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 or afternoon depending on where you are, and welcome to this week’s chat. Let’s get started.
Q. Runner-up: My husband recently said something that I am finding difficult to process. We were out one night and chatting (he had also had a bit to drink), and he blurted out “the love of my life is married to someone else.” He was married prior to me, for nine years, and we have been married now for a year, together for seven. Is this something I should look past? I feel like he may still be pining away for his previous wife (who has since remarried, to her high school sweetheart), and I feel like I am second-best, a consolation prize, and that he has settled for me but still has not gotten over her. I would like to think I’m with someone who looks at me as their number one. I’m not sure if I should talk to him about it.
A: I wonder, is this statement confirmation of what you’ve long been suspecting based on the way he treats you, or did it truly come out of nowhere? That makes a big difference. If you’ve been feeling day to day like he’s settling for you and treating you as second-best, that’s a problem that you would have wanted to talk to him about and deal with even if you’d never had the confirmation of this drunken outburst. So you should definitely have a conversation now.
On the other hand, if his statement completely shocked you and is incongruent with a great relationship in which he’s made you feel loved and adored, the situation is harder. To decide whether to talk to him about this, I would ask you to try to predict your feelings in different outcomes to see which ones might be workable to you and which you’d absolutely want to avoid. For example, I can think of a few possible scenarios:
1) You decide not to bring this up. Can you convince yourself that it was a drunken comment that was meaningless—or at least not connected to your day-to-day reality? Or will what he said haunt you until you know more?
2) You bring it up and:
• He explains it away, for example, by saying, “What I think I was feeling was that I still feel guilty about not being able to make my first marriage work. I don’t love her anymore, but she was the love of my life and knowing someone else could make her happy when I couldn’t is a blow to my ego. I don’t think about it a lot, but I guess I got drunk and started thinking about my failures in life.” Would you believe it and be at peace? Or would you still think “No, I’m second-best. You admitted it and there’s nothing you can do to take it back” and remain stressed and unhappy?
• He admits that yes, he does consider his ex the love of his life but says he loves the relationship you two have and wouldn’t change anything about it. Would you feel comforted by that or would it be a crisis?
• He admits that he’s still pining for your ex and not happy in your marriage. If this is what he says, are you prepared to end things—or have him admit that he wants to?
Check in with yourself by imagining scenarios under No. 2. Would you feel devastated by this information or empowered by it? Could you handle it? If you didn’t believe him, would you leave or would you stay and be miserable? And if you chose scenario No. 1, could you go on like nothing happened? Or would you be tortured? Really imagine being in these situations and make notes to yourself. Does your whole body feel tense? Does your internal lie detector go off? Take stock of what you think would cause you the least distress long term and use that information to decide whether to sit him down for a talk.
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Q. Your infertile friend: My husband and I were both diagnosed with infertility earlier this year. It’s been a difficult process, but we’re doing our best to find answers together.
As thirtysomethings, lots of our friends have begun having kids. I have really struggled holding multiple emotions at once: Joy for friends who’re getting the family they want, and despair, jealousy, and frustration that it’s not that simple for us. In particular, I’m having a hard time “being there” for friends right now. I receive photo updates of their kids. Friends vent their frustrations about breastfeeding, lack of sleep, and the chaos that a newborn brings. I respond with praise over their cute babies, listen to their frustrations, and deliver dozens of freezer meals to different friends. It’s the kind of support I hope to have, should I ever be lucky enough to become a mother. But it completely tears me up on the inside. I often end up sobbing when I receive text updates about, “Baby’s first solid food.” Pregnancy announcements destroy me.
I’ve thought about asking friends to pause sending photos/only doing so when asked, but I don’t want them to think that I don’t want to be a part of their children’s lives. (I do! I’m just figuring out what that looks like during this season.) And most of all, I worry that if I pull back my support now, then I won’t be able to ask for help should I need it in the future. How do I show my support while protecting my heart?
A: You’re doing a heroic job trying to be a good friend during an incredibly hard time. I tend to agree with your instinct that you don’t want to pull back child-related support or contact completely because if we all avoided updates from people whose lives made us jealous when we faced a struggle like infertility, divorce, illness, or the death of a parent, it would be really hard for us to maintain strong ties and real friendships. Tough times ebb and flow and tend to hit most people eventually, and detaching from those who happen to be enjoying a good moment in an area of their life that isn’t going as well for you doesn’t seem sustainable.
But I do think there’s an opportunity to protect yourself here and receive far fewer baby updates, and it starts with being really vulnerable and transparent to your friends about what you’re feeling. You didn’t say what you’ve shared with them about your infertility, but I want to make a case for being open about it—and the toll it’s taking on you. It’s OK to say, “This has been really, really hard for us and I get so jealous whenever I hear about someone else’s baby, because having a baby is exactly what I want and I don’t know for sure if I’ll ever have it. I often find myself crying when I’m reminded of this, and I hate feeling this way.” Right now, they might not know that you’re having struggles, or they might incorrectly assume that you can simply order up a baby like a pizza with the help of science. So it’s possible they’re truly clueless about what a dark time this is for you. I think once they know—and once they know how out-of-the-blue baby pictures upset you—they will likely naturally pull back on gratuitous updates. Of course, if they don’t, feel free to specifically ask that they not catch you off guard with infant content. Let them know that you do care, but you want to take it in when you’re in the right state of mind, which means you’ll just check out their social media or ask for pictures when and if you feel ready. Protecting yourself is the most important thing here, and real friends won’t hold it against you.
A hopeful outcome of this conversation is that your friends might remember that they’re not the only ones going through an intense phase of life, and they won’t just stop with the “baby’s first food” announcements—they’ll also start to reach out and offer you the emotional support you so badly need.
Q. Crazy cat lady: A few months ago, my husband and I adopted a kitten. We excitedly told everyone—friends, family, co-workers, classmates—about our new family member.
Well, we had to rehome the cat. For some reason, she triggered my pretty severe OCD (previous pets had always been a comfort to my anxiety, not a source of it). I know that exposure to triggers can be therapeutic for OCD, and I tried, but I literally couldn’t function. I had no sleep schedule, I fell far behind at work, I’m already petite and I lost 20 pounds in a month from not eating. I felt contaminated and invaded 24/7. I loved my cat so much, and rehoming her was a heartbreaking decision, but my husband and I both feel that it was the right choice—for us and for her. She’s with a new family now who is a better fit. And I’m going to pursue much more OCD treatment before I ever even think about pets again (let alone kids).
The problem now is what to say when people ask how our cat is doing. I don’t want to lie or sound callous, but I also don’t want to blast my OCD diagnosis around. Even well-meaning woke people don’t really get it; people don’t think of OCD the same way they would a pet allergy. There’s such a huge stigma against rehoming pets, and I don’t want people to think I did this flippantly, with no regard for the cat’s well-being. But I also don’t want everyone—especially acquaintances and colleagues—to know how unwell I often am behind closed doors. What do I say, Prudie?
A: I think you already said it perfectly. “I loved my cat so much, and rehoming her was a heartbreaking decision, but my husband and I both feel that it was the right choice—for us and for her. She’s with a new family now who is a better fit” is a perfect answer. I couldn’t have written a better script, and any reasonable person would accept that explanation without too many questions. Honestly if you’d given her back to a shelter, I wouldn’t know what to tell you—that would be a much more controversial choice that really would inspire a lot of judgment, fairly or unfairly. But your cat is happy in her new home and you’re in a better position to be healthy. Anyone who cares about you at all should celebrate this.
Q. Peer review: I’m a white woman in my 30s and a student in a master’s program for aspiring language educators. An Afro-Latina classmate about my age, whom I’ve had friendly collaborations with but don’t really know otherwise, occasionally shares observations in class about the status of what she calls “African American Vehicular English.” I care deeply about issues of prestige as they relate to AAVE, and respect for people’s experiences of their own language—especially a marginalized one—is a closely held value of mine.
But whenever this comes up, I can’t get the idea of “vehicular English” out of my head. Would it be out of line for me to send her a casual private Zoom message about the difference between “vehicular” and “vernacular” if this happens again? I feel like this question might have a simple answer of “Of course, it’s a decent thing to do ” or “Mind your own business,” but I can’t figure out which one it is.
A: I definitely lean toward the “Mind your own business” option because you’re her classmate, not her professor, so it’s not your job to correct her. I can imagine how you probably cringe hearing this mistake over and over, and may be worried that she’ll embarrass herself. But it’s not harming anyone, and clearly, everyone knows what she means when she says it. I can’t imagine it will be too long before she has the opportunity to see “African American Vernacular English” written out, or before she types it in a social media post and is promptly corrected by 30 of her followers. So you can sit this one out in peace.
Q. Stuck at the starting line: I’m a widow in my mid-60s. It’s been about four years since my husband died and I would like to start dating again. I actually was involved with a guy for a couple years who I really liked. He pursued me but then we had one of those hot and cold things. We had fun during the pandemic but he’s backed off again.
So I’m ready to start meeting new people. My question is whether it’s OK for women to ask men out? I consider myself a feminist and it seems obvious to me, but one of my girlfriends thought it was well outside the norm. I ask because there’s a single guy I run into on and off. We always have really good conversations that seem like they need to stop before we’re done. I’d like to ask him out but wonder if I should assume his not asking is a sign he’s not interested. I know I may get rejected, but I don’t want to scare anyone.
A: You’re probably right that women doing the asking is likely a little less common for people in your generation, but I feel confident that plenty of men would love it, and the right man for you definitely would. If the single guy you always run into is scared off by “Would you like to have coffee sometime?,” imagine how backward and boring he’d be in other areas of life. Go ahead and ask. And to make it less scary, you don’t have to actually say “Would you like to go out with me?” or “I’d like to ask you on a date.” Just think of an activity you’d like to do and see if he’s interested in joining. Good luck!
Q. Re: Your infertile friend: I didn’t know my friend was struggling with infertility until she asked me to pause updates about my son on the advice of the therapist she was seeing. I promise I was not offended.
A: I love the idea of saying (even if it’s a small white lie) that this is a therapist’s advice, to make it less personal. And the truth is, letter writer, some people will be offended that you’re not able to be as engaged as they’d like with the most exciting thing in their life. But I don’t think those people are the kind of friends you want long term.
Q. Sister is lying about our baby: My sister is 15 years older than me. She is unmarried and does not want or like children. We see each other once a year during Christmas and rarely communicate otherwise. Shortly after my wife and I announced our pregnancy, my sister began writing long posts on Facebook about our pregnancy. My sister usually writes long Facebook posts about her life, but these are baffling. One post said how glad she was that we decided not to have an abortion and carry through with the pregnancy. (Our baby was planned.) Another talked about how excited she was to travel overseas with our baby since we can’t afford to. (We can.) My sister and I are not close. We have no idea where she got these ideas from or why she is posting them. I privately asked her to stop posting about our pregnancy and she wrote another post about how we asked her to be the baby’s godmother. (We didn’t.) My sister just called me to announce that she booked a hotel room nearby around our due date for three weeks. I was so shocked I just hung up. We obviously do not want her around. How do I talk to her about this in a way that won’t result in another lie-filled Facebook post?