Dear Prudence

Dear Prudence Live Chat

For Dec. 13, 2021.

Update, Dec. 13, 2021, at 1:48 p.m.: The chat is complete! Find the write-up in the Dear Prudence archive, and continue the conversation on the Prudie Facebook Page. Submit questions for next week’s chat here.

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Jenée Desmond-Harris

Hope everyone had a good weekend. I can’t wait to hear about what’s going on with your families, partners, friends and frenemies. And just a reminder that we're working with a new live-chat system—when there's a new letter or reply, you'll see a button pop up on your screen to reload the chat. Click that button or refresh the page and you should see the new responses.

Q. Title challenged:

I’ve been married for six months and have known my husband and his family for 10 years. I get along well enough with his parents, but they are MUCH more formal than mine and still haven’t invited me to call them by their first names. Even when referring to each other in front of me, they might say, “Can you go and ask Mr. Smith if he would like some coffee?”

I’m a married woman in my thirties and a member of the family…it makes me feel infantilized and like an outsider to still be calling them Mr. and Mrs. At the same time, if I force the issue, I know I will make them equally uncomfortable. How do I navigate this?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Well, this does in fact sound incredibly stiff and awkward. I don’t blame you for feeling uncomfortable. But this situation seems like a symptom of their formality and not a reflection of their desire to keep you at arm’s length. I think the thing to do here is to file this request under “My in-laws are weird because they are weird, not because of anything to do with me,” and roll with it.

Q. The ex singer:

I recently met up with an ex from many years ago who is now married. We had such a great conversation and I apologized for the mistakes I made. It was clear at the end of the night that we wanted to see each other again, and that we both still have feelings for one another. I haven't felt like that in a long time. The next day we talked, and he told me he couldn't see me for a while, but that we will meet up again after an undisclosed amount of time passed. He said the feelings were too strong and he wants to respect his marriage. I felt emotionally devastated, but understood. I really don't want to negatively impact his marriage; I think I just got caught up in the feelings. I recently went through a breakup, so I'm more emotionally vulnerable than usual.

The somewhat unusual question I have stems from the fact that many years ago, he asked me to sing a song for him. I never did it because I was nervous. Recently I was thinking of recording it, possibly in a few months, once I start dating again and I'm sure that I'm not doing it out of emptiness or a desire to get his attention. I would send it if it still felt right at that time. I was thinking of it as a gesture between people who have a fond history together. At the same time, I don't want to make anything harder on him, or cause disruption to his happiness. The more I write, I feel like I shouldn't, but my question is: Should I send the song to him?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

No, don’t do it! You’re smart to recognize that you’re vulnerable right now. The next step is to be honest with yourself about what the goal of sending this song to him would be—whether it’s now, or later on when you’ve begun dating. Would you really feel satisfied once the “gesture between people who have a fond history together” was complete? Something tells me the answer is no. You would probably be looking for affirmation of the feelings he once had for you, or even hoping to expedite that promised hangout. And then what? I just don’t see this ending well, and I want to affirm your instincts that you will be better off and happier if you take whatever value you can from the conversation you had and move on, avoiding all the potential angst and drama.

Q. Hurt and betrayed:

I recently found out my husband of seven years has been on adult dating sites and OnlyFans. I found multiple purchases from these sites over a year-and-a-half span and had no idea about it. He doesn’t think he cheated since he didn’t physically ever meet these women; I guess he only bought videos or pictures. I am still unsure what exactly transpired.

Of course, I handled it wrong and blew up on him and made some threats, which made matters worse. He has yet to apologize and is contemplating divorce, all because of the way I reacted and handled it. I am so hurt and betrayed and feel like I deserve an explanation and apology. I don’t want my family broken apart, but I also feel he’s sweeping this under the rug.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

I am really sorry to hear this and, without knowing every detail of your relationship, I have a theory that might be upsetting to hear: I think your husband is completely checked out of the marriage. Cheating is one thing—being unapologetic about cheating is another thing altogether. Reacting to the revelation about cheating by contemplating divorce is really bad news. You ABSOLUTELY deserve an explanation and an apology, but your husband has recently shown you that he is not interested in being a person who gives you things you need—he’s given up on his end of the relationship. You should emotionally, legally, and financially begin to prepare yourself for the possibility that this relationship is going to come to an end. This starts with looking elsewhere for the support that he cannot or will not offer. I’m not saying there’s no hope at all. There’s always counseling, and he might come to his senses if he realizes you’re truly prepared to leave. But begging him to be a better person with more integrity is not going to fix this marriage.

Q. Not in with the family:

My boyfriend and I have been together for four years and are planning a future together. We have had ongoing conversations about him including me in his family’s life, as he’s very much involved in mine. He has gotten to know my sisters, parents, and extended family. We spend time with them regularly and he has personal relationships with a few of them. On the other hand, I’ve only met his family three times. I’ve expressed my desire to get to know them more as I might be their future sister/daughter in-law, but understand families have different timelines and dynamics.

Recently his mom was hospitalized and his family doesn't have much time left with her. I have offered to be helpful in any way that I can to make his and his family’s life easier during this time—I asked if I can babysit his nephews and nieces, contribute financially, or really anything. However, my boyfriend repeatedly refuses my offers to help and even my request to visit his mom with him. When I push back, he says it's either unnecessary or his mom is not quite herself, tired, or on meds. Even during his brother’s passing from COVID (just months ago), my family and I offered to help practically and financially and he refused.

I don’t want to go behind his back, but I’ve thought about directly messaging his sister to offer my help. My boyfriend and I live together and almost all of our lives are integrated except for this, and it feels icky to not help when I can. Is this a situation where I should learn that families are different (my family are African immigrants and he’s Black American) and let it go? Or is this as weird as I feel, and maybe a deal breaker?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

“Different families have different timelines and dynamics” is very insightful. Although many of us check off a similar set of life events—marriage, children, deaths of parents, etc.—everyone reacts to them very differently and has different expectations for how others will support them. It sounds like your boyfriend’s family is close-knit and private. Maybe there are even feelings of shame about needing help at play. Possibly they really don’t need help but just want to get through this difficult time, and no practical or financial support can make it any easier.

If you and his sister have your own, independent friendship (do you stay in touch with each other beyond small talk and social media comments and open up to each other?), you can feel free to offer to support her during this hard time, but I would stop short of using her to get to her mom. Either way, focus more on offering support to your boyfriend. How can you be there for him in ways that don’t involve direct contact with his family?

Thinking about the bigger picture here, this is an opportunity to ask some questions about your relationship. Is this the kind of family you feel comfortable marrying into, or are the emotional and cultural differences too extreme? Another question might be: Is your boyfriend not quite as sure about your future together as you are? Does he not yet see you as his actual life partner, but more as the person he’s dating right now? I don’t suggest having these hard conversations during his mom’s last days, but they’re questions to consider in the future.

Q. Heart needs to grow three sizes this season:

I need to learn how to feel happy for my husband’s brother (“Jack”) and his wife (“Rachel”). For context, I have some legacy insecurities about my mother-in-law liking Rachel a lot more than me (pretty obviously) for the first few years of my relationship with my husband (she started dating Jack at the same time as we started dating). Since then, my relationship with my MIL is really great, but Jack and Rachel have “achieved” all of the typical life milestones (engagement/wedding/house-buying) before my husband and I, and those events have all happened around Christmas, when we all get together, so the past three Christmases have been very them-centric.

They just announced they’re having a baby. I wish I could get in the mindset to feel genuine joy for them, but I can’t help but internally grumble that this Christmas will be about all of them yet again. I need a good book or a good mantra to not feel like such a brat and get in an abundance mindset; I know joy is limitless but knowing and feeling are different. 

Jenée Desmond-Harris

You know what? I don’t think you have to feel happy for them! You really don’t! I mean, don’t put coal in their stocking and don’t be cruel, of course. But as long as you’re somewhere on the spectrum between civilized and kind, it’s perfectly fine to be secretly bitter and resentful inside. And you don’t have to hold it in—maybe ranting about it a bit to a good friend or writing down your list of grievances will give you more relief than trying to suppress the way you feel. Life isn’t fair and you haven’t been treated particularly fairly, and it’s totally okay to notice that.

Q. Dreading Christmas:

Christmas is coming and it has always been dreaded by my sister and I. We always spend it with our mother’s family, at our large home. Several relatives have always been disrespectful and make fun of us; we also take on most of the workload (cooking, cleaning, party favors) while they lounge over the course of two or three days. Our mom loves her family, and idolizes everyone (especially the rude drunks who terrorized our teenage selves). She can’t understand why we sulk around them.

Anyway, this year they’re planning to trade houses for the celebration, and my aunt says the festivities are conditional on our attendance (we have passed on most family gatherings for a while). My sister won’t be attending, and we both think our aunt’s condition is a terrorist’s demand; we have nice relationship with her, but she can’t seem to understand why we avoid the rest of the family, even though she knows about the abuse.

I’ve always been torn between pleasing my mom and loyalty to my sister (the bullying has been worse for her). I have nightmares about Christmas but fear my mom’s reaction. Please help!

Jenée Desmond-Harris

A good general holiday season rule is “don’t give in to terrorist demands.” Stay home. You deserve to be happy and peaceful. Your mom’s reaction can only affect you so much if you turn your phone off.

Q. Foster mom in the making:

After several miscarriages, my husband and I have been feeling called down another path: adopting out of foster care. We have just recently started this process, and most people who we have told have been incredibly supportive. However, we have encountered a few people who have made comments such as, “Maybe you’ll finally have a baby after this!” (which angers me beyond belief because our goal in this is not to be “rewarded” with a biological child), and some people just like to give unsolicited advice or discouraging comments about how hard/heartbreaking the process can be. I know that this route won’t be easy, and I’m not living in denial of that, but it also feels super discouraging to hear comments like this, and I don’t want their advice if they aren’t experts or haven’t been through this process themself. I guess I just feel the need to surround myself with supportive people as we go through this process. Would I be wrong to shut down comments that are anything but supportive? And if so, how do I shut them down?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

My blood is boiling just reading this. What is wrong with people? Anyway, no, you would not be wrong to shut down these rude comments. How you do so depends on your style, your personality, and how awkward you’re willing to make things, but here are some ideas inspired by what you’ve said about how you feel:

1) “Actually we’re excited about the child we’re going to adopt. We’re not looking to be ‘rewarded’ with a biological child.”

2) “That’s a strange reaction to our good news.”

3) “I don’t think that’s how this works.”

4) “I’ve heard that before and I’m sure people say it with the best intention but that’s not the way it’s received.”

Q. Stop calling her a bimbo:

I'm a woman engaged to another woman, "Kate." Kate is wonderful: thoughtful, generous, kind, and funny. I love her. The problem is that almost all my friends and family don't think we should be together. I would normally take that as a huge red flag, except that the reasons people give aren't anything to do with thinking Kate is a bad person. Their problem is that they say she isn't smart enough for me.

I'm an academic and quite well-known in my area. I'm from a family of extremely snobby academics and almost all my friends are fellow academics and doctors. Kate is from a financially much-worse-off family from a deprived area, went to a chronically underfunded school, and didn't go to college. She got a job at 17 and is the most hardworking person I've ever met, she is currently pretty senior in running a charity. I'm proud of her and think what she does is amazing, but the way my parents reacted to learning she didn't go to college was appalling. Literally the first question they asked when I started dating her was, "What's her college major?" followed by over-the-top horror that she "didn't even go to college!" They and several of my friends have asked numerous questions along the lines of, "But what do you even talk about?", even though they've met Kate and should be able to see she's a great conversationalist with a diverse range of interests.

My friends mock her interests, sneering when she mentions reality programs she likes or deriding her music tastes. They get annoyed when she doesn't follow them when they're talking about plainly elitist things—I have a historian friend who talked about his Latin translation work at length the last time we met up, speaking actual Latin, and acted like Kate was irritating for having no idea what he was talking about and not understanding him. Kate is smart, just not particularly academic. She doesn't always get what I mean when I try to explain my research, but she's always supportive and remembers the work projects that are important to me, even if she doesn't always understand what they involve. (Which is fine! My work is dense and tedious!) Kate has made an effort to get on with my friends, asking me questions about their work (which they talk about obsessively) beforehand so she can ask them about it. They make no such effort with her, forgetting what her job is and making dismissive comments about any news she shares, even news they would be excited for me to share, since it's not as if we exclusively discuss our research. For example, if I mention I'm excited about doing some Christmas shopping, they'll be enthusiastic and share their Christmas plans and chat, but if Kate says the same, there's just a dismissive comment about her "living to shop." They have also made some nasty comments suggesting that Kate and I are together because she's a gold-digger and I'm shallow (she's stunningly beautiful and I'm well-off from a rich family).

To be clear, I always shut down these comments when I hear them and leave events early when people insult Kate and our relationship. Sometimes they get better for a short while, but then this nonsense starts again. Now that I've announced my engagement, I've had exactly zero expressions of congratulations from my side of friends and family. (Kate's family, incidentally, are welcoming and lovely people, as are her friends.) Instead, I've been faced with questions about pre-nups and, "Are you SURE you can spend your whole life with someone who watches The Bachelor? You know she won't be hot forever, right?" Prudie, what should I do? Am I missing something, or do I actually need to cut ties with most of my friends and seriously limit time with family until they behave better? Any advice on managing this, both for my own sanity and for the sake of treating Kate better, would be so appreciated. She doesn't deserve this.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Finding someone who you love and are attracted to who feels the same about you and treats you well is not easy, and you’ve done it. So congrats! It’s really terrible that your friends and family haven’t said anything about you on your engagement. Unacceptable, even. You’re allowed to marry someone who isn’t as smart as you are, or isn’t as smart in the same ways as you. There are a lot of other qualities a person can have that can make you really happy—and I guarantee some of your friends and family are miserable in their marriages to brilliant partners. Even if you were marrying an actual monster, a basic message of congratulations would be in order, because it’s your choice and it makes you happy.

It sounds like you don’t really have to do much to cut ties. Anyone who is behaving this way has basically made the choice to cut you off. If they do try to make plans with you, that’s your chance to have a talk with them: “Are you going to be able to treat my fiancée with respect and refrain from talking about her behind her back? If not, we’ll pass.”

Q. Graverobber in name only:

I am a recently out transmasc nonbinary person (they/he). My given name is important to me (it's an uncommon Dutch name, and I was named after my grandmother), but it is obviously female-gendered, even in English, so it’s been uncomfortable to introduce myself since coming out. I've been struggling with finding a non-gendered short form of my given name for a few months. A few weeks ago, I came across a nickname I'd never heard before belonging to a girl from my college. I love it: it’s non-gendered, short, and plausibly derived from my given name.

Here’s the rub: I came across the name in her obituary. She died by suicide. I did not know her personally, but the school is small, and she was the daughter of two faculty members. All my professors are devastated.

Obviously, I am not going to demand people at school start calling me by this name right now. But many people I know are current/former students (college town), and the school sent an email to all students and alumni that included her name, so I can't fly under the radar in my personal life either. I also feel weird about taking a dead person’s (unique, likely longstanding, probably deeply personal) name. Nonetheless, I can’t stop thinking about it. I recently introduced myself using it at a concert, and I felt a mixture of gender euphoria and soul-crushing shame.

I'm stuck on this name. Should I start using it outside of school with people that did not know her, or try to let it go? If I do start using it, how do I get over the guilt and shame of stealing it? If someone in the wild calls me out on it, should I pretend I’ve had it forever, or explain that I'm a name thief? If I can't take this name, how do I introduce myself?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Give it a year. I say that not just because of what everyone else will think, but because you won't enjoy using the new name if it comes with that soul-crushing shame you mentioned. If you still love it at that point, go ahead. Something else you might consider—again, in part to clear your conscience and free yourself of anxiety about how people will react—is to run the plan by the young woman’s parents, explaining how much the name means to you and how important it is to you to avoid being disrespectful and avoid causing unnecessary pain as you take it on.

Q. Re: Not in with the family:

You don't know the family dynamics. I kept my now-husband away from my family for a long time because of my relationship with them and to protect him from their craziness and abusiveness.

Don't make this about you right now. Make a casserole that can be easily frozen and reheated and send it with your BF. Support him and his needs right now.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Yes, it’s totally possible that he’s trying to protect you from getting involved in craziness or abusiveness—or just the stress of this time when people probably aren’t at their best and can’t be “on” for someone who’s not quite a member of the family. And I completely agree that there are ways to support him without being directly involved with his mom’s care.

Q. Re: Hurt and betrayed:

Huh? He's meeting other women on dating/porn sites and he thinks it's your fault you got angry about it? I think you should contact a lawyer immediately; you say you don't want your family broken apart, but I think your husband cut himself loose a year and a half ago.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

“Your husband cut himself loose” is a perfect summary of this situation. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s completely beyond repair, but the change of heart and behavior would need to be on his end.

Q. Re: Stop calling her a bimbo:

A couple things:

1) Your family and friends are assholes.

2) The most important thing you can do is openly defend Kate when they're disparaging her. She may even tell you she doesn't want you to and will find it embarrassing, but she needs to know that you are loud and proud in your support for her, especially when she's feeling trod upon by said assholes.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Great advice.

Q. Re: Dreading Christmas:

How about a new Christmas tradition that just involves you and your sister? You know that you can make a kick-ass supper on your own.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Yes, start it this year and make it a thing!

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Thanks, everyone, for the questions and the replies. See you back here next week!