Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Welcome back, friends. Thanks for joining me for another chat. What’s going on this week?
Q. You’re perfect, let’s fix the dress: Before I even get into this, I want to be clear that I adore my fiancée “Leah” and am always attracted to her.
She has a history of restrictive eating and compulsive exercise, over which she’s been doing some incredible recovery work. She has a high-pressure, low-pay nonprofit executive job, and in the last year she had a bad COVID bout that resulted in major changes in her physical ability and some minor weight gain.
We are getting married in a little more than a month. Almost a year ago, Leah got fitted for a designer wedding dress she adored (she showed it to me, we’re not really “first look” people, and it really was stunning). It finally arrived recently, but when we tried it on at home, it barely zipped up. This was a surprise to me because I thought boutiques ordered dresses large for tailoring, but it turns out they ordered it in her exact measurements at the time and she signed off on that.
Understandably because of her history, this triggered a really powerful, painful reaction that took almost a day to pass. I tried to just be present and supportive, but I did let my instinct to give unsolicited advice slip out: I Googled and found that we could get the dress let out for a couple hundred dollars. She burst into tears and told me not to say that.
Eventually Leah started saying this was actually a blessing in disguise, because she felt her low activity level and the food she’s been eating at work had been making her feel depressed, and the weight gain was a side effect of that. She said her plan was to start doing daily low-impact exercise and eating better when she’s out of the house. She put the dress in a closet and hasn’t looked at it.
She has made none of these changes. Which is reasonable and maybe even expected, because she works long, difficult hours and is still struggling with long-haul COVID. When she gets home, I try to cook healthy and invite her for walks/runs, etc., but she is usually too tired. Her weight hasn’t changed, as far as I can tell.
I guess my question is, can I bring up getting the dress altered, or just … secretly take it for alteration myself? Or is there a way to bring up the lifestyle stuff Leah suggested without triggering her? I am really worried that if we wait too long, it’ll be too late and she’ll have to have another painful reckoning with the fact that her body has changed a little (which, again, is fine and natural, and she is still super hot), and maybe she won’t even be able to wear this dress that we spent a lot of money on. I just want her to feel great at our wedding.
A: “I was trying to lose weight before the wedding, but my fiancé stole my dress and secretly had it let out because he didn’t believe I was working hard enough” is a letter I can imagine receiving. And you wouldn’t look great in that narrative, even though I know you mean very well. “My fiancé is monitoring my exercise because my wedding dress is a little tight” is another story you don’t want to be a part of. So while you’re coming from a place of love and concern and also being very practical about the fact that something—either the dress or your fiancée’s body—is going to have to change over the next month, you have to stop yourself from stepping in to take control of the situation. Your sneaking around to fix it or being pushy with her would set a terrible precedent. She needs to be the one to take responsibility for whether she feels great at her wedding. Maybe that means a last-minute, more expensive alteration. Or (hopefully not) a one-week crash diet. But the bottom line is it’s her issue to deal with, and you don’t want to start off your marriage by showing that you don’t trust her to figure things out herself.
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Q. Confused and empty: I had an affair a few months ago, but it didn’t last very long before my partner found out. They wanted to work through it with therapy and a lot of emotional work on our relationship. I was so shocked by the fact that they wanted to stay, and also so overwhelmed by how much the affair hurt them, that I stayed and agreed to work on the relationship. I obviously wasn’t happy if I had an affair, but I thought maybe we could get back on track.
My partner is doing everything I asked for, but I still feel trapped. I took this extreme action to cause extreme action, but now everything they do to make the relationship feel better makes me feel smothered. When I think about staying, I start to have a panic attack; when I think about leaving, I start to have a panic attack. My individual therapist and couples therapist both tell us this could take a year or more to work through.
I’m having such a hard time being honest with my partner because I feel like I’m the one who caused this. Our marriage otherwise looked enviable from the outside and all of this work on our emotional intimacy is supposed to be helping me feel connected and better about our life together, but I just feel empty inside all the time.
I don’t even know what to say to the therapists anymore and my partner thinks that things are improving. I feel like I’m stuck in a shell of the person I want to be. How do I get out? How do I know if out is even what I want?
A: Therapy isn’t something you should be doing as penance for having an affair—it’s something you should be doing to figure out how and if to make this relationship work. So you have to be honest. If you’re not saying “I just feel empty inside all the time,” “I feel like I’m stuck in the shell of the person I want to be,” or “I don’t know if out is what I want” in your couple’s sessions and pushing back on your partner’s assessment that things are improving, you’re wasting both of your time and potentially hurting them even more. If you tell the truth about how you’re feeling, you might not have to be the one to make the difficult decision about whether to stay together.
Q. Birdbrained: A pigeon couple has recently started visiting our balcony. They are very friendly: eating out of my hand, perching on my shoulders—acting like pets. My girlfriend is disgusted and terrified of them, convinced that they’ll swarm her if she steps out, so now she doesn’t use our balcony at all. I want to acclimate her to the pigeons so they’ll learn to ignore her, but she refuses. Should I press my case? Watch her avoid the balcony for the rest of her life? Start being mean to the pigeons so they’ll leave? None of these options seem very kind.
A: Don’t be mean to the pigeons, and don’t be mean to your girlfriend by forcing her to make friends with birds that terrify her! A good compromise here would simply be to stop feeding them. Rest assured that they will find snacks elsewhere.
Q. Just need perspective: I’m a gay man. I’ve been interested in “Vince” for many years. He’s kind, introspective, great at listening, very intelligent, and empathetic. He goes out of his way to help others, sometimes to his own detriment.
Vince has admitted to being attracted to me, but keeps putting me off because his life is, in his own words, a mess. He’s had a difficult life, experiencing homelessness and poverty after leaving an abusive home. After graduation, he went from being overworked and underpaid at a nonprofit to running himself ragged at an academic job that treated him badly. He was abusing prescription drugs to keep up with the workload. He had a brief stint with a physically abusive boyfriend.
Vince lost this job during the pandemic and was again homeless, until I learned through a friend he’d gotten sick and was staying with his abusive ex. I insisted he stay with me for a while, no strings attached. He admitted he hadn’t wanted to take advantage of my feelings, but accepted and was able to find a better-paying job in a similar field, and soon moved into a nice studio nearby.
It’s been a year and Vince implied that he’s finally in a place for a relationship. I really want to just go for it, but I’m worried that some of his choices point to a pattern of self-destructive behavior that could be painful to watch. At the same time, I remember what my late 20s were like with just a fraction of the challenges. He’s now 31, I’m almost 40, and though I’ve seen other men from time to time, he’s the one who’s always fascinated me. Vince has been there for me when I needed it, sometimes when no one else was.
Especially considering the difference in our backgrounds, how can I talk to him about this without making it sound like I’m blaming the victim? The other question is, am I blaming the victim?
A: The question you should be asking yourself shouldn’t be whether you’re blaming the victim or how you can talk to him about his destructive choices. It should be whether you like and respect Vince—whether you have enough regard for him and the way he lives his life that you’ll enjoy being in a relationship with him and treat him as an equal. In my view, much of what’s happened to him isn’t his fault. But it doesn’t matter what I think. If you see him (and treat him) as someone who makes self-destructive choices that are hard to watch, if you’re judging him or even pitying him, or if you enter the relationship expecting a huge shift from the patterns you’ve seen over many years, that will poison your connection and neither of you will be happy.
When it comes to committing to someone, I tend to think “maybe” means “no,” and right now, because of his past, you’re feeling very “maybe.” It does sound like he’s doing a lot better these days. So why don’t you stay friends (which you don’t have to explain to him—after all, he’s only implied that he’s in a place for a relationship, he hasn’t actually asked you to be his boyfriend) and if, at some point in the future, you see him as someone who would definitely be a positive addition to your life, propose something more serious then.
Q. Re: You’re perfect, let’s fix the dress: It seems to me it’s appropriate to talk to Leah a little closer to the wedding (once) about doing the alterations. Yes, it will trigger a reaction. But that reaction might be a better course than getting close to the wedding and triggering the reaction AND (expensive) emergency tailoring on top of wedding stress. But don’t bring it up more than once more. Once that’s done, it’s on Leah to alter either herself or the dress, and if she doesn’t do it, then let her deal with the consequences.
A: I lean toward not saying anything but I can see the argument for one conversation. Only one!
Q. Re: Confused and empty: Give your therapist a heads-up that the process isn’t working and you want out. By the way, you DO WANT OUT: You sabotaged your relationship, and being given a chance to rebuild it makes you feel trapped. Your therapist might be able to support your (ex-)partner through the transition. It’s kinder to your partner to break it off now than to keep building their hopes.
A: I agree. This person seems pretty completely checked out, and they would be doing their partner a favor by cutting them loose and letting them find someone who’s a better fit.
Q. Re: Birdbrained: Trust me, you DO NOT want the pigeons to get acclimated to your balcony. They will find a place to build a nest, and will peck you to death if you come near it—i.e., use your balcony—until the babies have fledged. Your girlfriend is right. These are not goldfinches or nuthatches. Pigeons are extremely territorial.
A: Well, getting pecked to death sounds like a nightmare! I’ll defer to pigeon experts here.
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I am getting married in March and I was fortunate to have my mother (who lives out of state), maid of honor, and future mother-in-law accompany me to my wedding dress shopping. When I narrowed down the choice to the final two, my guests all agreed that one option was better than the other and I decided to go with their vote. Now, I regret not getting the other dress. When I look at the pictures they took of me wearing the dress I bought, I feel almost physically ill. But the dress is not refundable or returnable and it would be a huge blow to our budget to buy a second dress (at a rush no less) and what would I do with the first one? I’ve been having sleepless nights thinking about how unhappy I am going to be when I look at myself in the mirror on my wedding day and look at the pictures later. I can’t stop thinking that all my guests are going to be whispering behind my back about how dated and frumpy I’ll look. Other than this issue, my wedding planning has been fine so I don’t think I’m being a bridezilla. What should I do?