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Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Good afternoon! Let’s help one another out.
Q. Bras: My boyfriend and I moved in with his mom and younger sibs after she lost her job and couldn’t pay rent. None of the interior doors has a lock, as it is an old house. I have never gotten weird vibes from my boyfriend’s mom, just the general introvert vs. extrovert clashes.
I require special bras so my back doesn’t give out in pain three hours into a shift. My bras are custom-ordered, and the cheapest ones start at $200. My underwear drawer is more expensive than my phone, tablet, and laptop. Over the past months, several of my bras have gone missing. I would hand-wash them, go to work, and they would be gone when I came back. I honestly thought I was losing my mind or my boyfriend’s teenage brother was stealing them. Only it turned out to be his mom. I noticed her bra strap as belonging to one of my favorites and confronted her—she took them because hers “broke” and she couldn’t be bothered to go shopping. She didn’t think it was a “big deal.” We are “both girls.” I hit the roof and cornered my boyfriend to get my bras back.
This was creepy, very, very creepy. I have a mother and sisters and had girl roommates, and while I would be happy to loan underwear to someone in dire straits, no sane person would just help themselves! I guess I was too loud because my boyfriend’s mother returned everything—unwashed—and has made uncomfortable remarks about my sensitivity. My boyfriend doesn’t quite get it, and I feel like hitting my head against the wall. Beyond the cost of the items, it squicks me out to think of my boyfriend’s mother wearing something so intimate of mine. I really want to put a lock on our door now, and my boyfriend says I am being irrational. I feel like I have to put a clear sign about my boundaries because his mom went into our bathroom and stole my bras! I know it isn’t sexual, but I am freaked out. Am I wrong?
A: No, it’s super weird—and unnecessary and creepy—that your boyfriend’s mother stole your bras, and it’s super weird that he would call you “irrational” for being upset by it. In the short term, if you can’t get your boyfriend to agree to a lock on your door, you should get a lock for your underwear drawer; if you can’t get a lock that fits your drawer, I’d encourage you to get a lockable box you can stash your underwear in. Even if these weren’t expensive, custom-made pieces designed specifically to help you with your back pain, it would still be totally inappropriate for your boyfriend’s mother to take them without asking. (Even asking to borrow them would be inappropriate, to my mind, but that’s taking us a bit far afield.)
In the longer run, it will be worth having more than one conversation with your boyfriend about house rules you two can agree upon when it comes to his relatives. You may find yourselves instinctively opposed on more issues than just this one, and it will help to learn sooner rather than later what compromises are possible. It may be that this is not going to be a tenable long-term living arrangement for you. But your desire for boundaries here is completely normal; please don’t let your boyfriend convince you that you’re being high-maintenance or overly sensitive just because he’s afraid of acknowledging the fact that his mother is misbehaving.
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Q. No afternoon sex: My husband and I have been married almost 25 years, and we are quarantined with our college-age kids. The kids are great, and I am enjoying this extra time with them. However, this has put a damper on our sex life. My husband wants to have sex all the time. I’m up for it first thing in the morning or at night, but not during the day when they can hear us. When I say I’m not interested, he gets offended and sulks for the rest of the day. How can I deal with this better?
A: Let me encourage a redirect here, because I’m not sure the answer to “My husband sulks all day when I tell him I’d like to wait to have sex until the evening” is that you need to deal with this better. It’s one thing for you two to have different responses to the possibility of having sex while your adult children are awake and in the kitchen or living room; two reasonable people can certainly have different emotional responses to that prospect. But sulking, withdrawing, visibly pouting for the rest of the day because you’ve been told “Let’s wait” to have sex is a really counterproductive move. It’s a waste of his energy and yours, it’s immature, and it doesn’t exactly help to foster a sense of unity and intimacy.
My only advice to you would be to tell your husband about the effect his sulking has on your desire to be close or have sex, and to tell him to stop. If he wants to have an honest conversation about his desires and his feelings, and to vent his frustrations about these newfound close quarters, he’s absolutely entitled to do so, but his strategy right now is passive-aggressive and unhelpful, and he needs to knock it off.
Q. Honest: My girlfriend and I video chat now. She is living with her parents and is beyond bored. She has started “experimenting” by watching YouTube tutorials. The makeup experiments went from OK to Pennywise. I didn’t care because makeup washes off. Then my girlfriend gave herself an undercut and dyed her hair green. Badly. She used to have long, beautiful hair. She asked me how she looked, and I told her it was different, but if it made her happy I was happy.
My girlfriend kept picking—even in our next chat, she ordered me not to lie to her and tell her the truth. I obviously hated her haircut. I confessed that even if she had gotten it professionally done, it wasn’t a look I found attractive. She started to cry, and I apologized. She yelled that she didn’t want me to be sorry and hung up. We aren’t talking. My roommates told me I was an idiot who stepped into a trap. I am frustrated. Look, if my girlfriend wanted to shave her head, that is her right and her body to do with as she pleases, but she kept pushing for my opinion. If it doesn’t matter, why ask? I love her, but I don’t know how to make this right. Any advice?
A: This is a sort of classic relationship problem that I can only imagine is exacerbated by the fact that you two can’t be in the same room together right now, not to mention the additional stressors that may come from living with your parents unexpectedly in the middle of a pandemic. It may help, after you’ve given her another day or two to decompress, to reach out with something like this: “I’m really sorry about how our last conversation ended, and I miss talking to you. If there’s something you need from me right now, I hope you’ll let me know. I think you look wonderful with any haircut.” (Presumably this is true; even if her current haircut isn’t to your liking, you still like her face and overall demeanor.) “I felt like I was in a difficult position during our last talk, because you kept pushing for my opinion and then got angry with me for sharing it. I don’t want to dictate your hairstyle or appearance, and I want you to have the freedom to try whatever look you want, but I felt like you put me in a situation where I couldn’t win. Can we talk about that?”
There is, I suppose, a case for the white lie of “I’m sorry, your hair looks great,” but I don’t think that’s a solid foundation for an honest relationship, and I wouldn’t encourage you to take your roommate’s advice and think of this sort of discussion as a “trap” to be avoided. I hope you two are able to talk about this when things don’t feel quite so fresh or painful.
Q. Mom can’t stop criticizing others: I live close to my parents, and they have a great relationship with my young children. Since I became a parent, I’ve become excruciatingly aware of my mother’s (probably lifelong) custom of starting every conversation with commentary on how overweight or unattractive other people are—she will come to visit the kids, walk in the house, and promptly begin on how she saw our neighbor X and “what a shame” her appearance is.
A few years ago, I told her explicitly to stop praising my daughter for being thin (she was 7 at the time!) and to stop any commentary on my body, and she’s complied. But this feels more challenging, as it’s how she begins every single interaction. Do I just need to say “I don’t want to hear about how people look anymore”? Or do I have to rethink how much access she has to my family, with this messaging?
A: I think there are a few ways to address this. One is to start talking to your daughter about this habit of Grandma’s, which she’s almost certainly noticed. Assuming she’s about 9 or 10 now, I don’t think it’s too soon for a conversation about body image issues. Something along the lines of “You’ve probably noticed that Grandma talks a lot about how other people look, usually critically,” sharing your own values about other people’s bodies, the ways in which your mother’s fixation on the appearance of others can sometimes make her difficult to talk to, and how Grandma can still be a caring person who loves your daughter very much while still having a serious flaw that can sometimes make closeness difficult.
As for bringing it up with your mother yourself, not necessarily this time on your daughter’s behalf but simply in your own interests, I think there’s room for you to do so. I’m heartened by the fact that she stopped praising your young daughter for thinness when you told her to; that’s a good sign that she’s capable of growth here. Something like “Mom, you may not have noticed this, but you begin almost every story about other people with a critical review about how they look, and it really bothers me. I’d like you to stop” seems like a good jumping-off point. Depending on how that conversation (and subsequent reminders as she may struggle to change this habit) goes, you can reevaluate whether or not you think it’s serious enough to merit increased distance. But I do think this is an opportunity to talk first and consider firmer boundaries later, if things deteriorate.
Q. Wearing a mask triggers my gag reflex: I can wear a face mask for about 30 seconds before I start gagging. I’ve tried several kinds. Anything that goes around my ears is the worst, but even a bandana or T-shirt material over my face causes the gag reflex. I’m lucky to not have to leave my home other than go to the grocery store, but stores are starting to require masks now. Is there any type of mask I could try or way to calm this reflex?
A: I wonder if you can look for the type of visors that lower a plastic shield across the wearer’s face? I’m not sure whether they provide the same protection as a mask worn directly over the face, so it’s worth speaking to a doctor or medical professional in advance to learn about other options, but it strikes me as a possible solution for you. They might also have helpful tips on managing a sensitive gag reflex or know if there are other available styles that will minimize this reaction. In the meantime, ask your friends if any of them are able to help you out with your grocery store runs, given how difficult mask-wearing has proven for you—it may be that some of them are eager to do something that helps someone else, and if they’re already heading to the store, it won’t be too onerous to shop for two instead of one.
Q. My therapist crossed a line: My partner of five years and I recently became “officially” engaged. (We had talked about marriage for years, have been living together, and finally decided to go ahead and plan a wedding.) A few months ago, we decided to start seeing a couples therapist to help us communicate more openly as we merged households. During our phone session last night, we told “Carolyn” we are engaged. She responded, “You’re in couples counseling and you got engaged?” then laughed lightheartedly and congratulated us. This has really rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I feel put off by it. I had previously been very comfortable with Carolyn, but now I feel like she is judging our decision to get engaged. We aren’t in counseling because we have “problems”—it was a decision we made to help us effectively communicate during a transitional period in our lives. My partner didn’t think much of it; they say she was probably just making a joke about the circumstances. I think it was an inappropriate comment and that Carolyn is completely missing the point of why we are in counseling in the first place. Should I bring it up with Carolyn at our next session? Or is this something that is so inappropriate that we should stop seeing her? Am I overreacting?
A: Of course you should bring it up with Carolyn at your next session. If a patient has a powerful response to something a therapist says, it’s very much within the remit of therapy to explore that response. Carolyn is not the boss of your couples counseling, and if her remark bothered you, you should tell her straightforwardly and without hesitation. If she’s a good therapist, she’ll acknowledge your feelings, apologize for making you feel uncomfortable, and possibly offer some sort of context or background as to what she intended to say. It may have simply been a thoughtless joke, or it may have been part of an underlying concern she’s had about your relationship that needs to come out in the open. You may ultimately, depending on how that conversation goes, decide that you can no longer work with her—if her explanation is “I really think you two shouldn’t get married” and you disagree, it may be the end of the line for your work together—but you should have that conversation first.
Q. People keep telling me: I have thick, curly hair. I tend to opt for a pixie cut, mostly because I love the androgyny of the style. Due to the quarantine, my hair has grown out, and I’m finding I enjoy experimenting with the joys of curl management. Lately, I’ve been getting compliments on how good my hair looks grown out, but they inevitably center on how much more feminine I look, how many guys I’ll attract with this longer style, etc. These comments make me feel gross, and I have to suppress the urge to immediately take a pair of clippers to my head. I hate how hair is sexualized in this way, but I’m more upset that these comments make me want to quit something I was enjoying (growing out my hair). Do I cave and go back to the relative safety of my pixie cut when this is all over? Do I try to grow my hair out and just bear these remarks? Is there another option?
A: The one good thing here is that there’s sort of always another option when it comes to haircuts because hair grows back. (In the words of Della Young, “My hair grows awfully fast. Please say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy.”) You can flip back and forth between pixie cuts and longer, tousled looks for the rest of your life, if you like. In the meantime, if someone says, “How nice that your hair is longer. Now more men will want to have sex with you,” you have every right to object and tell them to knock it off. You can, if you like, talk about what you enjoy about the androgyny of your pixie cuts—if you think that particular interlocutor is genuinely interested in your tastes and not just in the hypothetical tastes of a sea of potential male suitors.
You can, if you like, cut your hair in a fit of pique—Lord knows I’ve gotten haircuts over the years not simply to please myself but sometimes to cheese off someone else. You won’t be the first person to cut your hair at someone, and it’s as good a reason as any to cut your hair. That said, I also think there’s a lot of value in styling your hair as you like, even if it has the unfortunate side effect of pleasing someone who irritates you. What’s of primary importance here is speaking up when someone says something sleazy or sexist about your hair, rather than picking a single haircut to either placate or frustrate them.
Q. Re: Honest: What was the letter writer supposed to do when his girlfriend backed him into a corner about whether he liked her haircut or not? You say that the “white lie” course is a poor basis for a relationship, but what was the poor schmuck supposed to say? “I like you in any hairstyle” could technically be true (he likes her—but hates her haircut). But this is still a lie by omission. What would you suggest he do if backed into a question that his friends called a “trap”?
A: I think the question here is whether such a fight is better avoided at all costs or whether it’s preferable to work through something difficult without caving in the face of a partner’s anger. I think two people in a relationship should be able to have an honest conversation about a haircut without falling apart, so I think this fight is relatively important to have. My hope would be that the letter writer’s girlfriend could come back to this conversation in a spirit of vulnerability and openness, and both apologize for having put him in an impossible situation and ask for what she needs right now. Maybe that’s just to say, “I feel stir-crazy and frustrated all the time right now, and I had complicated feelings about the haircut myself, and I want to be reassured that I look OK.” But if she doubles down and refuses to accept “I love the way you look, and you can get any haircut you want” as an acceptable answer, then I think the letter writer has every right to push back and to object to her behavior.
Q. My twin and I share an earth-shattering secret that could devastate our family: My fraternal twin and I (both men) are in our late 30s. We were always extremely close and shared a bedroom growing up. When we were 12 we gradually started experimenting sexually with each other. After a couple of years, we realized we had fallen in love. Of course we felt guilty and ashamed, and we didn’t dare tell anyone what we were doing. We hoped it was “just a phase” that we’d grow out of, but we wound up sleeping together until we left for college. We knew this could ruin our lives, so we made a pact to end it. We attended schools far apart and limited our contact to family holidays. But we never fell out of love with each other, so after graduation we moved in together and have been living very discreetly as a monogamous couple ever since. I’m not writing to you to pass moral judgment on our relationship—we’re at peace and very happy. Our dilemma is how to deal with our increasingly nosy family and friends. They know we’re gay, and we live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, so we’re getting pressure to settle down. I feel we should continue being discreet for the rest of our lives and blow off their questions. It’s nobody’s business, and I fear they would find our relationship shocking and disgusting. My brother, though, is exhausted with this charade. He thinks that if we get the family together with a therapist to talk through the issues, they’ll eventually accept it. I think he’s out of his mind, but I also want to make him happy. Is this one of those times when honesty is not the best policy? If so, how do we get everyone to stop worrying we will die alone? I’m also concerned about the legal implications of this—would the therapist be required to report us to the authorities? Could we go to prison? Read what Prudie had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.