My boyfriend, “Chris,” is obsessed with a famous pop star, “Sparkle.” We are both gay men in our late 30s, and Sparkle has been a household name and a gay icon since we were toddlers. Chris owns every piece of her merchandise, goes to every tour, has multiple Sparkle tattoos, does impressions and dresses up as her for fun, and has even managed to strike up a vague friendship through social media in his line of work. If you ask him how he’s doing, a typical response sounds something like, “Oh, work, Sparkle, lunch, Sparkle.” When he meets my friends for the first time, he’ll inevitably steer the conversation toward Sparkle within half an hour. Our own conversations always feature her, too, even if I’m trying to talk about my own work. You can’t say anything negative about Sparkle, and comparisons to her closest peer, “Glitter” (whom I actually prefer) set him off on a rant. I have told him I don’t want to talk about her. I’ve done this over text and in person. I’ve done it politely, snarkily, even angrily. Nothing works. I love pop music. I even like Sparkle! (A lot less than I used to, though.) But I don’t want to hear about her every day. I want to talk about art, film, the news, the thoughts and fears that bring two people closer. Sparkle is an obsession, not a passion that I can support, and I don’t know what to do. Do I really have to say “It’s me or her?”
—All That Glitters …
You can say “It’s me or her,” in one more big conversation, if you think it’ll bring you a sense of closure. But I fear that the answer’s going to be—the answer, in fact, already is—“her.” Your boyfriend has never demonstrated any interest in scaling back the role Sparkle plays in his life, despite numerous requests on your end. I suspect it would only cause you unnecessary pain to offer an ultimatum when you already know his response. Appreciate the good times you had together, wish him well, and enjoy a life that doesn’t revolve around a celebrity.
My mother-in-law is a preschool teacher and frequently speaks with her family members in a sing-songy “baby talk” voice. This is mildly annoying to me, but she’s otherwise a wonderful person, and I choose not to make a big deal out of it. The problem is her weekly Zooms with her three children, one of whom is my wife. All three children adopt this baby talk voice on the Zooms (or at least what I can hear of the calls from elsewhere in the house). After these calls, my wife then uses the baby talk voice for at least the next few hours before returning to her “regular” voice.
The first few times this happened, I just kind of avoided my wife until the voice went away. But now it happens every week, and it’s driving me up the wall. I’ve tried speaking to my wife directly (she didn’t really understand why I was so bothered), using behavior modification to extinguish the behavior (ignoring my wife until she speaks like an adult again), and just leaving the house (which got inconvenient after a while). I’m at the end of my rope. Is there anything I can do other than just suck it up and live with a baby for a few hours each week? It grates on my nerves to a degree I cannot put into words.
—Sick of Baby Talk
I can appreciate how frustrating it must be to have your partner suddenly switch to half-sung, half-spoken baby talk for several hours each week. I wish I knew a little more about your wife’s response when you spoke to her about it! Did she continue saying “I just don’t understand why this bothers you” even after you’d explained yourself to her? Did you ask her to stop? If so, did she agree to try, or did the conversation simply end when she expressed dismay over your frustration? You don’t need to prove to her that baby talk is objectively or universally irritating or try to persuade her to stop using it with her mother and siblings from time to time. “I’m glad it’s fun to use that voice during your family calls, but I don’t want to use baby voices with each other—even if you think that I should like it, I’d appreciate it if you went back to your usual voice after the calls are over” is a perfectly reasonable request, and does not require her to disavow a family ritual she enjoys or even to perfectly understand why you don’t like said ritual.
You might also want to replace “ignoring her until she catches herself” (since she is your wife and presumably you have grounds to speak more directly to her than you might an irritating colleague at work or a distant in-law) with kindly-yet-unapologetically drawing her attention to it, since it sounds like this is the first time she’s given much thought to the habit. If she genuinely just doesn’t realize how off-putting it can sound to people outside of her immediate family circle, I don’t think you need to worry (yet) that she’s doing this perversely or on purpose to irritate you.
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My husband and his father aren’t super close, but my husband loves and respects his dad. My father-in-law lives in a very rural part of the Midwest with his wife of 45 years. I’ve been married to my husband for 15 years and have long found my father-in-law creepy. Years ago, when his granddaughter was visiting them (she was 9), I found him straddling her on the living-room rug and giving her a back massage. During that same visit, I saw him rest his hand on her inner thigh while we were all watching a movie. He had also purchased her “Daisy Duke” short shorts. Five years later, when she was 14, he took her on a cross-country road trip, just the two of them, and they shared motel rooms. When they visited us on this trip, he slapped her butt—really hard. The next day both my husband and I observed him caressing her legs, like you would a partner. These are just the top things I’ve witnessed. There are other things, too, like putting her head in his lap, etc. He used to shower her with gifts.
My husband and I fight about this. My husband’s sister is the girl’s mother, and I don’t think she’s the brightest. I talked to the granddaughter privately and told her that no one has a right to touch her body without her consent. I point-blank asked her if her grandfather touching her made her uncomfortable, and she said yes. She’s 18 now, and they both still live in the rural Midwest. I just can’t get past my father-in-law being so inappropriate. My husband agrees his behavior is inappropriate. I also have two young boys, and the grandparents want to visit this summer. Am I wrong to be on high alert with my father-in-law around my kids? My husband thinks I’m overreacting. My mother-in-law is not a smart woman and isn’t the least bit worldly. She has never seemed to be concerned, and I’m cringing with my eyes wide open.
I can appreciate how difficult it’s been as the only member of your extended family willing to acknowledge your father-in-law’s inappropriate behavior, especially when your own husband has chosen such a cowardly stance as “Yes, my father touches children inappropriately, but let’s not overreact or anything.” But I fear you’ve been underreacting. I don’t know when you asked your niece if her grandfather’s constant groping made her uncomfortable, but it doesn’t sound like you asked her the first time you saw something that set off alarm bells. In addition, did you offer to help her? Did you ask her what she needed from you in terms of protection, support, or care? Did you ask if he had ever done more than made her uncomfortable? If all you said was “No one should touch you without your permission” and then left it at that, you did not fully uphold your responsibility as a caring adult.
I think your first move should be to revisit that conversation with your niece, to apologize profusely for not asking her if she needed help, and then ask her again if there’s anything you can do for her. She may be legally an adult now, and she may have decided in the intervening years that she doesn’t want to discuss this with any of her relatives, but regardless of whatever her answer(s) may be, you owe her a follow-up: “I left that conversation unfinished, and I’m so sorry I did. Not only should your grandfather never have touched you in a way that made you uncomfortable, you deserved protection from him from the other adults in your life, including me. I’m sorry I let you down, and I’m sorry the other adults in this family let you down, too. You deserved better than that. If you’d rather not discuss this with me, I understand, and I won’t try to pry. But I want you to know that if there’s anything I can do to be helpful to you, I’m here.”
Again, I appreciate how hard it can be to speak up against something an entire group of people is desperately attempting to render either normal, invisible, or both at the same time. But you’ve seen so many disturbing things from your father-in-law over the years, and there is still work to be done—work that you must do, no matter how your husband or in-laws react. You absolutely need to protect your children from their grandfather, with or without your husband’s permission; you may also need to protect other minors who may be in your father-in-law’s life. You should be honest, clear, and forthright about your reasons for keeping your children away from this man. If you haven’t already, you should have age-appropriate conversations with your children about abuse, consent, bodily autonomy, and how to ask for help when an adult violates a position of trust and authority. If you need ongoing support, please call RAINN’s hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
Help! My Ex-Husband Slept With My Mom.
Danny M. Lavery is joined by Maddy Court on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.
I am a 25-year-old woman, and I have never really had a romantic relationship. I had a crush in high school that didn’t work out. I went to a college with a significant gender disparity, and it seemed like all my friends got asked out by the few men who attended, just not me. I seemed invisible. I ended up dropping out of that college due to family issues, moved back home for a year, and worked. My parents had moved away from my hometown at that point, so there was no one there I could reconnect with. Still, I managed to make friends. But my romantic life went nowhere. One guy asked me out, but he was a known creep I had been warned against. Another guy was younger than me by nearly four years.
Embarrassingly, I’ve never even been kissed. I feel like something is wrong with me. I’m still in touch with my friends from high school and college, so it’s not like I can’t connect with people. Yet no guy has ever been interested in me. Is it my looks? I’ve been told by a guy friend that I’m a “6.5 out of 10.” I’ve always been the plain Jane of my friend groups. But I’ve always made sure that I have been presentable. Is it my personality? A lot of my girl friends say that I am confident and cool to be around, and they’re always in disbelief whenever I mention my lack of romantic connections. A few of my guy friends have mentioned that they also think I’m cool, but men have trouble liking me since all of my friends are “nicer” to be around. According to them, even though I am caring and personable, I’m still too assertive and dominating. One guy even said that I’m too loud and needed to be quieter. At this point, I don’t know what to do. I know that there’s something wrong with me. There has to be. I have been told over and over that I don’t need to be in a relationship until I’m ready, but I have been ready for years now.
I know that the obvious solution is to put myself out there and try dating apps, but I feel like at this point, if no one has ever liked me, then no one ever will. I feel embarrassed by my lack of experience and with every year, it only gets worse. I feel like I would have to lie to whatever future dates I have about my history just so they don’t think I’m pathetic or start looking for flaws that would have repulsed others. Plus, all of my friends in relationships have met their partners organically. I’m jealous that someone could meet them on the street, or in school, or in a club and immediately be interested in them; meanwhile, I’m an acquired taste at best. Any advice would be helpful.
—Never Been Kissed
There’s a complicated mix of genuine self-respect and deep despair in your letter. I’d like to start by encouraging you never to ask your male friends to “rate” you again or to attempt to speak on behalf of all men about why you either are or aren’t categorically worth dating. Those friends are not capable of speaking on behalf of all men, and you yourself are already aware that their “advice” is chaotic, sometimes contradictory, and not worth following. I can’t help but notice you don’t say much about whether you think these friends are people you’re interested in dating. You don’t say anything about what men you might like to date, aside from the brief acknowledgment of a crush in high school. What do you want out of dating aside from external validation that you are “worth” dating? (External validation is a perfectly fine thing to want; I’m not suggesting you should only date out of elevated ideals and principles, but there ought to be something more to what you’re looking for.) What do you want to get out of dating beyond a checkmark that announces to the world, “Some man—any man—considers me worth dating”? What do you desire in a partner? What interests you? What catches your attention? What do you long for? What do you seek to protect and safeguard and cherish? How do you want to display your interests and affection to others?
You feel embarrassed and disgusted with yourself because you believe no man has ever wanted to go out with you, but that’s not quite true. I don’t say this in the spirit of argument, but because I think it speaks to your state of mind that at present you seem unable to acknowledge information that doesn’t validate your self-loathing. I can understand perfectly why you might not have wanted to go out with those two men, but the fact remains that they very much did express an interest in you. You concede that trying dating apps is “the obvious solution” but then dismiss it by claiming that it would somehow be insincere or fraudulent in comparison with your friends who met their boyfriends in class or at a bar. It seems to me that you have assembled a series of elaborate beliefs, touchstones, and rituals that serve as both self-protection and self-harm, and I fear that asking you to be kinder to yourself will come across as flimsy or out-of-touch. But I am certain that mentally beating yourself up and establishing a series of rules that “prove” you’re a lost romantic cause will do you no good. You do not have to set up profiles on dating apps if the idea causes you too much pain, although I hope you will consider taking a calculated risk on that front. You do not have to pretend to enjoy being single if you would prefer to be in a relationship. But I think it will do you a world of good to stop treating your male friends as romantic authorities when they have merely proven themselves eager to criticize you; to handle your self-loathing as a serious mental-health issue that merits careful, attentive, loving treatment; and to consider what kind of life you might like to build for yourself outside of (or, let us say, in addition to) romantic considerations. Good luck.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“It’s as if you and your friends are in an unending beauty pageant and you’ve just failed to win Miss Congeniality for the 10th year running.”
Danny Lavery and Isaac Fellman discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
My father was married a few times before he met my mother, and they had my brother and me. My father is older and is extremely difficult to be around. My brother and I are both under 18, so we still live with both of our parents. My oldest half-sister ended her relationship with my father because he didn’t approve of her having children out of wedlock. But we’re still in contact with my other half-sister, who’s in her late 20s. She has always been controlling and judgmental, to the point where I’m always uncomfortable around her.
At the beginning of quarantine, my mother and I wanted to cancel Christmas and Thanksgiving, because we were worried about the health risks for my dad. My half-sister and her husband thought COVID was a hoax, and since they normally celebrated those holidays with us, they took it personally. She convinced my father that we were “controlling” him and made him separate himself from us. It was clear that she was manipulating our family to cause friction and resentment. I called her to explain my reasoning and to apologize to keep the peace. Even though I called to clear up confusion, she found ways to attack me and to list all of the ways she felt we were affecting her.
My father invited her and her husband and kids over, and she refused to talk to me, ignoring me the whole time. They did not even say goodbye, which was very different from past times. I have not contacted her since, and she has not contacted me. She only speaks with my dad, and I am actually enjoying her absence from my life. I don’t think her presence is healthy. Am I wrong to feel this way? Should I attempt further to patch things up?
—Don’t Miss My Sister
I don’t believe there’s anything wrong about experiencing a sense of relief when you no longer have to deal with someone who’s always made you uncomfortable, even if that person happens to be your half-sister. To that end—and especially since it doesn’t sound like you have anything else to apologize for—I don’t think you should try to patch things up any further than you already have. Enjoy the newly peaceful atmosphere!
For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think your half-sister is capable of entirely controlling your father’s behavior. He may very well give undue weight to her words, and you may very well believe she delights in stirring up trouble or in using him to get to you, but he’s a grown man who makes his own decisions. If he’s decided to “separate” himself from you, and this hurts your feelings as a result, your quarrel is at least as much with him as it is with her.
Want more advice? Check out Pay Dirt, Slate’s newest column tackling thorny questions on money and relationships.
I have an awful ex. He is manipulative, insecure, a liar, and a cheater, and he brought out the absolute worst in me, too. We also work in the same industry and share mutual friends. It’s been OK for the most part, but I’m having trouble getting past his public persona. He puts on a front to his followers (I think his need for attention and “fame” is really unhealthy), which people seem to really buy into (I did too, until I got to know another side of him). I think the right thing to do, for my own mental health, is to just ignore it. I know who he really is, and that should be enough. Plus, it’s possible that others will figure this out on their own or already have. I think it would probably damage my career to say anything publicly.
But I struggle when I see people buy into this act on Twitter. He pretends he is an ally for women while breaking them down privately. For example, he still associates with someone who sexually abused multiple women in our industry, including me, even after I confronted him about it. All in all, it was an incredibly toxic relationship, and I’m happy to be out of it. But I can’t help but feel deep frustration, sometimes disgust, when I see him purporting to be an ally, and then see people I know and respect praising those views. I’m just not sure what the way forward is. Any advice?
—Professional “Good Guy”
It might help to remind yourself that you don’t need to make a once-and-for-all decision when it comes to discussing your relationship with your ex, whether on a public or private scale. You might decide to confine those discussions to a few trusted friends and/or a therapist for now while still reserving the possibility of speaking to others in the future—when you feel more emotionally prepared to do so, when you have a clearer sense of your goals in so doing, or when you feel relatively shielded from potential professional repercussions. If you have a strong sense that getting some distance from his public persona will be good for your own mental health, I’d encourage you to pursue that distance. That’s not the same thing as committing yourself to never saying a word about him; it’s simply a question of seeking space, support, and healing before making any bigger decisions. I’d encourage you to at least mute him on Twitter. And please do take some time to vent to friends or family members you trust. You have every right to discuss a painful relationship as you struggle to figure out a way forward personally.
I am a single middle-school teacher in his early 40s. Two years ago I had a sexual affair with the mother of two students who attended the school where I teach. A year ago, her husband caught us, and the affair ended. Until this year, I have never taught one of my former affair partner’s daughters, which I guess made it easier for her husband to stomach my working at his daughters’ school. Now I have the elder child in one of my classes. Because I coach the volleyball team and the younger daughter took up the sport this year, I now also have nearly daily contact with her, too. I know it was stupid and wrong to sleep with a married woman; I make no apologies for my behavior. That said, I was never in love with my affair partner, and I have no interest in rekindling our affair. She and her husband don’t believe me. If I ever compliment or speak to their daughters—I assume they find out because they interrogate the girls—one or both of them will email me to tell me to watch it. She threatens to go to my boss if I interact with her daughters too much and “expose” me. Last week I gave the elder daughter a C-minus on a poorly written essay, and they accused me of punishing her because the affair ended. I do not know how I can teach or coach my students if I cannot speak to them or give them the grades they deserve. Frankly, I’m wondering if I should talk to my boss about this and take away their power to threaten me. Another part of me wants to tell them I am not interested in the mom and just want to do my job.