Dear Prudence

Help! I Saw My Son and His Boyfriend Hitting Each Other. Should I Intervene?

My husband thinks it’s just boys being boys. I’m not so sure.

A fist approaching someone's arm against a starburst.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.

Dear Prudence,

My son Jackson came out as bisexual last year, and my husband and I do not have a problem with that at all. Sexuality doesn’t matter to us, and we were just so happy he decided to open up. Jackson introduced us to Nathan about a year ago. Nathan seemed like a great guy—smart, funny, got along with everyone, and was great with Jackson—and it seemed they were very much in love. For the past year, their relationship has been going seemingly smoothly, and they are glued together whenever we visit.

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But about three weeks ago now, we witnessed a rather troubling fight between them. There is no street parking outside their apartment, so we had to park a while away and walk (we were slightly early for a planned lunch outing with the boys). As we got closer, we saw Jackson and Nathan having what looked like a heated argument between them in a public street. Nathan shoved Jackson in the chest. Before my husband reached the boys, Jackson had already responded by punching Nathan in the face. It honestly looked brutal. I have never seen Jackson punch anyone before, even as a child. Nathan retaliates by punching back, and now they come to blows in the street. My husband gets the boys off each other. Nathan walks off, swearing loudly and just leaves. Jackson, obviously fuming, won’t even look at us or let me see his swollen eye, which definitely was going to bruise. He is so worked up, he just tells us he will see us later and shuts himself into the apartment and turns off his phone.

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I’ve been worrying about this ever since. What if it had been a female partner my son had blown up at? A punch like that thrown like that could have seriously hurt or even killed a girl, and it would be a very worrying example of domestic violence. My son obviously has anger issues I was unaware of, and it seemed his boyfriend has them as well, suggesting that they are not a good combination.

Anyway, my son spent a week ignoring us. The only text he replied to was that he was coming to a family dinner with his brothers and their wives. Jackson then turns up with Nathan.
Holding hands, leaning into each other; I even caught them kissing passionately in the kitchen like teenagers when they thought they were alone.  My husband and I were blown away, as we did not expect Nathan at the dinner, as we had just assumed we had witnessed the end of their relationship.

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My husband broached it with Jackson alone, and Jackson was offended by the idea Nathan wouldn’t be invited. He told his dad that there was nothing wrong, they just had a fight and it got heated and they both lashed out. My husband told me it sounded like this wasn’t the first time they have come to blows like this and that it didn’t sound like a huge deal, so my husband definitely changed his tune to something like: “Maybe this is just more normal/accepted when two men date?” He has started to approach it from the angle that sometimes his (straight) friends can come to blows over an argument, but then shake it off and be fine with each other. I feel my husband is oversimplifying this with a “boys will be boys” mentality, and that what we saw was domestic violence.

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I want to ban Nathan from the house and tell Jackson I’m not comfortable with their relationship anymore and won’t support it. My husband disagrees entirely and believes we should just ignore it and go back to when we were thinking they were this happy, perfect couple. Should I put my foot down? Or am just totally out of the loop and just trying to place my “straight relationship expectations” on my son? I love my son and am supportive of him and his sexuality, but I know next to nothing about the LGBTQ community and so from my husband’s perspective, maybe I just read the situation wrong?

—Domestic Violence Dilemma

Dear Dilemma,

This isn’t going to be an easy situation to deal with no matter what you do, but it will be more straightforward if you put aside all of your ideas and questions about Jackson and Nathan being in a same-sex relationship and how that complicates things. Your son is in a physically abusive relationship, and from what you’ve seen, the abuse appears to go both ways. If it helps to put your “but they’re two men so maybe it’s OK …” doubts at ease, check out the CDC’s definition of intimate partner violence:

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The term “intimate partner violence” describes physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples …

You ask whether you should tell your son you don’t like Nathan anymore and don’t want him in the house, but this isn’t really about whether you like Nathan or want to host him. It’s about your concern for Jackson and the fact that you don’t want your son to be an abuser or a victim of violence. Before any big announcements or ultimatums, why don’t you start by talking to him and telling him how concerned you are about his physical safety, his emotional well-being, the harm he’s bringing to Nathan, and the potential legal consequences that he could face? Offer him a way out, including a safe place to live and counseling. Let him know that you don’t want to see him hurt or hurting his partner.

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Now of course, I don’t expect he’ll automatically say, “OK, Mom, you’re right, it’s over and I’ll never punch a partner or let anyone punch me again.” And I don’t know if cutting him off or banning Nathan from the house will accomplish much—the last thing you want is for him to be isolated from people who care about him. So all you can do is be consistent with your message and make sure not to let self-consciousness about your ignorance of the LGBTQ community make you question what you know: This relationship has to end, and both people in it need help.

Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend and I have both been lucky enough to keep our jobs and be able to work from home during the pandemic. The issue I’m experiencing is relatively minor, but it’s been driving me nuts: My boyfriend does all his Zoom meetings from our couch in the main area of our apartment.

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Our apartment is a well-sized one-bedroom plus den with an open concept kitchen/dining/living room. The den is set up to be my boyfriend’s office, but he stopped using it because it doesn’t have windows and made him feel cooped up. I have a workspace set up in the bedroom, but I need to do things in the main area throughout the day, like make and eat lunch. Additionally, sometimes I’m done with work earlier than he is and would like to watch TV, empty the dishwasher, do random noisy human stuff, etc. But because he’s on calls for hours at a time—sometimes most of the day—I can’t do anything in the main area of our apartment that makes noise until he signs off, which is sometimes rather late. I’ve asked him if he can take calls from the den or the bedroom so I can have a bit more freedom to do things around the apartment (nothing crazy, just emptying the dishwasher and starting dinner), but he says that he doesn’t want to be cooped up in there for his longer calls and stays on the couch. Would I be unreasonable for insisting he use his den (or the bedroom)?

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—You Can Always Tell a Milford Man

Dear You Can Always Tell,

Not unreasonable at all! Now, whether he’ll listen to you and actually move to the den when you insist is another question. I hope he will, but he hasn’t shown a ton of concern about your feelings or willingness to make accommodations. The selfishness is actually a bit overwhelming. Keep an eye on this kind of stuff before getting engaged, or buying a home, or having a kid, or anything that would tie you together permanently. Even if you’re able to win this battle, you will have a much better life with someone who doesn’t have to be pressured to take your perspective and your well-being into consideration.

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How to Get Advice From Prudie

Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon (and submit your comments) here.

Dear Prudence,

My younger sibling and their partner and baby live with my mother because of the insane cost of living in our area. My other siblings and I feel like my mother is being taken advantage of. She works full time, and yet when she comes home, she is constantly watching their baby. Whenever we want to spend time with my mom, they show up too. My kids get no time with Grandma without the baby there as well. At the house, they have the entire downstairs, but have now taken over most of the upstairs with their stuff, and they never clean up after themselves. Recently, my mom had guests stay, and they left the baby to be tended by the guests while they slept. That was the final straw for most of us. Is it our place as siblings to step in and call them out? I feel unsure about it because it should really come from my mom, there are some mental health concerns, and because I also get help from family with rent and it feels a little hypocritical (I’ve been given a good rent deal but we have an actual lease, all the bills, etc., are in our names).

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—Worried for My Mother

Dear Worried,

Ask your mom how she feels and if she wants you to step in. She might love the company! She might cherish watching the baby every night. And it’s not that weird for a sibling to regularly share their grandparents’ attention with a cousin—that’s kind of part of being a family. Of course, it’s also possible that she wants your sibling out, or that there are parts of the arrangement that make her uncomfortable—like the messiness or leaving the baby to be tended to by guests. But until you talk to her, you won’t know how she feels or if she would rather be the one to speak up.

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Dear Prudence,

​​I am a Black female attorney located in the “upper South.” I work at a predominately white firm. I am the most senior attorney of color, which isn’t saying much because I am one of two attorneys of color at the firm. Recently at a firm outing, a much younger, white, and female associate used the word “ratchet” to describe a recent experience. I was taken aback by her use of the term, but I didn’t question the use, not because I thought her use was OK but because I was the only Black woman within earshot. I didn’t feel comfortable asking her what she meant by the use of the term because I feared being labeled as the angry Black woman attacking a much junior, white attorney, and I feared the possibility that my question would invoke the tears so many white women conjure when “confronted.” I’ve also been very straightforward with my workplace when it comes to deferring to me on topics of race. This might have been a “teachable” moment for both her and my colleagues within earshot, but I have long declined to pick up the mantle of educating my white colleagues on Black people or our experience in the U.S.

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Later, I was able to talk to a white female colleague whom I consider to be an ally and confidant who heard the term and likewise flinched at the use, which made me feel OK about my approach. The same colleague also plans to sit down with our younger colleague and let her know the term isn’t appropriate. I think I feel fine with my lack of response and my colleague’s plan to speak with the person because the intent wasn’t malicious (not that it really matters), and the younger associate lacks an overall level of maturity, which makes her use of the term consistent with my past experiences with her. This interaction is just the first that carried a racial undertone. Finally, the area in which I live and am not originally from “produces” people exactly like her: They are born in the area, they are educated from primary to graduate school at institutions in the area, and they return to live and work in the area where they were born. Her use of the term and perhaps ignorance of its connotations is in many ways par for the course. So knowing that, was I wrong for not calling her out? Have we set a precedent that her use of the term and those similar or adjacent to it are acceptable? Should I have used the “teachable” moment? Why does my lack of response feel more uncomfortable than her use of the term?

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—Triggered but Silent

Dear Triggered,

Ugh, I absolutely hate that you have to spend valuable mental energy—which I’m sure you need for your actual job—thinking about this. It’s just one example of the huge, emotionally draining burden of being Black in a predominantly white environment, and trying to balance standing up for yourself with being professional.

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You are not obligated to do anything. This somewhat clueless woman isn’t your responsibility, and the poor judgment she showed by using this word (around a Black person no less!) may eventually catch up to her without you having to intervene.

But it sounds like you might feel better if you did speak up. If you choose to, I think the best way to think about it is not as “calling out” or scolding, but mentoring. In my experience, it’s very normal for more senior attorneys to offer advice and guidance—not just about the nuts and bolts of practicing law, but also about fitting into firm culture and doing what’s expected—to younger lawyers. I remember mentors whispering to me that I should really wear stockings, and that it would be a good idea to attend unbearable social events, like a Segway tour of the city. So put on your “I’m trying to help you” hat, which will feel more empowering than approaching it as complaining about racial insensitivity. Let her know that you overheard her use of the word ratchet and that you’re sure she may be unaware, but it can be heard as offensive, depending on the context. Tell her you wanted to bring it to her attention because it could potentially rub senior partners or clients the wrong way and would harm her reputation. And feel free to follow up with an email with a link to an article like this one that gets into more detail.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Figure out a way to bill for all the time you spent thinking about this while ‘Ms. Ratchet’ goes around without a care in the world.”

Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

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Dear Prudence,

I just left my very short marriage after he said that he felt I was “asking him to hit me.” He normally does have a short fuse, but during our time living together prior to our wedding, he seemed to really try, and made big changes. After the wedding, not only did he start to shut down every conversation, he started to blame me for things I had little if any control over. He stopped doing what little he did around the apartment. We had fights every weekend, no matter how “good” I tried to be. I am normally anxious, and my first marriage ended in that husband choking me as my baby cried at him to stop. I admit that I take any threat very seriously.

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This husband has finally said sorry, and we are texting. It has been hard, but I do want to make this work, yet I am not only skeptical, I am worried I am being naïve. My family, friends, and co-workers who saw how bad I was at the end, before I left, do not want me to go back. I don’t want to go back to that either. I don’t really know how to sort out my anxiety and legitimate fears. EVERYONE says to leave at a threat, but now that I have, I worry I overreacted. Abusive helplines say leave, but then without there being physical abuse, not many supports are offered. I feel like I am supposed to leave them for “real” victims, and that makes me feel like maybe I am the odd one? Yet even if not, how do I know he has changed, and how would this convince my loved ones to trust I am safe?

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—Confused

Dear Confused,

You did the right thing, and you did not overreact. Any hotline or support organizations should recognize emotional abuse as a problem and threats as a precursor to physical abuse. You deserve to be surrounded by people who understand what you went through and affirm that you made the right decision. Or at least one person. Can you find just one friend or counselor who clearly sees what you endured, knows you made the right choice, and reminds you whenever you need to hear it?

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There’s no way to convince people that he’s changed or that you’re safe because those things aren’t true. Don’t go back. And don’t listen to anyone who tells you to.

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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.

Hi Prudence,

I really, really hate my boyfriend’s cat. We’ve been dating for about 8 months now, and he’s overall a great guy. But about three months ago he decided to adopt a cat, and even asked me, though I admit I was more hesitant. Although I don’t live with him, we spend most nights together. Cut to three months later, and I can’t stand what I got myself into. The cat howls constantly 24 hours a day, always for food, and my boyfriend in turn obliges. Even the vet was concerned the cat was too heavy at his last check in, but my boyfriend refuses to acknowledge it. In the meantime, I’m getting very little sleep (my boyfriend wears earplugs at night when I’m around because he’s the lighter sleeper, but insists someone has to be able to hear the cat). The cat is also extremely aggressive, often drawing blood when he “plays,” and I just really don’t want to be around him. My boyfriend has also said things like, “this is the first time he’s had true love” and if I don’t love the cat I clearly just don’t love him. This isn’t true, but I don’t have a lot of patience left for a creature that wants to hurt me and that I can’t live with long term.

—Not Cool With the Cat

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Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend and I have been together for two years, and I think I’ve finally found the person I’m meant to be with. He’s supportive, kind, and we have so much fun together. We rarely fight, but lately something’s come up that we keep arguing about.

My boyfriend’s dad’s family lives in South America. For some time now, we’ve been planning to spend Thanksgiving there (COVID permitting) so he can see his grandma who is in poor health. We’re both going to pay our own way for this trip and have been very excited—both to spend time with his family and to take our first big trip together.

Recently, I found out my boyfriend’s mom’s side is also planning a very expensive all-inclusive resort vacation for next summer. This side of his family is well-off, and the trip will cost up to $8,000 dollars. His family went on another vacation previously and paid for both my boyfriend and his ex-girlfriend. They have said for this vacation, though, that they are uncomfortable paying for non-married significant others. Despite just learning about this, his family is already pressuring him and I to attend. My boyfriend makes significantly less than I do and will need his family to cover his expenses to go. I am fortunate enough to have a good job and could afford both trips, but it would mean I need to cut back significantly in other areas.

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I am really frustrated at my boyfriend and the position his family has put me in. We had already been planning a trip over Thanksgiving, but now I feel like I am being forced into another, even more expensive trip. I believe if I said I couldn’t go to the all-inclusive vacation, his family would offer to pay for some of my trip, but at this point I don’t want to let his family pay for anything knowing they’ve already told him they’re uncomfortable doing so.

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Do I just say no to the second trip and deal with his family’s disappointment? Or do I suck it up, pay the money, and just tell him we’re done with family trips for the foreseeable future? I hate to disappoint my boyfriend’s family, who I believe will someday be my in-laws, but I have other things I would spend my money/vacation time on if it were my choice.

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—Vacation Blues

Dear Vacation Blues,

These sentences will solve your problem and set a great tone for your relationship with your future in-laws:

“Thank you so much for the invitation, but I can’t afford it this time. Have a wonderful time, and please send me lots of pictures.”

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“Thank you so much for your generous offer to pay part of the trip, but I can’t accept that. Have a wonderful time, and please send me lots of pictures.”

Classic Prudie

My niece, “Sabrina,” is in college and close to graduation. She is going to be entering the workforce and has asked me for a recommendation at my place of work. My niece is a bright, hard worker, but has a few horrible verbal tics she has picked up from her peers. She uses like as a filler word and whatever as a dismissive phrase, especially for questions. Worst, she describes other people’s conversations with blah, blah, blah, as if she is imitating a cartoon vampire. (“Like, Sarah was, like, mad. Whatever. She went blah blah blah all the way home.”) My office cultivates a highly professional setting, as most entry-level positions are 80 percent dealing with clients and the public. I tried to speak to my sister and niece about my worries; they were particularly dismissive. They think all my niece has to do is win at the interview, while I am more concerned about the job. I can’t recommend my niece now any more than I can someone who casually curses for a nursery position. How do I bring up the topic again without hurting her?

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