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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: Hi, everyone. Let’s chat!
Q. No affair: My husband is the love of my life, and an accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. I couldn’t care for him 24/7, so he’s in an assisted living facility. I visit him four times a week and talk to him every night. We go to family events together. I am happy. My family keeps telling me to have an affair. They think that I am “wasting” my life because I am not having sex or children. It has been seven years since the accident, but apparently my family believes I cannot have a fulfilling life as it is now. It hurts me because they are all smiles and sunshine around my husband and turn around and try to set me up with strangers. Sometimes I miss the physical act of lovemaking or the idea of children, but if I had to choose between those and keeping my husband, it is no contest. I can fulfill those desires in other ways than adultery. This is the life I want. This is the life I choose. It is slowly killing me for my loved ones to think my marriage is a “mistake” now. I fought with my sister, and I asked if her husband had had an affair after her son was born, would that have been OK? Would she have encouraged it? She told me they hadn’t had sex in two years because her sex drive was so out of sync. Obviously, it didn’t happen and they got over their rough patch, but my sister looked like I slapped her when I brought it up. We haven’t been talking much since. I am depressed, and there is no one I can confide in. This would hurt my husband so. How do I get them to see I am OK?
A: Do you have any friends (or friendly colleagues or old acquaintances or any nonrelatives) you can turn to for support right now? If you can think of anyone in your life who isn’t actively trying to interfere in your marriage, give them a call. You don’t have to confide in them about your family’s latest antics if you feel uncomfortable going into such personal detail. But you deserve to spend time with people who haven’t appointed themselves arbiters of your personal life, if only for a reminder of what normal, appropriate, human interactions look like. Your family’s presumption is obscene and ghoulish, and I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with their hypocrisy and steamrolling for so long.
I do think you should edit your goals when it comes to your family members. It’s a pretty tall order to make it your job to “get them to see” that you’re OK, especially when they seem pretty committed to a version of you that’s desolated, wasting away, and in need of control. A more achievable goal would be setting a rule like “I’m not answering calls or getting together with anyone who tries to set me up on unwanted dates because they think my marriage is inadequate. If you want to spend time with me, you cannot pry into my sex life or tell me that my life is a waste because I don’t have kids.” I do think that, for now at least, it’s a good thing that you and your sister are taking a break from talking. She needs to seriously reevaluate what she’s done, and you had every right to ask her whether she would accept the kind of treatment she’s been dishing out.
I understand why you don’t want to bring this to your husband, but I think you need to talk about this with someone who’s in your corner and affirms your right to make your own decisions. Does your husband’s facility have any on-site counselors? Are there other people who visit their partners regularly you’re friendly with and might be available for a conversation about dealing with interfering family members? You don’t have to go into detail if the prospect makes you uncomfortable, but I imagine you’re not the only visitor with overbearing relatives, and you might find a lot of support and solidarity there. Do you have the time and money to see a therapist of your own? Can you find a support group, either local or online, for people whose partners need long-term care? Whatever avenue you choose, I think the best thing you can do for yourself is to spend less time and energy on relatives who seem determined to override you, and more time and energy looking after your own needs.
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Q. Do I need to go to clubs with my boyfriend? I’m a straight woman who’s been dating the same guy for six years (we’re both in our 30s). I’m definitely a tomboy and really don’t like dressing up unless it’s a wedding or a job interview. It has taken me years to be OK with my tomboy self. I prefer a casual dive-bar setting, whereas he seems to want to be seen in flashy cars and attending flashy clubs. I’m a jeans-and-T-shirt kinda gal. So when he talks about wanting to go to clubs, I get extreme anxiety at the thought of dress codes and finding appropriate attire. I was once scolded by the bouncer at a club for wearing flats, and I absolutely loathe being in that situation. I feel that I’m being judged and often don’t feel “adequate” in these situations. On his birthday, he’s said things like “It’s my birthday, so I want to do this,” and I comply because he’s a hard worker, supportive partner, and joins me on many outings with my friends, but I really get anxiety for weeks leading up to one single night. He knows I hate clubs, and he expresses that he’d like to go to more if it wasn’t for me hating them. I suggest he go with his friends, but he doesn’t have many and they have either settled down with families or don’t have the money for outings that he’s interested in. Am I obligated to go on these flashy dates with him despite my anxiety leading up to them? Thanks!
A: There’s no universal rule for how many times a person “has” to do something they dislike but their partner enjoys. It’s great that your boyfriend is generally supportive and goes out with you and your friends a lot; it’s fine to go somewhere special for his birthday even though you know you won’t get much out of it. But if you have a miserable time at the club (as well as the weeks preceding it), no matter which clubs you go to, it’s reasonable to set a cap on how often you go. That’s not a referendum on whether he’s a good person or a suitable boyfriend; it’s just a question of having totally incompatible responses to clubs. Talk about a reasonable limit with your boyfriend, and find a compromise you can both live with. Beyond that, don’t feel like it’s your job to find him a replacement club buddy—if you’re not up for going one month, you don’t have to run through a list of his friends’ names until you find someone suitable to take over for you.
Q. Whose job is it to ensure privacy? I live in a condo in a densely populated area. My wife and 4-year-old son like to look at the flowers that line the building as part of their daily routine. The ground floor condo has a finished basement, and the owners use one of the basement rooms as their preteen daughter’s bedroom. That room has a window that is more or less right at flower height. In the course of looking at flowers, my wife and son often pass by (or even pause by) the window of this room. Recently, the owner came out and excoriated us for violating her daughter’s privacy by peering into her bedroom window. Of course, nobody is actually peering into the window, but they do literally stop and smell the flowers, sometimes very close to the window.
Other relevant facts: The window has no shades or blinds or other window treatments. Also, this all plays out in the common area to the condo association. It’s paved over with bricks in an area that seems designed for foot traffic. (It’s not like they’re going on some trek to an area unintended for people.) The owner claims it’s just “common sense” to refrain from this. We claim it’s just common sense that if one wants privacy in this situation, they should have shades or blinds—especially when the window opens to the common area. Thoughts?
A: I think it’s a losing game to get locked into an argument with your neighbor over this. You and your wife now know your neighbors don’t like it when you stop by to look at their flowers; you can privately think the best solution to that problem is to buy drapes (I’m inclined to agree with you), but for whatever reason they’ve decided not to get any. So you can be right and keep stopping by those flowers and get yelled at for so doing, or you can avoid that particular flower bed and not get yelled at. There are other flowers in the world—even other flowers in your neighborhood. It’s not “common sense” to do something you know is likely to result in getting yelled at when you know you have other choices. You have an easy option here. Take it!
Q. My girlfriend dresses badly for work: I’ve been dating my girlfriend for two years. When we met, she was finishing up grad school and dressed a little young for our age—clashing or mismatched colors, old and tattered clothing, nothing outright inappropriate but just not what a lot of other people our age are wearing. I found this eccentric but not necessarily a problem. She’s pretty eco-conscious and doesn’t believe in throwing things away, which is part of her fashion choices—clothing that’s faded and dirty is still a part of her daily wardrobe. She just got her first post–grad school job, and we’re moving to a new city in a few months. I’m now a little concerned about the way she’s presenting herself. She looks young for her age, and I don’t think she realizes that her attire contributes to people not taking her as seriously as they should. I’m a woman as well, and I’m trying really hard not to project my own fashion sense onto her. I just want her outward appearance to reflect what I know to be true about her competence and level of experience. As well, she has expressed that she isn’t really sure how to be more “fashionable” and often asks me for advice. I’m just trying to understand how far I should push her. I love her so much and want her to feel comfortable in whatever she wears. Thank you!
A: If your girlfriend is asking you straight-out—and repeatedly—for fashion advice, I don’t think you have to worry that you’re being pushy just yet. She got the job, and presumably the people who hired her were able to see what she wore to her interviews, even if most of those interviews were via Zoom. I think that’s a real argument that she is either taken seriously regardless of how she dresses, at least some of the time, or that she’s able to figure out a reasonable interview outfit without much help. That’s a good sign! The most pressing issues are the fact that she regularly wears dirty clothes and that she forgot to pair her “throw nothing away” attitude with a “repair and patch damaged items” attitude. She needs to wear clean clothes to work (that means recently washed, relatively unrumpled, with no visible stains). That’s very achievable and perfectly appropriate for you to share with her the next time she asks for your advice. As to whether she ought to start adding the occasional blazer or nondenim pants to her wardrobe, you can start small; it doesn’t sound like her industry has a strict dress code, which should work in her favor, especially at first. But her goals and yours sound pretty compatible, she seems open to suggestion, and it’s not too overbearing to say, “Hey, that shirt’s torn in the back—you should grab another one.”
Q. Should I? And how? Over the past year I’ve become close friends with a woman at work. We’re both married with children, and our relationship was only mildly flirtatious, but still we shared a remarkable connection and communicated frequently—calls, texts, occasional lunches—right up until the end of April this year when she pulled decidedly back. It’s hard to describe exactly what this looked like. All I can say is it became quickly clear—though no such words were spoken—that she wished not to hear from me any longer. We haven’t spoken or texted in over a month, a marked change from what had been near-daily interaction.
I’m hurt and confused, of course, but also aware that she has no obligation to me (we weren’t in a real “relationship” after all) and also sensitive to making her uncomfortable. The thought that this relationship is just over, and that I’ll never know quite what happened, kills me (also, at some point we’ll see each other at a work function and it’s going to be dreadfully awkward). Most of all I hate the predatory ambivalence of it all. What a terrible ending to what had been, for me at least, a really fulfilling engagement. Is it appropriate for me to seek clarity? And how best might I do so without making her uncomfortable? Or is it best to accept her obvious (though unstated) wishes and just leave her alone?
A: I think you do know what happened. Your colleague’s partner either learned about your “remarkable connection” and objected to it, or your colleague realized she was on the precipice of an affair, regretted it, and scaled back. Her wishes are obvious, and you know it. I understand that you’re upset over having been sort-of-almost-not-quite-basically dumped, but that’s how being dumped works: It means the relationship is over, even if you don’t want it to be. I have no idea what you mean by the phrase “predatory ambivalence,” but there’s nothing predatory about your colleague’s decision to scale back on the emotional intimacy you two shared. It was abrupt, she chose avoidance over directness, you’ve understandably found it painful, and there may very well have been better ways for her to communicate this to you, but it’s not predatory to stop flirting with a co-worker. There is no professionally justifiable reason for you to go to a married co-worker and say, “You don’t text me every day anymore.” You have the right to process your hurt feelings with your spouse, a therapist, a journal, or a friend who doesn’t work with you. But no personal or professional good can come from relitigating this breakup.
Q. Co-worker misgendering: I am fairly new to my office. Another co-worker, “Laura,” was hired at the same time as I was. I misgendered Laura when we first started, and they corrected me privately (they are nonbinary). I apologized, they accepted, and I have not made the mistake again. We get along well and have had no other issues. However, it has been months now, and the rest of our department always calls Laura by female pronouns. Now that I know, I feel uncomfortable when this comes up (and imagine Laura does as well). I don’t think it is my place to say anything. Since Laura had no problem correcting me, I assume they feel comfortable doing the same with others. Am I wrong? I keep saying “they/them,” even directly after someone else says “she/her,” but feel strongly that it isn’t my place to correct people on their behalf. It says “they/them” on their nametag, and we filled out a form for the supervisors when we got hired that blatantly asked what pronouns we use, so I don’t know how others are missing this still. I guess my question is, is there anything I can or should do to be more supportive without overstepping?
A: I think your instincts are right here, and letting Laura decide how they want to handle pronouns at work is the best option. You can ask Laura directly: “If a colleague doesn’t use they/them for you, would you rather I say something or leave that to you?” But you certainly don’t have to—it’s not incumbent upon you, as a colleague, to take this on. You have reason to believe that Laura’s comfortable addressing this at work when it’s important to them, and if they don’t seem to be bothered by this, you can keep doing what you’re doing.
Q. Re: Do I need to go to clubs with my boyfriend? I suggest the LW pick one clubbing outfit that she is happy with and simply reuse it each time she goes out with her partner. That way she doesn’t have to agonize each time about what to wear. She’ll have her clubbing uniform ready to go without any thought.
A: That’s a great idea, and still compatible with setting limits on how many times she agrees to go out dancing with him. Having a set-it-and-forget-it look could go a long way toward making the lead-up less draining. (On the other hand, if having a uniform does nothing and she still spends a full week in dread, that might be a sign that this compromise is no longer working.)
Q. Re: Whose job is it to ensure privacy? Anyone who doesn’t cover their window that opens out onto a paved, planted, common area that exists for their entire building to enjoy has no right to complain about people being able to see inside. That is their choice, to live with uncovered windows in a crowded area, and they can’t take the common areas from the rest of the people (who also actually OWN them) to make their choices make more sense.
A: I hear you—and yet I think knowing that you have “common sense” on your side is cold comfort when you and your toddler are getting yelled at. This seems like a good opportunity to choose your battles. It would be one thing if this were a playground area, and the LW needed to take their kid there regularly in order to stay sane and get the kid’s energy out. But it’s one flower bed among many, and it’s a relatively low-level change in the LW’s family schedule to avoid irritating them. I think it’s a losing battle to try to force this neighbor to see sense, and easier just to avoid the spot in front of that particular window.
Q. Re: My girlfriend dresses badly for work: It would be helpful if your girlfriend could reach out to someone at her new workplace and ask about dress code, general level of formality, etc. She could cite the pandemic turning all these sorts of things on their head. This will give both of you an idea of where to aim her work attire.
A: That’s a possibility! If it’s a big enough company, HR might have some guidelines they hand out to new employees, too. Or she could just try to note what her colleagues wear during her first week and then use that as her guide; if everyone else is relatively dressed-down, she doesn’t need to overcorrect by picking up a bunch of brand-new skirt suits.
Q. My brother-in-law tried to eavesdrop on us having sex: Recently I went on a trip with my partner and three other couples, including my sister and brother-in-law. One afternoon everyone went into their respective rooms for some downtime and my partner and I debated fooling around. Then we overheard my brother-in-law in the living room say to my sister, “I’m gonna go listen to them have sex!” We heard him attempt to tiptoe over quietly where he stood outside of our door for 10 or 15 minutes. My sister did tell him to leave us alone, but she went to her room shortly thereafter. I’ve never liked my brother-in-law and now I’m humiliated, disgusted, and don’t want to spend time with him ever again. Do I say something to my sister? This isn’t the first time he’s been inappropriate; last summer he seriously suggested wife swapping. He and my sister fight incessantly and he has no respect for her, so I don’t know if she would even say anything to him, or if anything would change if he did. I think if she did talk to him, he would still blame it on me. How can I prevent this from happening again? How can I prevent this from hurting my relationship with my sister? Read what Prudie had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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