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 help other people start and exit fights.
Q. How to break pregnancy news: I recently found out that I’m pregnant. I’ve always been openly afraid of pregnancy and childbirth, so the few people that know have been surprised. Now that things are progressing well, I’m thinking about how to tell friends and family. I think this will be welcome good news for most of them during this difficult year, except in one case.
My close friend of 20 years works in the ICU of a large hospital, and has spent the last year working long hours, caring for COVID patients, and breaking bad news to families. On top of all this, she has gone through multiple miscarriages, and started the IVF process. I’m struggling with how to tell her my news. She’s always known my fears about it and I know she will be supportive, but she’s been through so much, and I want to allow her the space to be angry and sad. With every passing week and every text catch-up, it feels like I’m keeping a big secret, something she would have otherwise known by now. Is it possible to tell her about my pregnancy without completely blindsiding and hurting her?
A: Restrict your goals to “telling your friend about your pregnancy and then giving her space,” rather than “telling your friend about your pregnancy while also preempting the reaction you assume she’ll have immediately.” Telling her your news, saying you understand if she needs space, and reminding her that you care about her and you know she’s had an immensely difficult year, is all you need to do.
You’ve already hit upon exactly what to tell her in your letter. There’s just nothing you can do about her stressful job or her miscarriages, and I don’t believe your friend would expect you to try to do anything about them. You can offer sympathy, patience, and understanding, but all the sympathy in the world won’t change her situation, and you shouldn’t try to downplay your own happiness to accommodate her recent traumas. I think that sometimes people (with the absolute best of intentions) react to a friend’s suffering by treating their own good news like a plane trip with an environmental footprint they think should be mitigated by buying carbon offsets. But you can grant your friend space to process your news and treat her sensitively without acting as though you’re taking something away from her by getting pregnant. You aren’t. You don’t sound like you’re in any danger of obliviously rubbing her nose in something that causes her pain, so give yourself a break on that front.
Give her a call today, if you can, and tell her your good news. Don’t tell her that you think she has to be angry and sad (she might not!). Just acknowledge that it’s big news and she’s been going through a lot lately, and that if she needs time to reflect, you’ll completely understand. But give her the chance to experience a little bit of vicarious joy, even if it is sandwiched between other, more complicated feelings.
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Q. He’s sober, great! But he’s also given up working: After many unsuccessful attempts, my husband quit drinking last year. Our marriage is greatly improved by this change! In order to sustain his sobriety, he has been avoiding anything he associates with drinking. Unfortunately one of those things is his work! We are both self-employed. He normally works on a big project, gets paid, and then lives on that money while he does the next job. He also gets an annual gift of a few thousand dollars from a distant relative. We keep separate accounts and each pay a portion of the bills (I pay a little more because I make a little more). He has not done any paying work for months. Right now he is living on the annual gift, but that will run out within a couple of months. This is very worrisome to me.
He says I should not worry because he has never failed to pay his share (not entirely true, but almost). I’ve tried to talk to him a few times. The last time when I pushed him on his plans, he got uncharacteristically angry, and put his fingers in his ears and yelled so he didn’t have to talk about it. He accused me of undermining his sobriety. Maybe he’s right and I should just trust that he will figure something out. He has been painting landscapes, and he is very good! He could possibly turn that into a job, but I’m an artist myself, and I know being good is not enough. Making a living as an artist includes a lot of marketing and promotion. I could—just barely—carry the household, for a while, if we did without even small optional things like streaming services and pizza delivery. I’d also have to give up some of my own goals. But I hate the idea of working so hard to barely get by.
This makes him sound like a jerk but he’s not! He’s smart and kind and funny; he laughs at my jokes, makes up little songs about the pets, and brags about even my small accomplishments to our friends. Should I just wait and hope he figures something out? Should I make another attempt to talk to him about it? Do you see another option?
A: Undermining your husband’s sobriety might look something like pouring him a beer and telling him, “It’s no big deal, just have one.” Saying, “Do you have concrete plans to pay your share of the bills?” is not undermining anything, least of all his ability to remain sober. That’s a below-the-belt attempt on his part to make you feel guilty for asking a perfectly reasonable question about your shared commitment to household expenses, as if you’re being overbearing or unsupportive by reminding him of the fact that you both still have to pay rent and can’t count on his fairy godmother for the rest of the year. His sobriety will have to be something he can maintain in real life and the rest of the world; if he can only stay sober when he doesn’t work or leave the house, he has not yet found a sustainable basis for living sober.
It’s lovely that he has other great qualities. Feel free to appreciate said qualities! But you should also revisit this subject, and decline to affirm his premise that any practical conversations about money and work will force him to start drinking again. You can promise to speak kindly, treat him fairly, and support his ongoing recovery, but you can’t (and shouldn’t!) promise to wrap him in cotton balls and cushion him from every difficult feeling or aspect of reality for the rest of his life. “Waiting and hoping” is not going to address this problem.
It might help you to drop in on a few Al-Anon meetings so you can get help and support of your own first. You’ll need your own community that can help you remember it’s not your primary job to control and manage your husband’s relationship to alcohol (or his feelings, for that matter).
Q. Avoiding moving in: A year ago I moved to another state after losing my job. At the time, I lived with my boyfriend of two years. The plan was for him to join me four months later, but it’s since been a year. Fast forward to now: He’s supposed to move in with me in two weeks, and I’m panicking because I don’t want him to move anymore. After a whole year, we’ve become even more different than we were before. He’s never left his hometown and is very conservative, whereas I moved every two years growing up, and am very liberal. He always says I don’t compromise and I make decisions without him, but we aren’t married and I’m only 25! How do I tell him he should still move, but just not in with me?
A: Be prepared for this to (likely) mark the end of your relationship. If he’s “supposed to” move in with you in two weeks (and he’s already frustrated by your history of making unilateral decisions), then he’s likely already ended his current lease, started packing up most of his stuff, and making other arrangements that will be difficult to untangle once you call the move off. I don’t think you should try to assert yourself in the question of whether he moves or where. Once you admit you don’t want him to move in with you, you should give him space so he can make his own decisions about what he wants to do next.
While this timing is inconvenient, and it would have been kinder if you could have found the time to bring it up sometime in the last year, it also sounds like this is for the best. You don’t seem like you see a future with him, you’re only 25, and you’re not especially interested in arranging your life around a partner’s interests—those are great reasons to break up and follow your own path! You can’t expect him to be grateful to you for this last-minute gift of clarity, or to be excited for you, but you don’t really need that from him. You just need him to know you don’t want to live together anymore.
Q. Dating a sex worker and others’ opinions: I’m in my early 20s and dating a sex worker. I love our relationship, and I am happy he is doing something he takes pleasure in and is proud of. I’m personally comfortable with his job. We talk a lot about it and he is extremely transparent about his activities. But some people in my life that I have told have been uncomfortable, and I’m dreading telling my parents. I know they won’t react well but I don’t want to force him to lie about a part of his life he is proud of. I tend to care too much about what people think, and others’ judgment of my partner tends to affect me quite a bit. Is it something I should stop the relationship over? I’m afraid of being unjust to him by “hiding” this part of him to some of the people around me.
A: I think the first person to discuss this with is your partner! Does he want you to tell your parents about his work, or is it possible you’re putting the cart before the horse here? Plenty of people are upfront about their sex work but aren’t in any rush to disclose it to a new partner’s parents, so I wonder if it’s as high up on his list of priorities as it is on yours. This is likely not the first time he’s had to consider the possibility of dealing with the reaction of his partner’s relatives, so he may have his own set of interests, his own plans for a cover story, etc., and you should seek to learn more about them first. If you’re absolutely convinced that you’ll fold under the weight of your parents’ disapproval, should you ever discuss your partner’s work with them, and that you’ll be unable to defend and support your partner in such a situation, then that’s worth discussing with him now. But that’s a discussion to be had, not reason to unilaterally end things because you’ve already run the various possible scenarios in your mind and determined all outcomes in advance. You may decide to break up over this, or you may find an unexpected resolve somewhere within your spirit and realize you’re capable of proudly avowing your own decisions and values even if your parents cast a stern eye over you.
Some worthwhile questions for the future: Do you care “too much” about what all other people think, or are there specific people whose opinions you traditionally give a lot of extra weight to? Do you just defer to whomever you spoke to most recently? Whomever seems the most upset? If they invoke feelings of shame and repression? What’s happened in the past when you’ve pushed back against your parents’ disapproval? Have you ever pushed back? Might you ever like to push back against something in the future, and if so, how will you separate your fear of punishment or disapproval from your sense of yourself? Perhaps more immediately pressing—do you consider sex work a question of “personal comfort,” where it’s fine for you to respect your boyfriend as an individual but equally fine for someone else to potentially demean, as long as that’s within the limits of their own “personal comfort”?
Q. Re: How to break pregnancy news: Do it in writing or via a voicemail in a way that will give her the space to respond on her own time, and so you can plan out exactly how you will phrase the announcement. Acknowledge her pain and loss when you tell her. Try not to sound too excited, or act like this is a miraculous event. Those of us who have had to learn about friends’ pregnancies while suffering our own miscarriages, IVF failures, etc., are aware that other people, including people in our own lives, get pregnant successfully. It is particularly hard to hear from people who seem clueless about our difficulties, or who are ambivalent about parenthood. You’ll need to tread lightly. But it is better for her to hear it from you than from someone else. Don’t expect her to respond right away, warmly, or perhaps even at all, given the year she’s had, which has no doubt contributed to her difficulties. Thanks for asking. Good luck.
A: This is all very thoughtful and kind; a few other respondents have seconded the decision not to call her but to share the news in writing or some other slightly distanced fashion. I do think there’s value in having as direct a conversation as possible with a close friend, even if it’s a brief and fairly careful one, but it’s worth acknowledging the growing consensus in the other direction. My only other qualification is that you don’t have to act as if you’re breaking tragic news, or say “I’m pregnant” in doleful aspect, but I do generally agree it’s kind to incorporate awareness of your particular and unique circumstances into your tone of voice. I hope it goes as well as possible between the two of you.
Q. Monetized amends: I was recently contacted by an ex-boyfriend, someone I haven’t spoken to since we broke up 15 years ago. Our relationship was not healthy and we were both in terrible places personally at the time we met. When I look back, it reminds me of an extremely painful time made worse by a relationship where I felt, at best, unappreciated and lonely and, at worst, emotionally neglected and abused.
His purpose for contacting me was to apologize for how he treated me at the end of our relationship and to offer to send me money for items he never returned to me after the breakup. I don’t recall everything he would have kept, but it was likely some clothes and maybe some home furnishings. He said our relationship was a bright spot during a dark time and seems to remember good times that I simply do not. Would it be wrong to accept the money but let him know I don’t have the same good memories and am not interested in rekindling a friendship or having any type of communication? He didn’t mention an amount of money he wanted to pay but I’m sure it would be modest. Part of me views this as him wanting to make amends and move on but, based on the past, I can’t help but also see it as a possible manipulation tactic, even though I have no idea what his motivation would be to try to hurt me again after all this time.
A: It’s not exactly a question of right and wrong—when someone tells you apropos of nothing that they’d like to give you some money for being a jerk 15 years ago, I hardly think saying “yes” would be taking advantage. But there is a question of whether accepting this money would be worth it to you, and that’s what you should focus on here. Would you feel comfortable saying, “I’ll take the cash, but I don’t want to hear from you again,” or does the idea of accepting the money and simultaneously setting a limit seem too difficult to balance at the same time? What about saying, “I appreciate your apology, but I don’t want any money or to rekindle a friendship. Please don’t contact me again”—does that seem more achievable?
You’re also quite free to say nothing, of course. There’s no ethical obligation to respond to long-ago exes offering unsolicited gifts. You don’t have to worry about his possible motivations (maybe it is calculatedly manipulative, maybe he sincerely believes a surprise and nonspecific offer of cash is the best way to make amends, maybe he’s just eager to clear his conscience and thinks this is the best way to do it), just about what feels easiest and most achievable for you. Look after your own interests; if you don’t think the money will be worth the hassle, don’t take it. But you’re certainly entitled to say “Thanks for covering the cost of that old couch. Take care, just don’t stay in touch,” if you like.
Q. Being a trans ally and advocate: I have a friend and colleague who recently came out to me as trans. I have been reading a lot about recent anti-trans legislation in Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere targeting trans youth, and I have to wonder how this affects him, even though we are both older (think late 20s/early 30s). I want to reach out and ask my friend how they are doing, but I don’t want to remind them of all this and end up making them feel even more marginalized. What is the best way for me to be an advocate for my friend and to let them know that I support them 100 percent?
A: I’m so glad that you want to support your friend and colleague! I feel reasonably confident that he does not need you to express that support by saying, “Gosh, the national news about trans kids looks really bad. Are you OK?” There are always exceptions to even the most broadly applicable of rules, I realize, but I don’t think it’s likely that this is one. If what you want is to learn a little more about how he’s doing and reiterate that he has your support, just say that! “I’m really glad you came out to me, and I wanted to say again that I’m here for you if you ever need anything or just want to talk. How’s everything going?” is a much more personable approach than “God, the news! Have you seen all that awful news? I’d feel terrible, if I were in your position and seeing all that terrible news.” He’s seen the terrible news! It’s terrible! If he wants to talk about it with you, let him bring it up; in the meantime, you can safely assume he thinks the terrible news is terrible, and that you don’t need to mention it as an entry point to start a different kind of conversation.
Q. Re: How to break pregnancy news: Please do not call her—text or email your friend. All of the other advice about how to approach the conversation is spot on, but give your friend the gift of not having to immediately perform joy for you. (This is the common consensus on every infertility board I have been on.)
A: I can see why that is common consensus! I hope they’re able to have a subsequent conversation where the letter writer’s friend can express happiness for her happiness without feeling the need to act as if she herself is personally and unmixedly thrilled, but I agree that such a conversation can wait a little while.
Q. Re: How to break pregnancy news: You sound lovely, and congratulations! I wanted kids when I was in my 30s and it just never happened for me, but I had one friend who specifically called just to tell me she was pregnant and then really simply said something like, “I know it sort of sucks to keep hearing about everyone getting pregnant so I will never say another word about it if you want me to shut it after this.” I don’t know why, but it just was funny and sweet. I honestly never considered that someone else’s pregnancy was any reflection on me; it actually touched me that she thought to talk about it with me at all, if that makes sense. So I guess what I’m saying is that to me, the simple fact that you are considering her feelings—it says a lot! I think just saying, “Hey I hope this isn’t upsetting, but I did want to say something because we’re friends” is always kind.
A: Thanks for this! I agree it’s important to be sensitive here, and that it’s a good idea not to assume that the letter writer’s friend’s only reaction is going to be one of pain and distress. Let’s leave room for the possibility of nuance!
Q. Am I a prude? I’ve been married happily for more than a decade and my husband and I are in our 30s with young children. We have an active bedroom life, and work together to keep our relationship and love life intact. My husband likes sexting (what man doesn’t?) and I usually don’t. I have to be in the right mood for it, and usually during the day I’m busy with work, errands, etc. I’m uncomfortable sending pictures of myself or saying things I’m not really thinking or feeling. I do indulge when I’m in the right mood, but most of the time when he asks, I just don’t want to! Recently, in a text conversation, he hinted toward it, I changed the topic (my gentle letdown tactic), he asked outright, and I told him to stop pressuring me. He said he didn’t like being accused of pressuring me, and we argued. Is this something I should do as part of my “wifely duties” even though I don’t want to? Is there any way to feel less resentful about 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.