Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Good morning! Tell me about all your problems …
Q. Plenty of other fish in the sea: After my parents divorced when I was a teen, my father (with whom I’ve never been very close) remarried another woman, and they were together almost 20 years. A year ago, she died of cancer. She was survived by a sister, who recently lost her husband.
My father and his sister-in-law have been spending an awful lot of time together lately, and he constantly finds reasons to bring her name into our conversations. If I tell him a recipe I tried, he’ll mention one that she tried. If I get takeout, he’ll mention that she did too. I’ve noticed that every text or email includes her name several times. My father is a very proper and respectable man, certainly not the type who I’d expect would start a relationship with his wife’s sister barely a year after her death. It just seems so soon after her passing to just move on, and with a family member, too.
I know it’s not my place to pass judgment, but I definitely believe there is more than friendship here and I cannot help but find it appalling and disturbing—especially because he has judged me, as well as everyone else, so much. Wrong is wrong. If he’s that lonely, there are plenty of other fish in the sea. I want to confront him and just voice my opinion. Please help and share your thoughts.
A: I think you’re probably right that something is going on between them; that thing where a person can’t help but bring up someone’s name in every conversation is a dead giveaway. But your distress over this (possible) relationship is misplaced.
These are two older adults who have suffered loss and heartbreak and seem to be enjoying each other. Explain to me what the problem is? Who are they hurting by dating, even if we agree that things are moving a little fast? Who would they be helping by not dating? I think you know the answer: nobody. I’ll go further than saying it’s not wrong—it’s actually great for the both of them.
Having a distant relationship with your father must have been hard, and I bet you have a lot to be mad about when it comes to his failure to be the dad you needed. I wonder if all of your anger and resentment about that was kind of floating around and just landed on this harmless situation, where it doesn’t belong. I do think you should confront him—but about the distance you feel and how he’s hurt you, not about his current crush.
You mentioned that he’s judgmental, and it sounds like that’s been painful. Allowing him to do what’s best for him in this situation, without interfering, can be one way of making sure you don’t follow in his footsteps.
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Q. Not a bank: I work and make good money. My siblings made other choices but they brighten the world. My sister “Jess” works retail and runs a rescue for feral cats. My brother “Tony” had trouble with the law but settled down when he met “Carol,” a single mother of four. I am not close to them, because they only recently came into our lives, but I do send them gift cards on their birthdays and Christmas.
I pay all the bills for our declining parents. Jess is very upfront and authentic about her charity, and I support it. Tony, on the other hand, asks me for money “for the kids,” and if I ask for details about any child support from their father, Carol snaps that it is “none of my business.” Look, I am happy to step up in an emergency, but I am not a bank. Tony and Carol have jobs and aren’t losing the house, and ballet isn’t a need. Now Carol’s accusing me of “hating” her kids and tossing them aside. Is there anything I can do?
A: Get out a sheet of paper or start an Excel sheet and title it “Budget.” Enter some numbers for your own expenses, your support of your parents, and your charitable contributions. Then when Tony asks for money, simply say, “I’m sorry, but it’s not in my budget.” And it will be true. If he pushes back, add, “I’m not going to discuss my budget anymore, but you’re my siblings and I love you, so I hope we can still have a relationship even if I’m not writing checks to you.” Be firm and stick to gift cards on holidays. I really hope he and Carol get the message, even if it takes a while for them to get used to not treating you like an ATM.
Q. Anhedonic in Atlanta: I’m a college senior graduating in August. All throughout college, I had this stupid idea that once I graduated, I’d have free time to travel and pursue hobbies. I’ve been working as close to full-time as I could since I was 15 to help my family. I never had time to make friends or do sports or join clubs or go to prom or anything extra. I was looking forward to that after college.
But now I’m applying for jobs and they all just seem miserable. Most of them are low-paying with only one to two weeks of (unpaid) vacation. I guess I should’ve seen this coming, but it’s making me really depressed. All of my friends and relatives who have already graduated complain about how overworked and broke they are, and how they don’t have any time for themselves. How can I get used to a lifetime of work and misery?
A: I can’t decide whether you’re extremely negative or extremely clear-eyed, or both. Either way, this is an awful way to feel. The good news is, even though too many people have to work way too hard at jobs they hate just to survive, plenty of them manage to be happy and create lives that are worth living, and even being excited about. How? You have to ask them.
Your homework is to identify three people—friends, relatives, or professional contacts within 10 years of your age—who love their jobs, and three who don’t love their jobs but like their lives. Interview them about how they organize their lives, and more importantly, how they think about their lives. See what sounds doable to you. Decide whether you think you’re someone who wants to find meaning in what you do for a living, or someone who wants to work enough to pay the bills—hopefully, leaving right at 5 p.m. every day—and find meaning elsewhere. Take tips from people who you think have figured out a good system. Ask them how to get where they are. Then start making a plan.
I’ll also add two pieces of all-purpose advice:
• Find a therapist. Anyone who’s seen a list of depression symptoms knows that hopelessness is at the top, and since you’re experiencing some of that, it might be worth talking to someone about whether any of the other symptoms fit and whether talk therapy or medication could change your outlook.
• See if you can identify something or someone outside of yourself to care about and make a plan—whether it’s political organizing, volunteering, mentoring, or participating in mutual aid—to help. Doing something to make life better for people who are worse off than you are might give you a sense of meaning, provide some perspective, introduce you to friends who wake up every day motivated to make the world better, or at least offer a distraction from what right now feels like a lifetime of drudgery.
Q. Hungry for more: I’ve been married to my wife for almost 15 years, I’m also female, and we’re in our 60s. We have a very good marriage with the exception of being sexless for the last 12 years, mostly due to low libido from menopause and my antidepressants, but a lot of affection remains.
Lately I’ve been feeling the need for some sexual activity, and I have found a young man half my age who thinks I’m a gorgeous goddess and wants to have sex with me. We’ve done a little fooling around, but there’s been no penetration. I am terrified of my wife finding out, as I know she would 100 percent not approve or accept these mild sexual shenanigans. Her last partner cheated on her and she’s mentioned that she’s waiting for me to do the same despite 16 years of fidelity and loyalty.
I don’t want my marriage to end. Do you have any advice on how I could approach her and let her know that I love her dearly, value our marriage, and have no desire to leave her for someone else—I just wanna have a little sex that I think would improve my outlook and our marriage?
A: You’ve had 12 whole years to discuss this! I know it would have been hard—really hard, and really risky—but you should have been honest and let her know about how unsatisfied you were. In that conversation, you could have proposed “a little sex” with someone else; plenty of people have that kind of arrangement. But by going behind her back and being unfaithful, you made her biggest fear about your relationship come true. I don’t know if there’s any coming back from that.
And the worst part is, you’re not even happy. You’re going through life feeling terrified that your wife will find out. So muster every bit of ethical energy you have, break it off with the young guy, and tell your wife what you’re doing. Apologize profusely (note: avoid minimizing what happened and don’t use the phrase “mild sexual shenanigans”). Maybe—maybe—this will open a productive conversation about what the two of you can do to make your relationship better. But there’s a real possibility that she’ll take a long time to trust you again or even ask for a divorce.
I know you don’t want your marriage to end, but that’s something you had more control over before you cheated. Now it’s up to the person you betrayed.
Q. One love: I am five weeks pregnant with a guy I’ve only been dating for three months. We fell for each other fast. All my people are happy for me, except for my cousin. She told me I was being stupid. She had a similar situation that didn’t turn out so great; her baby’s father is in prison and he broke up with her while she was pregnant. I stood by her the whole time.
I have my own car, apartment, and my man is happy and taking time to get us ready for our new baby. How do I get my cousin to see that and stop judging me? I just don’t want to stress about this anymore.
A: The most generous interpretation of the way she’s acting is that she doesn’t want you to make the same mistakes she did. But it does sound more like she’s jealous that your pregnancy and relationship are going better than hers did. Either way, you can’t get her to stop judging you, but you can decide not to take it personally or let it stress you out.
Give her a warning: “You keep calling me stupid, and it’s making me not want to be around you. Can you agree to stop?” If she says yes and changes her tune, great. If she makes even one more comment, say: “I asked you not to call me stupid and you did it again. When we talk and you criticize me, I end up feeling hurt and frustrated, so I’m going to take some space away from you to enjoy my pregnancy without being attacked. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to talk.”
Whatever happens, redirect the energy you’re spending on her and focus it on this exciting time in your life, and the loved ones who don’t need reminders about how to treat you. And remember: Even if this relationship doesn’t work out, that doesn’t mean she was right.
Q. Re: Plenty of other fish in the sea: Everything Prudie said—everything. I don’t know how long your father’s wife lived with cancer, but if it was a slow decline, then he probably did a lot of grieving before she died. Grief is strange and nonlinear and confounding and confusing.
This is coming from your feelings about your father and how he’s shown up in your life. That’s where you should be putting your energy.
A: I agree (obviously). He may have done many things wrong, but this is not one of them.
Q. Re: Anhedonic in Atlanta: Remember that you’ve been working full-time, while going to school and doing the homework up until now—of course you didn’t have time for clubs! Once you are “only” working full-time, without the whole other job of school on your plate, you may find that 40-hours-a-week job, where you don’t take work home, isn’t that fun but also leaves you a lot more free time than you think it will right now.
A: So true! I do think the letter writer’s concerns might have more to do with their dark outlook than the actual number of hours they’ll be working, but you’re right that 40 hours a week leaves a lot of time for nonwork activities.
Discuss this column on our Facebook page!
My wife and I have failed to conceive for years. After the emotional roller coaster we’ve been through, we finally settled on having my (gay) brother be a sperm donor. This is something both of our families support and we are very excited about going through with. However, as the appointment for fertilization nears, my wife and brother have gone from close to almost inseparable, talking about “their” future child. I feel shut out of my own marriage. This baby is all we’ve ever wanted, and now I want to tell her that we shouldn’t. I’m jealous and anxious and I don’t know what to do.
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