Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.
I’m very concerned about my daughter-in-law and how she is affecting my son. They have been together for a long time, nearly 15 years. She was his first serious girlfriend and he was a late-bloomer, so we were relieved he found someone. We normally get on quite well; she is polite and does seem to care about my son, although she can be rather loud and bossy whereas he is quieter. In the beginning she was much more feminine and slimmer. Over the years she has gone up at least one or two dress sizes. I’ve tried talking about the health issues of other large family members as a hint that weight gain is a dangerous path, but she seems unconcerned and says “she just loves food.”
However, now there’s a new problem: She increasingly dresses in a manly way. Which would be fine if she was gay, but she is my son’s wife! She has cut her hair short and always wears full shirts (not blouses) and chinos; she’s also got tattoos down her arms. I fear she is going to make life difficult for herself at work. I also worry she is emasculating my son. He is a sweet person who probably doesn’t want to say anything to hurt her feelings, but he can’t be happy about having a wife who looks so butch. I need a way to tell her that she has a responsibility to keep her appearance in a way that flatters herself and her husband. My husband thinks we should just leave it alone, but she has no parents of her own, so I feel I’m the only one who can give her advice.
— Worried About My Son
I don’t know if this question is made up or if it was written in 1970 and somehow got delayed on its way to my inbox. But it is such a non-problem that it made me laugh, and provided a nice break from thinking about serious issues, so I’ll answer it to show my gratitude.
I’ll keep this simple with five short points:
- Gaining weight is not a bad thing.
- Dressing in a more masculine way is not a bad thing.
- Even if the aforementioned issues were bad things, they wouldn’t be your business. She’s your son’s wife, not yours.
- Please, if you want to keep a relationship with your son, who I’m sure you love, never share these thoughts again.
- Find someone who actually needs help with something like paying rent or feeding their children and redirect your abundant extra mental energy to them.
Do I need to tell the guy I’m seeing casually that I will never want a relationship with him? We met shortly before the pandemic and then didn’t see each other until this summer. We both had breakups from long term relationships during the pandemic. We both have very busy careers and decided to keep things casual. We’ve been together for about a month now, and it’s very clear that he has strong feelings for me. They are not reciprocated. He’s fun enough and a good guy, but he’s just too boring for me to ever date. I’m worried that his feelings are just going to get deeper and I’m going to hurt him. From what he’s said, I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought the casual relationship could develop into something more. Should I tell him that casual is as far as it will go with me?
— Casually Confused
Yes, that would be the kind thing to do. Plus, it would free up both of you to meet people who have long-term potential, if that’s what you want.
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My husband historically has always catered to whatever his family members want over my and our two children’s desires or interests. We don’t live close, so this only happens when we visit their area. Rarely do they visit us, but most recently they did as our house guests. My issue is that he elected to let them choose a restaurant I absolutely cannot stand, instead of emphasizing my distaste and encouraging another site. Since when do guests get to determine things over the objection of one of the hosts? I declined to join. I think he could have insisted on choosing another restaurant we all could enjoy. The situation makes me furious.
I yet again have low priority in regards to my preferences, and don’t feel I should have to cater to others just “because.” I would never do this to anyone and believe he needs to reevaluate priorities as well as actions.
— Over Being a Low Priority
It’s really hard for me to imagine he would treat you this way only when he’s around his family. The level of disregard for your feelings and poor communication here suggests to me that you and your husband are in a bad place, and it has nothing to do with the terrible restaurants, nothing to do with the rights of guests over hosts. Your signoff, “over being a low priority,” points to the real issue.
If I’m off-base and this really is something that just happens during family visits—maybe as the result of how stressful that is for him—I think you’re due for a serious talk about setting expectations (again, not about restaurants, but about how he treats you) before the next visit.
My friend, Janice, lives two hours away with her husband and two young children (5 and 1). She moved away three years ago, and since then, I have visited once every few months, staying overnight. I used to stay two nights, but cut it down to one, because the visits became a lot. For one, her son, the 5-year-old, has always lacked boundaries, and the problem was exacerbated when she had her daughter, because he got jealous. So, I hate to say it, but he is difficult to be around for long periods of time. Secondly, her husband is a giant bore. Nice guy, but little personality. And third, when I do visit, we don’t do anything. No exaggeration, we sit in the house most of the time (even before COVID). There isn’t a whole lot to do where she is, but she also just isn’t interested in doing anything. The one time I suggested she and I go out to dinner, she was appalled at the thought of her husband having to eat dinner by himself while watching after two children. We can’t do some things (like go to a local winery) because her kids would be too much. I could go on and on, but since there’s more to this question, I’ll leave it at that.
My friend, Donna, moved away last year, far enough to warrant a plane ride. I’ve been able to visit her twice when I’ve had long weekends (and she has also been back to my city once). The first time I went, while our activities were limited to what we could do outside (including outdoor dining), we still actually did things. The second time, more things were open and available to do.
Janice is now seemingly jealous that I visited Donna for that period of time, as in, she actually commented after my second trip, “lucky Donna that she gets you for that long.” Prior to the last long weekend (July 4), she asked me to come stay with them for the weekend. I said that I had other plans and couldn’t. Now, she’s already pestering me about Labor Day weekend, and I can’t lie and say I have plans, because she’ll start asking me what they are, since it’s still pretty early. One time, when I tried to deflect by telling her I’m not sure about that weekend, but I’m available x or y weekend to come up for a night, she just came back at me with “well since you aren’t sure what your plans are, just make some with me!” I’m just not sure what to do. Maybe this makes me a terrible friend, but I have zero desire to spend my long weekend sitting in her house, with her husband and kids. I don’t even want to compromise and say I’ll come for one night, because she’ll just continue to grill me as to why I can’t stay longer; plus, honestly, that still takes up at least 1.5 days, and I don’t want to be hampered in making other plans when the weekend gets closer (and I’ve already given her two other dates I could come up for a night). I honestly don’t want to lose her as a friend, but I can’t keep this up. What do I do here?
— Take the Hint Already
Dear Take the Hint,
Is there any part of you that is open to finding a way to embrace this new, temporary era of Janice’s life? I’ve been on my soapbox before about how friendship can look like being there for each other during different phases of life. So you may already know what I think about the value of letting go of pre-marriage, pre-kid friendship hangouts as the ideal way to spend time together.
Donna is the mom of two young kids with a husband who seems to be a bit inept. I think being a good friend at this moment could look like being there for her during what is probably not the easiest time in her life. Is there any part of you that would want to lean into the auntie role? Take the difficult 5-year-old out somewhere while you’re visiting? Give the 1-year-old a bath? Could that potentially be rewarding? Another way of thinking about it: When you’re 90 and chatting on the phone about your life, or living together like the Golden Girls, do you want to look back and joke about the days you sat sitting around watching TV while her kids screamed or do you want to be like “Oh yeah, we didn’t really see each other for five years because your children were annoying, and I wanted to go to wineries.”
So many things happen in life as we get older, and I worry that if we toss people aside when they can’t hang out like they did when we first met them, we miss the chance to have deep, realistic relationships. What if you’re depressed in the future and just want someone to sit on the couch with you? How would you want her to handle it if, 10 years from now when her kids are more self-sufficient, she wants to go on fun nights out but you happen to be unemployed and can’t afford it? Does thinking about that make it seem any more appealing to ride this phase out, knowing that life has ups and downs and that friendship is give and take?
I just wanted to suggest that. See how it feels. But you are absolutely not obligated to go to her house. Ever! At all! You never have to do anything you don’t enjoy and if you choose not to, that doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad friend. But if you are not going to be visiting much, I do think you should be honest to avoid a misunderstanding. How about saying something like this:
“You’ve made a few comments about my visits with Donna and how you wish I would come see you more. I want you to know that I do miss you and want to spend time with you, but the reason I’m not coming over as much is because I get really antsy staying in the house, I’m not my best self when I’m around little kids, and I want to be out doing things that are just impossible at this point in your life. I wanted to be honest, because you haven’t done anything wrong, and it’s important to focus on your kids, and I don’t want you to think I prefer Donna over you. It’s not personal at all, it’s just about the kinds of activities I want to do when I have free time.”
It’s possible that she doesn’t realize how much you dislike the homebody routine. So maybe this conversation could open her eyes and even lead to a compromise: Like an agreement that you’ll talk on the phone more (warning: the kids will still be causing a ruckus in the background) or that each time you come to visit you’ll chip in for a babysitter who can watch the kids for a few hours while you go to lunch. Or maybe you can reach an agreement that you can only last one night and she won’t guilt trip you about it. I hope there’s a way for you to have the weekends you want and, at the same time, make sure she doesn’t become one of the many women who are confused and hurt about why their friends disappeared when they had kids.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“Friendship, like marriage, is not all a bunch of entertaining anecdotes!”
Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
My boyfriend is 34 years old and still lives with his parents. He’s made no plans or effort to move out or make progress with me. He has a good job, no bills or debt, no children, etc. So finances don’t seem to be the problem. He has mentioned wanting to just buy a home and skip renting … but hasn’t done that. I am 32 and have lived on my own since I was 18. I see family on occasions but we are not in touch daily. He spends all of his time with his parents and siblings and expects me to as well. We are NEVER alone. I know family is important to him, but this amount of contact/time seems strange to me. I don’t know how to bring all of this up as he is emotionally closed off and doesn’t express much. It feels like I’m a teen again and dating while chaperoned. I hate it. I feel like this is going nowhere fast, and I am far too independent to deal with it much longer!
— Way Ahead Girlfriend
I don’t think what he’s doing is wrong (in fact it might be great—he could be saving thousands of dollars a month while living a life he enjoys), but it does sound like it makes him a bad fit for you. And that’s what dating is for: having fun while discovering whether you’re compatible enough to move to the next level of commitment. When it comes to this guy, you’re not.
Give Prudie a Hand
Sometimes even Prudence needs a little help. Every Thursday in this column, we’ll post a question that has her stumped. This week’s tricky situation is below. Join the conversation about it on Twitter with Jenée @jdesmondharris on Thursday, and then look back for the final answer here on Friday.
My father is 83 and has advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s. Because of the pandemic, I didn’t want to worry about him in a home somewhere, so I brought him to my home a little over a year ago. He is very conservative, and we have had our political battles over the years, but I have resigned to let all of those go and try to enjoy the time we have left together. But I live at home with my husband (I am gay). My husband has really been very tolerant and understanding of the situation, bless him. Every day, though, it feels like I am coming out again to my father. It never goes well.
My husband has graciously stowed all the wedding pictures and tries not to show physical affection, but I feel it is so unfair to him to have to go to those lengths. And without fail when my father pieces together that we’re married, there is a long bitter tirade about homosexuality. I have tried support groups and his doctors, but they really don’t offer any solution other than to bear it for just a little longer. Am I making a mistake in letting my husband help out in the way that he has, or should I find a way, any way, to make it through the final time my father has left?
UPDATE: You can find this week’s We’re Prudence answer here.
During the pandemic, an acquaintance of mine, “Joe,” set up a twice-weekly call with me. We’d both been feeling lonely with the lockdowns, and appreciate having a regular touchpoint.
Here’s the problem: In the 1.5 years since we set up these calls, Joe’s life has not gone well, and the calls are now exhausting for me. I was pretty intentional about taking care of my mental health this past year. I sought therapy and medication, made new friends, and engaged in hobbies that give me a lot of joy. Joe did none of these things. He’s stuck in old patterns with his toxic family and refuses to do self-advocacy or even have an initial session with a therapist. This means he now depends on me heavily as his source of biweekly free therapy. If this were someone I didn’t care about, I’d just be straightforward and tell him we need to call off the calls, but his life is so sad, and I worry this would break him. He has few if any other friends in his life aside from me. Prudie, it’s like seeing a hurt animal on the side of the road—I can’t look away or just not care. But, at the same time, my partner is frustrated with me that I spend so much time on these calls despite the fact that I hate them so much. Do you have a script for how I can pull back and set some firmer boundaries without destroying the friendship?
— Extrication Emergency
“I care about you so much and I feel like we’ve become so close over the past year and a half, and it’s really hard for me to see you in so much pain. I feel helpless. I want to continue to be in touch but you know my mental health is tenuous too, so it’s not good for me to have these chats and then get off the phone knowing you don’t have any other support. I’ve been to therapy and started medication and it’s helped me a lot, and I really want the same for you. Can you consider it? I’m not forcing you, but if you don’t I might have to cut back on our calls. Plus, I really want you to be happier—you deserve it!”
If he refuses, time for some boundary-setting. I don’t know if that looks like once-a-week calls, or once-a-month calls, or just calling him when the spirit moves you and you’re in the right mindset to hear about his struggles. But you do not have to continue on the same schedule. Even if he does agree to seek therapy, the results won’t be immediate. So, I also think you should take more control of the conversations, talking about yourself, your interests, and asking him questions about things that have nothing to do with the difficult time he’s going through.
A friend of mine recently came out as queer, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. First starters, she has only dated men and is currently married to a man. She is a stay-at-home mother with two kids and wants another one. For all intents and purposes, she lives a very heterosexual lifestyle. I would never accuse someone of lying about her sexuality but I don’t think she’s really queer. She has always been an attention-seeker which is why I think she’s claiming to be queer. Homophobia is very real and I’m afraid people like my friend who pretend to be queer are trivializing real issues faced by gay people. How can I tell her to stop?