Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Surviving after cancer: About two years ago, my husband, who was not even 40, was diagnosed with cancer. It came as a total surprise during a doctor’s appointment, which led to an ER visit and imaging that showed two masses on some internal organs. We have three children. Our youngest was 18 months at the time. The good news is that the cancer was treatable by surgery. He never had any symptoms. There was no need for radiation or chemotherapy. There were two surgeries, each with about a three-week recovery time. He has been closely monitored every six months, and there have been no recurrences. The bad news is that he has always struggled with depression and anxiety, as well as alcohol dependency. These things have been significantly amplified since the initial diagnosis. He has not been a reliable partner or father because of the drastic changes in his personality and his health issues. He talks about death and cancer constantly, he is not motivated to go to work, and when he is physically with the family, he is still hard to talk to and distant.
We recently began couples therapy, but my husband is combative with the therapist and refused to go to our last appointment. He just started seeing a therapist on his own, but he tells me he isn’t sure if he will continue. I work part time, and we live in a very expensive part of the country. My husband is highly successful in a specialized job and does well. My support group is limited, and my family lives across the country from us. My questions for you are: How do I decide if I need to leave this marriage? We have been together for 12 years. I cannot afford to keep living in this part of the country and raise the kids. Should I mentally set a timetable for him to continue working on himself? How can I leave my sick husband?
A: It’s important that you know you have options right now, and one of those options is absolutely leaving your husband. You are still very much in the middle of an unbelievably challenging time. Having three young kids is already incredibly stressful, and adding a cancer diagnosis, a partner’s personality change, alcoholism, and severe depression to that is nearly inconceivable. You’ve only just started therapy and don’t yet have much in the way of a nearby, in-person support system. That strikes me as the most urgent problem to address. Can you ask any of your relatives to come out for a visit, to help with child care and basic household tasks? If not, are there any friends nearby you could ask to step up, even if you haven’t been tremendously close in the past? That’s going to be crucial, whether you decide to leave tomorrow or six weeks or six months from now. You also say that you work part time, live somewhere expensive, and rely primarily on your husband’s income. Set up an appointment with a divorce lawyer and a financial adviser just to get a sense of what you’re going to need and what income you can rely on in the event of a divorce. I don’t know that setting a mental timetable is the right answer; a timetable isn’t really going to address the issues you’re facing. The more useful work, I think, will be making it clear that continued therapy and change in behavior are necessary for your marriage to have a future, and making sure that in the meantime you have other forms of support, even if they only take place during long-distance phone calls.
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Q. Is it right to cut ties with my parents? My parents haven’t been the best for most of my life. My mother’s mental illness got pretty serious when I was 7 years old, and while I did and do sympathize, I basically haven’t known her since then. She almost completely ignored me even though we lived in the same house. When my parents got divorced, she lied and said my father physically abused and molested me. She is a very manipulative person.
My father was at least a passable parent until the divorce six years ago. Then he started drinking heavily and treating both me and my grandmother (who lives with us) like garbage. We both creep around the house so we don’t wake him up when he’s hungover, and he calls us both names and does petty, malicious things like throwing our food out and turning the lights off. My grandmother spends almost all day hiding in her room upstairs. When I’m ready to be financially independent, I plan to cut ties completely—change my name, block them on all social media, get a different telephone number, not tell them my address. Is this plan reasonable? Or am I just being bitter and spiteful?
A: Planning a quiet exit strikes me as reasonable and necessary. It’s not spiteful to decline to be cursed and neglected by a man who mistreats you. If it were possible to have a reasoned conversation where you explained why you were moving on, that would be one thing, but your mother isn’t able to present for such a conversation and your father doesn’t sound interested in listening to anyone else. My only concern is whether your grandmother has anyone else who can help her make her escape. Does she have any other relatives who might be willing to let her live with them? Does your city have an advisory council of elder affairs you can contact and ask for support in finding new and affordable housing for her, if your network of friends and family doesn’t turn anything up? I don’t say this to make you feel like you have to stay on her behalf—it doesn’t help her any for you to suffer your father’s mistreatment too, and you should get out as soon as you can. But I hope you can help her find another place to go too.
Q. Never wanted to be a landlord: A few months ago, my wife and I took in a roommate who lives in our second bedroom. The roommate is younger than us and is a friend of a friend who needed a place to stay in our city. Her agreed-upon tenure is up soon, and although we like her—she has been friendly and clean, is conscientious about boundaries, and pays a discounted rent on time—we are looking forward to having our space back. While living with us, the roommate was hospitalized for depression and suicide risk. I have close family members with mental illness and in the past have struggled with depression myself, so I feel for her. I am finding it difficult to figure out how to proceed with our living arrangements. While we would still prefer to have our privacy and space back, there is no real hardship to us if the roommate stays longer, which she has indicated she wants to do. It would definitely be kind to offer her more time, and it feels like the “right” thing to do.
We are a little worried, however, that she may become dependent on us. It’s not clear to us if she can afford to go somewhere else and where she would go. She is intermittently employed, and we’re not sure what her long-term plan is. If she were a close friend or family member, I would ask those questions and use the info in our decision-making process. Or I might try to set up appropriate and supportive boundaries, like “You can continue to live with us for now as long as you have a wellness plan that you are sticking to and you are working toward a more permanent living situation.” We are afraid that in the future, we might really reach a point where our roommate has nowhere else to go and we are in the position of tossing her out or keeping her on indefinitely. But because we are only friendly acquaintances, asking these questions seems overly familiar. And because we are also her de facto landlord, even asking seems icky and invasive.
What factors should we weigh in whether to extend the roommate’s tenure with us? And if we do extend, how do we approach a conversation about the concerns I mentioned in a supportive, kind, and appropriate way? P.S. You often talk about tenants’ legal rights, so I’ll add that we are subletting the room without the knowledge of our landlord. The person has so far been with us less than six months.
A: Just to flag this as a potential issue—you say it’d be “no hardship” to extend this woman’s sublease, but that your landlord doesn’t know you’re doing it. Maybe you have a super laid-back landlord and you just forgot to mention it to them, but my guess is the reason you haven’t said anything to your landlord is because they’d probably have said no. So if there’s a chance that your landlord would end your lease and kick you all out, I don’t think it would help your roommate at all for you to extend a possibly quite precarious living situation. And while she’s expressed an interest in staying longer if that’s possible, it doesn’t sound like she’s without options—you just don’t know much about what those options are because you’re not very close with her. I think you should continue to be friendly and clear about her move-out date, let her make her own arrangements and enlist whatever support is available to her, and don’t seek to prolong a living situation you can’t actually guarantee is reliable.
Q. In cell hell: If I get one more person who takes out a cellphone in the middle of conversation, I may lose my religion. The final straw was when a daughter of a friend asked me for professional advice, and as soon as I started addressing her concern, she took out her phone and started responding to a text. I stopped talking immediately, and it took her a full 15 seconds to realize that I was waiting for her to finish her text. Finally, she looked up and said, “I’m listening.” No, young friend, you are not. I told her, as gently as I could manage, that it might be perceived by some people as disrespectful if you ask for advice, and even a reference, and then ignore the person you just asked for a favor. She shrugged and answered another text before assuring me that this sort of casual disrespect was “just the way things are now.”
This is not uncommon behavior. I have seen people take out their phones in the middle of meetings, in movie theaters, at performances, even at funerals during the eulogy. When I politely ask why the phone-addled philistine is having so much difficulty with the matter at hand, more than one has told me that they feel they are excellent multitaskers (they’re not) and that they have the right to be constantly entertained—that if they find anything boring or tedious, they have the right to ignore it. And this behavior is by no means limited to young people. I have more than one friend in my cohort whose attention is so fractured by her phone that adult conversation is almost impossible.
This is becoming a social corrosive. This peaked when I was at a dinner in a white-tablecloth restaurant, in the company of two acquaintances. Before the first course was served, both of them were on their phones. Since I was hosting them to celebrate a major event in their lives, I tolerated it until the wine arrived. Texting went on through the wine and the first course. Finally I asked, as gently as I could, if they were finding the meal boring. They said no, that it was all lovely. They failed to take the hint. After another 10 minutes of this where they made little response to any attempts at conversation, I said, “I’m sorry if I’ve imposed on your time. Clearly you are far too busy to have dinner with me tonight.” I then got up, paid the bill, and left. Of course now I’m an unreasonable, stuck-up “boomer” who doesn’t “get it.” Fine. I am thankful for the fact that I will never “get” such behavior. But this is so common now that conversation is becoming a lost art. Is there any social tactic, any gentle persuasion, that will at least ameliorate this digital plague?
A: There are plenty of ways to gently persuade your friends to give you their full attention, and it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for someone to want to do! But you do not seem to have availed yourself of gentle persuasion. At dinner with your friends, instead of saying, “Will you please put your phones away? I feel like I can’t get your attention, and there’s not much for me to do when you leave the conversation to look at your phones,” you first offered them a slightly sarcastic hint, waited 10 minutes, and then walked out on them—you went from 5 mph to 60, and your rudeness was more serious than theirs. If someone’s phone use is bothering you (and I completely agree that asking someone for advice and then pulling out your phone is rude), then don’t fall silent and wait for them to realize what you’re angry about. Don’t ask sarcastic questions about whether someone is “having trouble” paying attention to a eulogy. Just politely ask them to put their phones away. You have every right to make that request and to seek to prioritize friendships with other people who share your feelings about phones. But you cannot force people to comply, and you cannot chide the world into falling in line. Ask for what you want directly.
Q. Let it mellow if it’s yellow: I work in a smallish business (15 people) in a law firm. Our office is a charming, 100-year-old building, one bathroom upstairs, one down. One of the partners’ sons is an intern. He’s a very nice person, but extremely green. The son has made some great changes in the office: old-fashioned watercooler, free ceramic mugs for hot and cold drinks, trying to get us all on board with recycling, reducing carbon footprints.
The problem is he’s policing the toilets. His motto: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” In other words, in both bathrooms—used by bosses, staff, and clients—we shouldn’t flush unless absolutely necessary. I actually do this at home, but that is my pee, not a co-worker’s or client’s. He’s the boss’s son. So what can I do except cross my legs until lunch break?
A: When you say he’s policing the bathroom, do you mean that he’s leaving cheery, slightly irritating little rhyme-y notes about not flushing the toilets? Or do you mean that he’s coming in after other people head out to make sure they’re not flushing? Because if it’s the latter, it’s worth bringing up with one of the partners (preferably not the kid’s actual parent) and HR if you have it (though the firm sounds small enough that it might not). If it’s the former, you certainly have my permission to just go ahead and flush; there are a number of other ways to save water and energy that don’t negatively affect a professional atmosphere. And nothing feels less professional than having to look at a bowl of your colleagues’ waste.
Q. Mother fakes food allergies: Every other year my mom claims to be allergic to whatever food group is on a “hidden danger” pseudoscience diet list. She’s always been a bit of a hypochondriac but never had any issues with food until a few years ago. All of the foods she won’t eat now are things she’s eaten for decades. She’s in great shape, so I don’t think it’s about weight loss.
Her food allergies are always self-diagnosed, and her “reactions” vary. She worries about anaphylactic shock and carries an EpiPen. But she doesn’t care about cross-contamination and continues to eat at her favorite places. If I dine with her, she complains she can’t find anything to eat and has long conversations with the servers about ingredients. Sometimes she will order things that clearly contain her “allergens” and make a scene about sending the dish back. For example, she can’t have tomatoes, peppers, or most spices but routinely eats Mexican food. Other times she will just pick the food off and eat it. If I catch her eating an “allergen,” she always has an excuse, like how she’s not allergic if it’s fried.
My issue is that I don’t enjoy spending time with her anymore. It’s embarrassing dining out with her, but it’s stressful cooking for her. Her newest kick is she’s allergic to anything from the “New World,” so I’m forced to find the original hemisphere of basic foods when I cook. I feel like it’s wrong to say I don’t believe her allergies, but my patience is wearing thin.
A: The easiest response here is to let this go—don’t offer to cook for her. Meet her for walks or to go to movies or visit bookstores; let her engage in long back-and-forths with waiters if it makes her feel safe; don’t worry about what aspects of her allergies (even the Dennis Duffy line about deep-frying somehow negating them) are physical and what aspects may be psychological. You say that her health doesn’t seem to be at risk, so you don’t have to worry she’s hurting herself. If you “catch” her eating an allergen, you can smile privately to yourself about the strange foibles that make up any individual’s psyche, let it go, and enjoy your own food. The less you do to try to manage her experience, the less personally you’ll take it.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! I wish you the compliments of the season. Please join us next Monday for the final chat of 2019.
If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.
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From Care and Feeding
Q. My 2-year-old co-worker is keeping me from working at home: How do you manage working at home when your toddler knows you’re in the house?! We have a nanny so my 2-year-old is routinely at home. I work from home three days a week. On the two days that I’m in the office, she is fine with the nanny all day. On the days I’m home and in a different room, she’s a complete wreck. Having to leave the house to work in a different location seems to defeat the perk of working from home. Any suggestions? Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.