Dear Prudence: My husband loses his temper with strangers. Am I married to a jerk?

Help! My Otherwise Lovely Husband Loses His Temper With Strangers. Did I Marry a Jerk?

Help! My Otherwise Lovely Husband Loses His Temper With Strangers. Did I Marry a Jerk?

Advice on manners and morals.
Oct. 31 2017 8:25 AM

Jarring Anger

Prudie advises a letter writer whose normally sweet husband loses his temper with cyclists, pedestrians, and other strangers.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

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Q. Husband’s being awful: I’m sort of worried my husband is an a--hole. Not to me. To me, he is sweet and thoughtful and very much the wonderful man I married. But, for reasons I can’t wrap my head around, he’s not like that to strangers.

To waiters, support staff, concierge? Perfectly pleasant. To the bike rider who runs a stop sign? Angry, like the bike rider murdered a puppy. To my mom who can be a bit tough to handle? Patient as can be. To the teenage girl bumping into him because she was walking down the sidewalk, staring at her phone? Livid, like she told him she had personally canceled his favorite TV show.

Yes, I get it. The world is full of rude people. But my husband takes pleasure in being rude to the people who are rude to him first. I say, ignore it. Focus on the real issues. But he says he’s just giving out the same energy he receives. How do I make him stop?

A: The bad news, I’m afraid, is that you can’t make him stop if he doesn’t want to, and if he sees his boorish, inappropriately angry responses to everyday inconveniences as justified, then he may not be interested in changing his behavior. But you can at the very least make it clear that you find his anger jarring, inexplicable, and indicative of a deeper problem. I don’t know what this conversation will look like going forward. If he’s generally polite and not abusing waitstaff or short with your mother, then it may not be the biggest problem in your marriage, but I think you should, if nothing else, pay very close attention to the fact that you’re concerned about the way your husband handles his own anger. This is worth revisiting.

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Q. Making friends: I just started my junior year in high school. At the end of last year, I was ‘‘dropped’’ by the group of friends I had for two years. It was a terrible experience, ruined my self-esteem, and seemed to verify all of my insecurities. Now I’m trying to get into a new friend group. I sit with them at lunch but have realized that it’s really hard for me to talk to new people, so I end up staying silent a lot. Also, many of these kids have known each other since elementary school, so that makes me feel like even more of an outsider.

What should I do to make new friends? How can I break out of my bubble of being too shy and insecure to talk to new people? How do I stop feeling like no one likes me?

A: With the necessary caveat that it is absolutely fine to be on the more reserved and quiet side, and that you do not have to become an entirely different type of person in order to make friends, I think you should try to figure out why it’s hard for you to talk to new people. Do you feel overwhelmed trying to engage with a group of friends at once? Is it easier for you to have one-on-one conversations? Are you anxious that any topic or question you introduce will get pushed aside or ignored? Are you afraid that they let you sit with them at lunch because they’re polite, but fear a repeat of what happened with your last social circle? Your next move should depend on where your particular anxiety is located.

Some of these questions have multiple possible answers, and some of these are things almost everyone struggles with their whole life long. Many people—good people!—worry that others don’t “really” like them, that they’re an imposter, that everyone else has been handed a guidebook to social interactions but that they’ve been left off the list. It may help to bear in mind that lots of people, even people who have close friends, feel the same way that you do.

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In the meantime, don’t be too hard on yourself for being quiet during lunch. Look for opportunities to join the conversation by asking someone a follow-up question if they talk about something that interests you. If you get the chance to talk to someone one-on-one and feel more confident speaking up there, you should do it. You’ve had a nasty experience that shook your confidence, but I think you can trust that these kids are having lunch with you because they enjoy your company, even if you’re not the loudest member of the group.

Q. Sister stress: My younger sister went into the nonprofit sector while I went into the private sector. I make about three times what she does; so does my husband. We have a very nice life and travel extensively. We also donate to charity, and I secretly help my parents take care of my sister. I give them money to help her every month and pay for her plane tickets when she comes home. I love my sister, and I am very proud of her. She is making the world a better place—but I am tired of hearing about it.

Our conversations revolve around the tales of woe my sister encounters every day and the injustices she fights. It is disheartening and disturbing. If I bring up anything in my life—my home renovations, my trips, office politics—my sister cuts me off. I don’t know how lucky I am. How privileged. I understand that I am very blessed and there are far more people worse off than me, but I am tired of hearing about it. In our last conversation I talked about shows on Netflix, and my sister told me she wished she had free time to watch Netflix, but she was too busy trying to get funding for homeless orphans. I have started screening her calls. I fear she is burning out, and I am afraid to catch fire. My parents fear the same. Maybe because we are safe to vent at, but I have been losing sleep after speaking to my sister.

How do I tell my sister that I love her and am proud of her, but our conversations are bringing me down? And not ruin the holidays?

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A: This is almost an exact reversal of a letter I received a few weeks ago from a woman who was having tremendous difficulty hiding her judgment of her wealthy siblings-in-law. Thanks for showing us the other side of the coin.

Your sister does not have less time than other people. It’s not that she “doesn’t have time” to watch Netflix because she is simply incapable of enjoying her own life while somebody else suffers. She chooses not to make time for relaxation and entertainment so that she can play the martyr around anyone who does. That’s her Netflix. (Netflix, in my opinion, is a better option.)

It’s one thing if you were bringing up endless complaints about your home renovations, but if literally any attempt to discuss your own life is met with a wall of holier-than-thou-dom, then you two need to have a big-picture conversation about how it makes you feel when she shuts you down conversationally. Focus on the fact that you value her life and her work, but you don’t want to feel like the only thing you two can talk about is “homeless orphans.”

My guess is that her first response will be defensive and that she’ll attempt to redirect by suggesting you don’t care about human suffering. That’s a red herring, and you should acknowledge it as such. Tell her that you’re trying to communicate how you feel, that she’s shutting you out and you want to be able to tell her what’s going on in your life because she’s your sister and you love her. If you’re able and willing to continue to send your parents money to help support her, then I don’t think you have to stop. You don’t have to only help out family members if they behave the way you want, nor do I think you should throw your behind-the-scenes generosity in her face in order to guilt her into treating you differently, but it does sound like the secrecy puts an additional emotional burden on you. If you do want to reconsider your financial assistance, then you certainly have every right to. But this is a conversation you can and should have with your sister without bringing money into it.

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Q. Crushing a crush: Very gentle, low-key problem here: Can you give me any advice on how to stop a crush before it gets serious? I live in a part of the world with very few English speakers, so those of us who are around have a pretty tight community. I’ve developed a crush on a girl who has just moved here and joined the community. We are not particularly close, though we do run in the same circles and have many mutual friends. The crush is definitely in its early stages, but I’d like to make sure it doesn’t move past that. Because of how small the community is, it would definitely be awkward if I developed a full-blown crush on her. At the same time, the size of the community makes it difficult to distance myself in any helpful way. Do you have any ideas on how to stop a crush?

A: If I knew how to stop feeling something I didn’t want to feel, I would share my secrets with everyone. My best advice here is not to try to suppress or reject any feelings of interest that pop up. It sounds like you’ve already decided against asking her out, and that’s perfectly fine; you don’t have to put that option on the table if you have good reasons for thinking you shouldn’t act on your crush. I think it’s better to acknowledge them as nonjudgmentally as possible when they do arise—“I’m feeling attracted to Dorothea right now, and I don’t have to do anything about that. This feeling exists, and does not require anything of me, other than to feel it fully and let it eventually pass.”

If that means every now and again you need to leave an event a little early, or make sure that you don’t put yourself repeatedly in a situation that causes you pain, that’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up for liking someone, give yourself whatever space you need, and enjoy her company to whatever extent you feel capable of handling.

Q. I am not an animal, don’t pet me: My husband of 10 years has gotten increasingly touchy-feely with me. It is nearly impossible for me to be within arm’s reach of him without having him pet my hair, rest his hand heavily on my body, try and hold my hand, or press up against me, regardless of what I am doing. We have children, and I expect and tolerate this kind of clinginess from them, but he is an adult, and he wasn’t like this when we were dating or through the first years of our marriage.

I suspect he feels insecure, likely related to his untreated anxiety disorder that has become increasingly problematic over the past five years, and which is untreatable because of his profession. I have tried asking him to stop, explaining that although it soothes him and makes him feel good to pet me, I really hate it. I hate having his hands flattening and making my hair greasy; I hate having my movements constrained as I try to cook dinner; I hate not having the option to just sit and be a person without his hands on me. I would never, ever allow my children to be touched like this against their will. He gets hurt and offended and doesn’t appreciate that I would probably like it if he didn’t do it all the time.

This is negatively impacting our sex life, because I am oversaturated with touches; this in turn further depresses my husband. What should I do, because this is totally unsustainable? Also, we already have a dog that he refuses to pet.

A: I’m not sure what profession makes it impossible for your husband to seek help and support for his anxiety disorder. It may not be feasible for him to see a counselor right now, but that doesn’t mean he can’t talk about his anxieties with friends or family, or investigate cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques to help manage his compulsive touching—nor does it mean that he cannot accept your limits when you tell him, “I don’t want to be touched in that way.”

What you’re describing sounds miserable and panic-inducing—I can’t imagine how stressful it must feel to move about in your own home, constantly on high alert that your husband is going to start touching you in a way you’ve repeatedly told him makes you feel uncomfortable and like a human stress ball. If nothing else, I hope you know that you are not responsible for his unhappiness and that having an anxiety disorder does not mean that he can continue to stroke and pet you against your will. You are not asking him to never touch you, you are asking him not to touch you in a compulsive and dehumanizing way, and he has repeatedly ignored your boundaries. That’s a pretty serious red flag.

You can, and should, continue to say “Stop that,” when he attempts to paw at you, and if you continue to feel unsafe in your own home, I think it’s fair for you to say, “If you cannot stop this, then I cannot be in the room with you right now.” Please know, if nothing else, that taking the space you need is not harmful or damaging to him. If that means getting out of the house unless and until he can respect your limits, then you have the right to do so. And although he may be unable—or unwilling—to see a therapist right now, that doesn’t mean you can’t see one and get the support you need. Please look after yourself, and don’t feel guilty for having physical boundaries.

Q. Re: Making friends: This happened to me 10-plus years ago when I was a rising junior in high school. It was devastating at the time, but I learned to seek out friendships that were casual in nature (someone to chat with at lunch, between classes, et cetera) rather than focusing on replacing lost deeper friendships. I started with classmates I already knew seemed nice. It was helpful to have people to socialize with during the day, even if they didn’t end up being very close friendships. This will help you regain your social confidence, little by little. College, happily, is much more conducive to making new, lasting friendships.

A: Thanks for sharing your own experience with a similar situation. Social rejection is, unfortunately, a pretty common occurrence in high school, and if nothing else, I hope the letter writer knows they are not alone in having to deal with a painful situation. Most relationships don’t go from “friendly but distant” to “intimate and meaningful” immediately, and it’s helpful to remember that even having a few positive interactions with other students one doesn’t know very well throughout the day can go a long way toward making school feel less lonely.

Q. Truth: Twenty-two years ago I gave up a baby in a closed adoption. I married right out of high school to an older man from a powerful, wealthy family in my hometown. He was handsome, charming, and violent. He beat me and raped me. His family knew but blamed me instead. I ended up fleeing in the middle of the night with only the clothes on my back. My husband committed suicide not long after. His mother told me I was a murderer. When I found out I was pregnant, I was ready to die. I gave up the baby and never told anyone about it except my great-aunt. I have since built a life and remarried. My husband knows I gave up a baby girl to adoption.

I was contacted by the law firm that arranged the adoption and met with the girl. She was looking for her birth parents and history. It was the most uncomfortable dinner I have ever had. I didn’t feel some wellspring of maternal affection or any connection at all. She looked enough like her father to bring up bad feelings I long thought buried. She grew up loved but lost both her adoptive parents when she was 20 and has no close relatives. She asked about her biological father and I told her I was raped. The evening ended after that.

I have no living family, but my former in-laws are still living and have children and grandchildren. Do I owe her the truth? I get nauseous at the idea of interacting with them again. I won’t be the wife who left her poor husband and let him die. I will be the bitch who stole their granddaughter from them. We live within driving distance of each other. They will make my life miserable and blast everything to the world. I feel guilty for this girl. I don’t know what I owe her. I have told no one about this. I don’t know what to do.

A: I’m so sorry both for the abuse and rape you endured in your first marriage, and for the ways in which you are being visited by old feelings of shame and fear now. For what it’s worth, you have told your daughter the truth. You were raped, and the fact that you are unable to put her in touch with the relatives of the man who raped you does not mean you are “hiding” anything. Just because the man who raped you was your husband does not in any way mitigate or meaningfully transform the fact that you were raped.

You have told her the truth. You are doing the right thing, and I hope you can get the support you need, either from trusted friends or from a counselor, in processing your feelings of guilt. You have nothing to feel guilty about. You deserve safety and privacy. You deserve not to be hounded and badgered by the relatives of your rapist who have tried to make you feel responsible for his terrible behavior. You do not have to have continued contact with your daughter if you do not feel that you can do so without putting yourself in in harm’s way.

Q. Husband rejecting sex post baby: I recently gave birth to my second child, who’s now 2-months-old. I also have a 3-year-old. During pregnancy my husband and I did not have sex often, maybe two or three times in the last few months, though I did help him out in other ways if I was too tired or uncomfortable. Fast-forward, we had sex right at the six-week mark and one time after that. I have felt him to be emotionally distant from me lately, even nitpicking small things like leaving the back door open when I take out the trash. The other night I was exhausted and mentioned to him how tired I was, but the baby was asleep so I initiated sex. He told me he was tired and wasn’t in the mood. I took this personally and the next morning found porn on his phone. I have no problem with porn, but I’m more upset he’s replacing me. He was very upset when I admitted to looking at his phone and said that I always complain of being tired.

I worry that he is so used to using porn regularly since my pregnancy that he’s lost interest in having sex with me, or that he has maybe lost his attraction. I have lost almost all my baby weight and I’m very happy with my appearance, but now this is messing with me emotionally. Help!

A: For what it’s worth, this is a problem I receive a number of letters about, and you are very much not alone in struggling to rebuild your connection with your husband after childbirth. Nor is it at all unusual to be often tired while taking care of a toddler and a newborn.

My best advice is to continue talking to one another. That is so often my best advice, and I wish I had more to offer. The sex is one thing, but the fact that your husband has become emotionally distant, frequently nitpicks over small things, and deflects your questions when you try to talk about how you’re feeling is the bigger problem here, I think. I don’t know what’s driving your husband’s behavior, but I hope that he cares enough for you so that he’s responsive when you tell him, “I know we’re both tired and overwhelmed, and that having a newborn means we’re probably not about to regularly have the best sex of our lives together. But I want to work together, and I often feel rejected and criticized by you right now. Can we talk about that? What’s on your mind? What’s troubling you? I love you, and I want to reconnect—are you willing to do the same?”

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for wading through a difficult day with me. I’ll see you all next week.

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