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! Ready or not, it’s time to advise. Let’s get started.
Q. Intense mother: My mother is a very intense person. She’s passionately angry about the state of our country (I am too, for the record!) and she can’t talk about anything else. Everything is negative. Everything is outrage. And of course, she isn’t doing anything to improve the situation like volunteering or donating money. She’s just angry and yelling into the void constantly.
I can hardly stand to have a conversation with her anymore because it’s always about politics, it’s always very intense, and it always stresses me out. If I try to chime in with some more nuanced thoughts about the problem in a calm voice, she thinks I’m being condescending. I’m at my wit’s end and our relationship is terrible these days. How do I improve communication with my mother?
A: The one upside to having an already terrible relationship is that you’ll lose some of the fear of “disrupting the peace” that stops so many people from speaking up. Given that your mother has experienced previous attempts to indirectly guide her out of anger as condescension, I think open and honest statements will serve you much better. You can acknowledge that you share her anger and concern, that you’re not asking her to stop caring or to cultivate indifference, but just that you want to talk about something you enjoy, something you’re interested in, something that’s going well, etc. You don’t have to do so in the same moment your mother is complaining (she might well feel like she’s being frog-marched into a Positivity Recital, and kick), but since this has been going on for such a long time, you have sufficient reason to bring it up before she goes on her next rant.
I don’t think you need to introduce the possibility of volunteering or joining a cause just yet; sometimes change comes hard to the “very intense” and it’s better to start small and work your way up. If she’s totally unwilling and all you get out of the conversation is a resolution to cut future conversations short after you’ve handled all the venting that you can, that’s still a victory. Even if your mother never wants to change the subject, you’ll at least have made it clear that you have a limit, and you’ll tell her in the future when she’s reached it. That may seem like a relatively unambitious goal when your hope is to improve communications with your mother, but baby steps are still steps. Saying, “Being angry on the phone together all the time isn’t the same thing as meaningful action, and I’m not always available for it” might go a long way toward bigger changes further down the road.
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Q. Open relationship pains: I met a wonderful man. It started out as a friends-with-benefits sort of thing, and I knew from the start he was married. We both eventually fell head over heels for each other. His wife knows, but it is becoming more and more difficult to watch him go home each time. My heart breaks, and he knows how this affects me. He has stated that life at home is hell due to the wife being a 30-year-old brat. She is lazy, spends money like water, never cleans, and rarely gives him sex. I have done more for him in 10 months than she has in six years!
I love him so much. I am also a trans woman. Before my transition, I’d have never put myself in this situation. I want him all to myself, but I’d never push him to make a choice, even though I know he is miserable with her and worried about what she can take if he divorces her. Do I continue my love, or tell him I will wait for him to get a divorce? I know he loves me more, but I’m frightened of what others may think.
A: For whatever it’s worth, I’ve never once heard someone sleeping with a married man say, “According to him, his wife is terrific—just an all-around great woman.” All of these men, without exception, complain to their mistresses about their wives’ defects even though there’s absolutely nothing she can do about it. The point, of course, is to make himself the object of pity to whomever he’s trying to sleep with. “Look at what he puts up with at home! He’s practically a saint! It’s no wonder he’s with me—she’s practically driven him into my arms, which means their marriage was already long over before I got here, and it’s merely a matter of form that they aren’t divorced yet.”
But as you listen to him recount once more what a jerk his wife is, do you ever wonder to yourself, “Why is he telling me this, and not her?” Why is your response, upon hearing this sob story, to swell with pride that you’ve done “more” for this guy than some woman you’ve never met, instead of wondering what it says about your boyfriend that he married a “brat” and avoids conflict with her at all costs? And do you really want to be with someone whose vision for his romantic partners is apparently limited to, “Move around a lot, clean the house, and provide me with sex?”
You say that you’d never put yourself in this position before you transitioned. I want to gently encourage you to expect more for yourself, even if it feels risky or vulnerable not to settle. This guy apparently knows how heartbroken you feel, is perfectly aware of how much his split attention affects you, and hasn’t said or done anything that suggests he plans on ever getting divorced. I think you can, and should, expect better from your partners—even if you’re just “friends with benefits,” you still deserve respect, honesty, and care.
Q. My dad’s email: My father recently sent an email to me, members of his immediate and extended family, and an unknown number of other contacts, in which he shared a joke he heard about my sister-in-law’s obesity—and then capped off the email by attaching a particularly unflattering picture of her. Obviously, this was disgusting and cruel. My father seems to partially realize this—about a day later I received a note profusely apologizing for the email and the disrespect to my sister-in-law. I say “partially” here because in the time since then, he has spent far more time complaining about the ungracious responses he’s received to his apology than he has discussing the work he’s going to do to ensure he doesn’t make such a hurtful decision again.
My dilemma now is whether to say anything to her about it. I don’t think she’s yet aware that this happened. I think I should tell her on principle: If somebody in my life spoke about me that way, I would want to know. While they’re not particularly close, they live in the same town and still see each other regularly. I’m also worried it’s going to come out eventually. I have no idea how many people my father sent this email to, but I know it was more than one or two. It seems inevitable that it will come out at some point—and if that point comes, she might feel betrayed by everyone who knew and didn’t say anything.
But I worry about the hurt this will cause. It will surely be painful for my sister-in-law to realize that she can’t trust her father-in-law, it will certainly put my brother in a painful position as he defends his wife against his father, and it is likely to impact the relationship their kids have with their grandpa. I think if it were me, the hurt would be worth it to know the truth, but I worry about making that decision for somebody else. And I can’t think of a good way to hypothetically ask her what she would want without making it all just worse. What’s the right thing to do here?
A: I think you’re very much on the right track. The odds that your sister-in-law is going to find out what your father said about her are extremely high—which means the hurt is inevitable. I don’t think there’s anything you can do to protect her from that hurt. As painful as that may be to acknowledge, at least it frees you from the fear of being “responsible” for hurting her. It’s a question of when, not if, and the one gift you can give her is to minimize the amount of time she realizes her other friends and relatives knew about this email but kept her in the dark. But you can balance truth with tactfulness—don’t give her more details or direct quotes that might rattle around in her brain permanently. Just give her the gist: That your father sent a cruel joke and a picture of her to you and several others, that you’ve subsequently spoken to him about it and he seems more frustrated that his joke was received badly than truly contrite about his cruelty, and that she cannot trust him. You should also make it clear you’re willing to have uncomfortable conversations with your father in order to support her and correct him. Let her know that you’re here for her, even if all she decides what she needs is to be left alone.
Q. Losing my friends to my bump: I found out I was pregnant during lockdown and my partner and I are super excited. We’ve been married for six years, I’m in my early 30s, and I’m definitely ready.
However, most—actually all—of my friends and the acquaintances I’ve known the longest (since college) are single or in newer relationships. None of them are anywhere near starting a family, and most of them, like me, are just getting stuck into a career. I’ve noticed that when we meet up as a group on Zoom or are just chatting, someone asks how the pregnancy is going on, but it feels a little forced, like they feel they have to, and there’s never any response to my reply. The conversation is effectively over.
I can’t moan about work anymore or even go out for a drink, and I’m increasingly too tired for late-night Zoom meetings or meeting up for outdoor activities. I’m feeling more and more isolated and although I know this often happens to women when they are pregnant and their friends aren’t, there aren’t any prenatal classes running in my area because of lockdown, so I’ve not been able to meet any other expectant moms. I’m afraid of being even more isolated as this pregnancy goes on, but I don’t feel I can raise this with my friends because it feels like I’m blaming them for their inability to engage with my new phase in life, which is something that clearly makes them uncomfortable already. I also don’t want to make the whole group feel that they need to accommodate my new needs. Any advice on how I can have my baby and still have my friends?
A: I think the best way to speak to your friends about this is to have these conversations individually, rather than in a group setting, as you’ve tried in the past. Tell them you’re feeling a little lonely, that it would mean a lot to you if you could periodically set aside time to vent or otherwise talk about your pregnancy, or plan a remote event that’s geared toward your new needs. And if they’re receptive, I think it’s a good idea to say something like, “I’ve been worried to bring any of this up, because I don’t want anyone to feel like I want our entire dynamic to change so that it revolves around me. But getting pregnant has already changed my life in significant ways, and I don’t want to pretend that it hasn’t.” Your friends, by virtue of the fact that none of them have had children, are probably looking to you for some direction, which means you don’t have to take their initial silence or uncertainty as definitive proof that they don’t care. They just don’t know what to do! And, of course, you’re doing this for the first time, and it’s not like you’re an expert in how to navigate these changing dynamics, either.
I wonder if you might search for remote/online-only prenatal classes in your neighborhood, so that you can at least start to develop text-based relationships with other expectant parents, in the hopes that you might be able to meet in person in the future. It’s not the same as meeting for a class together in-person, but even really imperfect, limited connections with other parents will be better than none.
Q. Un-move in: My partner and I have been together for about a year and a half, and we moved in together shortly after we started dating. We got engaged in the early part of 2020. However, the pandemic has made it so we spend most of our time together—way more than we already were. We go almost full weeks with just each other. We share meals, unwinding time, workouts, and many of the same friends. It has gotten to the point where we can feel each other getting annoyed and frustrated at each other for small things. We have had many conversations about trying to give each other more space, but with such limited options for where we can go because of the pandemic, it’s easy for us to get complacent and just continue our routine, which inevitably continues the cycle of annoyance.
Recently, we decided to spend a few nights apart, with one of us going to stay at a parent’s house a few hours away. We both felt good about this time apart. In fact, my partner felt so good that she suggested she move out and get her own place, but that we still stay together. I am not opposed to this, but I guess the deep insecurities in me are worried that this might create distance between us or lead to our demise as a couple. Should my partner and I un-move in together?
A: It’s a viable option, although establishing separate households and a relatively safe daily routine in the middle of a pandemic will likely involve a number of limitations on its own. I don’t know if you could both afford to live alone in your city, but if either of you gets roommates (or moves in with relatives), you’ll have to start taking their individual risk/exposure levels into account, which might dramatically decrease how much time you’re able to spend together. Obviously you’re both looking for time apart, but it’s certainly possible to overcorrect here. If it’s easy to “get complacent” about falling back into your daily routine, I wonder if automating “alone time” (setting an alarm on your phone to denote when it begins and ends, for example) might make things easier. It might feel a little goofy and artificial at first, but the more automatic the habit, the less willpower it requires, and the easier it becomes to stick to a new schedule.
But if you can afford to do so, and you can find ways to safely move from one place to another without putting others at risk, and you both want to live apart for a while—yes, go for it! It doesn’t mean you then have to break up, or that you don’t really care about each other. It’s incredibly difficult to live in such intensely close, uninterrupted quarters with another person for so long, no matter how much you love them. Good luck!
Q. Traveling wife: My wife travels to New York City for business quite frequently (at least before the pandemic). We have had some minor trust issues after I caught her talking with an ex-boyfriend years ago. But when she goes to NYC for business, it’s like she is going on spring break. There is always a ton of booze and partying. I ask for her to call me in the evenings, but she looks for every excuse not to call. On one trip, she didn’t call and couldn’t remember any details of when she got to her room for the night. Whenever I call her, she gets really mad and hangs up. And, after one trip, she got bacterial vaginosis, which while technically not an STI, can be triggered by sex. She started to ask me if I wanted to smoke weed and have sex, because according to her, it makes for great sex (we aren’t normally weed smokers), and then I found out that she was going to NYC with her weed-vaping pen (which I didn’t know she had). On a recent trip, she told me at 5 p.m. that her phone was running out of charge, and it turned out to be a complete lie. Nevertheless, she denies cheating and just claims that I should mind my business. What is your take on this? I think my wife is on the prowl for sex while on business trips and I am tired about her gaslighting me over the same.
A: My take is that yes, your wife is looking for sex while she’s on business trips. I’m not sure what else you want from me in the way of advice, but you should figure out what you want to do in light of the fact that your wife has been cheating on you on business trips. Do you want to leave her? You’re allowed to do so, and you don’t have to wait for her to admit what you already know in order to act. If you want to stay with her, you can either decide to turn a blind eye on future trips, or take advantage of the artificial respite the pandemic has provided you with and insist on seeing a couples counselor together. Don’t get stuck in the trap of demanding she “admit” to anything, since she’s made it pretty clear she’s not going to. You have plenty to discuss even if she continues to pretend nothing’s happening: When she goes on business trips, she becomes bizarrely angry with you, avoids speaking to you, and doesn’t keep her promises. Even if she weren’t sleeping with other people, that’s still painful and bewildering, and a real violation of trust.
Q. Re: Intense mother: Use your words. “Mom, I am not going to talk politics with you; it stresses me out. I realize that politics aggravates you, but I cannot help you with this any longer. I will talk about almost anything else, but if you start talking about politics, I’ll put the phone down or stop texting with you.” Then do it. It will be hard and she will get angry and that will be stressful as well. But if you calmly and consistently follow through, there is at least the chance that she will finally stop. You know your current course of action is not working, so what do you have to lose?
A: I agree that the goal needs to be “Making sure I cut the conversation short if/when she tries to monopolize it to yell again” rather than “Convince my mother to agree that this is a problem.” I don’t want to push the letter writer to start off by making the topic totally off-limits—it seems reasonable that their mother might have real, significant reasons to want to talk about the state of the world in the middle of a pandemic and an election year—but certainly, set a time limit, make it relatively brief, and be firm about maintaining it.
Q. Brother’s abusive girlfriend: My brother just told me that his most recent girlfriend was very abusive, physically and emotionally. He has decided to get back together with her and I don’t want her around. Is it OK to set boundaries saying I don’t want her at gatherings? I don’t want to alienate my brother but I know it’s not a healthy choice and I wish more boundaries were made clear years ago when I was in an abusive relationship myself. I don’t believe it’s healthy to say “whatever makes you happy.” What should I do?
A: I agree you can’t just say “As long as you’re happy” to your brother when you know his girlfriend has abused him, but it’s vital that you maintain some sort of connection with him, if such a connection is possible, so that he knows he can rely on you when he’s ready to leave again. You likely know that it often takes multiple tries for someone to leave an abusive relationship for good, and if you have a sense of what obstacles might be in your brother’s way, offer whatever help you can to minimize them. You can, I think, remain loving and compassionate toward him while also making it clear that you can’t just socialize with his abuser as if nothing’s wrong. It may be difficult to hold that boundary while also making it clear you’re not making him responsible for her behavior, but I believe it’s possible. If you can try to arrange for a regular one-on-one phone call, or the occasional walk or coffee date that’s just the two of you, please do—anything that leaves the lines of communication open.
Q. Re: Intense mother: We had this problem with our parent and George Bush (it seems quaint now). We agreed with her but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. My solution was to tell everyone that while I agreed with them 100 percent, politics are off-limits conversationally. If she brought it up, I would endure a few sentences before saying: “I know, I agree, but we have to talk about something else.” The family went along with this and we enjoyed many conversations about anything else. Recently, my sister, who accepted my injunction when I was present, told me that my policy was right for her. Getting overwhelmed by rage doesn’t help anyone even when you all agree.
A: One of the weird side effects of committing yourself to indignation-as-praxis is that the mere idea of experiencing a moment of peaceful neutrality feels like giving up, as if somehow your feelings of tension and anger were productive. They’re not! They’re simply feelings, which may or may not push you to useful action. Being angry all the time is exhausting and unpleasant, both for the always-angry party and for the people who have to live with them.
Q. Dating the nanny: Over Christmas my ex-husband Matt confessed his love for Maggie, the nanny we hired shortly after our divorce. Maggie worked for us for three years, until she graduated in June. Our kids adore her. I came to trust and love her. Matt tells me they slept together twice before June and “battled some powerful feelings” for one another before that. They began dating in June, and now he could see himself marrying her someday. I feel like Matt kicked me in the stomach. I cannot imagine watching him and Maggie as a couple. In fact, I never want her around my kids again. At the same time, I know Maggie loves our kids. And Matt seems to genuinely love her. I’m happily remarried, and I don’t want him to be lonely. I’m just not sure I can overcome the sense of betrayal I feel. My sister pointed out that I couldn’t ask for a better woman to be around my kids, but I feel like all the good things I knew about Maggie are false. Can you give me some advice? Am I being too hard on them? 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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