Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Secret ambitions: Like a lot of people, I have been writing a novel during lockdown in my country this last year. I’ve always wanted to write this novel, as it’s a story idea I’ve had in my head for many years, and getting the opportunity to work on it properly has been one of the only upsides of this horrible period. I’ve never particularly intended on publishing it—it’s just an ambition I’ve had to complete something like this, and it gives me pleasure to have completed a full draft of something so important to me.
My husband, however, has been the exact opposite of supportive. He has told me at least once a week for months that I “can’t hope to get it published” and that he wishes I wouldn’t waste my evenings over this “ridiculous project.” To be clear, we have no children, and I have been writing it during the hours he devotes to video games and virtual socials in his home office, so it’s not as though I’ve been neglecting anyone by focusing on this.
I’ve told him repeatedly that my ambition isn’t to publish it, just to complete this work for my pleasure, but he seemed to find that even more ridiculous because then “what’s the point?” It’s gotten me down so much that I’ve never even shown him a chapter since the first, and I sometimes lie when he asks what I’m doing at the computer because I just don’t want to start a stupid quarrel about it. The thing is, I have shared my work with a couple of dear friends, who’ve been incredibly kind and supportive. One of them, “Kelly,” actually has links in publishing, and has been offering to facilitate a conversation with an agent. I would definitely want to keep that secret from my husband, as I can just imagine how awful he would be if and when nothing came of it, and I would feel so crushed and humiliated.
Would it be a big violation of trust in our marriage if I went ahead with something like this (that I gather will entail a lot more work and time, at least) without telling him? I’d tell him if it actually came to getting published, though I expect he’d be angry at me not having told him sooner, but do you think it would be bad to just keep the effort a secret from him until I know either way? For what it’s worth, he’s always been very supportive of my actual career—it’s just this novel thing that he finds frivolous and annoying.
A: I just cannot imagine a sane, healthy marriage where taking a noncommittal meeting with an agent to discuss the mere possibility of working on a book project together would be a “violation of trust.” Rather, I think the “violation of trust” you fear is that your husband would continue to violate your trust by treating a chat with an agent about a project you’ve been noodling over in your spare time as some sort of betrayal. His entire reaction to your novel-writing hobby (which, unless you’ve left out something huge, sounds pretty low-key and something that affects your husband not at all) has been so bizarrely disproportionate and so gratuitously disrespectful that I have to wonder whether he’s this cruel and dismissive of all your outside interests, or whether this is a supremely out-of-character mean streak.
I don’t think it’s “bad” that you don’t share information with your husband that you know he will seize upon as an excuse to belittle and shame you—but I do think it’s bad, quite bad, that your husband has been going out of his way to belittle and shame you for spending a few hours a week writing a book while he’s playing video games. I suppose it’s a good thing that he’s not this cruel about your day job, but that hardly makes up for his cruelty about this book. I’d encourage you to talk to your friends about your husband’s heavy-handed, repressive attitude toward your writing, because I think it will help you recalibrate your response once more if the people in your life know just how much he’s hurting you. Your husband is being an asshole, and if he gets “angry” with you for not sharing news with you about a hobby he’s made very clear he thinks is pathetic, then that’s on him, not you.
How to Get Advice From Prudie:
• Send questions for publication to email@example.com. (Questions may be edited.)
• Join the live chat Mondays at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the discussion.
• Call the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast at 401-371-DEAR (3327) to hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Q. To drink or not to drink: My husband and I, like many others, just completed a Dry January. We both feel great: I am getting better sleep, am more productive, and have lost some alcohol bloat. I enjoy taking resets like this once or twice a year; it helps me adjust my relationship with alcohol. Most of the time, I enjoy a glass or two of wine most nights, but after a few weeks of sober living, when I invite alcohol back in, I’ll usually just drink one glass instead of two, and only weekends instead of every night.
My husband, however, has more of a problematic relationship with alcohol. It’s gotten him in trouble a few times over the years—nothing too bad, but more that he can’t control his temper or his drinking when he is drunk. He will sneak alcohol and drink until he passes out, and he can be a mean drunk. For these reasons and more, he’s been pushing us to adopt sober living full time. I support this, and I think it’s the right decision for him. His dad was a nasty drunk, and I think there’s a genetic (and environmental) component to his struggle with alcohol.
However, I like to drink! I like relaxing with wine, drinking a glass with friends, and going to a brewery on a sunny day. My husband, however, thinks that if he quits drinking, I need to as well to support him. I think that we don’t have the same relationship with alcohol, and therefore I do not need to give it up in the way he needs to. He calls this perspective selfish and unsupportive. What say you? If my husband stops drinking, do I have to also in order to be supportive? I really like my marriage, but I also like enjoying life—which to me includes a glass of pinot in a hot bath after a long day.
A: I’ll take you at your word when you say you enjoy your marriage, but I do want to contest your characterization of this situation as “nothing too bad.” Being “a mean drunk” can encompass an awfully wide spectrum of bad behavior, and even if it only comes out a few times a year (or comes out a lot but only gets him “in trouble” a few times a year), it’s real cause for concern, especially when coupled with drinking on the sly to the point of passing out. The fact that even when he’s dry he’s still mean and overbearing is concerning, too. Telling you that it’s “selfish and unsupportive” to even contemplate the possibility of occasionally having a glass of wine yourself because he thinks you’re responsible for mirroring his choices around alcohol is, well, selfish and unsupportive of him. It seems like you spend a lot of time supporting your husband, and worrying about how you can support him better, but I don’t think his drinking problem is caused by a lack of spousal support (and by that same token, I don’t think an upsurge in support from you is going to solve it). The better question for you to ask yourself right now is not “Do I have to give up drinking to support my husband’s sobriety?” but “Where can I get support for myself as I contend with my husband’s ongoing drinking problem/bouts of meanness?”
Q. Fallout from upcoming move: My husband and I are semi-retired. Our son “Dan” recently lost his wife. He adopted her two children. My husband and I were planning on selling the house to take a road trip across America before the pandemic, but this crisis canceled that. We will be moving north to be with Dan and the children.
Our daughter, “Erin,” is 22 and got married last year. We currently live near each other. Erin has known about our road trip retirement since she was a teenager, but when we told her about moving north, she reacted like a toddler: We were “abandoning” her; what about her children—our “real” grandchildren?; we couldn’t do this, she wouldn’t let us. Erin is my only daughter and we are very close, but in the sense that we have lunch once a week—we’re not joined at the hip. My husband and I raised our children to be kind, independent adults. My husband yelled at Erin, said that Dan’s children were our grandchildren too and he just buried his wife, and that he couldn’t believe how selfish she was. I was just stunned. Erin refuses to speak to us. We have called, texted, and even sent a letter begging Erin to let bygones be bygones. We haven’t told Dan because his sister’s reaction will permanently damage their relationship.
A: You’ve done as much as you can with Erin, at least for the present. I realize that doesn’t make it any easier, but you’ve already called, texted, and sent a letter. You can’t take out a skywriter or force Erin to meet you somewhere to discuss your move again. You have made your case and (for now at least) you have to cultivate an attitude of neutral hopefulness: “We can’t make Erin reconsider, but we do hope that someday she’s willing to talk to us again, and to consider things from our perspective for a while first.” Perhaps she will, and perhaps she won’t, but that change will have to take place internally and without subsequent prompting from you. You’ve reached the limit of your personal effectiveness when it comes to Erin; the rest is up to her.
I understand not wanting to tell Dan right away because you’ve hoped Erin will change her mind, but eventually he’s going to find out. If you don’t tell him, he may find out because she blows up at him, and I know that’s not something you want. So with a minimum of detail (don’t tell him that she said his kids weren’t your “real” grandchildren, for example), let him know that Erin has reacted very badly to news of your move, and that while you hope she eventually apologizes and comes around, she’s not speaking to you at the moment. If this does permanently damage their relationship—and it may not—it will not be because you told Dan about what happened. It will be because Erin decided his children weren’t “really” part of the family and that he didn’t deserve help in the aftermath of his wife’s death.
Q. Negative cousin: I have a problem with “Kate,” who used to be my favorite cousin. She and I only ever saw each other twice a year at family functions, where we’d gravitate toward each other as the two rather unhappy gay cousins in our overbearing and homophobic family. We also have a lot of geeky interests in common, so we would spend the evenings together either chatting about that or quietly complaining about horrible things our relatives had said.
I’m a bit older than Kate and went to college ahead of her, where I’ve been having a really great time and have become a much happier person. Kate started college last September, which was obviously not a great time for her with the pandemic, and she has not had many nonvirtual social opportunities to make friends. She is apparently completely friendless. I know this because my mom and Kate’s mom have harangued me relentlessly about “helping” Kate by being a more present friend for her and keeping in touch on social media.
I was happy enough to be in touch with Kate at first as I thought we’d still get on, but the more I speak to her, the more I’m starting to realize that there are definitely more reasons for her not having any friends! She is the most negative, determinedly miserable person I’ve ever spoken to. She rants for literally hours about how terrible every single person in her class is, or about how much smarter she is than her professor. I’ve tried gently steering the conversation in kinder directions, but she ignores all cues. With anyone else, I would just back away from the friendship after telling them I was done, but I’ll have to see Kate every year (post-pandemic) and that feels awkward. I don’t know how to be more direct with her and would appreciate advice on navigating these relentlessly miserable, often insulting conversations with someone determined to be unpleasant.
A: You’ve tried gentle steering, which hasn’t worked, and you’re not yet prepared to say “I’m done with our relationship”—luckily for you, there are a wealth of possible interventions in between “Hey, how are your other classes going?” and “I can’t talk to you anymore.” I think you do know how to be direct with Kate. You seem to have a pretty clear assessment of her problem! It’s not that you don’t know what to do, roughly, so much as that you seem afraid she’ll either bite your head off (since she’s so determined to be miserable) or that you’ll be consigning her to eternal friendlessness (since no one else outside of your family is willing to talk to her anymore), with a little fear of getting additionally harangued by your mother and your aunt thrown in for good measure. Those are reasonable fears, I think, but not ones that should hold you back from saying something.
The first people you should talk to are your mother and Kate’s mother, especially if they’re still haranguing you, to let them know that you don’t need further guidance or encouragement from them. That might feel daunting, especially if you haven’t yet tried to establish a relationship with your mother and aunt on a more adult footing, and they’re used to treating you like a kid. And of course, if your whole family is overbearing and homophobic, that can’t possibly help! But they’re not going to suddenly stop being overbearing of their own volition. You’re going to have to show them where the line is, and take responsibility for keeping them on their side of it.
When it comes to Kate, I think you should stop short of telling her “I think I know why you don’t have any friends” or outlining how she should conduct her social life. But there’s no reason for you to say “Uh-huh” and “Yeah” for hours (!) while she complains about everyone she’s ever met. The most loving and useful thing you can do for her is to interrupt her, as politely as possible, and say, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you’ve been complaining about these people repeatedly to me, sometimes for hours at a time, and it makes conversation really difficult. I know you’re having a hard time, and if you want to talk about transferring or figuring out what else might help make life better for you, I’m here for you, but I can’t keep doing this.” It is safe to assume that her immediate response to that is unlikely to be “Wow, you’ve really identified something that’s holding me back from connecting with people or pursuing my goals; thanks for being honest with me, I’m going to find a therapist tomorrow,” so prepare yourself for some initial defensiveness or at the very least bemusement. But that doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong or saying something cruel! It just means that it takes a little time for someone to acknowledge they’re stuck in a rut, or driving people away, and it’s still worth mentioning.
Q. My daughter’s long-term partner is making my life miserable: My only child is an adult who lives in my large home with her partner of 14 years. She loves him dearly. Neither one of them contribute more than negligible financial support to the household, but my daughter, who has a full-time demanding job, still cleans, shops, and cooks gourmet meals. I feel blessed to have her with me, especially now. As for her partner: He was diagnosed with severe ADHD in grade school, but received no therapy or counseling, just a prescription for medication he doesn’t take because it dulls his musical creativity. And his parents never taught him basic life skills. So I’m supporting a 40-year-old boy who trashes my house, won’t do any chore more challenging than taking out the trash, and flies into denial and rage no matter how carefully I ask him to take better care of the kitchen, the bathroom, and the private apartment space I gave him for his music. Prudie, he leaves food on the counters and the floor. His private space is a frat house nightmare. I rented a storage unit for him, but in three months he has moved a mere six boxes.
I realize that this person has an untreated condition and it’s not realistic to expect change just because I ask for it. But he literally throws a tantrum if I suggest counseling: “I didn’t do anything wrong! You’re a psycho! I’m calling your daughter!” I’m sick at heart every day, and blaming myself for raising an otherwise strong woman who is codependent on someone who loves her but can never give her meaningful support. What can I do other than tossing them both out into a city they can’t possibly afford?
A: Let’s revisit the language of “tossing them out”! If it’s the tossing that troubles you, you can give them both written advance notice—three months, if you like, or even more—so they can make alternate arrangements. You can decline to live with someone else forever without simply changing the locks without warning. I’m not quite as confident as you are that there’s not a single space within this city the two of them could afford together, but if it would ease your mind to offer to front first/last month’s rent or cover the security deposit, you could certainly smooth that passage.
But the living situation you describe sounds positively nightmarish, and I don’t think it’s doing any of you any good. It certainly doesn’t do anyone any good to cite ADHD as the reason for his tantrums and furious outbursts. Undertreated ADHD may or may not play a role in his daily life, but it’s not an excuse to overlook threats, displays of rage and intimidation, or insulting behavior. You may not be able to convince your daughter to break up with him, but you can decline to host him forever. That doesn’t mean you’re consigning him to hopeless suffering or that you have to evict him tomorrow—but it does mean you should stop acting as if you’re personally responsible for whether or not he solves any of his personal problems. Even if you could solve them, it would be too much to ask of you—but I don’t think you can, no matter how hard you try. You seem to have tried quite hard over the last few years, from paying his rent to providing him with additional storage space, but that doesn’t actually seem to have made a difference.
Q. One-sided conversations: How do I tell a longtime friend that our conversations feel like a podcast? When we talk, I feel like they’re just exchanging topics with me. Anything I mention that’s not about them (my family, my work, etc.) or a response to what they said is just a prompt for them to make some other point. I don’t need to rattle on about myself, but I miss being talked with instead of feeling talked at.
A: You’ve just told me quite well! Use this letter as a template, if you think a template will help, but what you have to say isn’t especially complicated or difficult to articulate, so I don’t think your hesitation is due to uncertainty about what to say, so much as fear that your friend will take offense, or that it won’t work and you’ll be stuck indefinitely in one-sided conversations where you just nod and say “Uh-huh” for the remainder of your friendship. But this is a pretty serious problem, and one that affects your ability to participate meaningfully in this friendship! “I don’t need to rattle on, but I do miss being talked with” suggests that your friend didn’t always do this, which is reason to hope that they’ll be able to rein it in. It won’t be an easy conversation, and of course you’ll want to stress that you love your friend and you’re sorry to have to bring this up, but it’s also the only way to fix things.
Q. Custody of our living room: I am a woman in my late 20s who has been living in the same three-bedroom apartment for almost two years. In that time, I have had eight different roommates (including the two I currently live with). Until now, I have primarily lived with people who kept to themselves. Common areas—kitchen, dining room, living room—have been generally left alone when someone else is using the space. This has not been an issue for me, as being best friends with my roommates has never been a top priority, and living with politely independent adults has been ideal for me.
My two current roommates moved in a few months ago and they are college friends who enjoy spending time together. I enjoy their company as well. However, they do not seem to have boundaries that past roommates have had in the common areas, specifically in the living room. On more than one occasion, I have sat down to watch a TV show or movie, and had a roommate sit down next to me and try to chat during the program. This is manageable when just one roommate is around, but when they’re both home, they’ll sit down in the living room with me and talk to each other over the volume of my show. It is their space and they pay to live here, so it would feel rude to kick them out or ask them to take the conversation elsewhere, but at the same time, I was alone, watching TV, when they came in and interrupted! This whole situation has thrown me off because it’s unlike any other roommate experience I’ve had before, and I feel ill-equipped to handle the dialogue. I feel like if I say something and got any pushback, it would become two against one, which is not a dynamic I want to experience.
Am I overthinking this? Should I ask them to leave the living room next time they start yakking it up? Should I just pause whatever I’m watching and finish it in my room on my laptop? We should all have equal access to the living room, but I feel like I’m losing custody.
A: You are not overthinking this; you’re just running into the not-at-all-unusual problem that comes from realizing an unspoken dynamic you’d previously depended on mutual sympathy/shared interests to maintain is now one that requires speech. Your roommates don’t know that you’d prefer not to chat when you’re watching TV, so it’s not as if they’re deliberately doing something they know to be rude. To that end, I don’t think you should anticipate “pushback” in the kind you seem to fear, where the two of them will join forces to say, “Well, we like talking while the TV is on, even if you hate it, so from now on when we see you watching TV in the living room, we’re going to rope you into a conversation you don’t want to have.” You can just tell them—sometime when you’re not actually watching TV—that you prefer to do so without chatting! You don’t have to assume that your roommates are out to get you, or that having a conversation about conflicting interests in common spaces means you have to declare open hostilities. It’s not an indicator that you three don’t like one another or can’t get along. Some people just like chatting while watching TV, and others don’t; let your roommates know that you don’t and the three of you can come up with any number of workable compromises afterward.
Q. Re: Secret ambitions: Wow, what an accomplishment to write a novel! Before telling your husband what you’ve been doing, I’d ask him why it bothers him so much that this is how you’ve chosen to spend your time, time when he is doing the things you describe. I’d tell him how much it hurts you, and how destructive it is to your marriage and the trust that should underlie your marriage, when he persists in belittling you and your efforts in this way. Then I’d ask him if he’d prefer that you simply stop sharing things with him for fear that he will ridicule you. Then I’d stop talking, and wait for him to respond. If he doesn’t apologize, he’s a jerk. I wouldn’t worry about your undermining of the trust a relationship should have—he has already done that.
A: It’s so strange and cruel that his response to a perfectly sensible explanation like “I know it probably won’t get published, but I’m having a good time writing, and it gives me pleasure to finish the story I started” is “Well, what’s the point then?” If having a good time, establishing realistic expectations, and finishing a long-term project in her spare time really seem “pointless” to him, then I think you may be right—he may be seriously undermining this relationship.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! See you all next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Becky sucks! Becky is in sixth grade and goes to school with my daughter Carrie. Becky doesn’t really have friends. She eats lunch alone most of the time, and she rarely gets invited to parties. Becky’s mom believes that this is the result of mean-girl behavior at school.
It’s true that kids do avoid Becky. But it’s not because she wears the wrong clothes or likes the wrong bands, it’s that Becky is not a nice kid. She has an explosive temper and within seconds goes from a minor disagreement to screaming in some kid’s face about how they’re stupid and useless. She’s just plain mean, and most of her classmates have tired of her behavior.
I have told Carrie that it’s OK to walk away from a person who is chronically mean to her and that it’s not her job to fix Becky’s problems. But I can’t keep having the same conversations with Becky’s mom! How can I tell her that she can’t expect Carrie to solve Becky’s friendship problems but that they need to deal with Becky’s issues instead?
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.
Help! I Need More Dear Prudence!
Slate Plus members get extra questions, Prudie Uncensored, and full-length podcast episodes every week.