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Fear in the Family

I’m afraid of my teenage stepson.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg
Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I am a stay-at-home mom with a 2-year-old toddler. My husband has a 13-year-old son with his ex. We have a restraining order against her after she threatened me while I was pregnant. Right now, my stepson lives with us full time and only has supervised visits with his mother. He used to be a sweet, shy kid, but now I am afraid of him. My stepson has anger issues and is 6 inches taller than me. He has cursed at me, broken plates, and left holes in walls. I don’t trust him near my daughter. My husband is trying, but he can’t be home until 7 most nights. I leave the house with my daughter until he gets home. I don’t want to be alone in the house with my stepson. We are paying out of pocket for weekly therapy, and it is not working. I am tired. I am afraid. I am out of options. My husband is a good man and a good father, but I feel he is failing us in favor of my stepson. I want to feel the love I had for the little boy at my wedding, but all I feel is fear that the next glass he throws will be at my daughter’s head instead of the wall. I don’t know what to do.
—Frightened Stepmom

If you’re at the point where you have to leave your own home with your daughter every day until your husband gets off work, you’re right that what you and your husband have tried thus far isn’t working, and something needs to change immediately. I have sympathy for your stepson, who is still a child in need of counseling and support. Your husband must find a therapeutic intervention that provides him with the help he needs to communicate nonviolently. If your stepson is seeing a regular talk therapist, and it’s not helping, your husband should consider finding someone who specializes in anger management, behavioral intervention, and preventing violence. But in the meantime, your priority needs to be your daughter’s safety. If you have to remove her from her home for hours every weekday, then you need to find somewhere else to live immediately. Your current situation is destabilizing and dangerous for her.

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Dear Prudence,
I have more than once had sex, or gone further than I was really comfortable going with men, for the sake of preserving their feelings, or because I felt I had already taken things too far to back out. Almost all of my female friends have a similar story. How do I convince myself that I don’t need to have sex with someone to protect their feelings? And how do I find the words to politely end a sexual encounter after I become uncomfortable?
—Opting Out

Unlearning the message that you are responsible, as a woman, for making a man feel always comfortable is the work of a lifetime! The language itself is fairly simple and straightforward. There are dozens of ways to politely stop a sexual encounter: “Thanks for a nice evening, but I’m not feeling a connection, so I’m going to go home”; “I’m not comfortable with this anymore; let’s stop”; “I’m not coming in, good night.” The bigger problem, which you’ve already identified, is overriding the voice in your brain that says Oh my God, I couldn’t possibly say that, even if it were true. He’d be so offended, and I’d hurt his pride, and what if he tried to point out that I seemed to be having a good time earlier? I don’t want to get into an argument over this; it’d be easier just to go along for now and then leave as soon as it’s over.

Think of it this way. You sound like a sensitive and empathetic person—you would presumably not want to have sex with a man who actually felt uncomfortable and disinterested in sleeping with you, who was simply going along with you because he was anxious about hurting your feelings. If you found out that a man you were about to sleep with felt this way, you would stop immediately, because you would be wholly uninterested in having sex with a partner who was not genuinely enthusiastic. You would not want him to put on a good show, grit his teeth, and get through it. So treat yourself with the same kindness and generosity. I hope you find partners who cheerfully and graciously accept “Hey, this isn’t working for me anymore—let’s stop” as a normal thing to hear on a date. I hope you’re able to give yourself permission to stop a sexual encounter without feeling like you need to apologize or that you’re trying to break a lease before your rental agreement is up. Going on a date, flirting with someone, kissing someone, testing your chemistry—these aren’t links in a chain of events that leads to an irreversible “We have to have sex now” contract that you’re obligated to uphold against your own wishes, inclinations, and desires.

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Dear Prudence,
I’m recently getting back into dating after 11 years of marriage. The dating scene is very different than it used to be. I’ve been using an app to meet men because it seems like that’s what the kids are doing these days and I don’t have a lot of options to meet people in my everyday life. It just so happens that I’m really good at finding information about people, and as I get to know these men, I dig about to find out more. (My favorite is finding the DUI of a guy even though he’d never told me his name. I also discovered a guy was catfishing me.) I do it for a few reasons. First and foremost, it turns out that most men are full of it, at least those on dating apps. I want to weed out the people who aren’t worth my time. It’s also a challenge, and a delightful puzzle. Because I see it as a puzzle, I usually end up down a rabbit hole of information about these guys. I find their jobs, their homes, sometimes the homes they grew up in, Instagram accounts, Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds, and on and on.

My friends think I’m a bit stalkerish and that I should just let things develop naturally. I’d rather know ahead of time if the guy I’m chatting with is actually married with a 6-week-old. (That really happened.) What say you? Am I intruding on their privacy? I never cross any legal lines to find these things out. It’s all right there on the internet for anyone who’s willing to look. But I usually end up with a hell of a lot more knowledge than they’d probably be willing to share with me.
—Harmless Stalking Is Fun

You don’t need my permission to spend your spare time obsessively researching a bunch of men you already dislike until you find something that confirms your initial mistrust, if that’s what you really want to do. It sounds like a deeply unpleasant use of leisure time to me, but not everyone enjoys the same hobbies. The question isn’t whether you’re doing something right or wrong, exactly; you’re technically right inasmuch as all of this information is freely available. But this goes well beyond a quick social media search before a first date. The important question is: What are you getting out of this? You say that it’s like solving a puzzle, which is fine, but you don’t seem to be going on many dates, you’re not seeking out men you like and trying to get to know them better, and you’re not letting anybody get to know you. You’re staying at home, prowling into the corners of strangers’ personal histories, and then feeling satisfied when you find a reason not to trust them.

If this is fun for you, then by all means, keep doing it; you’re not actively hurting anyone and the primary person whose time you’re wasting is you. But if your friends seem concerned, and if you sometimes catch yourself wondering, “Why can’t I stop doing this?” then it might be worth asking yourself what you’re getting out of this behavior, and what it stems from—whether that’s a fear of dating, a belief that every man who expresses romantic interest is actually out to get you, or a burgeoning interest in a criminal justice career.

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Dear Prudence,
I just married my husband this summer after five years together. I had noticed that his relationship with his mother was not healthy. She consistently makes poor decisions, then expects both of her sons to swoop in and fix things. Two days after our wedding, she had a full-on breakdown. She threatened suicide if we left the city (we live across the country from her). We took her to the hospital, and she was put on suicide watch for three days. Since then, she’s gone to therapy but doesn’t seem to be changing her behavior or really giving the process a shot. She badgers my husband and his brother every day and is unable to make any significant decision without spending hours on the phone with one of them first.

She now has to move out of her current housing but refuses to live anywhere that is “below her,” and she changes her mind about where she wants to live more than once a day. She texts or calls her sons incessantly. My husband is at his wit’s end. But he refuses to seek out counseling for himself because he “doesn’t have the time right now.” I have offered to research options, and he says I should focus my energy on helping him with his mother instead. I am exhausted, and I can’t stand watching him let her walk all over him. I don’t know how to move forward, or how to get him to set real boundaries. He has tried, but she eventually wears him down, and he is so afraid she will end up homeless or dead if he doesn’t help her, he won’t listen to reason. Our first year of marriage has turned into a nightmare, and I just don’t know how much longer we can take this. Should I intervene with his mother? Are there resources for how to help family members stuck in these situations? She is more than just depressed—I think she has some kind of social disorder—but I can’t get my husband to accept the facts.
—Distressed Daughter-in-Law

Oh, my friend. It’s painful that your husband “doesn’t have the time” to see a therapist because he’s currently spending all of his spare time talking his mother down through one crisis after another—he has plenty of time, it’s just a matter of how he chooses to spend it. You married him knowing that he had no healthy boundaries with his mother, and you’re starting to see how that’s going to cause problems for you if you stay married to him. You can’t control your mother-in-law, and you can’t control your husband; what you can do is look after yourself right now. If she won’t take therapy seriously, and your husband refuses to go, then you can still make an appointment and start seeing someone right away.

Without going into detail about potential mental health diagnoses for your mother-in-law, I’m fairly certain that the help she needs isn’t for her sons to be on the phone with her nine or 10 times a day. Whether or not you’re able to persuade your husband to try something different with her, you can at least decide for yourself that you’re not going to dedicate multiple hours of each day to managing your husband’s relationship with her. A therapist will be able to help you find ways to set and maintain limits with him—and determine whether it’s possible for your marriage to be anything other than a nightmare.

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Dear Prudence,
I’ve recently become engaged. I’ve been a vegetarian for ethical reasons for more than 20 years, and my fiancé, while not a vegetarian himself, often eats vegetarian food with me. I’d like our wedding dinner to be meat-free, but my fiancé is very against this. He thinks most people will expect meat (his family is full of “meat-and-potatoes” types) and won’t enjoy the meal otherwise. I don’t want to serve meat at my wedding. I feel very strongly about this, but my fiancé thinks I’m forcing my beliefs on everyone and “taking away their choice.” It’s not like I want to pass out pamphlets or tell people what to eat at other meals—I’d just like to serve a meal that’s incidentally vegetarian and delicious. I’m not sure if it matters, but his parents are not helping pay for the wedding, it is mostly us and my parents. How do we resolve this?
—Animal Lover

I hope your fiancé isn’t normally this petulant, because asking your wedding guests to eat a single meal of lasagna (or pizza, or burritos, or any number of perfectly ordinary vegetarian dishes) is an awfully far cry from “taking away their choice” to eat as much meat as they like on any given day. You’ve been a vegetarian for more than 20 years; this long-standing conviction of yours should come as no surprise to him. It’s odd that on other occasions he’s eaten vegetarian meals with you without complaint or concern, but the idea of doing so on his wedding day feels like some sort of abnegation of his freedom. He (and any of your guests who wish it) can have bacon at breakfast, ham at lunch, and a vegetarian dinner in the evening without any harm to their constitution or serious restriction of their dietary choices. Yours is a very reasonable request, and your fiancé should let it go. There will be plenty of meat-filled meals in both his and your guests’ futures.

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Dear Prudence,
My partner and I have been together for about two years now. In many ways, he’s everything I’ve ever wanted. He’s respectful, kind, artistic, and has a great sense of humor. About six months ago, we moved in together, and I’ve realized he’s lazy and irresponsible when it comes to household management. For the first few months, I did 90 percent of the housework. He had recently experienced an unexpected family loss, so I chalked it up to grief. However, things didn’t improve. I ended up making a chore chart to divvy up responsibilities, but I still find myself reminding him three or four times to do a task. And this isn’t minor stuff either. He sleeps in until 4 p.m. on the weekends (not due to staying up late), and often is late to work from oversleeping or misses work entirely. I worry that his forgiving employer will one day fire him on the spot, so I’m constantly urging him to get up and go to work. He is irresponsible with finances, purchasing parts and equipment for projects he never starts.

I’m tired of being his mother. In terms of chores, I either have to nag him incessantly or give in and do things myself. I don’t want to nag and intervene, but I feel compelled to since I care about him and want him to do well in life. I’ve tried talking with him about these things, and he genuinely seems to want to do better but says that disorganization and prioritization have always been issues for him. He says that his “brain doesn’t work” like mine does. If this is the case, I want to be sympathetic, but I still think he should seek help. His employer offers free therapy, and I’ve encouraged him to take advantage of that, since his problems are affecting his ability to achieve his own goals and not just my desire for a clean house. I really want things to work between us, since he’s so wonderful in other ways, but I’m tired of my efforts being unreciprocated. I don’t want to break up with the man I’m in love with over dirty dishes and an upswept floor.

My mom says that I should just deal with the chores myself, since I am the one with higher living standards. My friends say that I shouldn’t worry about his life being in disarray, since it’s his life to live and his mistakes to make. Are my concerns valid? Is this enough of a reason to break up with someone? I feel guilty since I advocated for the move, and I think our relationship would still be just fine if we hadn’t started living together. Furthermore, a breakup at this point would leave one of us without housing. Should I wait until the lease is almost up? Although I’ve brought up my frustrations numerous times, I don’t think he realizes how deeply this matters to me, and I think a breakup would catch him seriously off guard. I don’t want us to end up that way, but I’m running out of strategies and patience.
—Don’t Want to Be a Nag

It’s possible that your boyfriend is depressed—sleeping all hours of the day and having a hard time getting motivated even in the face of potentially serious consequences are certainly signs that he should speak to a doctor about depression. There are a number of other possible conditions that might cause your boyfriend to feel his “brain doesn’t work” like someone else’s, from ADHD to executive function disorder. I don’t mean to claim there’s definitely a diagnosis that “explains” your boyfriend’s behavior, merely that it’s worth speaking to a medical professional about in case there’s support or treatment he currently needs but isn’t receiving. Regardless of whether or not he has a diagnosis, however, you can still make decisions about whether or not you want to live with him. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to break up, either—it may be that living together just isn’t possible, but that you still want to continue your relationship and figure out an arrangement that works better.

I do not endorse your mother’s advice to just do everything for him and ignore your own feelings. That’s a recipe for resentment and eventual estrangement. Since you’re worried this is going to come as a surprise to him, I think you should revisit the topic: “We’ve talked about chore management in a number of little ways, but I want to make it clear that living together is not working for me. I’m doing 90 percent of the housework, and I either have to remind you to do your share multiple times before you get to it, or just do it for you. That’s exhausting and frustrating and it’s not how I want to spend my time. When our lease is up, I’m going to look for somewhere else to live.” If he wants to talk about making changes, that’s great, but I don’t think you should frame the discussion as an ultimatum, because he’s likely to make promises he can’t keep if he thinks it’ll get you to stay. You’re making the choice that’s right for you, and you can encourage him to seek professional help for the difficulty he has functioning on a daily basis. Whether or not he chooses to seek that help is up to him. Your relationship may be able to continue, depending on how you two can set your expectations for one another, but you don’t have to keep living with him (or like this) when it’s causing you so much distress.

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