Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. (R. Eric Thomas is filling in as Prudie for Jenée Desmond-Harris while she’s on parental leave.)
Q. No karmic relief: I’m experiencing karma in action, and while I would have expected to feel smug, I don’t. The father of my children left when they were toddlers, and we would go years at a time without hearing from him, a problem exacerbated by alcohol. He occasionally paid small amounts of child support, but was frequently unemployed. Money was very tight and I had to ask my family for help, but both kids are now successfully launched in their early 20s.
I recently found out that their father was actually not unemployed: he was working under the table for a friend’s business to avoid wage garnishment. An IRS audit into tax issues turned up fraud and embezzlement and his special arrangement at the business, and he was involved enough to be charged alongside other upper-level people.
I don’t know how to tell my kids, and I don’t want them to find out from a random headline, especially because he apparently went to great lengths just to avoid financial contribution to their childhoods. I also don’t know how to feel: I mostly got by on the belief that he was a ****-up, and missing out on his children because he couldn’t keep it together, but now I know he was intentionally (and successfully) depriving them for years, and making my life really hard in the process. I should feel happy he’s getting “in trouble” after a lifetime of selfish behavior, but I just feel sad and angry. What do I do?
A: Revenge is often not sweet, and comeuppance can feel like it came too late. Your feelings here are valid; while the criminal justice system is dealing with your ex, it doesn’t change the pain you experienced. If anything, this process is probably bringing up old hurt and it sounds like you’re grieving what could have been had he not been a fraudster. So, feel how you feel, talk to a trusted friend or a therapist about it so that these feelings don’t just swirl around inside you. And consider telling your children the facts that they are likely to encounter in a headline as simple information, rather than a reframing of their childhood. They may put the pieces together that you all could have struggled less if he hadn’t been dishonest. But chances are, they’re already aware of his lack of contribution and its negative effect. It may make them feel worse to know that he could have contributed and didn’t, or it may not. The fact remains that he was absent, monetarily and physically, for much of their lives. They will have to go on their own journeys to deal with this, but you don’t have to carry the burden of hiding this part of the truth from them.
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Q. Please stop being so neighborly: I’ve spent most of my life living in the country without neighbors nearby and have recently moved into a very small sweet neighborhood in a small suburban village. I have amazing neighbors and love them all, but one couple is overly friendly and extremely nosy. I am sure they have no idea that I perceive them to be this way and I would not want to hurt their feelings.
However, my house is on the corner and gets a lot of traffic, bicycling, dog walkers, etc., and this couple walks their dog about 40 times a day (OK, this is an exaggeration). Because of the placement of my house, I have no privacy in my front yard, backyard, or side yard. And no matter what I am doing in any of those locations, they always have a question about where I’m going or what I am doing, and it’s driving me nuts and feels violating. They even drove past my old house to see where I lived before I moved to this neighborhood! How do I kindly do or say something to make it stop?
A: I was tempted to chalk this up to the odd over-familiarity of some suburbs, but the driving past your old house is a step too far. That’s weird behavior. Or, at the very least, it’s weird to tell you.
Unfortunately, setting boundaries in hyper-friendly environments often does result in bruised feelings or a sense that one is being rude. They have an understanding about what’s socially acceptable and so when you tell them it’s not, they’re probably going to find that discomfiting. But you should tell them, directly, when they ask you a question you don’t want to answer. It doesn’t have to be a huge moment but something like, “Oh, I’m not a very big sharer so I don’t want to talk about my plan for the day. Thanks for understanding!” might start to set a boundary. My guess is that they think of this as small talk and so might push back. But you don’t have to share any information you don’t want to share, up to and including what you’re having for lunch.
Q. Sidelined and ghosted: Prudie, I’ve tried so hard to build a relationship with my in-laws, but have been rejected. It feels like we don’t speak the same language. It came to a head when I was very sick for a few years; think hospitalizations, being off months from work, and neurological rehab. It was incredibly hard. His parents were absent. Through words and actions, they communicated that they thought I was overreacting and making up being sick. Our co-workers were more supportive than his family—they sent get-well cards, meals, and called to check in. This time was very difficult for us, and if his family weren’t there for me (hard but bearable), I thought they would at least be there for him. They weren’t. We developed an alternate support system, and built in time for ourselves every week to relax and do things we enjoy to counterbalance the stress and strain of chronic illness on our relationship. Additionally, his parents don’t seem to understand that the nature of our work in the public sector leads to long hours and working on weekends, in addition to pursuing graduate degrees (both of us at different times), running a small business (both of us) and volunteering in the community (me).
Now they are mad that we don’t visit at the drop of the hat, ignore my efforts to plan time together, and guilt-trip my husband for not “wanting to be with family.” They give us little advance notice when they want to get together—which ends up being when we have already made plans to do other things, and then they ghost when I try to suggest other times. As much as I want to say take a flying leap, they are my husband’s parents. I have encouraged him to talk to them in a loving and kind way, and to work to plan time together in advance. He set up time with them one-on-one to clear the air this weekend, and they made it a big family get-together (without me) and pushed a really hurtful guilt trip when my husband tried to set healthy boundaries. I hate to see my husband hurting so much, and I try to stay out of it as much as possible.
Do I need to be more active in correcting the tone of the relationship? Should I leave it to him and be supportive when they say hurtful things? What am I missing? It sucks to see so many people hurting but since his parents have excluded me, I feel like this is something he needs to handle.
A: I’m not sure there’s any more you can do to correct the tone of this relationship. Your in-laws’ behavior toward you is aggressively unwelcoming, for whatever reason, and they seem unwilling to acknowledge your husband’s needs. As unfair as it is, they’ve made their intentions clear.
I know your concern is how you can best support your husband, but much of the solution here is wrapped up in how he can support you and the relationship you have. You write that his attempts to set a healthy boundary were ignored. Adding that to the fact that his spouse was maligned and excluded makes me think that your husband may be chasing an unrealistic ending. I think there is an expectation of a sort of decorum that might not be reasonable. If his parents are going to be this recalcitrant, then the boundary he’s setting is too close and he needs to move it out. He needs to prioritize the two of you, your health, and your communication style. What does this mean for you? When you see him hurt once again, remind him that he doesn’t have to suffer and that guilt trips are not a love language but rather a tool of manipulation. Encourage him to put more space between himself and his parents, for your sake but also for his own.
Q. Keep it a secret: I recently found out I have to have minor surgery very soon and I don’t want to tell my folks, specifically my father and stepmother. She tends to “problem solve” in ways that cross boundaries and invalidate my feelings. Like many step-parents, we have a complex relationship that my dad has been complicit in since I was a child.
I know I can’t keep this a secret—there will be a visible scar in an obvious place, for starters—and I also know it’s the right thing to do. I guess my question is, do you have suggestions on how?
A: You don’t have to keep it a secret but you don’t have to tell them in advance. I say treat it like getting a tattoo when you have parents who are opposed to tattoos. It’s not going to do you any good to talk about it beforehand because you already know what they think. Your stepmother is going to want to offer an opinion and, as you’ve made clear, this isn’t something you want opinions about. So, wait until the ink is dry, as it were. Perhaps you want to use the scar as a way of introducing the idea, casually. And if they have any thoughts after the fact, remind them that what’s done is done and unless they have a time machine or a medical degree, talking about it anymore in any way is fruitless.
Q. Is this really cheating? My partner of 14 years and myself are dedicated dog parents. I know it sounds odd to animal haters, but we just love dogs—all sizes, shapes, colors, and genders!
The thing is, I like to socialize with dogs while out walking—I say “HI” to dogs I don’t know, I compliment people walking the dogs about how handsome their boys are, I even play with dogs at dog parks. My partner calls this cheating, and says I don’t care enough about our dogs, who do get upset when they can smell other dogs on my clothing. He’s insisting I stop socializing with other dogs beyond eye contact and a smile.
A: Ah, the age-old question of whether dogs feel jealousy. I’m sure there’s some kind of sophisticated study on this somewhere and you and your partner may want to seek it out to get some answers. I haven’t read it, so all I can offer is that your partner is putting limits on a relationship he’s not actually a part of. Your union with your dogs is between you and your dogs. Your dogs, as you’ve said, get upset when they smell other dogs on your clothing. If you don’t want to upset them, you may want to honor the information you’re getting from them. But I can’t fathom how your dogs would know that you called some Pomeranian handsome out in the streets. Your partner, I’m afraid, needs to mind his own business. This is between you and your dogs.
R. Eric Thomas: Thanks for all your questions and comments. See you next week. Be good to yourselves!
From Care and Feeding
Our 6-year-old’s birthday is on the horizon. Last year we held a combined party with another kid in her class and invited the entire pre-K and then some. The combined thing was great—half the price, half the planning, the birthday kids were as happy if not more so, and the attendees had one less party to schlep their kids to.
This year we have neither the budget nor the desire to do even that. What she and we would like is a princess party in our small NYC apartment with 10 girls, no parents, the highlight of which will be a drag queen princess leading the festivities. But alas! What about the 35 other kids?