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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: Hello, advice fans. Let’s get started!
Q. Can’t makeup my mind: I have a great relationship with my girlfriend, whom I’ve been dating for more than a year. Our communication is open and clear about most topics, except this one small thing. Sometimes I wish she would wear makeup on the special nights we go out, or even once in a while for the fun of it. At the same time I’m extremely reluctant to voice this desire. I know that women are expected to spend way more time and money on their appearance than men are and I don’t want to hurt her feelings or suggest that I don’t like her the way she is. I do—and at the same time I really liked when in previous relationships my partner would put on some makeup now and then. It just was a fun change of pace and it genuinely looks beautiful. I’d like my partner to try out some makeup; I know she has done it in the past but it’s very rare. How do I tactfully suggest that she wear some mascara for our next date night without sounding rude, sexist, or thoughtless? Is that even possible? Or should I just let this go and not say anything?
A: There’s a real difference between “I want you to spend a ton of extra time and money on your appearance regardless of your own feelings on the subject, lest you displease me” and “If you ever want to pick a night where we get really dressed up, I’d love it—I think make-up on a special occasion (or no special occasion) every once in a while looks beautiful,” especially when you’re prepared to take “No” for an answer. You can go a little overboard in planning your own outfit and hairstyle on that same night if she’s up for it, so the proposition isn’t “Have fun drawing the perfect cat’s-eye, I’ll be looking exactly the same as usual.” But don’t “tactfully suggest” she put on some mascara as if she’s forgotten something important, like making sure to put on shoes before she leaves the house. Be straightforward about the fact that this is something superfluous, extravagant, and nonessential that you want that she can either decline or accept, not something she should probably be doing already.
There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I like my beautiful girlfriend and I like the occasional bold lip.” You don’t have to present that as a shameful, sexist secret or evidence that you don’t really appreciate her face as is, so long as you don’t press the issue and take her at her word if she says, “I don’t find putting on makeup fun.” Also, if you’re really into makeup as something casually fun and lovely, why not consider wearing it on your own every once in a while? There are plenty of beginner’s tutorials on YouTube (and all over the internet). You can test-drive various color palettes and styles until you find ones that suit you and best bring out your eyes. Part of the fun of makeup is (or can be, at least) the flexibility and impermanence of the endeavor; you can wipe it off and start again as often as you like, even if “as often as you like” is “pretty much never.”
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Q. Wannabe mama: I want to have a baby. Like, yesterday. Honestly, I’ve been ready to have a child for a few years now but have put it off as my husband keeps pushing it off to a nebulous “soon.” I have only brought up this desire twice: once in 2017 and again last year. Both times, he hadn’t had any concrete reasons for not wanting to have a baby other than the feeling he hasn’t lived his life enough to settle down yet. Thing is, we are in our 30s. We own a home. He received an amazing promotion last year and I also do well at my job. His social activities have mainly become online gaming with friends and the occasional night out that has him in by midnight. We are no longer the social butterflies of our 20s, though he used that past as an excuse.
I am nervous to bring up the topic for a third time. It seems ridiculous to be scared to bring up the idea of having a baby with my own husband, but I don’t want to feel like I’m pressuring him. I know my own wants might be overriding some basic understanding of his objections, and I want to bring the subject up in a way that asks him exactly what he is waiting for without seeming combatant. I think I am a bit sensitive about this because throughout my childhood, my mother reminded my brother and I that we were the product of my father being selfish and she never got to “live her life” because of us. I don’t ever want my husband to feel that way, but honestly, I am nervous to run out of time to conceive naturally, as I do have some underlying health conditions that make waiting more dangerous.
Is there a way to bring up that I really want to start trying without making it seem like I am driving him into a corner? I’m sure there is an easy answer I’m overlooking in my own eagerness.
A: You’re not “driving” anyone “into a corner” by talking about children once a year with your husband. I think you’re nervous because this is something you really want, and your husband’s been evasive and vague. That makes perfect sense, but you’re so far from unfairly pressuring him that I think you should simply set that concern aside. You want to have a child, and you’ve been ready to start trying for a few years now. Your husband might experience that as a form of pressure, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re somehow treating him unfairly simply by virtue of “wanting something” and subsequently wanting to talk about that something with the man you married. You can behave ethically (by being clear about what you want, talking about your feelings, allowing him to express his, not attempting to circumvent his choices even if they conflict with yours) without assigning yourself the task of making sure your husband never feels discomfort over something as serious as possibly incompatible views on when and whether to have children.
Your mother’s “reminders” that you and your brother had kept her from truly living by virtue of being born were monstrously unloving, dehumanizing, and something no child should ever have to hear. I’m terribly sorry she said those things to you. Without trying to map your current situation directly onto your family of origin, my concern is that you’re internalizing your mother’s barbs in your new role as wife and partner: that your mere existence, and the fact of your desires, are “getting in the way” of someone else being able to live their own life, first your mother’s, and now your husband’s. But the situations are not alike. You’re not tearing your husband down, or taking out your resentments toward him on vulnerable children, or demeaning others to get your own way. You just want to talk about what you want, and you want your husband to be straight with you instead of demurring “maybe in a few years.” That’s a reasonable request, and one that’s entirely compatible with mutual love and respect.
Q. Not your dog: My ex had a “custody” arrangement with his ex-girlfriend “Chloe” about their dog. Chloe couldn’t afford her own place and her parents wouldn’t let her have pets in their home. For a year, Chloe would come by once a week to our place and take the dog out. I tolerated this because I was stupidly in love. My ex has been my ex for two months. He has moved out of state and doesn’t care about the dog or anyone else. Chloe wants to continue this. I don’t and I am tired of her tantrums. Legally, she doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on since I have paid the vet bills in the past. I have talked to the local shelter and I can surrender the dog and Chloe will have a week to claim him. If she doesn’t, I will officially adopt him. I don’t want to be cruel here. Chloe is not a bad person, but we are not friends. She has had nearly two years to get her act together. I love the dog and want to stop dealing with this.
A: If you know Chloe’s still not in a position to adopt the dog and you don’t want to be cruel, please don’t surrender him to a shelter for a week just to remind her that she can’t have him. Talk to your vet about other ways to establish and prove your ongoing ownership—you can register your dog with the county or with a local kennel club (even if you don’t plan on “showing” him), or use vet records or bills or diagnoses with your name on them as formal documentation. You’re in an unpleasant situation mostly not of your own making, and your frustration is understandable, given that you “inherited” Chloe from him and he’s left you to handle the aftermath of both her breakup with him as well as yours. And if Chloe’s weekly visits have been a hassle, you don’t have to continue them. But unless she’s really crossed a personal line, I hope you’ll consider at least the possibility of some continued contact, even if it’s only occasional, because her devotion to this dog seems real and consistent.
Q. COVID and sex: My girlfriend and I are 60-plus years old. We are both concerned about getting COVID-19. We have separate homes and practice social distancing when we do spend time together. My question has to do with sex. We do not kiss, massage, or have intercourse, oral sex, or manual sex at all now. I think we could safely use our hands to manually give each other orgasms. She thinks this could not be done safely. I think with masks and hand sanitizer we could enjoy it safely. It has been four months of abstinence and thinking of possibly a year or longer seems too long. Are there safe options to give each other orgasms?
A: It’s less a question of “safe or unsafe” and more a question of managing various degrees of risk to whatever extent you each feel comfortable and prepared to move ahead. To that end, if your girlfriend is open to the idea, you might want to schedule a teleconsultation with one of your doctors and ask questions about what types of sexual contact have lower transmission risks. There’s also the possibility of sexting, sending videos, and mutual (but separate) masturbation, but again that depends on your girlfriend’s interest. You can be frank about what risks you’re personally comfortable running without worrying you’ll sound indifferent to her concerns or totally blasé about the pandemic. But even if you make a persuasive case, if she’s still unwilling to consider the prospect of sexual contact after hearing you out, don’t try to “prove” to her that she’s wrong. It would be self-defeating to try to argue her into feeling comfortable. I hope you two are able to find some compromise that works for you both!
Q. Birthday present was unwelcome: My new girlfriend gave me an “experience”-type present, which was thoughtful and considerate. Unfortunately it involves doing something that I don’t really want to do and wouldn’t have chosen to do myself. I told her at the time that I really appreciated the gift (which is not exactly false, because I do appreciate the intent). I plan to do my best to enjoy myself, but I would rather not have to.
My question is how should I communicate with her that I don’t want presents like this in the future, without making her feel bad about the present she thoughtfully gave me? I don’t want to be churlish, but I also don’t want to just end up doing things every year for my birthday that I don’t want to do. Should I wait six months and then bring this up so I don’t implicate this present?
A: You are slightly overthinking this! It’s still a new relationship, you’re still getting to know each other, and occasionally hearing “This was so thoughtful, but I’m actually not wild about [ax-throwing venues/escape rooms] and really prefer low-impact birthday presents like a book or fancy candle” is par for the course. If it’s not an all-day affair and you think you might end up surprising yourself, it’d also be nice to try something you normally wouldn’t, just for the hell of it. If the event’s coming up soon and she won’t be able to get her money back, you can certainly stick to your plan in which case I agree it’s politer to stick to something like “Hey, if you’re looking for birthday presents, I’m really interested in X, Y, and Z” rather than “That combination spin class/Ernst Lubitsch retrospective really didn’t do it for me last year, even though you were sweet to sign us up.” But neither approach is relationship-killer material.
Q. Homeless: I own a one-bedroom condo. I have an alcove that can be turned into a semiprivate area. My sister and her layabout sons are facing eviction. My nephews are adults. They refuse to work, go to school, or do anything of note but smoke and drink. If their father wasn’t dead, he would have died of shame. I have offered to let my sister move in, but not her sons. Every conversation I have with her ends with her weeping and saying I am cruel and unjust and hateful for making her choose. How can I let my family be homeless? I love my sister and don’t know what to do.
A: I hope you’ve kept the “if he wasn’t already dead, their father would die of shame” comment to yourself, because it’s gratuitously hurtful and unnecessarily combative. You can acknowledge reality by saying, “It’s not safe, comfortable, or legal to house four adults in my one-bedroom apartment,” set your own limits, and express frustration perfectly easily without going to that particular well. But I can also understand that frustration, given your sister’s refusal to even consider the possibility of letting her grown sons support themselves or look for housing and her willful delusion that somehow the four of you might live comfortably together. You can love your sister and have real compassion for her distress without accepting her contention that you’re uniquely able to solve their housing problem. It can feel painful to hear someone you love cry without rushing to reassure them, but what she’s asking of you isn’t just undesirable—it’s a physical impossibility. Set your sights on what you can do, like offering to put her in touch with a tenants’ rights organization or helping her seek legal advice. But you don’t have to pretend to agree with her when she lashes out and tries to blame you, and you don’t have to pretend her sons aren’t adults with resources of their own, either.
Q. Blowing up my phone: I have a college classmate who is not shy about double-, triple-, quadruple-texting me and others. The texts are constant, at all times of the day or night, and are usually social media posts, photos, articles, etc. I am being bombarded with messages both individually and in group texts from this person, who is clearly not deterred when no one responds. How do I kindly ask them to stop? I would like to keep it cordial, but it drives me crazy when I check my phone and see countless notifications.
A: “Hey, you’re texting me way too much and too often. I can’t keep up with all the articles and links you send me. Can you please take me off those group threads?” is perfectly cordial, especially for a college classmate you don’t seem to know particularly well who’s not responding to indirect hints that you’re not interested in what amounts to an informal news digest service. If that doesn’t work, set him to Do Not Disturb or block his number.
Q. Get off my bandwidth: I’m a father of two teenage children. We live in a beautiful neighborhood full of kids who love playing together. In almost every regard, it is a blessing. However, I have become a grouch about something: I won’t share the Wi-Fi password with the neighborhood kids. Apparently everyone else shares their Wi-Fi passwords. But as we have been consuming more media at home, we are constantly being warned that we are reaching our data limits by our ISPs. I don’t want to add to that by allowing whoever is near my property access to our data as well. Does this make me a bad person?
A: I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that having a password-protected Wi-Fi network is the determining factor in whether a person can be “good.” It might annoy some of your neighbors, but that’s not exactly the same thing. Look on the bright side: If everyone else in the neighborhood is sharing passwords, they can’t have much need of yours. If this is the grumpiest habit you have, I don’t think you need to worry about turning into Ebenezer Scrooge.
Q. Re: Can’t makeup my mind: Never, ever, ever tell your partner you want to see her in makeup. You will do nothing but hurt her feelings, make her doubt how attracted to her you are, and make yourself look like an ass.
A: One vote against, and worth considering! I’m not prepared to guarantee that this request will only hurt her feelings or convince her that her partner’s not attracted to her, but it’s also true that no matter how noncommittally the letter writer frames his request, it doesn’t take place in a cultural or social vacuum, and their partner may very well be burned out on other people’s requests and opinions and preferences when it comes to makeup, especially from men they’re dating.
Q. Re: Wannabe mama: Oh, for heaven’s sake, you want a baby! There’s nothing wrong with that. If your hubby really wanted to have kids I think he would have said something by now. Seems like he’d rather game and go out with you once in a while than raise a child. You should be able to bring this up more often. You are in your 30s. What if he tells you once again he’s not ready? Are you going to let go of the idea because he either doesn’t really want kids or is in no hurry to do so? Just ask him today and judge his reaction for yourself. I would also insist on a timeline. If he puts you off again, I think you have your answer.
A: I agree it doesn’t seem likely his response is going to be “OK, I guess you’re really serious about this, so let’s start trying right away.” But avoiding a conversation because you’re afraid of the response only perpetuates the problem, and if this is a deal-breaker for the letter writer, it’s important to push for clarity so she can start thinking about what other options she might want to pursue.
Q. My 15-year-old daughter has started having sex: Over the weekend, during a heated argument with my 15-year-old daughter, I found out that she and her boyfriend of a year have recently started having sex. I had suspected this, and, to her credit, when I asked she said yes without hesitation. I spent many years talking with her about choices and trying to develop an open relationship. We are seeing her doctor to discuss birth control and talk about reproductive health. On paper, I’ve done all the right things. But I am devastated! I feel pained that she didn’t come to me first, sad that she made this choice so young, and afraid that something horrible will happen. I’m sure this is a normal reaction but how can I move on? How do I make her understand that even though I know she is having sex, and even though I have taken her to see a doctor, that I’m not OK with her having sex? What discussion is appropriate for her dad and me to have with the boyfriend? Clearly lying in bed weeping is not the answer. Read what Prudie had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.