Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: ’”Now I have no monsters left, and ‘tis less labour for Hercules to fulfil my orders than for me to order; with joy he welcomes my commands.” I’ve tried to confine myself to one Seneca quote a year, but I’m glad I saved it for today, my last-ever live chat as Dear Prudence. I won’t get sentimental until we’re closer to the end, but I’ve been very fortunate to be able to spend part of my Mondays trying to sort out problems with your help, careful readers. Once more, and for once and all: Let’s chat.
Q. My father-in-law pushed my 3-year-old daughter: My father-in-law has always been difficult to deal with and certainly was abusive to my poor husband growing up. My husband’s response was to move across the country and keep his father at arm’s length, so we thankfully only see him three or four times a year. Each time, my father-in-law drives across the country to visit us for a weekend (he stays in a hotel). These weekends are extremely stressful since my husband, who has no interest in spending time with his father, works and only joins us for breakfast and dinner—meaning I spend the full weekend trying desperately to keep the peace between my father-in-law and active 3-year-old daughter. He yells at her for actions as simple as picking a flower or walking “too fast” with her wagon. I politely intervene with “It’s OK, she’s allowed to do that” every time. As the day goes on, he gets grumpier and more critical of my daughter’s every move, which is not in line at all with my patient and encouraging parenting style.
This past visit, his inappropriate disciplining evolved to a physical level that has me extremely upset. While in my home, he answered a phone call. My daughter didn’t realize this and went up to sit next to him on the couch. This upset him and he held her down and pushed her off the couch and away from him. I watched this, stunned, and then went off to comfort my crying child. I then took her into another room and let her watch a movie with me behind a closed door until my husband came home. My father-in-law is oblivious to how inappropriate his reaction was.
When I told my husband, he reacted as you would expect an abuse victim would, refusing to look me in the eye and mumbling a “You were there, so it’s up to you to deal with.” I’ve decided that my father-in-law will never spend time with us again unless my husband is also there. My husband supports this but won’t take time off to spend with his father. I am unsure of how to move forward. How can I protect my family from abuse while maintaining the peace in this very difficult and potentially dangerous situation? While my initial thought is to ask him to leave and never allow him to see us again, what can I say or do in the moment if he is physical again with my daughter?
A: While I want to take issue with the bit about “he reacted as you would expect an abuse victim would,” I’ll set that aside for now in favor of the more pressing issue: Your initial thought is correct. Your father-in-law has no business being around your child, and you should certainly not wait for him to get physical with her again before reprimanding him. You have more than enough reason to end these visits now, with or without your husband’s participation, because your daughter is not safe with her grandfather. You should not defer to your husband’s formerly workable strategy of three to four visits a year (not least because the only reason that strategy was “formerly workable” was because your husband was at work for most of them!), nor should you “politely intervene” with anyone who’s yelling at a toddler for picking a flower.
Do not wait for another incident. Do not give your father-in-law a 900th chance. Based on your description of your husband’s behavior around his father, I don’t feel at all confident signing off on a plan to only allow future visits so long as your husband is home. This is a fairly straightforward situation. Your father-in-law was abusive to his own child and now treats your child abusively; he has never acknowledged his own abusiveness, never sought to change his behavior, never made any meaningful gesture toward apology or making amends, and there is absolutely no reason to believe he can safely spend time with your daughter, whether you and your husband offer “corrections” or not. He must not visit her again. Do not wait for your husband’s approval on this matter. He held down a 3-year-old and shoved her off of a couch—let that be the last time he gets the chance to hurt her.
I take your line about your husband “reacting as an abuse victim” to mean, if clumsily, that he reacted “as if he were currently being abused or traumatized, and seemed unable to step outside of that abusive dynamic and act as he does around other people,” rather than an attempt to describe abuse victims and their ability to handle conflict as a uniform bloc. I think it’s worth being precise in such instances. It may very well be that your husband needs additional support and resources as you two contemplate a different type of relationship with his father and former abuser, and I hope they prove fruitful. But the most important thing right now is that you two protect your 3-year-old from a physically abusive man. Not that you scold him the next time he abuses her, not that you set a clearer limit about how unacceptable such abuse is, but that you do not give him the opportunity to abuse her by allowing him in the same room with her again. That must be your priority.
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Q. Separate phone line part of my husband’s identity? My husband and I are trying to get a handle on our budget so we can save up for a house, pay down some debt, and prepare for other life things, especially babies. An easy way (to me) to save 50 bucks per month is to combine our phone plans. This is the second time I have suggested this, the other time being before we were married. I’ve heard him say he doesn’t want to do that because having his own plan is part of his identity. I’m all for people identifying how they are and what they want, but this doesn’t seem like an identity issue. But who am I to say? I tried to get him to explain more, like what happens to his identity if we combine the phone plans, but we usually don’t get anywhere.
A couple years ago we were in marriage counseling, considering divorce. We’ve decided to stay together and are a much stronger couple. But considering we don’t really have any of our finances combined and have no assets together, I can’t help but think in the back of my mind that the phone plan would be the pain in his ass if he did want to run. When I’ve said this, he gets extremely defensive. He’s not particularly phone-obsessed or anything like that. We both agree saving money is part of our shared goal to reach other family goals (as I mentioned above), so why can’t we just combine? Just so you know, any future kids we have CAN be on his plan. I just don’t get it. Should I just let this go?
A: It makes sense to me that you’d want to save 50 bucks a month and combine your phone plans; it makes sense to me that your husband considers having his own phone plan a meaningful indicator of his general independence, especially since you two already have separate finances. I take his “this is part of my identity” line not to mean “I identify as a person of independent phone-plan experience,” but something closer to “I think of myself as financially self-sufficient and independent even within my marriage, and knowing that I’m the only person who’s responsible for my plan is part of that self-conception.” I don’t think your phone plans are the make-or-break issue here, so I do think it’s worth dropping this particular subject since you’ve asked him about it twice and haven’t gotten anywhere.
But how you two will save for children, how you’ll split expenses when raising a family if you don’t set up a joint account, and what kind of assets you might need to share in the future are important questions to start answering now; the exact answers you ultimately land on are slightly less important than making sure you do find some answers together.
Q. My boyfriend is bi: I’ve been with my current partner for almost seven years, and we started an open relationship about two years ago. We are in it for the long term. My partner has struggled to come to terms with being attracted to men, and he’s finally ready to embrace it and come out as bisexual. I am completely behind him on this and I don’t want him to be anything but his true self. Since our relationship is open, he will have the chance to explore that in a more secure way, too.
I have to admit, though, that it took some time for me to wrap my head around it, and I can tell he senses my uneasiness. Overall I feel extremely confident in the strength of our relationship, but at the same time I’m still processing this change and feel unsure of how best to support him. Moreover, he wants to start coming out to our friend group and select family, something I’m also supportive of—but we both have the feeling that it will inevitably bring discussions of our open status as well. We are selective with whom we tell because we know it’s not something everyone will understand or approve of. But coming out is something he really wants to do, and recently he even said he was waiting for my permission to start. I feel overwhelmed but I don’t want to drop the ball on this. I know he needs my support now more than ever. How do I do this?
A: You can start by saying “I don’t want you to wait for my permission to come out, although you certainly have it” to your boyfriend. There’s a limit to the utility of “processing time,” and it sounds like you two have already spent months, if not years, thinking through this solely as a duo. If your boyfriend is ready to come out and you feel “extremely confident” in your relationship, I think the time is ripe (or at least as ripe as it’s going to get).
As for your worries that his coming out will necessitate conversations about your open relationship you’re not sure you’re ready to process, please go easy on yourself. I do hope that your friends and relatives will not overstep themselves and ask intrusive questions about the nature of your relationship after your boyfriend comes out, but if they do, their idle curiosity does not merit a personal response, merely polite correction.
For example, if your boyfriend says, “I’ve been wanting to tell you this for a little while. I’m bisexual, and it’s taken some time to get to terms with it, but I’m ready to come out. [Letter Writer]’s been great, and I’m really happy to have her support,” the polite response is something along the lines of “Congratulations, how wonderful” or “Thank you for telling me” or “I’m here for you.” If anyone’s response grows overlarge and includes something like “Bisexual? That means two or something, right? Since your girlfriend is only one person, does that mean you’re going to start sleeping with other people? Are you now or have you at any time been in an open relationship?” you do not owe them a polite response. One needs a better reason than “I’m curious, and you’ve just come out” to ask such a personal question. If you want to remain politic, either of you can say something like “Nothing else is changing—we just wanted you to know because it’s been meaningful on a personal scale for [Boyfriend] to come out.” Good luck, and congratulations!
Q. Not trusting my emotions: I’m 46. I separated from my husband in 2019, and we finalized our divorce mid-pandemic. I started dating a hot 32-year-old and thought it would just be silly and fun. But we’re both deeply in love. I’ve never had a relationship that made me feel as completely understood, or had such a strong physical connection. I can’t deny I love him. But we’ve been dating now for 18 months and he’s still too embarrassed to show me his place. I pick him up and bring him home or rent an Airbnb. He’s unemployed and has no college degree, and while I think he’s a very talented man, his plans for how to get work are extremely unrealistic, if I’m being honest. He can’t drive and he lives over an hour away. I’ve tried to teach him how to drive and I’m worried it’s not possible, as he has panic attacks.
I tried to break up with him because I think on some level, I know I will always have to take care of him if I let him deeper into my life. But he wants to help me, to be involved in my life, to meet my kids (they did meet once, just not as my “boyfriend,” and he got along with them extremely well). He makes me coffee, he encourages me, he wants to help me around the house, he is truly interested in my kids; if we gender-swap the situation, is it not kind of acceptable? I do worry, though, that I don’t respect his goals as realistic, truly can’t see them that way, and so have gently nudged and then thought better to avoid the topic. This is probably bigger: He’s extremely conservative and I’m extremely liberal, and that has been a huge source of arguments. I think when it matters, we agree? I also think there are topics I’ll always want to avoid, because knowing his opinion kind of makes me queasy and I hope he’ll change his mind someday.
So what am I doing? Because I can’t stop leaning on him and wanting him. And everything feels better when we’re together. But I have an awesome career and I’m not unattractive and I know I could date … I just couldn’t make myself want to when we broke up. How do I know if it’s safe to trust my emotions?
A: I’m not quite sure what “trusting my emotions” means, to be perfectly honest. In this letter it seems like a stand-in for “keep dating this guy,” which you are of course certainly allowed to do. But you have a number of emotions about him and this relationship, many of them in conflict with one another, so I don’t see a way for you to trust all of your emotions on the exact same scale and with the exact same kind of weight attached.
I’ll start with this: I don’t think it’s especially useful, worthwhile, or interesting to imagine a “gender-swapped” version of one’s romantic relationship (unless one is considering transition, in which case, have at it!). You don’t have a gender-swapped version of your relationship, and the question isn’t whether any man in your position might happily date any woman who doesn’t know how to drive or isn’t financially independent, but whether you’re happy dating this particular man who won’t let you in his house and needs you to drive an hour each way every time you have a date. He also makes you feel understood and the sex is great, which goes a long way toward explaining why you don’t want to break up with him. I wonder if “Is it safe to trust my emotions?” might serve as cover here for “Part of me really wants to prioritize having incredible sex with a sensitive and attentive partner, even as I realize there are serious problems if we contemplate a long-term future together.”
But I think you’ve saved the biggest problems for the end of your letter. Your children liked this guy on the strength of a single meeting when they thought he was just a friend; I think it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll have an identical response if you introduce him as your boyfriend, and they might feel annoyed or even angry once they figure out you misled them as to the nature of your relationship for so long. That doesn’t mean you have to break up with him out of shame, just that you should be aware that was a one-time, improvised solution that’s unlikely to work again. You think he’s unlikely to ever get a job or start supporting himself, and he’s either so defensive or so resistant to discussing the subject that you’ve “thought better” of even “gentle nudges” on the subject, and have decided never to speak to him about work or money again if you can help it. You “think” that you two agree “when it matters,” but you framed that as a question and didn’t get specific on what things matter to you. You also say that a number of his opinions make you sick to your stomach and you can only bear to acknowledge them by pretending he’s going to change his mind someday, even though he’s given you no reason to believe such a change will ever take place.
I think there’s a reason you’ve needed to keep this relationship in such a protective little bubble, holding him at arm’s length from your kids and your friends—because you know that you won’t be able to keep spinning these fantasies of “maybe it’ll all work out because he also makes me coffee” without crashing into reality. This does not mean that you have to break up with him tomorrow. You don’t have to break up with anyone you don’t want to, even if an advice columnist you’ve never met thinks you probably should. But you do have to take everything you know about your boyfriend into honest consideration, even the things you wish weren’t true. He is extremely conservative, he does not seem inclined to become any less conservative even after getting into numerous arguments with you. He does not have a job, he does not support himself financially, and he is either unwilling or unable to listen to suggestions about changing his approach. He does not drive and is either unwilling or unable to learn. He does not want you to see his home. You do not want your children to know that you’re dating him. You love the sex you have together, you love the emotional connection between the two of you, you get queasy when you think about his deepest values, and you’re deeply concerned about the prospect of supporting him financially and logistically if you commit to a fully avowed, long-term relationship. Part of you thinks you can overcome those concerns because he encourages you (Shouldn’t any partner of yours encourage you? Isn’t that a pretty low bar to clear?) and makes you coffee (which is sweet, but takes about five minutes). All of these things are true at the same time. You will have to use your own judgment, your own honest assessment of the situation as it is, not as you wish it could be.
Q. Can’t take the heat: Three years ago, I followed my partner of now seven years to Phoenix from a milder Northeastern climate. He had gotten a job there making about 20 percent more money, so it was hard to say no. At the time, I was finishing grad school and working full-time. Work allowed me to go fully remote, and even pays for my trips back when I need to be in the office.
Everything has been more or less OK except for the fact that I hate Phoenix, from the hot weather, to the desert, to the high proportion of “gun nut” libertarians. Upon entering my last semester, I told him about my intention to seek a new job in other cities. He knows I don’t like living in Phoenix but tries to gaslight me by saying things like “You just don’t like anywhere you live.” It’s true; I have moved more often than he has prior to being together, but it’s given me the experience to know when some place isn’t working.
Recently he accepted a new job where he is also fully remote. I’ve told him again that I want to move, but he won’t take me seriously. Short of listing the house for sale and scouting for new cities on my own, what can I do to convince him I mean business? I’d rather not lose him, but after 150 days of 110-degree weather last year, I think I won’t sweat it too much if I do. I don’t have any sweat left to give.
A: If the house is in both of your names, I wouldn’t advise you to list it on your own, but you can and certainly should start looking for new places! “I’m leaving Phoenix this year. I would like to leave Phoenix with you, and I would like to choose a new city to move to together, but I’m leaving regardless” is as clear as possible, I think, and if even that doesn’t convince him you’ll mean business, boxing up your things and moving to Baltimore or Portland probably will.
I think it’s worth using precise language when it comes to conflict, especially conflict with a partner, and to that end I want to flag your line about whether your boyfriend is gaslighting you. It’s a brief aside, so I won’t rule out the possibility that he’s been waging a sustained, ongoing campaign to convince you that your grasp of reality is tenuous, that you’re losing your mind, and that only he can restore you to sanity (in which case getting out of Phoenix is an even more urgent question of safety). But if what you mean is “He’s dismissing my specific concerns about this city by characterizing my frequent moves in the past as evidence that I’m equally unhappy in any city I live in, and I freely dispute this characterization of his,” then you are talking about garden-variety disagreement, not psychological abuse.
Q. Navigating expectations with parents: I’m trying to navigate a change in my relationship with my parents. About a year and a half ago, they retired and moved to the town where my spouse and I have lived for several years. We are thrilled that they are here and have tried to include them in many of the outings and activities that we enjoy. The pandemic has of course impacted this. We formed a bubble early on and narrowed our social circle to just them until we could all get vaccinated.
Now, we’ve started to branch out a bit more. We’re still including them most of the time … but whenever they get wind that we haven’t invited them to something, they get upset and standoffish. Do you have any advice for a conversation around how much they expect to be included and where we draw the line about personal time (like dates and unplanned outings)?
A: I would advise you to have such a conversation, certainly! There are a number of possible reasonable lines one might draw, although I’m afraid I can’t guarantee that your parents will react positively to even a very reasonable line about “just us” time. But the most important thing is that you have a deliberate conversation of some kind with them so you don’t just hope they get the picture. Presumably you four had a conversation about risk, safety, togetherness, shared goals, limits, etc., when you formed a bubble early on in the pandemic, and that you didn’t just hope the bubble would create itself without acknowledgment. Now’s the time for a follow-up! “There are going to be times when we schedule outings or see friends without you” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, and if your parents act glum or morose about it, you can cheerfully remind them that this is a healthy, natural part of life, and that you’re not going to apologize for seeing old friends you’ve missed and been parted from for so long.
I’d encourage you to err on the side of briskness here. If you start apologizing for not socializing exclusively with your parents, or even give the appearance of thinking an apology might be called for, you’re setting yourself up for a relationship based on extremely unreasonable expectations. “We will not invite you to every outing” is nothing you need to apologize for. You can certainly make room to have a loving, attentive conversation about how difficult the last 18 months have been, how strange it might feel to start tentatively reentering a larger social circle, and whether your parents feel a little isolated in this new town where they may not know many people besides you and your partner. But listening attentively to such problems does not mean you are therefore obligated to “fix” them by saying “OK, from now on, if we’re invited to a party, so are you—we come as a package deal from now on.”
Q. Poor past leadership: A few years ago, I ended up in a leadership position in an activist group. I was poorly prepared and didn’t do a great job, so I quit. The organization has done way better under different leadership, which I’m very happy about. I’m still involved as a volunteer, but sometimes people who remember me from leadership will say something about it (think “Hey, my organization mentor!”) and I always want to say “a thing I did poorly,” but I don’t because it would be weird to say! Is there any way to gently acknowledge this past without being weird about it?
A: I can understand why you don’t want to say “Right, that thing I was terrible at” when an old acquaintance says “I remember you helped introduce me to [Organization],” since that’s something of a conversational lead balloon. If someone merely acknowledges that they got to know you through that role, you should mirror their tone and respond in kind. If a little later in the conversation you want to say something about how you think the new leader is doing a great job and that you’re better suited to work as a volunteer, by all means do so, but the difference between reflexive/immediate self-deprecation (“I didn’t do a good job! Please don’t mention that old leadership role because I fucked everything up!”) and relatively neutral acknowledgment of change is pretty significant, and will go a long way toward making such conversations interesting and enjoyable rather than painful and stilted.
Q. Re: Separate phone line part of my husband’s identity? I think it’s worth raising the possibility that the letter writer’s husband may be doing something on his phone he doesn’t want the letter writer to see (think extramarital affair, sports betting, mobile gaming micro-transactions). I also think the letter writer should think carefully if they want to have children with their husband while maintaining separate finances. It’s incredibly difficult to do so and it seems like the husband is prioritizing his needs over the family unit. I know I wouldn’t sign on to a mortgage, let alone have a baby, with someone with whom I didn’t have at least partially joined finances. I feel it’s important to the poster to think about the kind of financial risk they could unknowingly be taking on.
A: That’s certainly possible; the same idea occurred to me, especially when the letter writer mentioned they’d previously considered divorce. But in such a case, and in the absence of any stronger/more specific evidence than a simple desire for continued privacy, I think the best way to try to figure things out is to have that bigger-picture conversation about their shared goals and plans for starting a family together. If those goals are incompatible, then that’s the most important thing to discuss; if they’re not, I don’t think the letter writer has grounds to say, “Show me your phone bill,” nor do I think looking at that phone bill would serve as an adequate replacement for an honest conversation. But it will all come out one way or another, I think.
Q. Update: Worried about disclosure: I’m the grad student who wrote in a few weeks ago about searching for employment while planning for my cancer surgery. I went ahead and dove into the job search. I reached a second round of interviews and reference checks with one employer (which I was fully prepared to take), but before I could accept the position, my program offered me a post-grad fellowship with free housing and a reduced teaching load. With that and a successfully defended dissertation, I’m feeling enormous relief. I just wanted to share some good news, and thank you for the advice and encouragement!
A: Thank you so much for the update, and congratulations. I’m so glad you’ve gotten free housing and a lighter workload, and best of luck with your upcoming surgery. I hope your recovery is swift and free from complications!
Q. A few paws too many: I live in an apartment complex geared toward young adults (college students looking for a quieter environment, grad students, young professionals, and a few young families). Last year, the young woman across the hall lost both her parents in a freak accident, and her little brothers were sent across the country to live with family. She already had one (admittedly very well-behaved and well-trained) dog, but she took in both of her parents’ dogs. There is a two-dog limit that I was informed was “strictly enforced,” but she apparently appealed for special permission given the circumstances and received it because one of the dogs is “elderly.” I feel bad for her circumstances, but it’s been a year and she still has three dogs, so apparently the “elderly” one wasn’t so old after all. She seems to be a responsible pet owner, but I think it’s unfair that she’s had three dogs and will for the foreseeable future. I think she used everyone’s pity for her family tragedy to get around the rules. Would it be wrong of me to complain to management?
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