Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving, or at least a relaxing long weekend. Let’s get started.
Q. The vaccinated sibling: My brother and his wife have very different political values than I do, but we’ve managed to mostly maintain a good relationship by avoiding “off-limits” topics. That all began to change with COVID.
While politics shouldn’t play into it, my brother very predictably joined the bandwagon of COVID skeptics and anti-vaxxers. I tried to respect his beliefs, but unfortunately he didn’t offer me the same courtesy. He became dismissive of my desire to take necessary precautions at family gatherings, not only refusing to wear a mask himself, but teasing me for doing so and saying pedantic things like “I’m concerned about you” and “I hope you’ll see sense soon.” When I stopped coming to family gatherings because of his refusal to take steps to protect himself and others, he told other members of the family that I was letting all this “COVID mania” ruin my life.
Things have amped up recently as I went through IVF and, in the spring of this year, became pregnant. A few weeks into the pregnancy, I developed a blood clot that the doctors ascribed to the estrogen I’d been taking. I went on a blood thinner and all was fine, but about two months later, I miscarried. Despite finding out that the fetus was genetically abnormal, my brother and his wife are insisting that all of it happened because of my taking the vaccine, and are using my story as a cautionary tale for their friends about why they think the vaccine “is dangerous,” despite my telling them numerous times that the miscarriage had nothing to do with it. On the day after my miscarriage, my sister-in-law had the nerve to text me, “Don’t you wonder if all of this might never have happened had you not gotten the vaccine?”
Next week, I’m going to have another embryo transfer with my final embryo, and decided to get the booster beforehand. When my brother heard this, he told me that while he could respect my decision before as it only impacted me, he couldn’t let me potentially harm my future baby without saying something. He said he had “good evidence” that the vaccine causes miscarriages and wanted to send me some articles he’d found; I declined and asked him to please not bring the topic up again.
Now my whole family is coming down on me because they say I’m the one letting my beliefs ruin our relationship and that I should at least give him the courtesy of listening to his concerns, yet all he has ever done throughout this is dismiss my concerns and put me down for them. I feel like he’s more interested in supporting his anti-vax theories than he is in supporting me. Of course I don’t want to ruin our relationship, but I don’t even want to see him or talk to him right now and I feel angry with my entire family for acting like I’m the one to blame. I just don’t see any way forward.
A: You’re being way too easy on your brother and the rest of your family. It’s one thing if he wants to believe in misinformation and conspiracy theories, but blaming you for your own miscarriage is taking things to another, unforgivable level. Here’s the plan: No more talking to him—or anyone else who tries to excuse his behavior—until you have the baby. I know that’s hard, but these people do not care about you and your well-being. Fill in the gaps in your life with your husband’s family, your friends, your doctors, and anyone else who lives in reality, has compassion, and knows how to talk to people.
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Q. Annoyed: I have two friends who refuse to wear their hearing aids, so anyone who speaks to them gets the “huh?” reply. The conversation goes “[comment]” “huh?” “[repeat comment].”
With one friend, I refuse to repeat myself until she puts in her ears. With the other, I repeat myself. In both cases, I think they have a social responsibility to wear their aids. I have a third friend who puts on his glasses and puts in his ears as he rises for the day—hence, no problem.
I make sure I’m speaking and pronouncing clearly and speak a tad slower to keep our conversations on track. I like these people and enjoy their company. Am I correct that with disability comes responsibility?
A: No, you’re not correct. If you don’t like repeating yourself—or being a jerk by refusing to repeat yourself—you’re free to decide not to hang out with these friends. But you don’t get to dictate their behavior. You’re not in charge of them and they have no obligation to follow your orders. Sorry!
Q. Listen, I’ll select the thing: I am writing to you with what is possibly the world’s biggest First World problem: My family continually tries to outsmart my holiday list.
I am a woman in my early 20s, and I have curated a list for the holidays for distribution amongst those interested since I was 15. I know it’s a little unusual for adults to do so, but I only send it to people who explicitly ask for it or what I’d like for the holidays. The list includes stuff, experiences, charities I like, and ranges from $5 to $100 (most of it is in the $10–$50 range, if that matters). I make my yearly list for three reasons: Historically, my friends and family make bad guesses; I want to limit the stuff in my house to stuff I really want; and I find it convenient when others do the same.
The first reason is really the big one here (although the second reason ties into that): I don’t want a backup of an appliance I already have; I’m not interested in a blouse that’s two sizes too small or pants that are three sizes too big or random tacky décor that does not spark joy. I know best what I want and need in my life.
My family both overthink and underthink their gifts. For instance, an uncle has given me the same T-shirt that’s not my style for three years straight (the same shirt has gone to my sister as well); my sister got me tights I had decluttered the previous year because they weren’t long enough for my legs (she knew why—I guess she forgot?); my mother has gotten me a kind of tea I don’t drink; and an aunt of mine has given me a lotion set in a scent I dislike. On the overthinking side: I’ll get gifted a “better,” more expensive object, but not necessarily the same or the type of the thing I can most easily use; gift cards to “nicer” stores than I request; or attempts (and usually missing the mark) to capture my aesthetic in accessories and home décor. I know it’s well-meaning. It’s not about the money—some of the things on my list are $7. It’s also not a jab at how well people know me—I just know me better.
I know this sounds ungrateful, but I’d literally rather have no gift than clutter in my home (especially heavy stuff!) or clothes I can’t/won’t wear or products I can’t/won’t use. How can I explain this without sounding like a grown-up Veruca Salt, that All I Want For Christmas is to be taken at my word about what I want?
A: Christmas gifts are mostly for children. I know, I know—everyone exchanges them. But can we agree that they’re actually an important thing for people who are too young to work and have no ability to buy themselves the stuff they want? While in some families, people of all ages use lists to place orders with one another for big-ticket items, for most adults, receiving presents is just a nice tradition. The holiday is not supposed to be an opportunity to strategically ask for and rack up all the stuff you would have liked to buy for yourself during the year. And sometimes, for better or worse, people give gifts because they enjoy it and it feels good, not because they’re trying to give you exactly what you would have bought for yourself. So maybe try to take the pressure off by thinking of this less as a transaction that’s not working out in your favor, and more as a nice gesture that symbolizes that people love you and are thinking about you.
But if you truly can’t tolerate or regift the unwanted lotion, tights, or tea, here are a few ideas that might help:
1) Return the stuff you don’t like! If you can tell where it came from, some stores won’t require an actual receipt. Or you can ask for one by explaining that you want an item in a different color or size.
2) Accept the gifts with a plan to donate them to people in need who would love and appreciate them much more than you do.
3) Try to convince your family to donate to a charity in your name instead of giving you material things—this might feel more special than picking a material item off a list.
4) See if you can get everyone on board with a white elephant or Secret Santa gift exchange, so you’ll only have one gift to deal with.
Q. Third place: My pretty great husband is the center of my universe. We don’t have children and never will. Our families are not close (geographically or otherwise), and though we both have a very healthy balance of both autonomy and independent friendships/relationships, fundamentally, it’s him and me.
Recently, a friend and I were at my home watching a reality TV show, and one of the characters (who was clearly meant to be side-eyed) made a statement that their mother was, and would remain, the most important woman in his life. We both laughed and made a couple of snarky comments. A few moments later, my husband walked in and asked what we were laughing about. We filled him in, and his reply gutted me. He said, “Of course a man’s mother is the most important woman in his life. My mother gave up everything to raise me. And if I had a daughter, she would become the most important woman to me.” I fell quiet, as my friend looked at me gaping. After he left, I asked, “Would your husband say that?” Her reply was “No! He would never!” I was humiliated, but more than that, profoundly hurt. Afterward, I didn’t exactly yell, but I was upset. Instead of saying he was sorry or that he didn’t mean it, he doubled down, telling me, “Most women would be HAPPY to have a man who loved his mother so much. Besides, she’s dead, so you’re No. 1 now.” (You can be proud that I managed to hold my tongue regarding my thoughts on how much she actually deserves such lofty adulations.)
I know bringing it up again is pointless, but I’m having trouble accepting that I’m always going to be third place behind a ghost and a hypothetical child. At this point, I realize that no matter what he SAYS, this is how he feels, and there’s nothing I can do. I am extremely hurt, and it’s made me feel insecure in our marriage knowing that my place in his world is so tenuous.
A: But you’re not in third place! His mother is dead and your future child doesn’t exist, so there is literally no competition here, and there never will be.
Your freakout about losing his love to these people who are not alive is something you should pay attention to, though. I think it may be a sign that making your husband not just your life partner but the center of your universe has made you feel extremely vulnerable and needy, and more dependent on him than is healthy. Yes, you’re married and it’s fine that he’s very important to you. But if he can devastate you with an innocent remark about an alternate reality—not an actual betrayal, not real-life hurtful behavior, not a threat to leave you—you’re not on solid ground emotionally. The good news is that your relationship is fine and there’s no reason to be insecure about it. But I think you’ll enjoy it more and be happier if you can start to find ways to work on your sense of self-worth and security, which are things that should exist independent of your husband. Maybe this means therapy, maybe it means finding other people and things to add to your world so you don’t rely 100 percent on him for your happiness, or maybe it means just reminding yourself that even if his feelings for you do change, you’ll find a way to be OK.
Q. Re: The vaccinated sibling: Your brother is being rude, cruel, and unrepentant. Not that I think my personal anecdote would change his mind, but early in the pandemic, myself, my wife, and my parents all came down with COVID together. (We were staying for a few days with them because our nearby area had experienced a prolonged power outage due to some recent storms.) During this time, my wife, who was two months pregnant, miscarried. Her doctor was unambiguous in their assessment that COVID was the culprit for her miscarriage. So, to no small degree, it makes me see red to hear about what your brother has said to you regarding your own miscarriage.
Cut these assholes out of your life and consider yourself richer for it.
A: Yes. I rarely advocate for completely cutting people off, but I want the letter writer to realize that the way these people are treating her is beyond unacceptable.
Q. Re: Annoyed: As a partially hearing-impaired person, it is my responsibility to use aids for hearing and not put the burden on the speaker to accommodate my issue. Since both of her friends KNOW they are hearing-impaired and have the aids available for use, they are being rude.
A: You sound like someone the letter writer would love to be friends with. But the people he’s complaining about don’t think about their responsibility the same way, and that’s fine. The solution is for him to stop putting himself in situations that annoy him, not to force other adults to change their ways.
Q. Re: Annoyed: To refuse to repeat yourself is an unkind power play move on your part. Just repeat yourself already. My ex used to refuse to repeat himself just to spite me and make me feel bad. It is exhausting enough to have poor hearing—then to be punished emotionally for it? I think you could be a better friend here and just repeat yourself already.
A: I agree. But someone who had the personality and character to be a good friend would already know this.
I’m in a six-month relationship with an amazing guy. He’s kind, generous, funny, and supportive, and we click on all levels. He treats me better than any man who ever said he loved me—but he’s not ready to say it yet. I’ve said it already, and I don’t regret saying it because I know I mean it. He says he feels the same thing I do but isn’t ready to call it love—he wants to wait until we’re further down the line toward commitment before saying it. His only other relationship lasted for six years and ended badly, so he’s very cautious this time around. He also wants to wait until he knows where his job will be and where he’ll be living.
I know this is something you can’t force, but it’s really bothering me. How do I process this and not fixate on it but allow myself to be happy with someone who clearly cares deeply about me, even if he can’t say the same words I do? And is there a time limit by which he should say it?