Dear Prudence

Crowded House

I finally saw my girlfriend’s home—and realized she’s a compulsive hoarder.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,

I am a middle-aged male in a relationship with a sweet, kind, successful woman who seems to suffer from a shopping addiction and who can never stop herself from taking home free food. When we first started seeing each other, she wouldn’t let me into her home. At first I thought this was because she wanted to make sure we had something real before I met her young daughter (I have children too), but when I saw her home I realized it was because she had a hoarding problem. At that point I already cared for her very much. I have very serious rescuer tendencies, and I know better than to follow such a path. Now we’ve been together for almost two years.

Last year, she bought a new home and recruited me to help her move. I pitched in but also gave her space to deal with the masses of shopping bags that had never been unpacked full of duplicate bags of chips and other storage bags, unopened Amazon boxes, stacks of old luggage, etc. I had hoped she would want to pare down on her own, but that didn’t happen. She ended up needing a later move-out date and became very distressed as we started moving stale and even decayed food to her building’s dumpster. We filled the dumpster and her new detached garage. Evidence of rodent and insect activity was revealed with each peeled layer. Nearly a year after this move, her garage is still stuffed, she hasn’t unpacked any of her wardrobe, and new boxes are starting to arrive. I spent a weekend organizing and rearranging her kitchen, but she never committed to the new setup. There’s not an inch of open counter space.

I’ve shared my concerns with her and have been accused of being judgmental and hypercritical. I am terrified that her daughter’s nascent compulsivity will blossom into the shame and loneliness her otherwise very sociable mother fosters. After an argument following the exhausting move, she bought self-help books. She seemed committed to cultivating some self-denial strategies. Last week, I visited her place and had my own stress attack when I navigated a cavernous path from her front door to her kitchen. Her attractiveness to me is waning. I love her, want to help her, want to help her child, but I am not a psychotherapist. We recently argued that I’m not moving fast enough, and my question, “Where exactly do I fit in your home?” remains unanswered. Should I stay or should I go? I’ve been dating on and off for eight years since my divorce, and I’m tired.

—Buried in Boxes

Let’s leave aside the fact that you’ve grown tired of post-divorce dating, and let’s leave aside (just for the moment) the fact that your girlfriend clearly needs additional help dealing with her hoarding and compulsive shopping tendencies, or even the fact that you’re worried her daughter may adopt some of her mother’s more dysfunctional coping strategies. The most important question for you to answer is not “Do I wish I could stop dating and just settle down?” or “Does my girlfriend need help?” but “Am I happy in this relationship, and would I like to stay in it in the future?” Are you getting what you want? You say you don’t want to revert to your old rescuer tendencies, which suggests this is a dynamic you’ve fallen into in the past; can you see a version of your relationship with this woman where you’re not in that exact position? I can’t answer that for you, but I can tell you that if she genuinely wants help, there is a great deal of therapeutic, pharmaceutical, and organizational help available to her, and that she both deserves support and treatment and does not need you to be her boyfriend in order to get it. If you decide this relationship isn’t working for you, that isn’t a referendum on her worth as a person, and it’s not a rejection on the basis of her mental health issues.

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Dear Prudence,

My fiancé and I are wild about each other! We’ve set a wedding date for spring 2018 to allow our more distant loved ones time to plan their travels. For tax-related and so-in-love-we-can’t-stand-waiting reasons, we’d like to elope before the end of the year. We’re torn on whether to keep it a secret. He’s taking my last name, and he works as a wedding photographer, so we think it would make more sense to do his public name change in advance of wedding season. Would it be rude to our guests to elope and then invite them to the party in the spring? Our families are not big travelers and they’ve never visited us even though we live in a popular destination city. Our decision to have a wedding at all was largely informed by our desire to get our families out to see us. They’re pretty old-fashioned, and I could see them thinking there’s no point in coming out for a wedding if the papers have already been signed. Does it take the wind out of the celebratory sails to get hitched first and party later?

—Can We Elope?

I am going to let you in on a trade secret: Pretty much everything about weddings is totally made up. As long as you’re not being a total jerk, you get to make your own rules! If it helps to think of your choice as being safely within the herd of common consensus, then yes, I’ve certainly heard of (and known a few) couples who eloped several months or even a year before their public wedding ceremony, and everything worked out just fine. That’s not to say you might not ruffle a few feathers, but I’ve yet to hear of a wedding where no one got at least a little miffed about how the couple in question arranged things. You can try to keep the elopement under wraps, of course, especially since it’ll only be for a few months, but if your plan is to update your husband’s website and business cards, I think you should save yourself the hassle of trying to spin a web of lies. Whether or not you’re actually signing documents on the day of the ceremony isn’t really the point—you’re celebrating the fact that the two of you have decided to commit to one another and you’d like your parents to be there. If that’s what’s important to you, tell them that what really matters is that you all get to be in the same room at the same time, celebrating your new marriage. And congratulations!

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Dear Prudence,

After my parents split up, my brother found out via Google search that my dad had been married before my mom. We talked to her about it and she explained that he hadn’t wanted to tell us because it was an impulsive youthful marriage, they had divorced quickly, and he had been ashamed of it. She had kept his secret out of respect for him. We all thought it was a bit dramatic but not that big a deal, and moved on with our lives.

Now my dad has been dating an amazing woman for over five years. I recently found out that he hasn’t told her about the first marriage. Everyone in Dad’s family knows except her. Dad doesn’t want to tell her for the same reason he didn’t want to tell me and my brother. Maybe it’s irrational, but this is freaking me out. Both he and this woman are divorced (him ostensibly from “just” my mom), so it just seems strange that he’s kept this a secret. Now it’s been so long, and I’m terrified that she’s going to be hurt if it comes out. Honestly, I think she’d be well within her rights to be angry. Since my brother found out through the sheer accident of googling our dad, and literally anyone could accidentally let it slip I don’t know what to do. Is there a good way for him to tell her? Am I out of my mind for thinking that he’s gonna be in trouble?

—Mystery First Marriage

You’re not out of your mind for thinking this might backfire on your father, but you do seem way more concerned about consequences that could only ever affect him than you need to be. Frankly, it sounds like your family has a bit of a history when it comes to managing your dad. You say that when you found out he’d been married before, you “talked to her about it”—not your father, the person this surprising information directly concerned, but your mother. If your father’s girlfriend finds out he was married before (which may very well happen) and if she gets angry with your father, then that’s not even remotely your problem. If she breaks up with your father over it, that is an acceptable outcome and does not require you to do anything. It sounds like you still have some questions and residual feelings about your father’s first marriage, and I’d encourage you to talk to your father directly about them. You don’t have to put him on the spot, but you can certainly tell him it was disorienting to find out the way that you did, and that you wished he’d found a way to talk to you about it sooner, even if he was embarrassed. You can even encourage him to tell his girlfriend! But after that, you need to leave it up to him; it’s not your job to help your father (mis)manage his romantic life.

Dear Prudence: My work is about to hire my old boss from hell!

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Dear Prudence,

Every year at Christmas, my family exchanges gifts. Everyone buys a present for everyone else, meaning that each person is responsible for 10 to 12 presents, not including in-laws or friends. This year, money is very tight for my partner and me. We bought a house, we have a young toddler in full-time day care, and we live in a very expensive city. We also have to travel internationally for the holiday and hire a dog-sitter while we’re away. We can’t buy 24 gifts without taking on additional debt. We are the only family members with children and a mortgage, and we’re the only ones traveling from another country.

I explained our situation to my family and asked whether we could come up with some way of limiting the number of presents each person is responsible for buying. Privately, a few people have said that it would be a relief not to have to buy so many gifts. However, my sister “Kristen” hates the idea of interfering with tradition. It seems that no one is willing to make a public statement for fear of upsetting her. In fairness to them, it’s pretty awful when she gets upset (think adult temper tantrum), and her relationship with my parents is often strained.

I have now asked twice about the present situation, and I’m not getting any traction aside from possibly-insincere declarations that we don’t have to buy presents. My partner strongly feels that it would be rude of us to sit and receive presents without giving anything in return, and I agree. She has also expressed her reluctance to attend my family’s Christmas in future years if they can’t be understanding about our finances. What do you think I should do? I shudder at the thought of adding to our debt, but I also don’t want to be seen as the family Scrooge. Help!

—“Bah Humbug”

Lord, a pox—10 poxes—on tradition for tradition’s sake. The point of gift-giving ought to be to make the recipient feel valued and appreciated, not to make the giver go into debt or be consumed with anxiety and guilt because they don’t have a limitless credit card. (While we’re handing out poxes, let’s throw one in the direction of family dynamics where one person dictates everyone else’s behavior because everyone else is terrified of setting them off on another one of their “adult temper tantrums.”) You do not need traction, and you do not need permission, from Kristen or from anyone else, to do to the following: Let everyone know that you’re so excited to see them this year, but that you can’t afford to both fly internationally and bring gifts, and that you don’t want or expect anything for yourselves—that you’re just excited to get to see everyone. You can point out that traveling back home with a toddler and numerous presents would be incredibly difficult and that you’d consider it a favor if no one added any gifts to your already-stuffed luggage.

If the idea of sitting through a big present-opening without having anything to offer sounds stressful, you don’t have to show up completely empty-handed—you can bring a thoughtful card or homemade cookies as tokens of your affection. As long as you’re clear in advance of the holiday that you’re not bringing presents with you, there’s nothing rude about what you’re doing. You’re not going to be cast out as the “family Scrooge,” especially in light of the fact that a number of your relatives have confessed that they might like to change the tradition themselves.

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Dear Prudence,

My father died last month in my former bedroom in my mother’s house. Now when I visit I am expected to sleep in my former room as it is the only place in the house available. I cannot stay at a hotel because of my family situation, so that option is out for me. I feel really uncomfortable and uneasy about sleeping in the room. The bed he died in has been removed so that is not the issue here. Can you offer me any advice on this matter?


This is such a recent loss; I can imagine that it feels additionally difficult to bring up your discomfort about sleeping in the room where your father died when the grief is still so fresh in your mother’s mind. I can certainly understand your reluctance! If a hotel is absolutely out of the question, I’m guessing staying with nearby friends or relatives is a no-go too. If absolutely nothing else, I think it’s fine for you to set up a bed on the couch in the living room or even sleep on the floor in another bedroom in the house, at least for the next few visits. It’s entirely understandable that you’d feel uneasy about sleeping in the room your father so recently died in, regardless of whether there’s a new bed there or not. Don’t force yourself.

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Dear Prudence,

I’m 22 years old and came out to my parents as a lesbian at 15. They are devoutly Catholic and conservative and have struggled deeply with it. For years, they let me know that they prayed every day for God to fix me and forbade me from telling anyone else in the family. Seven years and many fights later, they have definitely progressed. They say they have accepted that this is something that will likely not change and say they are no longer praying to fix it. They have let me tell my relatives and even told some of them on their own. They also ask me questions about my relationships, and my father even had dinner with me and my girlfriend when he visited me in school. They say that just because they believe men and women are fundamentally different and made to complete each other in marriage doesn’t mean they are homophobic—they just have religious views about what true marriage is, and I will never have that. We’ve spent hours going back and forth, and it has all been really painful for me. I also don’t know what I can expect from them. It’s been so many years and while they have improved, I know I’m not going to fundamentally change their beliefs about my sexuality. My girlfriend’s family is very accepting, and my girlfriend thinks I’m too easy on my parents.

My girlfriend will be in my hometown this Christmas break visiting extended family of her own. She’s met my 18-year-old brother, who loved her. I’d like her to meet my younger brother, who is 11, but my parents told me they are not OK with him knowing about my sexuality yet and want to tell him on their own terms when he’s older. I know he’s their child so if they want to teach him that, I guess they have the right. They say they’re OK with him meeting Hannah, but only if I introduce her as a friend. He’s met my 18-year-old brother’s girlfriend and was introduced to her as such. Is he at an age where I’m allowed to be mad about this and demand the right to tell him? He’s not a baby anymore, and I’m worried that the more years he’s indoctrinated into these homophobic beliefs, the less likely it is I’ll be able to shake him out of it when he’s older.

—Relationship With Homophobic Parents

I think it is time, not to be harder on your parents, but to be easier on yourself. For the sake of your own well-being, please stop going back and forth for hours (for years!) with them about whether or not it’s a sin that you’re in love with your girlfriend, or merely extremely sad and a pale imitation of heterosexual love. If your parents are only willing to let your girlfriend meet your little brother in the guise of your “friend,” then you should decline the opportunity. The age of your brother is not the deciding factor in whether or not you’re “allowed” to be angry with your parents. You are allowed to be angry with your parents right now. You are allowed to set limits with them. You are allowed to take space and keep distance between you. You are allowed to say that you’re not going to lie to your little brother about the nature of your sexual orientation or your relationship with your girlfriend. Your parents may have the right to teach him whatever they like about sexuality and religion, but their parental rights do not extend so far that they can ask you, a grown adult, to lie about your own life to preserve their homophobic fictions. You should be angry with your parents. I’m angry with them. Please consider spending Christmas with your girlfriend’s family this year. You don’t have to cut your parents out of your life if that’s not what you want, but at the very least know that you do not have to continue endlessly debating whether or not your identity is a burden and a tragedy.

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