Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Afternoon, everyone. Let’s chat!
Q. My husband’s pranks wreck my entire week: My husband, “David,” is amazing 85 percent of the time. He also loves to prank me. When we started dating, the pranks were small, like hiding my keys or startling me. But over the years they’ve grown meaner and scarier. I hate being pranked and have begged him to stop, but he seems unable to understand why they upset me so much. This is at total odds with how caring he is the rest of the time, and my friends and family have told me no one is perfect. So I thought of the pranks as the cost of having an otherwise fabulous partner.
Since the quarantine began, David’s pranks have escalated. He pretended to run over our cat; accused me of ruining his computer and screamed at me; and, a few nights ago, pretended to seriously hurt himself. His pranks leave me feeling raw and panicked. When he tells me things that are true, I get sick to my stomach, wondering if he’s setting me up. David just laughs when I (often in tears) beg him to stop. Increasingly I dream of calling my brother and begging him to drive me away in the middle of the night. Every relationship has its rough spots. I don’t know how to objectively judge whether the pranks are that or something worth ending an eight-year relationship over.
A: Call your brother today. Call your friends, too. Talk to the people in your life about what’s been going on and let them support you. This isn’t part of “the cost of being in a relationship” like learning to compromise with someone else’s personality quirks or different approach to housework, nor is it the sort of rough spot that any otherwise-healthy relationship might hit after eight years together. It’s not loving, it’s not normal, it’s not safe, and it’s not OK. Your husband regularly terrorizes you despite knowing how much you hate it. What’s worse, he’s escalated after you’ve “begged” him to stop. It’s not a question of understanding. You’ve made yourself consistently and repeatedly clear on the subject, and he understands perfectly well that this makes you miserable and uncomfortable. It is tempting to believe he’s doing this because he just doesn’t get how unhappy it makes you. He’s your husband, and you love him, and you want to believe he generally acts with your best interests in mind. Since he doesn’t do this 24 hours a day and seven days a week, it may be difficult to square this side of him with the “amazing” person you see the rest of the time. But he’s the same person, with the same information, all of the time.
It’s easier to say, “He just doesn’t understand,” because that provides you with hope that someday, somehow, you’ll be able to explain yourself thoroughly enough that he’ll say, “I get it now. I’m so sorry I’ve been hurting you. I was confused, not malicious, and I’ll stop.” But David understands perfectly well. He’s seen you in tears, begging him to stop pretending to have killed your cat or screaming at you for an invented accident, and he’s laughed at those tears. He understands exactly the effect his outbursts have on you, and that’s why he does it. I can’t tell you how sorry I am that you’ve had to endure this kind of uncertainty, terror, anxiety, and unsafety from your own husband over the years. It’s not just 15 percent of the time, either. Since you never know when the next shoe is about to drop, you’re constantly filled with dread wondering when he’s going to switch from your “amazing” husband to someone who delights in hurting you. But they’re both the same husband. It’s not that you haven’t been clear enough, or that he just thinks he’s being harmlessly funny. Your husband wants to terrify you, and he does whenever he feels like it. You deserve to be far away from him, and safe, and surrounded by people who love and respect you.
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Q. Bad business: At 35, I have a very successful small business, but it took blood, sweat, and too many late nights. My younger sister is a bored stay-at-home mother of two. Her family struggles on a single income and she thinks she can be like me, that it is “easy.” I love my sister—she has remarkable and marketable talent—but she acts like my success was handed to me on a silver platter. “If you can do it without having to chase kids around, it will be a cake walk for me” seems to be her attitude. She’s basically burned several thousand dollars in a vain attempt to start a business—no real plan, no hustling for clients, nor dedication to her work. All advice went ignored.
In solidarity, I put in a number of orders. My sister managed to finish half the work; it was two weeks late and she blamed me for “pressuring” her when she was busy with her kids. I paid her but didn’t use her work and got someone else. Now my sister is upset with me because she was counting on the exposure. I am her only real client. I am not going to be her personal PR department. It took me years to build up a reputation and if my sister can’t handle my business, I am not risking my name for her pride. We fought, badly. She accused me of undermining her success because I was “jealous” of her marriage and children. I told her she was delusional, to go try to sell leggings to people on Facebook, and to go fuck herself.
My business is thriving now, but it did cost me a serious relationship. In my darker days, I wondered if I made the wrong choice (I didn’t), but my sister knows all those regrets. It was an emotional kidney punch and I don’t know how or if I should forgive her.
A: I think “I can’t singlehandedly keep your business afloat for you, and I can’t keep putting in orders for late work I can’t use” was a perfectly reasonable choice to make, but (you knew this was coming, I think) telling your sister, “Go fuck yourself and sell leggings on Facebook” was not a good choice. Nor was it an inevitable remark! You could have displayed honest anger and spoken your mind without crossing that particular line. It’s an unfortunate truth that it’s still possible to act wrongly when someone else has wronged you, and while your sister was wrong to put as much pressure on you as she did (and certainly wrong to stress over and over again how “easy” your life is since you’re not a parent), it still can’t justify that portion of your response.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, because there are few things more frustrating than apologizing to someone one still resents, but I think you should apologize for that remark, if only to clear your own conscience and regain a sense of equilibrium. “I’m sorry for how I handled that fight—I should never have lobbed that crack about leggings at you, which was demeaning and below-the-belt, and I’m sorry I told you to go fuck yourself. I shouldn’t have said that, and I won’t say it again.” You don’t have to—and shouldn’t!—apologize for not commissioning more work, but you also shouldn’t use that apology as an excuse to relitigate your own grievances, understandable though those grievances may be. An apology cannot be appended to “But I’m still mad you did X.” It needs to stand on its own.
Maybe she’ll accept your apology and it’ll inspire her to come down from her own defensive perch, and you two will be able to have a better conversation about what went wrong at a slightly later date. Maybe she won’t accept it, or maybe she’ll use it as an opportunity to start yelling at you again. Whatever her response may be, at least you’ll know you’ve gotten your own high ground back and can cut the conversation short if it gets contentious again.
Q. My husband left me when I took in my nieces: My older brother, “Cliff,” overdosed last year, leaving behind my two young nieces. Their mom is in prison and will remain there for, best-case scenario, the next decade. My elderly parents have health and financial issues that prevented them from taking my nieces, and their mom doesn’t have any family. If my husband, “Jake,” and I didn’t take my nieces in, there was a risk they’d go to foster care. I adore my nieces, and they get along wonderfully with our daughter, “Claire,” and we can more than afford to raise them. To me it was a no-brainer to take them in and give them all the love and support they need.
Jake felt differently. He did not want to raise my nieces, even if it meant they would go into foster care. Although this was devastating to hear, I respected his decision. When I said I would be taking in my nieces, he asked for a divorce. That’s where we’re headed. And Jake is furious with me. He believes I chose my nieces over him and Claire. I accept my responsibility for ending our marriage, but I also refuse to abandon my nieces. Jake keeps saying I chose “a junkie” over our child, by which he means Cliff. I love and miss Cliff, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t punish my nieces for his mistakes. It broke my heart, but I accepted why raising two more kids was a deal-breaker for Jake. That’s a huge decision, and you have to be all in for it to work. Is it fair for me to want him to accept the decision I made? Or at least to understand the impossible decision with which I was faced?
A: It’s perfectly fair to want something—as it happens, I think the particular thing you want, which is for your soon-to-be-ex-husband to stop characterizing your decision to take in your nieces as a decision to choose “a junkie” (!) over him, is fair on its own merits. I don’t know if you’ll ever get it, unfortunately, and I don’t think there’s much you can do to convince Jake beyond what you’ve already tried. You’ve explained your position more than once, and whether out of stubbornness, resentment, or simple misguidedness, he’s sticking to his position. It’s possible that with time he may come around and can look on the end of your marriage with a greater degree of open-mindedness and respect for your conflicting interests; if only for your own daughter’s well-being, I hope that he does. But I don’t think repeating yourself now, after what sounds like a number of clear conversations, is going to make that difference. If the best you can do for now is to decline to have a 30th version of the same conversation, to simply say, “I think we’ve both gotten as far on this subject as we’re going to get for now; let’s focus on figuring out how to make this as easy as possible for Claire,” that may just have to be good enough. I hope you have a great deal of support as you help bring up your nieces—I’m so glad they have you to look after them.
Q. I reconnected with an old friend who is starting to creep me out: I’m a married, middle-aged cis woman who was recently contacted by an old platonic male friend through social media. I was very happy to hear from him and to catch up, but since I don’t maintain a regular social media presence, we recently exchanged numbers.
I now regret this. I get several texts a week—mostly old jokes, random songs, or comments about my old social media posts—at any given moment (including during work hours and late at night), addressing me as if we are still hyper 19-year-olds. There are also relentless demands to hang out in person (and, oddly, for me and my husband to spend the night at his home, despite the fact that we live close by) in spite of repeated explanations that I suffer from anxiety and am not yet comfortable with indoor visits during this pandemic (during which he just talks over me, repeating reasons why it’s safe and ignoring my anxiety). I’m also going through a family crisis, during which he has made numerous offers to help; however, the offer is always accompanied by or contingent upon a request to meet in person and socialize when now is not a good time. He has also said that I should video or voice call him every few days during this crisis because I “will need this.” (I don’t enjoy phone or video conversations and have never claimed to.) Worst of all, his behavior in texts is slipping into the inappropriate zone; for example, in speaking of his collection of art books in a chat one day, he sent me an unsolicited photo of a coffee table book of vintage porn with a raunchy title. Another time he was trying to recommend ways to relieve stress, and “fucking” was a suggested activity.
Maybe he’s just crude, but I’ve dealt with my share of creeps and don’t really discuss these types of things with the close male friends I currently have, so as a woman who doesn’t know this man very well anymore—even though he behaves as though I still do—these were red-flag conversations to me. He mentioned having some marital problems, which makes me wonder if he just doesn’t have many people in his life, but this relentless demand for in-person friendship and odd behavior in these conversations is exacerbating my stress. I have expressed my concerns to my husband, who shares them as well. How do I politely start to distance myself without potentially angering or hurting this person? Or am I past the point of concern for hurt feelings?
A: Prioritize your own feelings at least as highly as you have been prioritizing his. If you’re worried he’ll be angry and lash out as a matter of your own safety (a not-unreasonable concern), it’s worth planning ahead to block his number/alert your other friends in case he tries to contact them in order to get to you. But if you’re simply worrying that he’ll be hurt if you acknowledge that you can’t be friends with someone whose idea of friendship is constantly demanding that you give more than you’re willing and able to offer, who tells you they know what you need better than you do, who tries to steer more and more of your conversations in a sexual direction, and who continually tries to override your boundaries about COVID precautions, then his feelings ought to be hurt. It is not reasonable to prioritize his hurt feelings in such a situation, and it is not worth sacrificing your own comfort for his. If his response to “This is too much, and I need you to back off/stop suggesting we meet up in person” is anything other than a chastened apology and agreement, then that’s probably an indicator that “distancing” isn’t going to work but that ending the friendship will.
Q. Lack of contrition: Recently I found out a good friend of 20 years had committed serious white-collar crimes about 10 years ago, and could now be serving some time. I feel bad for his family (a wife and two sons), but not sure how I feel toward my friend. It’s been a month now since I found out, and my friend doesn’t seem to show (by actions or behavior) any contrition or remorse about the crimes. He’s only spoken vaguely, without much detail, of “past mistakes” that he’s owning up to. Am I being a bad friend if I feel more comfortable distancing myself from this person?
A: You can certainly distance yourself from your friend. You might even decide to end the friendship—but I think you should articulate and avow whatever it is you decide to do, rather than simply lapsing into an embarrassed radio silence and edging away from him without another word. Have you told him that you’re troubled by his alleged crimes? Have you asked him explicitly whether he believes he did anything wrong, and if so, how he intends to make amends/accept consequences/live his life on a different basis in the future? I think you’ll feel better about whatever choices you make if you can get a clearer picture than what you have now.
Q. Better late than never? I was put on hormonal birth control for trouble with my menstrual cycle when I was young and only recently stopped taking it. I never bothered with dating because I assumed I was asexual, but now that I’m no longer taking the pill, I realize that I was wrong. I have always craved companionship, but thought I would be wasting someone’s time before. Now I would like to start dating. I have no idea where to start. I am nearly 30 and have no experience. I don’t have trouble socially, but I am incredibly anxious and living in a new area without any friends. If it is relevant, I am a straight woman. I would like to try dating once the pandemic is under control. Where do I start? Is it too late for me to get in the game?
A: For whatever it’s worth, dating without a marked interest in sex is not “wasting someone’s time”! I realize you find yourself in very different circumstances at present, but if in the future you ever experience another change in libido or consider yourself asexual/otherwise uninterested in sex but still want romance and companionship, you have every right to go looking for compatible partners. Not everyone will want the same things you do, but that’s true of everyone who dates, and you don’t need to exclude yourself from even the possibility of dating just because you think your feelings about sex won’t match everyone else’s.
That said—it’s not too late to start dating in your 30s, it’s a good thing that you’ve learned something new about yourself and identified something you want, and you can start wherever you like. If you want to ask long-distance friends to set you up with potential prospects they might know in your city, let them know you’re ready to start dating; if you want to set up profiles on a few different dating apps, do so; if you want to ask men out you find attractive, you can do that too. I can’t promise that your anxiety will evaporate, but it is possible to find ways to incorporate anxiety into your dating life so that you can find a general balance between feeling safe and challenging yourself to do something new.
Q. Deceased dog Zoom pic: My Zoom profile picture, which I use often for work, is a picture of my two dogs. One of them recently passed away. People often comment on how cute they are and that it’s nice to see them. I have avoided telling them that one of them is dead because, well … I just feel like it’s a downer. I’m an outside consultant for a number of clients, so it’s not like I have a relationship with many of these people. It does feel kind of weird to pretend he’s alive. I could change my profile pic, but I like this one. If they asked directly, I guess I could say that one of them is deceased. Any suggestions on how I could say that?
A: I’m so sorry about your dog. I think it’s fine to keep your profile as is—you’re not deceiving anyone by using a picture of your pets as a profile picture; there’s no rule (nor should there be!) that you must immediately take down all pet pictures once one of them dies. If anyone asks about them, you can say anything you like, from “Oh, that’s Rosie and Ernest” to “That’s Rosie and Ernest—we just lost Ernest a few weeks ago, but I love this picture of them together.” You don’t have to update all of your professional contacts if you think it’ll make you too sad or distract you from an otherwise surface-level conversation about work. People understand that pets die, and I don’t think anyone would believe you had acted deceptively by not providing all your clients with an announcement. You’re under no obligation to say anything, so only mention it if you wish to do so.
Q. Re: My husband’s pranks wreck my entire week: Is it possible you are afraid you won’t be taken seriously by friends and family because it’s only “pranks”? It’s abusive, and labeling them pranks makes it seem not serious and it makes it easier for him to continue. It’s like mistaking controlling behavior for protective/loving behavior. It can be hard for people outside the relationship to understand, but you need to try.
I hope you can get some help. I completely misread my best friend’s marriage for years. I felt horrible I didn’t recognize the controlling behavior, but as soon as she told me what was going on, I was completely on her side and helped her get out.
A: Thank you so much for bringing up the term “pranks”—I agree that the letter writer should not describe them as “pranks” when she talks to her brother or friends, because that’s simply not what’s going on here, and I imagine that her husband has used that term in order to downplay or dismiss her perfectly understandable reactions. Screaming at someone because you’re lying that they broke your computer is not a “prank,” pretending you’ve killed the family pet is not a “prank,” and she does not need to use that term.
Q. Re: My husband’s pranks wreck my entire week: There is a great book, Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft, that will help you see your husband for what he actually is. The pranks are a form of verbal abuse. Much verbal abuse is claimed by the abuser as “just a joke,” thereby making their victim be “at fault” for having “no sense of humor.” And these guys of course are wonderful—except when they aren’t. Otherwise, women would never end up in relationships with them.
Please read this book even after you have left him (and please leave him, before you end up doubting yourself for the rest of your life). Some of the earlier Patricia Evans books might help too. Don’t ask me why I know this …
A: Thanks for the recommendation—I haven’t read it myself, but I’ll pass it along and hope it proves helpful (I’m both sorry and glad to hear that it’s been helpful to you, and hope you’re doing as well as possible these days). It can be so painful to acknowledge that someone we have loved and trusted is not “mistakenly” hurting us, but it’s so clear that he’s neither confused nor just a good-hearted jokester who loves a laugh. He’s not joking.
Q. Haunting photo: My fiancé (with whom I’m expecting a child in three months) has a photo of his deceased sister-in-law in his wallet. Right where people usually display pictures of their sweethearts or kids, there she is. I told him that was kind of weird and asked if he would remove it. He said yes, but it remained there a few days later. I put his driver’s license in front of the photo but later saw that he moved the license elsewhere. Later, I gave him a printed picture of the ultrasound scan of our baby. I saw it left in the car for several days. I later broached the subject of removing the SIL’s photo again because I found it creepy and disturbing. His response was, “I can’t take the picture out and put it just anywhere.” I angrily asked why the ultrasound picture of our child could be left carelessly in the car, but a photo of his SIL had to be treated with such respect. He said nothing. If he had just removed it, then it wouldn’t be an issue, but now this is driving me crazy. Why on earth is he so protective about the photo? And how can I get him to remove it?
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.