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Dear Prudence Live Chat

For June 27, 2022.

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R. Eric Thomas

Hi everyone! I hope that this week you're able to connect with systems, organizations, and leaders who support you, affirm you, and are active participants in fighting for the world we want to live in. What's on your minds today?

Q. Not a Blended Family:

My father’s wife, “Sandra,” is turning 80 this year. She and my father, “Louis,” got married in the mid-90s, while I was in high school. I’ve met Sandra perhaps a dozen times total, as she and my father live on the other side of the country. Sandra’s daughter is organizing video tributes for Sandra’s birthday, and included me on the list of people she wanted a clip from. The thing is, I have no sentiment to share. The handful of conversations I’ve had with Sandra, or her kids, have been polite small talk. My younger sisters and their families are much closer to Louis and Sandra. They, along with Sandra’s children, and her other family members, will likely submit truly heartfelt messages. If I can barely muster a platitude, should I even bother, or is a polite declination in order?

R. Eric Thomas

While politely declining would relieve you of stress in the short term, I fear it will cause more issues down the line. You’d probably be conspicuous by your absence in the video, which would invite others in your family to come up with their own reasons why that might have been. It’s possible that whatever stories they tell themselves about why you’re not in the video could lead to hurt feelings or force you to have to explain yourself. I think it’s easier to just say something nice. Think of it like a birthday card being passed around the office. Express a simple platitude, well wishes and congratulations and all that, and send it off.

Q. Darkroom Negative Wife:

I am seldom photographed by my husband, but when he does take a rather awful face or ugly pose, he shares these terrible pictures of me to his grown daughter. She is not my friend, but I’ve been in her entire life as positively as I’m allowed. I try my best to be sweet and loving always. I would think he’d prefer to make positive feelings between us and not promote the negative, as his former spouse has always done. I feel betrayed and unwanted when he does this silly deed. Am I just being too sensitive? Or is he sending me a message?

R. Eric Thomas

If you don’t want your husband to share a photo—good, bad, or other—then you have the right to ask him not to. I think you should point out this habit to him and ask him to stop. He may have an excuse, but the fact that it makes you uncomfortable is enough. I can’t tell from your letter whether he knows these photos are not good and is sending them to mock you or if he’s unaware. If it’s the former, this is a bigger issue. Your husband shouldn’t be belittling you to anyone, including his daughter. If he is doing this on purpose, I encourage the two of you get some outside counseling because that’s emotionally manipulative, even abusive. In fact, you may want to talk to someone regardless. Your fear that he’s sending you a message is enough to warrant a conversation with someone who can give you both an outside perspective and help you get the answers you’re looking for.

Q. Secret Keeper:

My late thirtysomething sister is engaged to a guy who had his kids very young (changing diapers before he could legally drink young) and got the “snip.” He has made it crystal clear that he is done with diapers and would rather spoil his dogs. He is well-off, handsome, funny, and has a good relationship with his adult children. They like my sister. My sister thinks she can change his mind. She has been on the fence most of her adult life about kids, but keeps insisting that she would be “OK” without one (while constantly sending me inspirational emails about older women having kids and nursery decor). Now she has been confiding in me that if her fiancé “really” loves her, she should get a baby. IVF or adoption or whatever. She and her fiancé are in pre-marriage counseling, and she is lying through her teeth. They are planning the wedding for this winter. I feel I am stuck with a ticking time bomb here. If my sister wants to be a mother, and I support her a hundred percent, but I think she is deluding herself, deceiving her fiancé, and that a called-off wedding is better than an expensive divorce. Which in all candor, I have done—no one had the guts to tell me about the cheating going on in my relationship. My sister ignores me when I tell her she needs to be honest now and not “change” her mind once the ring is on her finger. Our parents are dead, and our extended family is far away and limited. Help.

R. Eric Thomas

It feels like the only thing left to do is to tell the fiancé, but I don’t think you ought to go that far. It may save him some strife, but it also would draw you further into a situation that just going to keep creating stress. Your sister may have a covert plan, but I don’t feel like you’re betraying her fiancé by not spilling the beans. Trust that he’s going into this with his eyes open and if she does make a switcheroo after the wedding date, he has the skills to advocate for himself. Your sister is setting herself up for failure here and, at this point, she’s got to make this mistake on her own. And, who knows, this may not be a miscalculation. Maybe the line that her fiancé has drawn in the sand isn’t as strong as it seems. I doubt it. But if she won’t listen to reason and is going into a marriage actively planning on disrupting it, this is probably not a problem you can solve.

Q. Unsure:

Nearly two decades ago, my parents got quietly divorced as an act of love. My dad had a rapidly progressing illness that was leading to snowballing medical debt on top of some other personal debt. He suggested divorcing to protect the assets for her, and with the help of a savvy lawyer and financial planner, it worked. They wrung as much as they could out of the time they had left, she cared for him until the end, and the eye-watering debt died with him.

Now, my mom is elderly and finding comfort in things from her childhood, including returning to religion. Her retirement home offers transit to her church once a week. I thought this was great, until I found out that her priest harps on “the evils of divorce” a lot, and she’s become kind of fixated on it as a sinful choice. I know even with early-stage dementia (which she has) that many people will fixate on a topic that agitates them, but I’d like her to have the solace of faith without becoming hyper-worried about confession.

I grew up nonreligious, mostly because of my father, and I don’t know how to navigate the church. There are no other churches of her faith near the home, and I don’t want her to be cut off from community, but is it appropriate for me to say anything to the priest so he could talk to her privately? Would that make it worse? How can I help her through this? I occasionally attend services with her and the priest is very literal about the Bible, but I think there must be a way to navigate this.

R. Eric Thomas

It’s worth talking to the priest, sure, but if “the evils of divorce” are already frequent sermon topics, I worry he won’t be a receptive or compassionate audience despite the reasonableness of your parents’ divorce (and the non-evilness of divorce in general). It might be easier to try to shield her from his message. You write that you sometimes attend services with her, and I wonder if this is an opportunity to find a church of her faith somewhere else that you can drive her to on those Sundays. This won’t stop her from riding the bus from the retirement home but at least might provide a respite from the barrage of anti-divorce rhetoric.

Q. Mother Dilemma:

My mother had me at 15 and raised me as a single mother until I was 16, when she married "Abe." Abe has been wonderful to my mother, and I even consider him to be the father I never had.

My dilemma is that I am now 20 and pregnant, and when I confided in my mother, she revealed she too was pregnant! I'm happy for her, but now she wants to do baby planning with me! I know she's excited that she's now able to do all of this with people she cares about (me and my stepfather), but it makes me a tad uncomfortable since my half-sibling will be the same age as my child when they are born.

I really am happy for my mother, and I know we'll eventually find a way to navigate this uncommon situation, but I'm having trouble expressing to her how this situation makes me feel. I don't want to sound as if I'm unhappy, or even jealous, that she's now pregnant, but I want her to give me some time and space to be able to digest everything.

R. Eric Thomas

You’re not the only person in uncharted waters here—your mother is venturing into the unknown, too. And while it excites her, your response is totally valid as well. I think there’s a way of sharing your apprehension—or even your mix of unnamable emotions—to her without making it sound like you’re unhappy. Try something like “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by how much is changing for both of us right now. Can we hold off on baby planning for a while? I want to take some time to work through this.” She may not understand and she may have more questions. Or she may get it right away. See where the conversation leads you. And, as you process, reach out to someone outside of this unit (so not your mom or Abe) to listen to your thoughts and help you process them with an outside perspective.

Q. One Foot Out:

I’ve been with my company for four years, and generally liked the work, the people, and the career progression. Last year, it came under new ownership, and in the resulting reorganization, the team I managed, along with multiple other teams, was dissolved and moved around to different existing ones.

I was moved to managing an underperforming team, and since I can’t go without health insurance I agreed. I’ve helped the team improve to an extent, but I hate the process and the politics. I’m actively interviewing for jobs elsewhere. Recently, my star employee confided in me that she’s being pursued by recruiters but turning them down because she really enjoys working with me and the change in direction at work. Ethically, I want to tell her to go for the recruitment—I don’t have a job offer in hand but I will leave when I do. How do I handle this?

R. Eric Thomas

It stands to reason that some recruiters will still be interested in your star employee once you’ve left the company, or, if not, that her skills will attract new recruiters. So I don’t think you’re compromising her career success by not telling her you’re planning to leave. She’s got to make the choices that are right for her. You’re not holding her back. And while you can encourage her to pursue the other opportunities, I think you’re probably best served keeping your business to yourself. Simply telling her you think she should meet with the recruiters should suffice.

Q. Not Ready to Co-Parent:

I recently found out (the hard way) that my fiancé and the father of my child is an alcoholic. A few weeks ago, he hit rock bottom, and he put my son and I in a very uncomfortable and unsafe position. I canceled the wedding for obvious reasons. However, now I’m really scared and don’t know what I should do. I have a baby with him, and he’s always been so good with him. I feel betrayed and violated. I already have trauma related to alcohol from previous relationships and suffer from anxiety. I’m scared to stay and experience additional trauma and continue to feel like I’m drowning, but I’m also scared to leave because I don’t know what would happen to our son’s custody. When I say rock bottom I mean alcohol, drugs (legal and illegal), cheating, and illegal actions. I feel like such a fool for still loving him and wanting him to get better. I’m confused why I put myself in such a dangerous position and also why I keep wanting to save this relationship.

R. Eric Thomas

There’s a saying that you’ll often hear in recovery communities: “One day at a time.” Right now, you’re being bombarded with crises and the emotions they bring up, and I’d encourage you to take things one day at a time, as well, as best you can. What is your immediate priority? Ensuring your safety and the safety of your child. Your partner needs to get help and I hope that he is in a position to seek that help out, but before you can assist him in getting that help, you have to make sure you’re taken care of. This doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning the relationship forever or no longer loving him; it means taking the space and time that you need. Custody questions are not today’s problem; they may not become a problem at all. But the only way that you can really find that out is if you separate yourself from a person who is causing you and himself harm. Please reach out to family, friends, community resource groups, or trained professionals to either help you find a new place to stay or keep you protected in your home as your fiancé goes someplace else.

Q. What Is My Name?

I am in my mid-30s with two in elementary school. I have been going through a terrible divorce for the past three years. The kid’s dad is unstable and mentally and verbally abusive (still) and has never held a job. I should be divorced in the next six months or so (fingers crossed). I don’t make a ton of money, although I have a steady job and good benefits. I support the kids 100 percent. But I do live with my parents so that I can continue to pay my lawyer’s fees.

I have recently started my first romantic relationship since the separation. I have known the guy since middle school, and we have been friends for years. He is super great and everything that I would need in a relationship, plus, I really like him. Prior to beginning this relationship, I was of the opinion that I would keep my married name, since my kids also have that name. My new BF is looking to the future and says that he would not be able to stay with me if I kept my ex-spouse’s last name. This is a deal-breaker for him. I am not sure where to go from here. I think that my kids and I should have the same last name. Is an ultimatum this early in a relationship a red flag? Any suggestions on how to address this? Help!

R. Eric Thomas

Ultimatums, particularly about things that don’t have any impact on the person giving the ultimatums, are a big red flag for me. I presume that this guy has been socialized to believe that part of being in a heteronormative relationship in our patriarchal culture involves having a partner who shares his last name, but who cares? Or, maybe his objection is to the specific name and that it also belongs to an abuser. But, again, he doesn’t get a say here. You’ve had a life before him, you have kids whose names you’ve opted not to change, and at the end of the day your name is your business. You and/or your kids may get to a point in life where you no longer want to share a last name with your ex-spouse, but that’s your decision to make.

I fear that by saying that he wouldn’t be able to stay with you, your current partner has already made his intransigence clear, which is unfortunate. You may want to try to have a conversation with him about it, expressing the importance of having the same last name as your kids and asking him to work on accepting that because your kids are obviously a huge part of your life. And of course, if he’s dead set on having the same last name as a future spouse, he can always change his name.

Q. Confused and Making It Worse:

I have been with my partner for five years, married for two. In all the ways that matter we have a great relationship. My partner is loving and supportive, passionate about their work and values, and takes such good care of me. We have so much fun together and they make me laugh all the time.

However, I’ve noticed a pattern that when other parts of my life are not going as well, I seem to have thoughts about ending the relationship because of some random part. This has changed over the years—from a thought about how they dress to how they make friends to recently their gender (I’m bisexual). I’ve always known these thoughts are intrusive, and I literally can’t imagine my life without my partner.

Lately work has been pretty bad and a few other things are tripping me up, and I can’t stop thinking about the latest idea (that I would be happier if my partner was a different gender—to be clear I want the exact same person just a different gender). How do I stop these thoughts?

R. Eric Thomas

It’s possible that frustrations in other parts of your life are amplifying frustrations in your relationship that you normally ignore. And the opposite is also possible: that you’re focusing on frustrations in your relationship in an attempt to ignore other frustrations. The best way to sort it out is to talk about it, if possible with a therapist or other trained professional who can help you look at each area of your life objectively and create action plans to change the things you can. Figuring out what’s going on in your work life may relieve some stress that you’re offloading on to your relationship and help clarify what, if anything, you really want to address with your partner.

Re: Secret Keeper:

I think it’s time for an intervention. Your sister is not going to convince him and will wind up divorced and scrambling to conceive with no backup plan. So talk to her. Tell her what you said to us that you wish someone had done this for you. If after that you still want to inform the fiancé, let her know that you plan to do so and give her a deadline. You’re helping her too get out of a marriage she doesn’t really want to be in.

R. Eric Thomas

An intervention sounds like an escalation that's just going to create more stress for LW, and for little possible return. The sister has been very clear about what she's doing and why. I struggle to imagine what an intervention is going to do to shift that. Sometimes we have to let people make their own mistakes, especially if they are purposefully trying to make a mistake.

R. Eric Thomas

Thanks for your questions and comments! See you next week. Take care of yourselves.