Dear Prudence

My Boyfriend and I Just Broke Up, and He Wants His Christmas Present Back

Prudie’s column for Jan. 24.

Expensive-looking earrings next to a woman’s neck.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Hatham Al-Shabibi on Unsplash.

Dear Prudence,
I received a pair of ruby earrings this Christmas from my boyfriend. We just broke up, and now he is asking for the earrings back. The problem is that I lost one of them three days after I got them. I was worried about telling him, so I went out and bought the same pair so he wouldn’t notice. I know the original pair were a gift and I am not obligated to give them back (right?). But he is harassing me, and I am worried about what he might do. Should I send him the one earring and tell him what happened? The breakup was not good, and I am afraid of him retaliating or accusing me of doing it on purpose. Or should I send him the pair I bought just to shut him up? Honestly, I don’t want to do either, but I could use some advice.
—Buyer’s Remorse

You do not have to return gifts you received during the course of a relationship (unless we’re talking Liz Taylor–level jewels or returning an engagement ring if you’re the one calling off the wedding). Gifts we give lovers are not loans dependent upon staying together forever. That said, I wish I had more details about the nature of your breakup and the subsequent harassment because that might change my advice substantially. If these earrings were much more expensive than the kind of gifts you two normally exchanged and you ended things shortly thereafter, then I think it would be gracious to return them, even if you’re not legally required to do so. If he’s making noise about trying to take you to court over the earrings, rest assured that that’s all it is—noise—and that the burden of proving they weren’t a gift will be on him. That’s assuming, however, that he’s just been a garden-variety irritating ex after your breakup. If he’s threatening you or making up outrageous accusations to try to get you in trouble, it’s best to tell him that he needs to stop contacting you, then block his number, tell your friends not to communicate with him about you, and consider filing a police report (and of course don’t worry about returning any gifts he bought you).

Dear Prudence,
I was an “extremely gifted child” growing up, with the emphasis on “gifted” rather than “child.” My mother pulled me out of school and set me up with personal tutors. Mathematical mistakes were sins. Wanting to go outside and play was sacrilegious. At 17, I sneaked out after curfew to go bowling with my crush and his friends. My mother called the cops and threatened his parents with a lawyer if he ever came near me again. I cut ties with her in college. I failed to finish, failed to prove my “worth to mankind,” and told her to burn in hell. I got married, and my mother called to say she wished she hadn’t “invested” so much in me.

I have a good marriage, two lovely boys, and went back to school for my master’s degree. My younger son has demonstrated considerable intelligence. His school is talking about skipping grades or taking extra classes. I have been having nightmares about my own childhood. I am paralyzed. My husband argues that we owe our son the best chance possible. I don’t know how to do that.
—Gifted, Troubled, and Anxious

There are lots of ways to make sure both of your children get excellent chances in life. Skipping grades or taking extra classes, especially at an early age when your son is still learning basic social skills and developing emotional maturity, is not the only way to do that. One important thing to take into account is your son’s happiness at his current grade level. Is he so far ahead of the other students that he’s often bored and frustrated? Does he want to skip a grade? Or is he doing great work, bonding with his peers, and fairly happy where he is? How can you and your husband encourage his learning at home without immediately ratcheting up his workload? What if he skipped a grade and did well academically but struggled to fit in socially? How would the school be able to support him, and could he switch back if it proved too difficult? Don’t make any decisions before you two feel like you have solid answers to these questions.

I also hope that you can set aside some time to see a therapist, given that this news is causing you to have pretty traumatic-sounding nightmares about your own very painful childhood. The good news is that, unlike your mother, you already treat your son like a valuable person whose worth is not dependent on constantly achieving more and more. Whether he does take on extra classes or skips a grade, he’s not ever going to have to face the same pressure at home that you did, because you’ve found a way to break that cycle.

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Dear Prudence,
One of my roommates, K, is several years younger than me; we have a sibling-like relationship, and she sometimes turns to me for advice or comfort. She is often brash, impolite, and self-absorbed. I don’t really let this bother me because she is young, figuring herself out, and otherwise a great kid. Recently, she got out of a terrible relationship. I’m very relieved for her, and she’s expressed an interest in finding a new, less chaotic social circle than the one belonging to her manipulative ex. We’re both gay, and I’ve recently been forming my own small circle of LGBT friends in the city. Do I have a responsibility to bring K into the fold? On the one hand, I feel responsible for modeling healthy adult friendships and helping her heal, but on the other hand, she still hasn’t outgrown her loud, offensive youth, and I’m scared she’ll embarrass me in front of my new friends. I feel like she probably can’t change unless she has a healthy environment to grow, but I’m scared of losing the tiny support system I’ve made for myself. Our apartment is too small to have many people over, so any socializing would have to be deliberate and preorganized. Help!
—Modeling Nonchaotic Friendships

Generally, the best reason for introducing someone to your friends is to want this person to become friends with your other friends. That’s not to say compassion or a desire to help someone out of a rut can’t ever be a factor in your social interactions, but if you think K is at the “still figuring herself out” phase and is liable to interrupt, ask intrusive questions, and generally disrupt the low-key dynamic you’ve cultivated together, then you should hold off on bringing her around. You can continue being a supportive friend and roommate to her, encourage her to go out and meet people who aren’t her lousy ex and are closer to her own age, and (occasionally, kindly) let her know when she’s being rude or not letting someone else get a word in edgewise. Your responsibility to K does not extend to “helping her heal.” That doesn’t mean you can’t offer a compassionate ear when she’s feeling sad about her breakup or offer advice when she asks, but making yourself accountable for her healing is taking on way too much.

Dear Prudence,
My girlfriend and I are lesbians in the post-college, early career-starting phase, and I feel like I am in a sitcom. My girlfriend works from home while I have to dress up and drive an hour to work. It kills me to come home and find her still in her PJs and the apartment a mess. I clean and cook and try to stay active. My girlfriend sits, clicks, and orders takeout. Our sex life has died. It is a Shakespearean production to get her out of bed, in the shower, and out the door for any kind of social life. I find myself nagging because she can’t get up to empty the dishwasher or put the wet laundry into the dryer. We have talked to excess, done chore charts, talked some more, and nothing gets resolved. She takes my complaints as personal criticism. I don’t love her as a girlfriend anymore. I love her, but coming home to a woman in SpongeBob SquarePants sleepwear snacking on chips rather than heating up dinner, which I prepared ahead of time, is a mood killer. We talked about marriage and kids in college—there she seemed driven and focused. Now we are bickering all the time.
—Already a Mom to My Girlfriend

Break up! You’ve talked about this endlessly, nothing has changed, and you’re no longer in love with her. You two don’t have kids together or shared property. You haven’t built a life with each other over the decades that you’re reluctant to part with. Maybe she’s depressed, or maybe she just has a very different idea of what she wants out of her home life; either way, you can wish her the best and hope she finds whatever help she needs in order to take care of herself on a daily basis without remaining her girlfriend. Think of how clear she’s made it that she doesn’t want your advice when it comes to switching the laundry or what she should have for dinner. Change the channel, and find a show you want to watch.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Your kid is already doing better than you were, because your kid doesn’t have a cruel, demanding, stinting mother.”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
My uncle is a raging alcoholic, a narcissist, and a misogynist. Recently, his wife was hospitalized and had a pretty serious surgery. He turned an already difficult situation into a complete disaster. It seems very apparent that my aunt, now in recovery, will never leave him—much to everyone’s chagrin. So here’s the dilemma: I’m planning a wedding and do not want him there. Not only am I angry about what a terrible person he is, but I’m also worried about what could happen if he did come. At my brother’s wedding a few years ago, he was completely inappropriate to a young female guest. But I do want to invite my aunt. I know this would normally be a huge faux pas, but do special circumstances allow me to only make the invite out to her? What’s the protocol here?
—Wedding List Etiquette

It’s still a huge faux pas, but more than that, I think it’s unlikely that your aunt would happily RSVP yes to an invitation that didn’t include the husband she’s decided to stay with “to everyone’s chagrin.” I think you’re right not to invite him, especially because you have reason to believe he’ll harass your female guests, but I’m not sure there’s a way you can ask your aunt to come alone without offending her. That leaves you with two options: Leave them both off the guest list and offer her the polite fiction that you’re keeping the wedding small; or leave them both off the guest list, hoping no one asks you about it, but be ready to say, “I’m not comfortable having Uncle X there after he harassed a young female guest at my brother’s wedding,” and then be prepared to sit through an uncomfortable moment—especially if your family has a habit of whispering about this uncle’s bad behavior rather than naming it outright. In the meantime, I think you should focus your energy on checking in on your aunt and making sure she’s receiving the care and support she needs after surgery that your uncle isn’t giving her.

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Dear Prudence,
I’m an experienced morning radio producer in a midsize market, with almost eight years behind the mic. The station is successful but has never changed format or any major full-time on-air position in 17 years. The pay is lousy. I’m struggling to survive, yet I plug away at a job I hate with the hope that eventually I’ll earn a spot with an actual air shift and hopefully better pay. This seems less and less likely. Everyone tells me to quit and earn better money doing anything else, but I enjoy the “fun” aspect of the job, and I like being creative. However, creativity in this business pays less than $25,000 a year. It’s simply too hard to get through the day, and all I think about is how little I earn and how hopeless I feel. Am I a failure in broadcasting if I remove myself from the profession? I’d effectively deem myself worthless if I move on, yet another “has-been” or “never-was” in a long line of burnt-out radio producers. I need hope for my future.
—Failing Out

There are so many ways to incorporate creativity into your life that don’t involve this level of misery. Take a look at your own letter—words like lousy, struggling, and hopeless predominate. You’ve spent eight years at a station that has never changed format, and it’s been nearly two decades since the kind of job you’re hoping for has become available. You say you enjoy the fun aspect of the job, but I don’t get much of a sense of fun left in what you write. It sounds like the day-to-day struggle to make ends meet and a sense that you’re stuck in a dead-end position now seriously outweighs whatever fun you manage to have at work. Leaving a job that makes you miserable and has almost no opportunity for advancement isn’t a failure and doesn’t make you worthless; it’s smart, it’s in your own best interest, and it’s going to make your life easier in the long run. Don’t rush into things. Ask friends and former colleagues for recommendations, work on your résumé, look for something that feels like a real step up, and figure out your next move. Leaving this job doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to never work in radio production again or that you’re completely abandoning your dream—plenty of people dip in and out of industries all the time, and it may be that something will open up someday. But you don’t have to stay in the same spot, making the same salary, waiting for it to happen.

Classic Prudie

“I dropped out of college midway through my senior year to take care of my ailing mother. My father continued to work while I cared for her day in and day out for two and a half years. I borrowed $4,500 from my father to pay for my expenses during that time. After she passed away, my father collected her life insurance money and began receiving a hefty pension from her state job. Imagine my surprise when I not only received nothing from her life insurance money but was also presented with the bill for the money I borrowed! It’s been more than a year now, and while I have not paid any of the money back, he never fails to bring up the fact that I ‘owe’ him. Should I just pay the money and keep quiet, or should I present him with my own bill for the two and a half years of my life that I gave up?