Click here to read a transcript of Prudie’s live weekly chat with readers at Washingtonpost.com.
Several years ago, I moved to South America. During my first few months there, I became fast friends with a local man. He was a wonderful source of help during an otherwise lonely time. After several months of friendship, we started a relationship, which lasted only briefly, as we realized that we were better friends than lovers. Eventually, I moved back home to the United States. My friend recently contacted me to tell me he is coming here for several months for work. I was thrilled at the chance to see him again and happy to help him navigate my country as he helped me in his. I’m now engaged, however, and my fiance was furious. He told me that all past relationships should stay in the past and that I should not be in contact with this man. I offered to see my friend only with my fiance present or with a group of friends, but he wouldn’t accept that. As a threat, my fiance said he was going to start contacting his ex-girlfriends. He has trust issues because his mother cheated on his father and her other husbands. I can’t stand the thought of hurting my fiance, but I don’t want my friend to have to navigate a foreign country alone, either. I also don’t want to bear the burden of my fiance’s mother’s mistakes. What should I do?
—The Fiance, the Immigrant, and Me
The country wasn’t Argentina, was it? It’s been in the news lately as the international capital of romance. Unfortunately, now your fiance has another argument for his unreasonable demand: the example of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who, apart from being more attractive to women than the guy in the Dos Equis commercials, has made suspect the assertion “We’re just friends!” However, I believe you’re just friends, and so should your fiance. In a way, it’s even more believable since you and your friend tried the sparking thing, and the flame thoroughly fizzled. Because he’s your friend, it would be normal to invite him to dinner to catch up with you and meet your fiance. That your fiance has made that impossible is insulting to you and him. But more than that, your fiance doubts you and is threatening your relationship not because of anything you’ve done but because of his unreliable mother. Your South American friend was a help to you when you were lonely, and he’s turned out to be an unwitting help to you now that you’re not. If you give in to your fiance’s demand, then expect to lead a married life in which you have little ability to have friendships and work relationships with men; in which your communications and whereabouts are constantly scrutinized. Your fiance needs to get some help working through his “trust issues” before you get married. Unless he does, you will spend many years atoning for his mother’s infidelity.
I am the mother of a 13-year-old girl. My daughter recently attended a sleep-over party with a large group of friends. When my husband picked her up, he came back with a disturbing story. A girl and her mother showed up at the party. The mother was very upset that her daughter had not been included, as she had been in years past. The mother loudly discussed the matter with the other mother, then left with her daughter. The girl and her mother have been good friends of ours for years. The girls have grown apart recently, but I have kept my friendship with the mother. It appears that some of the girls—including my daughter—made sure this girl was not invited to the party, for which my daughter feels no remorse. The girls also had a boy call the uninvited girl just to reiterate that she was not welcome at the party. I understand the girls are no longer good friends, but I find my daughter’s behavior unacceptable. She says she does not want to encourage the girl into thinking they are still close. How do I handle my potential mean-girl daughter? What, if anything, should I say to the mother?
—Mom of a Meanie
As a fellow mother of a 13-year-old, there is nothing like having a teenage girl to make you happy you have moved into that phase of life where your problems include making the mortgage payment, holding onto your job, and waiting to hear if the polyp is benign. All that is better than the emotional trauma of not being invited to the party everyone is going to. It’s understandable that the mother of the shunned girl wanted to fight for her cub, but it was a mistake to show up at the party with her daughter. It only further humiliated the girl and provided material for hours of snarky derision from the mean girls. But your issue is your meanie. What you want is for your daughter to acknowledge her lousy behavior and for you to see in her some glimmering of moral insight. So instead of punishing her, I suggest you talk about the party in a neutral tone. You can say something like, “I’m sorry you and ‘Lizzy’ are no longer friends; I know that friendships sometimes fade. But even people who aren’t your friends should be treated with respect. I understand not everyone gets invited to every party. And you can understand that it hurts to be the kid who isn’t invited. But no one should get a phone call taunting her that she wasn’t included. I know other kids were also involved, but you still owe Lizzy an apology.” Since you are friends with the mother, and know how upset she is, after your daughter makes her call, you can call the mother and tell her you’ve spoken to your daughter and that you feel terrible about what happened. Expect to hear some angry venting; stay calm and repeat that you understand why she’s so upset. For more on how to deal with appalling teen behavior, look at Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes.
My in-laws are generally nice people, but in recent years they have become almost comically parsimonious. Through a lifetime of well-paid employment and frugal habits, they have amassed a nest egg in excess of $1 million. Yet they live like they’re scraping by on a single Social Security check. My husband and I don’t receive or expect much of anything from them. But their efforts to stretch their ample dollars are getting on my nerves when it comes to my kids. My young son recently celebrated a birthday. My in-laws gave him a couple of new books, but they also wrapped up cheap, decades-old plastic toys they had stored in their garage. I was shocked and a little offended. Am I wrong to think they’ve crossed a line? Should we discuss this with them or just let it go until our kids are old enough to clue into their grandparents’ extreme cheapness and express their displeasure in the direct way only kids can get away with?
I hear from many people who are having a different problem with their in-laws: that the in-laws have spent profligately all their lives—including big gifts—and are now destitute and expect their grown children to support them. Yes, $1 million is a lot of money. But if one of your in-laws develops Alzheimer’s and the other has a stroke, you’ll be amazed at how quickly $1 million can disappear. You’ll also be grateful that your in-laws prepared to cover their care. As for birthday gifts—they got some for your son: new books and “vintage” toys. If the stuff from the garage really is junk, then just toss it when you get home. Other than that, you thank your in-laws for their thoughtfulness, and you teach your children to do the same. What would be crossing a line is to encourage your children to be rude and ungrateful to their grandparents in order to get your selfish point across.
I am a young lawyer working for the public defender’s office, which means I am a criminal defense attorney for the indigent. Often, when meeting people in social situations, I am asked what I do for a living. Once I respond, the person inevitably says, “How can you defend someone you know is guilty?” or “How can you live with yourself trying to get those people off?” I have tried asking the person to put themselves in the shoes of the accused, lecturing them on the Constitution, explaining the adversarial system, etc., but recently have been tempted to respond in a rude manner. What makes people think it’s acceptable to criticize someone else’s life’s work? They wouldn’t say to a doctor, “How does it feel when you accidentally kill someone?” I would like to offer a response that makes the person aware of how rude they are being while still being pleasant myself. Any suggestions?
Of course you don’t have to engage with people who are being rude—hostile remarks in a social setting deserve to be answered with, “Excuse me, I’m going to freshen my drink.” But since this happens all the time, that’s a lot of refreshed drinks. So if you’re willing to engage, instead of lectures, try some conversational jujitsu. Tell your interlocutors you understand their concerns. You could even say that people who work in your field wrestle with this issue. Then recount the story of a poor person falsely accused, or treated unfairly, whom you or a colleague were able to rescue. If they respond that almost everyone who’s accused actually is guilty, then sure, go into lecture mode. You can say something like, “Yes, some of them are. And the state has the power and resources to make their case. Fortunately, our democracy doesn’t let the state just put people away without there being a proper defense.” And if they still won’t let up, then it’s time to top off your drink.