Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
I hate my son’s girlfriend of 13 years. They are high school sweethearts who are now 30 and talking about buying property and eventually starting a family together. He currently lives at home and helps pay my mortgage, among other things. If he leaves, I will be forced to sell the house and adjust to a new lifestyle. I feel she will keep me away from my son when they move out. I have tried everything to split them apart and often make her feel unwelcome in my home and talk about her negatively to almost anyone who will listen. I even make her bring her own food when she stays here. Why can’t she just get the point that no one wants her here and move on!? What else can I do to get rid of her?
Is this real? I almost feel like this is the son’s girlfriend writing in the voice of her future mother-in-law to make a point about how terribly she’s being treated. Because how could someone type this out, read it over, and not realize they were the bad guy? But OK, “Mom,” I’ll play along.
I’m obviously not going to change your whole approach to life with this letter. I’m not going to tell you to totally alter the way you think about your relationship with your son. I won’t remind you that in the United States, in 2021, adults generally get to move out and have their own lives and aren’t expected to make parents their first priority. Because you don’t seem to care about your son’s happiness. And you don’t seem to care about how awful you’re being to this woman who has done nothing wrong. (If she had, I’m sure you would have mentioned it.)
But I can see that you love your son very much and want to have as much contact with him as possible, and I can offer a tip that might help you get there. To get what you want, you have to pretend to be a kind and sensible human. And I think we both know this is going to require some acting.
What will that look like? You invite the two of them over. Tell them you support their plan to buy a home and while it will be tough on you, you will adjust. Apologize for the way you’ve behaved and explain that while it was inspired by your obsessive love for your son, you now understand that it was beyond inappropriate and often cruel and want to make amends. Ask for a fresh start. For the love of God, offer that woman some food!
I know this won’t be easy for you, but it’s a means to an end: having a relationship with the person you love most in the world. The alternative is that he’s going to resent you and spend less and less time with you. Even if you manage to drive this woman away, there will be another one, and I have a feeling you’ll hate her too.
So the answer to “What can I do to get rid of her?” is “Nothing.” And the answer to the question you didn’t ask but should have—“What can I do to make sure my son doesn’t completely get rid of me?”—is “Pretend to be reasonable.” Fake it until you make it. You might discover that this is a better way to live.
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I am 20 and was out of the house when my dad remarried two years ago. My sister is 14. My stepsister is 12, and a childish 12 at that (still plays with her dolls and has a tendency toward tantrums). My stepsister hasn’t made a lot of friends after the move, and her mother overcompensates by sticking to the Brady Bunch B.S.: Your sister is your best friend! Meaning my sister can’t step out of the house without our stepsister on her heels. She can’t see her friends without taking our stepsister along or enjoy any personal activities at home without getting bugged to play with dolls again.
I will be working at a ranch this summer. My sister loves horses and can ride like the wind. My boss approved of me inviting her to visit for a month. It is the same month her birthday falls in. My dad approved when I first asked him. Then our stepsister threw a tantrum. She didn’t want to be alone during the summer and my sister “needed” to celebrate her 15th birthday by having a sleepover with her. Then my stepmother got in on the action—it wasn’t “fair” my sister got this trip and not my stepsister. My stepsister is afraid of horses! I am just trying to look after my sister here. I don’t know what to do.
—Troubled in the Heartland
I’m annoyed for your sister and heartbroken for your stepsister, who could possibly be struggling with behavioral and emotional issues that go deeper than immaturity. I’m not a child development expert, and I don’t have kids, but tantrums strike me as more of a 2- to 7-year-old thing than a 12-year-old thing. Maybe raise this privately with your father and see if they’re open to getting outside opinions on whether she needs more support that he and your stepmom can provide.
Beyond sibling dynamics, let’s talk about the touchiest part of this. You don’t seem to really like the 12-year-old, nor do you seem to treat the girls equally. Maybe it’s because of her difficult personality. Maybe it’s because of the “step-” part. (Consider not using that and just calling her your sister. You’ve been around for two years, which is a lifetime to a kid, so you’re a big deal in her world.) Either way, it’s clear that you have a favorite, and it’s not her. But your stepmother—as unreasonable as she may be with her daily Brady Bunch demands—is right to sniff out this unfairness and try to fix it for her child.
I think your way forward here is to find a way to spend time with both of them. Yes, you should insist that the 14-year-old is allowed to come with you to the ranch. She’ll love it. She deserves it. And she really needs the time away from home, where she’s being unfairly burdened by the 12-year-old’s needs. Then you should plan a separate bonding experience with the 12-year-old. Offer a visit later in the summer or over her next holiday break, or something really special for her 16th birthday. If there are limitations around time and money this summer, promise her a month, even if it has to be divided up into several chunks across the year, with you and keep your word. Also, make plans to bond with them one-on-one when you visit. You can’t control what goes on in their home when you’re not there. But offering the older sister some freedom and the younger sister some individual attention could go a long way. Going forward, make sure you’re not playing favorites—or rather, revealing that you have one. Maybe one day you won’t.
My co-worker, an older woman, wants to hang out with me on lunch breaks, but I really don’t like her. I feel bad for her because her entire work friend group has retired or left and she has no one to talk to. On the other hand, I hate talking to her because she is a terrible gossip and tries very hard to get me to dish on people, which I am very uncomfortable with. She doesn’t see that kind of talk as gossip—it’s just normal conversation to her. Now she wants me to be her (only) work friend, and I don’t know how to handle it.
—Don’t Want to Hang
Dear Don’t Want to Hang,
Open up Slack or email. Type the following: “Hi Sharon! I know we’ve been having lunch together a lot, but I wanted to let you know that I’m on a self-improvement kick, and I’m going to be using my breaks for reading [or podcasts or exercise or meditation], and I won’t be able to hang out much anymore. But I’ll see you around the office, and I always enjoy saying hi. Thanks for understanding!” You can still be kind to her. Grab a coffee for her on your way in. Compliment her outfits. Ask how her kids are doing when you cross paths in the bathroom. Then, once a month or whenever you’re feeling up to it, invite her to lunch and dominate the conversation by talking about the latest season of Married at First Sight or whatever interests you—hopefully something even more inane. Then repeat “Sorry, I really don’t like to talk about people behind their backs,” accompanied by an angelic smile, every time she starts chatting about a colleague. Take it from me, someone who loves to gossip: She’ll get so painfully bored that she’ll find someone else to talk to.
More Advice From Pay Dirt
My grandmother has been harassing me nonstop about having children for years, and now that I have a steady boyfriend, she’s been ramping up the comments, begging, crying, and even talking to my boyfriend, saying, “I need to carry on the family line.” I’m 36 and have known for many years I don’t want children, and this has been exacerbated by the fact that we have extensive medical problems on both sides that I don’t wish to pass on. She’s now threatening to pull financial help that she very occasionally provides if I don’t have a child ASAP. I’m now at the point where I’m considering forging a doctor’s letter saying I’m barren to get her off my case, even if it means losing the small amount of help I get from her. Is it ethically wrong?