Dear Prudence

I’ll Be Watching You

My boyfriend secretly taped me while he was away to see if I’d leave the house.

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Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I have been together for three years and have lived together for two. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but I love him with my entire being. I have never cheated on him, but I have lied to him in the past. He, of course, inevitably discovered my lies. I lied because he has a tendency to be a little possessive and jealous. In no way do I think I was justified in lying, but I do wish sometimes he would have a little more understanding about why I felt uncomfortable telling him the truth. I wasn’t up to anything bad; I just didn’t feel like dealing with an argument. I know now that was incredibly immature of me and how unfair it was for me to lie like that. I do regret my actions especially since I feel like I broke our relationship.

Cut to this past weekend where he had to travel out of state for work. He asked me if I had gone out at night and I told him no. I found out later that he had actually been taping me, so he could confirm, in fact, that I had been at home. My question is am I allowed to be upset that he was secretly monitoring me? I’m having a hard time processing it because on one hand I know I have screwed up in the past, but on the other hand it feels messed up. I keep wavering between feeling like I deserve this and feeling like I don’t. I broke the trust between us and want him to trust me eventually again, but this just doesn’t feel like the right way to build up trust. Is my relationship over? Am I overreacting? Am I supposed to be OK with this stuff because this is his way of learning to trust me again? Am I being unfair? I don’t have anyone else to turn to really with this, and I’m starting to realize how irrational I am.

—Taped Because of Lack of Trust

This is one of the most heartbreaking letters I’ve gotten in a long time. You are in an abusive relationship, and I’m so sorry that your boyfriend has made you doubt your own grip on reality. The fact that you would ask “Am I allowed to be upset that my boyfriend secretly filmed me to make sure I didn’t leave the house while he was out of town?” speaks to just how thoroughly he’s managed to convince you that you do not have a right to privacy or a life outside of his control. It is never, ever OK for one partner to secretly film the other, and it’s especially not OK that he filmed you to make sure you didn’t go outside. You have resorted to lying in the past because your partner is trying to control and isolate you. Not because you’ve been weak, or cowardly, or because you’ve been trying to do something wrong, but because he is controlling and abusive. I understand that you love him. Abusers are often kind and loving when they are not being abusive. There’s a primer on this dynamic called “Why Do I Love My Abuser?” that might help you identify what’s going on. You did nothing to deserve this—could do nothing to deserve this. Your boyfriend wants you to think that because you’ve been forced to lie to him in the past, he now has the right to surveil and monitor you. He doesn’t have that right. No one does. If you don’t have anyone else to talk to right now, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Someone is available 24/7 and it’s completely confidential. Just because your boyfriend may not currently be violent doesn’t mean he is not abusing you. If you are afraid your boyfriend is monitoring your calls or going through your phone, check out their social media safety tips before calling. I wish you the best of luck. This may be difficult to hear, and you may feel protective of your partner, but know that you do not deserve this treatment, and that there is no justification for what he has done, and is doing, to you.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My family is somewhat conservative. We sometimes have discussions about race, and while they agree that things like segregation or the Japanese internments camps were wrong, or even ways in which the president’s thinking on matters of race and religion is faulty, they often don’t see how comments they make themselves as racist. For example, we recently discussed how certain fictional characters could “never” be played by a minority actor. I argued that it would make no difference to the story, and a family member said that everything is being taken from white people and something needs to be left for us. It’s really starting to become uncomfortable. How do I help them see equality for all does not mean we will “lose” anything? Right now, I just get accused of being a “weird liberal.”

—Defensive Family

A statement like “everything is being taken from white people” merits follow-up questions. It’s such a baldly feelings-driven claim that offering a rational counterargument like, “No, white people are still allowed to have things” might not make much of an impression—when someone is responding to a perceived rather than an actual threat, reality has already flown out the window. In a situation like that, it may be helpful to (gently, not sarcastically) push for clarification in order to encourage your relative to question some of their assumptions. What does your relative mean when they say “everything” is being taken from white people? Who do they consider the parties responsible for taking it? Why do they believe white people are more vulnerable to “loss” now than in times past, and what do they blame that on?

You may remember the racist backlash from a few years back when Donald Glover’s name was suggested as a black Peter Parker for The Amazing Spider-Man; there was a similar outcry when Zendaya, who’s biracial, was cast as a female lead in this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. The question there, of course, is why white people would perceive this as a threat? What is it about Spider-Man (or any other character historically portrayed as white) that requires whiteness? These questions sounds more than a little ridiculous, of course, because they’re facing an absurd premise. Your relatives may be surprised by their own answers (or lack thereof); this may encourage further reflection and re-engagement. Stick to asking questions. Challenge misguided premises when you encounter them, ask follow-up questions that encourage deeper reflection about their racial anxieties, but, importantly, don’t take on responsibility for changing their worldviews. Only they can decide when and if they want to re-examine their racial zero-sum attitudes.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have a co-worker I don’t know how to handle. We’re friends who sometimes socialize together outside of work. She is very intelligent but becomes visibly upset when she is corrected or proven wrong, and she avoids taking anyone’s advice unless absolutely necessary, even when she asks a question! She won’t lash out, but she shuts down the conversation, which makes it difficult to get anything accomplished when we have to work together. As a friend, I’d like to level with her that her behavior isn’t OK. If she weren’t my co-worker, I would say something, but I don’t want to cause unnecessary drama on our team. But she’s struggling at work because of this. She won’t reach out for help, and she constantly complains about how she’s been forced into this bad position and can’t progress in her career, and that our manager doesn’t like her so she’s just letting her fail. Is there anything I can do to help her, or at least stop her from getting on my nerves?

—Don’t Shut Down

Don’t address this with her as a friend. This is not a friendship problem, but a professional problem that’s affecting your work. You’re not “causing drama” by wanting to address her behavior; you’re trying to make sure you can all perform your jobs to the best of your ability without stonewalling or shutting down. The important thing is not to allow your work to suffer because you’re worried about preserving your friend’s easily bruised feelings. Given that you two are peers and she doesn’t report to you, this is going to be a delicate process. If you two are working together on a task, and she goes silent if you point out she’s mistaken about something, you should say, “Pallison, I want to make sure we’re helping each other succeed on this project. I’m trying to make things easier, not harder. Is there a better way I can offer feedback?” If she doesn’t respond well to that, then I think you’ll have to bring it up to your manager (who presumably does not actually want her to fail). Explain the nature of the project you’re collaborating on, the information you need your co-worker to have, and the difficulties you’re having in getting your own work finished because she shuts down whenever you try to provide her with neutral information; ask for help in working with her, and ask your manager to provide her with additional guidance so that she can get her work done more effectively. If your co-worker continues to try to vent to you about how your boss has it out for her or that she’s been “forced” into her current position, just say, “I’m sorry to hear that, but I’ve got to get back to work.” This may necessarily affect your friendship, but you’re not doing her any favors by being a bottomless pit she can pour her complaints into.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have trust issues and I think I always will. Every male member of my family has cheated on their wives and most of the people I date have too. I am very aware of this and communicate it to those I’m with. I had been doing much better about trusting my fiancé and not touching his phone—it had been months since I tried to look at it. I thought we were happy. I moved with my kids to Wyoming so we could live together near his work, and we got engaged. Then he got called back to the oilfield, which requires him to live away from us half the time. I supported this because I knew it was the best financial decision for us, and he said it would only be another 12 to 18 months; then we could start our family.

After the first two weeks away, he came back saying this posting would be permanent. I struggled with this, and we had some of our first big fights in two years. I finally agreed, but I had this nagging feeling that things weren’t OK. He acted so differently this past week. I looked at his phone and he’d texted someone to say he was coming home to end things. He said some of the meanest things about me and my kids. He said that he didn’t want me to be the mother of his children and that mine were going to grow up to be horrible, that I was lazy, etc. I went straight to him and told him what I had done and found. Now he’s upset and finally wants to open up emotionally. I know people vent, and I know I was wrong to look, and I know we are all imperfect—but am I a doormat if I forgive this? I’m not even sure I could even ever get over it.

—Went Through His Phone

There’s venting—even unkind, uncharitable venting—and then there’s hatred, and the specificity and vehemence of your fiancé’s text message sounds like more than venting. There’s no reason to think he was just spouting nonsense. I suspect he believes what he said: He doesn’t want to have children with you, he’s decided that the children you already have are irredeemably bad, he thinks poorly of your character, and worst of all, he didn’t tell you he thought any of those things. There’s no way for you two to rebuild trust and affection, and I don’t think you should try. He cannot be a good stepfather to your children if he thinks they’re horrible, and they deserve better than that. You two should not be together. If you decide to forgive him for what he said, that’s certainly laudable, but forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Forgive him for his limitations if you can, but move on.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have an older gay relative, “Tim,” who has been with his now-husband “Pete” for as long as I can remember. I don’t see them very often, but I love Tim and always liked Pete, who is usually guarded and a bit cold to me (or maybe it’s all in my head, or just his personality—I don’t know him that well). A blurry memory percolated out of my brain recently, which may explain Pete’s coldness. As a youth, decades ago, in a misguided but well-intentioned effort to demonstrate my love for Tim and my desire to always include Pete as part of my family, I referred to them as “Uncle Tim and Aunt Pete.” I feel terrible now remembering having said that. Recently Pete has been warmer to me. I think I should just chalk this up to extreme youthful stupidity and forget about it, but I feel badly. Do I owe Pete an apology?

—Statute of Limitations for Apologies?

I don’t think it’s likely that Pete remembers the incident, or that it’s the reason he’s been a little reserved with you. As you say, you haven’t known him very well until recently, and he’s in fact warmed up as you’ve spent more time together. You weren’t trying to mock or misgender him all those years ago; you were a kid deploying imperfect language in an attempt to affirm the permanence of their relationship and make it clear that you considered Pete to be a part of your family. What you said might make you cringe now, but that doesn’t mean it’s been weighing heavily on his mind for decades. Your best option, I think, is to continue to cultivate your new, warmer relationship with Pete, and not dwell on it.

But if you feel like you absolutely must address it, keep your apology sincere and brief. Don’t try to make this into a bigger deal than it is, and don’t elaborate on how much time you’ve spent flagellating yourself. Just say, “Pete, I’ve always loved your relationship with Tim, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know you so much. I don’t know if you remember this, but once when I was young, I referred to you two as ‘Uncle Tim and Aunt Pete.’ I’m so sorry if that made you feel uncomfortable or demeaned. I was trying to make it clear that I considered you family, but I’ve always regretted the way that I said it, and I’m so sorry if I made you feel demeaned. I hope you know how much I admire and like you, and I’m so glad you and Tim found one another.”

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I live in an apartment with four other young women. We have a TV in the living room area that we all use; sometimes we watch as a group, sometimes alone. My question is of expectations. Should a person who starts watching a movie in a communal space expect to be interrupted with lots of questions by people who come in later not having seen the beginning? Or, should those people who come in halfway through expect that they may not understand and should let the original viewer watch in peace? I have continuously encountered the problem of being the one who starts a movie alone and then gets asked tons of questions. This is a major pet peeve of mine. I usually pause and try to explain the best I can, but more questions always follow. I find this very disruptive to the movie-watching experience. Thoughts on how to handle this? Who is in the right/wrong?

—Movie Etiquette

If you started watching the movie and other people join later, it’s very kind of you to pause the movie and offer them a brief recap. End your recap with “That’s it for questions; I want to watch the movie without interruptions.” (I say this, by the way, as someone who loves talking during movies but understands that the majority of the world abhors what delights me, and I keep my mouth shut unless I’m at home with someone else who shares my predilections.)

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