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.)
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. Want my wife back: The last time I was intimate with my wife was before our son was born—he is 2-and-a-half now. My wife’s pregnancy with difficult, and our son was in the hospital for a week when he was born. Since then, he has been the focus of her every waking moment despite the fact that he is a very happy, active toddler now. I love my son, I love his mother, but I desperately miss my wife. My son co-sleeps with us and every conversation revolves around him. I have tried to help—get a housekeeper to come in twice a week, get my sister to watch our son so we can go out to dinner, even invite my in-laws to stay for the weekend so we could have help. My wife doesn’t want it. She didn’t like having a stranger cleaning our home and hates letting our son out of her sight. We end up getting the meal to-go and are home before 7:30. I miss sex but even more I miss having actual adult conversations with her. Art, history, world events: I fell in love with a woman who had wit to spare, and now our only conversations are about the Wiggles. I bring this up and we end up arguing. She says I am pressuring her and we end up going in circles. I am tired. I am lonely. Porn meets the physical needs but makes me feel worse when I climb into bed with my wife and son. We have tried counseling briefly through our church, but we stopped after a few sessions. My wife said it made her feel like a failure as a wife and mother. I just don’t know what to do.
A: Let’s begin with the obvious: If you “briefly” attended a handful of sessions with a church counselor, I am not surprised you and your wife did not find a great deal of relief from therapy, because you have not actually tried therapy. Therapy is not something you resort to because someone has failed; if your counselor was making your wife feel like a failure, then you need a new counselor. If the mere prospect of attending therapy sessions was making your wife feel like a failure, then you and your wife need to have a conversation about what therapy is and what it can do for your relationship. Find a therapist you both trust (preferably not one who’s part of your religious community and likely to pop up in a pew next to you on Sunday) and go regularly. Go for more than three weeks. Be honest about what you want—is it to stop co-sleeping with your toddler? To have regular date nights? To change the division of labor in your home?—and listen to what your wife says she wants.
Let me also make a plug for self-examination. You say that you’ve tried to help your wife by attempting to hire a housekeeper and get your sister and in-laws to provide child care. Have you tried to help your wife by attempting to help keep the house clean yourself? Are you spending sufficient time with your son, or do you allow your wife to shoulder the lion’s share of the work of raising him? If you’re already doing those things and simply attempting to hire a bit of part-time help on top of it, that’s fantastic, but if you’re not, that might explain a great deal of your wife’s stressed-out behavior.
If, upon ruthlessly honest self-examination, you believe both you and your wife contribute fairly equally to your son’s care and your house’s upkeep, and that at least part of the problem is your wife’s inability to let anyone else relieve her workload for even a minute, then it is incumbent upon you to pursue this point, both in therapy and out of it. If your wife considers it “pressure” to offer to pay for a weekly housecleaning so you two can go out to dinner, then she has an unreasonable definition of what “pressure” is, and you need to have an honest conversation about what you want out of marriage.
Q. Three’s a crowd: Dear Prudence: I moved in with my girlfriend seven months ago. We are so happy together, and after four months of blissful co-habitating I proposed to her. We’ve planned the perfect wedding and cannot wait for that special day in nine months. I couldn’t be happier, except for one thing: Her ex-husband is still living with us in her house. They’ve been divorced for a year, and he’s been living rent-free in her home ever since. She is also paying his car note every month. She says that she feels sorry for him and that he is only working part-time. I admire her so much for her gracious spirit, but I just don’t want to live with her ex-husband forever. It’s her house, so I don’t really feel like I have a say in the matter. Am I out of line for not wanting to share a home with this man, or is there a good way for me to bring this up with my future bride?
A: Hoo, boy. No, it is not out of line for you to not want to share your nuptial home with your girlfriend’s ex-husband. I do not have the same admiration for your girlfriend’s gracious spirit; there are plenty of ways to support a down-on-his-luck ex financially without keeping him on as a permanent roommate. If you are planning on marrying this woman and building a life together, then you absolutely do have a say in the matter of “who else is going to live in the house with you.” Do not get married if you don’t know how to say, “Darling, I’d like to live together without your ex-husband after we tie the knot.”
Q. Dress for success: How I dress is very important to me. I grew up poor, and I struggled to get through college. I now have a very successful career. I am in my 50s and every day I dress well (if it isn’t from Nordstrom or Saks, I won’t wear it) and always do my makeup and hair impeccably. The problem is that I recently became involved with a very nice man. After dating for a few months, he seemed to be pulling away and I asked why. I was shocked when he said it is because I am always so well-dressed and made up. He said he believes I am hiding behind an expensive facade. I was upset and we ended the relationship. Now I am wondering if he had a point. Looking back, most of my relationships, romantic and otherwise, were superficial. I don’t believe I’ve ever made a true connection with anybody, though I have a large number of social connections. (I now hesitate to call them friends because I believe they may actually not be friends but acquaintances.) Do you think my former boyfriend may have a point? I really would like an outsider’s opinion.
A: I don’t think that you have dressed too stylishly to give and receive love, no. Presumably you are not wearing makeup or hairstyles so garish that you cause alarm, and your ex-boyfriend’s armchair diagnosis that “Anyone who wears a full face of makeup is hiding something” sounds like it came straight out of Nonsense Quarterly. It would have been totally appropriate for him to say, “I’m pulling away because I feel like you’re not willing to be truly vulnerable and committed in this relationship”; it was not appropriate for him to do Makeup Extrapolation and say “Because you like to wear eyeliner and mascara at the same time, you must be hiding behind an emotionless mask.”
It’s possible that you have shied away from deep connections in your relationships, but that is not caused by the fact that you like to wear nice suits or YSL foundation. If you’re looking to examine and change how you act in relationships, that’s absolutely fine, but you can do that with as much or as little makeup on as you wish.
Q. Unemployed boyfriend: My boyfriend “Paul” has been unemployed since college. I really wouldn’t mind supporting him financially, but I don’t make enough money yet. He doesn’t want to go back to school, won’t take any job outside our industry, and his independent projects never get past the “concept” stage. Lately, Paul’s mother has started belittling him and threatening to withdraw financial support—which doesn’t motivate him, just makes him more depressed. My mother helps too, but I worry my continued dependence on her is forcing her to keep a high-stress job that’s bad for her health and happiness. Without their help we’d be flat broke. How can I motivate Paul to take a job he doesn’t want? Alternately, can I somehow defuse Paul’s mother and get her to stop pressuring her son until my career advances?
A: If you believe Paul is clinically depressed, then you can support him best by taking him to the doctor and helping him find appropriate medical treatment. If you are using the term “depressed” colloquially, as many of us do, rather than diagnostically, then things look rather different. Many people take jobs they do not want, even if only temporarily, but it may be that Paul will never accept anything less than his dream job as long as someone else is paying his rent. I do not not believe that you are the missing ingredient in getting Paul motivated to take a “just-OK” job. He will have to want to do that for himself. You cannot—and should not—attempt to convince Paul’s mother to support him financially indefinitely. If she has decided she cannot or will not continue to pay his bills into adulthood, then she has the right to stop sending him money. If she is belittling him or being verbally abusive, you can encourage him to cut their conversations short until she can speak civilly.
You can best help everyone around you by first taking care of yourself. You are worried about your financial burden on your mother and you are worried about your inability to completely underwrite your boyfriend; if you continue to put both of them before yourself, you will always be anxious and overcommitted. Focus on your own career, do the best you possibly can, pursue raises and promotions when they become available, pay your own bills first, and then consider what you can do for the people around you.
Q. Catty comments: I had a friend/roommate who recently moved to another state. She had been living with me (rent-free) while she got her feet back under her after a nasty breakup. We had been friends for the better part of 20 years, and she is also friends with my sister. Last night I was getting my sister’s phone off the charger for her and it lit up with a text from my friend, an extremely nasty comment about me. Apparently I was mistaken both as to how close our friendship was and to the kind of person she is. I am ready to be done with the friendship, but she is coming back to the state for my niece’s birthday at the end of the month and expects to stay with me for the four days she will be in town. I don’t deal well with confrontation, but is this a situation that requires one, or can I just let her stay the few days and then ignore her forever more?
A: Some things are worth bearing a little confrontation for. This is one of those things. You can’t un-see what you saw, and you should be frank: “I saw the message you sent to my sister about me, and it hurt me deeply. It would be best for both of us if you made alternate arrangements for your visit later this month.” Don’t make it a request or try to get her to explain herself. You absolutely do not have to pretend everything is fine while she stays in your house for four days knowing she actually despises and resents you.
While you’re testing your own limits and engaging in confrontation, why not have a chat with your sister? Presumably your former roommate was not texting her abusive comments about you out of nowhere; she obviously felt safe insulting you to her. Tell her that you accidentally saw the message when you retrieved her phone for her and that you’re hurt and confused, and you want to know if there’s something she needs to talk to you about. Steel yourself for a few direct conversations. You’ll feel so much worse if you try to sweep this under the rug and forget it.
Q. Mom’s health at tipping point: After a very serious hospitalization, my mother finally began seeing doctors on a regular basis. She has been in visible poor health for years (breathing problems, obesity, poor mobility) but always made excuses for not going to a doctor and getting horribly defensive when we brought it up. Now, she has cancer. Some rare tumor in her chest cavity that might be operable. The problem now lies in that she won’t allow my dad (her husband of 35 years) to go to the doctor with her. We don’t know specifics (type of cancer, prognosis, options, etc.) and she’s not willing to let us speak with the doctor per her demand for “privacy.” She says she’s telling us everything—but it’s a lot of stressful information to take in right now, and we all have a lot of questions she can’t answer. I say privacy goes out the window when you have a family and have such a life-threatening diagnosis. Requests to go to therapy (solo, family, and marriage) have all been refused. Should we draw up an ultimatum at this point?
A: I’m afraid that privacy does not go out the window when you have a family and a life-threatening diagnosis. As long as your mother is legally competent, she has the right to handle her own medical care as she sees fit, no matter how much you dislike it. You can absolutely talk with her about it, make requests, make clear your concerns and your goals, offer to be helpful, ask for what she needs, and decide to handle your own medical affairs in the future with more transparency and openness than your mother as a result, but you cannot make her take any of you along to the doctor or become partners in her decision-making. If your mother will not go to therapy, go without her, and figure out what you have to do to protect your own sanity and well-being while supporting her during her illness.
Q. Work unfriend: I was super close at work with “Beth” for years. While I was out on long-term medical leave, I discovered (via nearly losing my job) that she had for the entirety of that time been repeating everything I said to “Alice,” a senior manager who wanted to replace me with another candidate. I immediately stopped talking to Beth socially, and when I returned from leave I kept things warm but impersonal. Beth clearly knows what she did and why our friendship dramatically and sharply changed, because she’s never asked why it changed. I never told anyone else at work what happened. Alice was and is married to someone who has authority over my budget … and he casually-not-casually said this morning “I think Beth misses her heart-to-hearts with you.” No. Alice misses Beth having heart-to-hearts with me. I really, really need this job and the insurance. I’ll never qualify for insurance on my own. What can I do to deflect this?
A: You are not obligated to be bosom friends with your co-workers. If Alice’s husband (what a network of co-conspirators!) says anything to you again, say, “I’m really happy to be working on Beth’s team; I enjoy her company too” or something equally innocuous and nonresponsive, then change the subject. No one at work can force you to have heart-to-heart conversations with a colleague. You made the right choice in ceasing to disclose personal information to Beth, and if anyone else tries to bring up your former closeness, deliver a bland compliment about her work ethic and change the subject. You do not have to discuss this. If anyone presses (I hope they wouldn’t, but it’s hard to assume they’ll all follow normal workplace behavior), simply say, “I hope I’m approachable and easy to work with in all my professional relationships, but I prefer to keep my work life and my personal life separate, thanks. Let’s go back to discussing the budget.”
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! Text carefully and with discretion until next week.