Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Beer Wife: My husband of 15 years has a drinking problem. He drinks secretly, often multiple times a week, typically beer. He often falls asleep during family time with our two kids, ages 14 and 11. They have no idea. The problems are many. First, we are in a tense/bad marriage because he’s always wanted to live in his hometown and I’ve always refused to move. And he’s angry about our current situation. I’m the sole breadwinner but we have to scrimp a little because we live in a pricey area..so now he feels like he has to work. But his work is investing in crypto. (I know.)
Second, and this is where I feel like a bad person: When he’s drunk, he’s easier to be around. He’s kinder and more fun overall. Of course, there’s the passing out issue and the thing where he doesn’t remember much about what’s happened when he’s drunk. The only times I’ve raised this with him have been in fights or once in therapy, and a counselor told him to go to AA. He did but then said it didn’t feel like he belonged. That was years ago. I think he’s slowly killing himself by drinking so much but I’m afraid to bring it up because of all the baggage.
A: You can let yourself off the hook here. Know why? Because even if you said, “Honey, we need to sit down and talk. You have a drinking problem and I’m extremely worried!” there is about a one percent chance that will lead him into another stab at recovery and a better life. You don’t have the ability to make him better. I know, it’s hard. But can you forget about how to bring up the drinking and instead evaluate whether you want to be in this marriage? You say you’re in a bad place, he’s angry, and you think his job is a joke. Even if you were to (miraculously) motivate him to get sober, you might not like him very much. Actually, you’d be missing his kind and fun drunk moments and you might not like him at all! So the question is not “How do I help my husband stop drinking?” but “Do I want this husband?” You need to think about what the answer is.
Q. Aunt In Agony: My sister has gone off the rails since her ex died. He was a cheating pile of garbage but his daughter adored him. He died during the divorce and my niece took it very badly. But for my sister, it was full steam ahead—a new house, new husband, and new baby within the year.
My sister put her daughter in therapy to fix it and pulled her out just as quickly when she got questioned. My niece resents her half-sister. She is a great girl. I have been trying to mitigate the damage done—usually by having auntie-only trips. My sister has started to threaten to end them because I am excluding her toddler.
I told her I would be fine to babysit if she needed a break but come on. Taking a grieving preteen on is very different from a kid in diapers. My other niece isn’t going to have memories of going to plays and picnics with her aunt at this stage. My sister informed me I will never know better than the mother and I was spoiling my niece senseless. I left rather than argue. I feel completely helpless here and I don’t have much family backup since my mother died.
A: It sounds like your sister is still really struggling with her ex’s death, and grappling with a new life with a blended family that isn’t the one she planned for herself. She’s lashing out. I wish she would let you take your niece on solo outings but right now the answer is no, so you have to adjust. The good news is, this kid doesn’t actually need plays and picnics—she just needs the presence of a loving adult who gives her attention and reminds her that she matters. It won’t be as much fun, but you can do that during visits with the whole family. At least until your sister calms down, which I believe she will, eventually.
Q. Rock and a Hard Place: Twelve years ago my husband and I bought our dream house, a three-bedroom townhouse in a neighborhood we love. We were childless at the time and our new place felt like oceans of space compared to our tiny studio city apartment. Now, we have two children (6 and 9) and space is getting a little tighter. Each of our children has their own small bedroom and we remodeled our basement to add another bedroom for my in-laws, who live with us for six months out of the year. The problem occurs when we have overnight guests while my in-laws are staying with us, which happens 8-10 times a year for short stays of one or two nights. When that happens, my kids bunk together (they both have double beds in their rooms) and the guests take one of the kids’ rooms. Lately, my oldest has started complaining that his room doesn’t have enough space in it for him to play with his friends, and he wants to get a loft bed and desk combo to free up floor space. I’m sympathetic because his room doesn’t have a ton of floor space with all the furniture. But I know if we let our oldest change his room this way, his little brother’s going to want the same thing and that will wreck our guest room arrangement. My husband and I don’t want (and can’t afford) to move right now, so we have to find a way to make our kids happy with the space we have now. What should we do?
A: I believe the priority in your home should be what happens every day, not what might happen a handful of times a year. Let your kids have their loft beds and enjoy their rooms. The part of your life where you have your in-laws staying with you in addition to other overnight guests is over, and that’s OK! You are not in the hospitality industry. Your home is not a bed and breakfast. You have joined the millions of Americans whose space constraints mean people who want to visit can choose between an air mattress on the living room floor (they make really comfortable ones now!) and a lovely, local hotel.
Q. Stuck in a Move: I have been in my stepdaughter’s life since she was 8. She was the sweetest girl ever. But that didn’t last. Once she hit her late teens it became hell on earth. She dropped out of school and ran around with a bad crowd. Every time she came home, she made promises about straightening herself out—finish school, get a job, and go to counseling.
It is a vicious cycle that shows no sign of stopping. It broke my wife’s heart. Now it is about to break my marriage. My wife and I are in the process of moving due to my work. We will be living with relatives of mine until we can settle on a house to buy. My stepdaughter called my wife crying and claiming that the “friends” she had been living with stole and beat her. She wants to come home again. For real this time. She is currently in a hotel that my wife and I are paying for.
My wife wants to either delay the move or have her come with us. I told her no way that is happening. We already have half the house moved and have had multiple offers. I refuse to inflict my stepdaughter on my relatives. We did this song and dance for a decade. I am tired of it. My wife and I are fighting about this. We have been to counseling before—it hasn’t changed a thing. I love my wife but I am about to throw in the towel. Is there any other way?
A: You’re not at all wrong to be frustrated, but it is what it is. The woman you married loves this girl and is not going to be happy (or a very enjoyable spouse to live with) if she’s forced to abandon her. Plus, it doesn’t sound like your stepdaughter did anything entirely unforgivable. And people don’t just stop caring about their children when they become adults. You hopefully knew when you said your vows that the two of them were a package deal. Now you have to decide whether you still want that deal, and it sounds like you don’t.
Re: Q. Aunt In Agony: I’m just going to concentrate on problem-solving here, rather than the larger issues, and suggest that you tell your sister that (rather than take both girls on together) you are going to alternate auntie days with each one individually. That way older niece still gets solo outings, which is important for her to have. And the younger niece gets to build a bond with her aunt, too (since it seems like your sister is reacting to a perceived lack of interest in the younger niece on your part). For older niece’s days, outings, plays, the whole shebang. For younger niece’s days, you can just keep her at home with you and play blocks and she’ll love it.
A: I was going to say, this will only work if the LW is willing to spend twice as much time on her nieces. But she did say, “I’d be willing to babysit if she needs a break.” So I think it’s a good solution. Propose that for every auntie outing with the older girl, spend about the same number of hours with the toddler.
Re: Q. Beer Wife: LW says: “He often falls asleep during family time with our two kids, ages 14 and 11. They have no idea [he’s an alcoholic].”
I’d be very surprised if these kids have no idea their father is an alcoholic. If LW is too afraid to bring it up, think about how it’s affecting the kids. Believing they have no idea is denial at work.
A: Such a good point. They’re not 3 and 5 years old! They know what’s going on.
Re: Q. Aunt In Agony: It sounds like you and your older niece have a very special bond and she really benefits from your presence in her life. In order to maintain that, you should reconsider the contempt you have for your sister. Getting remarried, moving into a new house, and having a kid don’t usually qualify as “going off the rails.” Your sister was ready to move on. It’s understandable that her daughter is still struggling. But maybe part of what your sister is reacting to is your judgment of her life choices. Compromise with your sister in order to stay in your niece’s life. You could take both girls for an overnight and do makeovers and or watch a movie after the baby is asleep.
A: Wow, very insightful. I hadn’t picked up on the fact that the sister really did not do anything that wild! Absolutely agree with this.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: We’re going to end it here! Thanks for joining and we’ll talk again next week.
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