Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Good morning, friends. How’s everything going? Probably not great if you’ve come here with a question ready‚ but let’s figure things out together.
Q. Am I the K-hole: My husband and I have always had different attitudes toward drugs: I’m very uncomfortable around them, while he’s more adventurous. Over the last year, he’s gotten into ketamine, and every few weeks he invites his friends over to snort ketamine together. They only do low-to-medium doses, but it stresses me out! I especially hate that he does it in front of our young children. His whole personality is different when he’s high on ketamine—not aggressive or violent, but he seems to become an entirely different person, which disturbs me. I think it frightens our kids too. I’ve confronted him about this, but he complains that I’m trying to control him. Even my therapist thinks I need to loosen up about this. Am I really asking so much?
A: This reminds me of the question I answered last week about the woman whose husband was upsetting her by drinking. I basically told her to get over it! But this feels a little different, and I think maybe it’s because you’re talking about an illegal drug? In this situation, I think the best idea is to figure out what the agreement was when you got married, and whoever wants to depart from that should have to make their case to the other person. So if he’s always been adventurous about drugs, and you’ve never indicated that that’s not allowed in your home, you probably don’t have a strong case to make him stop, especially since he’s just behaving differently but isn’t hurting anyone. But if you’ve never done drugs at home and this is a departure from the status quo, he should be the one to convince you that it should be a new part of your life.
I do think you should stand firm on protecting your kids from a dad who’s behaving in a way that scares them. Can you (with the help of your therapist) work with him to make a deal that he can do what he wants but after the kids are in bed, or when they’re at friend’s houses? I think that’s a reasonable compromise.
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Q. Heartbroken mom: I have a 16-year-old LGBTQ+ teen, 12-year-old boy, and a progressive-for-a-YT-guy husband. There’s a lot of conflict between my husband and the oldest child, who thinks all the wrongs of the world are because of their father. Now my husband has been diagnosed with metastatic cancer and probably will die, although he is getting excellent treatment. I would like to facilitate a better relationship with both kids so that if they have to say goodbye before they should have to, it will be on good terms. What can we do to help each other through this awful situation?
A: I’m so sorry to hear this. What a heartbreaking situation. It crossed my mind that you could push the two of them into some kind of counseling together, but I’m actually not so sure that’s a great idea. If their relationship has been strained, I worry that feeling pressure from you to make it into something it’s not will only strain it more. And my biggest concern is that you have limited time with your husband, and I don’t want you to waste it trying to change the way they interact or how they feel about each other. The vast majority of your energy should go to enjoying the last weeks or months you have with him, and giving him your care, time, and attention.
Now, I do think the 16-year-old is old enough to hear about the prognosis, and I’m hopeful that that will make them want to find as much closeness with their dad as their clashing personalities (or whatever the issue is) allow. Perhaps near the end, hospice can help everyone in the family sort through their feelings in a way that makes meaningful conversations easier and breaks down any tension. But at the end of the day, I think you’ll find the most peace if you accept the fact that family relationships are messy and encourage your kid to do the same. Then, when your husband is gone, your teen’s narrative might be “My dad and I always bumped heads; he was from a different generation and I was incorrigible, but I know he loved me.” And that might have to be enough.
Q. Closed for business: Eight years ago, my wife and I decided to open our marriage. I thought it was a joint decision at the time, but in retrospect, it seems likely it was prompted by her established insecurity around my more “adventurous” sexual history. We’ve had a few ups and downs—we’ve even paused on the open element a few times—but it’s mostly worked for us.
The problem is that I am now a middle-aged man with a job that sucks up a lot of my time and I’m not exactly fighting off new partners. My wife, meanwhile, is five years younger than me, artistic, and extroverted; she could go out with a different person every night if she wanted. This disparity has led her to suggest we either put the “closed for business” sign on our marriage or that we make a joint effort to make more connections.
The thing is, I don’t want to do any of that, but I also don’t want to let her down. 2020 was hard on both of us and I know she struggled with the isolation; I don’t want her to restrict her social/sexual engagement because of me. Meanwhile, I’ve struggled with the lack of isolation recently, plus the death of one of my girlfriends of cancer last year, which makes me feel sad and exhausted and sort of fearful about the idea of getting so close to anyone I have no socially sanctioned connection to—and I really don’t want to deal with enforced flirtation at a spouse-created munch.
I guess I just want to know how to have this conversation without undue pressure on either of us. If she thinks we need to focus on us for a while for the sake of our partnership, that’s great. However, on my own behalf, I’m quite happy with where we are. It is enough to have the community and the slightly charged engagement with friends old and new to remind me that I was, occasionally, quite wild.
A: It sounds like you and your wife both really care about each other’s happiness. It’s very sweet! You also both seem to be fine with the way things are going, so you may both be overthinking this. What if you say to her, “I really appreciate your offer to close our marriage or only find new connections as a couple, but I really am fine and I don’t want you to restrict yourself because of me. I don’t feel like socializing or pursuing people as much after the year I’ve had but I’m totally okay if you do. Thank you so much for thinking about me and trying to be accommodating. Can we keep the conversation about how we’re feeling going and I’ll let you know if anything changes on my end”?
Q. Corporate America can suck it: I have a wonderful online friend I met a few years ago, and they mean the world to me. They recently found a job after months of searching, but it’s one of those corporate jobs that marginalize Black women. Not only does this make going to work an absolute nightmare for them, but they’re constantly being misgendered by co-workers because they’re non-binary. (Being out isn’t the safest option for them right now, so they’re courageously taking it in stride.)
Whenever they talk to me about how they’re overlooked at work or how being in that kind of environment affects their self-image, I often find myself struggling to comfort them. They don’t expect to be at this place long-term, but knowing how difficult it was for them to get a job in the first place, I’m afraid they’re going to end up working there longer than they anticipate. I love them with all of my heart and I hate to see them struggle this much, but as a non-Black, cisgender person of color, I can’t give them the support they deserve. What should I do?
A: It’s very wise and considerate of you to put so much energy into trying to figure out what would actually be helpful here, rather than being pushy or bossy or assuming that what you would want in this situation is what your friend would want.You don’t have to—and probably can’t—fix this for them, but you’re helping more than you know by listening and caring. If you feel comfortable, you can ask them directly how you can best support them as they go through this. Until then, I suggest writing down the following sentences:
“This is unfair.”
“I hate this for you.”
“This is not your fault.”
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
“Your coworkers are insensitive asses.”
“Please feel free to vent to me any time.”
“I can’t imagine how much of a toll this is taking on you.”
“Is there anything I can do to make you feel better or help with finding a new job, I’m always here. I can also just listen.”
Pick a line or two from that list (plus a great one from your letter: “I love you with all my heart and I hate to see you struggling like this”) and remix as needed when you find yourself in these conversations.
Q. Please let the dogs out: A close family friend was recently widowed after her husband’s extended illness. She’s a very social person but she had to withdraw from the world even before COVID, as her husband was immunocompromised. She’s in her mid-sixties and has a very successful son who lives across the country. Her son is now living with her part-time and she now travels with him frequently. I’m so happy that she’s getting to travel again but every time she leaves, she asks me to watch her two dogs. If it was once or twice it would be fine, but she has left me her dogs around 10 times since February for visits that range from five to 17 days. How do I tell her that I can’t keep doing this? This constant dog-sitting is stopping me from seeing my own adult children.
A: This is easy. If her son can afford to travel frequently and bring her along, I’m sure he can also afford doggie day care. You just need to let her know. Keep your commitment when it comes to the dog-sitting dates you’ve already agreed to, but let her know that you’re going to have to pull back. Try: “Hi, Family Friend. I’ve been happy to help out this year but I wanted you to know that sadly I’m not going to be able to watch Dog’s Name anymore after the end of next month [or whenever]. I want to do some more traveling myself and spend more time with my kids, and I’ve realized I’ll need to be able to get up and go on short notice, so I can’t have any commitments at home. I’ll miss spending time with him but I hope you understand and I know there are a couple of good doggie day cares in the neighborhood.”
Q. Re: Heartbroken mom: My experience is that the hospice chaplain was a wonderful resource to me moving through difficult emotions. It’s what he was trained to do and had experience helping people with. I’m so sorry you’re all going through this.
A: Yes, I’m really hopeful that people like this will be helpful. After all, they’ve seen it all before.
Q. How to throw a grown-ups-only party: What’s the classiest way to say “really and truly, do not bring your kids into my house, no matter how cool or mature they are”? We have this problem where we throw nice grown-up parties and our friends bring kids. It’s my house and I don’t want kids in it. As the holiday season looms near, I dread having to waste another Halloween or post-Thanksgiving affair where I spend the whole time fretting over someone else’s kids.