Danny 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 email@example.com.)
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Q. Not now: When my wife and I got married in grad school, we talked and planned out a future: finishing our degrees, living overseas for several years, and then coming back to the States and having kids. Then her father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. We both dropped out of school and move back to her little Midwest hometown. I took over the family business while my wife supported her mom and helped raise her younger brothers. That was four years ago. My father-in-law is thankfully healthy and in remission. My wife was able to telecommute to finish her degree and works for the local school district. Her brothers are in their final years of high school. Last month, we had a pregnancy scare and I freaked out. I felt nothing but relief when it turned out to be a false positive and my wife and I had a serious fight. I love her family but the business is tedious and mind-numbing. I am good at it, but I want to least TRY to live my dream if just to say I gave it a shot. I told my wife I want kids but not now and not here. I want to pick up on our plan. We have plenty of money saved up. Even if it’s just a year or two of hiking, hostels, and ridiculous hopes, I feel it is my turn. I need this. My wife tells me that I obviously hate her family and her hometown. I pointed out I came here for her, took over her family business, and gave up getting my master’s and seeing my family every day (we used to live an hour away from them). I am happy enough to talk about having kids and settling down here after we’ve had our adventures. We still are fighting and spend most of time in polite silence when we see our families. I don’t know what to do. I love my wife and I don’t want to see the world without her, but I am resentful. I have given and given and now I feel lied to. Please help me.
A: It sounds like this is a conversation you’ve been putting off (perhaps because you felt like you couldn’t have it while your wife’s father was still ill) until the only way to have it was to explode. Now you two have to be scrupulously honest about what you want in order to make up for the last few years of tiptoeing and making assumptions. Does your wife want to stay in her hometown forever? Would she like you to run the family business for the rest of your life? Tell her that you thought you both agreed that you would finish your degrees together and travel for a few years, but that she seems to have changed her mind—does she still want that? Is she open to doing anything other than living within close proximity of her family? If she’s not willing to do that, are you willing to compromise and stay? Couples counseling will help you answer those questions, because there are a lot of options in between “travel the world” and “stay next to my father until he dies” that might be available to the two of you. But you need to make it clear if you’re not able or willing to put in another four years (or even one year) in your current situation, before the next pregnancy scare comes along. Use protection in the meantime.
Q. I think your boyfriend tried to cheat with me: Years ago, I dated a guy, “Jason,” for about a year and a half. He wasn’t into it anymore and just wanted to be friends; I had a difficult time remaining friends since I had strong feelings, so I told him I couldn’t see him anymore. Fast-forward to a couple months ago. I was on Grindr when a guy hit me up and sent me a headless torso pic with the message “you’re hot.” I recognized that torso. It was Jason. He denied that it was him but said, “I bet Jason would love to hear from you again.” So I texted Jason, and we’ve chatted a few times since. Here’s the trouble. I know Jason had been dating “Steve,” whom I ran into yesterday. I was all, “Hey, so I reconnected with Jason recently. Are you two still together?” He said they were. It made me sad. And pissed. Maybe they have an open arrangement that I don’t know about, but still the fact that he would use me as his side dish is hurtful given our history. Jason and I haven’t met up, so no “cheating” happened, but my roommate thinks I should have told Steve that Jason hit me up on Grindr. My plan is to ignore further texts from Jason and hope not to run into Steve again. What do you think?
A: First of all, thank you for “I recognized that torso,” which is one of the greatest lines in the history of my tenure at this column. Second of all, you have already told Steve that Jason half-heartedly hit on you when you said to him, “Hey, so I reconnected with Jason recently. Are you two still together?” There is no new information you can provide Steve, and there is no new information Jason can provide you. Jason was kind of a lazy, self-involved jerk a few years ago, and he’s kind of a lazy, self-involved jerk now. Your plan to ignore Jason and not pursue further conversations with Steve is a good one; I encourage you to follow it to the letter.
Q. Holiday sleeping arrangements: In two weeks, my husband, our 6-year-old daughter, and 2-year-old son will fly to his parents’ house for a week. We last saw “Jane” and “John,” whom we typically see once per year, when they invited our daughter to stay overnight on a rollaway bed in their hotel suite in our city, which I OK’d to stop Jane’s nonstop talk about how depressed she is to see her grandkids just once or twice per year. After some wine the next day, she conspiratorially shared a “hilarious” story: My daughter had crawled into bed to sleep between her grandparents, where grandpa was totally nude because “that’s how John always sleeps.” Then, because my daughter kicks in her sleep, Jane left the bed to sleep on the rollaway parked in the suite’s sitting room, leaving my daughter alone in a bed in another room with her naked grandfather. Jane dismissed my stunned expression by telling me it was “fine,” because John told Jane he’d turned away from my daughter each time she faced him. When she saw I was upset, Jane told me I’d better not say anything about it to John, because he would be “embarrassed.” When I expressed my shock to my husband, he scolded me for thinking there was any issue other than maybe not great judgment but “he’s just an old man.” There was no direct discussion although John and Jane were aware I was angry. I’m VERY worried Jane is going to use tight sleeping space at her house as an excuse to ask if one or both kids can sleep in grandma and grandpa’s bed. How can I say no without “ruining Christmas” as my husband suggests I might do if I don’t allow this and then explain why? My husband has vetoed a hotel to avoid his mother’s hurt feelings, despite a long history of tension between John and me (and nearly everyone who’s ever met him, except my husband and his mom, who’ve grown immune to his bad behavior and excuse it with “that’s just the way he is”).
A: I scarcely know where to begin. Let me start by affirming that your reaction is sane and reasonable, that your husband and your mother-in-law’s behavior is bewildering and shocking, and that your father-in-law’s is profoundly upsetting. The most important point to stress is that your priority should not be in “preserving the sanctity of Christmas” or whatever kick your husband is on about. Christmas is just a day. It can get ruined if it needs to be. Your priority should be your children’s safety, and so should his. If a person sleeps naked, and a child crawls into their bed, it is not a hardship to go throw on some sweatpants and a shirt; there is absolutely no reason that should have happened. The fact that your father-in-law has a history of alienating people due to “bad behavior” and that his wife has a history of making sure no one criticizes him because it’s apparently unacceptable for him to feel “embarrassed” is worrying, to say the least. Ask your husband why he thinks it would ruin Christmas for you to ask that your father-in-law not sleep naked with your 6-year-old child. Does he thinks that’s a reasonable sentence when he hears it out loud?
Regardless of whether you can get your husband on board, you get to draw a firm line in the sand. Your children are not going to sleep with their grandparents because it’s not appropriate for adults to sleep naked with children. That is a reasonable request to make of a fellow adult, and if the response from any of your family members is anything other than a gracious acquiescence, you should veto your husband and get a hotel room for you and your children. They cannot look out for themselves, and apparently neither their father nor their grandmother is willing to look out for them either. You have to act to protect their safety, or no one in that house will.
Q. Dating a divorcee: I have been dating a kind, generous, intelligent, and hilarious man for over a year now. One of the issues I run into is my jealousy of his ex-wife. He and I are in our early 30s, but he was with his wife for over 10 years. They had only recently separated when we met (and are now officially divorced). Occasionally it becomes painstakingly obvious that his ex-wife was and is a consistent influence on his life (his family is still close with her, he avoids events with friends because she’ll be there, his friends ask if she can come to gatherings he’s arranged). Last night he told me he really liked some pajamas I’ve never owned. How do I get past these moments? I love him very much, but it gets tough to smile through and in my more childish moments, I’m sad because I’d be so excited to call him my husband, but it wouldn’t be the same fun and new experience for him.
A: I think if what you want is to marry someone who’s never been married before, then this might not be the guy for you. But you’re shooting yourself more than a little bit in your own foot here—marriage might not be a brand-new adventure for him, but he’s never been married to you before, and presumably (hopefully?) that would be “fun and new.” He was married for over a decade. That’s always going to be true. He can’t just erase her from his past. That’s true of many adults, so even if you weren’t with this man, you might have to deal with significant exes and the emotional fallout from your partner’s previous relationships. The best thing you can do in the moments you feel jealous or insecure is to acknowledge your feelings and let them pass. His ex-wife was a big part of his life, and he’s with you now. He still has a hard time being around her, and he chooses to be around you. If what you need is more occasional verbalizations about his feelings for you, speak up and ask for them. If what you need is to date someone who’s never been hurt or in love before, you should revise your expectations, preferably in therapy.
Q. Re: Holiday sleeping arrangements: I heard someone give a great solution for dealing with people who have different boundaries from you on this kind of stuff. You say: Of course I’m not saying that you (Grandpa) would do anything inappropriate, but I’m not comfortable with my child thinking this is OK. What if she goes to a sleepover at a friend’s house and the friend’s dad gets in bed with her naked? What if she thinks that’s OK because that’s how grandpa sleeps? Better to teach her slightly more conservative boundaries so that she can recognize inappropriate behavior from others as she starts to go out into the world.
The context I heard it in was a child taking baths with (divorced) dad who was told, Would you want her to think it’s OK for mom’s boyfriend/husband to take baths with her? Isn’t it better to not do so yourself if you wouldn’t want him to? Admittedly, that was a more direct parallel of dad/stepdad rather than grandpa/nonfamily member. But it’s a possible out.
A: I can see the logic behind that, but I think it also opens up the OP to having a back-and-forth discussion about what’s appropriate, and I don’t think this should be a debate. That said, if it’s helpful for her to illustrate her point with her husband with this example, she should use it.
Q. My beau fears big pharma: I take a merry assortment of drugs twice a day. An antidepressant, and anti-anxiety, a nerve pain pill, a couple of vitamins to counteract the neuropathy caused by the anti-seizure medication taken at night to stem the tide of migraines, for which I get Botox injections every three months. Rescue meds for the inevitable migraines that sneak through. Oh, and allergy meds because I’m allergic to the known universe. I’m just a broke girl, aren’t I. I have a new beau. He is just a lovely man, giving, caring, strong, and he is just lighting up my life. The nagging issue between us is that he doesn’t trust “big pharma.” He says their goal is to keep us sick, not to cure us. I cannot seem to convince him that I regard these drugs, especially the antidepressants, as the only thing keeping me on this side of the ground. I’ve offered to take him with me on my next visit to my med doc. He said that wasn’t necessary, but he still harps on how many pills I consume every day. What is it going to take for him to see that my struggle with PTSD and depression is not some temporary moodiness, but a lifelong struggle? I considered the dramatic tactic of going off everything, but that would be literally life threatening for me. I have been suicidal a couple of times, and I do not want to go there again. In fact, I just went in and talked to the doc about my meds and they upped the dosage on one of them because it wasn’t working as well. I feel better today, and can’t tell my sweetie about it. He’s even seen me at my worst PTSD moments, and still doesn’t get it. He wants me to try some holistic measures (unspecified). We do love each other, and as adults approaching 60, are not new to this game, but this is something new to me. What is it going to take for him to see how vital these drugs are to me?
A: I’m not sure you can make him see that. Your boyfriend has seen your worst PTSD episodes, and still thinks a vague, nonspecific holistic approach is a better treatment for your mental and physical health than the medication that’s currently saving your life. It is both true that the pharmaceutical industry has troubling practices and often prioritizes profit over all else, and that it produces many necessary, life-saving medications. He appears to be prioritizing his political beliefs over your individual, specific well-being, and I’m not sure there’s anything you can say that would sway him. It’s deeply distressing that you have considered going off of the medication that’s “the only thing keeping [you] on this side of the ground” just to get him to see things from your point of view. For your own mental health, I think you should tell him that your pharmaceutical regimen is necessary and not open for debate, and that you are only taking advice from medical professionals. If, after that, he still can’t keep his comments to himself, I think you should dump him, and look for someone who would not criticize you for taking care of yourself.
Q. Do we still invite him?: My best friend and her husband are going through a really rough patch, and are currently living apart (but are still spending time together/aren’t “officially” separated). We’re all pretty young, so I haven’t run into this situation before, and am wondering about what the kindest actions are. My partner and I are friends with both of them, but as I mentioned, one of them is my best friend. This seems to be coming up more as the holidays approach. Do we still address a gift to both of them, or to just her, or should we get them separate gifts? Do they both still get invited to our parties? They are both dealing with a whole heap of difficult emotions right now, and I don’t want to make things harder for them.
A: Ask your best friend! She can tell you what she wants, what she can’t handle, and what reasonable accommodations she’d appreciate you making while she and her husband try to figure out their relationship. If she’s not sure of what she wants, you can take it on a case-by-case basis. There’s no formal etiquette here, so don’t worry that you’re violating some important Friendship Law if you’re not sure what to do.
Danny M. Lavery: That’s all for this week, everyone. If your family celebrates Christmas and someone tries to tell you that you are “ruining Christmas,” unless you are actually trying to throw their tree and presents into a large industrial fire, they are exaggerating. You are probably just trying to state a feeling out loud, and don’t let them pressure you into not saying it.
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