Dear Prudence

Should I Make My Wife Sign a Contract for Every Decision We Make?

We make compromises, then she moves the goal posts.

A man and a woman's hand signing a contract.
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Dear Prudence,

My wife is beautiful, smart, fun, and we complement each other in a lot of ways. But we cannot for the life of us figure out how to stick to a compromise. When we disagree, we’ll talk about it and come to an agreement, then a few days later, she’ll bring it up again, saying I “need to work with [her] and move to the middle.” For example, when her family would want to visit in pre-COVID days, we’d always have to discuss how long they’d stay in advance, otherwise they’d show up with no departure date in mind. She’d want them to stay for two weeks. I’d want a few days. We’d agree on a week, and then she’d get on the phone with them and say, “OK, you can stay for 12 days.” When I protest, she says I need to be more flexible.

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This kind of moving-the-goal-post thing happens constantly, with things both big and small, and I’m not sure how to handle it, especially with the big stuff. I’ve half-jokingly told her I’m going to have her sign contracts when we agree on something and put in the fridge so she doesn’t forget. Short of drafting fake legal documents, what can we do?

—Where’s the Middle?

I think there’s something to be said for putting important agreements in writing, especially given your wife’s tendency to creatively reframe old agreements to suit herself—although I can understand why you wouldn’t want to have to do this for the rest of your life. But by all means, start highlighting this issue so you can try to get a sense of how conscious she is of it. The next time you come to a compromise, repeat whatever it is: “This might sound a little goofy, but I want to acknowledge that we both just agreed to do [X], and that this is the compromise we’ve both landed on. If you have more objections, or you actually want something else, let me know now, because it’s been hard for me when I think we’ve made a decision together and then a few days later you change your mind.” But you don’t have to make jokes and then give up. Let her know how much this bothers you, and be honest about the effect it’s had on your ability to trust her. If you hear her contradict something you two have previously agreed upon, interrupt and correct her: “We spoke on Thursday about having the cousins stay for a week, not 12 days.” (It’s not often that I advise letter writers to interrupt and correct their partners, but in this case I think it’s important.) If she says, “I need you to be more flexible,” you can counter with, “I need to be able to trust you when you agree to something, and I can’t do that if I learn you’ve changed your mind without telling me.” If you two truly can’t get anywhere, it might be time to bring in a couples counselor. Good luck!

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Dear Prudence,

I am currently an elementary school teacher. In the near future I would like to get a master’s in administration and eventually move up in my field. I brought this up to my husband of eight years, and he bluntly said, “You don’t have the skills for that. First off, you don’t like confrontation. You wouldn’t do well.” It was diminishing, to say the least. I told him I hoped he’d be more encouraging, and he got mad at me and said several other things. I should mention that I rarely speak to him about my career, but I’m an involved teacher who takes on extra duties. What now? I can’t seem to shake this off. It absolutely hurts me that my life partner thinks I’m not capable of achieving more. I was hoping for some encouragement and moral support. Isn’t that what husbands do? The program is two years long, so I would have time to learn and develop as an administrative leader. How should I follow up this conversation? Or am I simply overreacting and should consider his feedback as eye-opening?

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—Not Cut Out for This

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I’m not sure where your husband got the idea that liking confrontation was a prerequisite for getting a master’s degree or working in education. You can dislike confrontation and still be prepared to go through with it when necessary. And presumably the very reason you want to go back to school is because you don’t yet have the skills to work in school administration. The problem here is not that you’re about to take on a challenge you’re not prepared for but that your husband doesn’t know much about your career and takes his rare opportunity to weigh in as an excuse to dismiss you out of hand. Sure, spouses can sometimes deliver difficult truths to each other, and there’s a place for loving challenge in any good marriage. But that doesn’t seem to be what happened here. Your husband doesn’t know much of anything about what you’re like at work and refused to even consider the possibility that you might be able to handle a promotion in a few years. That’s pretty shabby!

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I don’t know what your husband said to you when he got mad, but I wish you’d included those details here. Without them, I’m hesitant to advise you on how to handle a follow-up conversation. I can’t help but wonder if the reason you rarely speak to him about your work is because he’s been unsupportive in the past and if this is part of a larger pattern. Certainly if you say, “I was hoping for more support when I discuss my career plans with you,” and his response is to get angry, there’s cause for concern. You’re not overreacting, and his feedback—which amounts to neither more nor less than “I don’t think you can succeed”—is only eye-opening inasmuch as it clues you in to a problem in your marriage. Take some time to consider your future and how you’d like to proceed, both professionally and personally, and seek the input of your colleagues and friends who are actually familiar with your work and want to see you succeed.

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Dear Prudence,

During the pandemic I have been able to reunite with my adult sister over Zoom. This has been really special because I never wanted to lose touch in the first place. My sister has Down syndrome, and my mother has been rationing access to her since my parents divorced in the mid-’90s, mostly as a means of hurting my father. My brother and I were collateral damage. My sister is basically a giant 4-year-old and relies on others to make family plans and arrangements. A few years ago, without consulting us, my mother placed my sister in a foster care–type arrangement after struggling with financial and health problems. My wife and I would have happily taken my sister in, and we told my mother it hurt she didn’t discuss this with us. Since then, my mother has withheld contact information. We would get verbal updates about my sister’s life, but no matter how much we prodded, she never showed up to family functions, and we were never allowed to phone, video call, or text her.

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Now that I have her contact information, I’d like to pass it to my brother and father but could really use some advice first. There’s never been any accusations of abuse in our family, so there aren’t any safety concerns. My sister seems to have a great home life. She lives with a single mother, a young son who also has Down syndrome, and his grandmother. We get updates on the fun things they do, their movie marathons, and Sunday brunches. Her caregiver has told me how thrilled her new family is that I am involved now and they really appreciate the joy I bring my sister on our regular calls. I’m also able to send gifts and occasional help with expenses. After the pandemic ends, we’re planning to go to baseball games and fairs together.

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Her caregiver wonders why my father and brother don’t also get involved, and I haven’t gone into the details. My fear is that if I pass on my sister’s contact information, my mother will feel betrayed. I am terrified that betrayal could make it harder for me to stay in touch with my sister. On the other hand, my brother and father love my sister too, and both lament not being a part of her life.

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—Letting “I Dare Not” Wait Upon “I Would”

It makes sense that you’d want to tread carefully and not do anything that could prevent you from maintaining a relationship with your sister. But I’d encourage you to separate fear of your mother “feeling betrayed” from fear of how she might realistically be able to retaliate. Can you speak to your sister’s team (I’m thinking both of the woman whose home she shares, as well as anyone else who may be part of her day-to-day caregiving) about the extent of your mother’s conservatorship? You might also try contacting your local department of family services or an attorney who specializes in guardianship if you’re not clear on the boundaries. It may help to know more about what your mother is legally able to do. If your sister no longer lives with your mother and is unlikely to do so again in the future, your mother may not be able to do much to keep you from speaking to her.

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You should also ask your sister if she’s interested in speaking to her father or brother. To that purpose, I’d encourage you to refrain from describing her as “a giant 4-year-old.” While she may be legally entitled to and dependent on regular care, and without discounting the degree to which Down syndrome informs the details of her existence, she’s not a 4-year-old, and she has a right to speak for herself on the subject. Tell both your sister and her primary caregiver that her father and brother would like to say hello to her if she’s interested, and listen to her response before setting up a group Zoom call. Your fear that your mother will try to restrict contact is perfectly understandable, given her track record, but your sister’s no longer a minor, and you have a right to develop an independent relationship, no matter how your mother feels about the subject. I’m so glad you two have been able to reconnect, and I hope you’re able to enjoy a warm, close relationship for years to come.

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Help! My Mother-in-Law Wants to Refer to Me as an “Aunt” of My Own Child.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Harron Walker on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

Subscribe to the Dear Prudence Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dear Prudence,

My future brother-in-law, “Beck,” is a smart, funny 24-year-old. He’s also autistic and needs help reading social cues, for which he’s very reliant on his mother to tell him when he’s being “inappropriate.” He recently graduated college, has a great job, and lives independently, although his mother manages his finances (which I think he could do on his own). Beck came out as bisexual about three years ago to a small part of the family. It was obvious he’d been working up the courage to say something and was very nervous. Seeing the look on his mother’s face, my fiancé and I jumped in to say we were proud he felt comfortable telling us and that we’d love anyone he ever wanted to introduce to us. My future mother-in-law flew off the handle. She said something like bisexuality needs to be “diagnosed” and “There’s no way he wants a dick up his ass.” I was absolutely horrified by her comments and told her so. She said that I don’t understand what it’s like to have an autistic child.

This past National Coming Out Day, Beck posted on Facebook that he’s worked with a therapist for years and feels proud of his bisexuality. I knew my FMIL would lose her mind. Within a few hours, the post was down, and Beck was calling family members to “apologize” for his “inappropriate” post. I have no doubt that my FMIL is just homophobic. She blames his sexuality on autism, which is just abhorrent. I worry that Beck has trouble realizing how toxic her behavior is because he believes she’s the only one who knows what’s “appropriate” due to his autism. There was significant emotional abuse in the household growing up, something my fiancé has only recently come to fully accept. He has made great strides to break free of his mother’s control.

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I’m not even entirely sure what my question here is. I welcome any advice you are willing to share. I need to know how to go forward living with a homophobic FMIL, supporting Beck and encouraging him to live as his authentic self.

—Almost In-Law

Your goals here are commendable and, I hope, achievable. I don’t know how much financial control Beck’s mother exerts over him, whether it’s mostly administrative or if she has direct access to his bank account and could punish or isolate him by withholding money. You say there was significant emotional abuse in their home growing up, and while you don’t specify the source, I don’t think it’s too paranoid to guess that at least some of it came from their mother. If you haven’t already, you and your fiancé should reassure Beck that there was nothing inappropriate about his post, that you believe his mother’s response was deeply homophobic, and that he has all your support.

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Ask if there’s anything specific you can do for him to show that support, and listen to what Beck has to say. Does he want your feedback on other things his mother has told him are “inappropriate” that he now suspects were perfectly appropriate? Does he want you two to say something directly to her? Or does he fear that she’d try to retaliate against him, and instead wants to keep a low profile for now? Does he want to talk about how to establish financial independence from his mother? Let him know you’re willing to run interference but that you won’t make trouble for him with her if he doesn’t want it. You might consider speaking to the other relatives Beck felt pressured to apologize to for coming out and enlisting their support, too. Your first priority should be to make sure you don’t make his life any more difficult, and calling out homophobia directly and supporting him should be your second.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“It’s definitely understandable that he wants to trust his mom, but his mom is very wrong here.”

Danny Lavery and John Thompson discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.*

Dear Prudence,

I’m a senior in college who will be graduating in May. I’m not wild about my major, but it will pay the bills, and I don’t hate it. But I’m feeling an impending sense of dread. I don’t want to work. At all. The thought of working a 40-hour week, 9-to-5 job makes me miserable. I had a part-time job in high school and had to take a two-year break in between my sophomore and junior year of college to work full-time. I didn’t mind the job, but I hated the whole idea of it. I would get home from work, eat a microwaveable meal, crawl into bed, and go to sleep. I spent the whole weekend sleeping or doing chores. I had to give up all my hobbies, going out with friends, exercising, eating healthy, etc. I don’t want to go back to that place. There have even been times I’ve thought I’d be better off dead than working a full-time job. (I’m not at all suicidal, and my therapist knows about these occasional passing thoughts and is not concerned.) It’s not that I don’t like my major or future career path because I feel this way even when thinking about jobs that I would really enjoy. I always thought I’d be this great career woman, but I cry every time I think about having to go to work. I know the main advice is to suck it up and get over it but is there anything else you think will help me deal with this existential dread?

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—Work-Shy

Working a 9-to-5 job for 40 hours a week, especially when it’s entry-level work, often is miserable! The kind of existence you describe—where most of your physical and emotional reserves get eaten up by your job—is draining and deadening, and you have every reason to want to resist it. The fundamental problem here is the nature of work under capitalism, even in a field you enjoy, and you’re far from alone in these feelings. (Karl Marx’s theory of alienation does, I think, a pretty good job of explaining what you’re experiencing.) You describe a fairly productive life thus far, and you sound eager and active and capable. It might be worthwhile to discuss this anxiety with your therapist, if you haven’t yet.

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But since you’ll still have to find a way to pay your bills, I’ll also recommend the following: Look for jobs with short commutes, so you spend as little time as possible getting to and from the office. You could seek out jobs (even outside of your field) that don’t follow 9-to-5 hours or offer flexible or compressed schedules. You could also search for any alternate sources of income that seem appealing, or at least bearable, to you. Do you want to give living on a commune a shot? (Yes, they still have communes.) Take a job abroad for a year? Find a one-year fellowship? I won’t pretend any of these options are perfect solutions to your problem, but at least they might offer different sets of problems and buy you time to think through next steps. Remember your first job isn’t forever, nor does it need to be the start of your lifelong career. Figure out what will minimize your anxiety in the short term, pursue meaningful solidarity in the medium term, and trust your instincts: You’re right to bridle at the idea of renting out most of your life on earth to an employer, even a nice one.

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Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit YouGet it from Slate

Dear Prudence,

I’ve been teleworking since March, and my only trips out in public are to the grocery store. I’m grateful to have the means to keep my bubble tight. However, I live with my partner in my in-laws’ home. They host weekly family gatherings (10 households are mixing at this point, and one is a health care worker treating COVID patients), sip-and-paint classes, out-of-state vacations, unmasked visits to the elderly, etc. They’re truly kind people, but I feel their defensiveness radiating when I question the safety of these choices. The last straw came when they hosted friends for the weekend. After waking up to a house full of folks having brunch, I packed my bags and moved into my parents’ attic. They live about an hour away, and they’re taking social distancing seriously. I felt joy for the first time in months, and the anxiety-induced chest pains I’d developed finally lifted.

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Until my partner and I finish building our home (a major stressor of its own), this is what my life will be. I can’t demand the way someone else runs their home, especially while they’ve been so gracious to open it to me, but their decisions were affecting my safety. Meanwhile, my partner won’t advocate for my concerns, and it hurts. They say I make them feel dirty and guilty when I refuse to be intimate with them (and mix households) during this time. If living with in-laws, no matter how great, during a pandemic wasn’t turnoff enough, I definitely have no interest in sex when I’m being made to feel like I’m overreacting for staying home and safe. Am I the problem?

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—Two Households, Not Alike

Does your partner share your concerns and has refused to advocate for you two because they were afraid of upsetting their parents? Or does your partner think your concerns are unreasonable? Do you two agree on anything about COVID safety? If you can have a conversation about what you do have in common first, that might make your differences feel a little less daunting. But you’re not unreasonable for saying you can’t spend up-close-and-personal, unmasked time together with someone who’s been in regular close quarters with people from 10 other households, even if that someone is your partner.

Is your partner willing to come stay with you at your parents’ house until your place is finished? That’s assuming your parents’ attic has enough room for both of you, that your parents are comfortable with another long-term guest, and that your partner would agree to abide by social-distancing protocols for the duration, which I realize is hardly a guarantee. But that does seem like the quickest solution to the biggest of your problems for now. If you can stress that you want intimacy, that you miss and long for its return, that might go a long way toward soothing your partner’s defensiveness.

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Correction, Dec. 24, 2020: Due to an editing error, this article originally misspelled John Thompson’s last name.

Classic Prudie

I have what seems to be a petty problem, but it’s really becoming an issue in my marriage. My husband and I have been together for almost 20 years and have three kids. We are well-educated, have satisfying jobs, and still enjoy each other’s company, with one exception. He has recently grown a beard. In years past he has occasionally had a beard for a short while, and each time after a few weeks he’s gotten rid of it, to my relief. I hate it. I don’t find it attractive, and more importantly I hate the way it feels on my skin when we kiss or do anything more intimate. This time, he’s refusing to shave and has made this beard into a “love me, love my beard” situation. I finally told him not to even try to kiss me until he shaves. This led to a huge fight, and we’re barely speaking. I can’t help the way his beard physically makes me feel! Help!

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