Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Q. Estranged Daughter: I have a 20-year-old daughter who is now away at college. Her mother and I divorced over 10 years ago. My daughter was not pleased that I remarried five years ago and would only associate with me and not even attend events if my new wife was there. My wife has been very patient and didn’t begrudge me time with my daughter. She even allowed my daughter to use an old car of hers to drive to school and around town and helped pay for some high level sports clinics that my daughter wished to attend. When my daughter left for college she wanted to take my wife’s car. I said no and my daughter stopped speaking to me. This has gone on for 18 months even though I pay her full college expenses. She snubs me and her grandparents after her games when the other players come out to see their families. I have continued to communicate one-sidedly, send emails, texts, and gifts, as have my parents. I had told her and her mother I would take care of tuition for her first two years and now I have fulfilled that promise. Any suggestions as to how to reconnect with her and how to gently remind her and her mother, who has encouraged my daughter in this behavior, that it is Mom’s turn to pay for college?
A: Parental alienation is a terrible and sometimes unfixable thing. Your ex-wife has poisoned your daughter against you. This has been going on since she was a little girl, and at that time she had no psychological choice but to side with your ex. The risk of losing a mother’s affections is a frightening thing to any child. But now she is a young woman—a spoiled, rude, and emotionally damaged one—and the way she treats you is indefensible. Before you make a plan, you must first completely separate out finances from behavior. Payment of college should have been something worked out in the divorce agreement, and if necessary you need to go back to a lawyer to figure out how you and your ex pay for the rest of your daughter’s education. It will simply be counterproductive for any chance at someday having a decent relationship with her to make her getting her degree contingent on how she treats you—even as that makes intuitive sense. As for her behavior, I think it’s time you addressed this with her directly. Before you do, have some sessions with a therapist who has expertise in parental alienation and reconciliation. Ideally, your daughter would agree to go to counseling with you to address your issues and heal this breach. You have to accept that this is what will happen in an ideal world, and that it may never happen for you. But with guidance you can figure out a plan for moving forward, which will include a way to let your daughter know you will always love her, but as you two deal with each other adult to adult, both of you need to treat each other with respect.
Q. Gun Safety: My husband is a gun collector. His interest is mostly in customizing and restoring used guns. He’s always been very safe and knowledgeable about his hobby, and has taken me with him to target shoot several times to demonstrate this. However, last night, while fiddling with a handgun in the living room, it suddenly fired and shot a bullet through our ceiling and into our attic. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but he says he still has no idea “how a round got in there.” This terrifies me. I flipped out and told him while he can keep his guns, he needs to rethink his safety practices. I also told him I’m thinking of refusing him to work on his guns while I’m at home, at all, and that he might want to think about downsizing his collection. He’s extremely ashamed and embarrassed, and pretty much willing to do whatever I tell him at this point. Is this fair? And am I being too fair?
A: You all are lucky, indeed. His “Duh, I don’t know how that got in there” is so appalling that I think you should insist that if he keeps the collection, which is something you two need to discuss and downsizing sounds like a good idea, he must take a multipart refresher course in gun safety. He may insist this was a one-time lapse, but it is a lapse of such appalling and potentially lethal dimension that it shows he really doesn’t know what he’s doing. I also agree that after he completes the course that there need to be strict new safety rules in the house—one being that he works on his guns in a designated place—not the living room!—and no other family members are around. It’s good that he’s ashamed and embarrassed, as he should be. He now needs to reassess everything he thought he knew about being a gun owner.
Q. Re: Estranged Daughter: First, in some states, family court’s jurisdiction ends at 18. When I was negotiating my divorce, I was told it was not possible to write an enforceable divorce decree re: college support. (I am not an attorney, so consult yours.) Second, having had firsthand experience with multiple counselors regarding parental alienation, let me caution it is a very mixed bag. I encountered multiple counselors who just wanted to apply a formula rather than focus on the dynamics of the specific case. At least in my child’s case, we needed to take both perspectives as the formulaic approach backfired badly.
A: Thanks for the clarification about the law. Not being able to make an enforceable agreement about paying for college seems like a giant hole that needs fixing. Your caveat about counselors applies to every situation people seek such help. Therapy can be challenging, but patients need to be very aware that if they feel no progress is being made—or if things are getting worse—then they must bring this up with the therapist and if need be, move on.
Q. Girlfriend Not Willing to Reschedule Trip for My Graduation: My girlfriend of several years is going on a cruise this coming summer, but the thing is, we completely forgot that she will be leaving before my graduation ceremony and she will not be able to attend. I have spent too much time on my degree and I am eagerly waiting to receive my diploma. According to her, she can not reschedule her trip. I feel this is a major part of my life and she will not be there for it. I thought that she could Skype into the gradation but who knows where she will be and if she will even have access to the Internet?
A: There are few milestones more dreary than the graduation. The person you are there to honor is not the star of the show but one of hundreds, even thousands of people. Loved ones are trapped listening to dreary speeches, then watching strangers troop across the stage, waiting for the few seconds their special person makes the procession, while snapping lousy photos. You forgot the graduation date and in the meantime your beloved made a deposit on a cruise. Wish her bon voyage while she wishes you congratulations. Making an issue of this is unwise both financially and romantically.
Q. Re: Cruising Girlfriend: Newsflash: I have my doctorate, so I have suffered through too many of my own boring graduations. Most funerals are more fun than graduation ceremonies. You might think that your graduation is so momentous the world should stop rotating to take pause, but do yourself and your relationship a favor: Drop it. Also, bring a book or Kindle, if you don’t you’ll be envious of your fellow graduates who have thought ahead. I learned this the hard way during a four-hour graduation ceremony.
A: I love the idea of the graduates—and their loved ones—catching up on their reading during these excruciating exercises.
Q. Should I Approach or Ignore My Smoking Co-Worker?: I work in a small office with a recently hired co-worker who I strongly suspect is smoking more than tobacco on his lunch break. Most of the other employees are older, conservative professionals and I am not sure if anyone has picked up on the aromas that return to the office when this individual comes back from lunch. Our work does not involve us interacting much with clients face to face or using any potentially hazardous equipment, so I can almost understand the desire get a buzz on. I’m not sure if our company even has a drug policy, so I’m not sure what actions the owners would take. This individual has also related to me that at a previous place of employment, this person was asked to leave and had to be escorted from the premises after threats of violence. I’m really at a loss as far as what to do. I see no harm in lighting up once in a while, but I don’t think work is the appropriate place.
A: Maybe the marijuana will mellow out the new employee with a propensity for threatening workplace violence. That would be a novel justification for medical marijuana. What are you waiting for—this person’s probation period to pass? Run to the bosses and say you are sorry to have to report that you think there’s a reason for the skunky smell stalking the office and that the new hire told you something very disturbing about his or her last place of employment. Surely your company’s drug policy is: No recreational drugs at the office.
Q. Hosting for Different Needs: A friend of my wife and I cut out added sweeteners and refined grains from her diet recently. Since we’re hosting a party soon, I brought this up while discussing the menu with my wife because I think we must make sure she has plenty to eat. My wife on the other hand, thinks it’s her friend’s problem and not ours to worry about. Our friend offered to bring some dishes, which I think it’s kind of her, but since we’re the ones hosting and it won’t be a potluck, I feel we should provide for her as we will for the rest of the group. What’s your take?
A: People should be considerate of needs of guests to the extent that you don’t invite all your Orthodox Jewish friends to your bacon festival, and you don’t invite your observant Mormon or Muslim friends to your wine-tasting. If you are hosting a dessert party, you should give this friend a heads up. But beyond that, people with special dietary needs need to make their own accommodations when socializing. It sounds as if there will be an array of food this friend can choose from. If not, she can sip some water and eat when she gets home. She is not going to suffer from malnutrition even if your food is not up to her standards.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks so much, everyone. Talk to next week!
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