Dear Prudence

People Mistake My Husband for My Brother

How can we make these comments stop?

A man affectionately rests his head on the shoulder of another man, who looks very similar to him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rawpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are both cis gay men around 30 who have been together for more than 10 years. We’ve picked up some mannerisms and quirks from each other … and also clothes and a barber. Neither of us knows how to effectively respond when someone mistakes us for brothers. I know this is something that happens to some longtime couples, and often it doesn’t need correcting. I don’t need to clarify with a barista about the nature of our relationship. But when someone we have to spend time with makes this mistake, it’s uncomfortable, and afterward it can feel awkward to show any affection toward each other in front of that person. While not super frequent, it happens just enough to matter—like last month when I had surgery and the surgeon called my husband my brother multiple times, including once after being politely but clearly corrected. My husband wouldn’t really hold my hand after that, and I sort of felt a little bit weird about it too.

We’ve tried everything we can think of, including a simple and direct “This is my husband, not my brother.” Even that often just elicits more comments of shock about how alike we look. Is there anything we can do to deflect this besides consciously changing how we present ourselves if it makes us so uncomfortable? I don’t want to do that! We don’t wear wedding bands, and both would kind of like to, so maybe a matching set would help?
—Mistaken Identity

You’re certainly not alone; the “boyfriend twin” is a real phenomenon. But are you more bothered by the comments people make or by the fact that you two look related? It’s a little unclear to me, based on your letter, whether you feel “so uncomfortable” about your matchy-matchiness or “so uncomfortable” about someone saying, “Oh, my mistake! But also, you two really do look like brothers” when you correct them. (It could be both.) Wearing wedding bands, not wearing complementary outfits, and not seeing the exact same barber for the exact same haircut all strike me as reasonable, low-impact investments that won’t require a total transformation from either of you but will likely cut down at least a bit on the, “Hey, has anyone ever told you two that you look a lot alike?” But you’re also extremely free to interrupt someone who’s trying to explain to you why they thought you were brothers and let them know you’re not interested. My guess is they’re flailing to explain themselves because they’ve been caught in an embarrassing situation, and the interruption will actually arrive as a fairly welcome rescue.

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Danny M. Lavery is joined by Grace Lavery on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

Dear Prudence,
My family are all ex-military and very athletic. I had to resign my Army commission 10 years in due to a chronic condition that leaves me constantly tired and in pain. How do I get my family to plan around my limited mobility without seeming to be whiny? I buy tickets for everyone to things that are shorter in duration, like a movie or a show. On travel excursions, I pay to rent a larger vehicle that will accommodate my electric scooter. They just don’t get it and are always wanting to go that extra hour or longer that I know I can’t make. I have to be firm that I have to go home or to the hotel now and not in two more hours. I’ve heard them talk about how “it’s all in my head” and I’m just lazy. We do plan separate activities, like they go out to do ziplines or hiking and I stay poolside with a book, but they complain about that. My adult kids are good about my time restrictions because they know firsthand when the pain gets too bad, my body stops working and we’ll be in the emergency room (two times now). I love my family, but I dread shared vacations with them.
—Feeling Whiny

I don’t believe there’s anything you can do to seem less whiny to your family, because they believe that any acknowledgment that you are experiencing tiredness and pain to be an act of whining already. It’s not that they “don’t get it.” They purposefully circumvent your attempts to set up fun, accessible activities because they want to punish you until you admit, “Yeah, I was just making the pain up for attention because I’m weak. Thanks for making me walk it off.” You’ve already done everything I’d advise for someone in your situation—plan separate activities on vacation, invite them to the movies, arrange for your own transportation, let them know when you have to go home because you need to rest. At this point it’s time to pay attention to the fact that you “dread” your trips together. Stop taking trips with them. That doesn’t mean you have to pretend you don’t know them. You can still get together for the occasional movie or dinner and make sure you head home when you need to. But when it comes to multiday, expensive trips, make sure you only travel with people who respect your physical limits.

Dear Prudence,
Since graduating in May, I’ve been having a hard time financially. I’ve been living with my mother since I started grad school a few years ago. She was supportive of my education but felt I was lazy for not working throughout grad school. I have some health issues that slightly limit what I can do professionally. Since I could either work or go to school but not both, I moved in with her and lived off student loans. Now everybody in my mom’s life thinks I’m leeching off of her and that I should move out. They think I should be grateful because they either wouldn’t or couldn’t do the same for their children.

But I’ve actually given her a lot of student loan money over the years when she was struggling. She promised to pay it back, and I believe she will, but the thing is that I don’t think she’s told anybody in her life about it. If she paid me back, I could probably move out and live on my own until I find a job, but she can’t pay me back the money all at once, nor can she pay me back enough per month to support myself. I even mentioned the money I lent her after one of her friends dug into me, and she acted like it was no big deal that I lent it to her. I think my mom hasn’t told the people in her life out of embarrassment. This is increasingly pissing me off, since it makes me look like a terrible ingrate. What’s worse, my mom often sides with the people who think I should move out. I get angrier and angrier every time someone mentions it, and I think I’m soon going to be too upset to not bring this up. The problem is that I think it could be an enormous source of embarrassment for her, which could cause problems since we live together. I don’t want to embarrass her; I just want to be able to defend myself. Should I just start telling people? What can I do if my mother gets really mad at me for this?
—Roommate Crisis

Prepare yourself for the very real possibility that your mother will never pay you back the money you’ve loaned her, and figure out how you can support yourself without relying on something I think is very unlikely ever to happen. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask her to sit down with you and develop a repayment schedule, merely that you should be prepared for the possibility that the money is gone for good.

It’s important here to separate the crucial issues from the merely irritating ones. I’m sure it’s unpleasant that some of your mom’s friends think you’re a moocher, but it doesn’t really matter what her friends think of you, and it’s a waste of time to try to get them to approve of you. You’ll have enough on your plate when it comes to looking for work and saving up in order to move into your own place. That, in the long run, is the best use of your time.

That doesn’t mean you have to go along with a lie or misdirection in the meantime. If someone says, “I can’t believe you’ve been relying on your mom for handouts all this time. When are you going to move out?” you’re free to say, “I’ve been helping my mom out financially while she’s offered me a place to stay, but I’m not interested in discussing my living situation.” But that’s far less important than the fact that you believe your mom sides with the people who think you should move out, because she’s the only person who has the power to evict you. Rather than waste your time and energy telling people that you’ve been sharing your student loan money with your mother, you should sit down with her to talk about a reasonable schedule for you to move out and for her to start paying you back, even if it’s only a token amount. Don’t let yourself get distracted by a bunch of interfering busybodies whose bad opinions of you might be annoying but largely have nothing to do with you. Good luck!

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From Care and Feeding

Recently, I have noticed that when I wear my tank-top PJs without a bra, my 12-year-old stepson stares at my chest. I am a large-breasted woman, admittedly, and he is mostly not super obvious, but I can see it out of the corner of my eye, and sometimes it is more overt—he will be talking to me and his eyes will flick down, stay for a moment, and then go back up. He even once did this while I was curled up on the couch and I was wearing shorts after exercising—looking down to stare between my legs as I shifted positions, until I quickly closed them.

I have taken to wearing big sweatshirts, which is fine in winter, but I live in the Deep South, so that isn’t a great solution come spring. His mother wants to confront him directly, but I am worried about making the situation even more awkward, especially since we are still adjusting to life as a family together. Should I just suck it up and deal with the discomfort of too many clothes? Should I just accept that boys his age are curious about bodies? But of course, we also want him to know he can’t do this to other girls and women he meets!