Dear Prudence

My Husband Won’t Pick Up His Toenail Clippings, so I Put Them in His Coffee

After five years, I’d had enough.

Woman's eyes narrowed in on something (not pictured) and a mug of coffee
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Dear Prudence,

My husband has an extremely obnoxious habit that I have spoken to him about several times over the past five years. He will pick at his toenails while watching TV and then leave the remnants on the couch where he’s been sitting. I will periodically find large chunks of toenail clippings randomly on our couch, coffee table, and floor. It’s not often, but every few months I will find these lovely gifts. I have explained to him that it is disturbing and gross (and embarrassing if someone were to come over). I have politely requested that he do this in the bathroom. My requests have gone unnoticed and been ignored. I feel disrespected and grossed out. I have begun to passive-aggressively handle this by picking up the clippings whenever I find them and putting them in his coffee cup in the mornings. I know this is wrong, but I find some relief in making him discover his own toenail clippings in his coffee. What else can I do? How can I help him understand that this is neither acceptable nor fair to me?

—End of My Rope

This question showed up in my inbox well over a month ago, and I haven’t been able to answer it. I just keep turning this scenario over and over. The fact that the odds are now fairly good that you two are quarantined or sheltering in place together—well, let’s just say that you, dear letter writer, have been on my mind a lot. There’s part of me that thinks, “Look, almost every human being has at least one private habit that’s sort of disgusting and sort of comforting all in one, and shame isn’t a very useful tactic when it comes to changing behavior.” And then there’s part of me that thinks, “My God, how hard is it to clip your toenails over a trash can, after being reminded every couple of months for the past five years? What kind of careless Howard Hughes nonsense is this?”

The tools of the advice columnist are, generally, time, distance, and perspective. But I don’t have any surefire techniques for getting someone to pay attention after you’ve tried reminding them, explaining your feelings, reasoning with them, and pleading with them for half a decade. In your position, I might very well find myself tempted to do the exact same thing and feel simultaneously defeated and a certain thrill of vindictive pleasure. Is your husband an ordinarily reasonable, well-meaning person? If so, I’d try to see if I could use this escalation as an attempt to snatch up some sort of victory: “I need to admit defeat here. This has been so frustrating, and so unmanageable, that I’ve found myself putting your old toenail clippings in your coffee cup in an attempt to get your attention, because everything else I’ve done to that effect has failed miserably for the past five years. You know that it grosses me out; you know that I end up cleaning up after you, which I resent; and you know enough not to do it at work or in public—only in places where I’ll take care of it for you. I don’t feel proud or happy about my actions, but I don’t have any better ideas, so I’m asking for your help. I’m clearly missing something. What are you getting out of this? What’s going on inside of your head when you pull off your toenails and leave them on the table? Do you find yourself spacing out and forgetting what you’re doing? What do you think would be necessary to get this to change? I’m absolutely out of ideas. What do you suggest?”

That’s not to say he’s likely to immediately chirp: “I never thought of it like that. What a great idea! If I start doing [thing], I know this will never happen again.” Expect a few uncomfortable silences and some initial defensiveness, but hold out until he’s willing to offer up a solution or two of his own. You’ve done the heavy lifting for the past five years. I think it’s fair to ask him to take the lead now. Good luck. I’m rooting for you.

Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend has a habit of rubbing his index finger between his toes and then smelling his fingers “to make sure they don’t smell.” He will also do this with his balls. I realize it’s relatively normal for people to want to make sure they don’t smell. However, he’ll do it repeatedly, five to 10 times! Then, without washing his hands—because according to him, “If it doesn’t smell, that means it’s clean”—he will then go and touch household items! Granted, it’s usually after he’s showered recently (minutes to several hours), but it still grosses me out. How do I help him realize how gross it is?

—Scratch and Sniff

Please don’t feel like you need to spend the next five years having this conversation with him over and over again. The problem here is the magical thinking he’s built up around “cleanliness,” which cannot be determined by smell. What you can argue is that it’s a private grooming act, like blowing your nose or excavating your ear canal, that ought to be done by oneself, in the bathroom, immediately followed by hand-washing. You can show him one of the many hand-washing guides that are floating around these days and point out that touching one’s genitals necessitates a thorough scrubbing. You can also emphasize the public health element if you think it’ll strengthen your argument. Once again, good luck.

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Dear Prudence,

I’m a tenure track humanities professor. Like many, I’ve been seriously affected by the social distancing and shelter-in-place ordinances lately. It started when our institution announced we’d be switching everything online (I’d never taught online prior to this, though I’m fairly tech-savvy) and I had one week to get prepared. I worked 80 hours that first week. Ever since, I’ve been working 12-hour days, every day, to make sure classes are running adequately. I respond to emails from my countless anxious students within 24 hours (usually more like six hours). I’m exhausted. I feel more like a therapist than an instructor nowadays. I’m seeing my own therapist, but appointments are biweekly, and I feel like I need them daily. I’ve made myself available to my students as much as possible, and I feel guilty that I still have a job and remain safe (so far), while they’re struggling with unemployment, sick family members, and mental health issues.

I’ve tried establishing boundaries by limiting “email hours” and cutting back on check-in emails, but I still feel like I’m running on fumes. I give up on my boundaries so easily when another sob story comes through my inbox. Since I’m not tenured yet, I’m terrified of students complaining (which could lead to a denial of tenure when I’m up for review). How am I supposed to last another eight weeks of overtime when I can barely manage my own needs anymore?

—Not a Psychologist

You’re in a tremendously difficult situation, and I wish I had better advice for you than suggestions on how to perform triage. But I do see a few ways for you to let up on yourself, if only slightly: A six- to 24-hour window for responding to all student emails is too much. Give yourself 24 to 48 hours. That’s still timely and within industry standard (according to an admittedly brief straw poll I just administered to the several professors of my acquaintance). I’d also encourage you to stop thinking of yourself as giving up on your boundaries whenever you hear a sob story from a student. There are a lot of very real sob stories out there right now. Millions of people have been massively devastated in terms of employment, housing, health, and financial security, and now is not the time to grow skeptical of more than one student suffering multiple catastrophes at once.

I’m sure plenty of your fellow tenure track colleagues are suffering from the same constraints. You might collectively approach your dean or head of department and raise the possibility of skipping or disregarding student evaluations this semester or even pausing the tenure clock. And while I don’t suggest you stop responding to students in moments of distress, make sure you direct them toward people equipped to serve their mental health needs, both on and off campus. You are a teacher and a compassionate person capable of lending a sympathetic ear, but you cannot continue to serve as an unofficial social worker or therapist out of a sense of guilt. It’s not fair to you or your students. I hope summer vacation comes swiftly and brings a real sense of relief with it.

Help! My Mom Used to Hate My Grocery Store Job. Now She’s Calling Me a Hero.

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

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Dear Prudence,

Sheltering in place during this pandemic has me seriously thinking about divorcing my wife. We have a 3-year-old together. I always knew we had some issues, but I used to be more distracted by day-to-day life and didn’t dwell on them. My wife regularly insults me in front of our son, constantly monitors me and tells me if she thinks I’m doing a bad job at something (missed a spot mowing the lawn, etc.), and then demands that I do nice things for her to demonstrate my love. When she’s upset, I have to solve whatever problem is causing her to be upset. We have been to therapy a few times, but she either tells the therapist that everything’s fine or that I’m the one who needs to improve his behavior. I do not want a divorce, for the sake of my son. I also don’t want to give up on my wife, whom I fell in love with for a reason. I suspect her constant negativity stems from some unhappiness or inability to deal with the world, and what I really want is for her to see a therapist. For years, I’ve suggested it, she’s agreed, and then she has refused to go. Where do I go from here? It is a struggle to get through each day because I’m with her 24/7. I can’t remember the last time she went 45 minutes without being negative toward me. Do I really want a divorce, or is this just the pandemic talking?

—Constant Negativity

Your wife’s constant criticism isn’t a natural response to increased stress brought on by a pandemic. It’s the habit of years. It has nothing to do with the pandemic. You’re simply noticing it more often now because there are fewer distractions available to you. You say you don’t want to divorce her, primarily because of your son. I understand that impulse, but your options are not merely to stay with your wife, thereby helping your son, or to leave your wife, thereby hurting your son. It may hurt your son to grow up watching one of his parents constantly belittling, criticizing, and insulting the other. Moreover, your dignity and emotional well-being matter not just insofar as they enable you to be a better parent to your son but because you’re a human being in your own right who deserves to be treated with respect, full stop. You may have your own private unhappiness or moments of stress, but you don’t deal with such things by lashing out at your wife or others. Her cruelty toward you is not an instinctive response to her own pain but a choice she makes every day.

I understand your temptation to fixate on individual therapy because you want to believe that your wife doesn’t really want to hurt and demean you—that if only she could be persuaded to look inward, she’d discover some internal unhappiness that caused this unkind, unloving behavior, and she’d be able to stop. But you’ve spent years encouraging her to see a therapist, to no avail. I don’t think continuing to suggest therapy to your wife is going to be your solution. But it might help you to see an individual therapist of your own as you try to sort through what kind of treatment you believe you can rightly ask of or expect from a partner. I think divorce may very well end up being the best option for you—and for your son. But I don’t think it means you’d be giving up on your wife. She’ll still have the ability and opportunity to change her own behavior, whenever she decides it’s worth it.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Hell is full, and the devils are walking the earth.”
Danny Lavery and Nicole Cliffe discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

For a while now, my sex drive has been all over the place, and my husband’s has been at an all-time high. I don’t really want sex so much as I want to cuddle. But whenever I deny wanting sex, either I’m met with pouting until I give in, or we argue. Most recently, he elbowed our dog by accident in bed while trying to reach for me and my attention went to making sure the dog was OK. My husband then rolled over in a huff, and I felt like I was the bad guy. What do I do? I don’t want to feel like I have no choice, but I don’t want him feeling left out either.

—Mismatched Libidos

It’s one thing for your husband to feel frustrated, hurt, or rejected when he wants to have sex and you don’t, and quite another to react to each individual incident by pouting until he gets his way or picking a fight. That’s a shortsighted response that prioritizes his immediate success over shared long-term trust and intimacy. You have every right to say that you don’t want a sex life that’s founded in huffiness, pouting, guilt, and begrudging going-along-to-get-along, and your husband has a right to ask for what he wants and to talk honestly about his feelings. But this does not include badgering you into rote, “well-this-is-better-than-getting-into-a-fight-I-guess” sex.

This may be a question best addressed with a couples counselor, since I imagine frustrations may be running high for both of you. The goal here isn’t just to find a magically “fair” number of times you two can have sex each week—it’s to negotiate mutually agreeable terms of intimacy, desire, avowal, and closeness. It’s to find ways to discuss frustration, fears, anxieties, and disappointment with each other—without lashing out, pouting, or trying to guilt the other into giving in. The problem of mismatched libidos is real, and it can be a challenge for any couple to address. But it can’t be met by goading and guilting the partner with the lower libido into feeling cornered and hopeless.

Dear Prudence,

I’ve always had a rocky relationship with my dad and stepmom, but over the past year things had improved. Before the pandemic, they had planned a camping trip to my state in May, and I was to join them for a few days. But the national parks are now closed, and local residents have asked tourists to stay away over fears that our small, rural hospitals will be completely overwhelmed. I’ve suggested that they postpone their trip, but they reply that people who are afraid of the coronavirus are “pussies” and they’ll be coming whether or not the parks are open. I know I should be more pointed with them about how reckless this is, but I’m afraid that my dad will turn his anger on me and our relationship will sour once again. How can I be direct and protect myself at the same time?

—Vacation Conundrum

I hope this doesn’t come across as overly pessimistic, but what you’d hoped was an improvement in your relationship with your father might have merely been a lull in hostilities. If you’re afraid your relationship will sour again simply because you decline to go camping in a park that’s been closed for reasons of public health and safety, then I think very little has changed, at least on your father’s end. That’s not to say you were wrong to hope things were getting better or that you should blame yourself for having been optimistic! But I hope it will make dealing with your father’s likely outburst a little bit easier for you if you’re able to acknowledge that this is consistent with his previous behavior. If your primary goals are to be direct and to protect yourself from an unnecessarily prolonged fight, all you have to do is tell him that you won’t be able to join them, that you’re following regional instructions for social distancing, and that you hope they’ll do the same. You don’t have to argue with them or defend yourself against accusations of being a “pussy”—or defend yourself at all. Just tell them what you’re doing and what information led to your decision, encourage them to rethink their plans, and then consider your intervention finished. Enjoy, if nothing else, the peace and quiet that comes with refusing to engage with someone else’s temper tantrum.

Classic Prudie

For the past three years I’ve worked for a small business with only one other employee. My boss, the business owner, has serious mental health issues and has made the job extremely challenging at times. She has picked on me occasionally in the past but has currently turned her focus to my co-worker. We work in a private office suite and no one has access to it but the three of us. Our boss has her own bathroom off her office, and the other employee and I share a separate bathroom. While I was on vacation last month, our boss twice came into the employee bathroom and pooped in the shower (which no one uses). My co-worker discovered it after noticing a strange smell and finally opening the shower. My co-worker was so mortified and afraid of our boss she didn’t say anything. The poop stayed until the cleaning lady came later in the week. The following week, it happened again. This time my co-worker mentioned the strange smell to our boss, who told her she was imagining it. My co-worker was then too scared to say anything else. Since my co-worker started working at the office, my boss had been behaving more bizarrely. She has started leaving her own bathroom door open whenever she uses it—we can hear it, and see her if we walk by. This is shocking bullying. But I don’t want to quit because I am making way more in this position than I will get elsewhere, and I have flexible hours. Is all this a sign of dangerous mental illness? Should I flee? My co-worker has already put in notice.