Dear Prudence

Help! I Think My Girlfriend Is Making Up Her Sensitivity to Smell.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

A woman holding her nose next to a graphic of a burning candle
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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. Fragrance sensitivity: I began dating “Kara” about a year ago. When we first met, she told me she suffered from migraines, often induced by strong smells. I switched my deodorant and stopped burning scented candles in my home (a big change for me—scented candles had previously helped me control my anxiety). I’ve changed other things too; we’ve even left parties early because hosts had plug-in air fresheners. This has been challenging for me, but I do love her and I want her to be well.

A month ago, Kara tested positive for COVID after losing her sense of smell and taste. She had some gastrointestinal symptoms, and, without thinking, I sprayed scented air freshener to cover up bathroom smells. Kara couldn’t smell the air freshener, and she didn’t have a migraine. I feel disconcerted that I’ve been “cleansing” my life of all scented fragrances for a year, only to realize this is perhaps all in her head. I don’t want to bring this up because I don’t want to upset her during a difficult time. But I also don’t want to raise children with someone who is either a hypochondriac, seeking attention, or unable to exist with the normal fragrances that are part of daily life. Is it worth bringing up with her? Should I seek some sort of medical opinion? Does it matter whether it’s all in her head or a legitimate physical response? Please help.

A: I confess I had rather the opposite response you did: Since Kara can no longer smell anything, at least for now, it stands to reason that scents would stop being a significant migraine trigger too. And at the risk of sounding glib, where else would migraines and fragrance sensitivity be a problem, if not “in the head”? I’m not at all inclined to take this sudden change in her migraine triggers as evidence that she’d previously been faking them.

But you say you don’t want to raise children with someone who can’t “exist with the normal fragrances that are part of daily life,” so even if we set aside the “Kara is a hypochondriac” hypothesis, you’ve apparently realized something pretty significant about your future together. Part of me wants to argue that things like changing deodorant brands and occasionally leaving parties early because your hosts used artificial air fresheners aren’t so challenging that they’re worth ending an otherwise good relationship over, although I can understand the difficulties of finding certain smells relaxing or anxiety-relieving when your partner can’t abide them. But if you consider this a deal breaker, I don’t want to try to convince you to stay with her, mostly for her sake—I think she deserves a partner who finds accommodating her fragrance sensitivity manageable, and who doesn’t assume a temporary respite in her triggers means she’s been faking migraines. I think you should do your best to put your suspicions aside and enjoy your relationship with Kara, but if you can’t, do her a favor and let her find someone else.

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Q. My daughter’s name: My daughter is about to turn 2, and we’re having a weird problem with her day care. My daughter is named after a medieval literary character—I know, I know, “classic millennial weirdness,” but it’s a beautiful name and I’m exceedingly happy that we chose it. The name isn’t that hard to pronounce, but people sometimes have trouble with it.

We’ve been sending our daughter to this small, family-run day care since she was about 3 months old. The day care provider initially was able to pronounce our daughter’s name, but she eventually started mispronouncing it. We weren’t too concerned because our daughter was just a baby at the time and we weren’t sure we would be staying with the same day care provider long-term.

Lo and behold, two years later, she’s still at the same day care, and both the day care provider and now the other children all mispronounce our daughter’s name. Recently our daughter has begun to try to correct my wife and I, as well as her grandparents, when we pronounce her name correctly. We tried to talk to our day care provider about it, but she sort of blew us off.

My daughter adores her day care provider, and generally we’re really happy and want to keep her there. With an ongoing pandemic, it wouldn’t be a good time to try to find a new day care anyway. On the other hand, I also don’t want my daughter to mispronounce her own name for her entire life. Have we waited too long, or is there some way we can address this now without having to switch day cares? Should we just wait it out and hope it corrects itself?

A: This isn’t the sort of problem that corrects itself—especially since your daughter is now attempting to correct you about how to pronounce her name—so I think you can give up on that as a strategy. Go back to your daughter’s day care provider, stress that this is actually quite important to you, and that while you don’t want to have to look for a new provider in the middle of a pandemic, you can’t keep letting it slide now that your daughter is getting older. When someone “sort of” blows you off, don’t drop the subject and hope they later feel like doing what you asked—initiate a subsequent conversation and be firmer than you were the first time. You’re not asking for the moon here, or being difficult for difficulty’s sake with a service provider: You’re asking the person you pay to look after your daughter to pronounce your daughter’s name correctly. The fact that she’s been pronouncing it incorrectly for several years isn’t an excuse that she should get to do it forever. It’s simply an embarrassing fact. She will be able to pronounce it correctly again, but you’re going to have to be a hair less easygoing. You can do it!

Q. Floral fallout: My partner is obsessed with fresh flowers. They buy new ones a few times per week, covering multiple surfaces in our home with floral arrangements. The flowers aren’t expensive, and my partner certainly earns enough to support this habit, but they refuse to throw out the flowers in a timely fashion. I work from home (my partner doesn’t), so I’m surrounded 24/7 by the smell of rotting flowers. My partner won’t allow me to throw them out and continually says “I’ll do it later” but rarely gets around to it—and is often snippy when I provide reminders.

I tried to bring this up but was told I was being ungrateful for the money my partner spends to “bring nature inside” at a time when the pandemic has disrupted many of our travel plans to beautiful nature outside our home. I hate this pattern we’ve fallen into. It feels silly, but I dread bringing up the flowers, only to feel resentful that I’m forced to smell dying flowers all day every day. I’m tempted to just take the nuclear option, throw them all out at once, and forbid any more from coming into the home, but that feels extreme. Is there a softer solution that would get my partner to finally understand how annoying this habit is?

A: Throwing away rotting flowers is not a “nuclear option,” or at least it shouldn’t be in a reasonably healthy relationship, any more than “taking out the garbage” on trash pickup day would be. I’m not sure how you would enforce a ban on future flowers being brought into the house, so I’m less inclined to suggest it as a tactic, but given that you two are already fighting about this constantly, you might as well fight about it without feeling like you’re on a Tim Burton set.

Q. What’s in a ring? So this is a truly minor thing, but I genuinely am not sure what I should do. I have a beautiful heirloom ring that was my great-grandmother’s and given to me by my grandmother just before my first wedding. I wore it as my wedding ring, but my ex had nothing to do with the ring whatsoever; the only time he touched it was to put it on my hand during the ceremony.

That marriage ended shortly thereafter. When I remarried several years later, I asked my current husband if he would mind if we used the same ring because I absolutely love it. He was none too pleased because it symbolized my prior marriage. So I didn’t press it and I bought a new wedding plain band. We are four years in, and I often think how much I would like to wear my heirloom ring. I thought about wearing it on my right hand, but it doesn’t fit any other finger, and getting it resized would be expensive and risky given the style, material, and age of the ring. For what it’s worth, he will not wear a ring at all—even though I have said it’s important to me—because he finds it uncomfortable and he is afraid he will catch it on something. I even tried buying a silicone ring for him but no dice. Am I selfish or inconsiderate for wanting to wear my heirloom as my wedding ring? How can I approach this so that it isn’t about my first marriage?

A: I can understand why your husband might associate this ring with your first marriage, but the fact that it came down to you through your grandmother and has been a family heirloom for years is certainly an extenuating circumstance—and it doesn’t sound like your first husband comes up very often in your marriage now, so it hardly seems representative of a bigger issue. I do wonder if it might put your mind at ease to ask a jeweler (or two) what the risks of resizing it are—it’s possible that someone might be able to resize it safely and without great expense, and at least getting a few professional opinions will help you recategorize the various pros and cons without having to guess.

I can understand the temptation of wanting to use your husband’s stubbornness about his own ring as a justification (“he won’t wear one even though it’s important to me, so I want to go back to my own ring instead of deferring to him any longer”), but I don’t really think you need it; “I’m justified in X because you won’t do Y” never seems to work as well in a relationship as it does inside one’s own head. Of course I think you have grounds to say both that you’d like him to do something to visually mark your marriage, even if it’s wearing a ring on a chain around his neck, and that you want to go back to wearing this family heirloom—but you don’t have to, and shouldn’t, try to frame it as something you’ve “earned” because of something else he’s failed to do.

Q. Guilty inheritance: I have been estranged from my parents for three years, a decision that came after a long time in therapy processing the extreme physical abuse they subjected me to in childhood. It was an ugly estrangement, involving physical threats from them and court orders from me and my husband. My parents recently died in a car crash. I am their only child, and found out the news via a lawyer contacting me about their wills.

It never occurred to me that they would not have written me out of their wills. As it is, I have inherited everything. It is a life-changing amount of money. I have struggled financially ever since leaving home at 16—my parents used money to control me, so I learned quickly never to accept their “help” for fear of the strings attached. My husband and I work hard and have built a good life, but this money means that we can pay all our debts, buy a house, and have a child years sooner than we thought possible! I feel terrible admitting this, but honestly, I’m overjoyed.

I haven’t admitted this to anyone. Everyone, including my husband, has been treating me with kid gloves since the news that my parents died like this. He keeps asking if I need to talk or cry, and I feel ashamed to admit that I really don’t. I had to tell my work what had happened as I needed time off to sort legal matters, and I felt so guilty when I received beautiful sympathy cards from my colleagues and lovely boss. Is there something wrong with me for not even being a little bit upset? I obviously didn’t actively wish death upon them, but I honestly cannot muster sadness about it, and I also can’t pretend to my husband for much longer that I’m not ecstatic about the money. (I know he was happy to pay off his debts!) Is there something wrong with me for feeling this way? Should I keep these feelings quiet from my husband and pretend to be sad? Should I be looking to get back into therapy for this?

A: I think therapy is a great idea, but not because there’s something wrong with your reaction that needs to be straightened out in a hurry. I would find almost any response to something as fraught as “my abusive parents died” and “my money problems are suddenly and unexpectedly solved” to be understandable. But being relieved your abusers are gone, and being relieved that you’re no longer in debt, are particularly coherent. Being in debt is awful and exhausting. Having money solves a lot of serious problems in a tremendously straightforward fashion. Relief makes sense as a response to such a solution. You may someday feel sadness over your parents’ deaths, or you may not—but as you realize intellectually, you didn’t cause their deaths, you didn’t try to start a conga line at their funeral, and you haven’t done anything wrong. Therapy will be a useful place to process some of the feelings you find too shameful or complex to share with others, but I do hope you can bring yourself to be honest with your husband about some of it, if only so you feel a little less alone.

Q. Am I overreacting? For the third time, a friend of mine decided to go ahead with the plans we made that she canceled on me the night before. She’d canceled because she said it was too far for her to walk, she did not want to get on a bus and meet up there, and it might rain. This contradicts her so much, as this is the way we most often get around when we hang out. Well, lo and behold, her Instagram posts showed she went anyway. My guess is she got her brother to drive her, like all the other times she pulled this. I have hung out with them both before, and he always asks when we can all hang out again. We make tentative plans that usually fall through because he ends up having to work, or they show up hours after an event starts, causing me to miss parts of it. Should I just stop initiating plans with her and block her posts so I don’t get annoyed and say something to her I may regret?

A: Yes, that seems like an excellent and straightforward solution. Then if your friend’s brother keeps asking when you can all hang out again, say something like, “I’m not sure! Let me know the next time you two are doing something and I’ll see if I can make it,” leaving the ball in his court instead of wasting your own time scheduling an activity that probably won’t ever happen. Or “I’m not sure when I’ll be free next, but this was really fun,” which doesn’t commit to anything in the future.

Q. It’s been 15 years: I was recently browsing Instagram and came across a picture of a baby. I clicked on it and found out my ex had a baby with his wife a couple of months ago. I’m married to a wonderful person and have a child of my own. There is no part of me that wants to be with this ex. He was my first real relationship, and we were incredibly unhealthy. He was obsessed with me, which then turned into controlling what I wore and how I did my hair. I eventually lost most of my close friendships. After two years, he broke up with me to date one of my closest friends. When he and that friend broke up, I started sleeping with him again, which I know was incredibly stupid. It took years, but I finally cut off all contact before meeting my now-husband (more than 10 years ago).

So why does it still hurt when I see him happy? I know he’s awful, but there’s a part of me that still feels like losing his approval and desire means I’m not worth much. I’ve worked with therapists on this, and it rarely comes up, but seeing that photo brought back all these old feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. What do I do?

A: There’s something nice about getting to tell two people in a row that they can ease up on themselves! I’m sorry you’re going through a difficult time, of course, but my gosh—it’s perfectly sensible that you feel upset at a sudden and unexpected reminder that your controlling, manipulative ex is now the father of a child. A baby is about as needy and vulnerable a creature as it is possible to be, and while it’s possible that your ex has changed in the intervening decade, the last time you saw him he was very much unchanged, and seemingly unrepentant. That relationship was not only bad on its own, but it led to the loss of many formative friendships, and was your first serious romance. While you may not think about him every day, and you may very well have built a lovely, happy life regardless of how this man hurt you, I’m not at all surprised that you found this information jarring, and that it’s reminded you of how you used to feel when you were with him. You don’t have to do anything, of course, but you should treat your feelings with patience and understanding. It may take a while for that tension and anxiety to subside, and if you need to talk about it with your partner or your friends in the meantime, I hope you give yourself permission to do so.

Q. How do I tell my adult children I can no longer afford my life insurance premiums? For decades my husband and I faithfully made monthly life insurance payments to ensure that after death, the surviving spouse would be able to live comfortably if careful. My husband passed away three years ago. I have continued payments on my policy, knowing an inheritance would be a major help to my three adult children who are in their 40s.

When I turned 70, my monthly premium tripled. Now, as I’m nearing 71, the premium is increasing again by more than half. I expect it to increase astronomically every year. I do not begrudge the monetary windfall my children would receive upon my death, but I no longer feel comfortable continuing to pay for it. If I could afford it, I would, but I don’t feel I should be stressed about money so that I can leave them something. The money left by my husband is steadily disappearing. While I do receive Social Security benefits, I could not survive on that alone.

Now I’m stumped as to how to suggest that my kids help me keep the policy and their inheritance, by paying the premiums or at least helping me pay them. I realize I do not have to leave them anything more than money for final expenses and will do so, but it seems crazy to dump the policy for which I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars and which would make a big difference in their lives. I have health issues but could realistically live another 10 years. What money I have will not last that long. I live with my daughter and contribute to expenses, but see myself depending on her for my physical and financial care somewhere down the line. This stress is really affecting me. I’m afraid to run out of money before I run out of life. This is an emotional and delicate matter in so many ways. I don’t know what to do.

A: I am so, so sorry that you’re in this position, and I hope you don’t let the sunk-cost fallacy keep you from speaking up about an obviously untenable situation. Part of what you and your husband were paying for all those years was the peace of mind that should one of you unexpectedly die young, the other wouldn’t be floundering to try to raise a family and make ends meet—not a guaranteed payout to your adult children in their 40s or 50s. It’s not “crazy” to dump a policy that is financially burdensome for you when your kids are all working and able to support themselves. Please be honest with them right away about your inability to keep up these payments; if they offer to take over for you, that’s lovely, but if they don’t, you should cancel it. (I’ll add here that I’m very much not a lawyer, nor a financial adviser; you may want to speak with one or both first to find out if you have any other options.) You do not have to bring this up delicately; this is a straightforward matter of how much money you have. I’m sure none of your children would want you to be panicking about making ends meet just in the hopes of getting them a big insurance payout someday. Let them know you can’t keep this policy going, and don’t keep struggling in silence.

Q. Self-esteem: This is less of a specific situation and more of a general question. I have been blessed with a number of wonderful friends who I really care for, but who struggle with self-esteem issues. Often they will say things that are self-deprecating. I feel hurt when this happens—I understand that people are allowed to express how they feel, but I’m also hearing my friend in pain at the same time that I’m hearing my friend insulted! How do I deal with this?

A: It really depends on how often your friends are saying these things, their tone, and the seriousness of whatever it is they’re self-deprecating. If your friend often playfully chides himself on a relatively minor quirk or shortcoming, I’d encourage you to release whatever feelings of protectiveness may arise in you as response, and let it go. If it’s a sort of face-saving way to bring up something they feel more vulnerable about, like their appearance, romantic relationships, money troubles, and you don’t often have serious conversations about such things, you might take it as an opportunity to inquire: “I’ve noticed you brought this up a few times in the last month. Is everything OK?” But it’s certainly possible for people to overwhelm their friends with a barrage of exhausting, jarring self-deprecating remarks, only to say “It’s just how I feel!” when asked to pull back on the throttle.

Q. Re: Fragrance sensitivity: As someone who suffers from migraines (mild ones, thankfully), I think the letter writer needs a serious change of attitude or a different girlfriend. First of all, migraines are horrible, difficult to diagnose, inconvenient, and often embarrassing (largely because a lot of people like the letter writer are out there saying “it’s all in your head” as if it’s a fun way to get attention to curl up in a ball in the dark because you encountered a sudden trigger). This is particularly true for women, who are the majority of migraine sufferers and who are used to having their pain dismissed by friends, family, and medical personnel.

I also think the letter writer needs to interrogate why “she’s clearly a hypochondriac who was making it all up for attention” was their first thought in this scenario. It seems obvious to me that if she can’t smell the air freshener, it can’t trigger a migraine. I wouldn’t want to date someone who had as low an opinion of me as the letter writer seems to have of Kara.

A: I agree that “My God, she must have been faking it the whole time; I could never have children with her” is such an overblown response to Kara’s brief respite from migraines (after having gotten COVID!) that I’m inclined to suspect the letter writer was looking for reasons to downplay or dismiss her migraines. If the letter writer is at all inclined to do some reflecting first, it might be worthwhile to read up on migraines and that history of sexist dismissal you mention here—not so the letter writer can say, “My God, I’m a monster, I hate myself,” but so they can hopefully contextualize some of their attitudes and assumptions about migraines and do their best to shed some of them. Even if you two don’t stay together, you can at least break up respectfully.

Q. Re: Guilty inheritance: You’ve already grieved for the parents who weren’t there for you in the way they should have been. Don’t beat yourself up—expect complicated emotions and enjoy your unexpected inheritance.

A: That’s the key here, I think. You’ve suffered enough at your parents’ hands; don’t try to punish yourself for feeling relieved at being able to pay off your debts. I realize there are enough cultural assumptions about what we “owe” our parents that it’s a little blithe to simply say, “Just don’t feel bad,” and leave it at that. You will of course continue to be met by people who expect you to feel terribly grieved and distressed at the sudden death of your parents. You may not want to go into the details of your abuse or estrangement with most of those people, and that’s what the polite social lie and “Thank you so much” upon receiving condolences were invented for.

Danny M. Lavery: Thanks so much, everyone. See you next week!

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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From Ask a Teacher

Q. Playing favorites: I know the standard line is that teachers don’t have favorites. But you must have favorites. My child is lovely—sweet, smart, and dutiful—but he’s got a tough exterior to crack, and he doesn’t let many people in. He’s in third grade now at public school, and since preschool, he’s only had one teacher who really got him. That was a great year. This year, he’s telling me that his teacher “plays favorites,” and I can see that he’s hurt he’s not one of them. I’m curious—what’s the best thing to tell him, particularly when I’ve noticed what he’s talking about? (She tends to favor stereotypical “teacher’s pet” types.) How can I encourage him to connect with his teacher, or her to connect with him? His grades are good, but I can tell this is really getting him down. Read what the teachers had to say.

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