Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. StarCraft slump: My boyfriend is a kind, caring, loving man, and I am mostly satisfied with our relationship. His main hobby is the online game StarCraft, and he spends maybe 10 to 15 hours a week on it, usually a game each evening. The problem is that if he loses a game, it can color his mood for days. There are usually like two to three days a month where he’s down in the dumps because of this. I don’t resent the time he spends on the game, nor do I think it’s wrong for him to enjoy it, but I don’t like how much it hurts him when it goes poorly, and I don’t really know how to help him. And I guess, deep down, I do not think it’s healthy to find a video game this important to self-esteem. How can I help him?
A: You don’t have to do anything to help him. Being down in the dumps a few days a month doesn’t sound that bad to me. Maybe this is a “we just lived through a pandemic” perspective, but it actually seems pretty normal to be grumpy one-tenth of the time. We all want our loved ones to be happy as often as possible (because we care about them, but also because it makes them much more fun to be around), but people—even people who are in relationships—are allowed to be in bad moods.
I can see why you have some concerns about his lack of emotional resilience, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that. It sounds like this is the only thing that really gets him down—he’s not sinking into a depression over getting cut off in traffic or forgetting to plug the crockpot in, right? You say he’s a great partner overall and he’s not lashing out or mistreating you when things go wrong with StarCraft. So when he gets moody, let that be your cue to go hang out with friends or do something you enjoy, and allow him to sulk over his game in peace. Maybe even take a moment to celebrate that he apparently doesn’t have many real problems.
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Q. Not your beach house: I live on a very exclusive, touristy island. I’m surrounded by beautiful beaches, celebrities, and some of the best restaurants in the world. I’m not one of the rich folks here and have made many sacrifices to be able to afford to call this place home. My partner and I called off our wedding during the pandemic and used the money to buy a small condo. We told our immediate families, and everyone was thrilled for us.
As expected, word reached a big group of relatives who I don’t like at all. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to distance myself from these people—they are petty and condescending and have bullied me my entire life. Unfortunately, they found my address and the wedding checks are pouring in. The checks are substantial enough that we’d be able to complete one of our house projects. I’m very tempted to cash them, but I know from past behavior that each of them will expect an invitation to stay with us every summer. If no invitation is offered, they will most likely demand one or try to manipulate my parents into getting me to open my house to them. Another mutual relative owned a larger house here, and we would invite them over for a long weekend. Often they would overstay their welcome by a lot and leave huge messes. One clogged a toilet and didn’t say anything until water started dripping from a light fixture below! He then refused to admit fault or even offer to pay for damages!
So do I cash the checks, send thank-you cards, and deal with the constant badgering? Or do I return them with a note saying we aren’t accepting wedding presents?
A: A wedding gift isn’t a down payment on free vacation accommodations. By all means, cash the checks and send thank-you notes. When the notes are received, the transaction will be complete. When and if these awful, condescending, toilet-clogging relatives reach out asking to stay, your response should be “I’m sorry but we’re not up for hosting guests.” The end! If they are upset, oh, well! You don’t like them anyway. And they can’t take their money back.
Q. Proposal neurosis: In 2019, my then-boyfriend of five years and I discussed getting engaged, and he told me he was planning to propose that year. Toward the end of the year, he fell into a deep depression (related to work), and the proposal didn’t come. I was heartbroken. I told him so, and a month later, he proposed at home with my grandmother’s ring. It was lovely.
Since then, I’ll fixate on the proposal in my dark moments and get really upset. What if I forced him into this? Was the proposal low-key and uneventful because he doesn’t really care? He’s tried to reassure me that it’s his biggest regret, that he loves me more than anything and wants to get married, and it was just because he was in a dark place. How do I get past this neurosis?
A: Engagement isn’t just one moment; it’s the whole period of time leading up to when you get married. For many people, this includes things like taking professional photos, having an engagement party, making guest lists, tasting cakes, planning for your bachelor and bachelorette parties, booking honeymoon activities, and a lot of talks about the future. There will be many moments during this time when your fiancé can show (and not just tell) you that he’s enthusiastic about spending the rest of his life with you. Ask him to take the lead on some of this stuff and let him know that since the proposal was quiet, you’d really like some of the other events to be a little more flashy (or more emotional or more public or whatever it is you need).
In addition to this, premarital counseling is a must—not just to get on the same page about kids and finances and all that, but to work on your communication (the fact that he decided not to propose and didn’t update you tells me you two could use a little help here!) and create an opportunity to talk in a lot of detail, leaving no question unanswered, about what spending the rest of your lives together means to you as a couple.
Q. Don’t visit me please: Two years ago, my brother’s ex-wife and her family moved about an hour away from our town. I’ve always had a great relationship with “Carol” even after she divorced my brother. They made the trip down to see me once before lockdown. We generally stayed in touch throughout the pandemic and they’ve made a few requests to come see me again now that things have reopened.
Prudie, though I do enjoy their company, I find it exhausting to schedule and deal with these visits. My business was destroyed by the pandemic and I’m working for a new startup with crazy hours. I’m also basically single-parenting, as my partner and I are separated. I have politely deflected visit requests a few times now, and I can tell Carol is frustrated. Last week, Carol told my mother that she was disappointed that I was “unwilling” to see Carol or the kids. She said they were excited to move here originally because they would have “family support” (me, ostensibly) but have only seen me twice in two years. Carol also said the kids see pictures of me on Instagram and keep asking why I don’t have time for a visit. She noted it’s “ridiculous” that I’m unwilling to spend time with them even when they’re willing to make the two-hour round trip themselves, and I have to put in zero transit time.
I need a gut check here. Am I a jerk for not wanting to host these family members even when they’re willing to put in all the travel to do so? Are my excuses reasonable? What’s the right way to handle family members who I enjoy seeing at events, but don’t actually want to build into my “regular life” schedule?
A: “Hi Carol. My mom shared with me that you and your kids are really disappointed that we haven’t been able to get together more as things have opened up. You know I love you and am so glad we’ve kept our relationship going over the years, so I wanted to give you an explanation. My separation, my single-parenting situation, and the collapse of my business have been really hard on me. I’m honestly overwhelmed and just not up for socializing much these days. Even when you generously offer to make the trip and make it easy on me, it just feels like too much. Honestly I’m a little worried that this sounds unreasonable—and maybe it is—but it’s how I’m feeling right now. Please know that it’s not personal and that I love you and care about you. I’ll let you know when things change, and I’d be happy to send my kid[s] to you for a week this summer so the kids can bond, if that works on your end. No pressure, of course. Either way, I hope we can make a plan to stay in touch on the phone, because I really do want to hear about how you’re doing even if we aren’t spending time in person.”
Q. Partying problems: I have a chronic illness that tires me out after high-energy activities and drinking. That means that I’m usually in bed after a night out.
Now that everything is opening up, I have been going to a lot of weddings and I’m so happy—I love weddings! The only problem is that a lot of my friends want to do social activities the same day or day after these events. My friends have plans to get together four more times. I’ve told them that I can’t come if I also want to attend the weddings and have a good time, and they seem to be getting annoyed. They keep telling me that I could go to the wedding, not dance or drink, and then go to the get-togethers too. This is theoretically possible, but I honestly love to dance at weddings. My friends claim this is selfish. Are they right? Am I in the wrong?
A: I bet you’re in your early to mid-20s. In my experience, this was the phase of life when friendship was almost entirely expressed by showing up to group social events and being fun. I can’t count the number of times I was dragged out on a Friday or Saturday night, and I was always pressuring friends who were too tired to show up for things, too. If I’m right about your age, the good news is that it will end. Before long, lots of people will be too tired or hungover to do big social stuff two days in a row, everyone will have more responsibilities, people will settle down, and there will be no questions asked if you say you aren’t up for something. Until then, you should just train your friends to understand that they don’t plan your weekends or manage your energy reserves for you. “Sorry, I’m exhausted and I’m not going to make it” is the end of the conversation. And if they really think managing your chronic illness is selfish, it might also be the beginning of your transition to a new group of friends.
Q. Re: StarCraft slump: In addition to your advice, the letter writer might consider opening a general conversation about how he feels about losing games (however, not while he’s in one of these slumps). The questions should come from a place of curiosity and not a desire to get him to change or hide his feelings. For example, “It seems like losing games of StarCraft hurts you a lot—could you tell me more about what you’re going through when that happens?” She might also consider asking him directly what he needs from her when he’s feeling this way. If he wants space, she can leave him alone without worrying that she’s abandoning him in some way, or if he would like support of some kind, he can give her a better idea of how to be there for him when he’s not in a great mood.
A: This is great advice.
Q. Re: StarCraft slump: I won’t lie, I thought your answer was somewhat off base here. While it’s true we all experience bad moods, I can’t imagine living with a partner who was a stormy rain cloud of bad mood two to three days a month. We’re not talking the rest of the night after he loses one to three times a month, but a full day! There are plenty of dateable people out there who have better emotional resilience, so if this is really bothering the letter writer, it is definitely a valid reason to break up.
A: Sure. To be clear, anything can be a valid reason to break up if that’s what you want to do. You don’t even need a reason at all. But the writer’s question was not “Can I break up?” or even “How can I cope with this?” It was “How can I help him?” If he thinks he needs help, he can ask for it and get it himself. And if he’s OK with being a rain cloud on a regular basis, he’s allowed to live that way.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: That’s all for now. Thanks to everyone who joined the chat—I hope you have a great day! And if you lost a StarCraft game and are miserable, I hope your partner leaves you alone. Talk to you next week.
From Care and Feeding
My 7-year-old keeps trying to kiss me on the mouth. She asks if we can get married. (“I’m already married. Kids don’t marry their family, but since we’re family you know I’ll always be part of your life, honey.”) We’re close, and there’s a lot of “I love you” and “I have the best parents in the world” stuff. Sweet. But when she’s tired or getting a little wild at bedtime, it can devolve into her trying to kiss me or show me how they kiss in movies. (Yes, she saw Mamma Mia once.) Yuck! I dodge. I say I don’t like it. I tell her she can kiss me on the cheek. I refuse to let her get close enough to do it. But what the hell??