Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hi everyone, hope you had a great weekend! I’m ready for you to fight with me about how to manage the thermostat in a shared home, and other topics that are getting you heated. Let’s get started.
Q. Therapy crush: I have a huge crush on my therapist, and I’m terrified that if I tell her, she won’t be comfortable being my therapist anymore. The crush has gotten so intense that I get very nervous in the hours leading up to our appointments. Also, I think my fear that telling her would make her uncomfortable being my therapist is part of something larger, which I would like to explore more in therapy, so a vicious cycle ensues! I’m pretty sure this fear is irrational, because she is a lovely and professional person, but I can’t shake it.
A: I just texted my friend who is a therapist to get her perspective. She assured me that 1) this is extremely common and normal, 2) you don’t need to concern yourself with your therapist’s comfort, and 3) a good therapist will process this with you in a totally nonflirty way, with a focus on what you can learn from these feelings.
But—and this is a big but—she also mentioned that one of the main things therapists get in trouble for is having sex with their patients. That’s a reminder that in all professions there are good and bad people, competent and incompetent people, and ethical and unethical people, and this is no exception.
You say she’s lovely and professional so I think you can go ahead and tell her. But if she responds with anything other than a fairly boring “let’s unpack this” perspective—if she suggests at all that she likes you too and is interested in making something happen—let that be your last session.
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Q. Hoarder mom: My fiancé’s mom, who is in the early stages of dementia, moved in with us. As soon as she got here, the mess began. Literally.
The contents of one of her storage containers now fills our spare room and garage almost to the ceiling and takes up space in the living room. She bought everything in threes: statues, baskets, “as seen on TV” crap. There’s 20 years’ worth of taxes in boxes. She doesn’t want to get rid of anything.
My fiancé and I are at our wits’ end. She doesn’t want mental health support, as she doesn’t believe she has dementia. Trying to sort through everything is a nightmare. What do we do—sort through it in the middle of the night and just start secretly throwing things out? A lot of the boxes are contaminated with dog dander and mice droppings, and my allergies are triggered by both. Please help.
A: Get rid of anything covered in dog dander and rodent poop immediately. It’s bad for your health and hers too, and you’re now responsible for her.
When caring for parents, the transition from “You’re an adult who gets to make her own decisions, but I’m here to help” to “I’m the person in charge and I have to make the best choices for you” is a really, really tough one, because it doesn’t kick in at a specific age or with a specific diagnosis. No one makes an announcement. But you’re there. She is dealing with dementia, and, left to her own devices, would happily turn your home into an overstuffed, allergy-inducing storage unit. She, your fiancé, and you deserve healthy lives and space, and you’re the one who has to make it happen.
Next, imagine what you would do if you lived in a smaller space without a spare room, and do that. Tell her you have to clear out some space, and spend some time talking to her—not about what needs to go, but what she loves and values most. Once you have that information, keep as much clothing as you can fit in her closet. Decide how much garage space you can comfortably part with, and fill a few boxes with some special mementos, photos, and other items that mean a lot to her. If you have to get rid of the other stuff in the middle of the night, that’s what you have to do. And if you end up selling any of it, use the proceeds for something that will bring her joy (hopefully an experience rather than another physical item).
I hate that this is going to upset her, but another part of your new responsibility is to do what you can to make sure she’s OK emotionally. That means seeing a doctor about her condition (don’t wait for her to agree that she has dementia!), finding a therapist to help her through this transition, and looking for whatever support you can find to make her new, clutter-free life as healthy and happy as possible.
Q. It’s hot (or cold) in here: We’re a group of seven college students living together, and we’re all really close, so this is a friendship ethics question as much as it is a roommate ethics question.
Six of us would prefer to keep the house temperature around 73–75 degrees, and one of us would prefer it to be 68 degrees. The six roommates find 68 degrees to be quite chilly and wind up wearing sweatshirts and using blankets all the time, and believe that the majority opinion should win out; the seventh roommate finds 73–75 degrees to be unpleasantly warm and believes that, because the other roommates can put on more clothes and he can’t wear less clothing, we should keep the house at the coolest temperature. What should we do?
A: 71 during the day, 69 at night.
Q. Not pulling his weight: My fiancé and I recently sold most of our belongings and moved into a camper. He quit his job impulsively a month before our move and gathers a modest disability payment each month. Since we have moved in, I have worked 40 or more hours a week and he still hasn’t even started looking for a job. He plays video games even though we still have a ton of work to do around the property. I love him very much and I have a hard time putting my foot down because I don’t want to be a controlling partner and tell him what to do, but I am getting to a breaking point. I have tried to impress on him that we have a lot on our hands with moving and planning a wedding. How can I get the point across that I need his help?
A: You’ve written this as if he stopped working for fun, but it sounds like there’s much more going on. If he’s collecting disability, that’s because he’s not able to work right now, right? I can only assume that’s why he quit his job and why he qualified for the benefit. You need to have a serious and detailed conversation about how his illness or injury is affecting him and whether he sees himself working again. And wedding planning should be paused until you understand—and are OK with and able to afford—his plan.
Q. Nightmare vacation: My father and his wife recently rented a beach house and invited my current partner, my stepchildren, and our 15-month-old son to stay the week. Then he asked us all to leave. He seemed pretty agitated and said the children staying there was “too much,” which I can understand. But then he shared with me that he only wanted to spend time with me (not my partner and children) and that my partner should be able to watch the kids. This hurt. One night, unprovoked, he told me he thought I made a mistake getting with my current partner, that all I am is a glorified babysitter, that I make poor choices, and that he doesn’t approve of my lifestyle (having a child out of wedlock with someone who has already had children). He says he doesn’t care if this information, or kicking us out, affects our relationship.
A: Is your dad OK? I mean, compared to how he normally is? If this agitated, rude, and unhinged behavior is really unusual for him, it might be worth gently exploring whether he’s dealing with depression or anxiety, the side effects of medication, or some age-related cognitive changes that need attention.
But if the way he behaved at the beach house lines up with the way he’s always been, well, he treated you horribly and literally said he didn’t care about your relationship, so you never need to bring your family to see him again. You should let him know how much he hurt you and (obviously) plan your own trip or just have a staycation next time around. I’m sorry he’s like this, but you did nothing wrong and there’s probably not a lot you can do to make him a more loving and accepting dad.
P.S. I might be reading into this too much, but I did note that you called your partner your “current” partner twice. I don’t know if that was intentional—and maybe you just did it to distinguish this partner from a former partner who your dad preferred. But “current” could be read to suggest that some part of you sees this relationship as temporary. Is that true? Was there any grain of truth in your dad’s comments about the dynamic between you two? For example, was he on to something when he said you were the “babysitter”? Are you taking on a disproportionate share of the child care responsibilities for unruly kids, even though you have a baby to care for? Is your “current partner” not pulling their weight or treating you well? If there are real issues there, don’t let your dad’s extremely rude behavior stop you from giving them some serious thought.
Q. Re: Hoarder mom: According to the show Hoarders, hoarding is typically a reaction to a stressful event. The therapists on the show that specialize in hoarding see it as obsessive-compulsive behavior and a result of anxiety. Of course you’re concerned about dementia, but it seems to me that the immediate situation for her is moving in with you and her son and losing her independence, and that the hoarding is stemming from that. I would get her therapy that specifically covers hoarding.
A: I do think she was hoarding before she moved, she just had more room (that big storage container) to do it. But this is good advice when it comes to finding the right therapist.
Q. Re: It’s hot (or cold) in here: This is the kind of answer that will lead to the readership falling in love with you.
A: Except the “75 degrees is comfy—I love to sweat ” segment of the readership :)
Q. Re: Not pulling his weight: Whenever questions end with some version of “How can I get the point across?,” I feel the poster doesn’t accurately understand their problem. The letter writer has communicated clearly and on several occasions that her fiancé’s inability to chip in around the house or contribute to family finances is a problem. The problem isn’t the letter writer not communicating clearly, it’s the fiancé not caring.
Assuming the letter writer’s fiancé is not experiencing any mental health challenges (the letter writer did not mention any anxiety or depression symptoms), I think he has figured out he’s happier playing videos all day and not helping out around the property and letting the letter writer do all the work on top of a full-time job. If I had a penny for every person I’ve met or every letter I’ve read from a person (usually a woman) whose husband/boyfriend doesn’t help around the house, I’d be a millionaire. Unfortunately, until we stop socializing men to believe they can get away with not doing anything, while the people (again, usually women) around them pick up all the slack, these dynamics will continue to repeat themselves. This is a clear view into your future if you marry him, letter writer—run!
A: I am making an effort not to tell everyone to break up, so thank you for doing it for me! I agree that this doesn’t sound like a great situation. But I have no reason to believe he’s not actually disabled, so I don’t think it’s fair to say he doesn’t care. He might really be unable to work.
Q. Hurt: My mother-in-law called my husband this evening and told us that his stepsister-in-law was going into premature induced labor at 34 weeks because something is wrong with the baby’s heart. We aren’t super close to the couple, but we were nonetheless scared and devastated for them and their other young child. Well, we received another text that simply said the baby was here and they didn’t know anything more than her name. For the purposes of this query let’s call her “Alexandra.” Well, exactly eight months ago I had a baby that we named “Alex.” My husband and I are hurt and offended. Even if they call her Alexandra, other people, friends, family, will call her Alex. They essentially gave their child the same name as ours and we cannot say anything because the baby is sick. It’s so hurtful, and it’s a hurt we cannot even express. If the baby pulls through, and I certainly hope she does, I never want to see them again. What do we do?