Dear Prudence

Responsible Relatives

Prudie counsels a letter writer who’s trying to make amends after her son disrupted a family wedding.

A bride and a drunk man.

Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

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Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, gentles! Let’s get cracking.

Q. Niece’s wedding and my son: My son “Glenn” screwed up big-time at a family wedding and it’s causing problems between me and my sister, “Carrie.”

Carrie’s daughter got married last fall and she had an elaborate reception. Glenn had just turned 21 and unfortunately decided to take extreme advantage of the open bar. He got so drunk that he stumbled into the wedding cake table and toppled it over, then threw up on the dance floor near the bridal couple.

Needless to say, my husband and I were mortified, hustled him out of the venue, and apologized for his behavior. The next day, Glenn also apologized in person to his cousin and her new husband. But my niece refuses to forgive him; she and her husband barely spoke to him at Christmas, and their animosity was plain to the entire family. This caused a resurrection of the “ruined” reception stories among the guests and it put a damper on the entire day.

I think it’s time to let it all go. I know his behavior was pretty awful but he’s very young, these things happen, and a reception is nothing more than a party in the end. I asked Carrie what Glenn could do to make amends and she said nothing since her daughter considers what he did to be unforgivable. I think my niece is being childish since Glenn didn’t do any of this on purpose. I told Carrie that, and now we’re barely speaking. I’m truly sorry, but I can’t go back in time and change what Glenn did. What can I do to put this incident firmly in the past and get back to the close friendship my sister and I used to have?

A: This will not be an answer you will enjoy, I don’t think, but the best way forward for you is to parent your adult son a little less. He’s 21 years old, and it’s not your job to manage his reputation or his relationships with any of his relatives. If your niece is angry with your son, then that’s between the two of them. I can imagine it feels painful to watch anyone ostracize or ignore your child, but part of the deal when it comes to having kids is that eventually they become adults with their own lives who make mistakes and deal with the resulting consequences without parental intervention.

Of course, you’re a part of this family too, and you can’t act completely indifferent or impartial if your niece is angry with your son, but you’re currently doing way too much on Glenn’s behalf. Why on earth would you ask your sister what your son could do to make amends to her daughter? They’re not 6-year-olds fighting on the playground. They don’t need direct parental intervention to resolve this. Glenn can continue to respect his cousin’s current need for space, figure out how to drink responsibly, work on repairing their relationship in the long run if such an opportunity ever presents itself—all on his own. Apologize to your sister for trying to manage her daughter’s reaction to your son’s bad behavior, and then drop the subject; it’s not yours to litigate.

Q. Where do I go next?: I’m a senior at an Ivy League university, and I failed all my classes last semester. Now I’m academically suspended and I don’t know what to do. I was supposed to graduate in May, but I didn’t do any of my work. I was and am paralyzed by anxiety and fear, and am in the process of being diagnosed with ADHD. In some ways it’s a relief, but the hardest part is that I don’t know how to go about my day without this part of my identity. What do I do from here? How do I tell my friends? My parents are in anguish—how do I help them?

A: Do not worry about helping your parents right now. They have their own friends, therapists, and emotional support networks they can turn to if they’re having a difficult time. Your only responsibility is to deal with your recent diagnosis and work on developing strategies for managing your paralysis and anxiety, whether that’s medication, seeing an ADHD-specific therapist to develop time management skills and deal with self-esteem and motivation-related issues, attending a support group for other adults who share your diagnosis, or some combination thereof. At some point, if you decide to return, you should check in with your school’s office for student disabilities services to learn more about what accommodations are available to you.

I can imagine that if you’ve been attending an Ivy League school, you already feel plenty of achievement anxiety and pressure to constantly outdo yourself, so acknowledging failure to your friends seems daunting, if not impossible. But as you yourself point out, you’re currently experiencing a sense of relief—you’re not trying to pretend that everything’s fine, and you’re getting treatment for something that requires it. There’s no shame in getting help when you need it. That doesn’t mean you should plaster on a cheerful face and act like you’re totally fine if that’s not how you feel, but going through college with untreated ADHD and absolutely no support must have been terrible, and it is, in fact, very good news that you no longer have to do that. Your friends will be relieved to hear that you’re no longer suffering in silence and (one hopes!) eager to support you in whatever way they can.

It may not look like this right now, but you are doing the absolute best thing for yourself and your future in getting a diagnosis and seeking further treatment.

Q. Don’t ask, don’t tell: In November, my co-worker “Sara” experienced the horrible tragedy of her youngest child’s suicide. “Jeff” was a nice kid, straight-A student, popular at his high school, and the last person you’d ever expect to harm himself. Sara is obviously devastated, and since she’s been back to work, comments frequently that if she only knew why (he didn’t leave a note) that she might be able to have some closure.

Here’s my problem: I’m one of the facilitators of our local PFLAG group. Jeff had been coming to our meetings for almost two years. He struggled with being gay in the beginning, but was getting more comfortable about it and was actually out to a few close friends, but not his family. Had he lived, I think he would have been able to tell them eventually.

The other facilitator in our group knows that I work with Sara and what she’s going through, and he believes that I should tell her about Jeff being in our group and being gay. But I don’t think he’s right. Jeff always knew he could trust me not to out him to his mother or anyone else, and I believe that I still owe him that. Plus, there’s the fact that we honestly don’t know if being gay was the reason he took his life. Never once in the group did he mention suicide or harming himself, and I have no idea what else might have been going on in his life.

Even though my heart breaks for Sara and I wish I could help her, I don’t know that disclosing Jeff’s sexual orientation to her would particularly help. And I strongly believe in the confidentiality of our group. My co-facilitator keeps insisting that since he’s dead, confidentiality is no longer necessary, but I feel like I would be betraying Jeff’s trust in me. What do you think?

A: I don’t see what good can come from telling your co-worker that you facilitate a PFLAG group that her son attended. As you say, you have no idea to what degree Jeff’s orientation played a part in his suicide, and you do not have any answers that might provide his mother with “closure” as to why he may have killed himself. Moreover, it may make working together impossible if she were to think of you as someone she could go to in order to learn more about the possible inner workings of her son’s mind before he died.

I’m also inclined to agree that, unless you have a strong inducement, it’s better to respect the confidentiality of the dead. The inducement here is insufficiently strong, and you should offer Sara your compassion and support, but also recognize that there is no information you could give her that would make her son’s suicide bearable.

Q. Follow-up re: Out-of-character behavior leads to horrendous breakup: I wrote to you a few weeks ago because my boyfriend dumped me after I got drunk at a holiday party and wouldn’t tell me what I’d done to instigate the breakup. You rightly assessed that my life had been coming off the rails, and I’m currently in the process of finding a counselor.

I’ve also discovered that during the party, I harassed and belittled my ex-boyfriend’s sister to the point where she broke down. I’ve never liked her, and that has something to do with the fact that she’s overweight and happy. One of the truths I’ve had to face over the past month is that I am desperately insecure and hate people who aren’t. I have a deep dislike for overweight people, and I’ve always told myself it’s because they’re ugly to look at or lazy. But I think it’s because of my insecurity, and I want to get rid of this disdain.

I am still heartbroken, still raw, but I want to get better. I want to be happy. I have a really rough road ahead, and I hope I have the courage to see this through.

A: I’m glad to hear that you’re looking for a counselor and that you’re committed to organizing your life along different principles. It’s deeply sad and cruel—as you seem aware—that your response to seeing happiness in another human being was to attack it on the basis of that person’s weight. Although your ex’s sister may not be interested in hearing from you, I hope you have at least attempted to communicate how deeply sorry you are for harassing her. I wish you the best in dealing with this insecurity, not only for your own sake, but to spare any other people the pain you caused her.

Q. Another child: My wife and I have been married for 10 years. We have a 4-year-old son, and she has a 16-year-old son by a previous marriage. She wants to have another baby girl. She’s 42, I’m 49. I don’t want to have any more kids, and the pressure she’s putting on me is too much—she says she’ll leave me and take our son with her and fight against joint physical custody, even though she knows it would be best for him and she’s admitted that I’m a good father.

There are many reasons I don’t want more kids (health, age, money, et cetera). I tell her she’s going to destroy the family she has for the family she wants, but it doesn’t sink in. I don’t want to have a heart attack or a stroke, or live to be blamed for her not having what she wants. What do I do?

A: Do not have another child. If you and your wife are still having sex (it doesn’t sound like you are, based on how things stand between you two emotionally, but anything’s possible!) make sure you practice more than one form of birth control. See a therapist with your wife, if she’s willing, but by yourself if she isn’t. If she leaves you, hire a good divorce lawyer and/or mediator and pursue joint physical custody.

But whether you and your wife stay together or not, the important thing is that you don’t allow yourself to be worn down into bringing a child into the world that you don’t actually want to parent.

Q. Always singled out: I am in my mid-twenties living as young professional in a major city. I feel very lucky to have good friends, a great living situation, and stability in general. Over the past year, my friends have all entered into serious relationships, including a few that have gotten engaged. I am very happy for them all.

The only problem is that since I am (happily) single, I find myself getting excluded quite often from dinners and such. It’s much easier to reserve a table for eight than nine, I suppose, but I still feel hurt by it. I have brought it up with some of my closest friends in the past and they usually laugh it off, or launch into a narrative about how I need to put myself out there, et cetera. I do not feel that I need to have a “plus one” in order to spend time with people that I have known and been friends with for several years.

Are there effective conversation starters you recommend? Or do I try to come to terms with the fact that our lives will most likely part ways over this?

A: “I want to talk to you seriously about something we’ve discussed only briefly before. I’ve told you that I miss being invited out to dinners just because I’m not in a couple, and at the time you dismissed what I had to say and told me I just had to ‘put myself out there’ and get a partner. I don’t want to feel like I have to get a boyfriend or a girlfriend in order to stay a part of our circle of friends, and I don’t think I’ve made it clear to you how much hearing you say that hurt me.”

If your friends are otherwise good and caring people, they may be surprised and chagrined to realize how unkind their initial response to you was, apologize, and reach out. If they continue to dismiss your concerns, then I think you should probably back off and invest in other friendships. Lots of people in their twenties and thirties encounter difficulties as some of their friends couple up and have children—it’s not an uncommon challenge—but it’s another thing entirely when your friends suggest you remove yourself from your social circle unless and until you can return as part of a couple.

Q. Re: Where do I go next?: Underlying the writer’s story was the “shame” attached to what happened. But this happens all the time, even at Ivy League schools. I worked as a graduate assistant in a house at an Ivy League school and saw this happen on many occasions. The issue is, for one’s real friends, family, and the faculty and mentors at school, your health is the No.1 concern. Nothing else matters.

But you will be able to return to school and finish your degree. The percentage of Ivy League undergraduates who take at least one semester off during their course of study is surprisingly high (it varies, but 20 percent is a good ballpark).

A: The letter writer is absolutely not alone! This can feel like such a profound setback because college is such an all-encompassing experience, but a few years from now, it’s not going to matter whether the letter writer graduated in four years or five. Lots of people are in a similar boat.

Q. Broke maid of honor: A good friend of mine has just gotten engaged and has asked me to be her maid of honor. It’s my first time being in a wedding, and I am very excited for her and excited to be part of the celebration.

Here’s the problem: She is supported by her fiancé, who is very well-off. I know they want a destination wedding, and I’m sure things like the dress and the bachelorette party are going to be expensive. I live and work in a country with a lower currency rate than where she lives, and I started my own business last year so I have almost no liquid savings at the moment. I already have a plan to start saving for her wedding, but I’m worried the cost will still be too much.

Is it acceptable to ask her fiancé, whom I have only met once, if he would be willing to pay a portion of what it will cost me to be in the wedding, or is that totally inappropriate?

A: I think it makes more sense for you to talk to your friend directly, since you’re her maid of honor and not her fiancé’s. Be honest and realistic about your budget for the wedding; rather than asking for money flat-out, I think it makes more sense to say, “I can budget X amount for travel, lodging, and my dress. If there’s anything above and beyond that, I won’t be able to participate.” If it’s important to her that you participate in one of the many other expensive add-ons to her wedding, then she can offer to pay for it; if not, then you’ll have let her know early on that you can’t go into debt in order to host a big blow-out bachelorette party.

Q. Re: Don’t ask, don’t tell: Please don’t tell Sara about Jeff’s orientation. She is already probably questioning the things she did not know about her son due to his suicide. It’s incredibly common for family and friends to blame themselves. Please do not compound that by offering additional information that will make her potentially question if she really knew him at all. She did, and she clearly loved him desperately.

A: Another reader pointed out that, were other members of the support group to learn a facilitator had shared information about a former member’s sexuality to his family after his death, it might make them shy away from sharing confidential information themselves. I think that’s an additional inducement for the letter writer not to say anything to their co-worker.

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