Dear Prudence

Help! We Have the Perfect Defense Against My Annoying In-Laws, but My Husband Wants to Give It Up.

There’s no better “boundary” than this!

An older couple with their backs to the viewer look up at a flight of stairs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.

Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend’s family are huge “ask forgiveness instead of permission” people. His mom once let herself into my hotel room and helped herself to a pair of underwear from my suitcase, and then acted like I was crazy when I was upset about it. About six months ago, he started therapy working on how to consistently stand up to them. Ultimately, if he can’t get there, we won’t be staying together.

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Although I find them difficult, there’s one thing that helps me out hugely: We currently live in a nice but high-effort fifth floor walk-up. His parents are older, and his siblings have toddlers. No one ever wants to walk up these stairs, which protects our privacy. Our lease comes up in September and the cost is going up substantially. My boyfriend points out we can get another apartment at a lower price somewhere else, but I don’t want to lose this privacy magic. My boyfriend says he’s ready to hold firm boundaries with his family and I want to trust that’s possible, and I don’t want to act like them and push him, but I also don’t believe it. How do we navigate this?

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— Princess Doesn’t Want to Leave the Tower

Dear Princess,

You and your boyfriend should have a clear, calm conversation about what holding firmer boundaries looks like, specifically. This isn’t pushing, this is addressing a need in your relationship and helping you both to have the tools to show up for each other. It’s possible that he’ll benefit from having someone to back him with his family; it’s also possible that he has a different understanding of what a good boundary is than you do. Hopefully, he’s started talking through these concepts in therapy already, so the conversation won’t be new to him. It may even be helpful for you to attend a therapy session with him to help facilitate this transition with a neutral party who is abreast of all the dynamics but whose professional goal is helping your boyfriend. You can suggest coming to a session, but don’t demand it or press that issue.

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Also, as you talk through apartment options, I wonder if looking for similar barriers in a new place would be a good baby step toward boundaries. That’s a Band-Aid and not a cure, but if you can agree that the structure of your building has helped to keep your relationship with his family healthier, you may also want to make that continued health a shared goal moving forward.

Dear Prudence,

My husband and I were best friends with another couple for years (my husband with the husband and me with the wife). The couple worked for the same company. My sister (who is single) started working at same company as the couple; soon afterward, my best friend started talking to me about my sister being “too close” to her husband. I defended my sister, as I knew she would never do anything disrespectful to my best friend’s marriage. I also cautioned my sister to give the couple space. She explained that it was a completely platonic friendship. I thought it was a non-issue, so I forgot about it. But then my best friend stopped talking to my sister and me. I tried to find out why and to talk to her, but she froze me out. Her husband gradually did same to my sister, but he is still best friends with my husband. I feel so sad anytime I hear them on the phone talking because I feel like my husband should be on my side and not talk to them if they won’t talk to me. I am not sure how to tell him that I feel like he’s being disloyal to me.

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— Looking for Loyalty

Dear Looking for Loyalty,

I find it a little odd that in your husband’s conversations with his friend, the topic of why he and his wife don’t speak to you anymore has never come up. Of course, each friendship is unique, but one would think the question of why you never have couples’ outings or whatever these days would be obvious. Maybe your husband doesn’t want to rock the boat; maybe he’s hearing a different version of events (perhaps even one that does involve questionable behavior on the part of your sister); maybe they just talk about fly-fishing for hours on end.
There’s really no way to understand the interior of that relationship. However, the interior of your relationship with your husband is suffering because of it.

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I know you want loyalty, but I suspect what you’re after is confirmation that the events you’ve experienced are real. The friendship ghosting you went through was strange, and it would probably be helpful to you to be able to process it with your husband—something that’s hard to do with him chitchatting with the enemy. Try explaining what you went through to your husband and express how this couple’s treatment of you has made you feel. If you want to ask him directly to stop being friends with the other husband, that’s your prerogative, but I think you’ll have a more productive conversation simply by seeking to communicate more directly about this situation.

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How to Get Advice From Prudie

Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon (and submit your comments) here.

Dear Prudence,

I own a tiny two-bedroom, one-bath house. During the pandemic, I turned the second bedroom into my official workspace with the giant two-screen computer. It helped my depression to have the ritual of going to the “office”—get up, shower, put on nice clothes, get coffee, but no traffic. My company has leaned into to the telecommuting permanently, so this is how my career is going. My sister has gotten out of yet another bad relationship and can’t afford another apartment. Her sons have permanently moved with their father and stepmother. She is desperate to get on her feet. I told her she is welcome to stay as long as she wants with me, on my sofa bed. My sister is furious with me that I will not give her my office. She says her ex will not let her sons visit if they have to sleep on an air mattress near her. I can’t physically fit my office set up into my bedroom unless I got rid of my bed for a twin one and close off half my closet (wiring issues).

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I love my sister. And my nephews. I am not asking for any money. I still need to make money and be mentally healthy. Our parents are in a strict retirement community, and our brother is on another coast. Short of our very disagreeable aunt, I am it. During the worst of the pandemic, I went over a month without any human contact but random delivery drivers and my cat. My home office became my “safe space.” My full family is ganging up on me: I could work on a laptop (just like I could cure my depression through smiling more and exercising). I have nothing more to give. And everything to lose. I want to help my sister get on her feet, but not if she expects me to dance on knives.

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— WFHelp

Dear WFHelp,

From your family’s perspective, you have a second bedroom just waiting to be used, but as you noted, the truth is that the only office available to you is also inside your tiny home. This is the reality for a lot of people now, and it’s still hard to navigate. It can’t be understated that your entire work life is in this room. So it’s generous of you to welcome your sister into the small space of your house, knowing that she needs a hand but also knowing that another person (plus visiting teens) will change the dynamic of your home and office in a big way. From what you’re describing, it sounds like moving the office or working off of a laptop (presumably in the common living space) isn’t a feasible ask. And while it’s compounded by your sister’s ex’s stipulation about where his sons sleep, that’s not really a consideration here. Cross that bridge when you get to it. The fact is your sister needs a place to stay and you’ve offered her a place. In order for you to continue to be able to providing that space, you need to work. Put it to her and to the rest of the family that simply. And then tell them that you don’t see any benefit to continuing to argue about it. They may be angry, they may want to keep bringing it up, but you have to draw a line. If they can’t respect the things you need to do your job and to maintain your mental health, then they don’t get to have an opinion.

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Dear Prudence,

My father recently passed away after a two-year struggle with cancer. I loved him dearly. His last stay in the hospital lasted about two weeks, and we all had a chance to say goodbye to him. One of his last requests was that my nephew “Alvin” get “all the cars.” My dad loved restoring cars and had two Model-T Fords and a post WWII Jeep. “Alvin” likes working on cars, but he is 20 years old and a college student. He doesn’t have the means to take them on, so I initially didn’t think much about this comment.

My sister and I each have two sons. My youngest is 14 and not old enough to drive. My mom said my dad told her recently that he wanted to take my sons onto the backroads and teach them to drive the Model-Ts this summer, so he did have thoughts of my sons becoming interested in the cars. My sister and her ex are divorced and not on friendly terms.
“Alvin’s” plan is that his dad will build a shed to store the cars on his lake property a five-hour drive away.

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I don’t think my dad would have wanted these cars to essentially go to his ex-son-in-law. In addition, doing some quick research, I realized these three cars combined are worth conservatively $50,000. So all of that value would be going to one of the four grandsons. None of the rest of us will be receiving any items close to that value. My family will be receiving items which combined are worth less than $10,000.

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My sister and I have each been promised a property (small cabin and small condo) when my mom passes away, but that is off in the future and her finances between now and then could change, forcing her to sell these properties. She claims the improvements she has to make to the property she plans to give me more than make up the value of the cars. I think those costs are not the same, as all real estate has expenses and upkeep. I tried to bring this up with my mother, but she said she wasn’t changing her mind. I think she has already signed over the titles to Alvin. I feel like my dad made an impulsive statement which is really unfair to the rest of us and has created a wedge in the family. I have a hard time accepting this is what he meant to do. But of course, it’s my mom’s decision. Do I just move on?

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— Last Wishes Gone Astray

Dear Last Wishes,

It’s important to ask yourself if your primary grievance is a financial one or an emotionally-rooted one. Conflicts over inheritance are invariably a complex mix of both, but I noted that your letter zeroes in on the worth of the cars and the comparative worth of the properties your mother will leave you upon her passing. I worry that taking out a tally sheet is only going to make you unhappier, as there’s never enough money to match the depth and breadth of human affection. Moreover, thinking of the cars’ value in comparison to what everyone else received and will receive at a later point is only going to bruise feelings.

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So, let’s talk about feelings. It likely seems imbalanced to leave one grandson with such a hefty gift while there are three others who could benefit. But try thinking of it from your father’s point-of-view—Alvin expressed an interest and this is your father’s way of acknowledging that connection. I doubt he was thinking of the storage or the value, so much as he was whatever conversation he and Alvin had about the cars. This is all conjecture on my part, but I think it’s helpful to remember that the things we do to try to express our love often fall short and that while objects are poor substitutes, they are often all we have. I think that you should try your best to let this go and move on. It seems to be bringing your mother peace to complete this part of your father’s wishes. Hopefully that is something that you can hold on to.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“I was just like … your dad said what he said! And Alvin actually DOES have the means to take care of the cars!”

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R. Eric Thomas and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members. This week, Eric passes the Prudie baton back to Jenée Desmond-Harris, who is returning from parental leave.

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Dear Prudence,

I have a fairly good relationship with my mother-in-law. We can chat easily, and I know she appreciates how I’ve supported her son over the years. But there’s a problem. When I ask a question about one of her friends or another family member—like “How was so-and-so’s baby shower?” or “What is ‘Shelly’ up to these days?” —her first comment is almost always derogatory gossip. She’ll have negative comments about her daughters-in-law or mention her niece is being a “diva” in wedding planning. After visiting a first-time mother, she told me the woman’s house was messy and that she had no right to complain about how hard it was because her husband was helpful. (My MIL had to do almost all of the childrearing by herself.) I usually just say, “Oh,” or a neutral comment that disagrees. But of course, I wonder: What does she say about me when I’m not around? My husband agrees and does not admire this quality in his mother.

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How best to proceed? Should one of us bring his mom’s attention to this habit? Or have a comment at the ready to stop the gossip in its tracks?

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— Loose Lips Sink Relationships

Dear Loose Lips,

I wonder if your mother-in-law thinks of you as her willing gossip partner, despite the fact that you don’t join in. It’s also possible that she is just a complainer who will accept any audience. Either way, as you consider putting a stop to the sniping, you might want to also do some thinking about what kind of conversation can replace the derogatory comments. This is not totally your responsibility since a relationship is a two-way street, but I suspect your MIL might not be eager to switch gears.

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In any case, you should say something if this quality of hers makes you uncomfortable. As you noted, it’s possible—likely even—that she has an unkind word to say about you to others. But even more to the point, this habit is actually getting in the way of you and her having the kind of relationship you want to have. I find that catching these instances in the moment and being specific rather than broad tends to work best. If she has gossip about Shelly, for instance, try replaying “I feel like I’m only hearing negative things about her from you; can we talk about something positive going on?” Doing that with every instance may not change who she is as a person, but it might encourage her to think of different things to say to you.

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Dear Prudence,

My sister’s wedding is in September, and recently, she has been starting to stress out about not getting everything done. Her new MIL is definitely one of those old-school wealthy people who thinks certain protocols should be followed, but is otherwise a very lovely woman. She gave my sister and fiancé most of the money for the wedding with a certain set of general expectations. I only knew how much my mother gave, but I knew there was a lot of money involved and that this was going to be a black-tie optional event.

For the last couple of weeks, my sister has been calling my mother and other women in the bridal party crying about not having some small detail for the wedding figured out. She’s had us running errands, doing internet searches for certain things, and when those fail, DIY-ing. And she expects perfection. At first, I was okay with this, thinking that a black-tie optional wedding was going to be somewhat expensive and the help was warranted. Well, my mom and I were so frustrated one night trying to figure out something for the wedding that we opened up a bottle of wine. After a while, my mom started complaining that she didn’t know why we had to do this when my sister got all the money she did. I pressed my mom a bit and found out my sister got over $150,000! She could have easily bought this stuff she was asking us to make. So I asked why my sister wasn’t just buying what she needs. My mom said it was because she wants to use as much of this money as possible to put a down payment on a house and will probably have $50,000-to-$75,000 left over. I was in shock. Please note that my sister has been making us shell out a ton of money for this wedding. Our dresses are more than $300. We had to get expensive matching $200 shoes. She’s required all of us to get makeup and hair done by stylists in the same, expensive style. Just what I have to pay for the wedding day alone (not to mention bachelorette party or travel costs) will be over $1000. I’ve had friends with much smaller budgets that paid for all or part of these things.

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I told my mom I was backing out of the wedding. She talked me down, but I couldn’t stop myself from calling my sister. I told her that I wasn’t going to do any more DIY for her wedding. She flew into a rage saying I should do anything I can for her day. I told her I would do anything within reason, but having other people DIY stuff wasn’t for her big day, it was for the down payment on her house. She said I should do anything for that, too! I couldn’t take it. I hung up and haven’t spoken to her in two weeks. I really, really, want to drop out of the wedding. My mom says I can’t back out now. I told her even if I didn’t back out, there was no way I was doing anything other than what is required of me at the rehearsal and the wedding. My mom thinks this is unreasonable and that when I signed up to be a bridesmaid, I signed up to help the bride with whatever she needs. I just cannot take this. Is it too late to back out? If so, should I “disappear” around the times that she is going to have people doing outrageous things for her that she should be paying for?

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— Bitter Bridesmaid

Dear Bitter Bridesmaid,

Backing out of the wedding is an extreme option that will surely reverberate far longer than simply not making a DIY centerpiece. So while you’re frustrated right now, try not to irrevocably ruin a relationship. It sounds like your sister is juggling a lot of competing interests, sometimes at your expense—in this case literally. When confronted, she invoked the unwritten Bridesmaid Agreement that says you should do anything or spend any amount of money to help her pull this off. She is far from the first person to ask this and you’re far from the first person to writing into Dear Prudence asking “this is ridiculous, right?” It is ridiculous; however, weddings are rife with these kinds of assumptions and sacrifices. The best time to set boundaries around the assumptions is in advance, the second-best time is where you are now.

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To be clear, though, it’s gross to harangue one’s family about DIY-ing things when one has the money to do them. And what’s she really saving here? Plus, as you no doubt already feel, she’s cast a negative pall over her wedding and this luxurious future house she’s planning to buy. Being a shrewd money manager is good; opening up a family sweat shop to fund a better lifestyle is bad. But that’s what she’s chosen to do. It’s creating chaos in her life that’s completely avoidable—whatever! The monkey’s paw is working overtime.

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For your part, figure out what you are willing to contribute to the wedding, in terms of labor; reach out to your sister and let her know what you’re available to do, if anything; and hold that boundary. You can even try to have a more measured conversation with her where you remind her that you want what’s best for her but that it’s inappropriate and unkind to assume that your time isn’t as valuable as hers, especially when she has the money to save you both the hassle. She may not like it, she may feel you’re backing out on an unspoken agreement, but she won’t be as angry with you as if you simply didn’t show up to her wedding.

Classic Prudie

I am so ashamed to be writing this to you: I like one of my kids more than the other. I am a stay-at-home mother with two children, a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. My daughter has a bright, inquisitive mind and a big personality. She loves to dance and sing and be the center of attention. She is funny and sassy and spirited. She is also as stubborn as a mule, has a hair-trigger temper, and throws screaming tantrums. My son is fun, too, but sweet and more mellow. We have worked hard not to give in to my daughter’s tantrums. (Our pediatrician recommended a book on strong-willed children.) I try to discipline them evenhandedly, but it is getting hard. By the end of the day I’m resentful and grumpy about her demands and constant, rapid-fire questions. I love her, and that is why I feel so guilty that I am starting to prefer her easier sibling. I have not discussed this with my husband; I confided in my sister, and she expressed disapproval. I would like to change my feelings.

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