Dear Prudence

Married to His Mom

Prudie advises a woman who loves her mother-in-law more than her husband.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, 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 prudence@slate.com.)

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. I love my mother-in-law, and kind of hate her son: I’ve been married for 10 years and in that time my mother-in-law has become my best friend. She welcomed me to the family with open arms, we travel together, go shopping, cook together. Unfortunately, things have never been all that great with my husband. “Rick” has cheated on me twice (that I know of), drinks way too much, and loves to spend money we don’t have. I would have left years ago if I didn’t love his mother so much. She knows nothing about our marital problems. Rick and I never talked to her about our problems, and while she knows there are some issues, she doesn’t know specifics. Rick and I have been in counseling for over half our marriage. Counseling isn’t working, and we’ve started to move toward divorce. I brought up the subject of a possible split to my mother-in-law the other day and asked her if it would hurt our friendship. She hesitated, then said that we’d probably never see each other again. I was floored. I didn’t expect her to be as close to me as we have been, but I had thought we could at least stay friends. I really want to save my relationship with my mother-in-law but don’t want to stay married to her son. Do you think this is possible?

A: Maybe, maybe not. It’s possible that if your mother-in-law were aware of your husband’s many marital shortcomings, she’d feel more inclined to maintain a relationship with you. It’s also possible that no matter how reasonably you behave, how much your husband has wronged you, and how much you like your mother-in-law, once you and your husband have divorced, your mother-in-law will find it impossible to continue your friendship. That is, unfortunately, sometimes one of the side effects of divorce. The only thing you can do is let her know how much you care for her, that you’d like to continue a friendly relationship if possible, and then let her make her own decision. You can’t save your relationship with your mother-in-law on her behalf—she has to decide whether or not she’s comfortable maintaining a friendship with her former daughter-in-law. Even if you think it’s unreasonable, I’m afraid it’s not up to you (and it should go without saying that I don’t think it’s worth staying in a miserable marriage just because you love his mother. The world is full of nice women; you’ll find others to befriend).

Q. Emergency dating expense: I am divorced with two kids, and I am dating a divorced woman with two kids (kids are from third to seventh grade). We took a road trip together recently, and during the trip I closed my driver-side door while her kid was holding the door bar so his hand was slammed by the door. I suggested that we go to the local ER, we did, and thankfully everything was OK. Here is the issue. Fast-forward a month or two later, and she texted me the ER bill (about $70 after insurance) with a clear hint that she thinks that I should pay the bill. I paid it, but I am very disappointed that she even thought of sending the bill to me. We both have good jobs so the amount is not an issue. She, on the other hand, thought that she should not have had to ask. I should have offered to pay and pay it without question. The money is not an issue, and I certainly would be happy to help in any way if it is needed, but I don’t see a future together for us if I will be held fully liable, and blamed, for every accident like this in the future. I am thinking this is a deal-breaker and the relationship at this point is too transactional. Am I being unreasonable?

A: Sometimes I hope very much that a letter is fake. This is one of them. I would very much prefer to think someone is having a harmless laugh at my expense by crafting a bizarre scenario than to think somewhere out there exists a person—a parent!—who balks at spending 70 measly bucks he knows he can easily afford after slamming a car door on a little boy’s hand. I cannot begin to imagine why you think you should not have been held liable for her son’s injury. Even though it was an accident (I hope it was an accident! Your letter certainly gives me cause for concern), unless some sort of a ghost or tree nymph slammed the door while you weren’t looking, the fault was yours for closing the car door without checking to make sure no children were still attached to the other end. If you were really “happy to help in any way if it is needed,” you would have happily offered to pay the bill without being asked, which suggests to me you are being disingenuous. I hope your girlfriend breaks up with you as soon as possible. I hope she invents time travel so that she can break up with you before you tried to fob her off with “It’s not about the money, it’s the principle of the thing, and the principle of the thing is that I don’t think I should be held responsible when my actions have consequences I don’t like,” then travels further back in time to convince your ex-wife to leave you sooner. You’re a jerk.

Q. Can we be friends?: I met a nice guy recently on a dating site. We got along pretty well, and we have been chatting for a month and a half. We have never met but were planning to do so when one night, he confessed that, though his profile states he is single, he is not. I asked him why he was telling me that and why he would do such a thing. He claimed he had trouble with the idea his current relationship would be his last one but did not want to break up because he had had his heart broken and did not want to do that to another person. He also says that I am a wonderful person, and, in other circumstances, he would already be in love with me. I decided to forgive him—he seems very confused, but he does not seem to have a mean bone in his body. I told him that nothing would happen between us as long as he is in a relationship and that we should be friends (because I find him friend material somehow). He seems to be sticking to the agreement, and I am trying to be very honest, to get him to work on his relationship, not to break it. But he also keeps pushing (“if you wanted more” and so forth) and not realizing that, for our friendship to work, he really must let go. I pushed more for us to meet because I think he does not realize he may like me as a fantasy relationship but not as a true, warts-and-all, weird person (people generally either adore me or hate me). So am I in the right, or is it a car crash waiting to happen? I really just want to be friends with him.

A: I disagree entirely that this guy “doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.” To begin with, everyone does—the kindest person alive still has a mean stapes or malleus, at the very least, so let’s dispense with the fiction that this person is somehow incapable of meanness. He is. Let us weigh what you’ve learned about him on both sides of the scale. On the one hand, you got to know him because he lied about his relationship status online; you have never met in person; he has declared that he is officially not in love with you but that he could be if circumstances were right; you have for some reason volunteered to become his relationship coach in order to improve his connection with his girlfriend (whom you have also never met); he continues to push—with plausible deniability—for a sexual or romantic relationship with you by pretending that if “you” wanted more from him he’d be willing to give it to you. On the other hand: You seem to think he’s a nice guy (I’m not sure why; there’s no evidence in that category yet). You say you think of yourself as a “weird person” who people either love or hate, but please don’t pursue this bizarre, inconsistent nonrelationship just because you think you have to settle for anyone who demonstrates an interest in you.

Q. Safer in the closet?: I am a 28-year-old queer woman who is married to a wonderful transgender man. Recently we moved to a more conservative state because of our jobs, and our neighbors and co-workers assume we are a cisgender/straight couple. I am inclined to let them believe this unless they specifically ask. My husband, however, wants to tell everyone he is trans and that when we fell in love, he had not yet transitioned. Although we live in a more moderate area of the state, I am concerned about his safety as well as being potentially ostracized from our community. My husband says we should live by example and show our conservative neighbors and co-workers that people like us aren’t weird or perverted. I say it’s no secret, but I don’t feel comfortable going out of my way to come out in a potentially hostile environment. What do you think?

A: If your husband feels more comfortable coming out upfront—and there is an advantage to knowing an acquaintance’s response earlier rather than later—then he should do so. If he isn’t concerned for his safety, then that’s his choice. If, for your part, you prefer to wait until you know someone well before disclosing, I don’t believe that your divergent (but complementary) coming-out strategies are at odds with one another. That said, you should ask your husband how he feels about your proposed strategy, since he’s the one who stands to be most affected by your methods. Would he feel comfortable if other people assumed he was cis, and you did not correct them? Would he find it acceptable with, say, grocery-store clerks and passing acquaintances, but prefer to be out with co-workers and neighbors? You should know one another’s limits and find as many points of agreement as you can upfront, so you’re not making life harder for one another.

Q. Redistributing the wealth: My father died last month and left everything to me. Thing is, I have two sisters and a brother whom he cut out of his life for one reason or another. Likely bad reasons; he wasn’t a loving father but a very petty man. Not really sure how I stayed on his good side. So I told my siblings: Don’t sweat it. Regardless of the will, I’m splitting the inheritance four ways between us. Here’s the problem. My aunt heard, and she’s outraged that I would undermine her brother’s will. She says Father had his reasons for disinheriting them, and I should respect them. She implies she knows something I don’t but won’t say. Me, I’m guessing she’s as petty as my father. But she has my wife convinced there’s something to what she’s saying. And it’s not a small amount of money I’m dividing up, so “fair’s fair” doesn’t have the strength it should as an argument. So I guess I’m looking for affirmation. Fair’s still fair, right?

A: I am willing to get yelled at by estate lawyers if they have some specialized knowledge that contradicts this, but hell yes, fair’s still fair. If your father wanted your aunt to handle his money after he died, he would have left it to her. He didn’t. He left it to you, and you get to use it as you see fit. If you wanted to buy a life-size statue of your father made out of soap shavings and launch it on a raft made of two-dollar bills into the Pacific, you’d have the right to do it. Your aunt can be as outraged about your generosity as she wants to be. I’d bet half that inheritance that your aunt’s vague insinuations are totally baseless and have more to do with pettiness and jealousy than they do with some unforgivable secret sins your siblings have committed. It’s your money and you want to help your siblings with it. Good for you.

Q. Breaking up is hard to do even with a hair stylist: I have been seeing the same stylist for almost eight years now. In the beginning I loved the way he did my hair, but in the past year or so it has really gone downhill. He stopped using bleach on my hair and did not tell me. He was gradually darkening my hair because he felt my hair was “damaged.” It’s not, at least not more than it was before. I asked him to lighten it and use bleach, but he will not. I also have extensions in my hair, and he is not an expert in them and I am pretty sure not doing them right. However, we are great friends and I do not know how to handle this. I have made an appointment with another stylist and feel extremely guilty about it. How do I break this to him? Extensions aside, I have asked him five times to make my hair lighter and he refuses.

A: Come now, take courage. Life is stern and life is earnest, but if you cannot bring yourself to say to a hairstylist, “I want my hair lighter and you don’t want to do it, so I’ve made an appointment elsewhere,” I cannot help you. Whether your hair is damaged or not, life is too short to go through it with insufficiently bleached hair, if bleached hair is what brings you joy. The man is a professional hairstylist; he must realize that if he refuses to style a customer’s hair as she wants it, there is at least an outside possibility that she will take her business elsewhere. If your friendship is a good one, it presumably does not depend exclusively on your continued patronage. Tell him you’ve made an appointment with another stylist and have done with it.

Q. Not liking life on the farm: All my life I’ve dreamed of living on a farm. I never thought it would really happen, but a few years ago I took a great leap of faith and married a man I met via a dating website for farmers. The trouble is that farm life isn’t like I thought it would be. My husband has to work really hard, sometimes 12 to 15 hours a day especially during the harvest. And every day he has to get up before dawn to milk and do other chores. Plus the work is dirty so he is always filthy. He’s really good about not tracking dirt into the house, but it is still annoying. This really isn’t how I pictured farm life and I kind of want out. But my husband is such a great guy that I don’t want to leave. I doubt he’d want to start another career that could take us back to the city. I just don’t know what to do. Can you see a way out?

A: I think this is an important warning for other farm-fascinated urbanites thinking about moving out to the country on impulse. Try visiting for a week or two first, or joining a work-study agricultural program, rather than going straight from “apartment-dweller” to “farmer’s wife.” I’m not sure why you were surprised to find that farm life is both dirty and difficult, but it’s hard to muster a great deal of sympathy for your situation, given that you performed so little research before making such a drastic, life-changing decision. You do, at least, have the option now of putting forth a bit more effort toward understanding the new life you’ve chosen with your husband. Admit to him that you’ve found it more of a challenge than you anticipated. If all you’re doing with your time right now is scowling at the dirty boots out on the porch, try doing more with your time—either try to help out around the farm, or find some other work or passion project to keep yourself occupied. Give this “lifelong dream” a good-faith effort before bailing on it completely. If you have to go, you have to go, but maybe you don’t have to. Give this a try. I don’t think you’ve given it your best shot yet.

Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for me this week, everyone. Check doors before slamming them. Visit farms before moving there. Pay hospital bills for your girlfriend’s children you can easily afford cheerfully and on time.

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If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.