Dear Prudence

How Do I Tell My Boyfriend’s Parents I Can’t Stay at Their Dirty, Urine-Soaked House?

Prudie’s column for June 29.

Photo collage of a woman scowling at a dirty, messy house.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by diego_cervo/iStock/Getty Images and Ziviani/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend’s family lives about an hour from us, and he likes to make weekend visits every other month. They are kind, welcoming, generous people. Their house is … not clean. When we open the front door, we are greeted with a wave of the smell of urine. They have a lot of pets in a very small home and rarely clean up. The bathroom floor is covered in cat litter and excrement. One dog pees on the carpet fairly often, and the most I’ve seen anyone do is dab at it with a paper towel. Shelves, dressers, and picture frames have dust an inch thick. Dead bugs are stuck in cobwebs in corners.

I include these details not to shame them, but to illustrate that this is not just a messy house. I am hardly a clean person, and I’ve lived with animals all my life, but this is to a level I haven’t seen before. I have a mild dust allergy, and while my allergy medication helps, I usually spend the entire visit with my eyes and nose running. I dread overnight trips where I’ll be sneezing the entire time and going to sleep on the same musty-smelling, visibly dirty sheets that have been on the guest bed every time we’ve visited over the years. But I worry cleaning up on my own will insult them or seem rude. His mother already gets upset when I try to help her wash dishes or take out the trash.

I feel so ungrateful thinking this when they’ve opened their home to us and treat us so well while we’re there. Is this just something I have to suck up and deal with? Or can I say something to my boyfriend? He’s fairly clean in our own home and has made the occasional joke like “their old gross place” but doesn’t seem bothered by it. I think he can tell something is up with me, because he’s started asking if I don’t like going to his family’s house or if something’s wrong while we’re there (which I’ve just been denying).
—Partner’s Family Makes Me Sick

You definitely do not have to get over this! I understand that you feel self-conscious because your boyfriend’s parents are lovely and you haven’t said anything before, so it would seem a bit arbitrary to raise the issue now. But even if you didn’t have allergies, staying overnight in that house sounds pretty unbearable. This is not a situation where you need to sacrifice honesty for tact. You can have both, but if you need to stress one over the other, choose honesty. Talk to your boyfriend: “I know we’ve only talked tentatively around this before, and I think it’s because we both really love your parents and don’t want to hurt their feelings, but the condition of their house is unhealthy enough that I can’t keep staying there. I’m sorry that I denied it when you asked me what was bothering me before. I just didn’t know how to talk about it. The house is covered in animal waste and dust, and I have a hard time breathing when I’m there. I don’t want to come across as judgmental or harsh, but I won’t be able to stay there overnight anymore. I wanted to talk with you first so we could think about how to talk to them.”

I also think you should talk with your boyfriend about how or when he might feel a duty to intervene more strenuously—the house may be a hazard to their health—and how you two can offer help to his parents without activating their defensiveness. In the meantime, please remind yourself that you’re not being snobby or a passive-aggressive princess who can’t stand a little dirt. The environment you’re describing sounds upsetting, and you’re deeply concerned with the feelings of the people you love. Give yourself permission to tell your boyfriend what’s wrong and ask him for help in figuring out how to kindly but firmly tell his parents you can’t stay with them anymore. I hope they’re able to receive this as a form of love and care rather than of judgment.

Dear Prudence,
I’m a lesbian who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian community with a very controlling, overprotective family. As a result, I shifted between denial and praying desperately for God to fix me for years. Then I started resigning myself to the idea that my homosexuality was a test from God, but I could still be a good Christian if I never “acted on it.” I started making myself sick and starving myself during this period, and I didn’t get help for years. I’m not proud of any of this, but those beliefs were all I knew for so long. It’s only recently, with a lot of therapy, that I’ve been able to start coming to terms with my sexuality. Coming out over the past few months has been so freeing; it feels like a physical weight has been lifted off of me. At the same time, I feel like I’ve already missed out on so much that I should have done by 21. I don’t even know how to start dating or how to (or even if I should) address my inexperience. Is there a way to say, “Hey, I don’t want to make a big deal of this, but I have about as much romantic/sexual experience as your average 13-year-old, so it would be nice if we could take things slowly” without sending girls running?
—Late-Blooming Lesbian

As an advice columnist, I know I’m supposed to say: Be relaxed and upfront about it, screen women who might be uncomfortable out of your dating pool sooner rather than later, own it, and go forth. And I do think that’s good advice, not least because you are far from alone. I get letters every week from people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond who are coming out for the first time and feel inexperienced and worried that every other gay person has a solid 20 or more years of sexual experiences. I get a lot of these letters from women, so I feel confident in promising you that you are likely to meet other women who didn’t start dating other women as healthy, self-accepting teenagers. I understand that it’s hard to feel pride in the years you spent convinced you were being tested by God, but I hope you can offer your past self the sort of compassion and tenderness that you would offer a friend. That past self is the woman who got you to where you are today. She fought for you, and she survived, and that’s an achievement worthy of respect and admiration. But you shouldn’t feel like you have to apologize for coming out later or prefacing every first date with your deepest insecurities about your unworthiness as a lesbian.

If acknowledging your history feels important to you, then by all means you can work on a basic script: “I’m really looking forward to our date, especially because I feel like I arrived a little late to the dating scene. I grew up in a really religious home and spent a long time trying to come to terms with myself.” This gives your date a sense that you probably don’t have a lot of ex-girlfriends, without making her feel like you’re trying to put all your lesbian hopes for the future on her or making you feel like you’re apologizing when you haven’t done anything wrong. But if you don’t want to bring it up right away, you absolutely don’t have to. I hope you have a lot of wonderful first dates and meet many fantastic women. My guess is that at least some of them will be able to relate to your experience, because my inbox tells me that you’re not alone.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From How to Do It

I am a fairly happily married 50-year-old man who’s been with my wife for 23 years. I have been obese for most of my life with the exception of the time I was in college, and I became morbidly obese over time, reaching more than 370 pounds. Sex between my wife and me had gone from two to three times per week early in our marriage, before we had children, to about twice per month. I decided something must be done about my weight. I became an active person who runs races, eats totally differently, etc. I am down to 230 pounds with plans to lose more.

I thought this would change things in the bedroom. It has, in some ways: My stamina has improved dramatically, as has my libido. But I expected this would alter my wife’s perception of me and we would have sex more often—I thought my appearance was the problem. That hasn’t happened. Part of it is kids living with us; when we do have sex, it’s always late at night and when we are both very tired. This, combined with my wife getting older and associated hormonal issues, means that we have about a 10-day window where she has any libido, and even then she insists sex should be spontaneous and romantic. I still find her immensely attractive and sexy, even more so now than when we got married. But my concern here is that the lack of regular sex is causing me to maybe become susceptible to temptation. If an opportunity came up, I’m not sure I would have the strength to say no—in fact, I’m almost sure that I wouldn’t. I have found myself being emotionally available to people I shouldn’t be and sort of hoping that they respond. This makes me feel a mixture of guilt, anger, and shame. I don’t want to blow up my marriage over this, and I’ve suggested that we may need to have some couples therapy or just talk in detail about it, but she has refused. She says it’s not her problem, it’s mine, and she says as a guy I should be able to “take care of it,” meaning masturbation. (I might also mention that if she catches me masturbating, she’s furious about it and compares it to being unfaithful.) I’m not sure what to do here.