Daniel 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.)
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Q. When is it settling?: I’m almost 33, and my boyfriend of about eight years finally is ready to marry me. Great, right? This is what I wanted. We broke up for almost a year because he did not want to commit, but we’ve been back together for about six months. He says he is ready for the whole shebang—house, marriage, kids. I’m getting older and have been told medically that I have fertility issues so the sooner the better for me to have a chance of having kids. I love him, enjoy his company, and have spent years with him. He doesn’t mistreat me, but he isn’t affectionate or compassionate. He won’t say he loves me, and he can be selfish. He refuses to do anything he doesn’t want to, including simple favors, or go anywhere he doesn’t want to, like see my family or friends. I’m always the one who has to compromise. I don’t know if I want to live the rest of my life without feeling loved or appreciated. Or without any help. But I also worry I might have unrealistic expectations of what a real marriage is like. So when is it settling? Some friends and family are calling it that, and some are encouraging me to get married already. I am scared that if I hold out hope for something that may or may not exist I might throw away my chance to have a family.
A: Oh, my friend. Your expectations are not unrealistic, and I think on some level you know that. I think you also know that if you were to start a family with this man, it would be a family without respect, affection, empathy, or support. That’s not a family worth starting. How can you enjoy the company of a person who won’t say or show that he loves you? How could you bring children into this world with a father who won’t do simple favors for other people, or spend time with his partner’s friends, or demonstrate appreciation for the woman he supposedly loves? If he treats you this way, how would he treat your children? He does, by the way, mistreat you. Withholding love and affection and refusing ever to compromise is emotionally stifling and spiritually destructive. Just because he isn’t yelling doesn’t mean he isn’t cruel, and just because he doesn’t use his fists doesn’t mean he isn’t hurting you. Don’t starve yourself of love just because you long to have children. Run away from this man, and figure out what kind of a family you can build without him. (And reconsider the kind of friendships where anyone is telling you to settle for someone who won’t compromise or demonstrate affection.)
Q. Newly separated boyfriend: I just started dating a guy who is divorcing. He is smart and funny and considerate and seems to be working hard to deal with his situation well—he simultaneously keeps me informed of milestones (this attorney meeting, that paper filed) yet takes care not to overburden me (sharing sadness/anger with friends and therapist rather than me). He recently went from many-texts-a-day to radio silence for a week. Now we have planned another date and texts and warmth have picked back up. I am inclined to attribute this to the complications of his situation rather than assume he is a hot-and-cold person, which is the type I have come to realize is bad for me. Does that sound likely? I guess I’ll know soon either way, right? Just want to avoid heartbreak.
A: This is a question you will have to ask him! I personally could not bear the prospect of total silence for a full week from someone I was dating, no matter how good the reason, but then again, I’m fairly high maintenance. The “complications of his situation” may very well persist for a good long time; getting over a divorce isn’t always quick and easy. If weeklong silences are going to be part of this relationship, you’ll have to decide whether you’re interested in, or capable of, dealing with them.
Q. Should I tell?: My niece has a baby boy and a daughter who is 3. She has since moved across the country to be near her husband’s family. My sister desperately wants to see her only grandchildren, but other than flying out for the birth, my niece keeps saying it isn’t the right time for another visit. I am closer to my niece, and when I asked about it, she asked me if I remembered how she was treated as a child compared with her brother. She unleashed a floodgate of built-up resentment and remembrance. She said she wouldn’t let her children be treated the same way and that is why they moved across country—not for work, but to get away from us. I was stunned, but while I want to deny my niece’s accusations, I do remember several incidents where my nephew was overly favored: He got the old family car first despite his sister being older; he got openly drunk while underage, whereas I remember my sister slapping my niece for stealing a glass of wine at the same age; etc. But I think my niece needs to get over it. Her mother loves her and has cried to me over missing her grandchildren. I am troubled about what to do. Should I tell my sister? Tell my niece how she is killing her mother? Talk to my nephew and see if he couldn’t intervene?
A: Do nothing. This isn’t your daughter, and this isn’t your mother. No one is required to intervene because your niece has every right to determine how often and in what context she spends time with her own parents; she told you that she moved across the country to get away from her abusive childhood, and you yourself are able to remember numerous instances where she was pushed aside in favor of her brother. You think she should get over it, but luckily what you think doesn’t affect what she gets to do in the slightest. It’s a shame that your sister is able to cry for herself but can’t see the ways in which she hurt her daughter. It’s your sister’s relationship to mend. Right now, your sister isn’t sorry for what she’s done, only that she’s experiencing consequences for her actions. You can’t force your niece into forgiving her mother when her mother has not yet done the hard work of apologizing and trying to make amends.
Q. How to get from virtual to real connection with old boyfriend: About a year ago, via email, I reconnected with the love of my youth with whom I lived for several years. We are both middle-aged and single. First, we emailed and texted, then we moved on to frequent long phone conversations. But when I had an opportunity to come to his city for a work trip, he was very wary of seeing me. I canceled the trip, and we did not talk again for several months. When we spoke, he said he wanted to explore reconnecting. He wants frequent texting and involved emailing, but we have not spoken in almost three months—for a while, he kept emailing me that he had the flu or was busy and would call soon. He also promised to visit me in my town when he could “tack on” a trip to the East Coast—he says he is excruciatingly “shy” and “nervous” about seeing me. (We have exchanged numerous photos.) I have started sending phone emoticons rather than answering—I don’t want an emotionally involved email correspondence with someone that I have no real contact with—even phone conversations. He seems strangely happy with virtuality—and keeps saying “we’re getting there,” and we will “eventually” see each other. He is a man of means, with significant responsibilities, but he could make time if he wanted to. How long should I give this? Should I answer his long, loving emails? Lots of playful texts? What should I do? How do I resolve this?
A: If you enjoy the idea of a mostly hypothetical long-distance affair, go ahead and stay in touch. He’s made it relatively clear that he’s not interested in reconnecting in person (there are lots of possible reasons for this; take your pick, but I’m going with “secret family”), so if that’s something you want, be equally clear with him. If the idea of writing long, lavender-scented emails to an ex-boyfriend you may never be in the same room with again doesn’t appeal to you, tell him you wish him the best of luck and to give you a call if he’s ever in town, and look elsewhere.
Q. Boyfriend always busy: My boyfriend and I have been together for just over three years, and we live together. He is in school full time and works part time. He is also involved in AA and sponsors someone, and he plays soccer three times a week. I rarely ever see him. I’ve had quite a few conversations with him about how I rarely see him during the week and weekend, and how I feel bad about myself because I have to ask him to hang out with me—it feels like I am nagging him. His Saturday typically consists of working all day. I usually only see him for a couple hours Saturday night. We also each had a dog coming into the relationship, and I take care of his dog along with my own. I’ve come to consider his dog mine, since I put so much time into taking care of him. I’m starting to get resentful. Every time we talk about it, he promises he will get better, and it does get better, for a little while. He will be going to grad school after next year and I’m worried that things will be worse. Do I stick it out for a few more years or what?
A: No. Break up with him. He’s happy with his schedule the way it is, and you’re not. You’ve brought the issue up repeatedly, and things don’t change in the long run. You know things are about to get worse. You have collected all of the information you need; he may be a very nice person but you two are clearly not compatible. If you stay, don’t be surprised if your boyfriend you never see turns into your boyfriend who you still never see five and ten and fifteen years from now.
Q. How to respect a vet on Memorial Day: My son has recently become friends with a boy whose father is a veteran (two tours in Afghanistan). My son’s birthday happens to be on Memorial Day weekend (Saturday, not the actual day on Monday), and when I mentioned a birthday party, the dad said his only plans that weekend were visiting graves of some of his friends, so they would be available. I immediately felt guilty for not thinking of that—like so many Americans, Memorial Day for me is a three-day weekend, and I feel heartless for not thinking of its actual meaning. Is there some way to recognize him for what he’s sacrificed and what he must be going through on that day? I should also mention that we are both (unhappily) married and we seem to be slightly mutually attracted to each other (we haven’t ever discussed it openly, and I don’t plan to and never would take action). So, while I’d like to recognize him, I don’t want to do it in a way that makes either of our spouses think something is going on. My husband does know that I would divorce him if I could afford to and am only staying to give my stepdaughter a communal home until she graduates high school next year. He also tends to be paranoid that I’m interested in every guy that I talk to, so I don’t want to give him any more reasons to be angry and feel justified in his disrespect toward me.
A: Your question is, fundamentally, “Can I use the fact that the man I’m interested is a veteran as an emotional inside track?” My answer is, I’m afraid, “No.” I’m sorry you’re stuck in a loveless marriage for another year, and I don’t want to belittle the loneliness you must feel, but please don’t use that as an excuse to try to start an affair with someone else. You don’t know the state of his marriage. You can only know yours. There are plenty of gracious ways to acknowledge someone’s military service that aren’t based on “Can we have a long, intense discussion of what you must be going through,” which is clearly an invitation to increased emotional intimacy. You don’t feel guilty about insufficiently honoring veterans; you’re romantically interested in your married neighbor and want to know if you can use an over-the-top dose of empathy to see if he’s interested in you, too. I think that’s unwise. Focus on preparing yourself financially and emotionally for the end of your own marriage, and stay away from the marriages of your son’s friends.
Daniel M. Lavery: That’s all from me, everyone. See you next week!