Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hope you enjoyed the long weekend if you had Monday off like I did. And even if you had to work or go to school, I hope you saved up all your juiciest questions.
Q. Big fat liar: I am in desperate need of guidance. I’ve been married for 30 years. Early in our marriage, my wife had an affair that resulted in pregnancy. It was difficult, but we stayed together because I wanted to make sure I was there to raise my 2-year-old daughter. My wife gave birth to a baby boy who I raised as my own. We went on with our life, but I never really recovered from the affair and I never felt the same connection. Now, every five years or so, I end up in the same place—wanting to leave, ending up in couples counseling, and then not leaving. It’s taken a huge toll on my mental health, and I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for years. Now I feel like I have surely done my due diligence, and I’m once again planning for a divorce. I know the timing is never going to be good, but I’ve decided to make moves after the end of the year.
And this is where my real problem comes in. Our family is close. Even though our kids are both married adults and live an hour away, we see them nearly every week and we talk to them every day. We vacation together, spend holidays together. So what I’m getting ready to do will be like dropping a nuclear bomb. There is no way I can avoid causing pain, but I at least want to try and manage it, and make sure the kids know their mom is going to be OK. My wife and I were already planning on selling our house and moving closer to the grandkids, so I’m working on things that need to be fixed before we can sell—except not for the reason my wife thinks. We live in an expensive town and neither of us can afford the mortgage on our own, but we have a lot of equity and I want to give it all to her when the house sells (it would be enough money for her to buy another house close to the kids, free and clear). I’ve also been encouraging her to look for jobs where we were planning to move, but that’s mainly because I think she’ll be able to deal with things better if she already has a new job lined up.
But while I feel like my intentions are good, I’m also being deceptive, acting like there’s nothing wrong for the next three months, and working toward goals that are much different than what my wife thinks. Am I doing the wrong thing?
A: This is a huge decision and it’s totally normal that you wouldn’t announce it the minute “I want to leave” entered your mind. You’ve really tried to make things work, and it sounds like you’re being pretty thoughtful and generous as you think about making this transition. The only thing I wonder about is whether you might balance being strategic about the timing with being a bit more honest with your wife, instead of blindsiding her with this decision. I think you can let her know over the next few months that the same old issues you’ve discussed in counseling are coming up for you again and feel unresolved, and that your mental health isn’t the best as a result. That way you don’t have to spend this time feeling as if you’re lying about your feelings, and you won’t catch her completely off-guard.
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Q. No girl power: I moved across the country for a new job and am currently renting a house with several other people: two couples, one guy, and me.
I am very petite and work as a hostess for an upscale urban restaurant while going to college in an expensive city. All my clothes are classy, black, and as upscale as I could find in a thrift store (I have huge loans and my bed is a futon I found online). I can’t wear anything overly cutesy without looking like a child. When I get “dressed up,” it means wearing nice-ish clothes and a little makeup and a ponytail. I am nowhere near dolled up, but my girl housemates both work from home and basically live in cartoon PJs. I am not judging—I am jealous I can’t do the same—but here’s the problem: When their boyfriends make comments to me (for example, by telling me I look good when I am out for a run, to which I might reply by asking them when was the last time they exercised), these girls blame me for their relationship woes. I get death glares and snide comments. I am sick of their hostility.
It hurts because we had a whole “feminist girl bonding” experience when I first got here and I told them about my poverty struggles and the sexual harassment I had to deal with at my work. They hugged me. I thought I had found friends.
A: OK, I’m reading between the lines a little bit to say what you didn’t exactly say: You believe you’re more attractive than these other women, and as a result, their boyfriends are flirting with you, so they’re mad at you.
You shouldn’t have to reorganize your life to avoid remarks about how you look, and you don’t deserve to be punished for them. Take the opportunity the next time you get a snide comment to talk to your female roommates. Tell them the compliments on your appearance from their boyfriends make you uncomfortable and ask them what they would do if they were in your position. Or try making a general announcement to the house or to the offenders, while the women are within earshot: “If everyone could refrain from commenting on the way I look I’d appreciate it, it makes me self-conscious.” If you’re not comfortable or don’t feel safe confronting the guys directly, you could even ask the women to make this request on your behalf. In the moment, I think you’re probably better off ignoring the comments you do hear than responding in a way (like “When’s the last time you exercised?”) that could be interpreted as flirting.
If the death glares are truly motivated by pure jealousy, I’m afraid there’s not a lot you can do. Try to brush it off to the extent possible, and make a plan to move ASAP.
Q. What is wrong with me? I was dating a guy and I accidentally left a towel in the bedroom twice. I apologized for this. I offered contingencies so it wouldn’t happen again, like getting up earlier so I’m not rushing out the door. He didn’t accept that and broke up with me. He said that was a boundary. It’s left me feeling sad, hurt, and questioning myself. I was sincerely apologetic and remorseful but that did not have an impact. He turned cold on me, completely checked out, and now it’s over.
A: I’m sorry this happened, but I’m honestly glad he broke up with you instead of staying with you and antagonizing you about small housekeeping mistakes. I suppose it’s fair for him to have whatever boundaries he has, but there’s nothing wrong with you. The two of you are not compatible (which is a good thing for you because it sounds like he’s kind of intolerant and annoying!), and I promise, when you meet the right person, you won’t be able to believe anyone ever made you question yourself over something so small.
Q. Numb niece: Do you have any scripts for cutting off arguments before they start? The holidays are coming up and I have an aunt who absolutely loves to spring arguments on me with little to no warning. Specifically, she will sort of reenact an argument she had (either with me or someone else; on one memorable occasion, I got yelled at as if I were the person responsible for installing her TV cable) and it only ends when she runs out of steam. Attempts to leave the room spark further scolding for being rude (bear in mind that the rest of my family leaves while she does this with me). I’m wondering if you have any suggestions beyond forcefully excusing myself?
A: I had to laugh thinking about your aunt yelling at you as if you were the person responsible for installing cable! Some people get really worked up when recapping fights, and it sounds like she’s one of them. But the way she scolds you and calls you rude is more concerning. I definitely think you should step away along with the rest of the family before it gets to that point—then at least if she’s yelling, it’s at everyone and not just you. Why should you be the only one bearing the burden of her misplaced rage?
But you asked for a script to use before your family gathering. So, I would suggest something like: “Aunt Tina, I’ve been under a lot of stress and I’m hoping to use the holiday to decompress and avoid thinking about tough conflicts. I’m asking everyone to try to avoid bringing up things that make them mad and other heavy topics. I think we’ll all enjoy ourselves more. Do you think you can try it out?” And then make this easier for her by stepping in and dominating the conversation with whatever you do want to discuss. Think of a list of light topics and conversation prompts in advance—food, pop culture stuff, funny family memories, etc. Recruit one of your relatives to help you suck all the air out of the room so there’s no time for your aunt to get wound up reenacting her most recent conflict or start criticizing people.
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Q. Re: Big fat liar: It might be helpful to realize that next to nobody decides to divorce suddenly. Most people that seek divorce (whether one partner or both instigate it, whether it is amicable or acrimonious) plan ahead at least a little bit before they announce their intentions. This isn’t being deceptive; this is simply planning.
By all accounts, you seem to be trying to be as fair as possible and even more than fair in how you will be treating your soon-to-be ex. You say you’ve been to couples counseling, but have you been to solo counseling? I feel that an unbiased perspective might help you in this case. In particular, a therapist can help you deal with some of the unknowns about this moving forward. Do you think your wife will be reasonable in the face of the divorce or do you think she’ll go scorched earth? Do you think there is a real possibility that the truth about your son’s biological parentage may come out in the aftermath? These are difficult but possible scenarios you may want to prepare yourself for and have a safe space to air all your emotions in their messiest forms. Therapy is just that place.
A: Wow, I didn’t even think about how the truth about the son’s biological father might or might not come out in this process. That’s definitely something to think about and if you’re considering telling him the truth or think your wife might, a therapist would be especially helpful to strategize about the conversation and its aftermath.
Q. Re: Big fat liar: The letter writer is attempting to make decisions that aren’t his to make. His wife deserves to know what’s coming, as it may impact her decision on where to look for a new home. Additionally, after 30 years of marriage, he may want to talk to a divorce attorney, as he will likely be on the hook for spousal support. Respecting his wife in this process is not about giving her the equity in the house, it’s about giving her the right to determine what her future without him will look like. I’ve seen this kind of subterfuge personally, and the fallout was worse because of how the one spouse attempted to set the other up, and arbitrarily decide what both parties were entitled to.
I also wonder if the son in question is aware of his biological parentage? If not, it will be a two-pronged nuclear strike. The parentage of the son (and the affair from 30 years ago) is a separate issue from the ending of the marriage. He doesn’t need a “legitimate reason” to end his marriage, and he cannot buy his way out of the pain this will cause by giving his wife the home equity (also, where I live, this would not, in any case, relieve him of lifetime spousal support).
I suspect the letter writer is looking to be the victim (she had an affair, I had to raise another man’s baby!) and the martyr (I’ll give her the equity!), when in reality, he wants to cut bait and run from the consequences of the choices they made together years ago, and avoid future obligations to his wife. He needs to speak with his therapist, his lawyer, and most of all, his wife.
A: I actually think he is a victim! And I don’t agree that he is obligated to tell her how he feels before he’s ready. But I think you make a great point about how he can’t buy his way out of the pain this will cause her. He should realize that there’s no perfect or non-upsetting way to end a marriage. His wife is going to be hurt, and he’s going to have to own his part in that.
Last year one of our neighbors was really ticked off about our Halloween decorations being too scary. We really do go for the more ghoulish decorating and have a lot of fun with it! What’s Halloween without the fog machines, scary music (not loud), ghosts, and gruesome decor? The neighbors on either side of us have joined the fun and put up quite a display themselves. None of the decorations are over-the-top blood and guts, but the standard Halloween fare.
The angry neighbors across the street have a 5-year-old daughter. They said she wouldn’t sleep with the light off for a month after our “horrifying” decorations “scared the daylights” out of their little girl. They also said they hoped that we would refrain from the frightening decorations since we now knew they upset their daughter. They still will barely speak to any of us who decorated using anything “scary” to a 5-year-old. Should I pull the plug on the fog machine or plan a super-duper Happy Halloween?