Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, chatters—let’s mend some fences.
Q. How to talk about weight gain: I have gained about 10 to 15 pounds in the past year, due to some changes in medication and a lot of stress. I have a history of bulimia from back when I was in high school. I’m really frustrated by the way I feel and look, but every time I try to talk about it with my friends, I feel like they shut me down. I know they’re just trying to be nice and helpful by saying things like “Oh, you shouldn’t worry about it” or “You still look great.” I really want to be able to talk about it honestly with my friends, but I’m not sure how to.
A: “It’s kind of you to reassure me, but I really do want to be able to talk about the feelings my weight gain has brought up. Maybe I shouldn’t worry, but sometimes I do anyway, and it would mean a lot to me to be able to talk about the stress that brought it on, and some of the old compulsive feelings it brings up in me now. Is that OK?”
If some of your friends aren’t available to discuss this in-depth because they have a history of disordered eating or painful self-image, then you should respect that, but it may be that at least some of them only need to hear how important it is to you to be able to talk about this without being reassured (or forestalled) into dropping the subject.
Q. Mom doesn’t like tattoos: I have a couple of tattoos on my arm—nothing obscene; they’re related to hometown pride—but they are relatively big. Obviously, my mother hates them, which I understand. I knew when I got them it was going to upset her and I listened to her feelings and absorbed them without justifications or malice.
It’s been four years since I got my first tattoo, and any time they come up, she is hateful about them. She says I look trashy, like I belong in prison, et cetera. She’s a loving, supportive person. She’s funny and sweet and I love her, but there are issues like this one—differences of opinion and the ways we live our lives—where she can’t seem to help but make me feel like a failure of a daughter.
We live together now, and every time I hear comments like that, it makes me feel so small, stupid, and unloved. I do my best to be a good daughter. I just want to make her happy, but what can I do to stave off these conversations and derision in my home?
A: “Mom, it’s been four years now, and no matter how many times you say, ‘That looks trashy,’ these tattoos aren’t coming off. They don’t come off—that’s the point. I know you don’t like them, and I’m not asking you to pretend that you do. I’m asking you to stop making the same comments about them over and over, because it doesn’t accomplish anything but make me want to leave the room. I don’t want to feel that way around you—I want to feel like even if we disagree about something, we can speak about each other respectfully and kindly. When you say for the umpteenth time that I look terrible because I have tattoos, it makes it really hard to want to be around you. I know it may be difficult to stop at first, because it’s became a habitual refrain of yours, but it would mean a great deal to me if you would try.”
If she makes a good faith effort to knock it off, that’s great. If she takes it as an opportunity to relitigate the issue—“I don’t mean to say it, I just can’t help it because they look so objectively bad that I have to point it out involuntarily every time it crosses my mind”—push back. “You don’t have to keep saying it, and I know you’re capable of being thoughtful and considerate when you speak, so I’d like you to apply your considerable strength of character towards changing this habit.”
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Q. Bad relationship?: Recently my boyfriend of almost two years moved in with me, only because he got into a huge (ongoing) fight with his mom. He had originally moved back in with his parents after his fiancée cheated on him and they broke up, and his father had cancer and he helped them out a lot around the house. He didn’t have any other place to go and we had talked about moving in together previously.
He begrudgingly moved in, and I have realized just how incredibly lazy he is! And this is not the most annoying part—he hates physical affection. If I want a hug, he acts like I’m asking for a kidney. I, on the other hand, love it. Not all the time, but I shouldn’t have to get grief for wanting a hug. We have sex about once a week, which is fantastic (really!) but he never initiates anything; it’s usually me.
He was “burned” in the past by two previous relationships in which he was cheated on, so he’s hard to read and has this wall up. No matter what I do, I feel like I’m never going to break through it. I get that it sucks what happened to him, but it also happened to me after a 17-year marriage. I’ve moved on while he hasn’t—and he and his fiancée broke up before my ex-husband and I divorced. I think I regret letting him move in, but I don’t know if I want to end the relationship either.
A: I’d regret living with this guy, too. I think it’s difficult, if not impossible, to ask a partner to move out while continuing the relationship, but if that’s what you want to try to do, I think you should make that clear and ask if he’s interested in the possibility. If he considers being asked to move out tantamount to a breakup, then that may frankly be the best possible outcome, because I don’t see him suddenly enjoying physical affection or deciding to start helping out around the house. Since he moved in out of necessity and not because the two of you were really excited to start a new phase of your relationship together, it will be both more and less difficult to move forward.
Give him plenty of advance notice so that he has time to make alternative living arrangements (check in with your local tenant laws first to find out how much notice you’re legally required to give him), and tell him that if he’s willing to continue dating while living apart, you would be too, but I think you should prepare yourself for a breakup. Living together isn’t just “not working” a little bit—it sounds like you two are wildly incompatible and he’s not interested in moving on from his past relationships. My guess is that you’re going to be much, much happier once he’s out of your house, and possibly out of your life.
Q. Son-in-law’s health: My daughter has been married for many years to a man who is constantly ill. He is usually sick when the family gets together, which makes me think he may actually have agoraphobia, though I don’t think he has ever had a psychiatric evaluation and he may indeed have multiple medical problems.
That said, they have recently given birth to a son after having attempted for nearly 18 years. I casually asked my daughter if they have life insurance, to which she said they have not “gotten around to it” yet. Since they are self-employed and work from home, I fear that his death could completely change my daughter and her son’s standard of living. Would I be able to get and pay for an insurance policy for him or would it look like I’m trying to gaslight him? I wish him no harm, but I am concerned that if all these medical maladies that he apparently suffers from are true, he may not live long enough to be able to see his child through college.
A: I think that getting a life insurance policy taken out on your son-in-law without his buy-in would not get you the results you want and would likely damage your relationship with both your daughter and her husband. They’ve been together for at least 18 years, they’re both adults, and it doesn’t sound like you’re especially familiar with either the nature of his conditions or the treatment he may have received for them. I think this is a good opportunity for you to take a step back and allow your daughter to make her own decisions, even if they’re not the same decisions you would make.
You can make a plug for life insurance’s benefits once (really, just once) more and then let the subject drop. It doesn’t sound like he is on death’s door, so I think some of your concern right now is the standard increase in anxiety that can often accompany the birth of a child—the idea of something possibly going wrong can feel especially heightened—but I don’t think you have solid evidence to justify intervening so strongly in your daughter’s marriage as to buy an insurance policy on their behalf.
Q. Re: How to talk about weight gain: I think the letter writer needs to be sensitive to the fact that many, many people, especially women, will not be able to be available for this conversation. If the friends she is talking to are heavier than her and struggling with feeling the need to lose a lot of weight, her comments about herself will come across as judgment about them and their bodies. This is a good conversation for a therapist.
A: That’s an excellent point: Weight and eating disorders are both very charged topics of conversation, and it may be as difficult for some of your friends to discuss as it is for you to not discuss. If they’re not available for this conversation, it’s not necessarily because they don’t care about you or your struggle.
Q. In-law visit: My sister-in-law is visiting her son. She comes from another country and he lives an eight-hour drive from us. Understandably, our nephew has said that he will not make that drive to us again (he did so on other visits in the past), and I agree that it’s too much.
My husband plans to buy his sister a round-trip ticket to visit us for a week. I feel that it’s fine to welcome visitors who can afford to pay their own way and feel fine taking care of all expenses while they visit. My husband insists that his sister can’t afford it but still he wants her to visit. Is it unreasonable of me to insist that we not host someone who can’t afford her own trip here? My husband visits her in their country annually, so it’s not their only chance to see one another.
A: It would be one thing if you two couldn’t afford the ticket, or if you otherwise had a problem with your sister-in-law, but it sounds like this falls under the category of “something you’ll have to talk about and compromise on” rather than a situation where one of you is doing something objectively unreasonable. If your husband wants to see his sister more than once this year and it won’t break your budget to pay for her ticket this time around, then I don’t see any reason why you can’t make the occasional exception to your “pay your way out here and we’ll take care of the rest” rule. You can certainly talk to your husband about how often you want to take on someone else’s travel as a household expense, but I don’t think insisting on “if you can’t afford the ticket, you can’t visit” as a hard and fast rule is necessary (unless, of course, the price of a ticket is really steep and it would make paying bills this month difficult for you as a family).
Q. Mr. and Mr. Naming Issue: I’m a 32-year-old gay man set to marry the love of my life next summer. I love my fiancé and couldn’t be happier with him, but he threw me for a loop by announcing he wants to take my last name after our wedding. He says that he’s never really liked his “occupational” last name (think “Farmer”); that my last name and his first name sound nicer together; and that if we ever want to have kids, our family will all have the same name.
For reasons I don’t really understand, I feel weird about this. I’m afraid it will offend his parents and be embarrassing to explain to people. I don’t like the parallel with him being the “wife” in the relationship. At the same time, I can see it’s flattering and it seems churlish not to want to “share” my name. I fear saying no would cause him a lot of upset, and my family are all for the idea.
A: There’s a step in between either going along because your fiancé has made an announcement about a decision that would affect both of you and “putting your foot down” and saying no out of hand. Tell him that you want to talk more about this as a couple because you have several conflicting feelings—that on the one hand, you are flattered and understand the convenience of having a family name, but that it also feels like mimicking heterosexual convention to you and isn’t necessarily something you’re excited about. That doesn’t mean that it is inherently mimicking heterosexual convention, but it’s important to talk about what your reservations are, even if they’re not purely rational, rather than trying to displace your own discomfort onto other people. “What if your parents get offended?” is less important than “It makes me feel uncomfortable and I’m still sorting through all the reasons why.” This is a conversation (probably multiple conversations) the two of you should be able to have together without feeling like you have to arrive at an immediate compromise. At the very least, know that you have a right to bring your own feelings to bear in this process.
Q: Re: Son-in-law’s health: This could have been written about my husband (except for the new baby part). I have no desire to explain to my family all of his issues—debilitating depression and social anxiety coupled with some physical ailments like hemorrhoids. He finds large gatherings stressful and dislikes one of my sisters (I don’t like her either). He does not stop me from going to family events and I do not pressure him to come along.
To the mother-in-law: Stay out of it. You have no actual idea of what is going on. If something happens to him, you can be there to support your daughter and grandson in whatever way is possible at the time.
A: Thanks for this. I agree that it’s definitely premature and unwarranted to assume the son-in-law is on the verge of death, and it sounds like the letter writer is making a number of assumptions about health issues they don’t actually seem to have many details about. Stepping back is the best (and frankly only) option here.
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