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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, everyone. Let’s chat.
Q. I’m the smart one! I know it’s a petty, marriage-killing thing to dwell on … but I’m smarter than my husband. How do I know this? Because he insisted we both get IQ tests. It turns out I qualify for MENSA and he just does not. Except now he’s telling our friends his fairly impressive IQ and when they ask about me, he says: “Oh well, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is how you use what God gave you.” So they all think I scored badly or something, and I’m furious. I just don’t know why, despite the IQ test. It’s stupid to care what a very narrow test of intelligence says about your brains. I didn’t care before we were tested, but maybe that’s because I thought I was dumb. I definitely care now.
My husband works in academia, so he says it would “look bad” if people knew his car-mechanic partner was smarter than him. Which just aggravates me more, because I thought we were partners. If I’d known I was just arm candy I’d have expected better birthday presents. Am I being unreasonable? It feels ridiculous to care this much over something I didn’t care at all about before. Yet now everything he says to me sounds like condescension, or even contempt.
A: IQ testing was developed by eugenicists in order to facilitate sterilization and justify white supremacy. Crowing about a number that establishes you as essentially, permanently, and inherently smarter than someone else is not an act of intelligence; your husband’s insistence that you two take these “tests” together was not born out of a love for learning, or of a desire to understand more about the inner workings of your mind, but to establish one of you as “better” than the other. When he didn’t get the results he wanted, he went ahead and established himself as the “better” one anyway. Your husband is demonstrating serious condescension and contempt for you, and I hope your friends don’t think less of you—a person they actually know!—just because your husband has called them up to announce his “smart number.” It’s gross, it’s dehumanizing, it’s dishonest, it’s the opposite of petty, and it’s worth seriously fighting with him about. Why did he insist on “scoring” your mental capacity years into your marriage, and why is he going about intimating to your friends that you’re stupid? What’s he getting out of this? Put those questions to him, and hold out for a serious, honest answer.
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Q. Greed: I am much older and more established than my baby brothers. Three years ago, “Alan” got into a car accident during his engagement. They had already put down wedding deposits. Our parents are on a limited income. I covered the costs to the tune of $10,000. Alan was in the hospital and couldn’t work for a year. I did not agree to cover the weddings for the rest of my siblings. “Nick” is engaged to “Anne.” She was lovely enough until she emailed me for “their share.” The pandemic made them lose a ton of their deposits. If Nick or Anne had honestly asked for help, I would have been happy to cover things. Anne basically told me I owed her $10K because that is what I spent on Alan and “fair is fair.” Nick and Anne both are working, educated adults. I responded that when Anne gets hit by a car like Alan was, I will cover her wedding. Until then: budget. Anne responded by calling me a “frigid, useless bitch.”
So, my line in the sand: I will accept an apology and attend the wedding, but Earth will burn under a red sun before Anne gets a dime of my money. I emailed everything to Nick and asked him to please deal with it. Radio silence. What do I do? I don’t want to make things harder than they have to be, but Anne is not shaping up to be my favorite sister-in-law here.
A: If someone unreasonable is angry with you for not anticipating their unreasonable demands, there’s not much you can do besides what you’ve already done—that is to say, decline to accept their terms, express your willingness to receive an apology, and then step back. Emailing a future in-law and demanding $10,000 because that in-law once helped another family member through a medical crisis is a shocking, ghastly act of entitlement and indifference. In the interests of being scrupulously correct, I would probably have advised you to word your initial response to Anne a little differently, say, “That was a one-time gift because my brother was hit by a car—I’m not giving you any money” rather than “I’ll give you $10,000 when you get in an accident too.” But I can understand why you spoke a little sharply, given the context, and it’s not as if you threatened or demeaned her personally, so I don’t think you have anything to apologize for there. Her own subsequent response, of course, was monstrous and totally unjustifiable, and she has a lot to make amends for.
I don’t have high hopes for Nick’s eventual response, since it sounds like he’s on board with Anne’s demands and behavior. You can, if you wish, reach out to him once more, maybe over the phone since email is proving ineffective, and reiterate your pain and bewilderment and ask him to try to make things right. But if he pushes back or ignores you again, then stick to your guns: Don’t go to their wedding without a sincere apology, and don’t give them any money.
Q. Giving birth with an unwanted audience: Seven years ago I gave birth to my first child. It was just my partner and me in the room, and everything went well. At the time I told my partner that the next time we had a child, his little sister should be in the room with us. She was 15 and interested in becoming a nurse. Now I am pregnant with my second child. My sister-in-law is 22 and has seen several births in nursing school. Without discussing it with me first, my partner invited her into the room for the birth. I was shocked and embarrassed. To my regret, I agreed to it at the moment because I didn’t know what to say. My partner thinks it would be terribly rude to change our minds now. However, I’m now dreading the birth of my child. What should I do?
A: I can understand why your partner thought you’d be on board with the idea, since it was originally yours, and he should have checked in with you before making the offer, since so many years had passed since you last discussed it. But there’s absolutely nothing rude about deciding your own birth plan! You’re allowed to change your mind about who’s going to be in the room while you’re in labor, and I should hope any nursing student would understand immediately and not take it as a personal slight that you didn’t feel up to having extra visitors. Your partner is completely wrong about the “rudeness” of your birth plan. It’s not as if you invited your sister-in-law over to dinner and then met her at the door and told her to go home. You’re going to be going through labor and childbirth, which can be exhausting, vulnerable, intimate, and dangerous. Your needs are paramount here.
Q. Am I unreasonable? My husband and I have been together 30 years. We are both in our late 50s. He has a brother and sister of similar ages in similarly long relationships. His father is still living. His brother is having an affair and apparently has been for some time. His lover has been introduced to both his sister and father. When my husband questioned the integrity of the situation, he was told to “stop being judgmental,” by his sister and father. I am not a prude. I have no issue with couples having open or nonmonogamous relationships. But I know this isn’t the case, as we have been told to not tell my sister-in-law about the affair.
My bottom line is that the lover cannot come to any family gatherings unless I have directly been told by my sister-in-law that she is OK with the situation. But I haven’t spelled this out to the family. I hate confrontation. I wonder if I should just butt out? But I feel like I have been made a party to the deception and am contributing to my sister-in-law’s eventual distress. It feels worse that we all know. And my father-in-law writes me ridiculous emails about how wonderful and loyal his son is to stay married and not get divorced, and how unfulfilling his marriage is, and how lovely the mistress is. I find it really upsetting. This woman has been a part of our family for decades. The last time I saw her was at a family funeral. She is kind and has been very sweet over the years to my children. Should I tell her? Do nothing? Tell my father-in-law how very dubious I find his behavior?
A: I don’t think “butting out” is necessary—you haven’t sought out this information nor attempted to pry into your brother-in-law’s personal life. Your in-laws have demanded that you keep a secret you never wanted to know from his wife, a woman you know personally, whom you see often, and who’s treated your own children with kindness. (You also know that they’re not in an honest open relationship, otherwise your brother-in-law wouldn’t have asked everyone else to keep this relationship a secret from his wife.) You’re being asked to lie on someone else’s behalf, and you have every right to decline that request. You also have the right to tell your father-in-law that his emails justifying his son’s infidelity are unnecessary and unwelcome and he needs to stop writing to you on the subject.
I’d encourage you to speak to your husband before going to your sister-in-law, not because you need his permission but in the interest of being on the same page, so that you two can come up with a shared response when—not if—his father and brother-in-law attempt to butt in again. I understand you want to avoid confrontation when possible and that you don’t relish the idea of taking on an entire wing of your family at once. It may help to remind yourself that you do not have to convince your father- and brother-in-law that what you did was right, that they are not entitled to draw you into endless arguments and recriminations on the subject.
Q. Happily married, unhappily accessorized: I’ve come to realize I don’t like wearing a wedding ring, after abstaining from wearing mine for a few months due to a developing metal sensitivity. It’s a combination of small things that amount in one big aversion: I like to change my accessories day to day; I abstain from all other jewelry if I’m not leaving the house; I don’t particularly enjoy being clocked as a married woman immediately due to my ring finger, as I find I am treated differently.
My issue is how to explain this clearly and compassionately to my husband! He has “jokingly” asked if I’m ashamed to be married to him, to which I answer sincerely, “Of course not—I just don’t feel like wearing my ring right now.” He’s also claimed he will buy me a new wedding ring that I will enjoy wearing, even though I selected and bought our wedding rings myself in the first place. Is there a script to convey to your husband that as great as he is and as much as you love being hitched, you’d rather no one could tell just by looking at you? For the record, I never changed my name, which he was fully supportive of, since, in his own words, “you already have a name!”
A: I think the most salient point is that people treat you differently (and I assume not “more respectfully”) when they see your wedding ring; I’d encourage you to talk to your husband about those experiences so he understands it’s not just a question of physical comfort but of not wanting to be seen right away as a married woman (since so many people then treat your marital status as the “first and foremost” component of your identity). He may have his own feelings about that, and it will be important to hear him out; you can also stress that you’re not interested in concealing or misrepresenting your marriage, or in pretending to be single. You’re also not alone in this. That’s why there was such a significant push for “Ms.” rather than “Mrs./Miss” in the ‘70s.* Not because huge swaths of married women wanted to keep their husbands a secret but because they wanted to be addressed and treated without regard to their marital status, especially at work.
*The use of Ms. goes back much further than just the ‘70s, of course, but Ms. Magazine launched in 1972, and the move gained a lot of popular support during that decade.
Q. Not loving being a landlord: A few years ago, by a stroke of luck, I came into ownership of a duplex that my family did not need to use. I’ve been renting it out to college students extremely inexpensively since then. Though there are sometimes issues with partying or late payments, in general I enjoy being able to provide affordable housing near campus (which is generally hard to come by). However, because of the pandemic, the university will be virtual this fall, and many students are choosing to take a leave of absence. I cannot fill all the rooms. I’d like to just give up, sell the duplex, and call it a day. But my mother (who has a sentimental but not financial stake in the game) says I’d be a “monster” for letting the duplex leave our family and for evicting college students at this point in the summer. But I’m the one footing the bills! I can let this go on for two months max, but after that, it’s financially unsustainable. What should I do?
A: I suppose you could offer to sell it to your mother, if she’s really that concerned about keeping a duplex in the family. But this is not exactly “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and it’s your money, not hers, that’s tied up here. If you can’t afford to keep the duplex, and if it would be a burden for you to continue owning it, you should sell it and call it a day. Your mother is free to feel sentimental about it and to strenuously disagree with your choice. But do you really want to commit to something financially unsustainable just to make your mother happy?
Q. My boss expects us to warn her if someone is planning on leaving: I have a recurring problem at my workplace that has become a frequent source of anxiety. I work in retail, so there’s naturally high turnover in staff. Whenever a staff member gives in their two weeks’ notice, it’s followed by a wave of offense on the part of the employer. She will complain to me and my co-workers that none of us told her before they gave in their notice. Most of us are friends outside of work and while we do know beforehand if someone is planning on moving on, I don’t feel it’s my place to use that knowledge to warn my employer that they should start looking for a replacement. It feels very inappropriate and like a betrayal of trust. One of my co-workers is planning on leaving soon, and I can already feel anxiety building over the inevitable interrogation that will follow. What can I say to my boss when she asks me why I didn’t let her in on my co-worker’s plans?
A: Giving notice is giving notice. If someone gave their employer notice that they were planning on giving notice in the future, then that would be their notice. Your boss is trying to guilt you into telling her something she has no right to know. If she asks why you didn’t say anything, just tell her, “I had no idea.”
Q. Re: Happily married, unhappily accessorized: Maybe you could wear it on a chain around your neck? I don’t like wearing rings because of some sensitivity issues, so that was my go-to solution.
A: I’ve heard this solution offered before; I think it’s more common than one might think. Someone else wrote in to say “My husband and I have been married for 31 years and gave up wearing wedding bands decades ago. Both of us found it a royal pain to have to remove it all the time when doing chores and consider the risk of losing/misplacing it, and decided it wasn’t worth the stress.” Obviously it’s important to talk through with your husband first, and he may not find it at all inconvenient or uncomfortable to wear a band. I don’t want to suggest it’s foolish or unreasonable to want to wear matching rings with your partner. But I also don’t think it’s necessarily a sign that you’re less-than-committed to your relationship. I hope everyone can find common ground here.
Q. Skinny-dipping privacy: My husband and I were able to both take early retirement and build our dream home on several heavily wooded acres with a pool in the back. It has been a godsend and given a certain spice to our marriage. Some wine, music, and skinny-dipping in our pool is one of our favorite activities—or it was. Recently, our neighbor knocked on our door to scold us for being naked around her children! Apparently, her boys decided to trespass on our property to build a tree house and spied on us! There is no way to see anything in our backyard unless you cross the woods on our property. I was struck speechless, and when I told my husband later, he was livid. He went out, bought no trespassing signs, put them on our trees, and then destroyed the tree house. He talks about calling the police if he sees any of our neighbors on our property. I don’t know what to do. This has put a pall over what has been a joyous time for us. I don’t want a feud, but I can’t see a way out of this. 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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