding you, much less have to do so repeatedly. “Winter” is not a good excuse for constant nose-picking. Asking him to see a doctor is the definition of taking his medical issues seriously. There has to be a bar. Right? There has to be some kind of personal hygiene bar that a person needs to clear in order for a relationship to be successful, and I do not believe your fiancé is currently meeting it, or even trying to.
Q. To contact or not?: When I was in high school, about 20 years ago, one of my best friends killed himself. I kept in touch with his family for a while, but when I went off to college, I lost touch with them. I recently learned through a stray Facebook comment his sister left on a mutual friend’s page that his family still lives in my area. I was wondering if it would be appropriate to send a message to his sister telling her that I’ve been thinking about their family, to see how they’re doing, etc., but I’m not sure about that since it’s been so long. I’m sure they would remember me, so that’s not the issue. Would this be OK? If so, how should I even approach it?
A: I’m of the opinion that it is always a kind and appropriate decision to get in touch with someone who’s lost a loved one to remind them that you’re thinking of them and have fond memories of the deceased. So many people choose silence after the immediate wake of a death out of fear of saying something out of turn or “bringing up bad memories” that bereaved people often feel forgotten. Tell them you’ve been thinking of them and of him, and that you hope they’re doing well. Don’t worry about how long it’s been; my guess is they’ll be glad to know that there are other people who still think about the son they loved and lost.
Q. Babysitter blues: My wife and I both work from home—I manage an online business from my office; she babysits. Prudie, my wife is a terrible babysitter. She’s not physically abusive, and 90 percent of the time she’s attentive and loving. But sometimes I hear her saying such things as “Jesus Christ, you’re so retarded” under her breath. She also freaks out if the kids don’t sit and eat in their assigned places and yells at them if they don’t eat every last bite. I’ve tried to talk to her about this, but she brushes me off (and as to her verbal abuse, she insists that the kids don’t hear her and don’t understand her—they’re 2 and 3). I feel like my only choice at this time is to anonymously tell the parents what’s going on. Losing the kids would cost us a significant part of our income, but at the same time, it tears me up to see the way she treats these kids. Any advice?
A: I’m so sorry, both for these children and for your recent revelation about the kind of person your wife becomes around the young, vulnerable, and defenseless. Your wife cannot and must not look after children for another day; this needs to stop immediately. Yelling at 3-year-olds for not finishing their food quickly enough and calling them “retarded” is horrific behavior, even if 90 percent of the time she’s behaving normally. If this is what she’s willing to do in front of you, I’m afraid to think of what she gets up to when you leave the house to run an errand. These toddlers have no advocate except for you—I’m more than a little saddened to think that you’ve only “tried to talk to her” about this, rather than intervening immediately and sending the children home. Do it now. I have no idea how you could contact their parents anonymously, since she babysits in your home, but I’m honestly not terribly concerned about that part. The safety of these children is more important than your wife’s reputation.
And you should seriously reconsider being married to the kind of person who not only screams at toddlers, but brushes off your serious concerns about her verbal and emotional abuse by insisting “they can’t hear her.” Kids know when they’re getting yelled at and mocked, I can assure you. How could you continue being married to this woman, knowing what you know now about her character?
Q. Bullied, or entitled jerk?: I work at the local high school. The kid in question definitely has some issues, is in therapy, and is working on his/her stuff. BUT the same kid won’t take “no” for an answer, pushes too hard in relationships, and feels entitled to do self-damage and to damage other people’s property when things don’t go his/her way. The student is definitely becoming more isolated. Are the other kids entitled to shun him/her for their own comfort? For their own safety?
A: I’m glad to hear this student is getting help. I also believe that avoiding someone is not the same thing as bullying them. Nothing you have described in your letter suggests that this kid is being bullied, merely that he or she has difficulty forming meaningful relationships and is experiencing the consequences of his or her actions. I hope very much this changes in the future, but no one owes this student their friendship if he or she isn’t capable of treating them with basic respect.
Q. Aggressive PDA by male friend: I am a bisexual man. I have an older male friend in my social circle that is very aggressive with public displays of affection. He is always making sexual innuendos, always insists on kissing me on the mouth, can be handsy, and, in social settings, he has no qualms about groping me. When I’ve called him out for it, he says I’m being mean or he pouts because he feels like I am disgusted by him. How do I maintain our friendship/professional relationship but put an end to the unwanted advances?
A: Do you actually have a friendship to maintain with this guy? Saying “I don’t want you to kiss me” isn’t mean, and it’s atrocious that he would try to make you feel guilty for not submitting to his constant unwanted advances. Friends don’t “forget” when someone asks them not to kiss or grope them. Someone who responds to “Please don’t grope me” with whining and pouting isn’t a friend. He’s an asshole and a predator. Run, and don’t look back.
Q. Single mother moving in with boyfriend: Two years ago my daughter (early 20s) moved in with me because she was going to have a baby. The father is not in the picture. About six weeks ago she began dating what seems to be a truly nice guy—polite, funny, and gentle with her son. But now they are talking about moving in together this summer. She is impulsive when it comes to guys and has a bad history with a couple of lousy ones. This one does seem different, but they are moving much too fast, especially since she has a little one. We have talked about being careful when introducing a man into her son’s life, but all of that has flown out the window. She is not interested in what “experts” advise on the subject, either. She has a history of impulse-control problems and tends to make important decisions more like a teenager than an adult, which she acknowledges. I have encouraged her to work with a professional to address this, but to no avail. I love her and adore my grandson, and am genuinely worried about pretty much every aspect of this. Advice?
A: I’m worried too, but I think you’re going to have to let your daughter make an impulsive and very probably foolish decision. This isn’t such a bad choice that you could justify stepping in and taking over. No one’s in physical or emotional danger. You’ve given her advice, she’s decided not to take it, and all you can do now is watch and wait. Continue to spend time with your grandson and hope that your fears end up being unfounded. If something happens that leads you to think either of them is being mistreated or is in danger, that’s another situation entirely, but you can’t save your daughter from impulsive relationship decisions, no matter how much you might like to.
Q. Re: To contact or not: When we were back in town for our 20th high school reunion, several of us phoned the mother of a friend and classmate who had died unexpectedly at age 22 during surgery. We hadn’t talked to her mom in many years but wanted her to know that we still thought of her daughter fondly. Follow your instincts. It was very meaningful for all of us.
A: I’m glad to hear that you reached out, and that all went well. Thanks so much for sharing this.
Q. Husband with bad breath: My husband hardly brushes his teeth. He does a quick brush with mouthwash in the morning when he’s at work (he eats breakfast on the way to work), but does not—EVER—brush his teeth at night. So, basically I’m the only one who uses the toothpaste. Here’s the thing: When we are talking, I can’t always tell he has bad breath. But when we are in bed, and he’s sleeping, it is so bad that it’s been keeping me up at night. My husband has a lot of great qualities, but one of his more challenging qualities is that he is very stubborn. He won’t even go to the dentist, and only considers going to the doctor if he is absolutely miserable. I have gently (and at the same time, directly) talked to him about him brushing his teeth. He will do it for a couple of nights, but then he stops. What do I do? Wear a clothespin on my nose when I go to bed? I don’t want to fight over this, and I don’t want to nag. (Both of those make him shut down. … Doesn’t everyone, though?) What is my next approach? I am seriously considering the clothespin idea.
A: I’m running this letter because I am actively astonished at the number of women who write in about husbands who not only refuse to brush their teeth but actively resist going to the dentist and get rude and snippy when their wives beg them to do so. (Also, your husband probably has gingivitis at this point, which could seriously affect his health. He needs to go to the dentist! If someone I were sleeping with, much less married to, told me my breath was so bad it prevented them from sleeping, I would die of mortification and then send my ghost to the dentist immediately.) I hate to get gender essentialist, but I’m starting to think that a lot of married men have some sort of heterosexually induced dentistry aversion. Are there any men out there whose wives do this? Any women out there willing to cop to it?
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for your infinite wisdom and compassion, everybody. Remember: Brush your teeth. Schedule that dentist’s appointment you’ve been putting off. If someone tells you not to yell at children, listen to them. Use a tissue, rather than your fingers, when excavating your nasal cavities. Do this, and you will flourish professionally and sexually, and I’ll see you all next week.