Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Happy Monday and welcome to another holiday season live chat. I can’t wait to hear what’s going on with everyone. Let’s get started.
Q. The ultimate First World problem: My husband and I are both in high-earning, six-figure careers. He still, however, makes a significant amount more than I do. Each year for Christmas, he goes very lavish with gifts for me—and he also expects similarly priced gifts in return and I do not have the capacity to keep up with him (nor the desire, because I’d rather save the money or use it for experiences versus things). For example, last year he spent over $20K on gifts just for me—things like a diamond bracelet, high-end purses, shoes, coats, etc. And while these are all things I like, I did not ask for them. In return, he asked for things costing about $1,000 to $3,000 apiece (musical equipment for his hobbies)!
I’ve told him in no uncertain terms that I can’t keep up with his spending and that his love for lavish Christmases has actually made a holiday I once loved unenjoyable because I have to take a hard hit to my savings in order to keep up with his wish list. Not to mention he still expects me to purchase gifts for his family (parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews), while my family just does a Secret Santa so he only has to buy for one or two people on my side. It’s ridiculous. I’m not sure what to do anymore. I’ve stopped asking for anything for Christmas (which doesn’t help), I’ve told him to set realistic budgets, but at the end of the day, he ends up ignoring them anyway.
It’s very clear that his love language is giving and receiving gifts (which incidentally is also one of mine, but not to this extent), and I don’t want him to feel slighted on Christmas morning. I’ve even tried buying multiple lesser-priced items in hopes that the quantity of gifts would outweigh the quantity I spent. It’s to the point where I wish we could just skip Christmas (he said no to this) or that he should just spend the money buying himself the things he wants (he also said no to this). I’m all out of ideas and I don’t want to continue dreading the holiday! Help!
A: Buy him what you can afford. You’re both going to be unhappy with the outcome of this exchange regardless, but unless you can get on the same page (which I’m not super optimistic about because he seems extremely set in his ways, demanding, and inconsiderate of you), you don’t want to also be broke. Your best hope is to reset his expectations by giving him a gift that’s in your budget for several years in a row.
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Q. Reject wedding: My sister and I were never close to our stepsister “Anne” since our parents met and got married in our teenage years.
When my sister got engaged, our parents promised to pay for the wedding. Then Anne imploded her life—she was arrested for assault (she broke a beer bottle over her ex’s head because he was flirting with another girl) and later grand larceny (stealing cash from her employer). Our parents paid out of pocket more than $40,000 to keep Anne out of prison. They couldn’t afford anything else. My sister was devastated about her wedding. I had just gotten a huge raise at work, so I stepped in and overall the wedding was a huge success.
That was seven years ago. Anne has since finished her probation and has a 5-year-old son who my mother dotes on. Again, my sister and I are not close to Anne, and only have spent a few holidays in the same company even now. Anne called me out of the blue and announced she was engaged. I told her congratulations. The conversation turned awkward and I finally asked what Anne wanted. She told me she needs to know how much money I was going to give her for her wedding budget. Our parents are semi-retired and told her they can’t afford anything. Anne figured I paid for one sister, so naturally I would pay for the other.
I got irritated and told Anne it was pretty convenient she wants to play with a big happy family now that she needs my money, and I reminded her exactly why I had to pay for my sister’s wedding. Anne hung up on me. The next day, I get a call from my mother’s husband lecturing me about “shaming” his daughter. Anne went running full-tilt to her father, crying how this was proof she was never really loved and accepted by our family and started pulling up receipts like she wasn’t invited to my sister’s wedding (she was on probation and couldn’t leave the city) and we have never given her a gift even as a child (and she did the same to us growing up). I told him it was obvious Anne didn’t have an ounce of shame and she wasn’t getting a penny out of me.
This all happened two months ago. I skipped Thanksgiving in order to give the situation a chance to cool down, but Anne escalated. She told our parents she doesn’t want me to be around her or her son. If I come to Christmas, she is leaving. My mother protested and Anne wouldn’t let her see her son for over two weeks. She told her son to stop calling my mother “Grandma.”
My mother is heartbroken. Her husband blames me. My sister and her husband blame Anne and are considering boycotting Christmas in protest. I just have no clue what to do.
A: I feel for Anne, who has obviously had a tough time in life, but she’s not your problem. And honestly, even if you were to pay for her wedding or try to smooth things over, she’d find another reason to be volatile and to use her son as a weapon against your mom. You and your sister should go to Christmas, enjoy each other’s company, and show your mom a good time. What Anne does is up to her.
Q. Dirty apartment: I’m dating a guy from a long distance and I stayed at his apartment for the first time this weekend. In the past, he’s come up here for work or to visit friends. The one time I had been in his apartment prior to this weekend was before we were dating and I just stayed there for a drink before we went out with some friends. I didn’t really notice his apartment then.
Frankly, I don’t know why anybody would pay for this place. It’s a basement apartment and is pretty grungy. He’s made comments about how terrible the owner is and it shows—paint is peeling, there’s rust everywhere, and possibly mold. The thing is, for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be much easier for me to come down there. I have roommates, and the way the apartment is set up gives us very little privacy. Neither of us can afford to regularly stay in hotels and I know he was really excited about me staying with him.
I just don’t know what to do because I feel like his apartment is just so dirty. Frankly, I don’t understand why he doesn’t feel that way because he’s such a germaphobe. He’s also chosen to live in that area because of the bars, but he isn’t going out because of the pandemic. He’s paying so much money for such a crappy apartment. Am I within my rights to talk to him about moving? I know that seems drastic, but his lease is up in a few months and I just don’t understand why he’s staying there. I don’t think I can take many more weekends staying in a place like that.
A: Moving is a pretty big hassle, actually a huge hassle. Especially if you’re already fine living where you are and are making the move at the request of someone who is there four nights a month. So if I were you, I wouldn’t count on getting great results out of this conversation. But it’s worth a try!
If he says no, this might be a moment to think about the fact that he makes financial and lifestyle decisions that don’t make any sense to you, and what that might mean for your compatibility as a couple.
Q. Line, please! How can I tell my mom I want nothing to do with one of her brothers? My mom’s family likes to get together for dinner semiregularly now that everyone’s vaccinated and gotten booster shots. My wife and I are always invited. But the problem is one of her brothers and his wife. Her brother is a really dumb pile of sentient mayonnaise who is an anesthesiologist (his job regularly involves putting people, including COVID patients, on ventilators) who also managed to become an anti-masker (he actually said once that mask-wearing is “all for show”) and finds it funny when his friends casually incorporate blackface into Halloween costumes. His wife is a pile of even dumber (and perhaps only partially sentient) mayonnaise who doesn’t believe in white privilege and is convinced there’s absolutely no way nonwhite people are ever treated differently by the institutions of our society because she’s never seen it happen.
Suffice it to say, neither my wife nor I want to be anywhere near these cretins. My mother, being the one who usually organizes these gatherings, is the one who always invites us, and my list of excuses is running low. I can’t ask if those two relatives are going to be there every time because it will become obvious that we’re avoiding them. And if I tell her why we’re not willing to spend time with them, she’ll just say that we need to not say anything having to do with those sorts of topics (despite the fact that they’re the ones who bring them up) or just not respond if they say anything.
Do I just need to constantly replenish my list of excuses for not attending? Or is there a better script (I know, I probably shouldn’t call her brother a really dumb pile of sentient mayonnaise to her face) I can use?
A: You are already on the right track by deleting “sentient mayonnaise” from your script! Good instincts. You want to focus not on their value (or lack of value) as humans or their intelligence (or lack of intelligence), but rather on how you feel as a result of the things they do and say. “Mom, we’d rather not share our time with [sentient mayonnaise brother’s name and his wife’s name]. We know you love him and we respect that. But we want to enjoy our time with you, and that’s impossible when we’re preoccupied with his social and political commentary or anticipating that another remark is coming. So please invite us over separately. I think everyone will enjoy themselves more.”
Q. Re: The ultimate First World problem: You have bigger problems than Christmas gift-giving. Your husband is completely ignoring what you’re telling him and steamrolling over you. You both need a marriage counselor, but I’m sure he’d refuse to attend. You need to go yourself. This might just be the year you need to put your foot down and declare you aren’t buying any presents for anyone this Christmas, including him. If he doesn’t like it, tough toenails.
A: Agreed. And yeah, I think I didn’t suggest counseling because this guy sounds so unreasonable I can’t imagine him agreeing to go or getting any value out of it.
My 18-year-old daughter is in her first year at an Ivy League university (we are paying for it). She only calls when she needs something or wants me to do something for her. I try to text her a few times a week, saying “How’s it going?” or something funny, or send an emoji. I call her about once a week to say hi for five to 10 minutes. She complains to her older sister that I call her “all the time” and I text her “when she’s in class” (I don’t know her schedule, and why is her phone on in class?). I don’t expect replies from her. I’m so hurt by her attitude that I feel like not contacting her at all until we see her at Christmas (last time I saw her was September when I dropped her off) and certainly don’t feel moved to buy her presents. I know I shouldn’t “punish” her by giving her the cold shoulder for not wanting to talk to me, but I just don’t know how to handle it and be the parent in this situation.