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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.
Mallory Ortberg: In the highly irritating words of Marcus Aurelius, “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” On that premise: let’s chat.
Q. Mixed family, mixed feelings: My mother is Latina, and her family came to the U.S. just months before she was born; my father is white. While I used to be close with my father’s sister, “Faye,” last year she picked a fight with me at Thanksgiving while I was having a calm, friendly discussion with another family member—she called me a communist (I’m not) and eventually started chanting “Build a wall” directly in front of my mother and me. Needless to say, we were all offended and left the party early. I haven’t heard from her since, until this week when I received a generic “happy birthday” email from her. I don’t know how to respond. I had told my father that if she ever does want to repair the relationship with me, I’m willing to have a conversation (if she can be civil) about what she said, why it hurt, and how to handle our differences better in the future. She’s never taken him up on that offer or apologized for what she said. I worry that the Trump presidency will only embolden her prejudiced beliefs, so I’m especially reluctant to talk over email or on the phone, since it’s much easier to get heated that way. Should I wait for an apology and opportunity to talk in person (I’m in graduate school about eight hours away), or should I try to open up this communication again now?
A: The correct follow-up to screaming “Build a wall” in your Latina relative’s face is not “Wait until next year, then wish her a happy birthday,” but a thoughtful, sincere, and immediate apology, followed by seriously amended behavior. Your aunt has not demonstrated a desire to apologize for her disrespectful, degrading remarks by sending you an email that fails to mention the reason for your current estrangement. She’s demonstrated a desire to pretend it never happened. This wasn’t a heated disagreement between reasonable people that got a little out of hand; this was a grotesque display of childishness and cruelty. If you think it’s possible that your father never actually passed your message along to your aunt, you might consider replying that you will not resume a relationship with her until she is able to apologize to you for her behavior last Thanksgiving and have a rational conversation about how she intends to act differently in the future, but that until then you will not be available to talk about your birthday plans or what books you’ve been reading lately. Otherwise, let it lie. You can’t reconnect with someone who won’t honestly acknowledge the wrong she’s done and evinced at least a fledgling desire to make things right.
Q. Grandparents pushing sexist stereotypes: I love my in-laws, and I am generally on the same page with them in terms of politics and social issues, so I assumed that when my baby girl arrived they’d understand my preference not to doll her up in frills and treat her like a princess. That hasn’t been the case. They can’t seem to stop commenting on her looks. She’s a “coquette,” a “born cook,” and a “great future babysitter” (she’s not yet 2). I’ve asked them nicely on multiple occasions to stop talking about her looks and stop pushing outdated stereotypes on her, but they say I’m overreacting. We only see them in person a few times a year, so I don’t want to say something that could damage their relationship with my daughter. However, I’m more concerned about how their words could affect her self-image as she gets older. Should I let it go? And if not, how can I get through to them and keep family harmony intact?
A: It’s sweet to point out that a little girl is cute; it’s unnecessarily limiting to exclusively praise a little girl’s looks and perceived nurturing qualities at the expense of anything else. It’s also completely unnecessary to ever refer to a toddler as “coquettish.” That said, if your daughter only sees her grandparents a few times a year, it’s unlikely that they will be able to convince her she was born to be a food-slinging babysitter all on their own. That doesn’t mean you can’t speak up if your in-laws say something that distresses you or that you can’t check in with your daughter after your visits to talk about appearance and gender stereotypes and your own values, just that she’s unlikely to base her self-image on the strength of what her grandparents tell her a few weekends a year.
Q. Transgender person’s past?: “Taylor” and I dated briefly a few years back and split amicably. Recently, Taylor came out as transgender and is transitioning. I knew Taylor as male while we dated, but now she uses female pronouns. My question is, when it comes up in casual conversation that we dated, what pronouns should I use? Saying “he and I dated” feels like it’s betraying Taylor’s identity as a trans woman, but on the other hand saying “she and I dated” mischaracterizes what our relationship was at the time. What should I do?
A: Since you two dated only briefly several years ago, I don’t imagine you’re spending too much of your time recounting your past relationship, but you can always say, “We dated before she came out.”
Q. I’m not your (ex-)wife!: My boyfriend’s divorce was finalized in the past year. Since that time, we’ve celebrated birthdays and Christmas together. We haven’t been exchanging gifts per our agreement because he doesn’t like the pressure and expectations and because he and his ex-wife agreed it wasn’t worth doing so in their prior relationship. But I’m not her, and this relationship is too new to never have a chance for us to try what I think is fun—exchanging presents! I know your advice will be to just tell him how I feel, but how do I do this while being mindful and respectful of his past negative experiences and without sounding materialistic (because I’m not)?
A: I don’t believe that you do need to be “mindful” of his past negative experience; asking to exchange gifts on Christmas and your birthday is neither unusual or materialistic. His ex-wife did not permanently ruin the fact that birthdays exist, and the fact that your boyfriend is divorced does not mean you need to walk around on eggshells before saying, “I’d like to buy each other scarves that don’t quite suit either of us next December.” Asking if you can get him a gift on his birthday, and if he’d consider getting you something on yours, is a far cry from disrespecting his relationship with his ex-wife, so don’t feel like you’re suggesting anything traumatic by doing so.
Q. My estranged father: My father had an affair, and after the family found out it was like a mask came off and I didn’t even recognize the man he became. Because of his behavior I made the decision to cut off all contact with him after the divorce. My therapist agrees that this was the best decision for my mental health. The problem is that he emails me on holidays and my birthday to tell me he misses me, happy holidays, etc. I never respond, but just seeing his email pop up is distressing and usually ends in a panic attack (great birthday gift, Dad!). What should I do? Deleting the account is not an option, and I really don’t have the strength or desire to contact him myself to tell him to stop. My husband is willing to write to him, but I just don’t know if that’s best or what to say.
A: Set his emails to automatically go to spam or trash. This saves you the momentary, unpredictable panic of not knowing when his next message might arrive, while also freeing you from having to send no-contact instructions through your husband. Just Google whichever email service you’re using (Gmail, Outlook, etc) plus “block email account” and follow whatever steps appropriate for your system in order to set his messages to bypass the inbox (so you never have to see his name appear suddenly in bold at the top of your screen) and auto-delete.
Q. Withholding information the same as lying?: I’ve been dating a woman for a little over a year, and it’s been a bit rocky. There were red flags from the start (vague about her past, bad with money), but she’s a nice woman and we enjoy each other’s company, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I’ve met her family, but even a year in, I have not met a single friend of hers. Ten months into the relationship we took a three-day camping trip. Things did not go well, and we spent the four-hour drive home either silent or arguing. After a couple of days of cooling off, we met to talk, and I initiated a breakup feeling things just weren’t right. She chose this moment to tell me that she’s in recovery and that she spent most of her 20s strung out on heroin. She has since apologized for withholding this information but still defends her decision to not tell me. We’re spending time together again because she’s been very persistent, and I did miss her when we weren’t seeing each other. I believe her when she says she’s sober, but I wonder if it’s possible to build a trusting relationship with someone who spent the first year lying to me (even if it was by omission—she maintains that this is not lying). I’m having trouble re-engaging in the relationship but also can identify with her how difficult it must be to disclose that kind of information to someone you’re getting to know. We’ve all got baggage, right? Thoughts?
A: Let’s remove heroin entirely from this conversation. Here’s what jumps out at me in your description of your yearlong relationship: You’ve noticed red flags; you think she’s bad with money; you haven’t met a single friend of hers; you went on a lousy camping trip and sat through a couple of silent, tension-filled four-hour car rides; you felt that things just weren’t right; you wonder if it’s possible to build a trusting relationship with her; the two of you have different ideas of what constitutes lying; and you’re having trouble recommitting to her.
And on the other side of the ledger we have this: She’s a “nice woman,” you gave her the benefit of the doubt, she was really persistent about not letting you break up with her, and you missed her during your hiatus. Those are some of the mildest compliments one person can give another—she’s “nice,” and you noted her absence. This relationship sounds, frankly, miserable, and I don’t think the fact that she’s tight-lipped about being in recovery is the biggest, or even a significant, cause of your misery. Usually letter writers who are unsure about whether to stay or go will at least offer lip service to “Normally everything’s great, but … ” or “My girlfriend is smart, funny, kind, interesting, and sexy, but there’s one problem … ” You couldn’t bring yourself to name a single positive quality about this woman, or your relationship with her, stronger than “nice.” That says something, and I think you should ask yourself what kind of relationship you want to have and whether you think you’re likely to find it with this woman.
Q. Re: My estranged father: My husband and I are in a similar situation. If you’re concerned that you may need evidence of his repeated contacts someday, you should direct the emails to a specific folder (or just to “archive”) without auto-deleting them. For us, it may help us someday to be able to demonstrate how abusive a particular family member is in his emails, so we don’t want total deletion of emails, although we have blocked this person completely on Facebook.
Q. Re: My estranged father: If you’re having panic attacks because your dad shows up on your inbox, and the reason you don’t want contact with him is because he cheated on your mom, maybe you should ask yourself why it traumatizes you so much. Are you sure you’re seeing the right therapist?
A: It’s certainly worth asking. The letter writer didn’t go into detail, but the remark that after the family found out “it was like a mask came off” and they no longer recognized their own father certainly implies there was more to the estrangement than just infidelity, but that some new, troubling behaviors emerged. In the absence of more details, I wouldn’t counsel the letter writer to seek to re-establish contact unless he or she both wanted to and felt emotionally prepared to do so.
Q. I’ll pray for you: I have a Catholic friend/acquaintance with whom I am occasionally at odds. We are both freshmen in college, and “Grace” has been trying to keep me at an arm’s length when it comes to religion but occasionally goes on tangents about it. We’re in a very liberal school, so it’s harder for her to express herself honestly. Recently, when I mentioned I was sad for whatever reason, Grace said she’d “pray for me.” She’s now said it more than once, and I don’t know how to take it. I’m Jewish, and while I do believe in God, I didn’t know how to take this expression when it feels condescending. I don’t normally tell people I’m praying for them unless it’s for health reasons. I think she means well, but she won’t answer me when I ask her if she thinks I’m going to hell, so now I think she thinks I’m going to hell because I’m Jewish. Unless she prays for my soul, that is. What do I do? I can’t exactly unfriend her in our social group, and it’s not as if she’s not being actively mean, only awkward. But I hate the idea that I have to be prayed for, even though I wouldn’t have a problem if, say, a Jewish friend said it to me. What do you think?
A: It is totally acceptable, for any reason, to tell someone that you’re not comfortable with him or her saying, “I’ll pray for you.” Part of learning to be an adult in the world, and a thoughtful member of any religion, is learning when to “express [one]self honestly” (to one’s particular spiritual leader, at one’s temple/mosque/church, to fellow members of one’s religion) and when to refrain from full disclosure (with an acquaintance from school who’s a member of another religion, for example). Your discomfort makes complete sense. There’s a difference between hearing, “I’ll pray for you” when someone means “I want you to be well, and I want to offer my spiritual support” versus “I believe you are eternally damned, but am willing to intercede with God on your behalf.” You don’t have to end your friendship with her; you just have to say, “Thanks for your offer, but I don’t want you to pray for me.” If she respects your request, you can continue to be friendly, but not close; if she says it again, repeat yourself: “I’ve asked you not to do that. Please stop,” and back off. No one should announce they’re going to pray for someone else unless they have first asked if it would be welcome, and if they have similar understandings of what prayer is. Prayer is not a tool to be wielded at someone; it should only be offered where it would be welcome.