Dear Prudence

Help! My Wife Struggles With Connecting With People and Building Friendships.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

A person sitting alone on stairs outdoors.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by _HealthyMond on Unsplash.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. How can my wife connect with people? And how can I help? My wife and I are both introverted people, but I seem to have a much easier time being liked by people and building friendships and relationships. She really struggles to connect with people; others often see her as a strong leader and someone who is admirable for being smart, capable, and organized, but they are much less likely to feel drawn to her as a person, even though she is very kind, thoughtful, genuine, and funny.

Unfortunately, I think there is a self-reinforcing dynamic at play: She is constantly hurt and frustrated by people not being interested in becoming her friend, and that makes her less willing to invest time, energy, and vulnerability in seeking out new relationships. This is a big struggle in her life and a source of real anxiety, sadness, and self-doubt. At the end of her time in high school, all of her friends “abandoned” her with no reason or warning. Since then, she has really struggled to build new relationships or trust people. It was a difficulty for her in college and has only seemed to intensify since graduating.

Sometimes I fear that she really sees me as her only true friend. I am happy and grateful to be her friend, but I want her to be able to find fulfilling relationships with others too. What advice do you have for adults who struggle to form friendships? How can my wife help people connect with her and like her for who she is? Lastly, is there anything I can do to help beyond supporting her and showing her love and friendship myself?

A: This is a situation where I think therapy would prove particularly helpful! Identifying core patterns, identity-defining fears, and habits formed out of self-protection that are no longer actually helpful is a big part of what therapy is, and since your wife is frustrated and saddened over these patterns, I think she’d likely benefit a great deal from seeing a therapist.
This mindset—I can’t trust my friends because they’re going to turn on me >> It’s not worth making new friends because they’re going to turn on me too >> I didn’t try to befriend Person X because I know it’s going to fail anyway, and Person X didn’t become my friend, which proves that I was right not to try—didn’t develop overnight, and she’s not going to be able to shrug it off in just a few weeks, but it is possible to approach the work of making new friends with a different script.

My advice for adults struggling to form friendships varies widely depending upon what the particular challenge is. In your wife’s case, since it comes from an inherent skittishness and lack of trust in other people, I think most of the work will have to be internal before anything like “try new hobbies,” “make friends volunteering,” et cetera, will be at all useful.

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Q. Mother-in-law hurting husband and granddaughter: My mother-in-law is 70 years old and has floated in and out of my husband’s life since he was a kid and she divorced his father. A couple of years ago, she broke up with her boyfriend and my husband encouraged her to move to our town because of her age and her wish to be a grandmother. After years of trying, my husband and I finally became parents to a little girl earlier this year.

However, we were not prepared for his mother to become a jealous diva grandma—making strange demands of our kid’s time, picking fights with my side of the family, and wanting us to take multiple photos of her posing with our newborn. She was also very angry because we didn’t allow her to post the photos online. It was nuts.

Then, when our daughter turned 6 months old, my mother-in-law announced that she was moving to a different state for her new boyfriend’s new job. A week before she was to leave, she sent my husband this long text about how she was moving because we are keeping her granddaughter away from her. That wasn’t true, of course. She had just seen our daughter a week prior (my husband brought her to her house to visit, no less), and we had invited her to come over that same weekend to play with her.

She’s gone now and hasn’t spoken to us since. I’m furious with her continually hurting my husband. I think I may truly hate her. I want to yell at her and tell her what a piece of shit I think she is. How do I get over it? I feel like it’s eating me alive.

A: I can understand your anger on your husband’s behalf, although I’m also relieved to hear that she’s left town again. While this latest removal sounds like part of a painful, predictable pattern she’s repeated often, I think you and your daughter have dodged a real bullet by not having to live in the same town as her grandmother.

In the moments when it seems like the anger will never go away, focus on your daughter and how fortunate she is to have two loving, attentive parents. You can also channel some of this anger into supporting your husband, figuring out what limits you want to maintain in your relationship with his mother in the future—it’ll probably feel good to agree that, whatever else happens, neither of you will try to encourage her to move nearby again—and planning to navigate the emotional fallout if he doesn’t hear from her again for months or years.

But you don’t need to rush to get rid of all this anger immediately. As long as you don’t find yourself taking it out on unsuspecting innocent bystanders or use it as an excuse to try to contact her and tell her off for a lifetime of lousy parenting, anger seems like a reasonable response to the Bad Grandma Whirlwind that just left town. 

Q. Open door: My husband and I live in a condo that, after a woman was robbed and raped last year, has serious rules about security: Everyone has a key code, and no holding open doors.

My father-in-law moved in with us after he fell. He has a little dog he dotes on and loves to take on multiple walks a day. He hates using the code to get in and out of the building and will prop open the side door when he takes the dog out. We already had an official warning and have been told by two neighbors that my father-in-law keeps doing this. It is a $250 fine that increases every time after, and we could get evicted!

We have talked to my father-in-law multiple times about this. We have written down the code and laminated a copy for his wallet. He gets huffy, argues, and then promises to stop doing it. But he keeps doing it! We don’t know how to get through to him, and I am this close to telling my husband that his father needs to move out. I had nightmares after what happened to that woman last year, since I often work late. If that happened again because of my father-in-law, I could never live with myself. What do we do?

A: You and your husband should find out what your legal responsibilities are to his father-in-law as a tenant, then speak to your father-in-law together about how many days’ notice you’re able to give him if this happens again, as well as figure out what alternative arrangements you’ll need to make for his care. Tell him this is not an argument but simple reality, that you stand to potentially get evicted over his refusal to enter the code, and that he can either choose to start using it and stay with you, or choose to live elsewhere. (Given that your father-in-law moved in over health concerns, it’s worth asking whether his inability to remember the card or use the code is part of a lifelong stubbornness or could potentially be from dementia; if you think that’s the case, you may want to speak to his doctor about your concerns and find additional treatment.)

Q. Am I violating the Sisterhood Friendship Code? I haven’t seen my friend “Courtney” for almost two years, since she left the company where we worked together. We’re still friends on social media, and I’m fond of her. I recently learned that Courtney and her boyfriend “Daniel,” with whom I still work, broke up. The breakup happened seven months ago, and I didn’t find out until August.

Daniel and I have been spending a lot of time together after work, and truth be told, I’ve always had a crush on him. I put it on ice when he and Courtney started dating, but now I’d like to ask him out. I wouldn’t have dreamed of making a move when they were together or if the breakup had been more recent, but a small part of me wonders if I’m violating some sisterhood code. Do I owe Courtney a heads-up? If I don’t ask Daniel out, I’m almost certain he will ask me.

A: If you’re wondering whether you can ask Daniel out while still being a generally good person and caring friend, I think the answer is yes. If you’re wondering whether you can ask Daniel out while guaranteeing Courtney will not get upset with you, I’m afraid that part is rather out of your control. If you want to talk to her about it beforehand, you can, although unless you’re prepared to actually turn him down if she asks you to, I think it might feel a little hollow.

Q. My dad’s chair: My dad is old and poor. Last year, his wife (my stepmother) sent me a link on Amazon for a “lift chair” that would make it easier for him to get up. It was $800. I sent her $1,000 to cover setup, shipping, et cetera. The next time I visited, there was no lift chair, just a new recliner. She decided he didn’t need the lift chair after all.

Last week, she asked me again to get him a lift chair, with an Amazon link. I priced the chair she bought last year with my money: $300. I think she pocketed the $700. I called her on it, and she said, “He didn’t need it last year, but he does now.” I’ve refused. Should I feel as guilty as I do? My dad has dementia, so I can’t bring him in on this.

A: In the short term, it will be easier for you to directly buy the items your father needs rather than send your stepmother the money. But if she’s willing to chisel you for cash by pretending she’s going to buy items he needs, and he suffers from dementia, I think it’s worth investigating whether she’s taking advantage of him financially and whether he’s receiving adequate care.

Q. Re: How can my wife connect with people? And how can I help? She is being passive-aggressive here. If she really wanted to deal with this problem, she would read up on it and/or go to therapy. While it is true that some people really do struggle to make friends, it seems to me that she doesn’t actually want to improve and just wants to complain and make this your problem—which, from your letter, seems to be something that is a recurring issue in your marriage.

A: I’m not so sure! The letter writer says this has been a long-standing problem, but they don’t say that they feel like their wife has behaved passive-aggressively or made unreasonable emotional demands as a result. I think it can be difficult to identify some problems in our own lives, and while I agree that therapy will likely prove helpful to the letter writer’s wife, I don’t think it can be assumed that just because she hasn’t wholeheartedly tackled this problem already means she’s simply complaining or uninterested in making a change.

Q. Hair raising: I recently cut my hair in a pixie-cut style. I feel beautiful and empowered; the newness is wonderful, and the change is welcome.

My issue is my mother. She hates my haircut. She is entitled to her opinion, but she is essentially shunning me. She has become cold, distant, and sullen. She is furious with me. I did not tell her I was getting my hair cut because I knew she would be upset. We typically talk every day and are usually close. We see each other at least once a week. My hair has shifted things.

The “shunning” happens often in our relationship, especially when I do something she does not agree with: Dating, moving out, piercing my ears, cutting my hair, going out with friends, losing weight, and changing doctors have all triggered similar meltdowns. I have stood up for myself many times, but she is cruelly persistent. I usually ride it out until I am encouraged “to be the better person” by my brother and father, or until things become too unbearable and I give in.

This has happened enough that I do not particularly enjoy my mother or like her very much. I feel myself resenting her and not trusting her. It is awful. I feel like her love is conditional. I do not know how to navigate our relationship. I am not enough for her; I am not the person she wants me to be. As a child, I would give in because I missed affection and I felt like I had messed things up, so I needed to fix things. But as I am getting older, I am aware of how toxic my relationship with my mother is. She only loves me or treats me with love when I do what she wants. Her mother did the same thing to her; I never thought this would be how my mother would treat me.

My dad and brother have only recently recognized how she treats me. For years I have talked about these things with them and they have overlooked it and basically shifted the responsibility to me. Now they do address her behaviors with her, but it is too little too late. I am often told, “You know how she gets. It’s different because you are her daughter.” It is frustrating and exhausting. I want to like my mother and love her, and I want to rebuild a healthy relationship with her, but I do not even know how or where to begin. How do I maintain a healthy relationship with my mother in this situation? How do I navigate my frustration, sadness, anger, and guilt?

A: Congratulations on the haircut—I’m so glad you’re loving it, and I’m so glad you let yourself do something you wanted even though you knew your mother would throw a tantrum.

Your father and brother’s excuses are thin at best—“Your mother has always been unreasonable and demanding, so it’s OK that she just behaved unreasonably and made outrageous demands.” You can’t maintain a healthy relationship with someone against their will, and it seems pretty clear that, at least as she is right now, your mother is totally uninterested in a healthy relationship with you. You may not be able to like and love your mother—that part is not totally within your control—but you can find outlets for dealing with your frustration, sadness, anger, and guilt without her, and, equally importantly, you can live your life in such a way that you’re not pressuring yourself to pretend she hasn’t hurt you in order to chase the approval she’s never willing to fully grant.

Don’t apologize for getting a haircut as an adult without telling your mother. Consider making an appointment with a therapist (therapists were sort of invented for troubles with one’s mother) so you can talk through some of these patterns. Spend more time with people who value and appreciate you for the well-rounded, independent adult that you are, and less time with people who seek to control you or to justify someone else’s attempt to control you. If a healthy relationship with your mother isn’t possible right now, a healthy relationship with yourself is (sorry, that sounds cheesy, but I think it’s true!). You can focus your time and energy on people and things that make you feel good about yourself, not like an unreasonable teenager who’s just broken curfew.

Q. Will it be me? I’ve been seeing this guy for a couple of months now. He isn’t ready for a “serious” relationship, but neither am I. He has a lot of stuff going on in his life, and so do I; we currently see each other about one to two times a week, and I am perfectly happy with the arrangement. He is extremely close, intimate, and caring when we see each other but tends to disappear into his world during the days we are apart.

The point I’m trying to understand is would I be his first choice when things get better in our lives? Or am I just an easy escape for now and he will go on searching for the right person once his life is settled? I’m starting to have feelings for him, and it would be devastating to me if that happens. I have quite low self-esteem, and my last relationship left me bruised and scarred. I don’t know how to approach this conversation with him, as this topic makes me incredibly vulnerable and no amount of Googling has so far helped.

A: I think if you are starting to feel strongly about this guy, believe you would be “devastated” if it turned out you two weren’t actually on the same page when it comes to the future of your relationship, and feel incredibly vulnerable, then now is the time to say something. Part of you may want to avoid saying anything because it will kill a certain fantasy: “If I act very loving and lovable when we spend time together and don’t articulate any desires I think may put him off, he will someday come to want the exact same things I do—but only if I remain totally calm and chill until that day. Speaking up will kill the magic.” But speaking up is the only way to keep yourself from being devastated! And what you want to talk about is very reasonable, especially given that you’ve been seeing each other once or twice a week for a few months. Tell him you’ve been really happy with this arrangement, and that once your other responsibilities settle down a little, you would really like to become more involved in one another’s lives. “If you don’t feel the same way, then it might be time for me to move on, because I’m starting to develop stronger feelings for you.”

The idea of ending things when they’re still good might feel counterintuitive, especially if you struggle with low self-esteem as a result of your last relationship, but it’s the greatest gift you can possibly give yourself: to ask for clarity and then to make decisions based on your own self-interest as a result. Good luck.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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Vintage Dear Prudence

I’m in my mid-30s, and my partner is 10 years older. We’re rounding the corner to where getting pregnant becomes more challenging. My real concern is I don’t feel any more emotionally ready for the total life change that is having kids. I still feel as I did in my 20s, that I’ll want them in 10 years. I’m scared I’m watching our window close as I wait for the moment I feel ready to take on total responsibility for a brand-new human. Or is no one ever really prepared for the changes of having a child?

And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.