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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. My good friends want to bang my husband: I’m 49, and my husband, Quinn, is 42. I love the way I look and the way I’ve aged, so I don’t say the following to be self-deprecating: Quinn is breathtakingly gorgeous and has only grown more handsome with age. Women and men are drawn to him, and I can’t fault them for taste. Most people are respectful about it, but there have been a number of people over the years who’ve either believed I wasn’t good-looking enough for Quinn or that he would cheat on me (possibly with them). Those experiences bothered us both, but we love and trust each other, and it’s easy to move on from them. Seventeen years and three kids in, I don’t think about the so-called discrepancy between our looks unless someone calls my attention to it.
Recently, Anna, a good friend whom I met through our daughters’ school, texted me screenshots of a conversation between her and Bridget and Rita, two other good friends. Bridget and Rita spoke very graphically about what they’d like to do to Quinn and said some really unkind things about me. She said she thought I should know what was being said behind my back. I was shocked and haven’t replied to her.
I’m really sad that my friendship with Bridget and Rita wasn’t genuine. Our daughters are friends, and we facilitate Skype play dates each week, so I’m not sure what to say to them or whether our kids should play together anymore. I’m also angry about how they talked about Quinn like a slab of meat. And a small part of me that I hate most of all feels shame about the things Bridget and Rita said about me, which is what’s kept me from showing Quinn the messages. I like myself a lot, and it feels so stupid that I’ve let two mean girls affect that and make me feel embarrassed to confide in my husband. This has shaken me, and I want to start moving forward. What should I do?
A: Anna’s approach leaves a lot to be desired: She didn’t ask if you wanted to hear about this sort of thing or even paraphrase the conversation so you could get the gist without having to read particularly cruel remarks about your looks. She may have meant well (or she may have wanted to stir the pot), but there was no sensitivity or tact in how she brought this to your attention.
I’m not surprised you haven’t been able to formulate a response. It’s not stupid to feel hurt when you learn people you thought of as friends say hurtful things! You don’t have to share this with your husband or anyone else if you don’t want to; if deleting the screenshots give you some peace of mind and you simply want to ignore it as idle and mean-spirited gossip (rather than a calculated statement of intent to try to seduce your husband), you certainly can. But it might help to share at least the outline of what you’ve learned with Quinn, if only so you two can figure out how to manage remote play dates in the future. I don’t know if your kids require full-time supervision on their Skype play dates, but if your goal is to prioritize the kids’ relationships with one another, it might be possible to keep your own on-screen presence to a minimum and give the kids headphones so they can chat and play with at least a modicum of separation.
You can also just tell Bridget and Rita that you know what they said about you and Quinn, that you’re hurt, and that you’d rather not discuss anything non-essential or non-kid-related with them in the future. If that prospect feels embarrassing, don’t do it, but it might be a relief to acknowledge reality and let them take on the discomfort rather than carrying it all yourself. You can do so politely and coolly, and you don’t have to get drawn into a conversation where they offer justifications or scramble to get you to forgive them afterward. But it is an option.
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Q. I think my sister is being catfished! My younger sister is in her late 20s, and while under quarantine she connected with a man via a dating app. This is her first real relationship, and she seems genuinely happy. He lives on the other side of the country, so the relationship was progressing slowly until my sister recently told me she plans to fly out and visit him in a few weeks. Aside from the obvious health concerns about air travel, our mother is extremely concerned about my sister traveling cross country alone to meet someone she barely knows, and has voiced these concerns to the point my sister won’t speak to her on the subject. I was less concerned (meeting a significant other online doesn’t seem that unusual to me), so my sister has been more open with me about the relationship.
Although normally I’d never meddle, I did do a cursory search to verify the basic details she’s told me, and this man appears to have no online footprint whatsoever. She claims this is due to his time in the military, but I find it tough to believe that there are no records to verify the basic details he’s told her (name, location, employment, etc.). I know it’s statistically unlikely that he’s a dangerous person, and I’d risk damaging my relationship with my sister by pressing, as I know she receives any questioning of this man as a judgment of her lovability. She’s an adult and I know she’ll make this decision for herself, but I’m genuinely concerned for her safety in traveling across the country alone without ever having verified this guy is who he claims he is. What should I do?
A: You’re right to want to proceed carefully, since the last thing you want is to produce a defensive reaction that might lead her to act rashly. Not having an online presence is unusual—not as unusual or worrying say, as “not having an online presence and suddenly asking her for a lot of money”—but your concerns both for the risk of flying cross-country during a pandemic and for her safety visiting a man she’s never met before are legitimate. You may not be able to persuade her to indefinitely postpone her visit, but if you make it clear your goal isn’t to talk her out of anything but to minimize her risks and set up some basic, low-level check-ins for your own peace of mind, I think there’s a chance you can get somewhere.
Start by reassuring her that you won’t share anything you two discuss with your mother. Ask if she’s comfortable either sharing his address with you or a trusted friend and, if she’s willing, to call to check in after she arrives and once or twice during her visit so you know she’s all right—not so often that she feels like she has to provide constant updates to a remote babysitter. But it’s not unusual to let a friend know your general whereabouts when traveling, and it doesn’t necessarily suggest an oppositional relationship to her potential boyfriend, just common-sense traveling and first-date protocol. If that suggestion goes over well, you can ask if he’s interested in “meeting” you for a few minutes during their next phone or video call. Stress that you’re not going to interrogate him or give him a hard time; you’d just like to say hello and get to know him a bit better. Ideally, your sister would reconsider non-essential (as essential as affairs of the heart can be!) cross-country travel right now, but if her mind is made up, there’s not much you can do about it, aside from encouraging her to mask up, have a frank conversation with her boyfriend-to-be about COVID testing and quarantining before and after their trip, and wash her hands carefully and often.
Q. Mom’s the word: I happen to have been incredibly blessed in the parenting department. Not only was I born to a mother who is one of my very favorite people, but I was also fortunate enough to end up with an AMAZING mother-in-law, Barb. Barb is kind, accepting, warm, and genuinely happy to have me around. She always includes me and makes sure I know I’m part of the family. Everything was great—until this March. As we were all chatting at a family dinner, Barb threw out a very kind statement saying I could just call her “Mom” like her other girls. Then the awkward silence fell. I’m not proud of it, but as soon as my sister-in-law entered the room, I fled. Shortly after that night, COVID happened and we haven’t really had a reason to talk about it. Still, I know it will come up eventually.
The problem is, I don’t really want to call her “Mom.” I know it’s probably silly to be bothered by it, but I’ve always felt like that title is something reserved for my own mother. The one who raised me and sacrificed and did everything for me. It’s not that I don’t love Barb; I do. And it’s not even that I think my mom would ever make any sort of fuss over it—she never would. But I worry that it would hurt my mom in some way that she would never tell me, and beyond that, I think it would never really feel comfortable to me. The last thing I want to do is hurt Barb’s feelings. Is there any tactful way to get around this? I want her to know how much I love and appreciate her; I just would rather it not involve the word mom.
A: You’re doing great; you clearly adore your mother-in-law, and I think that much will be obvious whenever you speak to her. It sounds like she wasn’t making a request or demand so much as letting you know the option was available if you ever wanted it, so it’s likely she’ll be gracious as usual when you do bring it up: “I’m sorry I haven’t brought this up sooner, because I never got a chance to respond to that kind offer you made back in March to call you ‘Mom’ like the rest of the kids. It was such a generous thing to say, and very typical of the way you’ve always made me feel so welcome in the family. I’m afraid I can’t take you up on it, because it’s a word I’ve always reserved for my mother, but I wanted to thank you for offering it. I hope you know how much I cherish our relationship and how happy I am to be part of your family.”
Q. Do I have to share? My husband recently took Ambien, disappeared in the night, and totaled his car. Now he wants to use my car whenever he needs to go somewhere, and I don’t want to let him. I work, my husband doesn’t—therefore I pay for the car and he doesn’t. If something happens to my car, I cannot afford to replace it.
I know marriage is about sharing everything, but I don’t trust him and don’t find the setup fair. He thinks I am being irrational and unfair to him. For context, he has proved himself untrustworthy. Earlier this year, he spent all our stimulus money on a secret drug problem and thought I should brush it under the rug because it was “in the past now.” At this point, I don’t like him very much and don’t want to share my car. Do I have to?
A: No, you don’t have to—in fact I think you shouldn’t—but your marriage is facing much bigger problems than a car, and I hope you don’t consider the matter closed once you tell him he can’t borrow yours. (The idea that your husband could hear “No, you can’t borrow my car, because you just totaled yours while you were blacked out on Ambien” and respond, “Well, that’s just irrational,” is really stunning.) Do you have a bank account he can’t access, in case he tries to spend your money on his habit? Have you been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or talked about your concerns with any of your friends or relatives, so you’re not going through this alone? Have you considered talking to a lawyer so you know how to protect yourself and your assets if you have to file for divorce? Is your husband open to going into treatment?
For what it’s worth, I don’t think marriage is about “sharing everything,” especially when your husband’s definition of sharing seems to be “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine too, once I’ve run through mine.” It can be about sharing a great many things, but that sharing is contingent on honesty and mutual trust, not just handing everything over when your partner demands it.
Q. Late paintings: My late husband lost his first wife in a tragic accident when they were young. She was a talented artist and did several lovely semi-abstract self-portraits. I adore the paintings and have them displayed all over my home. Recently, I had family over and one of them asked about the origins of a painting. I told the truth. Apparently I had never mentioned this to my sisters—they’d assumed the paintings were of me. (We are both brunettes.) Since then I have been forced to endure conversation after conversation with them about their “concerns.” They are picking apart my marriage with my late husband, my mental health, and why I “need” the paintings.
I enjoy the paintings because they are pretty. I am not so insecure as to be jealous of a girl decades dead, and I find the idea personally insulting that my late husband tried to use me as a “replacement.” I loved him. He loved me. We were happy together before he died. At this point, I am ready to dig in and “discuss” my sisters’ marriages (both are divorced) and see how they like it. But one of their suggestions sticks out: The paintings should go back to the family; it is “wrong” of me to keep them. I did look up the family. The parents are still alive and several of the siblings are as well. Should I offer the paintings back? Is it ethical to keep them now? I have no emotional ties to the paintings beyond their beauty.
A: I think you can safely dismiss any of your sisters’ “suggestions.” Their motives are pretty obvious. It would be generous and kind if you wanted to reach out to this woman’s relatives and ask if they’d like to have one of them, but you’re under no ethical obligation to do so, and you don’t need to offer your entire collection. You have no reason to think they lack reminders of her; it’s likely they already have some of her other self-portraits. I’m tempted to encourage you to “discuss” your sisters’ marriages in turn, but that tactic has a pretty high backfire rate. (The Prudence archive has the letters to prove it.) You’re better off just telling them that they sound absurd and declining to “endure” any more conversations on the subject.
Q. Obligation to our employee: My husband owns a small business and has been running it from home during the pandemic. Early on the business took a financial hit, and he had to lay off his longtime assistant. We were able to provide her with a generous severance package, but it was still sad and weighed heavily on my husband because she had been with the company for years.
Since he has been working without an assistant, my husband has asked me to take on some of those duties—mainly scheduling, sending emails, etc. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and our kids are not yet school-age, so we aren’t yet tasked with managing schooling. And I really don’t mind doing it! It doesn’t seem unreasonable to help him out, as he is very good about sharing the household and parenting load with me. It has actually improved our relationship in some ways because I feel more involved in the business and can relate to what he deals with on a daily basis.
The issue is that the company is now doing much better and he could feasibly rehire his assistant. I would be happy to keep doing the tasks to save the company money, but do we owe it to the former employee to bring her back on? I’m not sure if she’s found a new job yet, and I feel guilty thinking that I’m taking away someone’s livelihood.
A: The company doesn’t need to save money in the same way it did earlier this year, and you say you “don’t mind” it and the work “doesn’t seem unreasonable.” But just because you’ve been happy to help out doesn’t mean it’s best practices for the CEO to have an unpaid, ad hoc assistant going forward. Feeling more involved in your husband’s life is great, but you’re not going to lose this new awareness of what his workday entails, and his professional relationship with his former assistant is one of long standing. Even if she’s found another job in the meantime and the business have to look for someone else, at some point your situation’s going to become untenable. This was originally a full-time, paying job for a reason.
Q. Re: I think my sister is being catfished! I think there is some reason to be concerned for your sister, but I have NO info online and I’m a normal person. I don’t have a Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, nada. I also made sure my home address wasn’t easy to find online when I bought my house. My spouse couldn’t be found online until recently when he got a big promotion and the article could be easily found on the web. So it’s feasible for someone to not have an online profile.
A: I agree that by itself it’s not necessarily a major cause for concern. The real issue isn’t that he doesn’t have a social media presence but that the letter writer doesn’t seem to know much about him, aside from the fact that their sister’s wild about him. So rather than saying, “This guy doesn’t have a Facebook page, which makes me suspicious,” I think they’ll have better luck saying something like “I’d love to know a little bit more about him” and encouraging their sister to say more about their relationship, things they have in common, what it’s been like getting to know him, etc. They can easily frame it as genuine interest (I think it is genuine interest) rather than a game of 20 Questions, at the end of which they’ll inform their sister whether she should date him.
Q. Re: Mom’s the word: Barb saying you “could” call her “Mom” was not saying that you must or she will be offended. It was simply an offer that you can accept or decline. Just keep calling her Barb and being as kind and open toward her as you used to be. Don’t make this a big deal and it won’t be.
A: I think that’s right! I can also see why the letter writer felt flustered, because it can sometimes feel difficult to say “No” to a kind offer from someone you care about, and it’s not the sort of question one gets asked a lot, so you can’t really practice or prepare for it. But all signs indicate that Barb is not going to press the issue or get offended when the letter writer says no (especially since the letter writer has, in effect, already said no by continuing to call her Barb, which they’ve presumably been doing since March anyway).
Q. Re: I think my sister is being catfished! “She claims this is due to his time in the military, but I find it tough to believe that there are no records to verify the basic details he’s told her (name, location, employment, etc.).” Prudie, this is a huge red flag. This has almost no basis in truth. She does not need to fly cross-country to meet someone who she cannot verify any information about. She is probably being catfished, or this is something more dangerous. Having spent my entire adult life working in and for the military, this excuse does not hold up. The number of people who keep no online presence due to requirements from the military is vanishingly small.
A: It’s worth including a skeptical read of this letter, although I don’t think I’m willing to call it a red flag just yet, because I’m not sure how exactly the letter writer’s sister framed the military exception. Maybe he meant it led to an increased interest in online privacy, or that he didn’t have the time to set up an Instagram account, or something else. Nor does it sound like he’s been making grandiose, impossible-to-verify claims, so I think watchful curiosity, rather than outright suspicion, is the best approach for now. If the letter writer learns something that does concern them, or if the sister’s boyfriend treats common getting-to-know-you questions as hostile intrusions, then they can reevaluate that approach.
Q. My brother-in-law came on to me, but no one will believe it: My husband’s sister “Beth,” her husband “Eric,” and their 2-year-old daughter recently came into town. Eric and I have never seen eye-to-eye, but we are civil. After hosting a big family party in our sun room, everyone went to bed. Eric offered to help me clean up, which I agreed to. Initially, he complimented my outfit and hair, which I thanked him for. Then, he implied that Beth no longer has sex with him. I wasn’t positive if that was what he meant, so I chose not to say anything further. That was when he mentioned that he had always thought that I was beautiful, then laughed as he mentioned that “no one” would hear us if we had sex together out in the sun room. Thinking that he was drunk, I said, “Well, we’re both married, and your wife is probably waiting for you in the guest room.” He answered, “I’ve already had to have a little fun on the side.” I turned around to leave and found him standing with everything on display. I didn’t say anything, just hurried into the house and went to bed. I avoided them until they left, then asked my husband what he and Eric drank; he told me that Eric was completely sober. I didn’t mention what happened. While I know my husband would side with me if I came forward, I know it could rip him apart from the rest of the family. But I’m also scared that if I keep quiet, Eric might tell the family that I came on to him, which could be even more damaging. What should I do? 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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