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I’m newly married, about six months now. My wife had difficulties that resulted in her getting kicked out of her master’s program. Until this point she had taken out around $100,000 in loans. I’ve been trying to persuade her to get a job, any job, to help pay down her student debt, but she always says, “I’d rather end it all than work a job I don’t love.” I entered this marriage thinking we’d be equal partners, but I’m finding that’s not the case. I’ve tried talking about it, but she claims it makes her “too stressed” and “too angry to talk about.” How can I approach this? It’s unlikely she’ll be able to work in her original field, and I don’t think I can support us and her student debt alone.
—Ready to Talk
Your wife threatens suicide every time you raise the possibility of getting a job, and she forbids you from even bringing up the subject because she’s “too angry” to participate. I don’t know what difficulties led to her expulsion, but I imagine anger management, inappropriate threats, and fits of fury may have played a role. This is not something you should try to approach alone, because it falls so outside the realm of “normal” newlywed problems that you need immediate outside support. Please seek immediate emotional and practical support from a trusted friend and a therapist who can clearly identify how wrong this is, and don’t get sucked into justifications like “I’m sure she didn’t mean it” or “I’m sure she was just speaking metaphorically”—especially if those justifications come from your wife. If you don’t have a therapist but can afford one, please arrange an appointment immediately. If you can’t afford one, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You may not think of yourself as someone who might benefit from resources on domestic violence, but repeated threats of suicide that are designed to make certain topics off-limits are tactics designed to control, isolate, and intimidate you.
I do not recommend that you try to address this privately with your wife or offer a series of arguments explaining why she should not threaten suicide in order to intimidate you into never talking about money or work. This is not a reasonable disagreement between two reasonable people but a massive red flag. She needs to stop making these threats immediately and get whatever help she needs in order to start making amends and wildly overhauling her approach to conflict and disagreement. Whether or not you decide to stay in this relationship is another question entirely. This is not a small point of contention, and you should not let her, or anyone else, downplay it to you.
My partner and I are not married, but we do live together. He has a 19-year-old daughter, “Kay,” whom I’m fairly close with, and two 12-year-old twins with a different ex. I don’t know the twins very well. Their mother lives in another city and doesn’t like me, so my boyfriend travels to see them by himself. I don’t understand why she dislikes me. They divorced long before we met, and he’d had other girlfriends before me, but I try to be supportive. My boyfriend’s ex lost her job in March, so he’s paying for child support and her mortgage, plus utilities and groceries. We both make a good living, so we can handle the extra costs.
Recently Kay’s car and laptop were stolen. Neither of her parents had any extra money to spare, but I did, so I bought her a new laptop and a used car. Kay told the twins, who told their mother, who got in touch with me (I didn’t even know she had my phone number) with a wish list for the twins. She wanted new iPads, private tutoring, and insisted I “step up as a stepmom to ALL the kids.” I didn’t respond, but I did show my partner and ask that he talk to his ex about boundaries. He thought she had been a little “out of line,” but that I could afford it, and that it wasn’t a big deal. I told him that we weren’t married, I wasn’t a stepmom to his twins, and that this totally went against his previous instructions to “be patient” and “give everyone [on that side of the family] space.” I feel like he’s trying to change the script halfway through the show. I have a relationship with Kay, and she needed the laptop for school and the car to get to work. I don’t have a relationship with the twins, mostly because their mother never wanted me to have one. The last time I tried to give them a birthday gift (an autographed book), she started sobbing and made them return it. I think my income and my relationship with Kay are irrelevant—I resent being informed it’s my responsibility to be a “stepmom” when I’ve only ever been told to back off before. What should I do?
—Not a Wicked Stepmother
I don’t have much advice to give you besides “keep doing what you’re doing,” although I want to commend you for your restraint in not responding to your boyfriend’s ex. Congratulations on not taking the bait! It likely would be worthwhile to ask your boyfriend some questions: When did you and your ex change your mind about wanting me to become a stepmother to your twins? What kind of relationship are you asking me to consider forming with them—what level of contact, what sort of care, what emotional and financial expectations? Do you want me to be involved in disciplining them, too? Will I be joining you on future visits? Are you interested in getting my perspective first, or in asking whether I’m interested in changing my relationship to the twins this far into our relationship?
If your boyfriend wants to have a conversation between the two of you about either borrowing money or asking for an outright gift to pay for his twins’ toys or extracurricular activities, that’s one thing. He can ask, you can consider, and you two can work something out as a couple. But he shouldn’t suddenly announce that you’re stepmother to his other children when he’s previously made it clear that you aren’t. That’s a decision that you, him, and his ex have to agree upon together.
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I’m divorced and in my early 30s. I’ve been dating a wonderful woman for a year, but a few days ago came across my college sweetheart’s social media profile. We parted amicably and haven’t spoken in years, but when I saw her picture, I experienced a deep swell of regret and nostalgia. I wondered how my life would have been different if we’d stayed together: I wouldn’t have gotten married and divorced, perhaps avoiding a lot of heartache, plus I’d be living a pretty different life. My ex went straight to graduate school, whereas I was able to travel and work in a number of different cities, and now feel like I’m trying to “catch up” to my peers who stayed in one place and are more professionally settled.
To be honest, I feel a bit envious of my ex and her well-paying job and kind of kick myself for not doing what she did. I also find myself (quite unfairly) comparing my college girlfriend to my current one. I’m having strange urges to contact her, but I feel it would be inappropriate, or maybe just make it harder for me to move on. This is not the first time I’ve had a sudden twinge of regret and nostalgia for other women I’ve dated in the past. My intuition is that this is a random desire from the unconscious coming to the front and I don’t plan on acting on it. But what, if any, reasons would make it sensible to do so? And why do you think these thoughts pop up? I’m sure I’m not the only one.
I’m also sure you’re not the only one to feel this way after unexpectedly seeing the face of an old lover. Envy, nostalgia, and romantic wistfulness are incredibly common experiences, especially after a significant milestone like getting divorced. I don’t think it’s necessarily a “random, unconscious” desire either, since you say it has to do with uncertainty about the decisions you’ve made in your 20s, curiosity about what other paths your life might have taken, and a sense that you’re behind your peers professionally—all of which seem like perfectly legitimate dissatisfactions, curiosities, and impulses to investigate further. I suspect you know that you might very well still have gotten married and divorced had you stayed with your college girlfriend and that you might have regretted settling down sooner and find yourself wishing you’d gotten the chance to travel and live elsewhere. Perhaps, too, you might find yourself wishing you’d had the chance to experience a little more heartbreak. I often hear from people who’ve had fairly settled lives and have to contend with a desire for a little more intensity, a few more ups and downs. Perhaps not! But there’s no guarantee you’d be happier in that other version of your life.
Ask yourself if you want to reconsider going to graduate school, consider how you might pursue a raise or promotion in your current job, and spend some time mulling whether this is the city you’d like to settle in for the next few years. These questions should all be separate from whether you want to catch up with your college girlfriend. If you make her the determining factor in how you examine your circumstances, the odds are she’ll transform into a mythical image of every single lost opportunity of the past 10 years. And that’s a lot of pressure for any single person to hold! If you do get in touch, be sure to mention it to your current girlfriend, so your college ex doesn’t become an exciting, secret font of contemplation you can rush to whenever you’re dissatisfied with your current relationship. And don’t be surprised or disappointed if she’s happy to talk amicably about the past but isn’t especially interested in musing about what might have been.
Help! Should I Say Something About My Neighbor’s Racist Statue?
Danny M. Lavery is joined by Rachel Fershleiser on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.
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My older, and only, sibling died by suicide a few months ago. I wasn’t very close with my sibling or my parents, in part because my sibling struggled with an untreated mental illness and my parents grew angry whenever anyone suggested treatment. Eventually, distance and therapy helped me accept the limits of my relationship with my family.
Now my father is pushing for us to spend more time together. I know he’s grieving. But I don’t want to. I’m heartbroken over the wasted opportunities for help and don’t feel like I know my parents anymore. I don’t want to reminisce about my sibling with them. We have very little in common except our grief. What’s my obligation here? I’ve already (gently) suggested therapy to help them process this more than once.
How much distance do you want to maintain between yourself and your parents? Can you imagine yourself having a conversation where they make untrue (whether via romantic spin, wishful thinking, or flat-out denial) claims about your sibling, your family dynamic, or the past, and having the energy to challenge those claims? Alternately, can you imagine yourself biting your tongue and letting those claims go unchallenged for the sake of your sanity? Does either possibility seem achievable, or do you think it would result in painful arguments or in having to leave the room or hang up the phone? If you don’t think you could get through conversations where you’d have to either keep quiet about a long-standing resentment or start fighting about something you can no longer change and that causes you all grief, your primary obligation might be to avoid unnecessary and painful conflict. “I’m sorry, I can’t have this conversation again, but I hope you can find the help you need with a therapist or support group” might be the most loving thing you can offer your parents.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“I just don’t want this to happen when you have two kids and a dog.”
Danny Lavery and Nicole Cliffe discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
My husband and I moved into a new rental about two months ago. One of our elderly neighbors lives alone and is obviously lonely. He knocks on our door to tell us a package has been delivered, or he flags us down in the driveway to tell us he saw someone leave our house last week to take a bike ride (my husband, obviously). I responded by sending over food a few times, just an extra helping of whatever I was cooking, but then he started taking in our trash cans from the curb and other little “helpful” but invasive things.
Sometimes I think he plays dumb to prolong a conversation, like asking if it’s possible to buy plane tickets online (he was a math professor at a world-renowned university, and the internet has been around for decades). I can empathize, but it gets draining. What are my rights and what are my obligations? I want to be helpful when I can. But I don’t want to worry that he’s about to pop up in front of our window carrying our trash cans when I’m trying to relax at home.
He may be pretending not to know something in order to prolong a conversation, or he may be genuinely forgetful, or he may have had an assistant at that world-renowned university for so long he doesn’t remember what it’s like to buy your own plane ticket. Don’t worry about why he says something. Just get in the habit of saying, “What an interesting question! I’ve got to run, but good luck finding out the answer” when you’re ready to end a conversation. It can be difficult to figure out how to end conversations with genuinely friendly people who can’t or won’t pick up on nonverbal cues, but you’ll drive yourself to distraction if you try to send him cues that others might respond to but he doesn’t. Don’t wait for a lull in the conversation, or for him to say “I’ll let you go.” If he flags you down when you’re on your way someplace, tell him, “I’m sorry, I can’t stop to talk right now, this will have to wait.” Tell him not to take in your trash bins. Don’t ask him to stop, or apologize when you do it, just state it matter-of-factly and with a smile: “Oh, don’t take those trash bins in for us. Thank you so much, we really appreciate your leaving them alone.”
Think of this sort of intervention as an entirely morally and relationally neutral correction, like letting someone know they’re about to step off a curb, or that the door they’re trying to open is push instead of pull. The more often you do it, the easier it will become. His niceness is not the question, and being neighborly does not mean “doing whatever my neighbor wants whenever he sees me.” Be polite, be straightforward when you don’t want to keep talking, and don’t apologize for turning down unsolicited favors.
The last time I went to my friend’s house, her dog (who has really sharp nails) repeatedly jumped all over me. My friend apologized several times but did nothing to stop it, and the next day I was scratched and bruised all over. My friend has made several comments about how we can safely socialize at her house (since she’s unwilling to meet in public places due to COVID risk) this summer. She has a lovely house, and she’s normally a great hostess, except for the dog issue. My house isn’t an option. I want to see my friend, but I’m hesitant about her dog. We both got dogs at the same time; mine is very relaxed while hers isn’t. I feel bad about saying something because I don’t want her to feel like I’m comparing our dogs. Should I say something or just make sure to wear thicker pants when going over there?
You don’t have to compare your dogs in order to describe what her dog did during your last visit or how she responded. She may or may not draw the comparison herself, but that’s beside the point. The onus isn’t on you to wear thick pants whenever you want to see her; it’s her responsibility to keep her dog’s nails trimmed and to train the pup not to jump on visitors (or, if that doesn’t work, to leash the dog or keep it in a separate room when guests are over). You’re not asking her to dedicate an unusual amount of time and money to train him to do some outlandish trick. It’s a simple statement with a reasonable request: “I got really scratched up during my last visit and didn’t realize how many marks Fido left until the next day. Can you please make sure he doesn’t jump on me again when I come over?”
A few months ago, in order to spice up our sex lives, I persuaded my wife of four years to try swinging. I searched online and found an ordinary-looking couple I thought would suit us to begin with. We met, had dinner, went to a hotel, and swapped partners. I am a fit, fairly good-looking, well-endowed man. I was surprised and dismayed when the other man, who is older, somewhat overweight, and balding, undressed. He was way larger than me, and for two hours I had to watch him work my wife into multiple fits, screams, and moans. Since this experience (which we have not repeated), I haven’t been able to look at my wife in the same way. I cannot get that night out of my mind. It’s affecting my work and ability to be happy. Sometimes I feel I could just punch my wife in the face. I want a divorce. The few friends I have confided in about this say that I am being unfair, but I cannot see how I could possibly be content in my marriage ever again. Is there a way I can overcome this?
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