Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.
My first spouse had a thing for Disney, which I hated. Our whole house was covered in Disney stuff (think 101 Dalmatians shower curtain, etc.), which was tacky and embarrassing. When I met my current spouse, I made my zero-tolerance Disney policy clear. She said no problem, but confessed that her twin daughters (now in their late 20s) were the “Harry Potter generation” and that she and the twins still had “minimal nostalgic experiences” related to HP.
Fast forward five years, and “minimal” was a psychotic lie. There is A LOT of Harry Potter in my life. At least once a month, I catch her reading from one of the HP books on her Kindle. I overheard her on Zoom with the twins having anguished conversations about “what to do about Harry Potter” given the author’s transphobia. And whenever she visits the twins, they all do some HP-related thing. The most recent was to go to a HP store, and my spouse came home with a notebook and pen representing her “Hogwarts house.” I reminded her that she promised to NEVER bring Disney merch around me, and she goes, “Disney didn’t own the Harry Potter franchise then,” which is splitting hairs at best. She put the merch inside a drawer where I won’t see it, but she won’t get rid of it or apologize for buying it. Now she’s planning to watch some HP reunion IN THE HOUSE while Zooming with the twins.
Prudence, she has advanced degrees, a high-level job with a great salary, and successful daughters, so I don’t know why she needs to cling onto HP, especially knowing that Disney is a deal-breaker for me. To this day, she claims HP is a “minimal” part of her life and that she didn’t misrepresent. How can I make her see that her HP thing is actually a significant fixation she needs to outgrow if she wants our marriage to last?
—Done With Disney
Dear Done With Disney,
Just for the record, Disney doesn’t even own Harry Potter—so I guess if you want to keep this up, you’ll need to become a Warner Bros. hater, too. But: Are you serious? Is this real? None of this is affecting you. There are no tacky shower curtains bothering you. You have nothing to complain about. For every hour she spends on her totally harmless hobby, you should be spending an hour finding your own books, movies, and interests and an hour talking to a therapist about how to become a less intolerant, judgmental person. Better yet: If it really is a deal-breaker, leave and let her live in peace and enjoy her life.
I’ve grown up with very different values from my immediate family, and we had periods of a strained relationship, but it’s now at a point where things are—for the most part—much better. I recognize that my parents did the best they could in difficult circumstances, etc., etc., and we have made peace with each other. However, my family has a very keen “being annoying/teasing/insulting as affection” style of communication, which I struggle with because I’m sensitive. I’d really like to discourage it, both against myself and any potential kids I have, without causing a big fight. When I’ve pointed it out in the past, it’s either been me making a big deal of things or me accusing people of being bad parents, and it’s honestly a serious conversation I’m too tired to have with no results.
—Too Sensitive for This
Dear Too Sensitive,
Ugh, there’s nothing worse than someone who hides their actual insults and aggression behind an “I’m just blunt,” “I was just kidding,” or “you can’t take a joke” excuse. And I do think that’s what’s happening with your family. People who sincerely use teasing and being annoying as a form of affection build in a calculation of what will be hurtful versus what’s safe material to have fun with. It sounds like your family has made no attempt to do that. I’m guessing your strained relationship with them and their unwillingness to respect your feelings have made you lean toward blaming yourself for being “too sensitive,” but I’m here to say you’re not. And even if you were, healthy, kind family members take note when someone is “too” sensitive and try not to hurt them. This isn’t an unreasonable thing to ask, and it comes naturally to those who care about how they make loved ones feel.
Assuming you don’t want to limit your contact with your parents, I suggest identifying a few topics that are truly off limits for jokes and teasing for you, and letting them know in writing (a text message or DM or email) at a moment when you’re not together and you’re not feeling emotional. “Hi Mom and Dad. Looking forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks. We’ve talked before about how it makes me feel when you tease me or insult me as a joke, and while I understand that you don’t mean any harm by it, I want to ask you to refrain from joking about my weight, my health issues, or my relationships [or whatever the most sensitive issues are]. If you can do this, I’ll be able to enjoy our time together a lot more.” Then give them a chance, and if they slip up, give them a warning or just feel free to get up and leave without any guilt. It’s not you, it’s them.
How to Get Advice From Prudie
I recently spent a week with my parents for the holidays. We live far apart, and this is the first time we’ve spent extended time together since the pandemic began. I’ve noticed a few signs of what may be the early stages of cognitive decline in my father—memory loss, inattention to detail, poor concentration while performing ordinary tasks such as driving. What concerns me more, however, is that it appears my father has become addicted to his computer, or specifically YouTube. He spends practically every waking hour sitting in his spot on the couch watching YouTube videos. Literally 12 hours per day on average. My mother finds it more annoying that he’s refusing to wear headphones in a common space while he binges, but I’m concerned his YouTube diet may be signs of a bigger problem. Am I overreacting, or should I step in to see if he needs help?
Dear Suspicious Son,
Cognitive decline is to be expected as we get older. And the YouTube habit sounds relatively harmless—you haven’t said your dad seems depressed or distressed or radically changed in his opinions in ways that might lead him to put his own health at risk, or that he isn’t taking care of his basic needs and those of the household during the other 12 hours of the day. Honestly, if he’s practicing social distancing and he doesn’t have tons of physical energy, it’s hard to say what else he should be doing. But if your mom agrees—or your gut is telling you—that he’s changed and something other than normal aging (in a pandemic that’s inspired many of us to pick up new, indoor habits) is amiss with his physical or mental health, have a talk with his doctor and see what kinds of assessments are available. Overall, try to stay in touch a bit more—maybe via FaceTime, since he seems to be tech-savvy. This will give him something else to look forward to each day, and give you a better sense of his routine and moods.
Prior to our wedding, my husband and I had been talking about children. He has told me he might not want children at all. I was OK with it at that time. After a few years together, it became more evident that I wanted to have kids. When I bring this up, he will tell me he’s not ready yet. More than 10 years later, he’s still not ready. I’m so disappointed and saddened by how long I have been waiting, and now the chance is very slim. Sometimes, I would think of just finding another man that would be willing to be a father. I’m running out of time. I have put up with other issues in the relationship, but this one is pulling me down and away.
—Waited Too Long
Dear Waited Too Long,
It makes sense that you’re being pulled away. This is the kind of thing that you might need to divorce over. If you want children and you never get to have them because of your husband’s choices, your relationship could easily be ruined by bitterness and resentment. Even if you’re the one who changed your mind! There’s no right and wrong here, only what will make each of you happy (or miserable). And of course, you’re right that this decision is time-sensitive. I think you should move quickly to do whatever you need to do to put yourself in a position to have a baby, whether it’s in the context of a new relationship or as a single parent, and whether you need some help from science. Start with getting a doctor to run some tests to get a sense of your fertility so you can have an idea of how quickly you need to act. But whatever the result, don’t waste too much more time in a marriage that can’t give you what you want.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“It’s one thing to say ‘No I don’t want kids’ and it’s another to ‘I’m not ready’ all the way to the end of your wife’s fertility.”
Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
Sixteen years ago, my best friend got married. We were all young, the wedding was extravagant, and I was the maid of honor. The bride and groom splurged on an amazing photographer and the pictures turned out beautifully. Unfortunately, their marriage didn’t last, and she is now remarried with two beautiful kids. During their breakup, she gave me a bright red box with all of their wedding photos that were too painful to look at. She asked me to keep them safe until her mom could take them or at least until she was done mourning the breakup.
Well … it’s been 14 years, and I still have the damn thing. I’ve asked her repeatedly if she wants them back, but she gets upset and refuses to answer my question. She then ignores me for long durations until I forget, only to be reminded when I see the stupid box. Her mom lives in another country and is a flake, so I don’t want to just mail them to God knows where. But I’ve moved four times in the past 14 years, and I don’t want to be lugging around her wedding album. Someday my kids will be cleaning out my closet and will be the ones disposing of these, or worse, they will think I had some weird attachment to the pictures and will keep them out of respect. Can I just throw these out and be done with them? It feels wrong but I’m so over it!
—I Don’t Want This Album
This has gone on for long enough! I’m sure you have her address. Ship them to her. And as you leave the post office, call her and say, “I can’t store the wedding pictures anymore, so I sent them to you. I wanted to let you know they’re on the way so if they are too upsetting to look at, you can throw away the box before opening it.”
Give Prudie a Hand in “We’re Prudence”
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.
After two years being single and working hard on myself, I’ve finally met someone I really connect with. He is intelligent, ambitious, and highly creative—we both work in the same competitive field, albeit on opposite spectrums. I find it near impossible to find someone with the same drive as me, and he’s so fun and easy to get along with (plus we have insane animal sex, which is a bonus). We have only been seeing each other for five weeks—still in that romantic, obsessive stage where we are seeing each other every day. It’s been going great and I am over the moon—BUT about a week ago, this man asked me (casually, respectfully) if I had an eating disorder. This threw me, I panicked, laughed, said no. He said something vague about that being a relief, as he was not sure how to deal with it if I did.
I have been struggling with anorexia for 10 years now, and have been in and out of treatment. This year has been the toughest one yet—I spent most of it very ill in hospital. My lowest point came when the public treatment program I have been cycling through declined to help me any further, indicating I was likely going to need long-term care and that they could no longer cater to me. Since then, I’ve been taking alternative routes and doing the best I can.
I’m in my mid-20s and have denied myself even casual dating until I felt I was in a stable mental position. So it’s been nearly two years, and after putting SO much work into my recovery this year, I felt astounded to meet this man and for things to go well so fast! However, I feel absolutely mortified that he picked up on my condition almost immediately—I don’t think it’s because of my body, but probably because of small comments I’ve made (which I am continuously trying to work on!). In any case, I am EXTREMELY private about my eating disorder, and despite my first hospital stay being over 10 years ago, I have still been very deeply in denial until this year. It has been hard enough to admit I have a problem to myself—so why should I have to disclose it to a man I’ve just met?
I feel so conflicted—I don’t want to lie, and this may be something that affects my whole life going forward. But on the other hand, this is so complicated and deeply personal, and I don’t want to talk to him about it yet. Am I bad for lying? Is this something I need to disclose early on? I feel like the stigma around eating disorders is so bad that if I have to tell people about it after the first few weeks of dating, I will never find a partner.
Shortly after we were married eight years ago, my husband had a car accident and became permanently disabled. This was a shock: Our lives and plans halted. I became the primary breadwinner, primary doer-of-things, primary child care provider, etc. He also suffered mild brain injury and subsequent mental health struggles. Beyond that, each treatment for each illness comes with side effects, more illnesses, and more depression. Essentially, dealing with a disability can be a giant domino effect—financially, emotionally, and physically. I’d list out the struggles we’ve endured (near-death experiences, bankruptcy, hospitalizations, etc.), but you don’t have all day.
Regardless, we’ve done a good job. Our greatest strength is a choice to involve good professionals along the way including therapists, psychiatrists, marriage therapists, child therapists, and parenting consultants. Our son is a fabulous, compassionate kid with age-appropriate understanding. We have a good marriage and a good village. I count us blessed.
My struggle is this: my well-meaning friends. My husband and I have a very different bond than most people our age. Our marriage therapist describes caregiving as “aging” your bond, because you pack years of joint experiences in a short period of time. The romance and honeymoon period dies immediately, and you are forced into a period that most people don’t reach until their 70s. I am part of caregiver support groups where everyone has 30 years on me. I struggle with immense compassion fatigue, decision-making fatigue, and am burdened with 100 percent of household duties when my husband is having a bad episode.
People don’t understand our relationship. They can be blameful toward him, unfairly. They don’t see the same romantic bond they’re used to in others, and girlfriends comment about “falling in love again” (I don’t need to). They don’t see reliance, trust, and comfort as a valid form of love. They don’t see my stressors as a valid choice to be in a difficult situation. They don’t see how he does contribute and when he can’t. Our therapists and professionals are very supportive, but the “lay people” in our lives can be hurtful. I explain and explain, but you just don’t understand caregiver burnout and a 70-year-old marriage until you’re in one. The worst is when they compare their marriage or situation to mine. Look, I know it isn’t PC to say this, but there aren’t many struggles (for example, quarantining together during COVID or a brief period of unemployment, both of which we have also done) that compare to having a spouse with a permanent, life-shortening, and life-threatening disability. Sorry not sorry, but I am not buying into that.
Do you have any language for this? Thanks.
Dear Loving Caregiver,
My reaction to the actual words you’ve written is: This isn’t your friends’ business, and you should simply tell them “I hear that you’re concerned, and I appreciate your care for me, but I’m happy, we work with a therapist and several other professionals, and I’m not open to hearing feedback on my relationship or criticism of my husband.”
But I have a different reaction to what I’m reading between the lines of your letter: Is it possible that your husband really is treating you poorly? Are there things you’re sharing about your relationship that would cause the average person to worry about you? Is there any chance you’re accepting being disrespected or underappreciated because you think that’s your job as the spouse of a disabled person? I just ask because more than one friend has expressed concern about your relationship or your husband’s behavior, and that’s a red flag that goes beyond “people who haven’t struggled like me don’t understand my life.” They might be seeing something that you’re not—or something you’ve just accepted because of all you’ve been through. Facing struggles shouldn’t mean lowering your standards for kindness and decency from the person you’re married to. Think about it.
I am a divorced father in my late 40s who has been dating a divorced mother in her early 40s for about two months. We both recently ended marriages of nearly 20 years; dating has taken some getting used to, but things are good. During a recent moment of physical intimacy, she commented on my high level of “stamina.” I ignored her comment. But with all of the prime-time television advertising, it seems the taboo of discussing such things has diminished. Do I tell her that I take the little blue pill to boost my stamina? Would it be deceitful if I did not?