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Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny M. Lavery: Good afternoon, everyone! Let’s chat.
Q. Wondering about my wedding: I had a wedding planned for the end of July that my fiancé and I decided to cancel. We live near his family and decided we would all quarantine for two weeks and then have a small family celebration when everyone’s in town next month. I’ve always dreamed of a big wedding, so I’ve been going back and forth. That was until my fiancé’s brother, Tom, got here. I’d only met him once over Christmas, but he couldn’t stay for long because he went to spend part of the holiday with his girlfriend (whom he has since broken up with). He lives on the other side of the country, so he hasn’t been back much. When I first met him, he had a lot of qualities that I thought I didn’t like. I finally got to spend some quality time with Tom and realize he is actually an amazing guy. I feel really confused. My fiancé is everything I’ve dreamed of since I was a teenager. I think Tom might be the person I never knew I wanted. I’m really torn about what I should do. I thought I wouldn’t see Tom much after he left in a few weeks, but he told me he’s thinking about moving back. I don’t think it would be hard to get my fiancé to put the wedding on hold until we can have something big, but am I being ridiculous in thinking this will somehow buy me time to figure out what I want? Am I delusional in thinking that leaving my fiancé for Tom would ever work out with the family dynamics? How can I figure this out?
A: Part of this depends on what you mean by “working out.” If your goal is to figure out your own commitments and desires, I think there’s an excellent chance of things working out. If your goal is to leave your fiancé for Tom (who doesn’t seem to have given any indication that he feels the same way about you) and ask your in-laws to throw you a second shower, I think it’s extremely unlikely. If you were to break up with your fiancé because you’d fallen for his brother, you two would probably never become friends, and the rest of your in-laws might take a very long time to come around, if they ever do (unless you are writing to me from within the movie While You Were Sleeping.) But it’s not ridiculous to take your sudden reevaluation of your feelings for your fiancé seriously. What are some of Tom’s amazing qualities (and what made you mischaracterize them as “unlikable” when you first met)? Has he made you realize something’s missing in your relationship? What’s he got going for him besides “amazing”? You say you’ve “always dreamed” of a big wedding and you’ve “dreamed” of someone like your fiancé since you were a teenager, which speaks more to the persistence of your desires than to specificity. What’s Tom got that you never knew you wanted? Do you think your fiancé is capable of developing any of those qualities, and if so, is there any part of you that wants to stick around and find out?
Most importantly: If you made a pass at Tom and he turned you down (which I think is the likeliest outcome), would you still feel that leaving your fiancé was the right thing to do, since you no longer feel the way about him you did when he proposed? There’s no casual, easy way to postpone or call off a wedding; your fiancé and would-be in-laws aren’t going to shrug and say, “No worries, take your time.” You’ll have to carefully reflect and assess whether you think this is a case of sudden nerves that will pass with time or a sign that you really don’t want to do this. But you need to make your next move without getting a response from Tom first. The answer to the question of “Am I ready to marry my fiancé?” can’t rest upon “I want to find out if his brother likes me first.”
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Q. Financial abuse? For nearly 10 years of my marriage, there has been tension due to my spouse’s refusal to abide by a budget. We make enough money for a comfortable lifestyle plus retirement savings, but my spouse enjoys shopping for the sake of it and every month blows through some of the money that should be earmarked for retirement. Right now we are lagging too far behind in our retirement savings to be able to retire at 65, our original goal. We have tried counseling, discussions, and collaborating on budgets. Nothing has worked. This is a constant source of stress for me and I want to separate our finances. The plan is to split everything in our joint accounts 50-50 and from then on maintain separate accounts. I work full time and my spouse works part time at a slightly lower-paying job. This split would mean that their spending money is significantly reduced. My spouse says that my insistence on separating our finances constitutes financial abuse, because they will have less spending money. Do you think I’m being abusive?
A: I just can’t find a way to view “You can spend your own money on discretionary items, not mine,” as abusive, especially since you’ve spent a decade trying to work out a mutually satisfying compromise and still maintain a joint account for shared expenses like bills and rent. It may be frustrating and inconvenient for your spouse, but it’s not inherently controlling or dangerous. Plenty of married couples maintain separate discretionary accounts.
I’m a little unclear on the “from then on” clause in your proposal. If you mean you’re divvying up all your cash right now 50-50 and then maintaining completely separate accounts for everything (including bills and rent and other necessities), do you also plan on splitting shared expenses 50-50 in the future? Your spouse may very well be unable to match your income in that event, and I can understand why they might object. But arguing about fairness and the limits of a part-time salary is not the same thing as abuse, even if you two decided to divorce because you couldn’t resolve your financial disagreements. You’re not preventing your partner from earning their own money, withholding child support, hiding critical financial information from them, or taking out secret loans in their name and saddling them with debts.
Q. Not sure how to adjust to spouse’s new name: My spouse isn’t sure whether she wants to transition. I want to support her as fully as possible—but I don’t know what to do with her chosen name. This is not the name, but think something like, “Depártement,” with a strange spelling/pronunciation twist on a preexisting word. She’s expressed that if she doesn’t go by [current name], she’d want to go by “Depártement,” and I don’t know how to not feel a little bit embarrassed by it. I’m just picturing introducing her as “Depártement, yeah, like the store.” How can I get past my discomfort here with an atypical name that people associate with a common (non-name) building?
A: I can’t promise you’ll never feel embarrassed if your spouse does start going by Depártement, but I can assure you that there are plenty of ways to appropriately manage embarrassment. Start with curiosity. What does your spouse like about the name? When did she start thinking about using it? It may be that she shares your impression of the name without the attendant anxiety—she’s presumably also aware that it’s atypical and often associated with architecture, but she might find it playful and ingenious rather than embarrassing, and it’s possible that you’ll find her enthusiasm compelling. You also might not find it compelling, but at least you’ll know more about why it matters to her. And even if you do feel embarrassed, it will help to keep embarrassment out of your tone if you ever do introduce her by that name. Speaking in a manner that conveys, “This is my spouse, uh—well, I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m sorry, but the truth is her name is Depártement, but don’t worry, I think it’s embarrassing,” is a surefire way to produce embarrassment, even if no one else had felt any the minute before.
Q. Possibly trolling mother? My mother and I are very close. She is generous and warm, and our relationship has greatly improved since my teenage years, as she began addressing her mental health issues by seeking psychiatry and therapy. While I’ve grown out of most of my past petty teenage grievances with her, one that has been hard to let go was her perpetual critique of my weight and appearance, which ranged from buying me diet books, to sitting me down to tell me I ate too much during a meal, to buying me clothes and then telling me they’d look better if I just lost a little weight. (Not that it matters, but the largest size I’ve ever been is now 14.) Anyway, as I’ve gotten older her comments have subsided, and she even corrects me when I complain about my own appearance. However, my mother still does a few off-putting things. She insists on taking photos of me when I ask her not to, particularly when I’m wearing a bathing suit. She will then send them to me occasionally, and when I ask her to stop sending them because I don’t find them flattering, she gets defensive and says she just wants to show me how “beautiful her daughter is.” If we’re shopping for clothes, she’ll bring me ones that are twice my size because “they’ll look better.” Not only is it all still very hurtful, but I feel like I’ve worked hard to overcome a lot of self loathing about my appearance that solely stems from my her and my dad. Am I being overly sensitive and/or delusional about my appearance, or is my mom backdoor trolling me to lose weight?
A: “If getting unsolicited candid shots of myself in a bathing suit made me feel beautiful, I’d let you know. It doesn’t. If I haven’t made that clear before, I’d like to make it clear now so that you know they’re unwelcome going forward.” Right now she’s clinging to a defense of “But this should be making you feel good,” to which the best response is simply: “I’m glad I can clarify this for you: It doesn’t. You need to stop.” I’m glad you’re otherwise close with your mother, and I’ll take you at your word when you say she’s generally warm, but I’m not surprised it’s been hard to let go of her relentless, belittling attacks on your body—she seems not to have apologized for them or even acknowledged that they comprised the background noise of most of your youth. She’s just started pressuring you from another direction. If you don’t feel prepared to push for a no-holds-barred honest conversation about her historic relationship to your body, you don’t have to. If what feels best is simply to draw a boundary and ignore her defensiveness without going into detail, do that. (That includes looking for other shopping buddies, or telling her not to bring you clothes when you’re at the store together.) But you’re not delusional. Your mother has just skidded wildly from one type of appearance criticism to the other and pretended she’s always been “supportive” while bringing you trousers that are two sizes too big for you.
Q. My roommate doesn’t want to pay rent! I’ve lived with my roommate for almost four years. We’ve become close friends and have never had any big issues. When COVID started, she moved back in with her parents in a different state, leaving my other roommate and me in the apartment, but she’s still been paying her share of the rent. She was able to keep her job, works remotely, makes six figures a year, and has no expenses while she’s living at home. She doesn’t want us to sublet her room; she wants it open to her whenever she decides to come back. But I just found out that she persuaded our third roommate to pay her rent for the month and wants to only pay half of her monthly rent going forward, with my other roommate and I subsidizing the rest. I’ve heard all of this from my other roommate, but other than that I have not been included in this conversation. This is all coming just after re-signing our lease for another year, which makes it all the more surprising. I understand that she doesn’t want to throw money away on a room she’s not using, but I think it’s unfair to put that burden on us to throw our money away on her room. Should I put my foot down and require her to pay her share or take her compromise to avoid ruining our friendship?
A: Check your lease and talk to your remaining roommates. If a close four-year friendship is “ruined” because you decline to pay for her room when she’s not using it, that friendship was not worth keeping. If she would be “throwing money” away on a room she’s not using, it’s not much of a solution to suggest that everyone else in the house throw their money away on a room they’re not using, either (and calling it a compromise is a hell of a stretch). She’s still responsible for her share of the rent. Asking the rest of you to pay to keep her room empty while she makes six figures and lives rent-free with her parents is ridiculous, not to mention a violation of your lease. Put your foot down!
Q. My girlfriend pulls out her hair: My girlfriend has thick, curly hair. Because she combs but doesn’t brush it, there are often lots of dead hairs that she loses in the shower. For the past year and a half or so, she’s taken to raking her fingers through her hair mindlessly when she’s watching TV or scrolling social media; she always throws away the hairball afterward, so it never bothered me. Since the pandemic began, she’s been doing this more often. She’s also escalated. She got surgery on her scalp four years ago, and the resulting scar means her hair grows more coarsely in that area. She now pulls out the coarse hairs, which is leading the scar to look even more dramatic. I’ve tried to get her to stop—the scar is a little off-putting to tell the truth—and she agrees it’s a gross habit, but it’s still gotten worse, not better. How can I get her to stop doing this to herself?
A: It’s my understanding that compulsive hair-pulling can be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental health issues, and it may have more serious underlying causes and impulses, instead of just being an absent-minded habit. Has she ever spoken to her doctor or a psychiatrist about this? Do you have a sense of how much it distresses or upsets her? The shower part is a relatively easy fix—you can get inexpensive shower-drain hair catchers at a lot of home goods stores—but given that it’s escalated during the pandemic, it’s probably worth talking about it as a response to stress and a possible indicator that she needs help managing her anxiety. That doesn’t mean you have to bundle her off to the doctor and diagnose her yourself; it sounds like she already feels embarrassed and may even experience physical pain if she’s worrying at a scar on her head, so you can approach her with loving-but-firm concern rather than with an ultimatum. But she’s definitely not alone, and there’s real help she can get for dealing with this.
Q. Re: Separating shared finances in a marriage—financial abuse? I don’t see that as abusive, but I don’t see this as a panacea. Your partner will not be building up your retirement savings, while you will be. This will lead to future problems: Your partner barely covers their share of household expenses and the furnace needs replacing. How are you going to handle who pays for that? What will it feel like if you’re going out to dinner with another couple and your partner complains that you’re “treating yourself” while they can’t? Also, are you sure they just won’t accumulate debt on their own? If they do, are you legally responsible for them? I’m not saying separate finances is bad—I actually think it’s definitely helpful—but I think you also should think through how you’re going to react to how it changes the dynamic.
A: I agree that this is only the beginning, and that while seems pretty straightforwardly a case of “conflict, not abuse,” that doesn’t mean everything’s going to be fine, either. I’m glad you brought up the question of debt, because it’s possible that you may still be on the hook for any debts your partner acquires during the course of your marriage, even if you’re not personally spending the money. It’s certainly worth learning more about!
Q. Re: Separating shared finances in a marriage—financial abuse? My then-husband and I went to a yours/mine/ours system when we first moved in together. About two-thirds of our paychecks went into a joint account, and the rest was discretionary. We also both maxed out our contributions to our 401(k)s, and you should look into whether you’re old enough to do catch-up contributions. Admittedly, we aren’t married anymore, but I’m pretty sure THAT wasn’t the reason.
A: Well, now I’m curious to find out your reason for divorcing, but that will have to wait for another letter and another day. Hopefully this proves helpful to the letter writer as they look for ways to maximize their own retirement savings. Thanks!
Q. Re: Separating shared finances in a marriage—financial abuse? He left me for his co-worker, who had also become a friend of mine ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
A: Sometimes a shrug says it best!
I am a grandmother who is haunted by something I did when I was a girl. Many, many years ago while I was at school I did something clumsy and got a bruise. My mother noticed it as soon as I came home and asked me what happened. She was always making me feel stupid, and I didn’t want to hear her put me down. So I said my teacher pinched me. I think I was hoping for a little “poor baby” from her and then the whole thing would blow over. It didn’t. Mom went ballistic and took me to school the next day and raised hell with the principal and teacher I had accused. There was an investigation and I was too scared to back down. I stuck to my story and the teacher was either fired or quit to avoid criminal charges. I felt terrible, especially when she asked me, in tears, why I was telling that lie. It has always bothered me since. When I became a young mother I was afraid I might get in trouble for what I did, so I have never told anyone. Now I am a grandmother and what I did haunts me. It is so far in the past that I can’t see what I can do to make restitution to the teacher. Surely she is retired by now. But this has bothered me all my life and I would like to do something. Read what Prudie had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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