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.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Q. A few paws too many: I live in an apartment complex geared toward young adults (college students looking for a quieter environment, grad students, young professionals, and a few young families). Last year, the young woman across the hall lost both her parents in a freak accident, and her little brothers were sent across the country to live with family. She already had one (admittedly very well-behaved and well-trained) dog, but she took in both of her parents’ dogs. There is a two-dog limit that I was informed was “strictly enforced,” but she apparently appealed for special permission given the circumstances and received it because one of the dogs is “elderly.” I feel bad for her circumstances, but it’s been a year and she still has three dogs, so apparently the “elderly” one wasn’t so old after all. She seems to be a responsible pet owner, but I think it’s unfair that she’s had three dogs and will for the foreseeable future. I think she used everyone’s pity for her family tragedy to get around the rules. Would it be wrong of me to complain to management?
A: Yes. Management is already aware of her situation, and you have no new information to offer it—you don’t say that her dogs are behaving badly or that she’s started hoarding animals. Your complaint would be nothing more than “I don’t like the arrangement that you, management, have already approved,” which is just too damn bad. She hasn’t “gotten around” anything; she asked for an official exemption and received it. Dogs don’t always die on schedule; surely you understand that this woman could hardly have promised her landlord that her elderly dog was guaranteed to die in the next year. If you truly believe that your neighbor has somehow “gamed the system” to get an extra dog by losing her parents in a freak accident, you may have just set a new record for the unkindest, least reasonable Dear Prudence letter of all time. Mind your own business, attempt to cultivate joy in your own heart, and leave your neighbor alone.
Q. My wife wants me chained: I got married five years ago. It has never been a great marriage, but it’s been pretty good. I love my wife most of the time. A year ago I made a very stupid mistake. I got an email from an old girlfriend. We emailed back and forth then met. We talked over old times, kissed a few times, and decided to not meet again. My wife found out. She got mad and told me to leave, so I did. I apologized, and she took me back under a few conditions. First, I had to let her have all my passwords and agree that she could read all my email. I agreed. She also wanted counseling. I agreed to that too. She then told me that I’d have to agree to never be out of her sight unless I was at work or she knew where I was (every outing would have to be cleared with her). I said no to that but told her that if she brought it up in counseling and the counselor said it was needed I’d go with it.
I was shocked when the counselor said that was a necessary step to my wife regaining my trust, but I’d promised, so for the past few months I’ve pretty much only been to work. Everywhere else my wife came with me. I am getting tired of this requirement. I brought it up in counseling this week, and once again the counselor said I need to do this. I asked for how long, and the counselor said until my wife says she trusts me. I can’t live like this anymore, and I want to give my wife a choice: either this condition ends or the marriage does. Other than this things are going OK, and my wife is talking about starting a family. I always wanted kids, so I’d like that but not if I can’t go to the playground with a child without clearing it with my wife. Do you think there is anything to work with here?
A: I think you should find a new counselor. Maybe your wife will come with you, and maybe she won’t, but you should go regardless. This is not a reasonable approach to dealing with infidelity. The goal of staying together despite your mini-cheating episode should be to process what happened together, express your feelings, forgive, and eventually move on, not outfit you with a permanent tracking device and a cloud of suspicion for the foreseeable future. If your wife still doesn’t trust you a full year after your encounter with this ex-girlfriend, I don’t know that she ever will. Suggesting that the current state of affairs remains in place until she feels differently is unnecessarily subjective. Tell your wife that you’ve apologized and done your level best to regain her trust but that you won’t submit to any further punishment. If she’s not willing to consider a relationship with you that doesn’t involve constant surveillance, you have your answer. If she is willing, you two need to find a new couples counselor together, stat.
Q. Are we being selfish?: My partner and I have been together for about five years, and during that time it was just the two of us. We have since moved in with a roommate whom we pay rent to because we are renting a room in his house. He doesn’t appear to cook—he’s only done it once since we moved in several months ago. My partner and I prefer to cook at home when possible because it’s much cheaper than eating out or eating fast food daily. The “issue” is that whenever we do cook, he has a tendency to say, “Smells good in here!” It makes us uncomfortable because we don’t have a lot of money to spare (we live paycheck to paycheck) and cannot afford to feed a third person, which is the impression we get when he says it every time we cook at home. It’s gotten to the point where we feel awkward about cooking when he’s home and will wait. What’s further confusing is that he eats out often and appears to boast about where he’s been and how much money it cost him. My question is this: Are we being selfish by not offering to share what we cook when making dinner? If so, how do we approach this issue diplomatically?
A: It’s possible that your roommate says “Smells good in here” as a way of trying to angle for a dinner invitation, but it’s equally (perhaps even more) possible that he’s just making conversation, and “Smells good in here” is slightly easier to say than “I see you’re cooking; carry on, hope all is well.” If he’s regularly eating out and hasn’t attempted to invite himself into your meals, I think he’s probably just making a slightly awkward stab at small talk, not trying to wrest an invitation out of you. Your only obligation to your roommate is to pay him rent on time, treat him politely, and not make a mess in your shared living spaces. You’re under no obligation to offer to share your meals with him. Feel free to cook for yourselves without feeling in the least bit self-conscious or selfish.
Q. Divorcing but living together?: After a string of less-than-happy events over the past several months, I have just discovered that my husband is cheating on me with an ex-girlfriend who lives in another city, where he periodically has training for work. We are divorcing but have a logistical problem: We live in a very, very small, rural town, and the real estate market isn’t exactly booming. We couldn’t afford to maintain our home and also live separately until it sells—possibly several months or more after listing. With my income alone, there is no way that our two kids and I could afford to live there either. My husband won’t contribute financially to the house if he isn’t living there—he’s a bit spiteful and quite angry that he got caught. If we could manage to be civil, would it be that weird to continue living together until the big expense of the mortgage payment has been taken care of?
A: Not if you can manage to be civil. If you are able to be civil to your husband, who is apparently angry with you for discovering his affair, you’ll deserve some sort of award. You’re in a particularly difficult situation, and I don’t think you should risk your finances (especially with a divorce, which is never cheap, on the horizon) just to get away from your soon-to-be-ex a few months early. Set a lot of ground rules, give each other a lot of space, and have a contingency plan if it takes longer to sell the house than you anticipated. If you can make it through the next several months, you’ll know you can get through anything.
Q. Not quite an adult, not quite a child: For the past year, I’ve lived in the U.K. getting my master’s degree and exploring a bit more of the world and myself. I’ve discovered how independent I am, as well as other positive attributes I never noticed while living with my parents. The problem is, in fact, my parents. I move back home in two weeks. While I’ve already begun applying for jobs and looking into Ph.D. programs, they seem to think they can still treat me like a child. I constantly get messages about how important having a job is and how committed I need to be to applying; they then give me advice that hasn’t been applicable to the workforce since they were hired 30 years ago.
I know how important all of this is. I’m 24 and very much ready to move out of my parents’ house, so yes, I’m applying to everything I possibly can. Is there a way I can say “shove off” without upsetting them, or should I just shut up and listen until I get a job and move out permanently?
A: I think there’s a middle ground between remaining silent and martyred during the thousandth “I just left the house one afternoon and didn’t come home until I found a job” lecture, and telling your parents to shove off. There’s nothing wrong with their saying it’s important for you to look for work, particularly since you’re living with them while you do so—you might even mirror this sentiment back to them and discuss how eager you are to find work and how much you’re looking forward to being able to support yourself. But if they’re showering you with useless advice, it’s also fair to say, “That’s interesting! My experience has been that [outdated activity] is not as helpful a strategy today as it was 30 years ago; I prefer [modern equivalent].” It might also help if you initiate job-search conversations rather than wait for them to bring it up with you. You’ll feel more in control, and they’ll feel more reassured, if you’re the one saying, “I’m looking at such-and-such companies this week, updating this part of my cover letter, and hoping to apply to however-many jobs by Thursday,” rather than waiting for them to ask, “So, how’s the job search going?” (And good luck!)
Q. My divorced friend keeps criticizing my husband: I have a wonderful, supportive friend who is currently going through a divorce. I know both her and her husband reasonably well, and though I wished they’d found some way to work through their issues, it’s not surprising or incomprehensible that they’d separate. Since then my friend has been around a whole lot more lately, which has been a mixed blessing. One the one hand, I’m really glad to hang out and really talk to her, as we’d drifted apart due to her and her husband moving far away from us a couple of years ago (she’s since moved back to her old neighborhood). On the other hand, she’s super critical of my husband, and sometimes I feel like she’s working out her own issues with her husband on him.
I am not the most positive person, but I’m trying. Sometimes when I’m venting about something he does or when I mention him in passing, she comes down a little too hard on him, and even if I disagree with her assessment I feel irritated after having talked to her. I’m afraid that her state of mind has become a bit more than I can take, but she’s also so sensitive right now. She started seeing a therapist when she moved with her husband, but since she’s been back here, she’s failed to find someone new. I’ve been gently nudging her in that direction, but when I mention it, she stares at me blankly. I’d like to have fewer negative conversations with her about my own marriage, but I feel like the temptation for her to criticize is just too great. I almost feel like I should make my husband an off-limits topic of conversation, but that just seems weird given that he’s a pretty significant part of my life. How can I be there for my friend without having my own marriage compromised?
A: Stop venting about your husband to her. You don’t have to make him a forbidden topic of discussion punishable by excommunication, but you should use discretion when discussing a partner’s foibles to people outside of your relationship, and this is a situation that calls for several buckets of discretion. If you’ve created a feedback loop wherein you complain about your husband to your friend (who you know to be going through a difficult and embittering divorce), she agrees with and validates you, then agrees with you too much, to the point where you feel like you’ve created a space for her to attack your husband, then stop initiating the loop. If she brings him up in a way that bothers you, say this: “I’m really sorry, because I feel like I’ve complained excessively about Lemuel in the past, and given you the impression that I’m unhappy with him or that he is a bad partner, and that’s not the case. I don’t want to spend a lot of time criticizing him with other people, and I’m going to do a better job of taking my frustrations about him to him in the future.”
Q. Am I being a kindergarten cop?: My daughter had her first day of kindergarten this week. I learned that day from a different kindergarten teacher that my mother-in-law sat in on her class over a year ago. This would have been when we first moved into the district and more than a year before my daughter would even attend. My mother-in-law did not mention doing this to me or my husband. He and I feel this is a huge boundary violation and are trying to figure out how to address this with her. My family thinks my mother-in-law was just being a concerned grandparent and I should let it go. Thoughts?
A: What your mother-in-law did, as best as I can understand, is sit in on a kindergarten class your daughter would attend a year later. This strikes me as unusual but not necessarily upsetting. If she’s not otherwise interfering with the way you raise your daughter (I don’t imagine she’s trying to sit in on your daughter’s classes now, which would be troubling), I think you can let it go. You might ask her what she thought of the class and if she enjoyed visiting (“Sarah mentioned that you visited granddaughter’s kindergarten class last year; what did you think of it?”). But there’s no need to bring it up as something she owes you an explanation for.
Daniel Lavery: That’s enough for one day, I think. Be good, or at least benevolently indifferent, to the dogs in your life.