Dear Prudence

Hurt Felines

My teenage neighbor ran over my cat while texting. Now her parents want me to help her with her guilt.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,

I live in a close-knit neighborhood. In October, my neighbor’s 16-year-old daughter ran over my family’s beloved cat. She was driving irresponsibly and texting, and she was horrified by what she’d done. I have tried not hating her, and I’ve tried telling myself that there’s always a risk that a cat allowed outdoors will be hit by a car. But I’m angry, and the best thing for me now is to keep my distance from the girl and her family. The parents won’t back off, though. Their daughter is traumatized, and they want me to comfort her. I don’t have that in me. I think this girl is lucky she didn’t strike and kill a person. Is it awful of me to not want to alleviate her emotional turmoil by speaking kindly to her?

—Cat Killer

This is one of the easiest answers I have ever written. No, it is not awful of you to have no interest in comforting the girl who killed your cat while she was texting and driving. The fact that she feels guilty and horrified is not actually a bad thing. It’s an appropriate response to realizing that your carelessness and inattention led to the unnecessary death of someone else’s pet, and her parents should encourage her to channel those feelings into productive changes to how she drives, rather than an unhelpful spiral of self-loathing. That’s their job. Yours is to live your own life. The next time they approach you, insisting that you have to manage their daughter’s guilt (and what do they expect from you, exactly? To forgive her on a daily basis? To act cheerful so that she can pretend her behavior didn’t negatively affect you?), tell them to stop: “You need to stop bringing this up with me. I’m not available to help your daughter manage her feelings of guilt, and I’m not going to talk about this with you again.”

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Dear Prudence,

I’m a single woman with a large extended family. I cope with the enormous project of buying Christmas presents by getting them very early. Everyone in my family knows this; it’s the family joke that I have all my presents purchased by Halloween. My brother’s wife, Jean, sent out a group text last week saying they have decided not to exchange gifts with the extended family and would only be getting gifts for each other and their own kids. They have five kids, both together and via previous marriages, so I understand, but would have appreciated more notice. My mom asked what I was going to do, and I said I’d keep the gifts for the kids but return the ones I got for my brother and Jean. Unfortunately, my dad, the family bigmouth, overheard us and told my brother.

This weekend, Jean made a snide remark about how I didn’t understand the “true meaning of Christmas” and how I’m withholding their gifts simply because I’m not getting anything in return. In the moment, I snapped that she doesn’t get to spend my money for me, but on reflection I’m a little afraid she’s right. Would it be petty of me not to give her and my brother the gifts I already bought for them? Or am I within my rights to return them?

—Christmas Gift Drama

It’s entirely reasonable to read “We’re not exchanging gifts this year” at face value and not to assume that what Jean apparently meant was, “We’re not getting anyone else gifts this year, but plan on getting in a few ill-mannered digs if you don’t buy us something anyways.” It’s a shame, too, that your father felt the need to discuss your gift-giving plans with your brother on your behalf. You should tell him that you’d rather he didn’t. Don’t let the fact that he’s known as the family bigmouth (which implies that that’s “just how he is” and everyone else should accept it) make you feel like you can’t ask him not to talk about you to your siblings.

If the rudest thing you said when you “snapped” at Jean was “Don’t spend my money for me,” I have to say I admire your restraint. You can certainly apologize for responding sharply in the heat of the moment, but that doesn’t mean you should apologize for deciding to return the gifts. She told you that they didn’t want to exchange gifts this year, and you respected her wishes. Just because Jean didn’t say what she apparently meant doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.

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Dear Prudence,

How do I cut off my seemingly well-intentioned family? My whole life, my little sister was the favorite. Growing up, other adults even commented on it to me, which actually helped because it showed me it wasn’t all in my head. On the outside they are a well-meaning Southern family, but to me they are suffocating.

Christmas is particularly painful. At 7, I learned Santa wasn’t real after I received nothing from my (modest) Christmas list, while my sister got everything she asked for and then some. No matter what I asked for, no matter how small, I never got it. I know Christmas isn’t just about gifts, but there’s something especially painful about being asked what I want and then never getting it. I’ve gotten bathroom towels for the past four years while she gets expensive appliances and makeup. I don’t need any more towels. Now our family group text is filling up with outrageous requests (brand-name vacuum cleaners, designer luggage, 4K TVs). I’m frustrated by their selfish demands, seeming indifference to my budget, and disregard for me. They’re like this all year long at every holiday. (“Why can’t you fly home for one day for Easter?” “Why won’t you pitch in for your sister’s birthday present, even though we got you nothing for yours?”) If I somehow got up the nerve to tell them “no” when asked if I am coming home for the holidays, I know there would be tears, fights, and a Southern-style guilt trip. Can I ghost my own family?

—Just Want Out

If it helps, I don’t think your family is well-intentioned at all. Sometimes it can be harder to recognize mistreatment when it’s not delivered angrily, but cruelty with a smile is still cruelty. Worse still is the type of cruelty that denies its own existence, even when you’ve got the evidence in your text message history. I’m afraid I don’t have a conflict-free method for saying “no” to your own family, but I can tell you that your decision to stop spending time with them is a good one that will pay enormous dividends when it comes to your mental health and general well-being. You can’t stop them from getting upset, but you can deny them your participation in whatever fight or guilt trip they want to have. Here’s a sample script that avoids offering excuses:

You: “I won’t be able to make it home for Christmas this year/buy you a custom-made French vacuum cleaner, but have a great time!”

Your terrible family: “You can’t do that! Christmas only comes once a year! Your great-aunt is slowly turning into a maple tree, and this might be our last year with her! We always treat you so well! You’re killing your mother!”

You: “That’s too bad! But I’m not going to be there/chip in for the group gift. It’s just not in my budget. I’m hanging up now—I’ve got to get back to work/make dinner/finish sketching this rare bird I’ve just discovered.”

It will feel counter to every impulse you have, but if your family gets upset when you start setting limits with them (and they surely will; the reason they panic every time you pull away is not because they love your company but because they need you around to serve as a scapegoat and a punching bag), that is not your problem to fix. Remind yourself that you can hang up the phone, even if the relative on the other end doesn’t want you to. They can fume and
 argue and lay on the guilt trip, and you can cheerfully deny them access to your decision-making process. You may find a therapist helpful during this period of detachment, especially if you have a hard time remembering your goals and boundaries when you talk to your family. But you can do this, and you are going to feel worlds better when you don’t have to spend your time managing your family’s feelings and expectations.

Dear Prudence,

I have been struggling with my son for a long time and just don’t know how to get through to him. He started out being very impulsive as a young child, not thinking things through, getting aggressive with other children, and not listening. Once he entered grade school, the aggressive behavior toned down significantly, thank goodness, and he appeared to be listening to his teachers. At home is a different story. I’ve been divorced from my son’s father since he was 2½ years old, but up until recently he still maintained contact with him. I attributed many of his behaviors to his father’s leniency and lack of discipline. However, my son is 9 now and no longer has contact with his father, who is a deadbeat.

My son continues to push me over the edge by not listening even though I am very clear on my expectations of him. He struggles with basic tasks like bathing himself properly, brushing his teeth, and flushing the toilet. It doesn’t seem natural that I should have to do these things for him at this stage of his development. He is very clingy for a child his age—he cannot seem to find ways to entertain himself and does not have any consistent friendships with other kids. I get so frustrated that much of the time I resort to yelling and even slapping him. I have also removed toys and privileges, which he has done little to earn back. There has to be some better way of interacting where he understands what is and isn’t acceptable that also doesn’t drive both of us crazy. Please help!

—At Wits’ End

If you get nothing else out of this answer, please know this: It is profoundly cruel and damaging to yell at and slap your child because he is struggling with basic tasks or because he’s emotionally needy. You need to stop that right now. Seek out help and support as a parent working to stop being violent toward her child. There may be anger management groups or classes in your area, and you should take time to educate yourself about the harmful effects of destructive parental anger on children.

You say that you’ve been very clear on your expectations for your son, but clarity isn’t your problem. If your expectation is that a young child will always think things through, always listen attentively, or never act impulsively, then your expectations are unreasonable and set your child up for failure and frustration. Because he can never live up to your adult-like expectations, he likely feels that there’s nothing he can do to please you. Your description of your son breaks my heart, because you’re describing a child who’s already lost his father, who’s clearly not receiving the medical attention he needs to learn more about why he’s not hitting his developmental milestones, and whose only remaining parent is so overwhelmed and angry by his need for support that she punishes him for being unhappy and without resources. Your son isn’t misbehaving. He’s being emotionally neglected and physically abused by his mother. The reason he can’t seem to entertain himself is because he is likely in a constant state of panic and agitation—one of his parents has abandoned him and the other frequently hits and screams at him. The reason he has trouble making friends is because you’re not demonstrating a healthy attachment model he can use as a template for interacting with other children.

Please get him evaluated for developmental disabilities by a medical professional and help him get whatever resources he may need. That’s not to say, by the way, that the behaviors your son has exhibited are necessarily signs that he has a developmental disability. It’s entirely possible they are reactions to his environment. I think you should also see a therapist experienced in working with parents who struggle with anger and control issues. You are responsible for keeping your child safe, for providing him with affection and a stable environment, for modeling appropriate adult behavior, and for making sure he gets timely attention for any medical or behavioral issues, and right now you are failing him profoundly. Please do better, because you’re the only parent this little boy has. He needs you.

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Dear Prudence,

I’m a trans woman who’s been in a relationship with a queer cis girl for a couple years. It has slowly come out that my partner wants to “date people who have vaginas.” She’s told me before that she sees herself as having been historically deprived of the ability to date people with vaginas because society has primed her relationship life to involve “people who have penises.” I feel hurt by this analysis, because I honestly have never seen any societal
 forces compelling anyone to date trans people like me. This line of logic also seems disingenuous given that she was raised in a cis lesbian household. I feel hurt and inadequate. When we have conversations about this, the conversation always unfolds with her in the role of the victim. This is a difficult dynamic to escape, because she is better than me at using sound social justice rhetoric. I know people are entitled to their preferences, but I feel betrayed since she concealed this until after we’d fallen in love. Am I taking this too personally? I feel very bad about my body, and my partner has always been the one place I could go to feel like nothing was wrong with it.

—Just Want to Feel Normal

I’m so sorry your girlfriend said that to you. I’m so sorry that you’ve thought, for even a
 minute, that you might deserve or should accept that kind of treatment. I’m frankly shocked that she has any expectation the two of you will continue dating after saying something like, “I’d sure prefer to date someone whose genitals aren’t like yours. Anyhow, what should we get for dinner?” This could not be more personal—you could not possibly take this too personally. I’m not sure what kind of “sound social justice rhetoric” your soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend has employed to convince you that you have to put up with that kind of treatment, but you deserve so much better. If she feels “historically deprived” of a chance to date people with vaginas, the good news is that she will be free to go find some after you break up with her. She cannot possibly be victimized by the reality of your body, and the fact that she has said these things to you, then expected you to stay with her, is enormously cruel. To claim that she has been victimized in choosing to enter into a consensual relationship with you as an adult is absurd. Your girlfriend is not stating a “general preference.” She’s exploiting your own greatest fears and vulnerabilities to convince you that you deserve this kind of cruelty, and she’s wrong. You deserve so much better than this, and her.

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Dear Prudence,

I recently became good friends with “Absalom” and “Richard.” Richard is queer and nonbinary but very masculine-presenting, while Absalom is a straight cis man. (I myself am a gay cis man.) When we first became friends, Richard and I both developed small crushes on Absalom before we knew his sexuality. We both subtly and innocently flirted with him a couple times. After Absalom offhandedly mentioned he was straight, I backed off, no big deal.

Richard, however, has kept belaboring the issue of Absalom’s straightness in the ensuing weeks—not aggressively, but in a gently teasing way. This would normally not be an issue—I gently tease my straight friends sometimes and Absalom is normally the type to take it in stride—but Richard has also continued the subtle flirting. It’s nothing outrageous or boundary-crossing, but it’s enough that some of our other friends have started to notice. Absalom has repeatedly reiterated—sometimes jokily, sometimes more seriously—that he is straight and even that he’s experimented with men but found that it wasn’t for him. When Richard has brought their intentions toward Absalom up to me, I’ve reminded them of all of this, but I’ve always been dismissed. They’ll say that maybe Absalom just hasn’t found his type or that he needs to broaden his horizons. Prudie, I know that sexuality and gender are a rich and ever-shifting tapestry, but I also believe in taking people at their word. Richard is an otherwise conscientious person, and their behavior hasn’t struck me as alarming or blatantly nonconsensual, but it still bothers me. Absalom is a good sport, but if some of his friends are a little uncomfortable at this dynamic, I’m wondering how he’s feeling about this whole thing. I want to let him know that if he’s uncomfortable he can be clear without being thought of as homophobic or closed-minded (since I know this is an anxiety straight people sometimes have), but I don’t know how to broach the subject with him.

Prudie, do you have any recommended scripts for a) communicating to Absalom that he can talk to me if Richard’s behavior makes him uncomfortable, and b) more effectively communicating to Richard that I value them as a friend but their behaviour is edging toward “not OK”?

—Looking for Straight Talk

Some people really enjoy a mild flirtatious energy in some of their friendships, even (or especially) when it’s clear the flirters in question aren’t compatible or, for whatever reason, don’t plan on getting together, and that’s great. But if you have reason to believe that Absalom might not speak up if he feels uncomfortable for fear of coming across as regressive or closed-minded, then I think it’s a good idea to check in with him. You say Richard hasn’t crossed a clear line so much as raised a few pastel-yellow flags, so keep your tone casual and say to Absalom, “Hey, I don’t want to make any assumptions, but I’ve noticed you’ve mentioned a few times that you’re straight when Richard jokes about the nature of your relationship, and I wondered if you were feeling uncomfortable. If you are, I hope you know it’s OK to ask them to back off, and I’d support you if you said something. If I’m misreading the situation and you’re fine with it, that’s cool too.”

It’s not that there can’t ever be room for flirting or teasing between friends, but if you find yourself regularly endorsing the idea that your friends need to expand their sexual horizons to include you, joking or otherwise, you should probably knock it off.

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