Daniel 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 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. Literal baggage: I’ve been dating a fantastic man whom I love for about a year. We’re living together and everything has been ideal. Well, almost everything. After listening to a podcast together about a similar subject, he mentioned that he has a box of nude photos of various exes. He said that he doesn’t look at the photos but nonetheless refuses to get rid of them. He knows how uncomfortable it makes me to have these photos in our home but thinks this is a “slippery slope,” and that next I’ll be insisting he get rid of his wedding album and all other remnants of his former relationships. I feel like the naked pics of his exes are more important to him than I am. I do everything in my power to make him comfortable in our relationship—including neglecting a friendship with a guy I used to hook up with. Not only does it offend and sadden me that this box is so meaningful to him, but I’m terrified that I’ll accidentally uncover it at some point. Am I just insecure, or is this unacceptable?
A: My first question is why are you doing “everything in [your] power to make him comfortable,” including ending a friendship you presumably enjoyed? Making room in our lives for a partner is laudable; putting their comfort above our own is not. The naked-picture stash seems to me to be a bit of a red herring. A mildly creepy red herring (not to mention weirdly old-school! Like, printed-out naked pictures? Not just stored somewhere on his phone?), but a red herring nonetheless. The real question is why you’re with someone who is so adamant about refusing to compromise with you, while apparently you’ve bent over backward to compromise for him. For him to compare a box of nudes to his wedding album is, at the very least, an incredibly dumb analogy—there’s a pretty significant difference between photos of your wedding day, which has a significant social, emotional, financial, sexual, and physical impact on your life and history, and photos of the naked torsos of everyone you’ve ever slept with. It is perhaps telling that he sees this relatively minor request as the beginning of an assault on his autonomy while you have already taken the initiative to end a friendship just in case it made him uncomfortable. Is everything really ideal between the two of you?
Q. Protecting my husband: My husband recently was in a life-changing accident. He died, but first responders were able to bring him back. As of now, he’s stable, and he has a very long way to any form of recovery. My issue is his family. My husband and his family do not have a good relationship, and he recently told me he wanted to cut them off due to their abuse. They have been absolutely horrible since the day of his accident. Everyone but his mother is in the medical industry, and when they arrived they immediately tried to take over. His dad (who is a doctor) told my husband’s doctors to only talk to him. Amazingly, they complied so I was left in the dark for the first four days and was barely able to see him. His dad also provided incorrect medical information that ultimately ended up hurting him. His mother and siblings have been much worse. They have been speaking so ugly about him that a stranger in the waiting room asked me why I would allow them around him. He very briefly expressed to a nurse that he only wanted me as a visitor and nobody else. His mother’s response to this was “he needs to get over himself. It’s not about what he wants. What was even the point of saving his life if he’s going to be this stupid?” After his family agreed with her, I changed the visitation and banned them. He wanted it, and I don’t feel like they were being helpful. Obviously, it hasn’t gone over well, and now I’m being attacked on all fronts. They filed a complaint with the hospital and have been calling every person they can think of to get them “to talk to me.” This isn’t about me being a mean wife; I’m trying to protect him from this. If he asks for them, I would absolutely allow it, and they are still able to call and get updates from me and his nurses. Am I doing the wrong thing?
A: No. You’re acting as your husband’s advocate while he is unable to advocate for himself, and you are carrying out his last known wishes to the best of your ability. As his wife, you have the legal right to do so; the fact that your in-laws are angry about this and uselessly lashing out to try to force you to give in to them is irritating and distracting, but irrelevant.
Q. My husband’s best friend proposed to his girlfriend during our wedding ceremony: My husband and I started dating, got pregnant, had a child, moved in together, bought a house, and got a dog in that order. Our friends and family have asked us for years why we weren’t married yet. We always pushed it off to build better lives. We’ve done really well for ourselves and finally reached a point where we could afford a huge blowout wedding to celebrate our lives with everyone we know and love. My husband’s best friend, “John,” was the best man/officiant. The setting was beautiful, everyone seemed happy, our families were overjoyed. My mom may have used the phrase hallelujah a few dozen times. The entire atmosphere felt moving. So moving in fact that John stopped midceremony to propose to his longtime girlfriend, “Jane,” and reveal her pregnancy. I couldn’t even hear the vows my husband wrote or the rest of the ceremony over the noise of Jane’s happy sobs, her very surprised family who were also guests, and people seated nearby congratulating her. Even the videographer cut to her frequently during the ceremony, and you can’t hear anything over the chatter. When John gave his toast, he apologized for being caught up in the moment, and then proceeded to talk about he and Jane’s future with nary a mention of us. During the reception John and Jane became the primary focus of our guests. John even went out of his way to ask the band for a special dance for just him and Jane on the dance floor. I’ve never been an attention hog, and I wouldn’t even have minded if he’d proposed after the ceremony, but weeks later I am still seething. I am so shocked and angry that I keep asking myself if this is real life. My husband hasn’t spoken to John since the wedding, and our mutual friends think what he did was rude but that my husband should just get over it. My husband has joked that he’ll resume his friendship when John and Jane give him a $40,000 check for “their half of the wedding.” Do you think John’s behavior warrants the end of a long-term friendship, or are we angry over nothing?
A: I think it merits a fight! In between “getting over it” and “never speaking to John again” is the happy medium of “having a difficult conversation with a longtime friend who did something selfish and self-absorbed on your wedding day.” He’s your husband’s best friend, so your husband should tell John just how upset his behavior during your wedding made him. Maybe John will apologize and the two of them can have a meaningful reconciliation and build a better friendship as a result. Maybe John will double down and dismiss your husband’s feelings, and things will naturally fall apart between them. Whatever the outcome, there is definitely at least one step in between “seething silently” and “cutting John loose forever,” especially since the two of them have been best friends for a long time.
Q. An affair to remember: When I was starting graduate school, I met a lecturer who was 30 years older than me. He was smart, sophisticated, and charming. We ended up having an affair that lasted four years (technically he was married, but they lived separate lives in separate houses on different coasts); he inspired me to go after my Ph.D. and helped me find funding. It ended beautifully, and I have very fond memories of that time. I never discussed him or our relationship with anyone. He died while I was out of the country, and while I was sad not to be able to pay my respects, I never expected anything. Well, I got a phone call from the executor of his estate and was told he left me a rather generous bequest: several valuable paintings and his collection of rare books. I was shocked. Then I got several messages from his children asking to meet with me. I feel uncomfortable and a little guilty about the entire subject now. I don’t regret what happened between us, but I do not want to discuss it with his children and I am a little of afraid of what has been left behind. I don’t see what the unadorned truth will serve anyone, but I have many fond memories about conversations about art, science, and the human condition. Should I contact them or write them a letter? What should I do about the paintings and rare books? I feel like I need an objective outsider to give me the right perspective here.
A: If you don’t want to meet with his children, then don’t meet with them. You don’t owe them an explanation of the nature of your relationship with their father, and I can’t imagine what sort of productive conversation could take place between you. While you have every right to keep what’s been left to you, if you’re truly uncomfortable at the unexpected gift years after your relationship ended, you can legally refuse the bequest; find out what steps are necessary in your state in order to do so. Or you might consider donating your inheritance to a museum or research institution that could use them, like your former graduate school. You’ll still have the fond memories of your time with this man, after all.
Q. Re: Protecting my husband: You need to go to the nursing supervisor or patient advocate NOW and inform them of the HIPAA violations that are occurring every time the medical team talks to anyone but your husband or you about his condition. If they don’t immediately stop talking to his family, take this higher up. They will not mess with HIPAA violations.
A: That’s great advice. It’s mind-boggling that the hospital bypassed a patient’s spouse for days on end just (presumably) because their father-in-law is a doctor.
Q. Boyfriend blues: My boyfriend struggles with depression and has refused to get help throughout the entirety of our relationship (by his logic, he has “messed up his brain beyond repair” and won’t listen to any arguments that that is not how it works). Usually I am with it enough to be there for him during a depression spiral—at least as much as possible without being a mental health professional—but I am currently going through a lot of stress with moving and starting a new job, and it’s putting a lot of strain on our relationship. Beyond the fact that I’m not qualified to give him the help he needs, I am (kind of selfishly) feeling how one-sided our relationship is right now. Recently, in a moment of weakness, I told him that even if he didn’t get help for himself, then maybe he could get it for the people that he loves, and he responded that that isn’t enough of a motivator for him to try. I know that was his depression talking, but it hurt me deeply nonetheless. I don’t know where to draw the boundary lines between trying to be there for him and maintaining my own sanity.
A: I think “here and now” is a great place to draw a boundary. Being supportive of someone’s depression is not the same thing as being in a romantic relationship with them, and the only question you should be asking yourself about continuing to date this man is, “Am I happy in this relationship?” It sounds like the answer is “No, and I haven’t been for a while.” Ending this relationship will not worsen his depression, because your romantic relationship is not a clinically effective treatment for depression. You can care about someone and wish them the best while also acknowledging that you do not make for a happy, loving couple.
Q. A rock and a hard place: About six years ago, I got out of a long-term relationship and had a brief fling with a friend, M. We both knew it was casual, and when he started dating someone, we stopped sleeping together but stayed friends. He, his girlfriend, and her child moved 1,200 miles away to where her family was from. He knew nobody there, and we started texting each other daily. M became my best friend and I fell in love, although I never said anything about it to him. We see each other a couple times a year; any time he comes back home to see family and friends, he makes sure to set aside a night for the two of us to get dinner together. About a year ago, I met someone and we’re starting to get serious, although I have some reservations. Two months ago, M and his girlfriend broke up. He said they had been trying to make it work for her child, and he’s devastated that he is losing a child he helped raise. He has decided to move back home—and told me that if things don’t work with my boyfriend, he’s coming for me. Part of me is annoyed—I had finally been getting over M. But I had never told him how I felt. Part of me is scared—is this just because he’s lonely? Would I only be a rebound? Part of me is relieved, knowing that this hasn’t been one-sided all these years is a big deal. Half of me wants to stay with my boyfriend and try to focus on our relationship, but half of me is saying, “You’ve loved M for five years, YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS!” I feel like it’s disrespectful to my boyfriend to try to repair something with him when my heart wants to be elsewhere. Am I being naïve?
A: Oh, boy. This dude has made it abundantly clear, I think, that you are not much more than a backup and a failsafe to him. “If things don’t work out with your boyfriend, I’m coming for you” is the romantic equivalent of “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS.” He gives you the edges of his time and attention (it’s no accident that you only developed that upgraded sense of emotional intimacy after he moved away), and you’ve filled in the blanks with a fantasy. A few times a year he sets aside a whole entire night to get dinner with you. That’s not love! That’s just … the occasional dinner. It has been one-sided all of these years. I’d wager that M is perfectly aware you’ve fallen for him and has planned those occasional dinners to keep you on the line long enough that you’d remain his faithful backup if things ever fell through in his “real” relationship. You blame yourself for never telling M how you felt, but I don’t think that was going to be what made the difference between you being his girlfriend versus just being his backup. That’s a harsh truth to have to realize about someone you’ve constructed a fantasy around, but it’s better to coldly assess your actual history with this man before chucking away a real relationship on the strength of five years’ worth of half-hearted emotional infidelity.
Whether or not you break up with your current boyfriend is irrelevant—you two may or may not be suited for one another—but for your own well-being, and to ensure that future relationships aren’t tainted by this same backward longing, you should consider M a former friend and lose his number.
Q. Sneaky sister who can’t sneak: My little sister is the only one in our family who still lives at home, and she has a horrible relationship with my dad. They both took the recent death of our mother pretty hard, and I’ve watched as their once close relationship soured with my dad’s need for companionship conflicting with my sister’s need for a father who wasn’t either out all hours of the night or bringing strangers back to the house. This has resulted in many fights, therapy sessions, lies, and my sister’s declaration that she wants no relationship with our dad whatsoever. I’ve tried to be a comforting and supportive figure for my baby sister, but my anxiety and middle child syndrome make all the fighting really difficult, especially on a weekly/daily basis. Last week, my sister told me that she would like to tell my dad that she was staying with me at my house over the summer before her senior year of high school. I would happily let her stay, and told her as much, but then came the catch: She actually wants to stay at a neighbor’s house on the same block as my dad’s home. This neighbor has been a real comfort for my sister, which I appreciate, but my dad sees them as someone stealing his daughter away. It makes more sense for her to stay at the neighbor’s house (it’s closer to her swim practice and summer job), I want to support my little sister 100 percent, and even her therapist suggested that my sister spend some time away from my dad, but … I’m a reeeeally bad liar. I can tell a white lie or two in the moment, but with all this pressure of hiding my sister from my dad for three months, I just know I’m going to panic/accidentally spill the beans and rupture our family even more. If I say no, my sister will hate me, and she’ll either stay miserable with my dad or come up with a bigger lie that I won’t be trusted with, which could mean risking her safety. I don’t know what to do.
A: Why not have her actually stay with you? This way she still gets out of your father’s house, and you don’t have to worry constantly about revealing her secret. It would be prohibitively difficult for her to hide from her father on his own block, and she could still spend time with the helpful neighbor while staying with you. Stress the fact that while you don’t want to betray her confidence, you are an objectively bad liar, and that it’s only a matter of time before that strategy falls apart; then offer to make the lie true and host her at your place.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: See you all next week! Take it easy on each other until then.