Dear Prudence

Help! I Can’t Finish My Ph.D. Because My Wife Can’t Handle the Kids on Her Own.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

A woman with her head down with two girls playing in the background, a person's hands typing on a laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Prostock-Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus and fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Danny Lavery: Happy noon, or whatever happy o’clock is time zone–accurate for you. Let’s chat!

Q. Selfishly generous: I’m a father of two. I work and I’m in a Ph.D. program, but my wife is making it difficult. She’s a fantastic person, but she’s a busy-on-purpose type and absolutely refuses to give me time to finish my dissertation. For example, she makes elaborate meals and gets too exhausted to clean up. She takes a full-on bath with the kids every single night. She plans extravagant weekend activities like planting raspberry bushes, but then gets overwhelmed and needs help. Our baby’s first birthday party went from “lunch and cake with grandma” to an all-day griddle party with potstickers, pancakes, and all of her siblings plus their partners.

I have splitting headaches several times a week because I end up working late into the night after dealing with her time vampirism all day. I’ve tried to talk to her, but she gets really upset because she’s doing it for the kids. The kids are really happy, but it’s just too much. I offered to drop out because I’m making great money, but she hated that idea. I feel like I have no choice but to quit school against her wishes or file for divorce. I think I’m only asking because I’m afraid those really are the only options, but … do you have any ideas?

A: I think you have a few more options than those two, thankfully! For starters, even if you’re extremely frustrated, I’d caution against using a phrase like “time vampirism” to describe something like your wife being overwhelmed by home improvement projects. Whether “time vampirism” can sometimes be a useful descriptor of other people or (as I suspect) has more to do with the speaker’s inability to say “no” in the face of someone else’s distress is rather besides the point—this woman is your wife, not a difficult co-worker, and thinking of her as a vampire is not going to help your marriage any.

I wonder what you think your wife is capable of when you say she doesn’t “give [you] time” for your dissertation. Of course you both have to be present for the kids in one form or another throughout the day, and much of that may be non-negotiable—but “these raspberry bushes are more labor-intensive than I realized” is hardly a crisis requiring you to drop work and rearrange your entire afternoon.

It’s relevant, I think, that you can’t think of a response in between “drop everything when my wife gets in over her head” and “divorce her or quit school”—the idea of staying together but negotiating your way through low-level (but perhaps frequent, at least at first) conflict seems unimaginable. Dropping an important conversation because your wife “gets really upset” isn’t the way out of this. You two will have to find ways to talk about things that really upset you without losing your composure or threatening divorce. You can speak honestly about wanting her to prioritize more effectively and stop letting perfect be the enemy of the good (or good-enough), and you should listen patiently to her side of things, too. A couples counselor will help with that, and even if you feel like time is at a premium right now, dedicating an hour or two a week to your relationship will pay off handsomely, I think.

Reminding yourself that you have choices even when your partner is upset will go a long way, too. That’s not to say you should blithely say, “Sorry, can’t hear you, dissertation” when your wife is truly overwhelmed by the kids—it might even save you time if you offer to bathe the kids yourself more often!—but that you don’t have to adopt a “drop-everything” attitude to every single fire. This is a far-reaching problem, to be sure, but it will certainly respond to attention and care, and is not an automatic marriage-ender. Good luck!

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Q. Avoiding a Grandmonster: My toxic and abusive mother has always been on my ass about “giving her” grandkids. She has a lot of mental health problems and she is easily the coldest, most overbearing, and least empathetic person I’ve ever had the dismay of meeting. She maintains that she is sane and everyone else is crazy. She has no concept of boundaries. She is also extremely bigoted; if there is a person of color around, she cannot behave and goes full-on Karen. Two of my therapists agreed that they would hypothetically diagnose her with narcissistic personality disorder with borderline and psychopathic traits. Nobody has outright called her out on her behavior, though. It would be a shock to her if someone spoke up and she would write them off as a liar, and I’d be fine with that, but it will probably be the most gutting thing she’s ever experienced because facing consequences threatens her ego. Currently, she and I have a partial-contact relationship that I am at any point willing to make no-contact. I have been lying to her that I don’t want kids so she’ll drop it, but it’s seeming like she’ll never accept that.

My question is, when I have my kids, how do I explain to her that she is never allowed to meet them? We live on opposite ends of the country now. I’m leaning toward not allowing her to buy gifts either. I do not trust that she can keep the children physically or emotionally safe—not even under supervision for two minutes—because she is too mentally unstable. Again, I’m fine if she and I never speak again; I just don’t want to say something too triggering or inflammatory that she can use against me until the end of time. What would be the most appropriate and straightforward thing to say here? I’m assuming this collaterally means my kids will also not have a relationship with my father, which I’m mostly fine with.

A: If there were anything straightforward and appropriate you could say to your mother that would effectively neutralize her ability to wield it against you on any subject, you would have found a way to say it already. You’ve described a woman who can’t stifle her own racism for five minutes when she’s simply in a room with a person of color, who’s apparently never listened to reason or considered the possibility that she might be wrong, and who you believe to be capable of physically abusing her grandchildren. The very thing you want to say to her is the triggering and inflammatory thing she’ll want to use against you until the end of time—it’s the “No” that’s the problem for her, not the way you frame it or the terms you use to justify it.

The good news is that you say you’re “fine” with the idea of never speaking to her again, and that you’re prepared to deal with the subsequent estrangement with your father, as complicated as that loss may feel. I don’t think you have to bring up kids at all! You’re ready to cut ties with your mother on the strength of any number of abuses—really, you can take your pick, and you don’t have to spend much time making your case, because you know your mother’s not going to listen to whatever you have to say. Start the estrangement now. It won’t matter if she tries to use what you say against you if you can’t hear what she’s saying. Assume she’ll blow up, no matter what you say, and while that might not make it easier in the short-term, it will at least free you from the fantasy that you can end this volatile relationship delicately.

This is a little besides the point, but I do want to address something else in your letter. I’m not sure under what conditions your previous therapists have agreed to “hypothetically diagnose” your mother, but I’d encourage you to be wary of any therapist willing to hypothetically diagnose anyone. You don’t need to diagnose her by proxy in order to acknowledge the ways that she’s hurt you and broken your trust; you don’t need to say “narcissists hate consequences because it threatens their ego” to acknowledge that your abusive mother, who never takes no for an answer, is going to be angry if you cut off contact, no matter how politely or reasonably you do it. I can imagine that hearing a therapist agree “Yes, your mother’s badness is so profound that we can label it” might feel like a sort of victory or vindication, but to offer a diagnosis at such a remove, with only secondhand information, is at the very least frowned upon, and may be an indicator about a propensity for shortcuts. Of course you want to be able to discuss how your mother’s abuse has hurt you in therapy, and your therapist doesn’t have to avoid judgment—I don’t at all mean to suggest you should seek out a therapist who says something like “Well, it’s impossible to say anything about your mother, since she’s not here,” just that anyone who offers you a “hypothetical diagnosis” is offering you something completely imaginary. You do not need permission to stop talking to someone who has done nothing but hurt and ignore you for your entire life; you do not need an official “narcissist” label to decide that your future children would not be safe around your cruel, volatile mother.

Q. Happy or settling? I am a bisexual woman in my mid-20s, and I have been in a happy, very loving relationship with my male partner for several years. We live together and are best friends. He’s everything I want in a partner, except for one detail: I’d much rather be with a woman. I’m still into men, but if I could create my fairy-tale spouse it would be a woman, and whenever I fantasize privately I almost always think about women. I don’t really want to break up with him—I feel safe, happy, and supported, which seems like a rare gift right now—but I feel conflicted.

Is it somehow dishonest to stay? He talks about marriage and kids, and part of me is really excited about the prospect of starting a “grown-up” life together. But another part is scared of losing the opportunity to be with a woman. Is this any different from the normal sacrifices people in serious relationships make? How seriously should I take these feelings?

A: I get variations of this letter all the time, and while every relationship is different, I do think I’ve been able to cobble together something like a universal response: If you approach what you hope will be a long-term romantic commitment in the spirit of, “How much of my desire can I tamp down, dismiss as ‘unserious’ or antithetical to being ‘grown up’ and frivolous?” you will set yourself up for a great deal of unnecessary isolation, frustrated longing, and alienation. Nor do I think, “I almost always think about women … if I could create my fairy-tale spouse it would be a woman … part of me is scared of losing the opportunity to be with a woman” can be described as “one detail.” That’s not a background element—it’s damn near the whole picture. The fact that your boyfriend is a lovely person is very nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re already fantasizing about the dream woman you could have ridden off into the sunset with.

Letters like yours often have a sense of premature wistfulness to them. “If only I had figured out how strongly I feel about women before we got together, or if only I had met my dream woman before my boyfriend, then I could live the kind of life I dream about, but since we’ve been together for a few years and he’s a good person who doesn’t deserve to be hurt, it’s my responsibility to see things through for the rest of our lives. Maybe I’ll meet a great girl in heaven, as a reward for my nobility and restraint on earth.” That’s not to dismiss the very real love you feel for your boyfriend; it’s clear that you care about him and don’t treat the idea of breaking up with him lightly. But for all that you feel safe, happy, and supported right now, I wonder how you might feel in five or 10 years, if some of these daydreams might begin to pall, if you might feel deeply isolated for having a rich fantasy life that your husband knows nothing about, if you feel consumed by self-recrimination for being “safe and supported” but it’s not enough, and for wanting more than “he’s my best friend, and he treats me well, and he’s a good person, and I should be grateful for what I already have.”

I don’t have a stake in what qualifies as a “normal sacrifice” at the altar of marriage and monogamy; I’ll confine my waspishness to saying that the altar’s consumed enough already and doesn’t need any more burnt offerings. Take the thing you think about every day seriously. Ask yourself what you would want for your boyfriend if the situation was reversed, and he dreamed about Prince Charming every day. Would you want him to stay with you because you’re a good friend and a nice person and marriage is “supposed” to be about self-denial and keeping your head down and making it to the finish line? Or would you want more for the both of you?

Q. Resentful and hating it: I am single, and I do not have children. The majority of my close friends are married or in a relationship, and many of them have kids. That’s fine! We’re all still able to make it work—sometimes they are able to get away from familial responsibilities, and we can get together; sometimes I spend time with the kids, all of whom I think of as nieces/nephews; and I also have no problem sometimes being a “third wheel” with a couple, as all of my friends’ spouses or significant others are pretty much friends at this point too.

However, one of my friends, “Erin,” basically expects me to be friends with her husband, “Joe,” and to have a bond with her 4-year-old son, “James,” and as a result, it just makes me resentful. Her husband is fine, but he’s not someone I’d be friends with if it weren’t for her. The last time I went to visit them (they live a couple of hours away), we went to an amusement park. When James started getting tired, she said she would take him home, and Joe and I could stay to go on some of the bigger rides. I had no desire to stay and hang out with Joe, so I made some excuse that my stomach didn’t feel great and it probably wasn’t a good idea for me to go on the big rides. She responded with, “Oh that’s unfortunate, Joe was really looking forward to having someone to go with!” As for James, interestingly enough, I read a letter fairly recently on Slate about a woman asking for advice on how to deal with her friend, essentially forcing interaction between the letter writer and the friend’s child, and it felt pretty spot on to what Erin does to me. While of course I miss spending time with just Erin, this really isn’t what this is about—I recognize I have to adapt in order to maintain friendships, and I’m OK with that. But this added expectation that comes with maintaining my friendship with Erin just makes me resent her, and that makes me sad, because I don’t want to lose her. How can I approach this without hurting her feelings, or putting a wedge between us?

A: That’s such an odd thing for Erin to do—telling an old friend that your fully grown husband will be disappointed if he’s left at an amusement park by himself is strange on its face, but especially considering that Joe has never said anything to you about wanting to be closer or to spend more time together, just the two of you. In some ways, this doesn’t really change your options: Cheerfully say no if or when she informs you that her husband secretly wants something from you that he hasn’t said to you himself. “Sorry, that won’t work for me” is a perfectly polite response to something like “My husband secretly needed an amusement park buddy; are you sure you can’t stay another two hours and just power through the nausea?” If she doesn’t let it drop, you can either let something of a wedge grow between you, or take the slightly riskier option of speaking up: “I love getting to see you and Joe and James, but I’m not quite sure how to respond when you tell me Joe wants to spend time alone together when he hasn’t said anything to me about it. It’ll be much easier if he just asks me what he needs directly!”

Q. Sex with an ex: I do not like a whole lot about my ex-husband, but he was always amazing when it came to our sex life. I’m a guy and I’ve found that a lot of other gay guys I meet just do not satisfy me the same way. My ex comes over a couple times a month to raid my cabinets, get rides where he needs to go, and have sex. He always initiates these visits. I have no intentions of having anything more with him and I’ve said as much, but he acts like we are still married and my home is his. We no longer share anything. Do I have to cut off my relationship and really good sex with him completely if I don’t want to get back together? I didn’t want to be the bad guy, but at this point I feel like I might just be using him.

A: It seems pretty straightforward that you’re both using each other! And given that the scale of this mutual “using” is just casual sex, the occasional bag of chips, and a ride to the dentist, I don’t think you have to worry as long as this works for the both of you. You say he “acts like [you’re] still married,” but it doesn’t seem like he expects more from you romantically or emotionally than what you’re able to give him. It might be more strictly correct to say that he acts a little entitled when he needs something. But as long as you know you can say no if it’s truly inconvenient for you, and you’re not worried he’ll break down the door and steal your canned goods or your car keys, feel free to enjoy the good sex and the shared lunches a few times a month for as long as you like.

Q. Getting over a slight: I am having a hard time getting over a slight from one of my (former) best friends. I gave birth to my son about six months ago, and the day he was born I texted a group of four close friends the announcement with pictures (this group text is where we all have announced engagements, pregnancies, births, etc.). Three of the friends responded with congratulations, but “Elizabeth” never said anything. She also never said anything when I sent a birth announcement. I was absolutely not expecting a gift or a card or anything other than a one- or two-word congratulatory text. Having a baby is a big deal and I’ve known Elizabeth since kindergarten (I sent gifts and brought a meal when she had her baby).

Six months later, I have never heard anything from Elizabeth, even unrelated to my baby. Previously, we texted semi-regularly, but looking back I was always the initiator, and since I’m not initiating right now, we haven’t talked. I miss Elizabeth, but I just can’t swallow my bitterness that she never acknowledged my baby, and apparently has had no desire to talk to me for six months. How do I move past this? Do I say something?

A: “Elizabeth, I haven’t heard from you since my son was born despite a few attempts to get in touch, and it really hurts. If I’ve done something to offend you, I hope you’ll let me know so I can try to make it right. But I don’t know what’s changed in the last six months, and we’ve been close for so long that I’d hate to lose our friendship without at least talking about what happened.”

Q. Re: Selfishly generous: The only way this dissertation will get done is if the letter writer finds another space to work on it. Rent a workspace or a room at the library or at a nearby college, or ask to borrow a friend’s spare room or basement—something. Then have a schedule where the family gets Saturday but you are gone Sunday, and you are on kid duty Monday and Wednesday and gone Tuesday and Thursday, and Friday is family night.

A: I think drawing up a set schedule is a really good idea, even if it’s not always possible to follow it to the letter. As you say, the letter writer should be “generously selfish” about his dissertation, and jealously guard the time set aside for it each week, and have a really clear, mutually agreed-upon set of legitimate interruptions (“Is a kid bleeding? If not, wait” is a classic for a reason).

Q. Re: Selfishly generous: It sounds like your wife makes dinner, then bathes the kids while she asks you to wash the dishes. This is not an unreasonable balance of chores on its face. You don’t say if your wife also has a job or what your general balance of chores is, but it seems like she isn’t happy with it and is trying to tell you, either because she doesn’t know how to word it explicitly or because she tried and you didn’t hear her before.

A: I want to leave a lot of room open for possibility here, because it could be the sort of situation where the letter writer has regularly made “good-enough” dinners and cleaned up afterward, but his wife has gotten really caught up in Busby Berkeley–style productions; or, as you say, the letter writer could be somewhat checked out of the kids’ routine, and while he may have grounds to push for more relaxed birthday parties, he’s waiting to get stressed out about his thesis when the time comes to wash dishes. Whatever the general division of labor is here, the real issue is setting aside thesis-only time and taking responsibility for it—then having whatever conversations with his wife he needs to about chores, taking care of the kids, and fairness outside of that time.

Q. Re: Happy or settling? I don’t think that your answer leaves enough room for the letter writer’s feelings being a variation of cold feet. I started to panic on the way to the altar and I seriously considered breaking up with my (now) husband because I started to worry that I was settling. Ultimately I realized that what was really bothering me was the fact that I was getting older and I felt like my life had fewer and fewer possibilities. Rather than break up with my husband, he helped me realize that what I needed was to move across the country and change careers. I’m not saying that the letter writer absolutely should not break up with her boyfriend, but it is possible that there are other things going on in her life making her long for change.

A: I don’t find that comparison to be especially convincing! I’m glad you were able to talk to your own partner about your worries before marriage, and I’m glad you’re happy to be married now, but general anxieties about time passing and having to make choices is a pretty far cry from “I think about women all the time, I think about my boyfriend as a best friend and a source of safety, but I wish I had a wife.”

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Classic Prudie

Q. 32-year-old virgin: I’m a 32-year-old straight man and I’ve never been in a relationship with a woman. I can count on one hand the number of dates I’ve been on. I’ve had many female friends and am perfectly comfortable around women in that context, but as soon as it’s a “date” my anxiety takes over and ruins everything. Although a professional has never formally diagnosed me, I’m pretty sure I have avoidant personality disorder (I have all the symptoms listed on various psychology websites). I’m afraid of going to therapy or taking medication. I’m sure you would advise me to try either of those things. What bothers me is that even if I went to therapy and was able to manage my anxiety, I worry about reactions to my lack of romantic experience. Do I try to hide it for as long as possible or be totally up front about it? I feel like I’m past the point of no return, and it’s just too weird to date now. Read what Prudie had to say.

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