Dear Prudence

My Parents Demand My Husband and I Do Hard Labor Every Time We Visit

Prudie’s column for April 11.

A couple's paint-splattered paints are shown as they carry paint buckets and brushes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rawpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,

I am in my 20s, I’m married, and I have two young children. My husband and I are totally financially independent from my parents and live a few states away. Whenever we visit their house, we’re expected to work. I’m not talking about helping with dishes or putting a load of laundry in the dryer. My parents own four rental properties in addition to the home they live in and consistently expect our help with maintenance. We’ve ripped up carpeting, refinished floors, repainted rooms, hauled large loads to the dump, broken up chunks of rock with shovels, remulched their enormous garden—the list goes on. And we do dishes and laundry and sweeping on top of that.

And they’re there too, working alongside us, criticizing almost everything we do and asking us to redo it to their satisfaction. My dad bangs on our door at 7 a.m. and says, “Time to get to work.” We’re told to pack work clothes before our visits. I openly complain about being asked to do these things (I act like a teenager again), but my parents get offended and act like I’m saying I hate their hardworking way of life. It doesn’t help that my parents get jealous over how we see my husband’s parents more frequently. Of course we do! When we visit their house, we pitch in around the house, but they treat us like guests and make us feel comfortable.

The last two trips, I’ve gotten out of most of it by being pregnant, but my poor husband has spent entire days doing backbreaking work. He hates it. I don’t want to dread the visits, and I definitely don’t want my kids being roped into all this when they get older. I feel like it’s one thing to expect your adult children to help out around the house when they visit, but I don’t think we should be expected to do such demanding work. We have limited vacation time, and plane tickets to see them cost more than $1,000 for the four of us. What are my responsibilities as their daughter here? Can I just refuse to help without causing a fight and ruining our visit?

—Adult Chores

You can absolutely refuse to help! I don’t think you can do so without causing a fight, which is part of why you haven’t stopped doing this earlier. The fact that you’ve been acting like you have no choice in the matter speaks to that teenage mindset you find yourself lapsing back into whenever you’re around your parents. You have options in between “never seeing your parents again” and “sulking while giving in.” It’s going to feel unnatural, because you haven’t set this boundary before, and your parents may very well resist, but you’re a grown woman with a husband and children of your own! They can’t ground you. They can’t take away your car or your phone. If they don’t like the boundary you set, all they can do is not like the boundary you set. That’s it!

If you and your husband can afford it, book a nearby hotel room for your next visit so that you’re not staying in your parents’ place. Let them know that you’re looking forward to spending quality time with them, so they should tell you each day when they’re finished working on their properties so you can meet them for a meal or take a walk together. (You can even let them know in advance so they have time to adjust their expectations.) But tell them that from now on, you and your husband aren’t going to help them run their properties. “Sorry, that won’t be possible” and “Let us know when you’re available” should become your watchwords.

If you can’t afford a hotel, then let them know you’re looking forward to your next visit but that you won’t be bringing any work clothes and won’t be joining them as they work on their rental properties. If they’re still interested in seeing you when you can’t work for them, great! If they make it clear that they expect their guests to work full time, send your regrets and invite them to come out to see you anytime. Expect them to kick at this. Don’t be surprised, dispirited, or sulky when it happens—it’s part of the process. Just cheerfully and clearly draw a line. But the only way to not dread future visits or find yourself roped into refurbishing sheds every other vacation for the rest of your life is to say no and mean it.

Dear Prudence,

I’ve been arguing with my boyfriend of a year over the state of his bathroom since we’ve been dating. I’m grossed out by it. He doesn’t seem to mind that there are always beard trimmings on the surfaces where I like to put my makeup on in the morning, a floor I can’t step on with bare feet, and stray pubic hairs and stains in the toilet. He argues that he’s not the only one who uses that bathroom and his roommate is the main cause of the mess. I don’t doubt this because my boyfriend’s room is always clean, and the rest of the house isn’t too bad either, but his roommate is like a tornado. My boyfriend doesn’t want to be the one cleaning up someone else’s mess, which I get. I also understand that it’s a dingy old house, so to some extent it will never be truly clean. But that doesn’t change the fact that someone should be cleaning the bathroom at least, say, once a month.

This has been at a stalemate for a while now. He’ll say I barely spend the night at his place (which is true), and I’ll ask when the last time he cleaned the bathroom was, and he’ll just roll his eyes. I’m seriously considering just not coming over to his place until he does it. I’ve threatened that before but never really followed through. We’re both fed up with this situation.

—Dirty Bathroom

Your boyfriend is discovering the inherent limitations of filth chicken, the game some adults like to play with their housemates as if they were two siblings competing to see who can get more sympathy out of their parents when asked why the house isn’t clean. Rather than spend an hour a month washing some bathmats, scrubbing a single toilet, and wiping down the sink and mirrors, he’d happily shower in a hazmat zone every day? He’s decided to care less about the cleanliness of his bathroom as a way of dealing with his housemate, and he’s trying to get you to join him there, where the two of you can rest safely in the knowledge that you’re being “totally fair” while also developing athlete’s foot.

My desire for you, dear letter writer, is that you do not find yourself in the position of cleaning these guys’ bathroom for them every month because they’re determined never to do even a minute’s more housecleaning than the other. I think you should follow through with your promise—not in a fit of pique or as a feint because you think it’ll light a fire underneath him, but because you shouldn’t spend the night in a house with a bathroom so gross you have to hold your breath when you want to blow-dry your hair. That’s a good bar to set for yourself, whether or not you’re dating the person the bathroom in question belongs to. Tell your boyfriend that you’re not trying to dictate how he and his roommate divide chores and that you don’t want to keep having the same argument, so you’re going to be spending the night at your own place from now on. He can either visit you there (in which case you get to use a clean bathroom), have a serious conversation with his roommate where they hash out a meaningful cleaning schedule (in which case you get to use a clean bathroom), or clean his own bathroom (in which case you get to use a clean bathroom). Or he throws such a petulant fit about it that you decide you’re going to dump him and only date guys with clean bathrooms from now on. Once again, you get to use a clean bathroom—that’s my vision for you!

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Dear Prudence,

I’m caring for my elderly mother with help from my sister. No one has seen or heard from our brother for six months. He says he’s dealing with some psychological issues from his friend dying by suicide. (This was not his best friend, if that’s helpful.) He’s not helping out or visiting or taking calls or texts from me, my sister, or my mom. He just says he’s dealing with some deep-seated psychological problems—all the while he’s going out to dinners and movies with his boyfriend.

I’m beyond livid about this. I’m about to cut him out of my life for good because he won’t talk to anyone about anything, so I’m not even able to resolve anything. I’m asking my mother to cut him out of her life insurance as well because he’s not interested in being a part of this family anymore. He even told our family that his boyfriend’s family is his real family now on Christmas Day dinner. That was three years ago. He’s vengeful and hurtful. I don’t want toxic people anymore in my life. Is what I’ve decided healthy or progressive?

—Trying to Move On

I’m not going to make any claims about whether being mad with a sibling is “progressive.” It’s not a question of politics but of what you want from your life. You’re allowed to have any kind of relationship with him that you want! I do think you should avoid wasting your energy trying to get your mother to punish your brother by taking him off her life insurance. It’s more important (and productive, I think) for you to focus on why you’re hurt and angry and what you want to do on the basis of those feelings. I don’t know how you know that your brother has been going out to dinner with his boyfriend, but whatever energy you’re expending to keep tabs on his movements, it’s time to stop. Don’t make it your job to track him or prove that he’s not suffering psychologically. Maybe he is, or maybe he isn’t. Or maybe he is but not in a way that you consider significant. Or maybe he is but the way he’s dealing with it, you think, is selfish. The end result is the same, no matter the specifics: He’s made it clear that he considers his boyfriend’s family his own, and he doesn’t want to be in contact with any of you. You are overextended right now caring for your mother, and you feel hurt and frustrated that your brother has opted out of that care. My hope for you is that you can find ways to make time for yourself and give your feelings toward your brother the time and attention they deserve (either in therapy or discussing constructively with a close friend, not in keeping tabs on him or asking other people to punish him on your behalf).

One last thought: Generally speaking, it’s better to be specific about our motives for doing things. Saying, “I don’t want toxic people in my life anymore” suggests that toxicity is an innate condition only other people can have and doesn’t acknowledge actual habits or choices. Instead, you can say something like “My brother stopped taking my calls and hasn’t been around to help with our mother. I feel rebuffed and hurt. He says it’s to deal with psychological issues brought on by a friend’s death. I don’t know anything about what those issues look like, but from the outside it seems like he just doesn’t want to deal with us. My sister and I don’t really have the option of checking out to deal with our own issues. I’m angry, and I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do that he would notice or care about.” That’s something you can really work with, much more than “I’m getting rid of toxic people.”

Dear Prudence,

My wife has sworn off sex since our son was born. (He is 3½ now.) She refused to discuss the matter after we went to see a doctor. Her words: “I am not broken.” I love her. I love our son. I love our life. I don’t want to cheat, but I have a sex drive, and kisses and cuddles are not enough. So, I look at porn and masturbate sometimes. I forgot to lock the door once, and my wife walked in. She was disgusted and described me like I was a sexual deviant. She wanted me to never look at porn again, and I asked her if she wanted a divorce, which made her look at me like I had just slapped her. I told her I love her and our son, but I didn’t sign up for celibacy when we got married. She started to cry and fell over apologizing, but the issue is still there. I am banging my head against a wall here. She doesn’t want to go to counseling again. I am happy with my life 90 percent of the time, but I know that the 10 percent that holds sex is going to break up my marriage. What are my options here?

—Porn Breaking Point

I’m not sure what your options are right now—that part depends on what your wife has to say—but I can tell you for sure what your next move needs to be, and that’s finishing the conversation you and your wife abandoned when she started crying. Be prepared for the conversation to involve a lot of tears. That’s fine—this is a really vulnerable subject—but you can kindly acknowledge them by handing her some tissues, putting an arm around her, giving her a few minutes to let it all out, and then continuing the conversation. If you two have previously allowed tears to end this conversation before it’s really begun, you need to acknowledge that one or both of you is probably going to cry more than once when you discuss the role of sex in your marriage and that it doesn’t mean the conversation needs to stop. The fact that she wept when she saw you masturbating suggests to me that it’s not simply a matter of indifference with her. She clearly feels something very strongly, and there’s at least a part of her that wants your exclusive sexual attention.

One of the questions I’d encourage you to ask your wife is about her “broken” comment. Where did that idea come from? Did she feel like the doctor was suggesting there was something wrong with her during that visit? Have you used the language of “brokenness” to describe your sex life, and if so, how can you go about making amends for that? If you haven’t, how can you two acknowledge that that’s a fear of hers while also pressing on? Tell her: “If I haven’t already made it clear, I want to emphasize that I don’t think of you as broken. But I don’t want the language of ‘brokenness’ or ‘working/not working’ to distract us from having a real conversation about the fact that I want to have sex and you don’t. I don’t know if something’s wrong or if there’s something I’ve done to hurt you or lose your trust. When it comes to sex, I feel like I don’t know you. If there’s something you’ve been holding back because you’re not sure how I’ll feel about it, I hope you’ll tell me, because I’d rather know what’s going on with you than have to wonder.” I hope she can start to open up at that, but if she’s not ready yet and you two have to keep muddling through this without more clarity, you can tell her you’ll do your best to be private when it comes to porn but that you’re not going to forswear orgasms. I wish you both the best, and I hope she can find it in herself to start talking about sex with you.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Tell them your hourly rate for mixing cement.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

My teenage daughter came out as a lesbian a couple of years ago and then started dating her best friend. That friend has since come out as a trans guy and is now my daughter’s boyfriend. As a lesbian, my daughter is having a hard time navigating this change. She loves her partner very much and is seeking my advice about whether they should stay together. They’re relatively young teens who aren’t sexually active. (We talk candidly about these things.) Before they started dating, they were also physically affectionate, sometimes holding hands or cuddling during movies, so really the only physical change in their relationship after they became a couple was that they started kissing. While I see subtle signs of my daughter distancing herself, I think that since she isn’t sure yet, she should stay in the relationship until she knows what she really wants. I’m afraid that breaking up with her boyfriend at this fragile time of self-discovery could be especially hard on him and perhaps jeopardize their friendship. Of course, if or when my daughter decides that going back to being besties is what she wants, I’ll fully support her—and her boyfriend—through any difficulties. I want to help, but I know I’m playing catch-up on her sexuality. Can a lesbian date a trans male and remain lesbian?

—Perplexed Cis Mom

I’m going to leave that last question alone, because I don’t think that question is really the issue you or your daughter are facing. The issue is: “My daughter might be preparing for her first breakup, and I’m not sure how to help her walk through it.” Please don’t encourage her to stay in a relationship she’s not sure about just because that person might be going through a hard time. While your intentions are clearly good, the message that sends to her is: “The most important thing in your romantic relationship is how happy and supported your partner feels, even if that means putting your own fears, desires, or limits on the back burner.” Just because the two of them aren’t having sex doesn’t mean that the intimacy (physical and otherwise) they share isn’t meaningful, so if your daughter is starting to test her own feelings by pulling back a bit, don’t discourage her from doing so. And don’t assume that just because the two of them used to be best friends that they’re necessarily going to go right back to their old relationship if they break up. Her boyfriend needs to be affirmed and supported by his family and his friends as he transitions. He does not need for everyone else to freeze or for his girlfriend to promise not to break up with him until he reaches some transition-stability event horizon. If she’s not interested in being with men and he’s not interested in being a woman, then a breakup might be temporarily painful but in the long run the best thing for both of them. Let your daughter know that you’ll always care for and support her boyfriend, but she’s your kid, and her happiness is your priority. Tell her that if she’s not happy dating a boy, she has every right to break up with him and that you’ll be there if she does end things, a pint of ice cream and a shoulder to cry on at the ready.

Dear Prudence,

Due to some difficulties at work, I had to quit my job. My husband is a stay-at-home parent, and neither one of us works. We are able to afford to it and have three children, one of whom has special needs. We spend a lot of time taking the kids to activities and taking our special needs child to appointments and therapies. Needless to say, we have a very busy schedule. My question is how do we handle comments and “concerns” from friends and family? They are all so curious how we handle our finances, and I just don’t feel that it’s anyone’s business!

—Unemployed Parent

“I really don’t want to go into details about our family’s finances with you. We’re doing just fine, and I appreciate your concern, but that’s all I have to share on the subject. But if you’d like to talk about your financial situation, I’d be happy to listen.”

Classic Prudie

“I’m a college student who’s a little chubby and doesn’t have perfect skin, but I’m able to look in the mirror and smile. Unfortunately, my mother doesn’t feel the same way about me. When I became a teenager, she started telling me about the benefits of plastic surgery. I simply don’t want to do it. I have tried explaining this, from polite statements, to tantrums, to cold indifference, with no effect. Once, when I was in high school, she told me she wanted me to come with her to visit my grandmother, but she pulled up to a plastic surgeon’s office, where it turned out she had set up an appointment. It took my tears to convince the doctor that we were there without my consent. After we left, she refused to talk to me for a month. Now she constantly insists that men will not be interested in me because of my nose or other things. I’m going to a therapist, and it helps emotionally, but the therapist also doesn’t see a way out. My father doesn’t get involved in family issues. I’m going back home this summer. What can I do?