Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Welcome to this week’s chat. It’s a Tuesday that feels like a Monday, so let’s do what we normally do on Mondays and talk about our problems …
Q. Stuck in the middle: My father has always been a smart aleck who loves practical jokes and discreetly needling people. My husband has been one of his favorite targets for stupid pranks and comments about his choice in clothing, hairstyle, shoes, or whatever else stands out. For many years, I’ve warned my father that my husband disliked him and that his behavior was causing real animus.
It never registered for him until recently, when my husband—whom I had never previously seen angry—lost it completely. One moment we were saying hello, then my dad said something, and then my husband got in his face, shoved him up against a wall, and put a fist straight through the brick work, all while roaring death threats. My father was absolutely terrified and is now deeply upset and demanding an apology. My husband, meanwhile, is completely unrepentant, blames me for not managing my parents, and is refusing to ever speak to or see that side of my family again. He has also said that he does not want our children exposed to them again and inferred that should I wish to contest, that we can discuss it in a custody hearing.
I am angry with both of them. My father sort of had it coming, but my husband has no business threatening to kill a 76-year-old man, which he does every time I mention his name. That divorce is starting to look pretty damn tempting, as is never seeing my father again, but I love everybody involved and really want to resolve this. What can I do? Am I in the wrong here for asking my husband to deal with my dad? Does my dad actually deserve an apology? Is there a universe where I get to knock both their heads together repeatedly?
A: On the one hand, your dad is annoying and rude. On the other hand, your husband physically attacked and threatened the life of an elderly man, has cut off contact with your family, and is making plans for a contentious divorce. They both have flaws, but the flaws are not equivalent—not even close. I can’t imagine this is the first time your husband has violently overreacted, but it probably won’t be the only time. His threats about custody are especially misplaced because, with behavior like this, he is a much worse influence on your children than your father is.
You’ve framed this as a question about their relationship, but it should really be a question about your marriage—which, unless your husband offers a very sincere apology to you and your father and convinces you that he’s making a plan to prevent himself from acting this way again—is over.
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Q. Weight of indifference: I am struggling with a situation involving my niece “Amy” and her husband “John.” John has not spoken with his father for years. He refuses to talk about it, even with Amy. (They met after the rift.) About six months ago, my work hired a consultant who happened to be John’s stepmom Brenda. After some awkwardness, Brenda and I spoke privately about our family connection. She broke down in tears explaining the heartache John has caused. He didn’t adjust well to his parents’ divorce, never fully participated in the blending of the two families, and—everyone assumes (since he won’t talk about this with anyone!)—silently blamed his father. He decided when he was 19 to be done with his father; that was his solution. Brenda says it was a traumatic time. Her son was 8 when John stopped talking to them. She said he was devastated. John’s two siblings still have a relationship with both of their parents. Every attempt, even by John’s mother, to understand the rift was met by a cold shoulder. John’s never returned calls or letters and rejected offers for therapy. His stock answer, according to both Brenda and Amy, is “I don’t want to talk about it.” His refusal to “talk about it” has forced everyone else to talk about it and deal with the fallout.
I’m honestly angry that John floats through life while other people have to do the emotional labor created by his indifference. As we reclaim our social lives, I will be invited to family events that John will attend. I’m not comfortable being around someone as uncaring about other people’s feelings as John. Is it OK to lay down a John-or-me policy to relatives as long as I don’t demand they exclude him? To say something like, “If John will be there, I can’t, but let’s catch up soon”?
A: Let me get this straight. You cannot be in the same room with someone who has a difficult relationship with his family, according to his family’s side of the story? You can’t be cordial to someone who may or may not have hurt the feelings of someone you don’t know, according to someone you just met? If those are really your standards, you wouldn’t talk to anyone. If you don’t like John (and your eagerness to accept the accounts of people on the other side of a rift that is apparently too painful for him to talk about suggests this is the case), be honest about it—but this doesn’t add up. You don’t have to make John your best friend, but there’s no reason you can’t see him at family gatherings and act perfectly normal.
Q. Time to say goodbye: Seven years ago, my brother had a housing emergency. I allowed him to move into my house with me and my daughter. I have a small house and my brother promised to leave in a month’s time. At the time he was divorced but he has since remarried, but he doesn’t want to live with his wife. He doesn’t get along with her family. Meanwhile, my daughter has contracted an autoimmune disease and will need the room he now occupies. He and I are the only remaining members of our family but I am ready for him to move now. Am I wrong? How should I approach this?
A: A few months turned into seven years?? Seven? Please send this man to his wife’s house immediately. You don’t even have to give him enough notice to save for first and last month’s rent. He can just go. “It’s been nice having you here, but we really need the second bedroom for your niece now. I know you would rather not live with your wife, but I’m going to have to ask you to move out by the end of the month” should do it. Call his wife to give her a warning so she can start clearing out closet space.
Q. Starting shortstop: I am a man dating a woman for the first time after previously dating men. I love her and I could see myself popping the question in a few months. I am into monogamy and have no plans to date anyone else, man or woman, in the future. But I have to tell her about my past at some point. When is the right time to do this, and how exactly does one break this kind of news?
A: The right time is now. And the way to do it is clearly and directly. Having dated men isn’t some huge scandal, and I’m not saying this because you owe her your life story. I’m saying it because I don’t want you to waste any time getting attached to someone for whom this is going to be a deal-breaker when and if she does find out. The right person for you will understand and not make a big deal about it. And you won’t know whether she’s the right person until you open up.
Q. Used to be happy: During COVID, I went stir crazy and signed up for a bike delivery service. I lost 20 pounds, earned a deep respect for the hustle, and saved more than 10 grand in tips.
So, I am taking a year off and going to travel once Europe opens. I never had a gap year. I’ve barely traveled out of the U.S.A. I have been vaccinated and well, this is my only life to live, so I might as well.
My sister, a stay-at-home mom, is pissed that I am spending my money on travel rather than day camp for her kids and a remodel for her house. She and her husband both work. No one has health problems. They are fine.
She called me selfish. I don’t have kids or understand the “struggle.” There are six years between us and we aren’t close, but she is my only sister. I am hurt and baffled. What do I do about this?
A: You don’t have to justify this to your sister. More importantly, you don’t have to justify it to yourself. It doesn’t matter where the money came from, how hard you worked for it, or how little you’ve traveled. You can afford it, you want to do it, and your sister is not your dependent—or even someone who really needs help. Travel with a clear conscience, and don’t let this conflict ruin your trip. Hopefully when you get back she’ll be over it, but if she’s not, then you may just end up being even less close than you already are.
Q. Re: Stuck in the middle: Oh, you are SO wrong on this. The father is not owed an apology at all. The wife has admitted she’s allowed this to go on for years, and when the husband finally has enough, your answer is that the husband owes the apology? Bullshit. The father and the wife should be apologizing their asses off until the husband tells them they may stop.
A: Did you read the part where the husband “shoved him up against a wall, and put a fist straight through the brick work, all while roaring death threats?” He would have been in a great position to demand an apology for unkind words before he did that. Now he’s lost all standing.
Q. Re: Weight of indifference: Repeat after me: None of this is about you. This is not your business. Going on a crusade against your niece’s husband after getting a likely biased story from one party will result in you getting banned from family events.
A: I agree! To be honest, the feeling I got from this was that the letter writer was looking for drama. That’s what reality TV is for.
Q. Re: Time to say goodbye: The brother who overstayed his welcome by seven years may have tenants’ rights. Best to consult a local attorney with experience in landlord/tenant issues before kicking him out.
A: If he refuses to go, then, sure, calling an attorney might be the next step. But I don’t think that’s necessary before a conversation between siblings, especially because the letter writer hasn’t even given him a hint that it’s time for him to leave yet.
Q. Where’s the money? I am furious with another set of parents. My 16-year-old daughter has recently told her mother and I that she is pregnant. It happened at a party that was not well-supervised, and there was alcohol involved. The boy involved and his family are owning up to their share of the responsibility, but the owners of the house are absolutely infuriating me. They need to admit their share of this burden, as it was their booze and their house party that allowed this to happen. My family is going to have a lot of expenses due to this new baby, and I don’t know how much the boy’s family can help, so it seems that the party’s host should help out, again as it was on their watch that this happened. So far, that family has ignored me when I have tried to speak with them about this. I am ready to call a lawyer to press the issue, but my wife thinks I am overreacting. What do you think?