Dear Prudence

An Online Group Is Convincing My Wife She’s a Victim of My Candles

I feel like I don’t know her anymore.

three candles
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by tiler84/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Dear Prudence,

My wife and I (we’re both women) have been married for five years. Ever since we started dating, we both loved burning scented candles. It relieves stress and helps create a mindful atmosphere. At the beginning of the pandemic, my wife lost her job and started feeling extremely isolated. She spent nearly all day on social media, connecting with other people feeling isolated and building a community online. At first I was pleased she was still getting in some social connection. However, I think the group she’s fallen in with tends to pride itself on how many marginalized identities each member can claim and has a victim mindset. Now my wife claims she has a sensory processing disorder and can’t handle the smell of our detergent and dish soap, much less candles. I was concerned there might be a medical issue, since it came on so suddenly, but she got a checkup at the doctor’s and it doesn’t seem like anything has changed since her last visit. She didn’t get COVID, so I don’t think it’s a case of having lost and then abruptly regaining her sense of smell.

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My wife has expressly forbidden me from burning any candles in our home or in our yard. I’ve never run into a situation like this, where both our desires are polar opposites, even contradictory. I miss my candles, but I’m even more frustrated over my wife taking on this new “sensitive identity” to feel connected to people on the internet—especially when it’s negatively impacting our life together. I feel like I don’t know her anymore—and it’s only a matter of time before she claims some other identity. I feel like a massive jerk. Can I suggest she see a therapist? Help her with her job search? I know limiting her social media time would be controlling, but I’m at my wits’ end.

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—Suddenly Sensitive Spouse

This sounds fraught indeed, but over the course of a lifetime together, it’s absolutely inevitable that even the most loving and committed of partners are going to have oppositional, even contradictory, desires once in a while. That’s an opportunity for patience, honesty, and compromise, not necessarily reason to start doubting your compatibility or each other’s trustworthiness. In the short term, you should buy yourself a few unscented candles so you can still enjoy their peaceful glow and relieve some of the tension of thinking, “So I’m never going to be able to light a candle again for the rest of my life?? Is that it? It’s between my wife and candles now?” That’s mostly important so you can ratchet down some of your assumptions before you two talk again, because I don’t think a productive conversation will be possible if you repeat what you’ve written here.

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What you can say to your wife is that you’re worried about how much time she spends online, that you feel increasingly disconnected from her, and that you don’t understand what this group is doing for her—and then listen to what she has to say. If you tell her that you think this is purely psychosomatic, I don’t think you’ll be in much of a position to add that you miss spending time together and want her to confide in you more often, because that’s hardly a gesture of trust and open-mindedness. You might offer to help her with her job search, and you can certainly suggest therapy (couples’ therapy might be an easier request and would probably benefit you both as you work through these conflicts). It’s not cruel to mention therapy, so long as you don’t bring it up on a daily basis or insist she see someone to “fix” what you consider to be her problems. (Presumably if your wife used to enjoy burning scented candles, she’s experienced this as a loss, too, and it’s possible to develop or realize a sensitivity to certain smells that one hasn’t always had.) You can express your own frustrations and confusion without putting your wife on the defensive. Make it clear that you’re willing to listen, and there’s an excellent chance she’ll start opening up. Good luck!

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Dear Prudence,

I have a friend, “Julie,” who got out of a violently abusive relationship with “Mike” over two years ago. She moved out, sought therapy through a sexual assault resource agency, and (aside from a few blips) hasn’t been in contact with him since. Recently he texted her to inform her his grandmother died, as Julie was in occasional touch with her. She mentioned this to me, and said she had no interest in rekindling anything with him.

Last week I was in town (about a 30-minute drive from where I live) when Julie texted to ask if I wanted her to pick something up from the store for me, since she was already there. I texted back to say I was close by and could meet her there and drove over without waiting for a reply. I saw her car in the parking lot and went in to meet her, when I saw her holding hands with Mike. I felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of me. They didn’t see me, and I left.

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Later Julie responded to say she had just seen my text and that she’d had a phone call, which was why she hadn’t responded right away. I texted back to say, “Oh, I assumed it was because you were with Mike.” I haven’t heard from her since. Was I wrong to go into the store? And as her friend, can I say I have no interest in hearing about any rekindled relationship with this man? I don’t want to go through the roller coaster with her again. Does that make me a bad friend?

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—Not Ready for Round Two

There’s nothing wrong with going to the store without waiting for your friend to text you back. It’s a public place anyone is free to go to, so it’s not as if you let yourself into her house. And being stunned and upset upon unexpectedly seeing Julie with her former abuser and leaving because you didn’t know what to say are perfectly understandable responses. Nor are you a bad friend for feeling wary and anxious or for not wanting to spend time with this violent man. But I do think that for your own peace of mind, as well as the sake of your long-standing friendship with Julie, that you shouldn’t just leave this at a single, unfinished text message conversation, either. Ask her if she’s available to talk, either over the phone or in person, and listen to whatever she might have to say about that meeting. You don’t know if they are back together, if she felt pressured to hold his hand because she didn’t feel safe turning him down, if she ran into him accidentally at the store, or anything beyond that, so it’s wise to try to learn more about what happened before making any decisions. It would be terrible to act prematurely and treat Julie harshly for what might have been a chance or one-time encounter with Mike, at a time when she might be in need of additional support.

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That’s not to say you can’t draw your own conclusions once you do learn more or that you must pretend to support a possible reunion between the two of them. You might want to reach out to someone at the same agency that helped Julie years ago to get some support for yourself as you try to figure out how to maintain some kind of relationship with her without putting yourself at risk. But begin this conversation with Julie in a spirit of seeking to understand, not in assuming the worst and demanding she explain herself.

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Dear Prudence,

I am married to a lovely, kind, and funny man. Our marriage is wonderful—we both just gel when it comes to most things life throws at us. However, he’s the type who likes to fall asleep snuggling, and I can’t fall asleep if I’m being touched. Plus I feel terrible when I have to disentangle myself from a snuggle, so we sleep on our own sides of the bed. My husband does often cuddle our small dog, and she’s usually very happy to sleep in any number of ways that would be very uncomfortable for me. But there are often times when she doesn’t want to snuggle, and my husband will hold her in place. If she does wiggle away, he’ll move her right back. I’ve explained that she might need to scratch herself or stretch out, or just wants to sleep on her own corner of the bed, but she doesn’t get free until he’s totally asleep. I feel bad for the dog and guilty that I let him violate her bodily autonomy like this! Should I insist he let her sleep as she sees fit?

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—Give the Dog Her Space

I certainly think you should encourage him to! I don’t want to create a throughline between human and animal autonomy. There are plenty of things that loving pet owners expect of their dogs that would be inappropriate at best, criminal at worst, for a person. But if she’s regularly wriggling away, or seems distressed and panicked when he’s trying to brute-force being the big spoon, then yes, I think you should have a conversation with your husband about what “not now” looks like when it comes from a dog. A huggable body pillow is a good alternative. You’re not asking him to sleep on the couch or consigning him to a life without affectionate touch, and there is still warmth, intimacy, and closeness to be found in sleeping in a big bed with your wife and dog even if they’re not both directly cuddling you.

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Help! My Sister Needs Way Too Much Emotional Support From Me.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Anna Sale on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

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Dear Prudence,

My husband’s ex-wife was emotionally and physically abusive and cheated on him multiple times. He stayed for 20 years because of their kids. They’ve been divorced for six years, and we’ve been married for two now. Before they got divorced, my husband’s ex hadn’t seen anyone in his family for almost a decade. For some reason, my brother-in-law’s wife and my sister-in-law’s husband are still friends with her on social media. I didn’t think much of this until I recently noticed that they comment on each other’s posts and photos. It seems like a betrayal of my husband, since they know everything she’s done to him. It upsets him, but he doesn’t think there’s a point in bringing it up because he thinks it just shows that his family doesn’t care about his feelings. His parents and sister have been open about disliking her since they separated. I just don’t understand why they feel the need to stay in touch with her, especially since they weren’t close when they were married.

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How should I handle this? I seem to get along with them fine, but this makes me question that. We don’t see them often since they live pretty far away, but I try to make sure we send cards for birthdays and holidays and that we see them a few times a year. I just don’t know how to support him because my family would never do something like this.

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—In-Laws and Ex-Wife

I do think you should let your husband decide whether or if he wants to speak to his family about their online-only friendship with his ex-wife and that you should confine yourself to offering him encouragement and support. But you certainly have a right to decide to keep them at a greater distance yourself, and to that end you do not have to keep making sure that you keep in touch. If your husband wants to send them cards and arrange trips, that’s one thing, but this might be an opportunity for you both to acknowledge, “You know, actually, I’m not that keen on making sure we see Bill for Labor Day weekend every year, because I don’t really like or trust him that much,” and let the connection subside.

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Dear Prudence,

I have been at my job for less than a year. I got my foot in the door of a new industry through a personal connection after being laid off due to COVID. My boss regularly says things like they’re watching us and that we’re all on probation, and otherwise throws around their authority to create a fearful environment. Everyone on my team is doing at least three jobs. Sometimes we vent to one another after having awful interactions with our boss. One coworker has repeatedly said things indicating fighting with the boss physically. I have tried telling them to stop, but they treat me like their emotional dumping ground. They also not-so-subtly put me down while trying to make themselves sound better.

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I transferred positions and have a new boss and coworkers, but I still work with the old team. So many people have left that we have maybe 15 percent of the staff remaining from when I started last year. I’ve lodged complaints to HR when necessary about my old boss before leaving that role, but my former colleague once again mentioned fighting the boss in front of me and two others recently. I reported the conversation to HR. The other two witnesses denied it happened. Do I look for another job? I have a series of short employment periods on my résumé due to part-time or contract work. If I stick it out until the one-year mark, will it look better? I really want to stay in this industry but have so little experience. I’m anxious at work as a result of this person’s behavior. I’ve talked to my new boss, and they’re supportive, and I also decided to go to therapy to help cope with the stress.

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—Ongoing Hostilities

If you start applying for new jobs now, odds are good that it will take at least a few weeks (if not longer) to line up interviews elsewhere. The one-year mark isn’t a universal or automatic indicator of reliability or a guarantee that you’ll be a more attractive candidate, and you certainly shouldn’t wait to begin looking until afterward. Having a better boss in a new team can only go so far to mitigate what sounds like a pretty disastrous environment, and if you’re only staffed to about 15 percent of where you were a year ago, I think looking for another job is a great idea. If any prospective employers do end up asking about your short-term jobs, “That was contract work” is an excellent explanation, so I don’t think you should worry overmuch about how you’ll address that part of your résumé. In the meantime, find a good therapist, avoid your former colleague as much as you can, and start putting out feelers now.

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Want more advice?

Check out Pay Dirt, Slate’s newest column tackling thorny questions on money and relationships. Read the first column here.

Dear Prudence,

I’m a woman with wonderful, deep friendships with many interesting people. I have one or two friends with occasional benefits, where it’s just as easy to say, “Want to have sex? Great!” as it is to say, “Want to go swimming? Great!” Unfortunately, I’ve consistently had unhealthy romantic relationships with men. I’m straight, and I’ve dated both straight and bisexual men, and a few years ago I stopped dating completely because of the toxic choices I made with romantic relationships. I’ve really worked on myself since then, especially on developing my self-esteem and steering away from self-destructive choices. My friends have all been extremely supportive of this break. Now that the pandemic isolation is starting to lift, I feel mentally and emotionally ready (but anxious) at the prospect of dating again. I’m not yet really settled in my community, and work is a long commute away (or will be, once we eventually go back to the office), so it seems difficult to imagine meeting anyone there. I’m in a conservative branch of my career. How do I meet men in order to cultivate a healthy, long-term romantic relationship? Are dating apps out? Do I reach out to my friends for suggestions? Where do I begin?

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—Ready but Nervous

Dating apps are an excellent option, as is asking your own friends for potential blind dates or slightly pre-engineered meet-cutes. I agree that hoping you’ll unexpectedly run into someone you feel mutual chemistry (and shared availability) with around town where you don’t know many people yet is slightly unlikely, and that it’s better to approach dating as a venture that requires initiative, will, and deliberation. It’s also likely that as you begin to put some of these new and healthier habits into practice when it comes to dating, that you’ll find yourself entertaining bad dates and red flags less often than you used to. That might mean cutting some dates short or saying no to second dates when you might have said “Sure, why not?” in the past. This might feel uncomfortable or even a little abrupt at first, but it’s nothing to be afraid of or apologize for. I can’t guarantee that you’ll end up with a healthy, long-term romantic relationship—you can only account for your own side of the street, as it were—but you can absolutely start putting some of your new principles into action and making sure you don’t give unnecessary time, credit, and goodwill to someone who doesn’t interest you and treat you well. Good luck!

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Classic Prudie

I’ve had a close male friend that I’ve been secretly in love with for years. We have almost always lived in different cities and frankly, our lifestyles are fairly different to the point that I had all but discarded the idea that we could ever be in a romantic relationship. Aside from a fun weeklong fling over a decade ago, we’ve always kept it platonic, mostly because one of us was always dating someone in the couple of times a year we’d see each other. Flash forward to this year when I told him my boyfriend and I were getting married. He seemed shocked, but happy for me, came out to help me prepare for the big day and was an all-around champ. After the wedding I talked to my new mother-in-law and was shocked to find out that he referred to me as “the one who got away” in his own life. What? I never went anywhere and he never said anything! I used to tell my girlfriends that he was the one I’d run away with if he ever expressed any interest. Now, two days after my wedding I’m stuck with this thought that we’ve been mutually and silently in love with each other for years. How did I get stuck in a bad rom-com script? And why would he say that to my new MIL of all people. (She looked at me pointedly when she told me about it later.) BTW, I love my husband dearly and we have a lovely life together. I’m not interested in leaving, nor do I regret any decision I’ve made. Mostly I wonder how I go on knowing there was a possibility for that other life I always dreamed of but never believed in. Do I ever say anything to him about this?

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