Dear Prudence

Couldn’t Help It

Prudie advises a letter writer who tried to assist a woman getting into her wheelchair and made her cry.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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 prudence@slate.com.)

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: Hi, everyone! Let the chatting commence.

Q. Help is not needed: I recently tried to assist a disabled person getting out of an SUV onto a wheelchair. At the time, it seemed like she had trouble controlling the chair, and I rushed to help. She was brought to tears as she tried to get me to move away. But then she seemed like she was about to fall again while trying to sit in the chair. In retrospect, I think I might have overreacted. But, again, she insisted that I did not help her. I see that person more or less every day, and I am uncomfortable about the right thing. I don’t know if apologizing will make things worse. Is there anything to do to make this right or less awkward?

A: You say the woman in question seemed “about to fall again” but not that she ever actually fell, a detail I believe you would have included had it actually happened. Ask yourself why you did not back off the first time this woman asked you to leave her alone. Did you assume that, because she’s in a wheelchair, she doesn’t know her own limits and when she does or doesn’t need assistance? There’s nothing wrong about wanting to help someone, but there is something wrong with repeatedly ignoring someone who’s saying “No, please stop” until you’ve pushed them to the point of tears. What you did was neither helpful nor kind, regardless of what your intentions were, and you do owe her an apology. Apologize for assuming that she didn’t know what she was talking about when she said she could get out of her own car without assistance, for continuing to foist yourself on her after repeated requests to stop, and for making her cry. Make it clear that you’ll never touch her or her chair without her express permission again and that you’re making a concerted effort to change your behavior in the future.

In the future, if you see someone who may possibly need help with something, you don’t have to squash the impulse entirely; just ask, “Can I help you?” and let yourself be guided by their answer. If someone says, “No thanks, I’ve got it,” take them at their word and back off.

Q. Shrunken ethics: I started seeing a shrink a few years ago for general life stuff. I’ve gone from seeing her every week to once a month, and in general life has been getting better. As I was leaving the office today she said seemingly in passing, “You know, it’s too bad it’s unethical for me to introduce you to my daughter, I think she’d like you and you’d like her.” My take on the situation is that she wouldn’t have said anything unless she was looking for permission from me to do so. I’m interested in the possibility, in part because dating in South Florida is lackluster, in part because what she’s mentioned about her daughter in the past has intrigued me. Is it really unethical for her to do that? Is my read on the situation correct? Is there a way to parlay the “offhanded comment” into an actual meeting?

A: It’s a testament to how highly your therapist thinks of you that she considers you a viable romantic possibility for her daughter. Or it is a testament to your therapist’s iffy judgment. (How much is she talking about her daughter in your therapy sessions?) Assuming your therapist is not also a psychologist bound by APA guidelines, this is tricky but subjective territory rather than an out-and-out violation of professional ethics. You can certainly revisit the issue with your therapist if you like (“You mentioned last week that you’d like me to meet your daughter, but felt like it might be unethical. If you’re concerned about issues of consent, you should know that I’d be interested”), although you should be prepared to hear no for an answer. If she does want to introduce you to her daughter, and you two do hit it off, you should end your professional relationship with the mother regardless of whether you find another therapist elsewhere or decide discontinue therapy for the time being.

Before you say anything, however, bear in mind that there is pretty much only one way this can go well, and any number of ways this can go wrong. In general, I think we would all be better off for not dating our therapists’ children. Very few people on their deathbeds croak out in tones of deep regret, “If only I had dated my therapist’s daughter.” That’s not to say no one can ever date their therapist’s daughter, merely that discretion in this case is probably the better part of valor. Imagine yourself trying to avoid both an ex-therapist and an ex-girlfriend at your local drugstore at the same time six months from now. If that mental image makes the South Floridian dating scene seem a little more appealing, head for greener pastures.

Q. Dog not on bed: I love my boyfriend and I love dogs, but not on my bed. He has two huge dogs that he sleeps with, and if I stay over I always end up getting crowded out to the couch or accidentally pushing a dog off the bed. And I have to remind him to put them out of the room when we have sex. He doesn’t care. He usually spends the night at my house, but we are talking about him moving in as his rent is going up. I have a nice home with nice furniture: My dog is trained not to get up on them. My boyfriend gets upset when I tell him we need to train his dogs. We argue about it because I want to do it now before he moves in, and he says he doesn’t have time right now and we can do it later. His lease ends in two months. What should I do? It feels like a stupid point to pause our relationship over but it bugs me that he wouldn’t do this small act for me.

A: “We can do it later” means, in this case, “we will never do it, and when I move in with you I will continue to let the dogs push you out of bed, and ‘forget’ to move them when we have sex.” There’s nothing “stupid” about not wanting to get pushed off your own bed and onto the couch every night in your own home or for not wanting to accidentally kick a dog out of bed in your sleep. Make it a precondition of living together that the dogs are trained to sleep in their own beds. If your boyfriend can’t or won’t do that, don’t move in with him.

Q. Family money: I’m a trans woman. My mom freaked out when I tried to express how I felt as a kid and always forced me to wear typical boy’s clothes and play with appropriately masculine toys. My Aunt D (her sister) was the complete opposite. Growing up, I spent at least one weekend a month at her house while Mom partied. She let me wear dresses and play with dolls and makeup. I had my own closet and toy box at her house filled with my “real” clothes and toys—things that would have been thrown away if they appeared at my mom’s house. She was incredibly supportive and, truthfully, was more mother to me than my actual mother.

Sadly, Aunt D passed away a few months ago after a brutal, but thankfully brief, battle with cancer. I was and still am heartbroken. Thankfully I have a loving partner and wonderful friends to help me through the grief. My family has been less supportive. Except for a few thousand dollars put into a trust for my half-sister, Aunt D left everything to me. She was a very hard worker and good with money, though I was still shocked by the amount. My mother and sister were livid when they found out, feeling that Aunt D should have provided more for my sister, and are now demanding that I split my inheritance with her. The thing is, my aunt tried very hard to develop a close loving relationship with my sister as she did with me, but my sister just didn’t care. She’s a lot like my mother—very narcissistic and only interested in people who can do things for her. She once claimed that spending too much time with Aunt D would turn her into a “freak like me.” I’m tired of being hounded by her and my mother, but I also feel like she shouldn’t profit from my aunt’s death when she was so dismissive of her while she was alive. What should I do?

A: Stop taking their calls and emails and texts. If all your mother and sister have ever done for you is mock your identity and demand money from you, you should feel free to ignore their future requests with a clear conscience. If they’re not able to take “No” for an answer, then you should feel free to ignore them entirely.

Q. Boyfriend wants to do everything together: I’ve been with my boyfriend for nine months and while he’s great for the most part, he wants me to pursue his hobbies X and Y with him even though I’m not interested (after trying them out a few times, of course). I’ve always believed in maintaining separate interests outside a relationship while also having shared common interests, but it’s gotten to the point where he accuses of me not being open-minded when I decline his request to do X and Y. I don’t want to break up with him over this, but it’s gotten to the point where it’s stressing me out every single time I say no even though I’ve already explained I’m not interested already! How can I remedy this situation?

A: “I’m glad you want us to spend time together, and I’m glad that mountain juicing/Paleo Sudoku/reverse cosplay brings you so much joy, but I’m not interested in merging hobbies, and I actually enjoy maintaining separate interests in a relationship. I’m getting the impression you don’t feel the same way. In an ideal version of our relationship, how often do you see me accompanying you on these outings?” You may not want to break up over this, and I don’t think you should reach for the breakup as your first option right away, but this is an opportunity to determine whether you two have compatible ideas of what a relationship looks like. If he wants a girlfriend who’s willing to participate in his hobbies as much as he does, and you don’t, then a breakup is not only inevitable but desirable so you two don’t drive one another wild with frustration and opposing expectations.

Q. Is it cold feet?: I’m engaged to be married. My fiancé and I have been together for five years, and we’ve been planning our wedding now for six months—it’ll be in June so we have a couple of months to go. In the past few weeks I’ve been starting to feel really nervous about the whole thing. Last night, I was making wedding centerpieces with a friend of mine and I confessed that I wasn’t sure I wanted to get married. My friend said it was cold feet and that everybody feels that way. I’m not sure. It isn’t that I don’t love my fiancé. I just don’t know if I want to get married to him, or to anyone for that matter. My parents and his are both divorced. (His father has been married/divorced five times!) Most of my friends are either divorced or having trouble. I just don’t know if spending all this money on a wedding is worth it, if it is only going to end in a few years anyway. How can you tell if feeling the jitters before a wedding is cold feet, or something else?

A: I do not have a rock-solid rubric for distinguishing between garden-variety cold feet and Serious Doubts, but I do believe that an excellent treatment for commitment-related anxieties is to share them. Even if “everybody feels that way,” that’s no reason to keep your fears to yourself. You don’t have to burst into your fiancé’s room shouting “I’M NOT SURE ABOUT YOU, GUY,” but you can—and should!—say that you’re feeling nervous and anxious at the prospect of getting married, and that you wanted to share that with him not as preparation for running out on him, but so he can know what’s going on with you, both good and bad. You might also consider premarital counseling, which is a great investment, even if the wedding is only a few months away. Whether these jitters are cold feet or something else, they’re worth addressing now, not sweeping under the rug.

Q. The sanctity of sleep: Mallory, you’ve talked a lot lately about the moral decrepitude of those who interrupt the sleep of others—those who allow their alarms to run for hours, those who awaken sleeping spouses (no arguments here, those people are awful). But you’ve also decried the snooze button and those who need multiple alarms. But what else is a heavy sleeper to do? I have always needed very loud, very insistent alarms to wake me. My high school alarm clock woke the whole house, but it was the only way for me to get out of bed in time short of being shaken awake manually by another person. I quickly learn to snooze any alarm in my sleep, and it’s not a choice I’m really making when I’m half-asleep. Vibrating smartwatch alarms are easily slept through or snoozed. I don’t have a sleep disorder, I’m just a very heavy sleeper and not a morning person. What should we be doing? What is your solution for the other end of the snooze stick?

A: There is an important caveat to the No Snooze Buttons rule: If your sleep partner doesn’t mind, or if you sleep alone, you can hit snooze as often as you like. You don’t say that you have a partner or roommate who’s irritated by your repeat alarms, and there’s nothing wrong with the snooze button as long as it’s not disturbing someone else who’s trying to sleep. I’m not anti–snooze button qua snooze button nor against heavy sleepers as a class of people. Being difficult to wake up is not a sign of moral turpitude; it’s just how your brain works. The problem begins only when this behavior negatively affects other people and the heavy sleeper in question does nothing to change their morning routine.

That said, if you’re looking for ways to keep yourself from half-consciously hitting snooze without realizing it, put your phone on the other side of the room so you have to get up to turn it off in the morning.

Q. Re: Shrunken ethics: I have worked in the mental health field for 25 years as a support staff to therapists (master’s-level clinical social workers). My understanding has been that they avoid speaking about their personal lives and family members as much as possible. My understanding has been that it is considered a major distraction to the patient’s care and creates undesirable boundary issues. One of my supervisors (a master’s-level therapist) carefully explained once that she and her family have a routine in case she bumps into a client in public. It involved the family member discreetly leaving the area to avoid any interaction with or meeting their relative’s client. I am surprised by your response as I had never heard that there are different ethics for psychologists vs. psychotherapists.

A: Bearing in mind that I am neither a psychologist nor a therapist, and may very well be wrong, I was merely referring to the formal code of ethics that psychologists must abide by. It certainly seems like the therapist in question has done something unusual, but it sounds (to this layperson at least) like more of a boundary crossing rather than a boundary violation—potentially hazardous, and something most therapists would avoid, but not necessarily a violation of ethics. If there are any therapists out there who want to offer their professional opinions of this person’s behavior, please chime in!

Q. Rude or kind?: Two days ago, I was in a local coffee shop eating a bagel that had cream cheese on it. As I was finishing and reading my book, a man approached me from the other side of the room with two napkins motioning very largely for me to wipe my mouth, which had a tad of cream cheese on it. To me, this comes across as rude because I already had a napkin visibly handy—and in a crowded shop, seemed unnecessary and embarrassing to point out. My family thinks this wasn’t in the slightest rude but helpful. What do you think?

A: It was kind of rude. It’s not rude enough to find him and tell him off, so there’s not really anything you can do about it, but if it helps you to think, “That guy was trying to be helpful but came across as a little presumptuous and rude,” then you have my express permission. It is also fine to forget about it! Let the moment, like the cream cheese, pass out of your life.

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