Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: More problems in search of a solution today. Let’s chat!
Q. My boyfriend doesn’t like my kids: I’m a single mom of two (6 and 8), and my boyfriend of a year and a half opened up to me that he thinks I have great kids, but he doesn’t enjoy spending time with them. He’s great with them and does things with us out of love for me. We were about to move in together until he told me this. I’m glad he told me, but now I’m hesitant. Is this normal? If we were to continue, is this a relationship bound for resentment and failure?
A: It may very well be normal to not like someone else’s kids, but I don’t think “normal” is an important framework here. “Is it a good idea to move in with a man who told me he doesn’t like spending time with my kids?” is the question to ask yourself, and it seems pretty clear that the answer is “Hell no.” I’m glad he told you before you moved in together, and I don’t fault him for not liking children, but this should immediately and drastically affect your plans. Don’t move in with him! It will be hard for your kids, because kids are pretty good at intuiting when an adult finds them tolerable at best and doesn’t really want them around. It will be hard for him, living with a couple of kids he doesn’t especially like but who still need to be raised and cared for pretty much 24/7. And it will be hard for you, feeling at odds.
That doesn’t mean you have to break up immediately—or necessarily at all!—or that the time he does spend with your kids is necessarily fraudulent or worthless. Maybe in a few years you’ll be in a different position; maybe you’ll decide this is too serious an incompatibility and end up splitting anyway. But living together is a serious commitment that will affect your kids’ daily lives, and you shouldn’t move ahead with this plan now that you’ve learned this.
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Q. Estranged brother wants to un-estrange: Last year, my brother announced to my parents and my sister that he no longer wanted anything to do with any of us. My brother was formally diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder after years of narcotics and alcohol addiction and a suicide attempt. He said his reason for wanting to cut ties is that he is angry with us for making him quit opioids—he was handling them fine. The date he chose to announce his estrangement was the anniversary of our other brother’s death; he died when he was 10 from cancer, and the date is always a tender one for us. It felt clear he chose the date for maximal pain for our parents. Then, a year later, just this week, he sent us all an email saying that he feels like we don’t love him or care about him at all, and wants us all to do family therapy with him.
I love my brother. I wish him only the best, and I’m really glad that the therapy he has been working through has been helpful. However, I have come to realize that I like being estranged from him. He is mean, manipulative, and the things he did to me, my family, and my kids while in his addiction are not things I’m ready to revisit. I’m worried I might say something unkind and I don’t want to hurt him or cause him any setbacks. I replied to his email saying that I’m happy he is doing well, that I love him and I wish him the best, but I’m not interested in going to therapy with him. He responded saying that if I loved him, I would do what he wants, which is family therapy. This feels like the manipulation I’m used to from him, and I don’t want to respond. Am I being cruel? What’s the best way to protect myself without hurting him?
A: There’s an important distinction to be drawn here, I think, between cruelty and noncompliance. You can take your brother’s feelings seriously without committing to doing whatever he wants you to do on demand. “If you don’t commit to going to family therapy with me after we haven’t spoken in a year, it’s an indicator that you don’t really love me” is not a solid foundation for trying to repair your relationship. Nor does it sound like your brother is ready to hear about how his behavior might have affected you in the past, or to treat therapy as a two-way street.
Saying no to his request might feel painful because you wish it were possible to relieve some of his pain, or to relate to one another differently, but it is not cruel to say “I can’t try to rebuild our relationship under these conditions, where you unilaterally decide when and whether to speak to me, then tell me I don’t really love you unless I agree to therapy right away.” That might feel sad, painful, or like a new kind of loss, but it doesn’t rise to the level of cruelty. You’re choosing not to oblige to your brother’s wants because you believe it would likely lead to further alienation and hostility. That strikes me as both a prudent and painful position to take—but keep in mind that the pain already exists. You’re not creating it by saying no; you’re merely acknowledging it’s already there. Avoiding a path where you’re likely to say something hurtful in anger is a good choice, as is refraining from trying to rebuild a relationship with someone you don’t believe is prepared to maintain their own “side of the street,” so to speak.
None of this means you have to resign yourself to never speaking to your brother again; it’s possible that some day in the future, you might reconnect under different conditions. Nor does it mean you have to choose your pain over his, dismiss his experience wholesale, or think of yourself as solely harmed by him and never having caused pain yourself. But wishing him the best and enjoying your own peaceful existence is not cruel, and I think you’re right not to respond, painful though it may feel.
Q. No good deed: Since the pandemic, we’ve been having more items delivered to our home. I know delivery drivers are subject to difficult working conditions, so I created a treat box filled with water and snacks that I set on our porch. I also left a couple cash tips around Christmas when we got a lot of deliveries, some very heavy. We’ve received a couple thank-you notes from drivers, and they use the treat box frequently.
However, our recent meal-service delivery driver wrote “My birthday is 4/24. Happy Saturday! Thanks for the treats.” I feel he’s put us in a very awkward position. If I provide a gift, then I’ll be setting an expectation for other drivers to receive the same. If I do nothing or decline his request, then I fear that I may suddenly start losing packages or receiving damaged items. The note was written on the box in Sharpie, so I can’t pretend I just didn’t see it either. What’s my best course of action here?
A: I think it’s a stretch to assume your driver is going to start “losing” your packages (which would probably jeopardize his own job) if you don’t buy him a birthday present. Everyone who’s participated in your informal arrangement seems to have behaved appropriately for the past year, so you have good reason to think they’ll continue doing so, even if all you do is say “happy birthday” should you happen to run into that particular delivery driver on the 24th.
If you would like to leave something special for him that day, it doesn’t have to be an elaborate gift, nor do you have to commit to buying birthday presents for everyone who drops a package on your front doorstep. It’s a little strange that he left you a note about his birthday, but it doesn’t place you under a new obligation, and I don’t think you need to take it as a threat. Based on the dynamic you’ve described here, it seems likelier that he simply appreciates your consideration and wants to occasionally leave a friendly note of his own.
Q. Expiration date: I’m currently in the second romantic relationship of my life, and like my first relationship, it has a mutually agreed-upon expiration date. This isn’t due to dysfunction or self-sabotage, but rather a combination of me being something of a planner and the many life changes in one’s early 20s. The arrangement is working really well for both of us—it allows us to treasure the time we have together without making any ill-fated long-term commitments.
However, I’ve noticed that people who aren’t in this relationship get really upset about the idea of expiration dates. It feels like every time I’ve brought it up, people are quick to start suggesting scenarios in which my partner and I don’t have to break up and instead live happily ever after together. I find this really frustrating! Is there anything I can say to assure people this isn’t a tragedy and make them more comfortable with the idea that I can be happy in a relationship that I know won’t last forever?
A: I can appreciate why your friends might feel slightly at a loss, since it’s a little unusual to announce “My partner and I are very happy together, and we’ll be breaking up on Labor Day 2023.” To that end, if you’re bringing it up often or repeatedly, especially to people whose input you’re not interested in hearing, I think it might be best to drop the topic for now and treat it as a “need-to-know” conversation. When you two do eventually break up, and your friends need to know about it, you can discuss it in greater detail then. That doesn’t mean you have to keep completely silent on the subject, of course, nor that you should apologize for having brought it up in the first place, just that it’s probably the easiest way to avoid further discussion. Beyond that, if you want to simultaneously reassure and preempt your friends, go with something like this: “I realize this might sound a little unusual, but we both feel really good about this, and don’t see it as a problem to be solved. I don’t want any suggestions about how we might avoid breaking up in the future, so I’d appreciate it if you stopped offering them.”
Q. Is my boyfriend still in love with his ex? I’ve been with my boyfriend for about two years and things are pretty good. One of the things that has always bothered me, though, is his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. They are like best friends and message each other multiple times a day, every single day. I’m friends with all my exes, so I like that they have a good relationship, but sometimes it seems that they would be better off together. They have way more things in common and “get” each other. I get lost (and bored …) sometimes when he talks about things he’s really into, but I know she’s into the same things and would love to be involved in those conversations. When they got together, they moved way too fast and moved in together almost immediately, and they were both going through depressions and didn’t have a good relationship. But they’ve both changed and grown since then (about three years ago), and maybe if they got together this time, things would be different or better? When I’ve brought this up (in a genuinely curious, not accusatory or insecure, way), my boyfriend insists that they’re not interested in each other that way anymore. But seriously, this guy would drop everything and do pretty much anything she asked him to at any time. His behavior toward me also changes when she’s around. He’s more accommodating to her feelings than mine, and I’ve felt left out sometimes and more like a friend than a girlfriend.
I love the man but I’m not really in love with him. It’s been more of a companionate (yet very fun!) relationship, but I truly think they would be a much better match and think he’s just not being honest with himself or me. I’m wondering if I should ask his best guy friend, who is also really good friends with this woman, if he thinks they’re delaying the inevitable and are meant to be together. What do you think I should do?
A: I think you should probably break up with your boyfriend! I’m not sure what information you might be able to wrest from your boyfriend’s best guy friend that you don’t already have, especially since you’d just be asking for his subjective impression of what he thinks might happen in the future. The salient point in your letter is not whether your boyfriend might ever formally get back together with his ex, but that you’re “not really in love with him.” You also tend to get bored when he talks about his interests and you’re uncomfortable with the way he prioritizes his relationship with his erstwhile ex. Those are excellent reasons to pursue an amicable, friendly breakup, and you don’t need to make sure he “admits” to himself that he really wants to be with her in order for you to move on. Maybe he will end up dating her again someday! Maybe he simply wants to be close friends with her, and his next girlfriend will be fine with their relationship; maybe his next girlfriend will find their relationship irritating and will decide to break up with him over it. Let whoever that next girlfriend may be solve her own problems. You just have to worry about yours. You have sufficient reason to end this relationship right now, not in a fit of pique or because you think he’s a bad person, but because you’ve reached the end of the road and spend a lot of time thinking how much better off he’d be dating someone who isn’t you.
Q. How do I get my parents to recognize my needs? I’m 33, formally unemployed, and living at home for the past four years since I lost my job. I was a history and English teacher until I decided it was no longer financially a good idea, and decided not to pursue it after my contract was non-renewed. I am looking at a career change into something more financially rewarding, and I have started an online 1920s–1970s vintage clothing business. I am responsible for every part of the business, and it is a lot to strategize, plan, and get done.
I am grateful to be able to live at home while I do this, but my parents don’t seem to understand that I have obligations and financial needs. They constantly demand that I do things for them at the last minute, and get angry if I don’t. These are the types of things they could easily ask somebody else to help out with, yet they don’t appear to be making any real effort to do so. Attempts at setting boundaries have led to them verbally attacking me. The kicker is I have a brother who has been living at home since he was 18, and is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bitcoins. But he simply does not seem to get the same verbal attacks when he refuses to do things.
A: The double standard between you and your brother sounds genuinely frustrating, and I don’t wonder that you chafe at your parents’ habit of not discussing their expectations in advance, instead frequently making last-minute requests and getting upset when you’re working on something of your own. But you have relatively little leverage in this situation, and I think your best strategy in the long run will be moving out and getting a place of your own.
To that end, you say that you’ve started an online vintage clothing business in the hopes that it would be more financially rewarding than teaching, but you don’t say whether you’re anywhere near being able to live independently and support yourself on the strength of that income. It’s not clear whether you’ve been working on this business for the last four years or whether it’s a more recent venture, but if it’s not getting you close to being able to schedule a move-out date, it might be time to look for work that will get you there, so you don’t have to spend the next four years in a similar position.
In the meantime, since you won’t be able to move out next week even if you managed to score a full-time job tomorrow, look for ways to make things as easy as possible for yourself. Yes, your brother gets away with things that you can’t—but it seems unlikely that you’re going to be able to convince your parents to start treating him differently after years or even decades, so focus your energy on husbanding your own time rather than trying to intervene in how your parents treat him. If even simple requests like “Can we set aside some time on Sunday to talk about what you need help with this week? That will help me arrange my own work schedule so I’m available when you need me” are met with verbal attacks, it might be that these frequent interruptions are the rent your parents are charging you instead of money. Sometimes paying money ends up being easier in the long run, so at that point, you might want to prioritize finding a job with more reliable income and put your vintage clothing business on hold, or at least demote it to a side gig until you’re in a better place.
Q. Skipping out on a bachelorette weekend: A friend of mine is getting married this fall and asked me to be a bridesmaid. I was ecstatic. I love weddings and I know hers is going to be fun. I got laid off a couple months ago and am having trouble getting approved for unemployment. Money is tight, and I may have to borrow money from my mother to be in the wedding. I’m fine with that—weddings are one of the few things I am willing to spend money on because I love them so much. Normally, I wouldn’t borrow money for something like this, but after this year, I’m willing to do so.
The only problem is, the bride wants a bachelorette weekend on a lake instead of a pub crawl because of COVID. I don’t think I can afford this. What’s more, I really just don’t want to go. I have health issues that leave me tired for most of the day, and I don’t have the energy to do all the activities she wants. Is it appropriate to not do the weekend? I could maybe spend one of the afternoons or evenings there, but I just don’t think I can financially swing an entire weekend.
A: Of course it’s appropriate! Agreeing to be a bridesmaid does not mean you just signed a contract to take out loans on vacations you can’t afford. If a bride wants to go above and beyond the traditional bachelorette party evening and turn it into a full weekend or longer trip, that’s lovely—but she must also be flexible and understanding if not everyone in her bridal party has the time or money to do the same. Just tell her it’s not in your budget. Only offer to come out for one evening if you really think you can do so without coming up short on rent, and have a great time at the wedding.
Q. Re: My boyfriend doesn’t like my kids: Your kids do not deserve this and do not have a say. Don’t push this onto them, please.
A: I think that’s the right perspective here. Moving in with a partner when your kids are that young is a big commitment! If the balance is working right now, where he sees them on occasion and can muster up the energy to be warm/friendly/attentive, then by all means keep seeing each other. But living with kids that young is such an investment in their care and upbringing, and I just don’t think it would be good for them. It probably wouldn’t be much fun for the adults either, but that’s secondary.
Q. Re: Estranged brother wants to un-estrange: Therapist here. I think some way of coming to terms with his destructive behavior (both personally and to his/your family of origin) would be helpful for all of you, but I wouldn’t go to family therapy without a clear indication that he is in individual therapy, has been for a while, and this is something that his therapist thinks is a good idea. The way he chose to announce his estrangement was unnecessarily cruel, and in addition to all of the other work he has to do to acknowledge his responsibility in all of this, he needs to reassure everyone that any shared therapy would not just be a venue for him to continue to be cruel and destructive.
A: I think that’s useful, and I also think that it would still be fine for the letter writer to decide they’d rather have a peaceful distance from their brother, even if he was able to provide that reassurance. But I agree that reappearing after a year and demanding everyone “prove” their love by going to therapy with him right off the bat does not bode well.
Q. Complicated family issues: My husband was estranged from his parents for many years. He reached out to them when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. They didn’t have enough time to discuss and resolve their past, but they were at peace with each other when he died. Now my husband’s parents wish to keep in touch with me and my toddler-age son, as he is the only link they have to their only child.
The problem is that my son is not my husband’s biological child. I had an affair, the biological father dumped me upon realizing I was pregnant, and my husband (to cut the complicated story short) decided to raise the baby as his own. He didn’t legally adopt our son—we simply put his name on the birth certificate and that was that—or tell anybody other than our marriage therapist. It was a painful, regretful, and humiliating episode of my life and I do not wish to tell even my own parents. But I feel incredibly guilty whenever my in-laws talk to me about how grateful they are to have a grandchild to remember their son, or make comparisons between my son and my husband when he was at a similar age. I feel like I need to come clean with them before they develop a strong attachment to him. They are already talking about changing their will to include their “grandson.” What should I do?
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