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I have two nephews, ages 10 and 8. The 10-year-old is—as much as you can say this about any 10-year-old—awful. He’s a bully to his younger brother and to my daughter, also 8. He’s got terrible manners. He lies all the time, cheats whenever they play games, and purposefully does things he knows will emotionally wound his brother.
The problem is that no one else sees anything wrong with this behavior. He is the oldest boy in a family that views eldest sons as being very important, he’s showered with praise for the slightest sign of good behavior, and no one—save my husband and myself—says a word to him about his cruelties. I’m not thrilled that every time we visit them my daughter ends up upset, but we can handle that. What really bothers us is that my younger nephew has become more and more withdrawn over the years. He used to complain and at least try to stand up for himself. But since none of the other adults around him ever do anything to stop his brother, he has simply shut down. We watch as his older brother takes and opens his birthday presents or pushes him out of the way, and the kid just checks out—physically leaves if he can, or goes completely blank. How do we stop what no one else seems to see?
—Looking Out for Younger Sons
It’s so difficult to witness this kind of emotional cruelty and neglect not severe enough to call CPS over but that you know will leave lasting psychic scars. It’s worth having at least one conversation with your in-laws about the way they’re letting their elder son treat his brother and other children. I don’t have high hopes for how they’ll handle criticism, but someone needs to tell them that they’re killing their younger son’s spirit by refusing to advocate for his safety and well-being. Don’t frame it as a matter of character (“Your 10-year-old is a jerk and a bully”) but as about the behavior you’ve witnessed (“I’ve seen Damien push his little brother to the ground, and steal his birthday presents. When nobody stops him, they are both hurt in different ways.”) It’s not a conversation that is likely to result in a great deal of change, but I worry that no one has ever spoken to them about the unfair way they treat their sons. Someone has to.
I’m glad you and your husband have been speaking up when you see your older nephew bully other children. Continue to do it. Don’t berate him—I’m sure his parents would resent you if they thought you were being unfair to their precious eldest child—but if he pushes his brother down, tell him not to, and help the boy up. If he takes his brother’s birthday presents and no one else bats an eye, gently but firmly give them back. Your younger nephew has learned that no one looks out for him, and so your emotional support likely means a great deal to him. I hope you spend as much time with him (apart from his brother) as possible. Let him know how much you and your husband care for him and that he can consider the two of you a safe haven. He’s going to need one.
* * *
I have been having the same problem with my husband for years. He sets his alarm incredibly early in the morning and mine goes off about two hours later. He gets up with his alarm about two-thirds of the time. Even then, he’s never the first to respond to it. Every single morning for 10 years, I’ve had to shake him awake to shut off his alarm, and sometimes I have to repeat it every 20 minutes until he gets up. I do not fall asleep so readily, so I am often awake in between snoozes. In addition, he is a great sleeper through the night, whereas I toss and turn and wake up for every sound the kids make. When he actually does get up on time, he works very hard on stuff, so I don’t want to insist he “can’t” set his alarm early. Is this just something I have to deal with? He’s a nice guy and a good husband. I just wish our sleeping patterns matched up better.
I am willing to take a stand here. Those who cannot respond to their own alarm without disturbing their sleep partner have forfeited the right to an early-morning wake-up call. Your husband is using you as an alarm clock. Resign from the job. If he’s not getting up when his alarm goes off, turn it off yourself and go back to sleep. He can get himself out of bed without you. Quit shaking him. If he gets up, he gets up. If he sleeps in, he sleeps in. Frankly, I’m impressed you haven’t murdered him, as I would have long ago.
* * *
I’m a gay man in a big city. I don’t love the feel of condoms, but I understand that it’s a necessary evil in the post-AIDS universe, and I’ve always used protection. I’ve been with my current boyfriend for almost two years; I love him, and definitely see us together for the long haul. However, he’s completely adamant he will never want to stop using condoms. We’ve had a few fights about it—I get mad because I feel he doesn’t trust me, and he gets mad because he feels I’m trying to pressure him. Gay men internalize so many messages of doom about unsafe sex, so I understand his anxiety. At the same time, it’s hard to feel like it’s not a reflection on me. Would it be dumb to blow up an otherwise happy relationship over this?
—Barrier Between Us
Good news: I don’t think either of you is being dumb. I think you should get tested together and have a conversation—not a fight—about what you both want out of a long-term relationship. Ask him why he feels so strongly about continuing to use condoms together. Don’t ask in a way that suggests he’s wrong and needs to defend himself, but out of a desire to genuinely understand his point of view. Is his primary concern a fear of contracting HIV or another STD, or is it the fear of infidelity? Is he not comfortable with the prospect of long-term monogamy? Is this a position he would take with anyone, not just you? Would he consider using PrEP instead? And for you: Can you see yourself with him in 10 or 15 years, still using condoms, if that is the price of admission for being with him? Even if it seems unreasonable to you, your boyfriend has the right to insist on using condoms, if that’s what he needs to feel safe having sex. Neither of you has to be completely right or wrong in this situation, although at least one of you may end up not getting what he wants from the other. You’ve both behaved responsibly: This is a matter of compatibility and compromise, not of insufficient trust or unnecessary risk.
* * *
My husband will say horrible things I know he doesn’t mean—for instance, if our daughter keeps getting up at night he says he will tie her to a chair and put duct tape over her mouth (he said this to me, not to her). When I say, “You don’t mean that,” he will say he does. Then when I tell him that’s truly horrible, he says, “Of course I wouldn’t do it.” I find this disturbing and get in fights with him over this. Am I overreacting? He says really uncharitable things about others as well that I know he can’t actually mean in his heart—like if someone didn’t vaccinate their child and their child died, he would go out of his way to tell them it was their fault.
Telling your husband what he does or doesn’t mean isn’t getting you anywhere. It sounds like he has a habit of engaging in hyperbole, a generally harmless habit that in his case veers into angry, distressing territory. Instead of telling him what he does or doesn’t mean, consider asking him in the moment why he says he wants to duct-tape your daughter to a chair rather than simply saying he’s tired. Have him explain what he gets out of expressing such violent imagery. Don’t hurry to rescue him by asserting “You don’t really mean that” or explain it away: “You’re only saying this because you’re ___.” If he wants to say outrageous, provocative things to you (and it sounds like he’s self-aware enough to confine the worst of his remarks to you and not the general public), he ought to be able to justify them. It may be that he’s able to give answers you find sufficient; it may be that he sputters out and finds that he can’t. You’re not wrong to challenge him when he says distressing or violent things, but give him a chance to either self-correct or hang himself with his own rope. It may teach him to think before he speaks.
* * *
I am a happily married mother of two young children. After a particularly rough week, my husband encouraged me to go out and have fun with my sister, who recently broke off her engagement. We went out to eat and then to a bar. A group of couples came in, and one of the guys bought drinks for my sister and me so that we could all toast to “new friends.” They left, and another group of people came in. Another guy bought me a drink, even after I told him I was married, then later my sister and I went home. Here’s my problem: My husband doesn’t mind that I got a free drink from the first guy, because he had also been married, but he does mind that the second man bought me a drink, because he wasn’t married and knew that I was. This makes me wonder: Is it wrong to accept free drinks when in a relationship or is it only OK if the buyer is in a relationship too?
—Drinks for Free
Another stance I am willing to take publicly: It is completely appropriate to accept a drink from anyone who offers it, as long as the drink-recipient feels comfortable with the drink-buyer. Married or unmarried, getting someone a round is a gesture of goodwill that does not always (as your own experience bears out) imply incipient sex; you neither lied about your marital status nor suggested you were interested in having a fling in order to get a drink out of these men. What is freely offered is freely given. Your husband owes you a beer.
* * *
My parents are getting ready to sell the house my brother and I grew up in, and my brother (now 21) is living in the basement while working and saving up for his own place. For the past five years, he has been smoking pot in the basement. A lot. When I was home from college during the summer, I smelled it all the time, and I still smell it when I visit. My parents have turned a blind nose to this, which has resulted in the entire basement smelling like stale pot smoke. How can I tell them, nicely, that there’s no way they will sell the house until they do something about the disgusting smell coming from the basement?
Just say, “Mom and Dad, have you planned on getting the house professionally cleaned before you start showing it to buyers? There’s a musty smell in the basement that might put a damper on interest.” Then let it go. Your parents will get plenty of feedback about their house’s appearance from agents and appraisers and potential buyers; do not make fixing your family’s basement smell your biggest priority.
* * *
I’m the youngest employee at a small company. One of our location managers is difficult to deal with and often resists collaboration and cooperation. To top it off, she is very saccharine-sweet and has a tendency to call me diminutive nicknames, especially when I’m leading a project. I’m higher-ranking than she is, though she is my mother’s age. I feel this might be a manifestation of her discomfort with my position, and I am getting less patient with being called “angel” or “sweetheart” while I’m trying to work out project details. It makes me uncomfortable. I have a name, and it’s not “baby girl.” Is this something I should just let go? I don’t want it to boil into resentment, but I can’t find a way to gently ask her to stop calling me those names without looking cold-hearted.
—Not Your Sweetie Pie
Yes, it is both reasonable and appropriate to ask a co-worker not to call you passive-aggressively diminutive nicknames at work. It is also possible to do so kindly. I cannot promise you it will be the most comfortable conversation you have ever had, but this is not something you need to let go for the sake of harmony. Give her the benefit of the doubt when you speak to her, and don’t suggest that her sickly sweet nicknames have been an intentional dig: “You may not have even noticed this, but you often call me ‘sweetheart’ or ‘angel’ rather than my given name. I prefer not to use nicknames at work, and I’d really appreciate your calling me by my first name instead. Thank you so much.”
If she tries to stonewall you with “Oh, that’s just how I am” or “I do that to everyone,” smile and say, “But now that you know my preference, I know you’ll do me the favor of respecting me enough to use my name.” If she slips up, cheerfully remind her of your name. Be unruffled but consistent; take a page out of her book, and combine sweetness with insistence until you get what you want.
* * *
My husband and I have been married for 20 years, and we’re happy but for one thing: He often repeats the same stories and anecdotes. It drives me crazy, but when I point it out, he acts like I’ve hurt his feelings. It’s dividing the family. He claims that since we’re encountering new people each time (we’ve moved frequently), he doesn’t repeat stories to the same folks. My sons agree. But my daughter and I have heard it all before. Even if the story was entertaining once, we don’t want to hear it again. It’s rude of him to not consider every person in the room when he speaks, but he acts hurt when I helpfully point out his repetition. Then my sons say I’m being mean. He’s not elderly. There’s nothing wrong medically. He just thinks it’s acceptable to repeat stories and anecdotes. How do I make him stop?
You can’t make him stop—one generally can’t stop anyone else from doing anything if they don’t want to—but you can certainly continue to make social gatherings unpleasant for him. He’s not repeating stories on an hourly basis. He—like many other humans—has a limited repertoire of interesting stories, and he rotates a few of them on a regular basis with new friends. I do not believe you are being “helpful” at all when you remind him he’s told a story before. He does not “act” like you have hurt his feelings; you have, in fact, hurt them. Unless he’s spending every night repeating the same conversation word-for-word, find the inner strength to withstand the occasional retelling, and leave him alone. You’ve made your opinion clear enough already, and continuing to harp at him will only make you feel like a scold and him want to find someone else to talk to.
* * *
More Dear Prudence Columns
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More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
“Getting Out of Hand: Prudie advises a woman whose 14-year-old son is pleasuring himself too much and in odd places.”
“Too Hot to Hold: Prudie counsels a woman convinced her boyfriend’s good looks will doom their relationship.”
“Oh, Boy: Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.”
“Rumor Has It: Prudie counsels a woman hounded by gossip that she secretly put a disabled baby up for adoption.”