Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Other people’s treasures: Years ago, my husband helped a good friend move. This friend had a decorative vase that was somehow special to her—my husband has long forgotten the reasons why—and she asked him to hold onto it for safekeeping during the move. He put it in a cabinet in his old apartment and forgot about it. Flash forward 12 years and two moves to today: This thing is still sitting on top of my refrigerator. My husband has fallen out of touch with this friend, and she has clearly forgotten that he has it. Either it was never that important to her in the first place or she has assumed it was lost in one of her many moves. I have asked him several times over the years to reach out to her to see if she wants it back, but for whatever reason (embarrassment, I would assume) he hasn’t done so. He also refuses to let me throw it out or give it away. Can I please, for the love of God, get rid of this dust-covered albatross that has been a fixture in my home for as long as I’ve lived with my husband? Or do we owe it to this old friend to get back in touch to see if she still wants it? I promise that if we dispose of it, I’ll donate it to a Goodwill that will make sure it finds a loving new home.
A: I understand the temptation you’re dealing with right now—“My husband’s been avoidant about a sort-of-ugly vase and won’t or can’t explain to me why it’s important to him. Can I just move ahead if he’s unwilling to?” I’d be tempted to do the same thing in your position too. And, of course, it’s not a high-stakes issue; the vase doesn’t appear to be very important to your husband’s friend, and the friendship between them has mostly evaporated as a result of time and inertia, if inertia can be said to cause evaporation. And sure, if you toss it or donate it, I don’t think your husband’s going to leave you or that it’ll turn into the defining fight of your marriage. But you know he doesn’t want to throw it away. Maybe he feels guilty over letting that friendship lapse, or self-conscious about having been so indecisive; maybe he was deeply in love with her and that vase is all he has to remember her by. (That doesn’t strike me as especially likely, but I wanted to throw in the possibility of some Bridges of Madison County–style intrigue.) So throwing it away would, in all likelihood, not fix the underlying problem, which is that your husband is somehow stuck on this particular object and doesn’t know how, or doesn’t want, to talk to you about his stuckness.
You want two things, I think. One is to get the vase off your fridge, which I think is achievable even if you don’t throw it away. The other is to get your husband to open up to you, even if it’s through a means as simple as “I kind of miss my friend, and I feel weirdly guilty about keeping this vase for so many years and never using it or taking care of it. The idea of getting rid of it now would make the end of that friendship more real, and so I feel superstitious about touching it in any way.” You can’t force him to open up, but you can give him an opportunity to do some reflecting: “You don’t want to throw away the vase, and I’m not going to throw it out. But it’s coming off the fridge today—I’ve already taken it down—and you need to find a place to store it that’s out of the way. I hope you can talk to me about why you feel so attached to this, because I’ve never seen you use or interact with it in any way. I’m not trying to get on your case about it; I understand that it can feel tricky after you’ve lost touch with a friend. But it’s been strange to see you so connected to something you seemingly never use, and I wish I understood your feelings better. If you want to talk about it, I’m here.”