Dear Prudence

Help! I’m Shaken by My Boyfriend’s Revelation About His College Years.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

Woman holding her head in pain with an image of a brain next to her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Happy Monday! Let me know what ruined your weekend.

Q. Scared of Ending Up on the Same Path: As a very young person, I (female) dated someone (male) whose life was severely impacted by a mental illness, the diagnosis and severity of which wasn’t known to me until many months in. The relationship became extremely difficult in its last years and I told myself after it was over that I simply can’t date another person struggling with their mental health. It just took too much of a toll. Fast forward until now, I met someone and we quickly fell in love. I’ve never felt so strongly about someone! They have alluded to a depressive period in their college years and I didn’t think much of it but recently it came up and they acknowledged that diagnosed depression doesn’t really ever fully go away. I respect this truth, and right now they are happy and don’t require medication (they did before), but now I am anxious. I never want to go back to that awful, helpless place where my life was controlled by my partner’s mental health problem, and now I can’t help but question the future I see with them. They called their past depression severe, and I am afraid I could eventually be living on the edge again, always scared that it might come back. Any advice? I am in therapy but my therapist is on maternity leave…

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A: I understand that you don’t want to endure another relationship that takes such a toll on you. I don’t want that for you either. But there’s a better way to protect yourself here. Instead of avoiding anyone who has in the past or will in the future suffer from any kind of mental health issue (which by the way, includes a lot of people!), commit to never again staying in a relationship that is extremely difficult for multiple years. You don’t protect yourself by trying to pick the perfect partner who will never cause you stress. (I mean, you can, but it makes you anxious and afraid like you are now because nobody is perfect and everyone has some quality that could potentially get worse and lead them to hurt you or simply stop being a good fit.) You protect yourself by trusting that you will recognize when a relationship is no longer working out, and love yourself enough to move on. If you can do that, then you simply won’t ever be back in an “awful, helpless place” where your life is bad because of someone else—due to their mental health challenges, infidelity, abuse, or even just incompatibility.

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You’re in love with this guy! Keep dating him! Chances are, if it ends it will just be because, well, most relationships end, not because of his depression.

Q. All Questioned Out: I’ve been married to my wife, “Marie,” for seven years. We have two beautiful children together, and we are both overjoyed with the home and family we have created together.

However—and I know this might sound petty—she has a habit of questioning every decision I make, even the smallest ones, even when it makes no sense to question them. We’ve both been working from home since the pandemic, so this habit seems to have become sharper over the past few years.

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If I grab a sandwich for lunch, she’ll ask why I don’t want soup. If I say I’ll have soup, she’ll ask me if I don’t like sandwiches anymore and if she should throw the bread away. If I walk down to the grocery store and take the “scenic” route through the park (about five minutes longer than the normal route) she’ll ask me why I went that way, and whether there was anything in the park worth looking at. If I tell her I saw some nice birds in the park, she’ll ask me if I’m “sure” I saw that specific variety of bird.

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When we bought a new car earlier this year, I said I’d like to get a silver one and she argued for red—not because she liked red at all, just because she “wasn’t sure” why I liked silver so much. (For the record, silver was just my preference—I’d have happily gotten red if she really liked it.)

Prudie, I love my wife but this habit is exhausting. I’ve started lying about the smallest things, not because I want to keep secrets from her but because I don’t want to be asked a dozen, doubting questions about my smallest daily choices. I’ve noticed that she even speaks to the children this way, which makes them confused and hesitant. Aside from this one issue, she’s a wonderful wife and mother and always has been, so I’m not sure if I want to suggest couples therapy over something that feels so trivial. Can you suggest anything that might help?

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A: The obvious answer is: Talk to her about this. You explained it really clearly and kindly here, so I trust you have the language to do it in a way that doesn’t make her feel totally attacked. Don’t snap at her in the moment, right after you say you’re taking a shower and she asks, “Have you thought about a bath instead?” Do it in a peaceful moment when she hasn’t just annoyed you. Have a few examples. Tell her that you know she doesn’t mean any harm, but it’s difficult to have to justify your decisions all day long. And explain how it feels.

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For what it’s worth, I disagree that this is too trivial for couples therapy. I think your wife’s non-stop questioning might be a symptom of something else—like a desire to connect and feel close to you (and the kids) through conversation without being sure how. Over the years, have the two of you by any chance stopped talking about more than just day-to-day stuff? Do most of your exchanges feel like small talk or surface-level communication about running a household? That could be something she’s compensating for, and something to discuss with a counselor. Until then you might try being intentional about having more meaningful communication with your wife. I have this feeling that after an exchange in which she’s had the opportunity to ask “How do you feel about that intense memory from your childhood now?” or even “What are some vacations you’d like us to take in the future?” she’ll be less likely to want to know if there was a reason you chose that particular brand of toothpaste.

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Q. Atheist Insult: What do you say to a close friend who says she is sorry for you because you are an atheist? I found her comment demeaning.

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A: “I find your comment demeaning.”

Q. Not Their #1 Grandkid: I have lived several states away from my family for most of my adult life. I make it back home to visit once or twice a year and I prioritize seeing my aging grandmother. She has always been a steady and loving presence in my life, and she had a large role in raising me. My parents were not around much and she was the most dependable person in my young life. I am fortunate and grateful to have her.

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Conversely, I do not like my other grandparents. I always feel as though I have to watch every word I say around them. They are not intentionally mean or abusive. I just think they’re self-involved and judgy. They seem to be bent on making everyone around them feel bad. I am not alone in this belief. The grandkids all scatter when they enter a room. They make me feel like everything I do is wrong, so I do my best to avoid seeing them whenever possible.

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These are my mom’s parents. Whenever I am visiting, she is insistent on making time to spend with them and even seems offended when I only talk about visiting the good grandma. I’d rather not waste an entire evening of a brief visit on people who I have to walk on eggshells around. Sure, they’re family, but they’ve rarely made me feel welcome or wanted. I know my mom loves them and wants us to have a good relationship, but I have absolutely no desire to. They also don’t make any special effort to contact or see me. It only seems to happen when my mom is meditating. I don’t want anything from them and they seem pretty ambivalent about me. Can I tell my mom nicely that I would like to skip the bonding time with her parents when I visit? A cordial greeting at family parties is about all I can handle.

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A: Yes, you can absolutely tell her! Every hour you spend with these grandparents who aren’t even really grandparents to you is an hour you’re not spending with a woman who you love, and who has played a meaningful role in your life. You didn’t include ages but since you’re old enough to have had a good chunk of adulthood under your belt, I’m guessing she’s getting up there and there are not a whole ton of hours left for you two to enjoy each other. I’m not saying it will be easy to share your new plans with your mom, but at the end of your grandmother’s life, I think you’ll look back and cherish every moment and feel sure that the difficult conversation with your mom was worth it.

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Q. Re: Atheist Insult: Make her an ex-friend. She doesn’t respect you. Imagine if you had said something like that to her about her religious beliefs?

A: Right?!

Q. Re: All Questioned Out: I’d point this out, every time she does it, and tell her gently why this bothers you so much. It isn’t trivial if it bothers you so much. It can be a sign of anxiety, and exploring it (and your response to it) with a therapist could be very productive.

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A: I agree. But I also think there needs to be a conversation that happens at a time other than when she’s just done it.

Q. Re: All Questioned Out: My husband and I have a code word. If one of us says it, it’s a nice way of telling the other to back off, we are an adult and our decision is not wrong/needs to be questioned. It’s a silly word that isn’t used much and has helped us greatly.

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A: I love this! Talk about a piece of concrete advice! What is the code word? It doesn’t matter, I just want to know.

Q. Re: All Questioned Out: Actually, this is more of a problem for the children than just an annoyance to the husband. She is raising children who will second-guess every decision they ever make, for the rest of their lives. (I know someone like this.) Nip this is the bud for the kids’ sake.

A: I didn’t even think about that part of it. You’re very right.

Q. Re: All Questioned Out: Sounds like the wife has an anxiety disorder and maybe it got worse with the pandemic. These types of questions “Are you sure?” and “Have you considered ?” are hallmarks of anxiety in my experience.

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Jenée Desmond-Harris: So interesting. This is definitely worth thinking about.

Discuss this column on our Facebook page!

Classic Prudie

It’s hard for me to make good friends that last. A few years ago, I made a good friend at work. We could talk to each other about everything. Our kids got on really well too, which was an added bonus. There was just one issue: My husband hated her from the get-go. At first he gave shallow reasons like she’s too tall or she just looks untrustworthy. Later, if we ever got in an argument, he’d jump at the chance to put her down more. Eventually he forbade me from seeing her unless our kids were present. I still would hang out with her alone as adults here and there; I’d just not tell him. But then it all blew up.

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