Dear Prudence

Help! My Wife Commissioned a Portrait of Me. It’s Hideous.

The artist is a cousin—I’m shocked he sees me like this.

Person scratches their head in confusion surrounded by an illustrated frame.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Johnrob/iStock/Getty Images Plus and sam thomas/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we dive into the Dear Prudie archives and share a selection of classic letters with our readers. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns—your first month is only $1.

Dear Prudence,

I recently celebrated a milestone birthday for which my wife had commissioned a work of art to commemorate. The artist is a cousin who works in mixed media and has a notable regional reputation. I love and deeply respect him and his work, but I never really “got” it. He uses found and recycled materials collaged together. I was horrified to discover that I find the portrait extremely unflattering and troubling. I was shocked to think that my cousin saw me this way. Friends who have seen it have also found it ugly and strangely dark—parts of this collage have my age wrong and imply that I have struggled with obesity and depression. I believe I have responded to the gift appropriately with many thanks and appreciation, but I’m not sure how I am to live with this art in my home. My wife has hung it in a prominent place that I must pass scores of time a day. I’m not sure how to even start the conversation. The additional wrinkle is that a gallery has contacted me asking to include the piece in an upcoming exhibition. I’d rather not have this depiction of me in public. How should I handle this horrible mess?

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Be glad that your cousin was not Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon. Although I suppose if either was your cousin, while you’d be portrayed as mad and wattled, the portrait would be worth millions. First of all, you say you don’t get your cousin’s work, which I assume means he does portraits which are not conventional and not flattering. So accept he is not picking you out as an object of derision, he’s using you as a canvas on which to express his artistic vision. I think the new wrinkle about the exhibition is a godsend. At least it allows you to temporarily get the wrinkled mess that’s supposed to be you out of the house! Do not be concerned that people will think this is an accurate depiction of you. You should be sure to attend the gallery opening and have lot of photos snapped standing next to your “likeness.” This will only serve to make you look happy, slender, and youthful. If you’re lucky, someone will insist they have to buy the painting and you will have to convince your wife that this art lover must be appeased. But if you take the canvas home, tell your wife that as thoughtful and loving as this gift was, every time you walk by the portrait you feel you need to lose 50 pounds and start taking Paxil. Ask if you can at the least move it to the guest room so you don’t have to look at it daily. That will have the added benefit that anyone who’s considering overstaying their welcome will see you staring down at them looking miserable and want to pack their bags. —Emily Yoffe

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From: “Help! My Wife Commissioned a Gruesome Portrait of Me.” (March 18, 2014)

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Dear Prudence,

I’ve been dating the love of my life for about a year and a half. For about half of that time he’s been in grad school and the other half he’s spent looking for work in his field. Right now he has a low-paying job that keeps him at poverty level and leaves him unable to pay his credit card or student loan debts.

The problem? He just got a job offer 1,300 miles away. It’s his dream job, the pay is great, and it is quite prestigious. He does not want to leave, as he likes the area we live in and he loves me, but this offer is almost too good to be true. I have a job I love here, at the top of my chosen profession. I wake up every morning thrilled to go to work—I would probably continue to do this job even if I won the lottery tomorrow.

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Should I look for jobs in his new city, where I don’t want to live and where no job will be quite as good as the one I currently have, or should I stay here and try to make long distance work? There is no plan that would put us back in the same place that doesn’t involve one of us eventually leaving a job we like. I don’t want to be alone 90 percent of the time, and I want to start a family relatively soon. Should I ask him to consider not taking the job? Or should I just accept that maybe we cannot be together? Is love just not enough?

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Please don’t ask your boyfriend to decline a job that could break him out of the vicious cycle of working poverty, particularly if he works in a field where offers like this are few and far between. If you’re not willing to move with him and you’re not willing to date long distance, then by all means part ways but don’t ask him to consider turning down a job that could get him out of debt. —Danny M. Lavery

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From: “Help! My Boyfriend’s Dream Job Is in Another City, and My Dream Job Is Here. What Now?” (Aug. 15, 2016)

Dear Prudence,

It’s been almost eight months since my wife passed away, and I am finally starting to feel that maybe I am not going to die when I wake up and she isn’t there. We were married for just over 10 years, and she had two children from a prior marriage who are now grown. We had no children together, but I had the privilege of being part of her children’s lives. Her son lives across the country. Her daughter lives near me and has been a constant companion through my grieving, spending most Sundays at my house since her mother’s passing. My wife was significantly older than me, and my stepdaughter is only five years younger than I am. This past weekend we were getting ready to have dinner, and she told me she was starting to have romantic feelings for me. She is college educated, young, and attractive, but I am not ready for anything resembling an intimate relationship. I can’t describe all the emotions that slammed me: fear, desperation, shame, and exhilaration. The last one is the worst. The dinner was awkward and she departed shortly thereafter. What do I do? I’ve been dodging her ever since.

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How odd it must have been for your stepdaughter to have had a young man barely older than herself come into her life as her stepfather. I’m sure this caused much fascination and speculation among her friends. Then her mother was gone, and all the forbidden thoughts she may have had about you over the years no longer seemed so bizarre. You two had a father-daughter relationship for 10 years, so that’s all you need to know about the taboo that’s been erected to keep you from ever pursuing a relationship with her. After months of desolation, you are feeling ready to rejoin the living. And lo and behold, there in the flesh is an attractive woman expressing her desire for you, one who just happens to be a younger variation of the love you just lost. It’s a good thing that your autonomic nervous system went into alert, warning you of the danger ahead. It’s understandable that despite all your negative feelings, there was the tantalizing hint of something thrilling. But the only thing for you to do is to quash it, and it would have been best for you to have made clear at dinner that nothing was ever going to happen between you two. Now you need to deal with what she said directly and decisively. Get together with her and explain that you both have leaned on each other because of your loss, which has naturally brought you closer. But you were married to her mother and that means you two can never have a romantic relationship. Say that because you’re both adults you will put this conversation behind you and continue to care about each other, but in a way that won’t sully the memory of the woman you both loved. —E.Y.

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From: “Help! My Stepdaughter Hit on Me After My Wife Died.” (April 5, 2012)

Dear Prudence,

I am a single woman who has been having an affair with a married man for over three years. The past year or so has been long-distance. He has recently told me he wants me to slowly move on. I am devastated, but this question is not about me. He is in a trustless, miserable, sexless marriage that he says he is staying in only for the kids. He is completely resigned to this dismal life. I think he needs to go to marriage counseling and to come clean to his wife about us. This situation is unsustainable for all three of us involved. I am concerned that when/if I am gone, he will turn to another woman, or worse—alcohol, drugs, or prostitutes. I care for him deeply and want him to be happy, even if it’s not with me. What can I do?

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I don’t know that there’s much you can do! You’re right, I think, that if he truly wants to stay in his marriage, it would be better to do so honestly, to make a genuine effort to reconnect with his wife—even if just as a respectful and loving co-parent—to attend marriage counseling and to try, in good faith, to make a go of things. But if he would prefer to wall himself inside a tower of martyrdom, there’s not much you can do to help things. Coming clean to his wife on his behalf would, I’m sure you know, likely result in the destruction of his marriage, rather than the preservation of it. Drug addiction and despair are not your boyfriend’s only alternatives to the end of your relationship. He has the ability to make different choices; let him. —D.L.

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From: “Help! I Want the Married Man I’m Having an Affair With to Be Happy, Even if It’s Not With Me.” (June 1, 2016)

More from Dear Prudence

Several months ago, I met a nice man at a gathering of friends. We hit it off and started dating. He’s smart, funny, and sweet. He clearly adores me, and I’m starting to feel the same about him. We are both well over 40 years old. On a whim, I Googled his name and found a news article, with a photo of him, describing his arrest several years ago on a charge of soliciting a young teenage girl over the Internet for sex. There was no mention of the outcome of the case, and he’s not listed on a sex offender registry anywhere. He is divorced and his son lives with his mother. I have no children. The physical part of the relationship has been great, and he seems extremely happy to be with nonteenage me. Do I bring this up or keep it in the past, where he seems to want it? Should I out him to our friends, none of whom have young children? How do I (or should I) unlearn what I found out about this otherwise wonderful man?

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