Dear Prudence

My Family Loves to Hug. I Hate It.

Prudie’s column for May 2.

A man looks uncomfortable as his father embraces him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Koldunova_Anna/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
I really dislike hugging my parents and family and have no idea how to tell them that it makes me very uncomfortable and anxious. When I was younger, my mother was especially distant and rarely hugged me or told me “I love you.” My father was more open but was not around as much because of work commitments. Since they’ve gotten older, they seem to think this was not the case and that we have a close relationship (including lots of hugging), which simply does not exist for me. We’ve never been antagonistic toward each other, simply cold. I left at 18, joined the military, and have never lived with them again or been financially beholden to them. At most we text or talk every four or five months and see each other annually.

I don’t want to be cruel, but when we do see each other in person, it’s exhausting to fake these feelings of affection in my 40s. How do I tell them that I do not have the same desire for physical interaction that they seem to have developed in recent years and would prefer to keep a physical distance with a handshake or just polite conversation?
—No Hugs, Please

Since you see them only once a year, you may decide it’s easier just to fake a slight cold (“Sorry I can’t hug right now, but I don’t want you to catch this!”). It doesn’t sound like you want to have a frank conversation with your parents about how you see your relationship with them or the ways in which you felt unloved and unsupported as a child. Which is absolutely fine! You don’t have to. There’s nothing wrong with maintaining a pleasant but surface-level relationship with them that’s based on not discussing certain elements of the past. If you don’t want to lie but also don’t want to delve into an impromptu therapy session (“I don’t want to hug you now because you didn’t hug me when I was a kid, and I think you act entitled to a certain level of intimacy you never earned”), you might just say, “I haven’t mentioned this before, but I’m really not a hugger. Can we stick to conversation? It would really help me feel at ease, and I’d appreciate it tremendously.”

Dear Prudence,
I am madly in love with my fiancé. He has a 3-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. I love them too. I have been living with all of them for about a year and a half. Right away I noticed that my fiancé does not really discipline his kids, particularly his son. I do not have kids but have been a teacher for 10 years. I also recognize that I lack the parental bond, which is impossible to understand unless you have a kid of your own. But even when his 3-year-old does something really bad, he doesn’t receive the slightest punishment or even a talking-to. He basically controls our lives. The kids are with their mom half the week, thank goodness, so we still get alone time. I am positive that our relationship wouldn’t last if we had the kids full-time. I get so frustrated by the lack of rules, guidance, and structure for the kids. I would love someone to offer any suggestions on how to deal with this or to offer a different perspective. I really don’t want this to harm our relationship in the long run.
—Don’t Agree With My Fiancé’s Parenting Style

I’m curious to know more about what kind of relationship you have established with your fiancé’s kids over the past year and a half. You say you don’t have a parental bond with them, which makes sense given that they already have a mother, but you’ve certainly spent a fair amount of time living with them. Aside from the lack of discipline you’ve already noted, do you have any sort of rapport with either of your partner’s kids? Are you a part of their going-to-bed routines? Do you take either of them to school? Do you know the names of their teachers or their best friends? Do they have any particular talents or qualities you find endearing? It will help if you have a solid foundation established between you and the kids before you start bringing up issues of discipline or structure with their dad.

You don’t mention whether you’ve tried to broach the subject with him yet, but I think you have a stake in asking important questions before you two get married. How does he see the two of you sharing co-parenting responsibilities in the long run? What values do you two share when it comes to child-rearing? Is he interested in going to couples counseling or reading through some parenting books together to figure out how you can work as a team? You’re not his kids’ mom, but if you two are going to keep living together and eventually get married, you’re going to be a serious presence in his kids’ lives for years to come, and you don’t have to act as an eternal bystander. Obviously 3-year-olds don’t need serious punishments—they’re not little adults who are used to stopping to think before they act—but he’d probably benefit from a more stable routine. If you don’t want this to harm your relationship in the long run but you two have barely discussed the issue and you think you’d leave him if you had to live with the kids full time, then you two need to have pretty serious conversations about your goals and compatibility before you get married.

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Dear Prudence,
I’m in college, and I have a good friend “Jay” and an acquaintance “Aaron” who’s also friends with Jay. I’m involved in a club at my college, as is Aaron, though marginally. There are often parties after club events, which everyone who’s involved with the club gets invited to. Whether he’s involved with the particular event or not, Aaron always goes, which is fine. The problem is that lately he also brings Jay, who isn’t involved in the club whatsoever and gets drunk. I get stressed because I worry about Jay’s drinking, and I feel embarrassed by their behavior and worry that people will think I brought them because we’re close friends. I also resent Aaron, who brings Jay and then expects me to be responsible for them while he encourages unsafe behavior. For example, just the other night, Aaron interrupted my conversation with someone else to tell me to “go help Jay,” and when I asked why he didn’t help for once, Aaron said, “Nah, I’m good.” He also actively undermined me when I encouraged Jay to sit down and get water, telling Jay to get up and dance and drink more and trying to trick them (“Hey, you’ve got something on your face!”). And then Aaron acts like we have some sort of solidarity because we’re both sober and makes fun of people around us, while he’s shoving the responsibility for people he brought to the party on me. As for Jay, obviously their drinking is on them, but I couldn’t live with myself if I stood by and something happened. I’m mad at both of them, but I don’t know what to say.
—Shouldn’t Be My Problem

To Jay, you can say (when they’re sober and you’re not about to go out for the night): “I’m worried about your drinking. Whenever you come to [event], you get so out of control so quickly that someone needs to monitor you, and that’s frustrating and frightening. I’m also concerned about Aaron. You may not remember this, but he often takes advantage of you when you get drunk. He mocks you, tries to encourage you to keep drinking when you’re close to passing out or getting sick, and then brings me into it by insisting that I help you. It’s really hard on me, and I want things to change.”

To Aaron: “I think you’re under the impression that the way you treat Jay when they’re too drunk to stand up straight is funny, or that you and I have something in common because you like to manipulate and confuse drunk people when we’re both sober. We don’t have that in common. I think it’s disgusting, and I’m asking you to stop.”

You should also talk to the club management or whoever’s hosting the parties so they’re aware that this is a frequent occurrence. My guess is they have a vested interest in not getting their parties shut down and making sure that their guests, even if they’re there to drink, stay on the right side of a blackout. Tell them about your concerns that Jay is getting massively overserved and that there’s at least one guest who’s targeting attendees who are too drunk to stand up for themselves. This is a community problem that requires a communal response. You shouldn’t have to do this alone.

Dear Prudence,
I am a very easygoing person in the sense that there are very few things I have a strong opinion on. I have learned to pick my battles, so in my relationship, if there is something I really do not care about, I say so; this allows my partner to do what he wants, and I am fine with that.

Lately, though, I feel like the few times I do speak up, he doesn’t respect my opinion. I think, since I rarely have strong opinions, that when I do, they should be respected, but they’re not. It’s almost as if my partner has gotten so used to me not having an opinion that he now ignores all of them. I brought this to his attention, and his response was to ask me more for my opinion. I give him my opinion, and then he not only totally disregards it but also is angry that I do not share his. Why did he ever ask then? For example, he will ask me what I want for dinner, and I will say pizza, and he will say, “No, I don’t want that. I want spaghetti, so that’s what we are having.” I don’t know what to do. I feel like I am never heard, and while he acts like he wants an opinion, all he actually wants is validation of his own, and I don’t lie when someone asks me for an opinion.
—Easygoing but Not Respected

Not having an opinion 90 percent of the time doesn’t mean you get to have your way the other 10 percent. Every couple has to find its own way of building consensus. But that usually doesn’t mean, “As long as I promise not to care about the next nine decisions, I automatically get to handle the 10th.” That said, I certainly think your partner should give additional weight to the fact that you usually don’t express a preference unless your feelings are quite strong. And being asked your opinion only to be contravened is frustrating. It may be time to reevaluate your relationship to your own easygoingness. That’s not to say you have to suddenly pretend to care about things that you don’t, but in moments where you feel stalled or like it’d be easier to go along just to get along, I’d encourage you to pause and think about your options. In the above example, you might say something like: “I’m not in the mood for spaghetti. Why don’t you make yourself some, and I’ll order a pizza, and we can eat together?” You don’t have to match your partner in intensity, but reiterate your own preferences. Besides, couples don’t have to eat identical meals.

I think it’s most important to tell your partner you feel like he doesn’t actually listen to your opinion when he asks for it. If he’s able to hear you and tries to be more open-minded, you might be able to make progress. But you’ll have to prepare yourself to experience more conflict than you might like or feel used to. That’s overall a good thing, because being constantly easygoing can get pretty exhausting.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Signing up to be the bitch doesn’t sound great either.”

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

Dear Prudence,
I have been in a relationship with a wonderful man for just over three years, much of that long-distance. Last year he moved to my city to be with me; I was studying and working full time, and I realized recently we’d barely had sex since we started living together. In fact, the infrequency of our sex life has bothered me throughout our relationship, and I’ve mentioned my dissatisfaction more than once, with no success. I started seeing a psychologist for unrelated reasons and casually mentioned we only had sex about every two months, and she looked surprised and said I was too young to not be having sex (I’m 28). This encouraged me to tell my boyfriend that if things don’t change, we should break up and find more compatible partners. My boyfriend agreed. He also said we had never quite clicked, which I agreed with. Neither of us had a strong position, which left me deducing that we’d break up because indifference seemed as good as him saying he doesn’t want to be with me. Since then, we’ve been arguing less.

Now our lease runs out at the end of July, and I am conflicted. As long as we live together, it feels like we are a couple. I have made moves to find a new place, but I wonder if I should just stay put, seeing as we are getting along and it’s easy. All the prompting is coming from me—he is happy for me to call all the shots. How do I get past this and do what I need to do to move forward? He thinks he is making things easy for me by coasting along, but it’s making it harder! I love this man, and I firmly believe we will be friends someday. I want to move out and move on without feeling guilty, but this whole thing feels so bizarre because the lack of drama in our breakup is making me question whether we should actually break up!
—Clean Break

At least part of the reason why you two are likely getting along better is that you both know this relationship is coming to an end and you no longer have to pretend that you “click.” So while I’m sure your boyfriend wouldn’t kick up a fuss if you extended your lease, I’m not so sure this idyll could be extended in quite the same way. You like your boyfriend, and you’re familiar with him, and it sounds like you’ve been pretty busy for at least the past year, so I can understand why you’re reluctant to trade in this predictable but sexually inadequate relationship for a lot of uncertainty. But it also sounds like you’re ready to admit you want to have sex and that you want to experience active, powerful desire for someone else who has an active, powerful desire for you too. You’re right to assume that ending this relationship is going to fall to you, because your boyfriend’s perfectly happy to let you do all the work. There’s a long time between now and the end of July. Find a new living situation that you really like, break up peacefully, divide your things, and give him a call in six months or a year when you’re ready to resume that friendship.

Dear Prudence,
My dad, who is retired and in his late 60s, was in a self-described “living hell” for nine months because of health issues. About a month ago, he had a surgery that restored his quality of life. A couple of days into recovery, he had an epiphany. This led to seemingly reckless spending (nearly $20,000 in electronics) and a sudden inability to filter when speaking to my mom (they’ve been married for over 40 years). He has started telling her they don’t have the same priorities, that she’s too stupid to understand how things work, and that she’s being a downer regarding his recovery. Yes, she’s skeptical that everything is perfect health-wise (she’s right, it isn’t, but he refuses to listen and thinks he’s indestructible), but she doesn’t deserve to be spoken to this way. She keeps calling me asking where her husband went. The situation is compounded by his having short-term memory loss (he repeats himself and claims he wasn’t told something even though he was multiple times), which he denies. I live 1,000 miles away and don’t know what to do aside from listen to my mom and recommend therapy for them both.
—Dark Epiphany

I’m glad you’ve recommended therapy to your mother, and I hope you also encourage her to mention these abrupt new changes to your father’s medical care team. These symptoms may very well be a side effect of either the surgery or his previous health condition, and I imagine his doctors will want to know that he’s been experiencing sudden memory loss and a radical shift in both his personality and financial judgment. If he has a post-op appointment coming up soon, she should mention it right away (even if he disagrees with her characterization of his change, the doctors should know about it); if he doesn’t have one scheduled in the near future, she should give them a call and share her concerns. She doesn’t need his permission to do so, and she’s not violating his medical privacy by keeping his medical team up to date on what she’s observed.

Classic Prudie

“When I was 9 years old, my parents divorced and both remarried. I lived with my mother and stepfather. When I was 17, Mom and Stepdad had to move to another city, so I moved in with Dad and Stepmom. My father’s new wife was a much younger and very attractive woman. The atmosphere was more relaxed than in my previous home. So much so that my stepmom (she’s about 15 years older) and I developed an attraction and started an affair. We were intimate about twice a month when my father was traveling for work. From day one, we agreed that we would never tell my dad. I continued to see her during college and even after, when I came home for visits. My attraction waned because of distance, guilt, and because I started to see that she was a horrible person who was terrible to my father. I broke it off two years ago. Last month, Dad found out that she had cheated with another man (not me). They are in the middle of a vicious divorce. Last week, she called me and asked why I am so aloof. She told me that if I don’t convince Dad to concede on a financial matter, she will spill the beans about our affair. I feel like karma is giving me what I deserve, but I am scared. What is better: try to reason with this woman, even though she is irrational? Do her bidding in order to save Dad greater pain? Tell Dad everything myself, knowing that things will never be the same between him, me, and the rest of my family? I just want to do the best thing for him at this point, and I feel powerless.”