Danny M. Lavery, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail 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.
Danny M. Lavery: Hello, everyone! Come, let us reason together.
Q. Electrifying relationship: Todd and I had been going out for eight months, spending every spare moment together and practically living together. He’s smart and funny, and we fit together so well at one point I thought he might be the one. Until last month. I live on a farm (Todd is definitely a city boy), and one morning I went out to fix my electric fence. I turned it off before working on it, of course, but while I was leaning over the top wire Todd thought it would be funny to turn it back on. Now this isn’t the electric fence from Jurassic Park, but it has a pretty powerful charger on it, and it knocked me back on my heels and made me cry out. And Todd laughed. I was so hurt and angry I told him to get his stuff and get out. At first he didn’t believe me: I had to physically get his belongings and take them out to his car, then told him I never wanted to see him again. And I meant it. He apologized and has kept apologizing, sending me flowers and asking my forgiveness. My friends (who unanimously love Todd) say I should take him back, that it was just a juvenile prank and that he had no idea how large a wallop the fence packed. He’s even offered to let me shock him as payback, which is, in my view, just another sign of his immaturity. I believe that he’s genuinely sorry, but it was such a egregious breach of trust I can’t get past it. The memory of that shock, and his laughter, still makes me cry. Am I overreacting? Should I give him a second chance?
A: Absolutely not.
Q. Abusive sibling … abusive adult?: My sister was pretty terrible to me growing up. She beat me up a lot because she was bigger, but she never touched my brother because he was bigger. I have memories of her punching me, smashing my head into a wall, clawing, and other violent outbursts. For example, if I accidentally bumped into her, she’d punch me in the head and shoulders. She would also make a show of pretending to hit me and only being satisfied if I’d flinch. My sister only stopped when we matched each other in size.
Now that I have a child, I’m unsure how to handle my sister’s desire to spend time alone with my daughter. My sister sincerely enjoys my brother’s children, but she doesn’t have a history of violence with him. With me, she either doesn’t remember all that stuff happened or she thinks I’m overly sensitive or I’m making everything up. What do I do? We’re not close anyway, although my sister thinks we’re the best of friends. My inclination is to say no, but I know if I do that, it’ll lead to yet another emotional confrontation, and my parents will be upset.
A: It sounds like the detente you’ve currently arrived at suits you fairly well at present. Your sister labors under the delusion that you two are closer than you really are, but you don’t have to see her very often, and you don’t want to initiate a painful argument where your family calls your memory of your own childhood into question unless you absolutely have to. So my advice to you for now is to let things continue as they are, for as long as you find your conditions bearable. But if your sister asks to spend time alone with your children—or, just as important, if you no longer find your conditions bearable and decide you are unable to spend time with her as long as she refuses to acknowledge that she physically abused you as a child—then by all means, tell her she’s not going to spend solo time with your children, because you remember how badly she hurt you as a child, and you’re afraid that since she’s never admitted to it or demonstrated remorse, that she would do it again.
You’re right to be worried despite her outwardly friendly treatment of your brother’s children, by the way. Many abusers are kind and thoughtful to other family members who were never a target of their abuse, in large part to create a group of defenders in case anyone else ever tries to accuse them of abuse (“Well, she never hurt me”). The important thing to remember is that if your parents are upset, and if your sister thinks you are making things up, and if someone calls you overly sensitive, that this does not make you wrong. You do not have to argue your own experience. If you are met with skepticism, you can simply hold your ground and say, “I am not being overly sensitive. I am not making this up. I remember, even if you don’t. This happened to me, and I will not let it happen to my daughter.”
Q. Nervous partner: I am in a new relationship with a lovely human. I really care about him, and he seems to care about me. Unfortunately, he is nervous about his sexual performance. He is in his early 30s now but was a late-in-life virgin and as a result fears he cannot perform well enough. Often we stop midintercourse because he’s worried himself into losing his erection. I have tried to be reassuring and considerate, but I get frustrated when we stop. He’s assured me that he trusts me and enjoys having sex with me but that he “gets into his own head” too deeply to enjoy sex. My questions are how can I be supportive to my partner, and is this a normal thing? Should I encourage him to seek professional talk therapy?
A: One strategy that may prove helpful is not to consider standard-issue, penetrative intercourse the only “successful” outcome. Take the focus off of his erection (“How’s it doing? Is it flagging? Should we be worried? Is there a problem?” can’t be fun for anyone’s genitals) and focus on the beautifully varied spectrum of sexual behavior that doesn’t require a nonstop erection from him. You both have hands, mouths, and access to a wide variety of toys—use them!
Q. Long-distance blues: The girl I’m dating is the love of my life—she’s beautiful, smart, kind, funny, the whole shebang. The problem is she lives 3,000 miles away, and there’s no real potential for us to be living on the same coast as each other for at least a year, if not longer. I’ve been miserable in a long-distance relationship before and don’t really want to go through it again. The only way I could ever see myself being happy in something long distance is if it were open, but my girlfriend is 100 percent opposed (I was sleeping with someone else a while back before our relationship became monogamous, and it was upsetting for her). Is there any possible way to compromise here, or are my only choices being unhappy in a type of relationship I don’t like or losing my soul mate?
A: You could break up with her and hope to meet another beautiful, smart, kind, funny woman in your area code. You could argue for the merits of your open relationship suggestion a final time and see if you can persuade her to see things your way. You could muddle through a monogamous, long-distance relationship for a year, if it’s a sticking point for her and you think the “love of your life” is worth a year of pain. I don’t have a perfect compromise that gives everyone what he or she wants this instant and results in no hurt feelings or frustration, I’m afraid, only the imperfect sort of compromise that involves listening seriously, being honest about what you want and what you’re capable of, and doing one’s best. There aren’t any other kinds of compromise, really. For what it’s worth, I think you might have developed a false dichotomy. Your only two choices aren’t “be unhappy with my soul mate” or “lose her forever.” They’re “talk about an imperfect situation with a woman I want to spend my life with and do our best to find a temporary yearlong compromise” or “end a good relationship for reasons of serious distance.”
Q. Slurs in the workplace: Where I work, I’ve overheard a couple employees using racial and religious slurs. I contacted our organization’s equal employment officer, and after finding out my confidentially wouldn’t be protected, I pulled back. After reconsidering the risks of whistle-blowing, I was thinking about coming forward and naming names, but the EEO violated my privacy by bringing someone from HR into the discussion, using my name, before I was done reconsidering. I am conflicted between hurting my department by outing longtime employees who have institutional knowledge while also making it harder to do my job after everyone finds out I outed them and sticking my neck out and naming their names. What should I do?
A: Have you considered speaking up in the moment when you hear co-workers using racial slurs? I don’t mean to trivialize what’s going on. You may not have sufficient seniority to speak up or feel that management would not back you up if you protested, but it is at least worth considering, I think. If you are in a position to do so without fear of reprisal, I think an excellent next step (and what should perhaps have been your first step) would be to say, “I’ve heard you using racial and religious slurs in the office, and it’s extremely inappropriate and needs to stop immediately.”
Q. When is enough enough?: There are some firm lines for cutting family out of your life—being physically abused—and there are some not-so-firm lines, and it seems to me most people advise you not to cut family out of your life if they haven’t crossed the firm lines. But what if it seems like all they do is cross the not-so-firm ones? For example, you’re gay and your dad who you know loves you can’t stop making comments about hoping you’ll change one day. Or your brother just won’t stop asking you for drug money no matter how many times you’ve tried to get him into rehab. What do you do when you’re just completely worn out from managing that homophobic dad and don’t see the point in suffering through it anymore? Is just feeling that way in and of itself enough?
A: If your father cannot stop himself from reminding you on a regular basis that he thinks your sexuality is a solvable error, and you find yourself “worn out” from suffering, you have excellent grounds from placing that relationship on (perhaps permanent) hold. You are under no obligation to listen to his reminders that he thinks there’s something wrong with you at your core merely because he’s not physically abusing you. This is, in fact, a fairly firm line. You should freely and without guilt tell him that you are willing to talk when he is willing to accept your sexuality as part and parcel of who you are, not a mistake or a cosmetic flaw to be excised, but not before. The same goes for your brother. Tell him “I love you, and I want to be close with you, but I can’t do that as long as you’re trying to get me to enable your addiction. I hope you will call me when you are ready to get help, but until that happens, we can’t have a relationship.” You are not seeking to tell him he is forever unworthy to have any contact with you; you are merely setting appropriate terms that are necessary for a healthy relationship. You have a right to flourish, and there is a significant difference between cutting someone out of one’s life irrevocably and setting terms like “Until you can stop constantly telling me my gayness makes me unworthy, we can’t have a relationship.” If your father cannot meet that very low bar, it is not you who has ended the relationship.
Q. Re: Slurs in the workplace: Yes, I expressed my disappointment in hearing those remarks at the time I heard them, which is why I am sure they will know it was me who reported them.
A: Oh, dear. Here I was hoping I’d found an avenue you hadn’t already considered and tried. It sounds like your concern now, then, is whether to pursue your claim, given that you no longer have the option of doing so anonymously, because you’re afraid they’ll make the workplace a difficult environment for you. (I’m assuming that when you spoke up to the offenders, they dismissed you and/or continued to use said slurs.) Which means you have to weigh your own job security against fighting against bigotry in the workplace. Do any readers with experience escalating to the EEO want to chime in? Is it customary for the EEO to reveal the names of complainants and bring in HR to confidential meetings? What are the LW’s options?
Q. I really dislike my employee: I’m the executive director of a tiny nonprofit and have an employee I dislike. The problem is that everyone else thinks this person is great and can’t see his faults. He does about 95 percent of his job very well and often goes beyond the call of duty. He’s excellent with clients and co-workers but makes careless mistakes. Several times he’s circled the wrong number in a document or left extra spacing letters. It’s in his job description to lock a closet, but he’s forgotten many times. Each time, I call him at home and wait until he comes back to do it, but he just won’t learn! Mostly, though, he just annoys me. I don’t want people to think it’s because of his nontraditional lifestyle, so I just bite my tongue. Others find him innovative and creative, but I just want him to buckle down, pay attention to details, leave me alone, and not make errors. I can’t fire him justifiably, but I can’t work with him either. We are too small to move him, so what do I do? Help me, Prudie.
A: Oh, dear. I’m afraid the problem lies very much with you in this instance. Anyone who does 95 percent of his or her job “very well” ought to be cut a little slack when it comes to spacing and number-circling. It seems like on some level you are aware that your fixation on his occasional, minor errors is irrational and preventing you from doing your job well—I hope this answer can bring you into full awareness of just how inappropriately you are behaving. If an otherwise excellent employee forgets to lock a closet now and again, it is a wholly unjustified use of your time and resources to call him at his home and make him come back to the office in order to lock it. Either have a copy of the key made or lock it yourself. I have locked many doors in my day. It generally takes about half a second.
What’s more worrisome to me is that you want your employee to “leave you alone,” even though you’ve never described any behavior that would fall under the category of “not leaving you alone.” Your desire for him to “not make errors” is, you must realize, impossible and absurd, and you must take responsibility for your irrational dislike. The problem is you. You are not biting your tongue as well as you think you are, and I can only imagine how difficult you must make life for this employee. You absolutely can work with him, and if you deserve the position you currently hold, you will find a way to deal with your bizarre dislike of him on your own time, and create, at the bare minimum, a safe and respectful environment for him to work in.