Daniel 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. Is it all in my head?: My boyfriend and I have been together for 6½ years. He went on vacation a few months ago without me (I could not get out of work), and he met a woman on the plane ride there. She is his age, had similar interests, and loves beer. He gave her his number with the intent of possibly setting her up with our mutual friend whom he was visiting on vacation. They had all hung out a few different times, and he hung out with her one on one while drinking on vacation. Now normally, I wouldn’t be peeved. But my BF failed to mention her to me the whole time while he was on vacation because he said I would overreact about the whole thing. Fast-forward a week later, and they have been texting nonstop. She came out to our area, which is where her parents live, and my boyfriend made it a big deal that he didn’t want me to meet her. He felt that I had too much hostility toward her, and he didn’t want me to embarrass us. He told me that he does not find her attractive, and it’s simply a friendship. But his sneakiness with it while on vacation is what really bothered me. Why hide it if there’s nothing going on? This would be different if it wasn’t a “new” friend. I have never felt this way with his previous female friends. I have gone to therapy about this, and I feel that his behavior with her is borderline emotional cheating. I’ve confronted him about it, and for the past three months almost every argument is about this person. I understand that we all seek out connections from other people, but please tell me: Am I overreacting? Is this normal?
A: Oh, this is some varsity-level gaslighting. Your boyfriend has offered you just enough truth to make you feel like you can’t get upset with him. He met another woman on vacation and gave her his number, but his “intention” was to set her up with someone else, so you can’t possibly get upset that he started spending time alone drinking with her. You’re also not allowed to get upset that he kept this from you because—and this is some fancy footwork—he knew you would get upset unless he kept it from you, therefore he had to keep it from you. He’s already predicted and invalidated your every response before you have one, and now he’s telling you that you have no right to feel upset over his transparent boundary-pushing. You’re not allowed to resent this new entanglement because it’s “embarrassing” to him, but he’s spent exactly zero time wondering whether his new relationship is embarrassing to you. He’s lying to you at every turn and attempting to forestall your completely reasonable questions and responses because he’s a jerk. He is not “borderline emotionally cheating,” he is cheating on you, and he is doing it so flagrantly and openly that he has you convinced you can’t possibly be seeing what you’re actually seeing. This guy is a red flag factory. He lies to you, he tells you you don’t have a right to be upset, he claims that he lies to you out of a noble attempt to spare you embarrassment, which is a crock of shit, and he’s definitely sleeping with her. Dump him now, and dump your therapist while you’re at it. Any therapist who can hear this story and not reassure you that you’re not overreacting, that you’re being lied to and manipulated and cheated on, is not the right therapist for you. You deserve so much better.
Q. Work friend is slacker, doesn’t know it: I have a friend at work who asked me to help her with her résumé. She is unhappy because she gets passed over for opportunities offered to nearly everyone else in her position elsewhere in the institution. What she doesn’t realize is her attitude keeps her from getting any help from those around her. She has very set ideas about what is and is not “her job.” No matter what crisis is going on, she leaves for her break at exactly the scheduled time, takes her full lunch hour, and leaves for home exactly on time. She is also known for using sick days during busy, stressful times. She is part of a union that protects her, but the union cannot force others to help her out beyond what she already has. I’d like to tell her what I observe, but it won’t be taken well. She’s a good person and she is in dire financial need of an opportunity that would get her better benefits, and would not involve a promotion or a pay raise. No one will help her (and I am not in a position to help her). Even if she does get another job, these qualities will continue to hurt her prospects. Is there a good way to help?
A: I don’t know that I agree with your assessment of your friend’s shortcomings. Having a clear idea of one’s own job description, taking legally mandated breaks during the workday, occasionally getting sick regardless of how busy things are at work, and going home on time sounds fairly reasonable and self-actualized to me. The problem may be your institution’s expectation that employees exploit themselves, not your friend’s appropriate boundaries; I can’t imagine she will be held back at a healthier workplace by doing things like “taking an hour for lunch,” and I hope she’s able to find a healthier workplace sooner rather than later.
Q. Not ready to be a mother again: I married my husband after his youngest daughter turned 16. The rest of our children were out of the house. My stepdaughter is a sweet girl but irresponsible and flighty. She changed her major five times, changed schools three times, and has never been employed longer than four months. I don’t have an issue with helping her pay for her education, car, or rent. My husband and I are well-off, as is his ex-wife. Finances are not the issue—my stepdaughter wanting to move in with us while she’s pregnant is. She is constantly fighting with her mother and calls my husband crying. My husband is a soft touch and has a history of caving in to his little girl. As we were selling our house, my stepdaughter got it into her head she had to have a pug, only to abandon the animal with us because her roommates refused to let it live with them. I had to take care of this dog for nearly a year while my stepdaughter refused to take responsibility or let us rehome the animal. Ultimately her brother ended up adopting the dog after we sold our house. I have no doubt that if she lives with us, it will be a repeat. My children are grown, we are planning on retiring in less than six years—I am not up to sleepless nights and running after a child. I will love this baby as my first grandchild, but I will not be its mother. My husband and I have repeated this conversation ad nauseam. We come to an accord only for the next phone call to unravel it all. I said I would be willing to help her pay for an apartment and go to school but not live under our roof, but my stepdaughter wants to move in. The baby is going to be born this spring. We have to resolve this, and I don’t know how. Please help me.
A: I’m afraid precedent is not on your side. Your request seems fairly reasonable—you want to help support your stepdaughter financially without letting her move in with you—but it doesn’t sound like your husband is interested in listening to reason. He’s reacting instinctively, as he so often does with his daughter, which is why your tentative agreement falls apart every time she calls him crying about his soon-to-be-born grandchild. If you and your husband both agree, in his more clearheaded moments, that it would not be a good idea for let his daughter move in, then what you have is a mere problem of enforcement. A good couples counselor would be able to help you develop talking points and boundary-setting strategies in that case.
If, however, your husband really wants to let his daughter move in with you, and would happily help raise his grandchild full time (and sign you up for full-time parenting duties in the process), then I think you have to ask yourself what you’re going to do if and when he caves. Your first order of business should be to discover just what sort of living arrangements your husband is willing to consider when it comes to his never-fledged fledgling, and to make it clear what arrangements you can and cannot abide. There is a very good chance that, despite your objections, your husband will let his daughter move in, and you will then have to decide whether or not you will want to stay. If the pug incident was merely a dress rehearsal for this round of late-in-life co-parenting, you’re going to have to look out for yourself.
Q. Etiquette 911: We’ve had house guests, my brother- and sister-in-law, off and on for the last couple of weeks. They are ideal visitors: thoughtful, tidy, and never let a dish touch the counter before whisking it into the dishwasher. Unknown to them, my husband and I have an ongoing squabble regarding visitor protocol. He feels that overnight guests should never be left to see themselves to bed. Instead, at least one of the hosts should stay up and socialize until they’re ready to retire. I disagree. Once doors are locked and guests schooled on the remote, anyone who needs their rest should go to bed. Tired hosts are not happy hosts. We have discussed it in the cold light of day and are deadlocked. I say “goodnight” and he, exhausted, stays up until all have tucked themselves in and then blames me for his catatonic state the next day. Thoughts?
A: Your husband has arranged things very neatly if he’s found a way to blame you for his idea. Go to bed when you’re tired! One doesn’t stand upon ceremony with in-laws over the course of a multiweek visit; this is family and you’re presumably not worried they’ll steal the silverware or take offense if they’re left in your living room unattended for an hour or two. Tell your guests that you are heading to bed, that you hope they have everything they need, and that you’ll see them in the morning. If your husband wants to keep taking up his lonely vigil, he’s welcome to it, but it’s nobody’s fault but his own if he’s tired in the morning.
Q. Re: Not ready to be a mother again: LW, the only way you will end up not raising the grandchild is if you divorce your husband and move away. I am in the exact same situation. Our grandchild is 3; she lives with us and the mother appears from time to time when she wants to play mommy. Either accept this, or file for divorce. You WILL end up with them living with you.
A: Thanks for this possible vision of the future, and I hope you’re finding ways to make your current situation bearable for yourself.
Q. My husband is gross: How do you tell your spouse that their lack of personal hygiene is ruining your physical attraction to them? My husband of 17 years refuses to use deodorant and hardly brushes his teeth. I am finding it harder and harder to be intimate with him because his body odor and bad breath are making my physically sick. I have tried different brands of toothpaste, showering together, brushing our teeth together, and nothing seems to work. Last night he tried to be intimate with me, and I pushed him away and told him that I would not kiss him until he brushed his teeth, that his breath was a turn off, and he told me I was being a drama queen and went to sleep. I honestly do not know what is causing him to behave this way; he was not like this when we first got married, but it has definitely progressed over the last five years. I can’t think of anything that has changed in our lives, but I need to find a way to get him to understand that there will be no sex until he brushes his teeth!
A: It takes a great deal of confidence to tell someone who’s just said, “Your breath smells so bad I don’t want to kiss you” that they’re being a “drama queen.” Your husband has no qualms about being direct with you, so I think you should be direct (if slightly less unkind in your directness) with him. Tell your husband that his precipitous decline in attention to matters of personal hygiene is noticeable and off-putting, and that you don’t want to have sex unless he’s achieved a basic level of cleanliness. I know sudden, drastic changes in personal care can sometimes be indicative of dementia or brain injury, so I suppose I should throw out the possibility that there is a medical (perhaps even a depression-related) issue at play here, but there’s nothing in your letter that suggests this drop-off in cleanliness is connected to other changes in behavior, so I don’t want to assume there’s more to this situation than garden-variety casual neglect and indifference. If you have reason to believe your husband is in need of medical care, by all means consider the possibility that he’s unwell, but if he’s simply stopped taking care of himself by regularly showering and applying deodorant, then you should be frank about how off-putting you find it.
Q. Should I tell my father the truth?: For as long as I can remember I’ve always resented my father—at first because of his relationship with my mother, whom he’s been married to for almost 30 years (he’s not physically abusive, but he is controlling financially and emotionally neglectful), and later on, when I entered adolescence, for the way he treated me when I began to show signs of mental illness. Now as an adult who has moved out, I still talk to him occasionally, but I’m cool toward him. Now, my parents are on the verge of divorce and so I see/talk to him even less because my mom isn’t serving as intermediary anymore, and now he’s beginning to guilt me. Should I tell him why our relationship is nonexistent? My brother did that very thing, albeit in a horribly unproductive way, and now he’s dead to him. But I can’t bring myself to fake a relationship just to keep the peace.
A: It’s entirely up to you. There’s not a wrong choice you can make here, I think. You say you don’t want to “fake a relationship” to keep the peace, but you only talk to him occasionally, and when you do it’s cool and distant, so I don’t think you’re in danger of faking anything. If you’re able to brush off his attempts at guilting you without too much effort, you may decide there’s no reason to have it out in a big confrontation. On the other hand, if the attempts at manipulation start to ramp up, and if you find yourself exhausted even by these infrequent, impersonal conversations, you may decide you want to acknowledge reality and tell your father that the reason you aren’t close is because of how controlling and neglectful (what a dreadful combination) he’s been toward you, your mother, and your sibling. If he responds by cutting you off, you haven’t lost much. That said, I don’t think you owe your father the truth, especially since your relationship is not currently built on false closeness or affection, so if you want to spare yourself the trouble, do so with a clear conscience.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Take a full hour for lunch today if you can, everyone. See you back here next week.