Dear Prudence

My Girlfriend Likes Role-Playing as My Grandma

She wants to take this act public.

Lower side view of an elderly person using a wheelchair
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chalongrat Chuvaree/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

To celebrate a milestone, my girlfriend dressed up as a 100-year-old lady; apparently this is fairly common. However, she didn’t stop there. She has now created an elderly alter-ego and expects to be treated as a grandmother while in this mode. She said it’s like crossdressing and even suggested that I dress up so that I can be her “granddaughter.” She has previously made me up, but it was only a costume; I never felt like a different person. She said that it would be fun to go out as grandmother and granddaughter, with me holding her arm or pushing her in a wheelchair. I feel like that might be disrespectful to actual old or disabled people. But I always want to make my girlfriend happy. Should I participate in this?

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—Ancient Alter-Ego

It’s been a while since I was either young or a woman, so it’s certainly possible I’ve missed something, but I don’t think dressing up as centenarians to celebrate milestones (which milestones?) is such a widespread phenomenon that it’s governed by particular rules of etiquette or good-faith participation. Nor do I understand what this being “like crossdressing” is supposed to mean, either. What rules does she believe govern crossdressing that ought to apply here too?

Leave these questions aside for the moment: Your girlfriend is into something that you’re hesitant about, and she wants to publicly role-play in a way you fear might offend and hurt strangers. That’s a perfectly legitimate concern, and public role-play (especially during a pandemic) is a fairly intense consideration with real risks and one that requires a lot of conversation, negotiation, and planning. Wanting to make your girlfriend happy is great! Saying, “I’m not up for taking this public,” or “I’m not prepared to rent a wheelchair because I’m worried our obvious role-play would upset disabled people” is not at odds with loving or supporting her. She thinks dressing up like an old woman and her granddaughter would be fun. That’s fine! You want to discuss reasonable limits, be honest that this particular fantasy doesn’t turn you on but that you’re willing to try certain aspects of it once in a while for her sake, and make sure you don’t hurt or offend actual wheelchair users by using one in public. That’s more than fine—that’s healthy, respectful, and loving.

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Dear Prudence,

My wife and her best friend are white. They always talk to each other in fake Indian accents for hours at a time. I think it’s weird and kind of racist. I’ve suggested she stop, and she asked me how it’s racist. Now Prudie, I’m not an eloquent guy. The way other people can so well put into words what’s wrong with bigotry, I just can’t do. I’m not that smart, but I know it’s wrong just because it feels wrong. Which is maybe a stupid thing to say. I don’t even know what to Google so I can read it to her. Am I overreacting? What should I say?

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—Xenophobic on Zoom

You’re not overreacting, and you sound perfectly eloquent on the subject to me. It’s not an especially complicated one, and it doesn’t require specialized knowledge in order to critique. It’s rude and racist to adopt fake Indian accents. It is straightforwardly and obviously racist. As a matter of fact, your wife and her friend already know this. That’s why they only talk to each other in those fake accents, and not with their bosses at work, or in line with strangers at the bank, or anywhere else. They know perfectly well that no one but the two of them would be willing to offer the cover of “tee-hee, it’s just a harmless little joke that couldn’t possibly hurt anyone,” and if they spoke that way in front of anyone else, they’d be immediately and resoundingly lambasted.

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Your wife’s demand that you explain why it’s wrong is an attempt at misdirection so she doesn’t have to feel guilty. You can show her this letter if you want her to read something, but all you really need to say is this: “You know it’s wrong just as well as I do, and the evidence you know it’s wrong is the fact that you only do it with one person. I don’t just think stopping is a good idea that you should consider. You need to stop. It’s rude, it’s racist, and it’s damaging my respect for you.”

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Dear Prudence,

Two years ago, my wife of nine years surprised me with a demand for a divorce. She said she had been unhappy and wasn’t going to “waste” the rest of her life with me. There wasn’t anyone else; my wife was just sick of our marriage. She refused counseling, and we had a quiet divorce, splitting custody of our 7-year-old son. She now wants to reconcile. Apparently dating is hard, being a single mom is hard, and she regrets giving up our life together. She claims to have been clinically depressed and says that was the “real” reason behind her actions. As recently as a year ago, I probably would have welcomed her back with open arms, but I am happy now. I am dating someone new, and I think it has the potential to get serious. I have more free time for my hobbies and a better relationship with my son. I turned her down. My ex got angry and accused me of not “valuing” our marriage.

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I loved her and loved our life together. It wasn’t enough. She didn’t value it, and if she was unhappy, it was her own fault. I shouldn’t have shouted, but her words felt like a punch to the gut. Our relationship is frosty now, and I am worried about her reaction when she finds out I am seeing someone. What do I do?

—No Regrets Here

Not much, I think. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to discuss our personal lives. Let’s confine our conversations to taking the best care of our son we can” should be your go-to when she tries to revisit the subject of your marriage. If you find yourself needing to express your frustration and resentments, write them down in a private journal, or call a friend to vent. Any outlet besides your son or your ex-wife will do. If you’re worried that you’ll shout at her or otherwise lose your temper when she provokes you in the future—and I think you should act as if that’s likely, if not inevitable—make a plan for deescalation and share your concerns with someone whose judgments you trust. If you have a strong sense of what you feel like physically and emotionally right before you lose your temper (feeling as if you’ve been struck, for example, or tension in your stomach), take those as indicators that a conversation has grown counterproductive and needs to be paused, and come up with a brief script you can memorize and deploy as an escape hatch—something like: “This is getting heated, and I don’t want either of us to say something we’ll regret. I’m going to hang up now. We can talk later when I’ve had some time to cool down, but I’m not going to get into another argument about undoing our divorce. That’s a settled subject, and I’m not going to revisit it with you.”

But there’s nothing unreasonable about your position. Your wife left you two years ago, your divorce has long since been finalized, and the unilateral nature of both her announcements—first to leave, and then to demand to return—seem like fairly strong indicators that she’s not very interested in considering your interests in a relationship. Accusing someone you have already divorced of not valuing your (now-nonexistent!) marriage is a little absurd. Whatever the case may be, and whatever fault could plausibly be laid on either side, is beside the point. Your goal now should be to co-parent as civilly as possible. Don’t mention who you’re dating unless it will affect your custody agreement, and do so with a professional mediator present so you can keep the conversation on track. But if your ex-wife wants to be frosty, let her be frosty. She’s clearly hurt and angry that she didn’t get what she wanted from you, and you don’t have to worry either about placating her or about convincing her that she’s wrong. It’s very unlikely that you’ll ever convince her to see the end of your marriage the same way you do, so keep your distance, stay polite, and conserve your energy.

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Help! My Niece Stole From My Neighbors. Her Mom Blames Me for Her Getting in Trouble.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Noah Kulwin 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,

I’m in my mid-40s, and I want to retire. I can afford it easily. I’ve made loads of money, although nobody close to me knows it aside from my wife, since we’ve always lived modestly. I’ve long hated my job and have no compelling reason to continue. But when I’ve mentioned that I am considering retiring, my family and friends have all reacted negatively. Some claim to be concerned about the financial implications, while others fret about “what you’ll do with yourself all day.” Still others claim it is irresponsible for someone my age to “stop contributing.” I am beginning to think that justifying my leisure would turn out to be nearly as unpleasant a form of labor as my actual job.

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I was complaining about this to a friend. He used to work for me, but a few years ago started his own firm. He proposed a scheme I find appealing. Remote work is likely to remain common post-pandemic, he noted, and he’d be happy to let me pretend that I am working for him remotely. I don’t relish resorting to deceit, but I also don’t want to get hostile in response to the hectoring questions, which I fear is where this will otherwise end up. What do you think? Acceptable face-saving lie or impermissible subterfuge?

—Stealth Retirement

I’m less interested in permissibility than I am in practicalities. You say you think managing your friends’ and relatives’ objections to your retirement might end up being as much unpleasant work as your current job, but I’m not at all convinced pretending to have a job for another 15 to 20 years is going to be any easier. There are so many ways that could go wrong! Consider, too, that you would presumably either have to ask your wife to lie with you to her own friends and family for a decade or two (a tall order for even the most supportive and game spouse), or that you’d have to mislead her too, and shut yourself away in a “home office” for a few hours every day until you “retired” for real. That seems to be a lot more unnecessary work than simply telling your friends that you’re not interested in hearing any more criticism of your decision to retire, that you’ve reviewed your financial situation and are confident you’re not taking unnecessary risks, and that the subject is closed.

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You don’t have to get hostile in order to tell your loved ones that you’re done arguing with them on the subject. They may get hostile (some of them appear to have gotten hostile already), but that’s not your problem to solve. I do think it’s a good idea to give some thought to what you’ll do all day—not that you have to fill your retirement with endless busywork just for the sake of having a schedule, but finding causes, hobbies, interests, relationships, and so on that you want to dedicate some of your newfound time to will enrich your life. But you don’t owe your cousins or your college roommates a breakdown of how you plan to spend the next few decades in order to start your retirement now.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Unless you made the money running guns or whatever, it’s not something to be ashamed of.”

Danny Lavery and Slate writer Matthew Dessem discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I am a woman in my late 20s who has never been in a serious relationship. I had some awkward high school boyfriends, and I hooked up with a man once in college. I have not had any sexual contact with another person in over seven years. I haven’t been interested in hooking up or dating. I am now at a point in my life where I think I might want a long-term partner and want to start dating so I can find one. I think I might be asexual, but I don’t know how to tell! How do you figure out a sexuality that’s a lack of something? I have never seen someone and thought, “Wow, that is a person that I want to have sex with!” And since I don’t feel like I experience attraction to particular people, I don’t even know whether I am interested in dating men or women. For what it’s worth, I do expect that I would enjoy sex with another person, because I really enjoy masturbation, but I have never ever been interested in porn. It just feels to me like a physical pleasure, not something that would provide connection to another person. I am in search of advice about how to enter dating, how to figure out who I’m interested in, and what I should say to potential partners.

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—Lost for Words

The work of figuring out who you’re interested in does involve a lot of trial and error, the likelihood of a few awkward dates, and figuring out how much weight you want to give to your uncertainty or hesitation when it comes to establishing a connection with someone else. But it might help to start by not framing your sexuality or desires solely as a “lack” of something, especially when you’re still trying to figure out the exact scope of your desires. “I might be asexual, which means I’m probably ‘missing’ something I’m supposed to have” is unnecessarily apologetic and self-defeating, whereas something like “I’m still figuring out my orientation and interests” or “I’m not interested in having sex until after we’ve gotten to know one another pretty well” or “Sex isn’t a big priority for me—I’m open to trying it under the right circumstances, but I’m mostly looking for companionship and emotional connection” gives potential partners a sense of what you do want. Consider whether there are types of physical intimacy like kissing or hand-holding or spooning that do interest you, and under what conditions, if any, you’d be comfortable exploring them.

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I’d also encourage you to look for a wide variety of accounts asexual people have to offer about themselves. You may be surprised and heartened by such accounts, even if they’re not all sunshine and roses, and to see how many different ways asexuality can inform an approach to relationships that’s not just “What ‘regular’ sexual people do, but missing something.” It may even prove to be the key to a whole new perspective on intimacy, commitment, monogamy, sexual orientation, friendship, and communication.

While I don’t want to pressure you to act perfectly cheerful at all times, I think it will do you (and any possible dates of yours) a world of good to think of your temperament and your history as potential assets. You’re comfortable with solitude, you end relationships that don’t seem compelling, you’re interested in a long-term partnership, you know you’re not into pornography, you’re interested in establishing trust and patience when it comes to physical closeness—that’s not a mere absence of sexuality but a unique constellations of desires, instincts, priorities, values, and limits that make you uniquely you. While many people on the dating scene are very interested in sex, that’s hardly a universal truth, and there are plenty of people who might hear your account of yourself and want to go on a date with you. Don’t expect your dates to supply you with certainty or definitions that you’ll have to investigate within yourself, but look for dates who are themselves open to deliberation and relaxation on the subject of sex, who don’t treat it as some defect you have to apologize or make excuses for. Good luck!

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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,

My husband and I have raised our kids to be pretty precise about grammar, because both of us grew up in poverty, and our studies helped us become much more financially stable as adults than we ever were as children. We especially stress the difference between good and well, number and amount, I and me, etc. Lately, my oldest (she’s 7) has started correcting her uncle, grandma, and other relatives when they make these grammatical mistakes. Many of the older family members have bristled and even gotten snappy in response. My daughter gets really upset when she’s snapped at, and it ruins the rest of her day. I think she should scale back on the corrections. It’s clear her older family members are still very hierarchical and get embarrassed about being corrected by somebody younger. I don’t want my daughter to get a reputation in the family. My husband thinks this is the wrong approach. He doesn’t want my daughter to internalize an “adults are always right” attitude (especially when they’re clearly wrong!) and thinks it’s great she has the confidence to speak up. My daughter is stuck in the middle and has started to get upset whenever we make plans with family members. What say you?

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—Raising a Know-It-All

I’m not surprised your daughter is getting upset! She’s only 7 and getting wildly conflicting feedback from all of the adults in her life—especially from her parents, who are supposed to be looking out for her but are putting her in an increasingly untenable situation. The good news is that you do not have to teach your daughter that “adults are always right” in order to explain that it’s not necessary (or kind, or important) to correct other people in informal conversation. You and your husband should also take this opportunity to have an age-appropriate talk with your daughter about descriptive versus prescriptive approaches to grammar—not to mention variations in dialect, formal versus informal speech, and whether it’s worth “correcting” someone whose meaning is clear even if their language isn’t perfect. It’s one thing to teach your daughter linguistic rules, but if your husband impresses upon her that the most important aspect of grammar is making sure people know every time they’ve made even the tiniest errors in speech, then he’s going to set her up for a lifetime of frustration. It might also be a good idea for you two to tell your daughter you’re sorry for putting her in this situation, since 7’s not too young to hear your parents admit they’re fallible.

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Classic Prudie

A little after my wife and I reconciled from our separation, we discovered she was pregnant. Although we were having marital problems, we were going through marriage therapy and I genuinely wanted to give it another try. I was, of course, over the moon about becoming a father. Things were starting to look up, until I discovered an ultrasound scan report which showed my wife was further along in the pregnancy than she told me. After a bitter, heated argument she confessed she conceived the baby with someone else while we were separated. She said she thought she was acting for the best because she knew I would be happy about the pregnancy. (One of the many reasons why we initially separated was because I wanted to start a family and she didn’t.) To cut the long story short, I decided to get a divorce. Since I moved out, my wife has been spreading malicious rumors that I abandoned her and “our baby.” She’s been hospitalized due to complications in her pregnancy and I got a lot of hate mails/calls from her family and friends for not showing up. I don’t want to get caught up in a dirty fight so I have been ignoring these. But I’m getting increasingly angry that she is smearing my reputation through lies. Should I clear my name, even if it means airing our dirty laundry in public?

Update, Jan. 21: This column has been updated to add this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored.

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