Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: It’s the last chat of the year! Let’s solve some problems.
Q. WFH boundaries: My husband and I are both working from home due to COVID. Things have been rocky at best. My husband works in a room that is his dedicated office. We don’t have the space for a dedicated office for me as well, so I usually work throughout the house and oftentimes in our bedroom. My husband just does not seem to understand that I am working during the day and will often walk into a room and start asking me questions or make small talk. He also will open the door if I have it closed, without knocking or announcing himself. I have tried talking to him about this many times and I have asked him repeatedly that if he needs something or if he wants to take a break to talk, to send me a text message before just barging in. He feels that it is insulting that I don’t want to talk to him and that he “has to ask permission” to talk to me.
Am I being unreasonable? Is it too much to ask that I have space to work without being interrupted? I understand that working from home means many people have fewer social interactions outside of the household, but I can’t just be available to my husband at all times during the work day. If I am not being completely crazy in asking for this, how can I get my husband to actually respect my boundaries? Please help!
A: Let’s start by rejecting your husband’s premise: It’s not insulting to be at work, it’s not insulting to say that you can’t drop your work at unexpected or arbitrary moments during the workday to make small talk, and it’s not insulting to ask your husband to knock before entering your workspace. If you were asking him to knock before he entered any room in the house at any time of day, I might encourage you to reconsider your perspective, but that’s clearly not the situation here. Part of the problem might be your shifting/makeshift office space, so you might ask him if it would help to have one particular room or area designated as the no-interruptions office for the duration of the work-from-home era, but that’s the only concession I think you should make on this front.
The real issue is that your husband won’t listen to a simple request like “I need to plan out my breaks during the workday, and I’m asking you not to interrupt me whenever you feel like talking.” So, I think you should frame it this way: “You didn’t use to do this when I went into the office every day, so I don’t think you used to see my reduced availability during work hours as an insult. I like talking to you after I’m done working for the day, and I’m available to occasionally take a planned break to chat, but I can’t offer you open-ended, spontaneous conversation throughout the workday. What do you think you need in order to come to terms with it? I’m willing to talk to a couples counselor about it if you are, but what I need from you here is a commitment to changing this habit.”
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Q. Incarcerated nice guy: A few months ago, I (a white, bisexual, nonbinary person) decided that I wanted to start writing to incarcerated people, given the many mutual benefits to doing so and the opportunity to provide community support to someone in our terrible prison system. I randomly picked two people through a semi-local organization that specifically works with queer and trans folks. I also specifically chose people who had their interests listed as “friendship,” as I’m not looking for a relationship beyond that. So far, I’ve been exchanging letters with both of them and emails with one. The first person I sent a letter to has responded more slowly, but we’ve had great conversation, and I look forward to learning more about them and sharing resources where I can.
The second person, however, is slowly becoming too much for me, and I’m struggling with setting boundaries and deciding what to do. In the beginning of our communications, I apparently wasn’t clear enough that I was not looking for a relationship. Even though I established in my first letter that I am nonbinary, as soon as he saw a photo of me (we exchanged a few, because it’s nice to know who you’re talking to), he started treating me like, well, a woman. He sometimes sends a couple of letters before I have time to reply, and so at one point, I was met with two or three letters within a few days of each other that all included explicit references to wanting to know about my body and my sexual preferences, talking about his own body, and talking about wanting to date and sleep with me.
I set clearer boundaries at that point, but since I struggle with putting my foot down in these situations, part of it relied on reiterating that I have a partner and am not looking for a relationship. He’s since cooled down on the explicit content, but he still references wanting to date me and constantly asks if we (my partner and I) are “still together.” When we’re just chatting, it’s pretty nice. We’ve talked about our lives a bit, and sometimes it’s just a typical conversation. But my anxiety over these messages is still through the roof! Not only does he have my address, but more importantly, I don’t want to abandon him in a time when he really needs support. Should I work on my boundaries and just scale back how much I reply, while still maintaining this pen pal? Or should I end the arrangement, and if so, how? I haven’t talked to the organization that arranges these pen pals yet, as I’m deeply anxious about being judged.
A: I fear you are confusing “support” with “sexual harassment”—this guy does not “need” to be able to sexually harass you, and you did not invite his sexual harassment by “failing” to be clear that you didn’t want to trade sexual fantasies or begin a romantic relationship with him. You have in fact, been incredibly clear on that subject on more than one occasion; the reason he continues to do it is not because he’s confused on that front but because he chooses to.
It’s a little concerning that this pen pal program apparently doesn’t have a way to facilitate the exchange of letters without giving out your home address up front, but please don’t let your fear of judgment keep you from letting them know you can’t continue writing to this man and ask them for help in ending the exchange. You are not abandoning this man by insisting on a reasonable boundary like “Don’t continually try to hit on me when I’ve told you no already.” That is not what abandonment is. You do not need to “scale back” on your letters and continue a relationship with someone you can’t trust to respect your basic limits. That does not mean you are consigning him to eternal loneliness. You are not the only form of support available to him, and you cannot singlehandedly make up for the cruelties of the prison-industrial complex by pretending not to mind his sexual harassment. You have a right not to be sexually harassed, and you should focus on the working relationship you’ve developed with your other pen pal, where you’re able to be of service and feel safe.
Q. I fell for the guy in an open relationship: For the past four to five months, I’ve been seeing a guy who’s currently in an open relationship. He lives alone in that person’s apartment (they have been living abroad for most of the year). He was clear about his situation from the start, so I didn’t have any expectations that it would turn into a full-blown romance. But then it did? He said things have been rocky with his partner for a long time and that he sees a future with me.
I told him directly that if he wants to keep dating me, he needs to break up with them and have a plan for doing so, because I don’t want to help him cheat or be strung along indefinitely. Prudie, I am not really expecting to be in the 0.1 percent of cases where this actually works out. But maybe I am? He has already lined up places to stay, started packing his things, and isn’t doing the usual dodgy song-and-dance I would expect. Again, I am trying to so hard to keep my expectations low for the sake of my stupid fragile heart, but … I really like this guy and want things to work out. If the breakup doesn’t happen as planned, I won’t see him anymore. If it does, do you have any advice on making sure we move forward in a healthy way? Is it possible that this could actually work?
A: My main question, were I in your position, would be whether this guy has told his partner that he’s lined up places to stay, has packed his things, is in love with someone else, and wants to end their relationship. (I’m not quite sure what “having a plan” to tell his partner the truth would look like beyond simply asserting “Yeah, I’m definitely going to tell them the truth soon, the timing’s just not great now,” which does sound to me very much like a dodgy song-and-dance.) That’s just as important, if not more important, than planning to move. A deadline or ultimatum like “if the breakup doesn’t happen as planned, I won’t see him anymore” is a reasonable start, but what does “as planned” mean, since neither of you seem to have a date in mind beyond your desire not to be strung along “indefinitely”? How will you determine whether things are happening as planned or not? Given how badly you want things to work out between the two of you, do you think you’re likely to amend your position if your boyfriend has what sounds like a very good excuse for putting that conversation off? “He just really doesn’t want to hurt her feelings” has kept many a would-be partner waiting in the wings for longer than they’d initially planned. Without consigning your future relationship to failure, I think it’s worth asking yourself, “What if things get rocky between us in the future? Can I trust that he’ll talk to me honestly about our problems and his doubts or fears, or do I think he’ll take that as an excuse to start looking for intimacy with someone else?” Have you two talked about that possibility, and what do you think of his answers? My best advice to you is to share your concerns with a few trusted friends, get a really clear sense of how much time you think is reasonable to wait for an official breakup, and don’t let wishful thinking about how things could be muddle your vision of how things are. Packing a bag is just packing a bag if his partner doesn’t know he’s leaving.
Q. I hate my name: I have never liked my name, both due to the sound and because it originated as a nickname for a longer name that then caught on in its own right (think Abby from Abigail, or Bella from Isabella). I frequently get asked if my name is short for the longer name, and it always makes me feel uncomfortable to admit that my actual name is the diminutive version. I don’t even really like the longer name!
Ordinarily I’d just change my name, but my grandmother gave it to me because she loved it so much and hadn’t gotten to use it. She died a few years ago, and was an intelligent, elegant woman who I try to emulate. It would feel wrong to change it, because I have great respect for her and she always said how beautiful it was. I thought about even changing my middle name to something I liked better, but that name has deep significance to my parents and they get hurt whenever I mention changing either of my names. My question is this: If I can’t change my name, how should I come to terms with keeping it?
A: I’d start by switching from “I can’t change my name, so my only option is to come to terms with it” to, at the very least, “I’m afraid changing my name will disrespect my grandmother’s memory, and I’m worried my parents will take that decision so personally that I’ll never hear the end of it, and feel so guilty I can’t go through with it.” Honoring tradition and the wishes of your relatives is not a bad thing, and if you ultimately decide to continue using your first and middle names, I think you can acknowledge your own complicated feelings about the subject without resigning yourself to the belief that you are merely giving in. That said, you’ve written to an advice columnist who has changed his name on more than one occasion, and I imagine you did so at least in part because you were curious about that possibility. This is your name, and you have to use it every day; neither your late grandmother nor your living parents have to answer to it the way that you do, so I think you should take your own feelings (which seem persistent and deeply-rooted) into consideration.
If your parents were hurt by your decision to start using a different name, either legally or informally, what resources might they have for dealing with their hurt feelings? I don’t believe they would have no choice but to feel sad forever. They might talk to you about their feelings, they might remind themselves that this is not an indictment of the way that they raised you but an act of autonomy, re-creation, reshaping, and dynamic change. They might privately work through their own feelings and seek serenity and acceptance about the fact that their adult child makes significant choices about their own name and life without their permission. Your grandmother would not have retroactively lost her ability to love the name you were given at birth, nor would it impugn her affection for the name—you might find some way to honor her relationship with that name that feels personally meaningful and keeps that relationship alive in your heart. Whatever you decide to do, whatever you decide to come to terms with, I believe it must start with the affirmation that you can change your name, even though you may decide not to—not with the belief that such change is impossible, so your only choice is to grin and bear it. Good luck.
Q. In love with someone 20 years younger: For the past few years, I have been in love with a girl who is now 26. She’s beautiful, talented, likes a lot of the same things I do. But I’m 46 and look every day of it—balding, a bit overweight, plus I don’t have a lot of money. I was content to adore her from afar, but recently she has gotten a boyfriend. This development has awakened some disturbing feelings I’ve never had before: jealousy, anger, and I just plain don’t want to be around her (and him). To cut her out of my life would mean giving up a lot of things I enjoy. I’m not sure how to deal with this.
A: That tension between “I’d have to give up things I enjoy if I ended our friendship” and “our friendship is now mostly unendurable because I don’t want to be around her” is challenging, certainly. But if you can’t bear to spend time with your friend because you’re unable to deal with your own feelings of jealousy, I don’t feel optimistic about your ability to enjoy those things anyway. I think you should be honest with your friend without going into excessive detail: Tell her that you need space from your friendship, not because you don’t care for her, but because you’re unable to deal with your crush and need to handle it on your own, ask that she grant you that space as a gesture of respect for your friendship, and then take that space. You are very clearly no longer content to “adore her from afar,” and something that used to work for you no longer works.
Q. Is this leap the right leap? I’m in my mid-20s. Pre-pandemic, I had been working in the performing arts—only for a few months, but I loved it. I was then unemployed for a long time but finally got a new job in a different industry. The pay is good, my co-workers are super nice, it’s very close to my house, and there are benefits. But I don’t feel as grateful or lucky as I should; all I can think about is quitting and moving to a smaller city to go to grad school for a degree I’m not even sure I need. I’ve dreamed of moving to this city for a while and I’m scared I’ll get stuck where I am instead. How do I decide how long to stay at this job for and how do I know if and when quitting, moving, and going back to school is a good idea?
A: A fear of getting stuck makes a great deal of sense, although I don’t think you should base your decisions right now solely on how you feel, and there’s a stuck-ness to long-term unemployment that I’m sure you’re already all too familiar with. I’d encourage you to start incorporating specific details about dates and money into your plans—how much would this degree cost you? Would you be able to get a fully funded position, or is it the kind of degree you’re expected to pay for either through loans, scholarships, or your own savings? How much money do you think you could realistically save up over the next year if you stayed at this job? The next two years? You don’t have to feel lucky or grateful—you don’t have to feel anything in particular about your work—but I think you should be cautious about the possibility of going into debt for a degree you seem to think would likely hinder your future financial independence. Since you’re making decent money now, it might help to book a few sessions with a career coach so you can take advantage of your relative stability to think about all of your alternatives, not just the one that feels the most freeing or risky.
Q. Re: WFH boundaries: Trade the office with your husband. Tell him you need quiet and he needs to wander, so he can switch with you. And then lock the door. He’s being an ass. I’m sure it’s unintentional (he misses the watercooler talk and all), but it’s not respectful.
A: Trading has come up a lot in these responses; I agree it seems like a pretty obvious solution and I’m a little sheepish that I didn’t include it in my original answer. (More than one of you has suggested barging into his office at all hours, which I agree is tempting but I think would probably just waste more of the letter writer’s work hours, which are already in short supply.)
Q. Re: WFH boundaries: If your husband isn’t respecting your verbal requests now that you’re working from home and your bedroom is the only place you can work, why not get a lock for the bedroom door? Use it as a last resort and if your husband shows he can respect your schedule, then you can stop using it.
A: Oof—I agree that this should be an absolute last resort, and that if you’re at a place with your live-in partner where you need to resort to a lock to keep them from interrupting you, it’s probably a good idea to start talking to your friends about the trouble you’re having and consider the possibility of a short-term physical separation. If you need a lock, it’s at best a short-term fix until you can reassess in couples counseling or go somewhere that you don’t need a lock. But it should be on the table as an option, certainly.
Q. Skin deep: I’ve been happily married for more than 10 years to a great woman, and we have two amazing kids. I still find my wife very attractive, and I enjoy our intimate sessions. There’s one thing that I don’t know how to address. My wife works out frequently and has a great body for a mom of two. However, she has a significant amount of cellulite in her thighs, mostly in the back and some on her buttocks. I know she’s got an issue with it. If she’s undressing in front of me or is in the bathroom naked, she always turns to make sure I’m not seeing her thighs. When swimming she wears a towel and takes it off just before she enters the water. We have never discussed this in all our years together. Her thighs are a bit of a turnoff, but not a deal killer. We can afford treatment to remove the cellulite, but I’m unsure how to best approach this option or create a space for her to come to the conclusion on her own. Or should I just ignore it? Read what Prudie had to say.