Danny 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.)
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. But what about the kids?: A friend has lost a lot of weight and with it—her mind. She has moved her husband and their two kids into a house with another couple and their two kids. Supposedly, they are friends. Supposedly, everyone should mind their own business. But the thing is: When she posts her whole life on social media for the world to see, we are left wondering. Is she gay? Will she leave him? Are they swingers? What about the kids? Are they seeing this? Are they being made to believe this is normal? Any attempt to tell her to stop posting about her life or that we are worried about the kids gets an unfriend on social media. To be honest we don’t care if she is gay or whether they are swinging, at this point we are concerned for the well-being of the kids. What would Prudie do?
A: Prudie would unfriend her on social media pre-emptively, which I encourage you to do as well. Don’t take the titillating bait from the type of person who says “Mind your own business, but also please read this post about my life that vaguely alludes to a number of scandalous possibilities.” She may want you to take the bait so she can have the satisfaction of freaking out the square, but this is not your problem. Your friend is not currently listening to feedback, but she also does not appear to be harming her children (having unconventional living arrangements and poor taste in Facebook posts is not illegal). You say you are “concerned for the well-being of the kids,” but nothing in your letter suggests they are in danger of anything more serious than being embarrassed by their mother. If you suspect they are being sexually and/or physically abused or neglected, call CPS; if you are merely shocked by the possibility that their parents may be in an open marriage, keep it to yourself. Maybe she is gay, maybe she will leave her husband, maybe they are swingers, maybe their kids read their social media updates and maybe they don’t, but the beautiful part of this bonkers story is that you do not have to answer a single one of these questions. Accept the gift of not having to care about this.
Q. Language barricade: Please settle a relationship-long debate with my boyfriend: Is his family being rude when we all have dinner together and they conduct literally the entire conversation in Spanish? (NB: I do not speak a word of Spanish—and my boyfriend told me to “get Rosetta Stone” when I expressed interest in learning from him—and his family lives in the U.S. and is 100 percent fluent in English.) He claims that this is similar to when we hang out with my family and they discuss, e.g., people or events with which my boyfriend is unfamiliar, but I think what his family is doing is far more exclusionary. What do you think?
A: If your boyfriend’s family wants to speak Spanish in their own home during a private dinner, then it would be boorish to insist they speak English for your own benefit. It would be different if they refused ever to speak to you in your own language, but you don’t say that’s the case—merely that they occasionally carry on monolingual conversations in your presence. Bear in mind that they are not speaking Spanish for the purpose of excluding you; they are speaking Spanish to one another because that is their native language and they spend most of their time outside the home speaking English. Rosetta Stone is an excellent language-learning tool, and I encourage you to take your boyfriend’s advice and pick up, at the very least, some basic conversational Spanish phrases.
Q. Raising grandkids: My husband and I have been raising two of my grandkids: Their mothers are from my first marriage and addicted to drugs. It was rough the first few years, but I told my husband I couldn’t turn my back on the grandkids and he said that we together could do it. Fast-forward several years and he’s retired, the kids are 14 and 9, and I feel like I get punished all the time for “ruining his life and retirement” by choosing the grandkids over him. He always starts off that it was the only choice we could make, but there isn’t a day that goes by he doesn’t have a sarcastic remark about me or the grandkids’ mothers or how dishonest and horrible all women are. We tried marriage counseling, but he wasn’t honest so I didn’t feel I could be. What can I do? I love him as do the grandkids, but I don’t know how much more emotional punishment I can take.
A: You can leave him. It is not possible to compromise with a man who promises to help you raise your children out of one side of his mouth, then blames you for “ruining his life” for taking them in out of the other side. You have tried counseling and he refused to tell the truth, and he’s not just checked out of the child-raising process, he’s actively making it more difficult by deriding your attempts, your children, and your gender. You may love him, but he clearly does not reciprocate, and your children deserve better than to grow up in a house where every day your husband makes it clear that they’re preventing him from being happy, that they come from “tainted” people, and that women are incapable of being honest. You say you don’t know how much more emotional punishment you can take. If you stay with him, you will receive ceaseless, relentless, unending emotional punishment—leave him, for the sake of your children, and for the sake of your own heart.
Q. Depressed best friend: A good friend of mine, Z, is depressed. I noticed before anyone else, as I recognized her change in demeanor and the things she said from when I was depressed myself. I told a mutual best friend of ours, A, about my concerns, and recently Z admitted to A that she is not doing well. We have decided it would be best to talk with Z before we do anything else. But I think that talking with her with the two of us might feel like an ambush to Z. I’m also scared that this may cause me to relapse (although I don’t know how real the chances of that are). However, I think I am better at seeing certain signs of mental health issues than A (with which A agrees), as I suffer(ed) from them myself. We could also go straight to a school counselor (we are in the last year of high school), but that may mean that I would be forced to tell them about my own issues, which I would very much prefer not to. What do you think we should do?
A: If you believe your friend is an immediate danger to herself or others, then yes, a visit to the school counselor is warranted, and that right away. If you don’t, then cutting her out of the conversation and going over her head would be premature and perhaps unnecessarily alienating. The first issue for you to address is your own well-being. If your mental health is unpredictable enough that speaking to your friend about depression might be harmful for you, then speak to your doctor and/or psychiatrist so that you can adjust your treatment accordingly. Do this first, so that you are not putting yourself in the way of unnecessary distress—you cannot be helpful to your friend if your own depression feels like it’s spiraling out of control.
Beyond that, if you think that your friend would be overwhelmed by hearing from both of you at once, then have separate conversations. Remember that all you can do is ask questions and offer support. You cannot force her to admit she is depressed or to accept treatment, particularly if she has already turned 18, but you can share with her what you’ve noticed, your own experience, and your personal support if she wants to seek counseling and/or medication.
Q. How do I stop my dad from coming to my wedding?: I have never been close with my father. My entire life he has been staunchly unsupportive, negative, controlling, and just in general hateful toward me, as well as to my mother and sister. My dad has extreme anxiety that he always refused to treat. This has resulted in everlasting mental health issues and resentment for all. For 33 years, my parents have remained stubbornly married despite being completely incompatible and making us all miserable.
I became engaged to my longtime partner recently. We plan on having a small ceremony later this year at the city hall in the European country my partner is from and where we are also moving to very soon. It was just a given my dad would not be there since he abhors traveling and has never been on a plane in his life. Well now, according to my mother and sister, he is insisting on being at my wedding! I cannot bear the thought of my dad not only being present on my special day, but having to host the world’s worst traveler and most grumpy and awkward man—and in our tiny one-bedroom apartment nonetheless (hotels in the city would be too expensive). He has a habit of ruining all special occasions and makes all those around him share in his misery.
I cannot bear the thought. This is a man who enrages me, I cannot stand to be around for more than five minutes, and truthfully would embarrass the living hell out of me to my friends and in-laws with his very unprogressive and backward mentality. I was so excited about my upcoming nuptials but now feel riddled with anxiety. I’m hoping it’s just an empty “threat,” but if it’s not, what should I do? How do I tell my own father I don’t want him at my wedding while my mother and sister are welcome? I know it’s a strange dynamic, but it’s always been this way. I will be staying at my parents’ home soon for two weeks before the big move, so it’s bound to come up.
A: You’re well within your rights not to want your father at your wedding, but you cannot simply invite your mother and hope she will understand that means her husband is not welcome. Do not assume he will know he is not welcome simply because you do not like him. You have to make it clear to both of your parents that your father cannot come, and you must accept this may mean your mother will decline to attend as well. If she has been choosing to stay miserable with him for 33 years, it’s likely that she will choose to stay with him if he’s not invited to your wedding, too. Do not stay with your parents before moving overseas, even if it’s only for two weeks. You should not accept your father’s hospitality if you are planning on excluding him from your wedding unless you were facing dire poverty or homelessness. Stay with friends, find a hotel, change your plans, but don’t crash on your parents’ couch and then tell them only one of them is welcome at your wedding.
Q. Re: Raising grandkids: “Leave him”: You say that like it’s not likely to be disastrous financially.
A: We don’t know that it would be! He’s retired, and at no point does she suggest she would be in a financial bind if they were to separate. It’s always a possibility, of course, and divorce is never cheap regardless of income, but absent strong evidence that it would be financially untenable for her to leave her husband, I strongly encourage her to do so.
Q. The history discussion: My boyfriend and I have been dating for three years and living together for a year. Everything is great and I am certain he is the man I will spend my life with and have a family with. We met when I was 28 and he was 31. While we have both had relationships in the past he is the first man I have ever introduced to my family, and we both are each other’s first partners to live together. We have never had a serious talk about past relationships, and I am wondering if that is normal and if that conversation is necessary. We know we have both dated other people before, as it comes up occasionally in casual conversation. But I don’t know any serious details about his past relationships, nor him about mine. I consider those times closed books, I don’t regret any of them, but they just are no longer relevant. Does every couple dive into past relationships in detail? Is there something to gain from it?
A: Some couples discuss their previous relationships at length; some couples don’t. You’re not pretending you both arrived at your relationship as tabulae rasae, and neither of you freezes up or lashes out when the existence of former partners comes up. If you’d like to chat about it, you can—you might find it interesting or helpful to learn what worked for your partner in previous relationships and what didn’t—but you’re not violating some rule of intimacy and you’re not missing out on some next-level form of closeness by not going into great detail about each one of your exes.
Q. Garbage neighbors: I live in an upscale building, but my neighbor regularly leaves empty boxes, garbage bags, a cat condo, etc. in the hallway for extended periods of time. I’ve complained to the building to no avail. This is a fire hazard and can potentially attract vermin, but it also stresses me out. I don’t want to say it traumatizes me to see junk in the hallway, but it’s a constant reminder of a bad time in my life when I lived in a less nice building, where this kind of thing happened all of the time. The building has spoken to them several times, and it’s a violation of the lease, but they don’t care. I love my place, and certainly am not moving over this. I was thinking I should write them an anonymous note telling them how inconsiderate they are, piling my garbage on theirs, or putting their boxes outside the garbage shoot on the other side of the hallway, so people can see how inconsiderate they are and hopefully also complain to the building. Any advice?
A: The order of operations when dealing with a problem with a neighbor is generally as follows: Speak to the neighbor directly, then the supervisor or landlord, then the relevant housing/fire/zoning authority. At no point should anonymous notes or “adding garbage to the pile” be a part of your strategy. You haven’t yet spoken to your neighbor, so knock on their door and outline your concerns and make your request politely. When that likely fails, you can file a fire hazard complaint with your local fire department, and contact your city’s tenants’ rights board. If you haven’t made a complaint to your landlord in writing, do so now, and keep a copy for your files. Your tenants’ rights board will help you find the appropriate housing committee or government agency for escalation, and to make sure your landlord provides a safe, habitable building for all residents.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone! Remember that “You’ll change your mind,” even if true, is one of the unloveliest sayings imaginable. See you next week!