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 family thinks my girlfriend is controlling: My girlfriend and I have been together for almost a year and a half. We decided we wanted to move out of state suddenly, and did. Before we left, I talked to my mom and she heard from my sister (31) that she, my dad, and my other sister (28) thought I was being controlled and forced out of state. (It’s actually an idea I’ve always had.) Now, because I told her what was said, my girlfriend has anxiety about it.
I confronted my younger sister about what I heard and she said she was worried at first but OK with it now since she really likes my girlfriend. Well, my girlfriend overheard bits and pieces of the conversation, and feels like an apology is owed to her by my sister, which I don’t feel is wrong.
Fast forward, my girlfriend’s mom ended up in the hospital on the same day I had plans with my mom while visiting and we canceled to go see her mom (which my mom was very OK with and expressed concern over). Then my girlfriend expressed anxiety, commenting that my older sister is going to say we’re making an excuse to get out of spending time with my mom. My girlfriend is surprised that I’m upset about that comment and keeps saying she’ll just bottle up her anxiety and not say anything about it anymore.
Am I in the wrong for reacting like that? I feel helpless and I’m doing what I can to try to resolve the issue between them. I feel like I have to get it done right then and there or else my girlfriend’s going to continue to create more scenarios that “might” happen in her head. I have no one else to talk to. I can’t talk to my family and I don’t have friends anymore. She’s all I have.
A: At the risk of offering an answer you don’t want to hear, I find myself concerned about your girlfriend’s controlling behavior, too. The out-of-state move and canceling a visit to see your mother because your girlfriend’s mother was in the hospital don’t worry me—sometimes people move on relatively short notice, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing even if your relatives wish you’d stay nearby. And visiting a parent who’s unexpectedly fallen ill or been injured is perfectly understandable, and it seems perfectly reasonable that your own mother supported your decision.
But you say you don’t have friends “anymore” and that your girlfriend is all you have, which sets off a number of alarms, and I find myself wanting to know why it is you can’t speak to any of your former friends. Did they also fall out with your girlfriend? Does she have anything to do with the fact that you’re no longer in contact, and do you fear her reaction if you were to try to get in touch with any of them now? It’s also worrying that your girlfriend is using a conversation she eavesdropped into—and only heard part of!—as justification to “predict” something she fears your sister is going to say someday. Why do you believe your sister owes your girlfriend an apology for saying “I used to worry that your girlfriend was controlling you, but now that I’ve gotten to know and like her, I don’t worry anymore,” especially when your sister said that only to you, and only when you confronted her? Of course you were put off when your girlfriend said, “I’ll bet your sister uses my mother’s hospitalization as an excuse to score points off me in the future,” especially when your sister doesn’t seem to have been unduly harsh or unfair in the past. And saying, “Well, I guess I’ll just swallow my anxiety and be privately worried all the time, since you’re upset” is also a concerning response on your girlfriend’s part. Your reaction was not wrong, nor unreasonable; and you do not “have to” fix things between your girlfriend and your sister, especially when your sister has behaved perfectly politely toward her, and your girlfriend eavesdropped on a conversation she was never invited into.
If your girlfriend continues to manufacture hypothetical scenarios that mean you have to avoid your relatives, ignore your friends, and depend only on her for conversation and support, then I think you should be worried about her controlling behavior, too. I realize you feel defensive of her at present, and I’m not suggesting you break up with her if you don’t feel ready. But you should keep in contact, wherever possible, with friends or relatives or anyone who’s not your girlfriend. Because if she’s all you have, and she mistreats you, you won’t feel like leaving is an option. And it needs to be an option, even if you two stay together!
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Q. Boss keeps telling me: I’m a mother of a toddler and I work on a pretty low rung of the ladder in a competitive, project-based industry. In my job interview, my current (childless) boss asked some ignorant questions about my ability to “manage” being a working mother. Since then, he has occasionally counseled me to hold off on having more children until I reach X job title that would grant me more agency and flexibility. Keep in mind: I’m doing great at my current job, I have a wonderfully supportive partner, and we have access to day care. My boss has never heard one word about my parenting struggles, for reasons that should be obvious.
But now I’m pregnant again. There’s a project coming up in the new year that would be my first real step up the professional ladder. It is a big deal, and my boss wants me to work on it. But the timeline is still unclear. Maybe it starts in January, maybe it starts in March, or even April. The project is three to five months long. I’m due in mid-May.
I’m worried that if I disclose my pregnancy too early and my due date ends up overlapping the project timeline, my boss will find some way to renege on his promise to have me on the project (and no, there is no way for me to extract a legally binding promise to employ me until the project timeline is set in stone, which may take months). If I find out the project is going to overlap with my maternity leave, would I be out of bounds to keep the pregnancy secret until I’ve signed an employment contract? My presence or absence would not significantly affect the outcome of the project (I still wouldn’t throw around much weight), but it would probably take a toll on my relationship with my boss, which is currently my only foothold in my notoriously finicky industry.
A: It’s never out-of-bounds to decide to keep news of your pregnancy to yourself, especially when you know your boss is unduly prejudiced against pregnant women and working mothers, and may very well look for technically legal ways to discriminate against you for having a second child, even though pregnant workers are supposedly protected by law. (I’d still encourage you to stay up-to-date on your rights as a pregnant worker, of course, but I don’t want to be naïve about the workarounds that at-will employment can provide management determined to sideline someone. Plus, if the company you work for has fewer than 15 employees, or if you’re a part-time/gig/contract worker and not a full-time employee, you may not be protected at all.) Only disclose when and if you think it’s strategically useful or completely unavoidable. It’s not “out of bounds” to want to work and have children; it’s not “out of bounds” to want to avoid being penalized for motherhood; it’s not “out of bounds” to object to lectures on when you should have children from a bigoted, sexist boss who doesn’t believe you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Your boss is not looking out for you, so you should look out for yourself.
Q. Expectation vs. reality: My boyfriend of two years broke up with me about two months ago. I agreed with his reasons for doing so but was upset, and he did it over the phone during the workday, which I found disrespectful. I requested an in-person conversation, which I felt went well and gave me closure.
I was keen to be friends. We have texted occasionally, mostly about TV. Yesterday he texted that he wanted to see me, and subsequently made it clear he wanted me to sleep with him. I was angry and told him I had no desire to sleep with the man who broke my heart recently. He apologized and suggested he had misunderstood our previous conversations. I don’t feel like anything I’ve said should have led him to believe sex was on the table, apart from a silly joke I made during our in-person breakup conversation that I thought was quite clearly a defense mechanism.
My friends say I should have set firmer boundaries earlier, but I thought I was handling it reasonably well. I can’t tell if he’s trying to manipulate the situation or if I did lead him on, and reestablishing these boundaries is quite painful and feels like another breakup. What’s the best way to proceed? Can we pursue a friendship now that this has been clarified?
A: You say this guy “broke your heart” (in a workday phone call that you found disrespectful, no less) and recently hurt your feelings by joking about having casual sex. Moreover, you find reestablishing appropriate boundaries as friends is quite painful and feels like prolonging the breakup. I don’t want to assume that your ex is a jerk or that he’s going out of his way to hurt your feelings, but I see no indication that you two are ready to be friends yet. You just broke up! You’ve barely even let yourself grieve the loss of this relationship. You’re already worried that you’ve been “leading on” the man who just dumped you by making a bleak joke while he dumped you, which suggests your feelings are still too raw, and his ability to respect your limits are too shaky and open to misinterpretation, for you two to pursue a friendship right now. Most exes who become friends don’t go from “profound heartbreak” to “happy, mutually respectful friends, neither of whom is privately grieving” in just two months. It’s not a question of clarification. It’s a long process that takes time, distance, and healing.
Tell him you’re not ready for friendship yet, and that the kindest thing he can do now is to leave you alone, but that you’ll give him a call when and if you feel up to catching up over coffee. I don’t have an official time limit to suggest, but it should be a considerable period, probably one that makes you feel, “Wow, that’s too long to go without talking” at first. If that no-contact period is too short, and you’re still carrying a torch or nursing serious heartbreak, you run the risk of simply feeling like you’re having the same breakup over and over again three months from now, or six. Go spend some time tending to your broken heart, and not with the man who so recently broke it.
Q. Exes at home: Earlier this summer, my husband and I entered into a polyamorous relationship with our friend. He moved in with us—against my instincts—when his housing situation deteriorated during the summer, and a few weeks ago, the boyfriend informed me that he was not interested in pursuing a relationship with me, only my husband. I said that in that case, he needed to find a place of his own and move there. Because my husband saw it as me kicking his boyfriend out onto the streets to live in his car, he informed me that he was leaving me for our boyfriend. I didn’t mandate that he had to move out immediately, so we are still living in our house in the meantime.
I have spent quite a few nights recently at friends’ houses to stay out of their way and give them space. I’ve asked them to do the same, but my husband is of the opinion that his new boyfriend is his invited guest, and that if I have a problem with them being around, I can leave. I do not want them living out of a car, so I have suggested they go in together on a new space or sublet for his boyfriend (my husband can be here when he wants, but I’d rather not have his boyfriend/my other ex here as I try to grieve the end of my relationship). My husband wants me to allow his boyfriend to continue living in the house rent-free, and every time I bring up why that makes me uncomfortable, he throws out the fact that I’m kicking someone out on the street, and suggests that if I think that’s an option, I should be the one to be sleeping in my car.
Am I wrong for not being willing to allow my husband’s new boyfriend—and my ex-boyfriend—to stay at our home while we work through our divorce?
A: Your husband persuaded you against your better judgment to enter into a live-in relationship with a brand-new boyfriend—who summarily dumped you once he got what he wanted out of you—then left you for said boyfriend, and then suggests you should sleep in your car if you don’t like the idea of living with both of your exes. You’re not “wrong” for being unhappy with this situation, but you should consider your soon-to-be-ex-husband a dead end when it comes to reasonable discussion or compromise. Assume that he is going to behave unreasonably and selfishly, that he will not do anything to make things easier for you, and that his new priority is his boyfriend. Speak to your divorce lawyer about your options when it comes to either selling the house, getting out of your lease, or serving them with an eviction notice. But don’t waste any more time trying to explain to your ex, “I don’t like the idea of giving the man you left me for free room and board.” If he thinks that’s unreasonable and believes that you’re the only thing that stands between this adult man and homelessness, he’s a lost cause.
I’m so sorry—what a painful and ignoble end to a marriage. I imagine part of you thinks you can appeal to your ex’s sense of fairness or better nature, but it seems clear that he’s putting all that on hold in favor of prioritizing his new boyfriend. If your husband wants to support his new boyfriend financially, he’s welcome to do so. Asking you to do it is a no-go.
Q. Surprise parenthood: My fiancée and I live separately because of work but plan to find a home together once our careers settle down (I have been furloughed twice this year). Her sister, a natural disaster, has dumped her two children on their mother and disappeared. The poor woman has twice-weekly cancer treatments and can barely work. She can’t handle two troubled kids.
My fiancée took on the kids without telling me. I understand it is a complicated situation but the fact she decided this without even speaking to me first has me questioning our future. My fiancée acts like she had “no choice,” but at least one of the boys has a known father and other relatives, and her brother is married with kids. There are other options we could have explored. We are fighting about this and I have been called every name in the book for not jumping for joy. Am I out of line?
A: No. I worry that a too-short answer will seem flip, so I’ll pad this one out a bit, but my answer is really just … “No, you’re not out of line.”
You recognize that your fiancée is dealing with a lot right now, from a profoundly ill mother to a sister who’s unable or unwilling to care for her own children, not to mention her obvious concern for her nephews, who probably feel like unwanted burdens after being bounced from house to house. But asking to have been part of the decision-making process, even if only in the sense of getting an advance warning, is not unsupportive, cold, or overbearing, and I don’t wonder that you’re questioning a future together, now that sudden-onset guardianship is apparently part of it. You should keep questioning it. Do so as kindly and as lovingly as you can, while making allowances for your fiancée’s circumstances. Call in a couples counselor if you can, not to mention a lawyer, since there may very well be legal questions about custody and child support neither of you can answer. But you have every right, and every reason, to discuss your own feelings and priorities about child raising, and to object to having been left out of this conversation or to ask why she didn’t consider the kids’ other relatives. It is not your responsibility to feign enthusiasm about guardianship if you don’t plan to take it on, although you should remain polite and warm toward the kids when you do see them. But you two should absolutely fight about this! If you’re not prepared to parent together, and you can’t come to a meaningful compromise after careful discussion and counseling, then that’s an excellent reason to call off your engagement.
Q. Do I address the snoring? My roommate and I share an apartment with very thin walls. The head of her bed is against our shared wall. In the past couple of months, her nightly snoring has increased noticeably. It’s loud and continues through the night. I’m having a hard time falling (back) asleep when she’s snoring. A sound machine and earplugs aren’t cutting it. Can I ask her to move her bed? And if so, how?
A: Yes, of course you can! Tell her what you told me, although you can also throw in an introduction like “I’m a little embarrassed to bring this up,” if you’re worried about seeming callous. But snoring is not a deep dark secret, and you don’t have to act like you’re discussing something taboo by politely acknowledging the fact that she does it. It’s not a character defect or something she’s doing on purpose, and you’ve done what you can to mitigate things on your end. I’m sure once she realizes how much this has been affecting your sleep, she’ll be happy to do what she can to make things easier for you, including moving her bed so it’s not pressed up against your shared wall.
Q. Re: My family thinks my girlfriend is controlling: There is so much happening here, but I would counsel the letter writer to spend less time and energy trying to please others, and more time prioritizing building a strong friend network of people who can support them.
A: I second that! There’s a real undercurrent of fear here that I think the letter writer can address no matter what’s going on with their girlfriend. If their sister gets upset about something in the future, or the girlfriend feels anxiety, you can listen and respond and try to be useful, but you don’t have to rush to fix it. It’s OK to let someone (even someone you love!) feel anxiety or frustration or resentment; it doesn’t mean you’re failing to do your job or that everything is going to fall apart. If this is a pattern for you, in this relationship or out of it, it might be worth talking to a therapist about, too.
Q. Re: My family thinks my girlfriend is controlling: I don’t want to alarm the letter writer, but I am worried that your girlfriend is controlling. Letter writer, you don’t say why you “don’t have friends anymore,” but if that timing lines up with the beginning of this new relationship, I would be very concerned that your girlfriend is manipulating you to distance you from friends and family. She appears to be the instigator of the conflict with your family (who haven’t said anything unkind to her and are guilty only of being open with you both about their concerns and about their changed opinion over time) and may have taken advantage of your preexisting interest in moving out of state, and in hearing about your family’s worries, to distance you from your sisters and parents. It’s never good for one person to be “all [you] have” in life, and it’s a red flag that you feel you can’t talk to your family about this because of your girlfriend. Please take a moment to evaluate how your girlfriend became your only source of support and whether your sisters’ concerns may have been based in reality.
A: That worried me too. I don’t want to make assumptions, but it certainly seems likely that the girlfriend has had at least something to do with what appears to be a rather sudden rupture the letter writer’s had with their friends. And this language about “I’m so anxious about the possibility that your sister might someday say something really unreasonable about my mother’s hospitalization” seems totally divorced from reality. I don’t want to pressure the letter writer into feeling like they have to denounce their own interest in moving; I’ll take them at their word when they say they’ve wanted to for a while. But you don’t have to stop talking to your family just because you’re worried about your girlfriend’s (mostly unfounded) anxiety. Please do keep talking to them, even if it’s just about mundane topics!
Q. Update—Re: Unexpected conundrum: About a month ago I wrote in to ask for advice about how to tell my husband, Charlie, that I was unexpectedly pregnant. I feared, because we’d both believed it to be impossible for me to conceive naturally and because Charlie has told me years ago that he didn’t want any more kids, that he would ask me to abort the baby. I summoned my courage and spoke to Charlie. His reaction was totally unexpected and overjoyed me; after a few moments of shock he was thrilled. We had a long discussion about how this time would be different than when Lily was born: He’d have a partner with whom he could share parenting responsibilities. He would have been fine if we had never conceived, but now that we have, unexpectedly, he sees it as a blessing. We’ve told Lily, and she’s thrilled to be a big sister. Thank you for your advice. This story has a happy ending.
A: Oh, thank you so much for writing back with an update—I’m simply thrilled for you, and for your family. What a relief, and what a joy. I’m so glad that you were able to speak to your partner, even if you feared his reaction, and even gladder that you’re both excited about this new baby. Congratulations!
Q. Accidental mansplaining: I work with several master’s and Ph.D. students, almost all of whom are women, during the course of my research at a large state university. My work with these students sometimes involves introducing them to new data sets or software, but it is mostly a peer relationship, as I am not a professor and these are advanced and talented students. The other day, I was pointing out a new data set to a female student and asked if she wanted me to walk her through it. (It took me a couple of hours to get my head around it.) She told me I was mansplaining and that she knew what she was doing. This was brand new, very complex data that we just received. I thought mansplaining was explaining things to women that they already know. I don’t want her to think I’m being a jerk (she’s genuinely one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met), but I also don’t want to never offer to help again. Am I missing something here? Read what Prudie had to say.