Dear Prudence

She’s the Boss

I fear my friend is being manipulated and emotionally abused by his wife.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I have a friend “Allen” who I believe is being manipulated and emotionally abused by his significant other. Over the course of their relationship, his (now) wife: 1) has joined herself to Allen’s hip so that he can’t make plans with others that don’t include her (surprisingly, he was able to have a guys-only day for his bachelor party), 2) when they do attend events and parties together, she occupies about 90 percent of his social interactions, 3) she has drastically changed his diet (former meat-lover to hard-core vegan), 4) has rushed him into their life events (moving in together, proposing, getting married, buying a house, and she has even named their future children). On that note, I do respect that every couple is different and proceeds with such life events at their own pace, but I know that she actually forced him to propose to her, even throwing a fit at a mutual friend’s wedding a while back as they still weren’t engaged by then.

Since they got married in September, he has stopped speaking to me, my boyfriend, and a few of our other mutual friends, when he was previously very close to us. I feel that this is her doing, and that she’s trying to control who he talks to now. The thing is, Allen avoids any and all confrontation like the plague, so he just lets this all happen and refuses to respond if anyone tries to reach out to him. Some of us have asked him if he’s OK, if he needs help, as he is visibly miserable, but he just ignores us. It’s possible that she even monitors Allen’s phone and computer use. Is there anything else we can do for Allen, or are we forced to watch this train wreck from afar?

—Worried Bystander

What you’ve described thus far ranges from mildly unpleasant to deeply controlling, but hasn’t (yet?) decidedly crossed over into overtly abusive behavior. It can be difficult to parse the difference between a relationship where one partner’s personality and preference clearly dominates and an actively abusive one. You might find Allen’s wife’s dietary habits unpleasant, but if he’s decided to go vegan with her (even if you think it goes against his natural inclinations), that’s their business. The fact that she put heavy pressure on him to move in together and get married is, again, something that you might dislike in her but does not endanger Allen’s well-being.

However, it’s worrisome that he has abruptly lost contact with most of his close friends since his marriage, as is the fact that you believe there’s a chance, however slight, that she’s monitoring his conversations. The best way to proceed now is with caution—you’re trying to determine whether or not your friend is in danger, and if so, how to offer him support. You can’t force him to open up to you, and in the absence of solid evidence you can’t call upon some form of outside intervention, but you can do your level best to keep a line of nonjudgmental, supportive communication with him, even if he doesn’t always respond. That doesn’t mean calling him every week asking him to meet you somewhere—just the occasional text or periodically including him on a group invitation to get together. Offer to meet him somewhere in public during work hours if he seems receptive so you won’t put him in the position of having to explain his whereabouts to his wife. Don’t pressure him into admitting he’s miserable right away, but ask him how he’s doing and try to draw him out by letting him know how much you’ve missed getting to catch up with him. If his wife is abusing him, pressuring him before he’s ready to talk about it might make him withdraw, even if it’s well-intentioned. And on the other hand, if he’s not being abused, he’ll likely resent the implication. Either way, you can only offer him support and friendship and hope that if he does need help, he will take advantage of your presence. If you find evidence that his wife is trying to isolate and control him in an unhealthy way, you can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE to learn more about how to help Allen seek help, if he wants it.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have recently become friends with two women from my college. I’m queer and they’re both lesbians, and I was excited to make more friends in the LGBT community. The problem is that they won’t stop hitting on me. I’m in a serious long-distance relationship with a man I love. At first I found their comments flattering, but they started going too far when they joked about “stealing” me away to my boyfriend’s face when he was visiting. One of them started grinding on me at a party and asked, “Are you wet yet?”

I dislike confrontation, but I don’t think it’s too much to expect that my friends respect my relationship. Do I just cut them off? Do I have to confront them and tell them to respect my relationship or we can’t be friends? My partner and I trust each other entirely and I know he’d never ask me to stop being friends with someone, but I don’t want to risk our relationship so that I can have gay friends. If they were hitting on my boyfriend or men hitting on me I would never tolerate this, so why is it so hard when they’re my gender?

—Double Standards

Assholes and predators and boundary-transgressors show up in every single community, but it’s often hard to recognize or admit that to ourselves when we want to believe that fellow members of a marginalized group would always know or act better. Your friends’ behavior is self-evidently bad—they shouldn’t have to be told that grinding on someone and then asking if they’re wet, regardless of whether that person is in a relationship or not, is not an OK thing to do. You seem more concerned that these girls aren’t respecting your relationship, but I’m concerned that they don’t seem to respect you, your limits, or your personal space. If you just don’t want to spend time with them anymore, you’re not obligated to offer an explanation. But if the subject comes up, or they ask you why you haven’t been spending time with them anymore, I think you should steel yourself and tell them why.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I am a socially anxious and naturally private person, which generally means that my acquaintances and co-workers don’t know very much about me. I’m not one to share things about my personal life without being asked direct questions. For example, I’ve been working nights at a part-time job in addition to my 9-to-5 for months and only just recently told my co-workers that I have a second job. Divulging this felt like a big deal.

My problem is this: I have a long-distance partner who is trans nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. My co-workers have no idea I’m dating anyone, and my partner feels that this is odd and erases their identity. The idea of having a personal conversation with my co-workers in general is stressful, and the idea of talking to them—all older, all higher in rank, all less-than-savvy when it comes to gender identity—about personal pronouns is anxiety-inducing for me. I want to be my partner’s primary ally and help educate the people in my life about nonbinary identities. After all, they have to deal with people “not getting” their pronouns and identity every day. How do I push myself to share more of my personal life without anxiety and learn to approach the conversation of pronouns with people in a professional setting—particularly polite office talk?

—How to Help

There are two separate issues here. One is how you can talk about your relationship with your partner and their identity with others without feeling overly anxious; the other is whether or not you want to discuss your personal life at work. Just because you wish to have a strictly professional relationship with your colleagues doesn’t mean you are erasing your partner’s identity. This would be true regardless of your partner’s gender. It might be different if you were open at work about everything else in your personal life—if, say, you and your co-workers were friendly off the clock, spent a lot of after-hours time in one another’s company, and were generally up to date on one another’s partners. That’s not what’s going on here! You’ve only just mentioned you have a second job to your colleagues, and I’m willing to bet there’s precious little else they know about you. And that is perfectly fine. If, at some point in the future, you are having a casual, friendly chat with some of your co-workers and they mention their own significant others, you should feel as free to say, “Oh, my partner likes The Fast and the Furious movies too” as you are to contribute nothing at all. But you don’t need to plan a conversation about your partner if that’s not the kind of relationship you have with your co-workers.

However, you indicate you’d like to be more supportive and assertive about your relationship with your partner to people in your life. But since you say you’re generally a socially anxious person, it might make sense to first address that base level of anxiety before trying to have higher-level conversations about your partner, gender identity, and pronoun etiquette. If you’re not already seeing a therapist for your social anxiety, I’d encourage you to do so. If that’s not possible right now, try coming up with tasks to challenge yourself on a daily basis. There are relatively inexpensive social anxiety workbooks you can use, or you can make a list of situations that heighten your anxiety in order from least to most stress-inducing (anything from asking a stranger to directions to having a prolonged personal conversation with a co-worker), and try to slowly work your way up the list. That doesn’t mean you have to accomplish everything you’ve written down, of course, merely that it will provide you with a helpful guide as you try to expand your social interactions. Then, once you feel more comfortable among acquaintances, you can test out discussing your partner in casual conversation, and go from there.

* * *

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Dear Prudence,
I’m a gay guy in my early 30s. As a child I was often beaten up for my effeminate ways, but I eventually found my way to peace and am now a happy, proud, out gay man. I have a lot of great friendships, mostly with other gay guys and straight women. The thing is, I’m also physically attracted to (some) women, and I’m not out about this. It’s been something that’s been building for a few years now, and I’m actually worried about two things.

First, I know I don’t want a relationship (short or long-term) with a woman. I just want to have fun, but it seems that most women aren’t interested in just a fling, especially with a guy who’s sensitive and seems like a good long-term partner. Is that wrong? I hope I’m not sounding self-centered or sexist by accident. Second, I worry about revealing my physical attraction to (some) women to my current female friends. I’m worried they’ll look at me like they do straight guys, which is with a kind of constant worry that it could all go wrong at any time. (Which I really get, since it seems like the straight guys I know would happily hook up with basically any woman.) I know this seems like a silly problem, but it’s bothering me and I just would like an outside opinion.

—Can Nice Guys Have Fun?

This is not a silly problem at all! This has to do with how you see yourself, how other people see you, your fear that some of your closest friends would treat you differently if they knew—it’s a matter of profound personal significance, and it makes so much sense that you’re worried and conflicted. The first thing to remember is that you do not have to tell your friends anything about your physical attractions. If, right now, you want to figure this out on your own, you have every right to take your time and do so. You can be a bisexual man who is almost exclusively interested in men (a lot of people seem to think bisexual people are exactly 50/50 split between men and women, which isn’t true), or you can be a gay man who, every once in a while, gets attracted to the occasional woman. Hopefully your female friends would realize that just because every so often a woman does it for you doesn’t mean that you’re attracted to them, but regardless, if you don’t want to tell them, you don’t have to.

When it comes to possibly exploring your attraction to some women, be very clear that you’re not looking for a relationship. You might find an especially receptive audience among bisexual/queer women, who will be, at the very least, likelier to understand where you’re coming from and what you’re looking for. Lots of women are looking for partners, sure, but there are also plenty of women who are game for casual sex (just as not all men are hookup-powered cyborgs). The potential pitfalls you describe are not isolated to nice guys. Even if you are a sensitive fellow, as long as you’re upfront about your intentions and seek people who are looking for the same thing as you, I don’t think you’re going to run into too many complications. If there’s anyone in your life—maybe a male friend, maybe a therapist, maybe a friend who lives far away and isn’t part of your everyday social group—you trust to talk about this side of your sexuality with, I’d encourage you to do so, if only so it doesn’t feel like a big burden that you can’t share with anyone. Whatever comes next for you, good luck!

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I recently made the personal decision to become sober. While my substance use never became life-threatening, it was very quietly taking its toll on my mental health. I tried unsuccessfully to limit my drinking and realized that the only way for me to do this was to stop altogether. I’m not ready to tell my family about sobriety. Our relationship is already a little strained, and their views on mental health make it difficult for me to talk about anything I struggle with. They tend to view mental health issues as character flaws or personal failings, and that in turn makes me shut down.

There’s also the issue of how my parents treat each other. My dad cut way back on his drinking after losing family members to addiction, and he calls my mother a “drunk” when she goes out to drink with her friends or siblings. My mom in turn thinks of him as a killjoy. I don’t want my own personal decisions to be leveraged in this ongoing argument. So far my strategy has been to politely refuse whenever I’m offered a drink at a family event and to leave early, but when I’m repeatedly offered drinks throughout the night (say five or six times), it gets exhausting. I’m not sure when or how or even if I want to tell them about my sobriety. Please help me navigate the family reunion.

—No Thanks

One of the great things about personal decisions is that you do not have to tell anyone you don’t want to about it, ever. If you decide you don’t ever want to go into details with your parents about your relationship to drinking, you do not have to! Frankly, it sounds like limiting the time you spend around your family (your parents in particular) might be another personal decision you should consider. Try cutting back on the number of family events you attend, especially ones that are centered around drinking together. But for the ones you absolutely can’t get out of, I think having a solid offensive and defensive strategy will help you avoid conversations you don’t want to have. You can always say, “No thanks, I’m not drinking tonight” on the first offer and hope that everyone else gets the message. You can also make yourself a drink upon arrival so that when someone tries to offer you one, you can point to your sparkling water with lime (that happens to look like a gin and tonic) and say, “Thanks, but I’ve already got one.” Top yourself up periodically and avail yourself of the helpfully content-obscuring red Solo cup whenever possible. Unless your family is incredibly prying, that should protect you from most garden-variety drink-pushers.

In the longer run, give yourself permission to opt out of your parents’ long-running argument over who has the real problem with drinking. You don’t have to participate, even as a bystander, as they both accuse one another of being a closet alcoholic or a reactionary square. Just focus on establishing the relationship with alcohol that works for you, coming up with an impersonal deflection for prying questions about your own drinking habits, and untangling yourself from your family’s overly enmeshed dynamics.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have a somewhat silly question that’s weighing heavily on me. I went to a show last weekend for one of my favorite bands. They’re known for outrageous theatrics, so I got there an hour early and claimed a good vantage spot. While the stage was being cleared for the headliner, a couple came through the crowd and tried to pass by me. I thought they had left their seats to get drinks or use the restroom, so I let them through, but then they stopped and stood right in front of me. I’m 5-foot-5 and both of them were easily 6 feet tall. I spent most of the show trying to get a view in between their heads. The girl was also on her phone the whole time (not even recording the band—mostly Snapchatting various mosh-pit antics). I saw more of her phone than the stage. I eventually got fed up and told her I didn’t pay to watch the show through her phone. She didn’t seem to care and kept doing it.

Is it possible she didn’t put her phone away because I was rude to her? Is there a better way to address these issues in the future? Do I go find a new spot and risk inconveniencing someone else, or just grin and accept that this is how it’s going to be sometimes? Should I have waited until someone in the pit bumped me and “spilled” my drink on them? This time, I moved so I was in between them and the mosh pit (they kept falling over when people ran into them) and pushed people back into the pit, but my tiny frame is not built for that and I felt sore the day after. (At least I saw the last half of the show!)

—Down in Front

One of the unfortunate and inevitable downsides of going to a show without assigned seats is putting up with limited space and a higher concentration of drunks and/or boors per square foot. They’re not always easy to predict or restrain. When you realized the couple wasn’t returning to their seats but was trying to get as far up as possible, it would have been fine to politely ask to either trade spaces or for them to move, since you were there first and they were blocking your view. It was also a violation of general concert etiquette for that girl to keep her phone on during the entire show. She might have been more inclined to put it away for a few minutes had you asked her without sarcasm, but given the rest of her and her boyfriend’s behavior, the odds are just as good that she would have continued to be moderately thoughtless no matter how nicely you phrased your request. The advantage of being 5-foot-5 is that if you end up having to find a new spot, you’re less likely to be inconveniencing someone behind you.

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