Dear Prudence

Dear Prudence Live Chat

For Jan. 18, 2022.

Update, Jan. 18, at 1:40 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

Thanks for joining me for this week’s chat. What’s on your mind?

Q. My chemical not-so romance:

Can you develop chemistry? I've been dating a guy for several months now. At first, it was just periodically because we were so busy, but it's gotten more serious. We also went out in a lot of groups or did a lot of activities in the beginning.

I've realized there's just no chemistry. Conversations are a big deal to me, I don't think they are to him, and ours seem pretty forced and a bit boring. Out of all the relationships I've ever had, romantic or not, I feel like I've never had anywhere near this little chemistry.

The thing is, I feel comfortable with him and he treats me really well. I feel like I can let go and not worry too much about being too weird with him. I'm starting to really wonder what chemistry is. I felt attracted to him and happy to be around him when we first started dating, but now I just feel comfortable. Is that normal?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

I think the question should not be whether this is “normal” (a lot of unpleasant things, including stuff you wouldn’t want for yourself, like a long but fairly miserable marriage are “normal”), but whether it’s what you want. And this is one of those situations in which the fact that you decided to write to an advice columnist about it says a lot: It’s probably not.

Now, if you wrote to me saying were worried that your sister or friend was in a relationship with a guy whom she found kind of boring, I would tell you to mind your own business, because she’s made a choice to prioritize comfort and being treated well and it works for her, and plenty of people have low-chemistry relationships that make them happy. But this is about you, and it’s obviously nagging at you and keeping you from enjoying the relationship as much as you could. Maybe you’re a person who needs more passion and excitement to be happy in a serious relationship. Or maybe you just don’t feel like being in a relationship that’s past the high-chemistry stage and more settled and comfortable right now, even though you might in the future. But the reality is, relationships are supposed to make you happier and it seems like the forced, boring nature of this one is keeping that from happening. It’s not a fit right now and that’s okay. When it’s right, you’ll know and you won’t have to ask what’s “normal.”

Q. Pulling off the Band-Aid:

My husband and I have known each other since junior high. We married at 21, lived around the world, have four great kids, and have been successful in careers, entrepreneurial businesses, and education with three Ivy-League degrees and an MIT Ph.D. between us. In our small hometown, my husband was brilliant and curious, but also considered weird by our friends, teachers, and families, who are salt-of-the-earth types who can't imagine why anyone would want to leave our small town.

Once we got out, we found people, programs, friends, and employers who really understood and appreciated his brilliance. Through our 25 years together, his family at first just disagreed with our life choices around college and travel. Now, his dad especially will downplay our successes, question our decisions, and undercut our dreams, to the point where we feel not just disapproval but outright disrespect. Everything from our cars to our pets to our jobs are on the bad list. He always wants to talk about politics, religion, and money, and we align on none of those things. We still see them multiple times each year and try to maintain relationships in the interest of their siblings and all the grandkids.

Next year, they want us to attend a get-together, and we agreed. However, due to life being life, the event will coincide with a lot of big-deal decisions for us that they will inevitably criticize: colleges, investments, jobs, travel, etc. It will be a critical time when we need a lot of support, and I want to cancel attending the event because I know his family will make him sad and angry. I want to tell my husband's mom exactly why we're canceling, but we could also just cancel without explanation, or we could attend with nothing said. After years of this, I feel I could let this all go, or finally draw a line.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

It sounds like you and your husband are doing really well for yourselves and really like your lives. For some reason, the fact that your in-laws are punching up instead of down, critiquing people who have more education, experiences, and financial success than they do—in ways that seem pretty clearly inspired by jealousy—makes this less offensive to me than it would be if they were berating you for being less wealthy or not as educated as them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really rude and not okay for them to criticize you and your husband. But they have no power over you, and they’re not digging in about things that seem to make you insecure or are emotionally charged for you, so I don’t feel like you’re particularly vulnerable in this situation.

With that in mind, is there a way that you can get through this one event with a combination of mentally putting their inappropriate remarks in perspective, giving them much less information about the details of your life, firmly telling them that you don’t appreciate their insults, and coming up with enough other topics to discuss? Or perhaps you could give them one very clear warning before you see them: “If you criticize our cars, pets, jobs, or any of our other life choices, this will be the last time we get together.” After all, you haven’t said whether you have ever let them know how much their behavior bothers you. I think they deserve to be put on notice. But if you really and truly feel that seeing them would make you both miserable, you get to decide what’s best for you and cancel.

But you and your husband need to be on the same page, so I would just suggest that you check in with him to make sure you understand how he feels and how it would impact him to cut off his parents completely. As much as their remarks hurt him, that’s a big decision and you don’t want your efforts to protect him from criticism to lead to another kind of pain.

Q. Fed up with body comments:

Second-time, sleep-deprived new mom here. About a month ago, I burned part of my body on a too-hot water bottle in bed that caused a painful two-inch blister and now scab. Recently, embarrassingly, I picked at the scab (bad habit dating back to childhood) and needed to rebandage it. My mother-in-law, a former nurse, saw the bandage and asked what happened. I said, oh, that happened a while ago and changed the subject. Today, she saw the uncovered injury and again asked what happened. I said, oh nothing, I burned it. And she started talking triumphantly about how she KNEW it was a burn because of her years as a wound care nurse. I grumpily said, I don’t want to talk about it. I was embarrassed that I had reinsured it and also that I hadn’t covered it with clothing (after the previous comment) but she had shown up at our door that morning unannounced. After she left, my husband was angry with me for speaking to her so “gruffly.” He didn’t agree with me that she had no business commenting on my body. What the hell? I lost my temper and yelled that just because you were once a nurse doesn’t give you the right to make observations about other people’s bodies. This after a few days of my father-in-law joking that our baby girl was gaining too much weight and getting too heavy with every ounce of formula we fed her.

Am I right to think they should both lay off commenting on female bodies?! (Anybody!) I wish I had calmly said to her, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t comment on my body.” I also wish I had calmly shared my feelings with my husband rather than yell. I don’t really want to talk to her about it—I’m hoping she got the hint even though I didn’t handle it ideally. But what can I do about this fight with my husband? For what it’s worth, he is also sleep-deprived and definitely pulls his weight with the kids and the household, so that’s not an issue.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

I see these two kinds of body comments as very different and think your anger at your mother-in-law was misdirected, and that your father-in-law is weird, gross, and inappropriate for joking about your infant daughter gaining too much weight (and I think that would be the case regardless of her gender). But it’s not generally considered to be out of bounds to check on a loved one who is visibly wounded and bandaged. If you don’t want anyone to say anything about your body—if no questions or concerns are welcome even if you show up with crutches or a neck brace—you need to make that clear in advance, because it’s a bit unusual. So do that, whenever you feel up to it.

In the meantime, tell your husband you wish you’d shared your feelings rather than yelling. And just as important, tell him that this is a hard time, and you need more support—and possibly even a check-in with your doctor about postpartum depression, just to be on the safe side—as a new mom. I hear you when you say he pulls his weight, but if you are injuring yourself, feeling shame about it, re-injuring yourself, and breaking down over relatively harmless comments—it could be a sign that sleep deprivation and hormonal changes are taking a bigger toll on you than you realize. And whether your mood is hormone-related or not, I can’t imagine you enjoy feeling undone over a stray mother-in-law remark. That’s no way to live and having some tactics to navigate conflicts like this could make your life happier.

Q. An insecure hopeless romantic:

So I’ve matched with this guy on a dating app. We exchanged a few messages back and forth and the conversation was great. I was the last one to message him and I haven’t heard back. It’s been two weeks. I think he’s really cute and I want to get to know him. Do I ask him out now or just move on with my life?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

You have nothing to lose, so go ahead and ask him out. But do it with very low expectations. If you haven’t heard back, it’s probably for a reason—either a lack of interest on his part, or another relationship. Remember that we have no idea what other people have going on, so if this doesn’t work out, be ready to move on to the next match without taking it too personally.

Q. Cut off:

My two sons, aged 40 and 45, had a terrible falling-out over a business they were in together. As a result, the younger son has pulled away from the entire family; he has three children and he won't let me see them or answer any of my calls or texts. It has been almost two years and it is driving me into a deep depression. I have tried to reach out but neither my son nor his wife will answer my calls.

We were a very close family and this is devastating. My son did tell me he is working on himself and he has to do it alone. I'm not sure what that means. I feel I should be able to fix this but I am not able to. This is just the tip of the iceberg; they are also in a huge court battle. I have talked to a few counselors but no one seems to have any real advice, just to give him space and time. The problem I'm having is not seeing my beautiful grandchildren. I took care of them since they were born and now I am just completely cut off.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

This is really devastating, and I can’t imagine how hard it is to lose contact with your grandchildren. But it sounds like you’ve done everything you can and need to move past trying to change minds to focus on acceptance. I hope the situation isn’t permanent, but at this moment, it probably feels a lot like death. So, when you talk to counselors about it, be open to getting help with the grieving process and managing your feelings of loss rather than seeking “real advice” to change the situation. Unfortunately I don’t think that exists. I know it won’t be the same, but maybe you could seek out opportunities to spend time with other children—maybe volunteering or tutoring—to try to fill the gap in your life until things get better.

Q. Stuck with mom:

Where do I begin? About four years ago, I made the mistake of buying a large home with my mother; I also have a school-aged child and am married. My mom helped with a large down payment; the agreement was the house is mine and in my name (I pay all bills and mortgage), and she pitches in with my child care and pays a small amount monthly toward shared expenses, but essentially lives rent-free through her golden years.

However, living with her has been challenging at best and is threatening my marriage at worst. You can't disagree with her on anything, otherwise she gets mad and will make life miserable until she decides she is over it, even if she is wrong (she will literally have temper tantrums and engage in the silent treatment for days or even weeks). She expects me to pay for everything above and beyond what was originally agreed upon, and uses my house as a drop-in laundromat and soup kitchen for family members, also on my dime (even though we agreed early on that could not happen). Any ask I have (e.g. don't do laundry during peak electricity times) she ignores and essentially dares me to call her on it (see aforementioned temper tantrums, etc.). I have no idea what to do. On a positive note, she can be quite helpful (cooking and dishes are her thing), but the bad seems to outweigh the good. Help???

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Well, I hate to say it, but dealing with your annoying and unreasonable mother day-to-day seems like the reasonable and predictable consequence of accepting a down payment, money for expenses, child care, and help around the house from your annoying and unreasonable mother. In other words, you got a pretty good deal here, and her personality and lifestyle choices are part of it. The alternative, I assume, would be renting and its accompanying stresses, having no help with child care, and still looking out for your mother’s well-being as she aged in her own place, which would all be hard in a different way.

That doesn’t mean this situation can’t improve in significant ways. How about seeking a family therapist to help navigate your different lifestyle choices and your mom’s emotionally immature reactions to conflict? You might even use this third party to help come up with some house rules that you can both agree to live by. But I think the most important thing is going to be coming to terms with the fact that your living arrangement is going to involve some compromise, and you’re simply not going to get to enjoy the financial windfall and help from another adult without putting up with some behaviors that you otherwise wouldn’t.

Q. Disappearing act:

I am a 14-year-old, 5’5, 100-pound girl. I eat three meals a day, plus snacks, and eat until I am full, and yet have barely gained any weight for three years. I have struggled with weight for my whole life, going from a very underweight child to a mildly overweight tween, and I finally feel healthy and happy in my body. Yes, I am underweight, but I don’t see the issue (everybody is different).

Until recently that is, when my family approached me with an “intervention,” telling me that they believe I have an eating disorder. Prudie, I am underweight and skinny for my age, but I am also extremely small-boned and run a mile every day. How can I handle this? I don’t believe I have an eating disorder, but they constantly say I’m getting too skinny and that I’m “disappearing” on them. Eating disorders do run in the family, but only because of pressure to be skinny, while I believe that anybody is fine as long as you are happy and healthy. What should I do? I can’t deal with these constant comments.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Why don’t you suggest to your parents that, as a first step, you put aside the question of whether you have an eating disorder and investigate whether there’s anything physical going on with you that needs attention. Go to your family doctor together and explain that you haven’t gained any weight for a year and want to look into whether there may be an underlying medical issue. If all of the numbers other than the one on the scale look good, that should bring some comfort to your family and strengthen your case that you’re just fine.

You could even agree to see a therapist or counselor too. This might satisfy your parents’ demand for addressing what they see as an issue, while giving you support around feeling misunderstood and attacked. When you go, be honest—especially about topics like why you feel you need to run a mile every day. And keep an open mind about the possibility that there may really be a few things about your relationship with food and exercise that aren’t as healthy as they could be. Considering your family history, this wouldn’t be shocking—and keep in mind that there is a lot of room between “normal relationship to your body” and “eating disorder.'' So even if you don’t have a serious problem now, perhaps there are some techniques that could keep you from going down the disordered eating path and make you feel even better about yourself. Either way, it might be a good opportunity to start to be proactive about caring for your mental health and learn how to navigate challenging relationships.

Q. Not a gift grab:

I may be overthinking this, but recent debates over how destination weddings are perceived have caused me to question our christening plans. My husband and I are expecting a second child in very early February. We plan to have the christening ceremony and reception in early April, as his parents will be here from Australia and that is honestly the best time to have both sets of grandparents available to attend. For our first child, we were living in San Francisco and invited our families and close friends who lived in the area. We still keep in touch with those close friends but now we live in Los Angeles.

Is it okay to still invite them to the second christening, knowing if they attend that they would have to travel? I do not want it to seem like a gift grab. Family across the country and abroad will still be invited even though we do not expect them to attend (as I believe it would seem more rude to exclude them and not give them the option, plus our extended families have always invited relatives to milestone-type events like weddings, other christenings, etc., even though we are all spread out). I am worried doing a birth announcement instead would come across as not valuing our friends if they were to learn we had a christening and had not invited them. Also per paranoia/reality, we do not plan to send invites until after her birth obviously, so it will be a short-notice invite for everyone, but again that is the only time we can have both sets of grandparents together.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

You know the traditions and expectations of your social circle best, but I personally can’t imagine anyone feeling snubbed by not receiving an invitation to an out-of-town christening for a friend’s child. In fact, I can’t think of a time I’ve heard of someone traveling for a christening for a baby that is not their close relative or godchild. But again, you know your people and what’s normal in your community. So if your gut and your experience are telling you that invitations are expected, send them with a simple “please, no gifts” on the invitation to ease your mind.

Q. Yes, we really are mad at you and not telling you:

My husband's mom recently and unilaterally divorced his dad, and it's not amicable. Dad-In-Law has talked things through with us and told us his story while trying to badmouth his ex as little as possible, and he was very worried about his son. Mom-In-Law, though, has been railing against her ex as much as she can, alienating my husband and me, who don't want to listen to her ranting and crowing about how happy she is now that her ex is gone. My husband has decided not to talk to her except on holidays and such, and he just ignores it all. I'm more angry than he is; I had considered his family better than the one I grew up with and gotten very close to them, and I'm quietly burned that his mom threw it all in the trash. That said, her marital life isn't my business, and I've kept quiet.

Recently, she asked me why her son doesn't call her more, and if it's because of the divorce, and if he's mad at her. I don't feel right telling her that yes, this is why we don't talk to her more, but her son sure isn't going to say anything, and I feel guilty leaving her in the dark and not telling her how she could fix this if she tried to. I was very close to her, so it's not like she's overreaching by calling me on the phone. What do I tell her?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Ask your husband if he’s willing to do you the favor of having an honest conversation with his mom, so that you’re not in an awkward position and so that you might have a chance of repairing a relationship that meant a lot to you. If he really doesn’t want to, it's his mom and you have to respect that. But if he agrees, you can say: “You asked about why [Husband] doesn’t call you anymore and whether it’s because of the divorce. I don’t feel comfortable answering that question for him, but I do think you should ask him about it because I would love to see your relationship improve so we can have you in our lives more. Why don’t you write him an email or give him a call?”

Q. Re: Stuck with mom:

Short term, I'd go into either individual or family therapy (preferably both) to work out some ground rules regarding her tantrums and behavior. What she's doing is unacceptable. Longer term, I would try to figure out how to pay for day care and either refinance the home or sell it and get two smaller ones, one for you and one for her. Your mistake was in not having a formal, written agreement with her. I know that sounds like a lawyer's response (guilty as charged), but unless your expectations and obligations are clearly spelled out, this is often what happens.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

This sounds like a good plan, if it works out financially. The only thing that makes me hesitate is that as the mother gets older and needs more care, her living independently might prove to be even more stressful than having her under the letter writer’s roof. I would hate to see this person have to drive across town every day to deal with many of the same behaviors that are bothering her now. But maybe there are options like an assisted living facility or hiring help when it gets to that point.

Q. Re: Cut off:

LW, you are going to counselors asking how you fix your sons and get to see your grandchildren again. You need to stop doing that. You need to go to a counselor and ask for help for YOU to let them make their own choices, and be their own people and for YOU to process that you have been cut off (likely for a reason). FIX YOU.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

I want to give LW the benefit of the doubt, so I don’t assume that she’s been cut off for a reason. But your advice still works. She has to focus on herself and how to cope—and give up on the thankless work of trying to change others—if she’s going to get through this.

Q. Re: Pulling off the Band-Aid:

Why does your husband's family know so much about what's going on in your lives? I suggest you limit conversation to prosaic things, like gardening, weather, stuff like that. There is no need to tell them about colleges, investments, travel—all the things they criticize. Maintain a polite, icy distance with them. This will be a valuable lesson for your kids too.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Great point. I also vote for giving them much less information.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Thanks, everyone. That’s all for today! Talk to you on Monday.