Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Good morning, and happy almost New Year! (Happy belated wedding to me, too, while I’m at it.) Let’s chat!
Q. His cleaning lady? My boyfriend of eight months wants to hire an ex as his cleaning lady. We don’t live together. They dated briefly and have remained friendly. She needs the money and asked him for the job. I hate the idea. I haven’t met her yet, but from the stories I’ve heard, she makes important life choices very impulsively and doesn’t worry about dragging other people with her. He spends little time in his house, and I’m happy to help him around the place with whatever is needed. I have a feeling this is a terrible choice. Adding an employment component to a friendship, the potential privacy issues … and it makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t want to risk a good relationship because of this type of argument, but I don’t know how to address it and whether I’m being unreasonable feeling left out of place, not wanting to leave personal things around, and honestly just feeling like he doesn’t get it. Who doesn’t get it? Please help!
A: I’m a little concerned about the line “I’m very happy to help him around the place with whatever is needed.” Whatever this guy’s deal is, I really don’t think he needs two romantic rivals competing to clean the stovetop he never uses. At least she’d be getting paid in this scenario; I worry you’re only offering your services because you think he’s so worth hanging onto that you have to try to override his weird judgment with the lure of free cleaning services from his current girlfriend, rather than cheap cleaning services from an ex-girlfriend. I’m also worried you think asking him, “Hey, I’m concerned you’re considering hiring your ex as a house cleaner, and it will make me feel uncomfortable to leave some of my stuff here. Can we talk about this?” is “risking a good relationship” with an “argument.” Surely a reasonable person would be willing to have a conversation about this without insisting on a breakup. Either you’re letting an irrational fear of being abandoned keep you from talking about something important, or you know on some level that he’s so unreasonable that he’d dump you rather than answer a couple of straightforward questions about his decision-making process. Do talk to him about this, don’t offer to clean his house for him, and if he doesn’t change his mind and this affects your interest in spending time at his house, don’t spend so much time at his house.
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Q. She’s married (but not to me): I’m still in love with an ex. We were together, often from a distance, for seven years. We broke up because I was still trying to figure my career out and mostly living abroad and she was ready to actually settle down. After that we both started other relationships, and when mine recently ended, I wanted to reach out to her. Instead I found out she had just married. The problem is I’m still in love and I want to tell her. I’m not trying to ruin her marriage or interrupt an otherwise happy life, but I’ve never felt this way about anyone, and I don’t want to live in regret. It feels wrong to reach out to her as she’s made her decision, but if she’s genuinely happy, it won’t make a difference, and at least I could be at peace with the fact that she’s made her decision with full knowledge. Would it be permissible to say something to the effect of “I have something I’d like to say to you, but I want to respect your life and your decisions, so if you ever want to hear it, let me know”? This obviously violates the do-not-disturb dictate of marriage, but in a minimally invasive way that at least allows me to live with my deep regret over the relationship.
A: Without drawing any unnecessary parallels between you and the main character, I wonder if it might help for you to sit down sometime and watch “Finding Frances,” the series finale of Nathan for You. It’s useful sometimes to look at the extreme version of our own character defects, and it’s an excellent example of what can happen when someone lies to themself and others about their own motivations and the possible effects their behavior might have on other people. Your ex-girlfriend has made her decision “with full knowledge”; I don’t think you have any reason to believe she walked down the aisle thinking “If only OP were still available … ” You haven’t heard from her in years, and it doesn’t sound like you were especially conscious of your love for her until you went through a breakup.
There are a number of reasons hearing from a long-ago, long-distance ex wondering if you’re interested in reconnecting during what sounds like what might very well be her honeymoon would be irritating, distressing, and painful, even if her life is “otherwise happy.” I do not believe that this ex-girlfriend of yours is going to be able to help you with your own regrets about the choices you’ve made in life; that energy would better be directed toward finding a therapist and identifying what you’d like to change, what you’d like to prioritize in future relationships, and how to be a more present partner. But I think the best way to ensure your own future happiness is to leave this newlywed alone.
Q. Struggling with guilt: For eight contentious months, my husband, “Fred,” and I fostered (unlicensed) my father’s three young children with his second wife after they made some bad choices. Fred was taking classes while working full time, and I had to drop everything to parent my siblings. Outside of the trauma, we took a serious financial hit. Dad and his wife worked really hard to get their kids back, which is awesome! We’ve learned we can claim my siblings on our taxes, but doing so will upset Dad. They just had two more babies and intend to have more. I’ve been going to therapy, but how do I breach this subject? Fred is firm that we are entitled to the tax credits, but the conversation (and potential loss of relationship) weighs on me. I love them. Would claiming the kids make me a bad daughter? We need a break!
A: Since I’m not a tax lawyer, I don’t know whether you would have to notify your father if you were to claim your siblings on your taxes for the last year, or if you merely feel that you’d be morally obligated to tell him. If it’s the latter, don’t bother saying anything, claim the tax credit, and enjoy the break. If it’s the former … let him get upset. You need the money. You and your husband were raising those kids for eight months—that’s not a matter of opinion over which you and your father might disagree, but an indisputable fact. Your father will survive being upset, and you will be able to survive your father’s displeasure. Don’t force yourself to suffer financially just to spare his pride.
Q. Paying for travel: My brother lost his job and couldn’t afford to travel to see our parents this year. I don’t make much money, but I saved enough for my brother, his wife, and three kids to fly over. I asked my sister-in-law to put down my name on a few of the kids’ gifts. She didn’t. My 6-year-old niece noticed that there were no presents under the tree from me. I usually get the “big” presents. She went on for 10 minutes wanting to know why Auntie hated her. Why was Auntie upset with her? Her parents just sat there with dopey grins on their faces and did nothing! My mother tried to distract my niece, but she was obsessed, and I finally told her I was a dumb-dumb who forget the presents at my home. My brother and his wife just sat there and smiled while I committed myself to credit card debt to keep their child from crying. I later tried to corner my sister-in-law, but I could not shake my mother. She lectured me about my forgetfulness, and my sister-in-law just let her go on and on! I was humiliated, and they didn’t say a word. I ended up spending 200 more dollars to “make it up” to the kids. They left, and I am still fuming. Can I tell the truth? My brother is still pretending he is employed, but they just let me get humiliated here.
A: I think you could have told the truth at the time! That’s not to say I think you should have said to a 6-year-old, “Well, your dad’s unemployed, so I paid for you to be here—thank me and shut up.” But I do think you could have said your present was making sure they could be here this year—and at some point during the 10 minutes gently admonished her for her rudeness. You’re not obligated to listen to a thoughtless harangue from a little kid, and it’s possible to offer a loving correction as her aunt. (I also think it would have been better to have the conversation about present credit with both your brother and your sister-in-law rather than just assuming this was her job, but I don’t mean to imply this situation was your fault in offering a different course of action from the one you took.)
Nor do I think you should have caved and spent $200 you didn’t have. I understand that you were put in an uncomfortable situation, but prioritizing other people’s comfort over your own financial stability is a recipe for future unhappiness. Of course you can tell your mother—should, in fact—and talk to your brother and sister-in-law about how their actions hurt you. There’s nothing shameful about being unemployed, and it’s not an embarrassing secret you need to keep for him. That doesn’t mean I think you should start calling your entire family and spilling the details of their financial situation, but there’s no reason you should overextend yourself just so he can pretend he still gets a regular paycheck.
Q. When to say “I love you”: I have been dating my boyfriend for about a year now, and we recently spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas with his parents and siblings. This is probably the most significant time I’ve spent with his family, other than a few dinners and a small trip earlier in the year. I like them a lot and enjoy our time together! During our Thanksgiving trip, when I was hugging his mom goodbye, I thought she might have told me “Love you,” but I couldn’t tell because it was muffled by the hug. I didn’t really think much of it until we were leaving from our Christmas trip. This time she said loud and clear that she loves me as we were hugging goodbye. I didn’t say it back; instead I just awkwardly thanked her for having me, which I was already doing, and tried to move past it. I highly doubt she was offended because everything seemed fine. She’s a very warm person, and while I do like her a great deal, I think it would be strange for me to add “I love you” to our goodbyes. I’m young, this is my first adult long-term relationship, and I know that I’m overthinking this, but even so, please advise: When, if ever, should I start saying “I love you” to my boyfriend’s parents?
A: Whenever you feel comfortable saying it, and not just because they’ve said it to you first. I tend toward the slightly more extravagant end of the “I love you” scale, and when it comes to relatives of people one loves (I assume you’ve already said “I love you” to your boyfriend because if you hadn’t, I think it would have come up in your letter), I don’t think “Thanks for coming, love you” commits you to much. But that’s just me, and there are a number of excellent reasons to want to reserve saying “I love you” until you’ve gotten to know someone better than you’ve gotten to know your boyfriend’s mom.
Since she’s seemed totally comfortable with not hearing it back, I don’t think you have to worry that you’ve offended her or owe her an explanation. Saying something like “Thank you for everything. I loved getting to see you again” is similarly warm and affectionate, and you can hold off on “I love you” for as long as you like.
Q. Creepy old cousin: I’m a gay man in my early 30s. My grandmother died in October, and I returned home for her funeral. While at the viewing, I was introduced to an older man in his 60s by my mom who presented him as my grandmother’s cousin. He later added me on social media. I didn’t think anything of it. About a week ago, I started receiving texts from him, implying but not explicitly saying he was into me. I was so freaked out that I couldn’t sleep. He’s like my first cousin twice removed(?) on top of being older than hell. Can I just block him, or do I have to say something to him?
A: “Sorry, I’m not interested” followed by a block is just fine.
Q. One cousin spoils the family barrel: I come from a very large, close family. One of my cousins outed me in a harmful way several years ago, making it sound like I thought my family was full of bigots, when really I just hadn’t gotten around to telling them yet. I did not ever address this with her. This was all already simmering when, days after I’d been through a long and complicated pregnancy loss that she knew about, this cousin didn’t give me a heads-up that she’d be announcing her own (unplanned) pregnancy at our annual party. She then proceeded to flood all family channels with gender reveals and daily bump progress. I’ve quietly removed myself from cousin chat threads and family parties, but I feel like I’ve lost my whole family because I can’t stand to be in a room with one person. (I tried to go to a wedding last year and literally fainted with panic when they sat me at her table.) The rest of the family knows that this person is a little unhinged, but everyone else seems to be able to nod along and participate in her bonkers reality, and I just … can’t. How can I move back toward a relationship with my family while having kindness and compassion for this person and myself?
A: I’d put “address this with her” fairly high on the list of priorities if you’re trying to reestablish a relationship with your family in general. You do not have to, of course, if that strikes you as completely untenable. If you find yourself passing out again, I hope you’ll speak to your doctor and/or a therapist about it as a health concern and find out what treatments are available to you. But addressing this doesn’t mean you have to get together in person and hash everything out or become her new best friend; just let her know that her behavior in the past has hurt you and what, if anything, you might like from her now.
If you decide you can’t speak to her even over text or email, then I’d suggest asking a sibling or one of your parents out to a one-on-one lunch. I’m sure they’d welcome a break from the usual massive family gatherings and would appreciate a chance to really catch up. You’re entitled to initiate smaller family get-togethers on your own terms.
Q. Re: Struggling with guilt: The truth is that the first person who claims dependents gets the refund. You can contest it if you have documentation that proves you supported them for more than six months. See IRS rules. There are many children who are fake-claimed every year, and the rightful claimant does not want trouble, so they resent it and let it go. My advice is to tell Dad that you want to do this and not blindside him with a return rejection, which upsets people beyond belief. You may have to share part of the refund with him. And now the race is on!
A: Thank God there are so many tax professionals chiming in today because I really need the help. Someone else wrote in to suggest that if the LW doesn’t inform their father and he does claim the kids on his return, the LW could get in trouble for filing a “falsified” report, so it sounds like telling him is in fact crucial.
Q. Re: Struggling with guilt: Accountant here. I did taxes on the side for a couple of years. You can try to claim the kids, but if you don’t talk to your dad about it and then he claims them, you will have a fight on your hands because by default, as the father of the kids, he gets to claim them unless either he signs a specific IRS form saying you get to claim them this year, or you can prove to the IRS after fighting your dad about it that you were the ones who majority supported the kids for the whole year. Also, everything will be delayed, and you’ll owe the money back plus, potentially, taxes and penalties if/when you lose. Remember also that you don’t necessarily get a deduction for dependents anymore thanks to the new tax laws; this would just be for any tax credits that would be available.
A: It is nice to know that you have options even in the worst-case scenario that your father tries to fight you on this claim. As long as you have evidence proving you were the kids’ primary caregiver for most of the year, the IRS might prioritize your claim over his. You may decide that you’d rather sacrifice the money than carry the fight on that long, and that choice is entirely yours, of course, but I hope you can stress to him that you’re not filing this claim as an indictment of his life or his choices. You just need the money, and it sounds like you’re entitled to it. I do hope you talk to him and file the claim.
Q. Update—Re: Feelings for my future fake husband: A little over two years ago, I wrote in about a friend of mine (“Jack”) who offered to marry me for health insurance so I could get somewhat affordable care for spinal issues I was having. Here’s the update!
Two months after I wrote in, I confessed my feelings to Jack, and he said he had feelings for me as well. Due to some trying personal circumstances in both our lives around that time, we didn’t actually go on a first date until three months after that. We moved in together three months after we started dating, and we got married in a tiny private ceremony six months after that (for real reasons! Not for insurance). We recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary.
I’m still getting ongoing care for my back/neck injuries and have been putting off the surgery (which will put me out of work for a few weeks as well as rack up hospital bills) as long as possible, but will unfortunately have to give in soon. Aside from the physical pain issues, we’re doing really well. I’ve never loved anyone the way I love Jack (and as a bonus, I married into the most amazing family). I know it read like a bad rom-com in the chat, but it was nothing like that in real life. Thanks to all the reader comments that ended up pushing me to confess how I felt. I am very lucky.
A: Thank you so much for sending us an update, and happy anniversary! I’m so glad you spoke up, and I’m so glad things worked out for you both. I hope your surgery goes as well as possible and that someday soon we’ll live in a society where marital status doesn’t determine the quality of someone’s health care.
Q. My sister married her statutory rapist: Eight years ago, when we were both in high school, I discovered my sister was sleeping with her English teacher. I told my parents, but our English teacher was 22, and she convinced them it was true love. My parents declined to press charges as long as the relationship went on hold until my sister turned 18. I didn’t agree and told my principal and the cops; the teacher went to jail. My sister’s now married to him and has never forgiven me for turning her husband in, especially since he’s now a registered sex offender. They have a daughter, and if it weren’t for their relationship’s origins, I would say he’s a great husband and father. I miss my sister so much. I’m not welcome in my niece’s life. My parents are tired of the rift between us. Did I make a mistake? How can I repair our bond? Read what Prudie had to say.