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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! The time is now; the place is nowhere and everywhere; the necessary elements are all in alignment. Let the great chat commence.
Q. Is my husband a perv? I am married and have two kids. Recently I came across a series of text messages between my husband and his buddy. My husband texted a photo from a poster of female college athletes from my daughter’s sport hanging in her bedroom. They then said this athlete, previously discussed to be hot, was “false advertising”—she’s actually more like “Jabba the Hut or a cow.” My husband sent a photo of a college freshman from our daughter’s poster to make up for having sent the ugly photo.
There were many other messages remarking upon waitresses, cashiers, co-workers, etc., which maybe is more normal “guy talk.” But this interaction really disturbed me, especially given that there are high school seniors on my daughter’s team. Also, this is a sport where sexual abuse is rampant.
Additional background info: Yes, I did look at my husband’s phone, but it was after inadvertently learning that he was secretly taking drugs. So while normally investigating is not a cool thing to do, I felt like I had to figure out the extent of the problem to protect my kids. That’s a question for another day!
A: You do not need to dismiss cruel, dehumanizing attractiveness rankings as long as they’re “only” about colleagues and service professionals. Of course he crossed a new line by trading pictures and sexual fantasies about girls that could be his daughter’s teammates, but it’s not as if what he was doing before was just fine, or just how male friends keep up with one another’s lives. The cruelty is perhaps the most distressing part—it’s not just that your husband sometimes finds women attractive but that he gets angry with them for looking different from a given picture and considers them subhuman if they’re not attractive to him. You do not have to accept that as something that simply comes with the territory if you marry a guy. You should be disturbed; you do not have to wait for “another day” to ask the question you don’t ask here, which is “Should I leave him?” You can start considering it now. (For what it’s worth, I think the answer should be “Yes.”)
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Q. College funds: My baby sister died by suicide after having a child. My nephew is being raised by my mother, who should have retired two years ago. I live in a different state and have been contributing monthly to my nephew’s care, including setting aside money for college. My boyfriend, “Alex,” has three children from his first marriage and they are all close in age. His ex has remarried. Alex and I have been talking about marriage, but the sticking point is the money I spend on my nephew. Alex pays child support, but I easily give more to my nephew than he does to all three kids. I also have more saved for college. Alex tells me I am “favoring” my nephew more and need to be “fair” to his kids. He takes it as a lack of commitment on my part to the role of stepmom. I feel like my back is against the wall. I love Alex’s kids, but they have two sets of grandparents, three parents, and other relatives. My nephew functionally has me. The money I send pays the light bill; my boyfriend’s goes to French tutors and horseback riding lessons.
The situation isn’t even close to fair. Alex makes more than me. It is tough to balance my bills, savings, and taking care of my family. Three other additional kids would put me in the red even if Alex and I merged our retirement funds. I know Alex is panicking because college costs are high and all three kids are most likely going to be in college at the same time, but I don’t think the answer is that I make up the difference. Does this make me a bad person?
A: No. I suppose the upside here is that Alex is making it clear before you two get married just what he expects from you financially, which means you can make an informed decision about whether you want to break up or try to find a compromise first. But you’re not a bad person for supporting your nephew or for pointing out that Alex’s kids are being financially supported by multiple adults.
The conversation that lies ahead of you is about what you think being a stepmom entails: What kind of physical and emotional support are you prepared to offer Alex’s kids? How often do you see them now, and how would you describe your relationship with them? Have you and Alex pooled any of your other finances? Do you share other bills, or save together? Have he and his ex talked about possible scholarships, community college, or other ways to defray the costs of college for their kids someday? How much money does Alex expect you to contribute to his kids’ living expenses and college funds after you’re married, and do you have that kind of money to begin with? How does Alex respond when you say things like “I get that college is expensive and that you’re feeling anxious, but I think you’re taking that anxiety out on me”? Does Alex understand himself as having any sort of reciprocal obligation toward your nephew if he marries you, or does he only focus on his own kids and your role as a future stepparent?
That last question may very well prove to be the most important one. If he can’t respect your role in your nephew’s life as that of a guardian very much like his own role toward his own kids, then I think you have bigger problems than figuring out just how much money you want to earmark for each kid.
Q. I traveled halfway across the world and now I feel defrauded: Two years ago, I began a relationship with “Elisa,” who lives in a country on the other side of the world. (I’m a woman, too.) I immediately fell for her. She caught my eye via her social media profiles, which presented her as being super extroverted, fun, and adventurous. She seemed a little more reserved in our video chats, but I just assumed that was because video chatting with someone you’ve never met in person is inherently awkward. We fell in love and agreed to meet up. I went to Elisa’s country right before lockdown and have now been quarantined with her since March.
Prudie, she’s nothing like her social media persona. She’s timid, quiet, high-strung, and generally very anxious. She is constantly trying to analyze our relationship or second-guess me. I can’t travel back to my own country because I’m stuck here due to quarantine; I have very little savings so I can’t move out on my own, and I have no friends or family here. Elisa is insisting she’s just like she presents herself on social media, but that’s patently false. I think she’s still in love with me. How in the world do I get out of this mess?
A: Don’t waste your time arguing with Elisa over whether she’s like her social media persona or not, because that’s not the issue. The issue is that you’re unhappy in this relationship and don’t want to live with her anymore, and that’s not a matter of debate. Can you get in touch with your friends and family back home and ask for help moving into your own place until you’re able to return home? Is there a country closer to home you could safely and legally move to until further travel restrictions are limited? Do you believe you could continue to live safely (if not necessarily happily) in the same apartment if you broke up with Elisa? You might also contact your local embassy (assuming your home country has an embassy in Elisa’s country) and ask for help—they probably won’t be able to help you move houses, but they might be able to point you in the direction of local resources and, in the event of an emergency, may be able to do more. It may take a few stages and a lot of assistance for you to eventually get home, but you don’t need Elisa’s permission to leave this relationship. Good luck.
Q. Single-minded: My fiancée is a doctor; we recently moved to a city where we know no one because of her residency program. She and I have dated for four years and jointly created a plan in which she’d finish up her residency (three years) and then immediately move into private practice so she could pay back her loans and we could start a family together. Supporting her emotionally throughout med school was hard on me. I hung on knowing that after these three years of residency she’d be more physically and emotionally present.
My fiancée recently announced to me that she changed her mind. She’d like to pursue a highly specialized fellowship (i.e., two more years of training after residency) and then go into academia. This means moving yet again for the fellowship, very little money coming in during those two years, and then a much lower-paying job in academia where we will be—yet again—beholden to living wherever she gets a faculty position.
Prudie, I love this woman, but I’m exhausted. I can’t handle giving up so much in our relationship only for her to deliberately choose a path that results in less location flexibility and less money for our family. It feels like she’s being selfish. I work at a nonprofit, so my salary alone definitely can’t support both of us. Am I a gold digger for being upset about this? What’s my role as a supportive partner, and what’s hers? I want to get couples counseling, but she basically lives at the hospital and all her time at home is spent eating, sleeping, or doing laundry.
A: You say you’re upset at the prospect of having another two years before you can expect your partner to be physically and emotionally present. I’m not sure where you got the idea that you might be a gold digger for feeling this way, but it seems pretty clear from your letter that money’s not your No. 1 concern here. (Plus, you already have a job of your own.) You’re frustrated and feel sidelined because your fiancée made a significant career decision that would affect both of you without talking to you about it first. Of course she’s entitled to change her mind, and she doesn’t have to give you veto power over her career decisions, but you’re also entitled to have feelings about these changes as they affect you, and to want to be informed before she’s already made up her mind.
Right now your role as a “supportive partner” is to be honest about your feelings, to figure out what you are and are not willing to compromise over, and to speak respectfully to your fiancée, even when you’re upset. Being a “supportive partner” does not mean it’s your job to get on board with this plan, or swallow your questions and objections, or never get upset just because she’s got a high-pressure job.
Q. My husband has started “nesting” in bed: My husband got laid off in the pandemic and has been in a downward spiral with his mental and physical health. He’s seeing a teletherapist who has been moderately helpful. I want to support him in getting through this really difficult time in his life.
However, he’s started doing something that drives me nuts: He spends a lot of his afternoons lying in bed watching TV and then makes a “nest” on my side of the bed. The nest is composed of food wrappers and containers, plus various small items (electronics, chargers, receipts). He says this makes him feel more comfortable because when he was growing up, the house was constantly spick-and-span, which made him feel like no one lived there or was allowed to be their full selves. My husband does generally clean up the nest before I get into bed, but there are occasionally food crumbs left behind. It grosses me out. I want to give him grace during this weird time but also … I don’t like being replaced by a nest! How can I support him while also holding the line here? Am I overreacting?
A: A few little changes might make a big difference, both in terms of making you feel like there’s room for you in the bed you share and in making your husband feel a little more at ease: a bed tray so he can eat sitting up and without getting crumbs in the bed, and a trash can and a nightstand so he can throw wrappers away instead of tossing them over to your side and have a place for all of his chargers and electronics. None of these adjustments would entail an overwhelming commitment to being spick-and-span, and will go a long way toward making you feel like the bed belongs to both of you and not just him. It’s understandable that he’s struggling to deal with being laid off in the middle of a pandemic and that he’s not up to spending every day looking for work or being massively productive. But that doesn’t mean you have to clean up his leftovers from lunch when you’re ready to go to bed at the end of the day either.
Q. Re: I traveled halfway across the world and now I feel defrauded: Prudie, you gave good advice, but you got taken for a ride! This letter is 100 percent fake and a carbon copy of a recent 90 Day Fiancé storyline.
A: I want to leave room for the possibility that either A) a participant on 90 Day Fiancé has also written to an advice columnist or B) more than one person has made the same mistake. But if I was taken in, I hope the letter writer enjoyed the experience and got whatever they wanted out of it.
Q. Crossing a line with a friend: I have a friend who has been physically distancing since March, as my husband and I have been. We are all childless. Last week she expressed to me (over Zoom) several times how much she missed intimacy, specifically sex. She and I are both cis, bi women. Before I approach her about being intimate, I want to be sure I am not taking advantage of her vulnerability or the situation. My husband and I have a very active sex life, and while I am not in need of another sexual partner, I am open to it. My husband wouldn’t be involved—not his thing. My question: Is it OK to cross this line with a friend I’ve known for almost 20 years? I’ve never done anything like this before and I don’t want to lose a good friend and I would enjoy experiencing intimacy with her. However, I don’t want anything long-term.
A: “OK” can mean a lot of different things here. It’s possible to make a (safe, respectful, semicasual) pass at a close friend, take “No, thanks” as an answer, and move on after a brief period of awkwardness. It’s also possible that your friendship might change as a result, no matter how well you both handle the situation, simply because sex and the possibility of sex can sometimes change the dynamic of a relationship. And of course, it’s also possible that you two might both be interested in sleeping together but have different understandings of what “long-term” means. I’m a little curious about your feelings here, because you don’t say much about them, aside from a fear that you’re taking advantage of a friend’s vulnerability. Are you actually attracted to her? Would you have considered making such an offer if she’d never told you that she missed intimacy due to social distancing? What I’m getting at is this: If you’re contemplating making this offer out of pity, don’t make it, especially since you’ve expressed more concern about making sure she doesn’t mistake this for something serious or ongoing than you have in sleeping with her. “I don’t need another sex partner, but I’m open to it and we’re both bisexual, so it makes sense as a mathematical formulation” isn’t much of a substitute for “I think you’re really hot, and I’d love to have sex if you’re interested.”
If there’s more to your offer than just pity, and you’ve simply excluded those details because you’re primarily worried about offending her, then you can certainly proceed with caution. Tell her your last conversation made you think about the possibility of sex and intimacy together, and ask her if she’s interested in that possibility too. If she’s not, you can back off. (She may not be into the idea at all, or she may be into the idea of sex with you but not in the context of your marriage to someone else, etc.) If she is, you can start talking about what you’re both interested in, what you’re both prepared to offer, and how you can stay on the same page when it comes to expectations and boundaries. Whatever happens as a result of that conversation, it will likely change the tenor of your friendship, at least for a while—so if your primary concern is preserving things exactly the way they are, don’t make the offer. But plenty of long-standing friendships involve brief (or not-so-brief) sexual connections, or merely an expressed interest in one; as long as you’re clear, respectful, and prepared to take no for an answer, I don’t think you have to worry that you’ll destroy a relationship of 20 years simply by acknowledging the possibility of sex.
Q. Re: My husband has started “nesting” in bed: I think the guy who is depressed and building a nest is displaying symptoms that are similar to hoarders—they like to see the stuff around them because it creates a little barrier and makes them feel safe. So I don’t think a trash can will do it. Why not put down a new kind of comfy comforter on the bed that’s just for your husband’s use while he’s watching TV? He can dump as much on it as he wants, and then when it’s time for bed, just remove that comforter and all the detritus from the bed, fold it all up, stash it in a corner of the room, and get in the nice, clean bed. The next day he can get it out to use on the bed and either keep all the other wrappers in it or toss them and start over.
A: That’s a lovely suggestion! I agree that there’s a certain strange comfort in seeing a little trash kingdom about oneself during a bout of depression or despair and don’t want to lean too hard in either direction—it’s not the healthiest coping mechanism of all time, but it doesn’t have to be. That said, I don’t want to make the letter writer feel like it’s their job to manage their husband’s coping strategies either, so I don’t want to just say “Go buy him a comforter, bed tray, trash can, and nightstand, then make sure he’s using all of them.” I want them to both be able to talk about this new habit, what’s working and what’s not, what compromises they can both live with, and how he can both ask for help when he needs it and take responsibility for keeping a shared space like a bed relatively clean.
Q. Update—Re: Furious at my parents’ real estate agent (May 5, 2020): I appreciate the comments that you and your readers provided for me a few months ago about my parents’ realtor who pressured them to sell their home. I wanted to update you about what has transpired. My parents (with my and my husband’s editorial commentary) decided to hold off selling their home for the remainder of this year. They are disheartened by this pandemic, and my father has been in need of more memory care. However, a lot of the activities (not memory care) at the senior center they were moving to have been indefinitely canceled because of the pandemic, and our state’s numbers are rising again. We believe that, though this is challenging for my parents, it is better than risking infection. We continue to offer as much support as we can from a distance and hope we can help my mother in some other ways. We just hope that my father does not begin declining rapidly in other ways during the pandemic.
A: Thanks so much for keeping us updated. I’m glad to hear you’re all relatively safe and stable at the moment and that you haven’t been forced to take unnecessary risks. Good luck. I hope your father gets all the help he needs in the meantime.
Q. My husband only knows one position in bed: In my college years, I was sexually adventurous, to say the least. In my later 20s, I found my way back to my church, and decided to start fresh and wait until marriage. I met my now-husband in my church singles’ group, and we have been married for just over a year now. He knows nothing of my sexual past; I didn’t feel it was necessarily his business, and he never asked. However, he was a virgin when we married, and there is the problem. He is really lousy in bed. I’ve tried to suggest ideas to spice things up, but he looks confused when I do. Also, when I’ve made certain suggestions as to say, positions, he asks how I’d even think of something like that, so I told him I’d read about it online, and he got worried I’d seen porn! I don’t want to tell him about my past, but I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life in missionary when there are so many other options. If I reveal too much knowledge about sexual acts we haven’t done, I’m pretty sure he’ll decide I was “used goods” and he shouldn’t have married me—are there other ways I could drop a hint, without revealing too much about my own past? 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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