Dear Prudence

The Accidental Plaintiff

I hit a child with my car and have to sue his parents in order to afford therapy.

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Dear Prudence,
I was driving and hit a 5-year-old child. I was not charged, as there was no speed or alcohol involved—he ran out onto the road while his mother was momentarily distracted. He was left with severe and permanent disabilities. I was a couple of days away from starting a new job but couldn’t work because I was in so much shock. I get panic attacks at the thought of driving and it’s difficult to even be around children. I was diagnosed with PTSD, and I know I need help, but I have no insurance and can’t afford it. I was told I need to sue the parents of the child to get a payout from their insurance, which would then pay for my treatment. On one hand, I desperately want some kind of psychological treatment. But the thought of suing the parents at the worst time of their life—that seems like pure evil. What would you do in my situation?

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—Should I Sue?

What a horrible situation to be in. I don’t know who told you that your only option to pay for treatment is to sue the child’s parents, but I hope that you’re able to seek a second opinion before going down that road. I spoke to a lawyer (who does not specialize in personal injury), and she confirmed that this practice is a not infrequent one:

It’s pretty common to make a claim against someone else’s insurance company in situations like this. … It happens if you’re at a relative’s house and you fall on their icy steps and break an ankle, or get bitten by their dog and need medical care. This is one of the reasons why people have homeowner’s insurance in the first place, so that if accidents like this happen, they aren’t personally liable for the injuries. A personal injury attorney will help (you don’t have to pay up front, they get a commission) so you wouldn’t have to navigate this process alone.

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That said, there’s a wide gulf between what is acceptable legal practice and what is morally conscionable, and I simply can’t tell you to pursue this option, at least not without exhausting every other avenue available to you first. You do have a few avenues to explore:

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  • This searchable database of HRSA health centers offers a list of mental health services available to patients with no insurance.
  • Call the National Suicide Hotline or the SAMHSA referral helpline to find treatment services in your area—even if you’re not in immediate danger of harming yourself, they can provide you with a list of free or sliding-scale local services and clinics.
  • Contact your local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
  • Your local Mental Health America affiliate is an excellent resource for information about local programs and services including affordable treatment services.
  • Contact local legal aid to see about filing for disability—if the mental and emotional trauma from your accident has made you unable to work, you may be eligible for disability services.

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But the type of care you need is long-term, highly specialized, and intensive, and may be difficult to find through the patchwork system of low-to-no-cost emergency mental health services. It’s a testament to how irreparably screwed our health insurance system is that suing the family of the boy you hit with your car is the best option you have for receiving treatment for your guilt and PTSD. Readers may recall the New York woman who sued her 8-year-old nephew last year after he accidentally broke her wrist. She received nothing but public scorn and a $0 settlement but in her case filing claimed that the insurance company for her nephew’s parents had only offered her $1 to cover her medical costs, and that she needed the money to pay for multiple necessary surgeries.

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I can’t imagine how awful it would feel to sue that little boy’s parents for an insurance payment and lose. I also can’t imagine how painful it would be for you to forgo necessary treatment in order to avoid causing this family more anguish. If there are any options available to you other than suing, I think you will suffer less, and gain more, in pursuing them. Leave the lawsuit as your last, worst choice. I hope very much that you take good care of yourself. I’m so sorry for everything that you and this family have had to go through. You also asked me what I would do in your situation. This is not my advice, just an honest answer: I don’t think I could do it.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a straight, single woman. On Friday night, I had sex with a man I’ve had a loose friendship with for about a year and had been hanging out with more often in the last month. It was terrible. I never felt unsafe or violated, but this guy who has been generous and empathetic in all other contexts was way off the mark in bed. Maybe he has limited experience, watches a lot of terrible porn, gets bad advice … who knows! Every time I said no or redirected he apologized and stopped and seemed embarrassed. He wants to hang out again and I think I need to break things off—what level of explanation do I offer? Do I owe it to him and the women who come next to let him know that his understanding of female anatomy is incorrect and his approach is riddled with misogyny? I don’t think he’s a jerk and I believe he could be a great partner to someone if he does some homework, but I also don’t know if it’s cruel to point out someone’s sexual illiteracy as a reason for wanting to go our separate ways.

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—Follow Up or Fade Out?

I think that if you repeatedly stopped him during sex and he had to apologize and fumble about nervously more than once, he probably won’t be too surprised when you turn him down. Tell him you don’t think you two connect well sexually, and leave it at that; you don’t have to become his sex tutor out of a sense of obligation to future women. You don’t want to sleep with him again, and it’s not cruel to be honest about the fact that the sex you two had was bad. You don’t have to belabor the point or enumerate the ways in which he failed you as a lover, but go ahead and make it clear that you’re not interested in trying again, and move on.

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Dear Prudence,
My partner and I have not been intimate in well over a year. We have had a long-running pattern of getting close, only for her to get extremely upset about something, throw a major fit, and say she wants to kill herself or make other alarming proclamations that I don’t think she’ll ever follow through on. When I try to talk to her about these things the next day, she is typically deflective: “Oh, I didn’t really mean that!” and the cycle continues.

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I also have had several moments when I felt like I made myself vulnerable to her only to have her metaphorically kick me in the teeth for it. This has led me to approach her with extreme caution, and when I try to explain this to her, she is dismissive. If I cannot recollect a specific, word-for-word retelling of what caused me to feel this way, she pretends it didn’t happen. Now she’s complaining we’re not intimate enough and we don’t have sex as often as we should. When I bring up the history of why I feel marginalized, she says I’m oversensitive and I need to move on. But we never moved on because I feel like she’s the one who hasn’t helped resolve anything between us and I’m tired of putting myself out there only to be rejected again. Is there any way to bring her over to my side and get her to actually listen to what I am saying?

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—When Does It End?

I don’t believe there is. What you’re describing to me sounds like emotional abuse. Regularly threatening suicide, especially during an argument or when you’re not doing something that she wants you to, is a form of manipulation that preys upon your feelings of love and concern. Even though you don’t believe your partner intends to follow through with her threats, it effectively ends the conversation, and the fact that she pretends not to remember (or not to have meant) the things she said the next day suggests there is a pattern of manipulation and gaslighting in your relationship. When your girlfriend threatens suicide during an argument, she’s trying to control your behavior, and to keep you from advocating for yourself or for setting appropriate boundaries. Remember that you are not responsible for her actions, and that you do not have the power to either keep her alive or to end her life. I think you should end this relationship, but make sure you have the proper support network in place before you do, in case she escalates her threatening behavior, as abusers often do when their victims attempt to leave. Make sure you have a place to stay; enlist friends and family members for emotional and financial support if necessary; find a therapist you can trust. There is no way for you to convince your girlfriend to see your side of things. She has threatened to harm herself in order to control you, tried to make you doubt your own memory, and refuses to listen to you regularly. She is abusing you, and you deserve better. No one deserves to be treated the way your girlfriend has treated you, and I wish you all the best in seeking help and getting out.

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Dear Prudence,
This is a silly problem but it’s increasingly getting on my nerves. My co-workers can’t stop criticizing my body temperature! I wear jackets, cardigans, and scarves in the summer for a lot of reasons—to hide areas of insecurity, because the office A/C is on full blast, because they’re cute—and at first I made jokes or gave what I thought were valid explanations, but it has become a daily occurrence. I think it’s extremely rude that they think that repeatedly telling me to take off my sweater is a fun, appropriate, and/or interesting conversation to have with me. What do I say to make them realize I am 100 percent uninterested in their opinion of what I’m wearing?

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—Chill

“I’m comfortable wearing this. Is there a reason you seem to be trying to make me feel uncomfortable about it? If not, can we please change the subject?” (This is, I hope you understand, to be used only on repeat offenders; don’t throw this at someone who’s never asked you before.)

Dear Prudence,
I work at a company that often pairs employees from different departments together in a one-on-one capacity. These partnerships often involve spending a great deal of time together. I manage many of these partners. One of these newest team members, “Sue,” is an attractive, young, married woman. Her work partner, “Sam,” is also young and attractive—but single. Recently Sue’s husband has been out of town, and she and Sam have been spending a lot of time outside of work together. Normally that’s not a big deal; however, Sam recently mentioned that Sue had spent the night at his house. He was emphatic that it was on the couch, but as there was no drinking involved and Sue only lives 10 minutes from him, I found this odd.

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Our employee handbook is very clear about romantic relationships being forbidden among staff and since we’re a faith-based company (although I’m hardly zealous), I know this could be perceived very badly. Normally I would never know about something like this, but Sam has become a friend and shared the information. My first thought is that I felt like I needed to have a gentle conversation of caution with Sue as my employee. If she were single, I would feel less anxious but still worried that if a relationship were to start and end there would be serious awkwardness for their partnership (they are in a remote territory and can’t be reassigned). I’m trying to ignore the red flags in her marriage, because I know that is not my business, but is the seemingly budding relationship also something I have to stay out of? As her supervisor, do I let adults be adults, or do I discuss this with her?

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—Happy Work Wife, Happy Life?

Since the nature of Sam and Sue’s after-hours relationship is currently an unknown, I think you should refrain from speculating or guessing what might happen if they continue to spend time together. If their personal relationship isn’t getting in the way of their work, then you have nothing to bring up with either of them. If you must say something, I think you should tell Sam that it’s inappropriate for him to share the details of his sleeping arrangements with you. You say you two are friends, but that’s no reason for him to inform a supervisor (even if you don’t directly manage him) that one of his colleagues spent the night on his couch. You might remind him of the rules about fraternization in the employee handbook, and leave it at that. It’s your place to step in if they start breaking office rules, or if their personal relationship negatively impacts their ability to do their jobs, but it’s not your place to inquire into the details of their after-hours socializing.

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Dear Prudence,
I graduated from college two years ago and settled into a job that I like. I am not making tons of money, but I am paying off my student loans while having an incredible life with my girlfriend. She is funny, smart, and the light of my life, as corny as that sounds. We have been together four years and I am so very happy right now. But the future is scaring me. My girlfriend is eight years older than me and will be finishing her Ph.D. this year. Many of her friends are married with kids or focusing on careers in far-off corners of the world. She has been anxious lately and talking more seriously about kids. I know her three older sisters have had fertility troubles so this is probably going to be do-or-die time. I love her, I can picture us getting married, picture her as the mother of my kids, but just not right now. My sister called me a coward when I told her this and told me to either commit to my girlfriend and propose or quit and let her find someone else. I am terrified of losing my girlfriend. I can’t imagine my life without her, but I can’t see myself changing diapers a year from now. What should I do?

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—Commit or Quit

I think “wanting to be a parent” is a very good reason to have children. I think “my girlfriend’s sisters have fertility troubles, my girlfriend wants children, and my sister is mad at me” are not. If you’re not ready to be a parent right now, that doesn’t mean you’re a coward, or a bad partner, or anything other than not ready. I understand the fear that you might lose your girlfriend, but fear is not a sufficient reason to bring a new life into the world. You owe it to both yourself and your girlfriend to be completely honest about what you want. Tell her what you’ve told me: that you see a serious future with her but that you’re not ready to get married or have children at 24. It doesn’t matter what her sisters are doing, and it doesn’t matter what your sister thinks. All that matters is what the two of you want. If your girlfriend is willing to compromise and wait, you might get everything you want. If she realizes that having children immediately is more important to her than anything else, you’ll both be sad, but at least she’ll be able to make an informed decision. I can’t promise you that being honest with your girlfriend will result in a storybook ending, but I can tell you that if you allow yourself to be guilted into fatherhood just because your family or friends or partner wishes you were ready, you’ll regret it.

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Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I lived happily together for 10 years in an apartment I own. There was a fire a year ago that destroyed all of our possessions. We have been paying the mortgage all this time while staying with my family, where we have little privacy. During this year we have both lost close family members, and our cats died in a terrible accident. We had some counseling when we were both very depressed, but it is unaffordable at the moment. My boyfriend has PTSD and I have generalized anxiety from the fire. Some neighbors also blame us, even though the official report says the cause is unknown. The apartment is still a trigger. My boyfriend and I always dreamed of living elsewhere, but not anywhere specific. Now, when we see the progress of the apartment being almost rebuilt, it fills us with dread to think of living there. However, money is tighter than ever and the most secure financial choice is to suck it up and live there. My family says we should stay there and be on the safe side. As impulsive as it sounds, we would like to sell and make a big change. Are we being foolish? Running away from our problems?

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—Fear of Fire

I don’t think running away from one’s problems is necessarily a bad thing. There are no awards for staying in an apartment full of bad memories, and moving away from a place that reminds you of one of the worst periods in your life (not to mention is surrounded by neighbors who resent you for an accident you didn’t cause) is hardly the worst idea. It may be that you need to rent the place out before finding the right time to sell—I don’t think you should hamstring yourselves financially if you can avoid it—but there’s no reason to force yourself to live in an apartment that has horrible associations just because you feel you have to. Don’t be a hero. You’ve had a rough year. Find someplace to live that doesn’t remind you of that every minute of the day.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a straight woman in a committed relationship with a man. We both refer to the other as our partner rather than boy/girlfriend. A friend recently told me that “straight people don’t use that word,” and joked that I must be the “office lesbian” at my new job. While there are far worse things than being mistaken for a lesbian, I’m curious what my obligation is (if any) to set the record straight with my supervisors? And is my friend correct that partner is not a straight people term? I like to say manfriend socially, but that doesn’t feel right at the office.

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—Let Me Call You Sweetheart

Partner (as opposed to husband, wife, girlfriend, or boyfriend) has long been used—predominantly, but not solely—by LGBTQ people who have been excluded from public affirmation and recognition of their relationships. It’s a word that has been especially important in queer, nontraditional family arrangements, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong to use it. There’s certainly a history among straight countercultural types of using “partner” as a gender-neutral way of referring to someone you were committed to but weren’t married to. There are no Partner Police that are going to come banging down your door for using it to refer to your straight boyfriend. There are plenty of reasons not to want to use boyfriend/girlfriend, especially if you have been together for a long time or consider your relationship way past “dating,” and partner makes perfect sense, especially if you’re not interested in getting married. In the course of regular conversation, the gender of your partner will presumably come up, and your co-workers will understand that your partner is male when you refer to him as “him.” You don’t have to go around reminding everyone you work with that you’re not a lesbian, and you don’t have to start calling your partner your boyfriend, either.

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