Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.
My fiancé and I live in a two-bedroom apartment. The second bedroom is our guest room/home office. There is no laundry unit on site, so doing clothes means taking baskets to the laundromat across town and spending half the day there. I usually wait until we are at critical mass before doing so. Same thing for groceries since the only good grocery store is on the other side of town.
Recently, my fiancé was out of town when his mother and sister called me to say they were on their way to “surprise” us with a visit. They were doing a road trip and decided to make a detour to see us. I had twelve hours’ notice. I rushed off work to vacuum and clean the bathroom. I had coffee, eggs, oranges, and half a loaf of bread. I figured it was enough to make a decent breakfast, but the only clean sheets were jokey Christmas sheets. They arrived and I ordered take out for dinner. Everything seemed fine until breakfast the next morning, when my fiancé’s sister informed me she was not just a vegetarian anymore but vegan, so all she could eat were the oranges. I made a joke asking if coffee was still okay, but the mood was definitely sour when they left.
I didn’t give it another thought, but they did. They blew up my fiancé’s phone about what a horrible housekeeper and host I was. Apparently, I deliberately made them feel unwelcome by making them sleep on Christmas sheets and had no food his sister could eat but oranges, and my coffee joke was completely out of line. My fiancé agrees his mother and sister shouldn’t have surprised me like that, but he thinks I could have put in more effort. When my family visits, he pointed out, I always make sure to have food and clean sheets on hand. I yelled back that my family actually asks when they can visit and gives us more than a half-day’s notice. Other than going to the skeevy gas station down the street where the drug dealers hang out, there are no close options for food. And next time I will solve the situation by telling them to get a hotel. My fiancé thinks that is beyond rude, and I told him that this mother and sister were the rude ones.
This entire debacle has me rethinking our engagement. We haven’t had this problem before, but we have hit snags where he has sided with this family over me, though it has been things like not bringing the right food to a potluck or my clothing not being formal enough for church.
I brushed those off, but I can’t brush this off. Am I overreacting here? (My own family is very toxic, so I will admit my baseline here may be out of whack.)
— Guest Trouble
Dear Guest Trouble,
No to surprise visits! No to visits from in-laws when your spouse isn’t there! No to demands for special groceries and sheets! No to your fiancé not standing up for you! These people are unreasonable, impolite, and unkind, and I’m so sorry you had to deal with them. Your fiancé’s mother and sister are terrible guests, which is probably obvious to you, but I also want to say that he is a bad partner. Their antics wouldn’t have mattered if he had 1) said “Sorry you can’t stay, I’m not home and that’s too much to ask of Guest Trouble, especially on short notice” or 2) Firmly told them after the visit that you did your best and their complaints were entitled and inappropriate. He should be the one telling them to get a hotel next time.
Pump the brakes on the wedding. Seriously. Before you get married, the two of you need to have some serious conversations both about what’s considered “rude” in your household and how you can operate as a team. And this isn’t a moment for compromise. Do not marry into this bullying, ungrateful family until you figure it out and feel confident that you’ll never again be vilified for using holiday sheets or otherwise treated like your time and energy are worthless.
My husband and I had a traumatic first birth experience that involved pregnancy-related sudden illness for me and an extremely premature delivery for our daughter as a result of it. She is now doing extremely well, and outside of being a bit smaller than other babies her age, those that don’t know wouldn’t guess she was so early. We have found ourselves unexpectedly pregnant again (yes, we were actively preventing!). We have been seeing a trauma counselor since we learned of the pregnancy, but both of our anxiety (which we are both prone to even in the best of times) is understandably increasing as we get closer and closer to the point in the pregnancy where things went wrong last time.
So far, we’ve been able to do a good job of managing it by doing things like putting plans in place to feel as prepared as we possibly can for different versions of how this pregnancy may go. But recently, my husband has taken to asking me five to 10 times per day how I’m feeling, if I’m OK, is anything wrong, etc. I understand it’s his way of checking in, but it just sets me on edge and makes me feel more nervous every time I have to answer him and tell him that everything is fine. Although it’s not the case, it also makes me feel like he’s not listening and doesn’t actually trust my response when he has to ask so many more times throughout the same day.
Do you think it would be unkind to talk to him about this and tell him he needs to stop, or at the very least, cut back? I’ve told him to assume at all points that I feel fine, but kind of tired (after all, we do have a toddler!) and that I will tell him if that changes, but that hasn’t made a difference. I understand that this is his event to experience and work through too, so I want to be sensitive to his worries and feelings, but I do kind of feel like my anxiety gets to be the one that “counts” a little more here, for lack of a better way to put it.
— Worried but Hopeful
Dear Worried but Hopeful,
It’s great that you’re seeing a trauma counselor, because this may be a conversation that she or he can help facilitate. Even if you discuss it without professional support, it seems like a pretty easy fix. How about something like this: “I know we’re both feeling our anxiety increase as my pregnancy progresses, but I’m realizing that talking about it throughout the day is putting me on edge. I love that you care about me, but the discussions on top of work and parenting aren’t working for me. Could we do one check-in each night about how we’re doing and whether anything is wrong? I think dedicated time when we can really concentrate, reflect, and listen to each other would be really helpful to me.”
How to Get Advice From Prudie
This doesn’t show me in a great light. I am aware.
One of my co-workers lost her daughter in a freak accident recently. My office is somewhat woo-woo, so management brought in a grief counselor for us to process this sad news in three different afternoon sessions. I thought it was a waste of time for me, but some of my other co-workers were closer to the family and seemed to appreciate it. They gave out “Grief Journals” and asked us to fill it in during the sessions, with our responses to various ideas and prompts. At the end they collected them, which I questioned. Mostly because, as previously stated, I thought this was a waste of time and hadn’t really engaged. They assured me the process was anonymous and not to worry.
Turns out they are giving these journals TO the bereaved family. If they’d told us that before, I’d have approached it a lot differently. Instead of, for example, responding to the challenge to “transform our experience of death through storytelling” by writing a short and gory horror prompt about being aware of your body decomposing in the grave (to be fair to me, that was a huge preoccupation of mine after my stepmother’s death when I was a child).
I intend to challenge this with my manager—since even people who approached this process in good faith were asked to write down very personal, painful experiences. If it goes ahead, however, what should I do then? Contact the family and ask them to weed out my journal? Wait and see if they even bother to look at nearly 20 notebooks while going through the worst thing that ever happened to them? I have considered just starting my job search now, in case.
— Never Engage With Work-Sponsored Therapy
Dear Never Engage,
I don’t think having a grief counselor come in is particularly “woo-woo.” It strikes me as the normal and professional thing to do in this kind of situation. What is absolutely not professional and totally unhinged was your manager’s decision to give the journals to their grieving family. What you wrote was a bit dark and weird and I get that you did it because you had a bad attitude about the whole exercise, but you’re not at all at fault here. You didn’t think anyone would see it.
I hope you’re successful in convincing your boss to return your notebook. I think something like “The plan wasn’t made clear and I wrote something that might be very upsetting to the grieving family” should motivate them to take action.
If not, I actually do think you should ask for your journal back, in a way that makes it as easy as possible for the grieving coworker (who, by the way, is probably like “Why the hell am I getting these notebooks??) You could say something like: “Hi Coworker. I am so sorry to bother you at this incredibly painful time. I’m writing because we worked with a grief counselor at the office to write journal entries, and I shared something very personal, confidential, and potentially upsetting without realizing the notebooks would be collected and given to you. If you have a chance to read this, I am available any time to come pick it up, but I don’t want to be a bother—I would also welcome it if you would simply throw mine away when you do come across it. I apologize again for bothering you, and please let me know if there’s anything I can do to make this time easier for your family.”
If she agrees to a pickup, show up with a meal or flowers and more apologies and get in and out as quickly as possible. And in the future, don’t write anything at work—over email, on Slack, or in a grief journal (although I really hope the opportunity never arises again!)—that you wouldn’t want to be read by a much broader audience than originally intended.
My boyfriend and I have been dating for two years. I thought we were getting serious until now. His 14-year-old niece lost her father six months ago. Her parents were divorced, but she was close to her dad. My boyfriend has been “stepping up’ and spending a ton of time with his niece. I think that is admirable, but I am wondering where the end is. My boyfriend takes his niece out to eat alone with him at least twice a week. He has canceled dates with me, even the day of, because his niece had yet another crisis. We tried to reschedule a romantic getaway three times because something with his niece always comes up.
I have tried to join in when his niece comes over, but I get frozen out. She will ignore any of my attempted conversations. If I say I want anything for dinner but Chinese, all she wants is Chinese. She will sit on the other side of my boyfriend and cuddle him and shoot daggers at me if I sit on the other side. I have been made to sit in the back of the car because his niece wants a shotgun. My boyfriend tells me I am being paranoid and his niece just is having a hard time adjusting to her dad’s death. Her mother keeps encouraging my boyfriend to take his niece out and says I need to adjust here because I am an adult and shouldn’t be “jealous” of a teenager.
I am not jealous. I am very, very uncomfortable. My boyfriend tells me that this niece acted the same way with her dad. I have told him that this niece should talk to someone professionally, but I got dismissed. What should I do? I love my boyfriend with all my heart, but his entire situation is intolerable and not letting up.
— Can’t See the Color of the Flags
Dear Can’t See,
I can’t tell for sure if you think your niece has developed a crush on your boyfriend and is acting in a way that’s inappropriate and unhealthy for him to entertain (the references to cuddling and jealousy and being uncomfortable suggest that maybe this is the case?) or whether you simply don’t like the way she’s dominating his time and attention. But either way—whether you simply think he’s making her too much of a priority and putting your relationship on the back burner, or whether you think he’s so clueless that he’s not setting appropriate boundaries against the romantic advances of a child—it sounds like this situation has made you lose some respect for your boyfriend. And it is okay for you to say “I don’t like what’s happening here and it makes me question our relationship” without convincing everyone else to see the situation the way you do.
It’s been less than two years, and you say you were just getting serious. So you’re still gathering data about whether he has the qualities of someone you’d like to spend the rest of your life with, all while spending less and less time with him because he keeps canceling. He’s made it nearly impossible for things between the two of you to progress. I’m not saying you need to break up immediately, but do ask yourself what his behavior has revealed about him and about your compatibility.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
Before I met and married my current wonderful husband, I was with a violently abusive man whom I married at 21 and finally found the courage to divorce at 25. My husband is the only person who knows I’m still in therapy for PTSD. He is very close to his brother “Will.” They are both gentle and somewhat awkward, but unlike my husband, Will had never had a serious relationship before he got with “Ronda.” We’re both very happy for him. But my husband naturally wants to continue hanging out with Will multiple times a week, and Will and Ronda are now a package deal. Ronda is very loud, over-the-top, and outspoken, which would not be so bad, except Every. Single. Time. anyone mentions an everyday annoyance, or tells a story in which someone can be seen as behaving badly, Ronda goes “BOOOOSH!” or “KA-POWWW!” and slams a fist into her palm or punches some nearby object, with the obvious implication that the person in question needs a punch.
I find this triggering: Not only the physical motions and sounds, but the expressed and unchallenged idea that anyone deserves to be physically hit for annoying or holding an opinion the hitter disagrees with. But if I try to hint that that’s going a bit far, she brushes me off, saying “I’m just kidding” and acting like I’m being a stick-in-the-mud. I’m reluctant to talk to her about my abuse and PTSD, because Ronda is not only the type of person who’d demand why I didn’t just hit back (um, because I’d be dead), but the type to broadcast it to the world. Is there any alternative to trying to get my husband to hang out less with Will, or finding errands I have to go do by myself every time the three of them get together?
— Hold the Punch, Please
Dear Hold the Punch,
“Rhonda, you know how I’ve sort of pushed back when you’ve done the BOOOSH KAPOWW thing and suggested someone needs to be punched? I totally get that you’re just kidding and I want to be clear that this is my issue, not yours, but for some reason the suggestion of violence really shakes me up. It would mean a lot to me if you could try to stop doing that when I’m around. I enjoy your company so much and could enjoy it even more if you’d indulge me here.”
Give Prudie a Hand in “We’re Prudence”
Sometimes even Prudence needs a little help. Every Thursday in this column, we’ll post a question that has her stumped. This week’s tricky situation is below. Join the conversation about it on Twitter with Jenée @jdesmondharris on Thursday, and then look back for the final answer here on Friday.
About 15 years ago, when I was 38, I briefly dated a 23-year-old. He pursued me, and I told him from the beginning that the age difference troubled me—we had nothing in common and it made me feel ridiculous. He kept arguing that it didn’t matter, and he got his friends and his parents to lobby on his behalf. I told him I didn’t want to date anyone—I was deeply depressed, had quit my job, and had moved in with my parents to attend a therapy program. He wore me down and we dated for a few weeks before I ended it (clearly and respectfully). Recently, I got a middle-of-the-night LinkedIn message from him saying his therapist tells him the age difference made it an inappropriate, exploitative relationship. He wants me to explain myself. What should I do?
— Revisionist History
I need an outside perspective on whether I’m kidding myself in my relationship. I’m a guy dating another guy, and it’s the best relationship of my life in so many ways. He’s smart, funny, thoughtful, and gorgeous. He’s also really possessive. I’ve caught him looking through my phone a few times (never finding anything, as there is nothing to find), and he gets edgy about my friendships with other queer men. He once threw my phone and broke it when I had changed the password. Most of my friends are women and straight guys, so it doesn’t come up often, but he’s gotten really angry and yelled at me over things like my gay male friend ending his texts to me with kisses or being “handsy” (my boyfriend’s inaccurate description) when we hug. My boyfriend says it’s not a matter of not trusting me so much as not trusting gay guys to not hit on me. To be fair, I do get hit on a lot in queer spaces, but it’s never been hard brushing them off, especially not with my ex-marine boyfriend next to me looking ready to kill them.
The problem is that I’m not sure I really mind? Like, I find this irritating and have snapped at him about it, but I mostly find it kind of flattering, if I’m honest. My previous boyfriends have treated me badly, and this is the first relationship where I’ve actually felt loved—it’s nice to have someone who is, in my boyfriend’s words, “crazy” about me. But a couple of my friends say it’s a huge red flag and have even implied he’s abusive or going to be abusive if I stay. I am 99 percent sure he would never hit me, and he’s never been physically aggressive with me. Can you advise on whether it sounds like I’m kidding myself, and this possessive behavior is a huge red flag that I should run from, or is there a midway point I’m missing where I could talk to him about this and get him to listen? I don’t want to break up (it’s been three years and we live together), but it worries me that I can’t describe his behavior to any of my friends without them looking horrified.
— Red Flag?
Dear Red Flag,
“It worries me that I can’t describe his behavior to any of my friends without them looking horrified.” This is a dead giveaway that your relationship is not what it should be. So is any account of a partner’s behavior that includes “He’s never been physically aggressive with me.” He doesn’t get any points because of that, and actually, it’s not even accurate given that he has thrown and broken your phone—that is very aggressive! You shouldn’t have to say it or even think about it. In fact, if you’re saying it, you’re probably already in trouble.
You deserve better, but even if you break up with him (which you should!), you are still going to have to deal with your feeling that perhaps you have to put up with mistreatment from anyone who’s crazy about you. Repeat after me: “I can have a partner who loves me AND ALSO treats me well.” I know it’s easy to say this, and harder to feel it. Shift your energy from saving this relationship to—as corny as it may sound–convincing yourself of your own worth. Recruit your friends, who obviously care about you very much, to support you as you look for the partner who’s “crazy” about you without being possessive. I guarantee there’s nothing about you that means you have to settle for less.
My spouse and I are expecting a child in early spring. This is particularly joyous, as we struggled with infertility for many years. Unfortunately, there was a recent death in the family. My in-laws included our unborn little one in the obituary—and they also included a name. The problem is that we haven’t named our little one…