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.)
R. Eric Thomas: Hi, all! I hope you had lovely weekends. I’ve been promoting my new YA novel and opening a new play in Baltimore, so ya boy is beat! What’s on your minds this week?
Q. Down dog: I’m a 37-year-old married woman, and I have a 9-year-old daughter. My mom and I have had a good relationship with phone calls just about every day, going to dinner when my stepdad is away, etc. Of course, we have our disagreements on certain things, like hairstyles and dog breeds to have as a family pet.
My husband, daughter, and I went to visit a friend in December. She had a pit bull in a cage that they had rescued from a bad situation, but wasn’t able to keep him nor take him to the pound because of his breed type. So with previous experience with the breed, the three of us wanted to see if he would be the right fit, his demeanor around small children and other animals, etc. It turns out he was amazing, so we brought him home.
Fast forward to April. My mom came to stay with me for the first time in seven years. I never told her about the new addition to our family because I knew all hell would break loose and I didn’t want to deal with it. She found out and now she hasn’t talked to me or returned any of my text messages, and if she has a question, she goes through my stepdad. She met the dog while she stayed with me and he never growled nor barked at her. I don’t know why she hates him so much and hates me having him around my daughter. This dog has never gotten aggressive with my daughter or any of my pets, I never leave my daughter alone with him, he’s never bit her, nothing. He’s protective over her a little more than my husband and I, but that’s it.
What should I do about my mother and the way she’s acting about this?
A: From the evidence, I suspect that your mother had a traumatic experience with a dog, perhaps a pit bull, at some point in life and that the surprise of finding one in your home was too much for her. This is just conjecture, of course, but the severity of her reaction leads me to believe this is more than just a disagreement about dog breeds.
You write that you didn’t tell her about it because all hell would break loose, so it seems you had a clear idea about your mother’s position, if not the reason behind it. You don’t necessarily need to apologize, but it seems that this is a place where you should make amends. Try going through your stepdad—set up a time to talk, in person if possible. Without being defensive, try telling her what you observed in her behavior and make an empathy guess as to how the presence of the dog made her feel. Ask her if you’re correct. You have a right to do what you want in your house, but if something that happened in your house triggered her, you’ll want to own that and ask how you can make amends. That said, she may not share any deeper reason with you and there may not be any deeper reason at all. Her feelings are her own and they’re not something you have control over. Ultimately, this is not about the dog so much as mending the breakdown in communication in a way that your mother feels heard and you have a better understanding about why she’s acting the way she’s acting.
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Q. Loudest wins: How do you navigate a much more excitable family than the one of your origin? I grew up in a tightknit, very reserved family. My parents are older and didn’t have any siblings, and they were used to a fairly pleasant and amicable life that didn’t change when I got there. They weren’t demonstrative, they rarely argued, and they dealt with my occasional bouts of teenage rebellion by just leaving the room or house.
When I met my husband, I loved—and still do—how passionate he is and what an open book he is. He does silly things. When he’s mad, I don’t have to try and reason out why; he’ll just tell me. His whole family is the same. It made the wedding a bit awkward—my parents think his family are good people, but do NOT want to spend time with them—but I really like the energy and how openly affection is shown.
However, I’ve recently realized that I tend to get shouted down whenever decisions are being made. That’s just how they do it—argue, sometimes loudly, about it until they see who wants it most and will argue the longest—but I find it really difficult to engage with, so I don’t get what I want, or even have a real vote, because my input tends to be forgotten about. On the occasions I just refuse to allow debate and state what I’m going to do, there’s a lot of hurt feelings.
How do I become louder without being a jerk about it? I don’t want to argue as much as they do; it is exhausting to watch sometimes, but I’d like to have my say sometimes. It’s just hard, because raising my voice or getting into a debate like that feels aggressive to me.
A: You don’t have to change how you communicate, and my fear is that if you tried, it wouldn’t make you happy. Try talking to your husband about the difference in your style and ask him to advocate for you in these family debates. He already speaks the language of the family and he can be your mouthpiece when you don’t feel like jumping into the fray. Similarly, when you just want to make a decision and not discuss it, it can be his job to smooth over any bruised feelings.
Q. Wedding discomfort: My husband and I are separated due to the fact he’s emotionally and verbally abusive. My son from another marriage is getting married soon. He, his fiancé, and I feel my husband should not go to the wedding because he has outbursts that make everyone uncomfortable and his behavior is unpredictable.
Our marriage counselor said he should go. What are your thoughts?
A: If your son and his fiancé don’t want your husband there, then that’s that. No couple is obligated to welcome anyone they don’t feel comfortable around to their wedding. I’m perplexed about your marriage counselor’s advice. Without knowing more, I can’t say for sure, but it sounds like the counselor is prioritizing the wrong thing. Your husband is abusive and it sounds like that behavior hasn’t changed. I don’t know that he’s earned the right to be at this wedding, and it doesn’t sound like something that will help you heal. Going forward, you may want to make sure you and your marriage counselor are on the same page about what your goals are.
Q. Drowning in spit: I have owned my home for five years. Next door to me is a house that is divided into two rental units. I’ve always had a cordial, friendly relationship with the tenants, but have been frustrated with the lack of upkeep on behalf of the landlord. Shortly after I purchased the home, he stopped providing any yard maintenance, and it’s gotten a bit out of control with blackberries and bushes that make it hard to use the sidewalk.
Recently, one of the rentals got new tenants, three men who don’t speak English well. These neighbors are nice enough, but they sit on the porch at all hours of the day smoking and spitting. The spitting is very loud and extremely gross—think hocking loogies, loudly drawing mucus, and spitting off the balcony repeatedly. It’s constant and I can hear it in every room of my house; it is extremely disgusting and incredibly distracting when I do things like eat or have meetings. I’m at a loss for how to approach the tenants and ask them to stop or spit elsewhere, especially with the language barrier. It’s obviously gross behavior; they are aware of how close I am, and it hasn’t stopped them. Do I ask the landlord to address it? Do I eventually have a breakdown at the 213th loogie of the day and go nuclear on them?
A: Before you go to the landlord, the neighborly thing to do is to talk to the new tenants, even if the conversation is stilted. Short of that, you can write them a note and use an online translator to help you get your message across. It’s likely that the landlord may not even intervene, considering they’ve let the property get out of hand, so your best bet is person to person.
Q. Re: Down dog: It’s very possible that being surprised by your new dog triggered something in your mom, but it’s troubling that she just cut off contact with you instead of trying to communicate with you about it. Has she ever done that before? I guess the dog might’ve traumatized her so much that she just can’t deal with it, but it seems as though if there was something in her past that would create that kind of outsized reaction, you’d have known something about it. Short of that, though, this feels a little controlling. Has she ever used silence to control you or anyone else before? Is it possible that this is “punishment” for what she might see as you keeping information from her? Since you used to talk so often, I wonder if she got the sense that she had some kind of right to know everything about your life.
A: I agree that the response from the mother might indicate a troubling desire to control. It’s a tricky situation but the LW is going to need to talk directly to the mom to get any sort of answer.
Over the holidays I got engaged. My boyfriend has clinical depression, and the holidays are rough on him. I was going to break up with him, but I held off, thinking it would be easier after the holidays. Then he surprised me—at his parents’ house in front of his whole family—with a ring. I didn’t see how to say no without humiliating him in front of his family, so I accepted. I’ve been trying to break it off ever since, but something always stops me. He had problems at work, and then it was Valentine’s Day, and then he had a medical scare. I keep picturing myself marrying him because I don’t have the nerve to break up with him. He has a therapist he trusts implicitly. Would it be wrong to ask her to tell him?