I am fairly allergic to peanuts. I’m not necessarily going to die if I eat one, but I will have an unpleasant visit to an urgent care center. I am cautious about my allergy and always mention my restrictions when eating out or dining at someone’s home. I have a friend, “Tina,” whom I love dearly, but she is a space cadet when it comes to details. As a result, she’s hosted two dinners in the last year that exposed me to peanuts, resulting in embarrassing (and panicked) exits for me. She was sincerely and profusely apologetic both times, and I forgave her oversights.
The thing is that she’s hosting another friends dinner next month and is begging me to come. She very badly wants to make up for the other two dinners and promises this time that she’s going above and beyond to take the necessary precautions. I want to trust her, but I don’t know if I do. I almost feel triggered at the thought of another dinner at her place. My sympathetic side feels guilty for being so afraid of a simple dinner with friends, but the anxious side of me is screaming to avoid this occasion like the plague. What do I do? Do I put my trust in her a third time? Or do I run and hide from this occasion? And if I do run and hide, how do I break it to her without hurting her feelings?
—Trusting the Friend Who Poisoned Me Twice
I’d like to propose a new theory of friendship: If someone else poisons you twice, even if it was the result of inattention and not malice, you are allowed to “hurt their feelings” by acknowledging that they poisoned you twice when making future dinner plans. You do not have to break anything to her! All you have to say is “I’m not ready to have dinner at your house again, although I appreciate that you’ve offered to take precautions this time. I care about you, and I’d love to grab lunch or take a walk together sometime. I’ll let you know if and when I’m ever ready for future dinners.” Frankly, if that day never comes, you’re just fine—you can be friends with plenty of people and not share home-cooked dinners with them, and you can genuinely and meaningfully forgive someone without necessarily wanting to revisit the same situation that made you seek urgent medical care twice in the same year.
While my wife of eight years was traveling out of the country, my 14-year-old stepdaughter, with whom I have a close and trusting relationship, told me she had unprotected sex with a boy her age and is worried she might get pregnant. I was honestly shocked. She is definitely not mature enough either physically or mentally to be having sex, but I tried to keep calm and not chastise her, which would only lead to her clamming up. I am really at a loss about what to do here. She made me promise I wouldn’t tell her mom. I’m afraid that if I do, my stepdaughter would hate me and never be able to freely talk about it with either of us. We are quite open about sexual education at home, in the sense that we’ve always tried to tell it like it is and give her as much information as we could so that, when the time comes, she would be better prepared, know the boundaries of consent, and not be afraid to talk to us.
Of course, upon her confession, I reminded her about all the dangers associated with sex, especially at such a young age, and I tried to calm her down as she grew more distressed by telling her that we would love her and be by her side no matter what, even if I was quite disappointed by her behavior. Now the question is: Should I tell her mom about all of this, and if so, how should I approach the subject? I feel it’s such an important event that her mom should definitely be involved. I have tried to persuade my stepdaughter to talk to her directly, to no avail. On the other side, I do not want to break the girl’s trust in me, as it could backfire in the future. I can’t sleep at night because of this. I am concerned for her mental and physical well-being. I really think her mother should be involved, but how?
—Sexually Active Teenager
Your first priority should be to schedule a doctor’s appointment to have your stepdaughter take a pregnancy test and talk about contraception and when to start incorporating pelvic exams and STI testing into her checkups (and prenatal care, abortion, and adoption, if necessary) so she’s aware of all her options and knows how to stay safe when she has sex in the future, whether that be six months or six years.
As for whether to tell your wife, it feels significant that your stepdaughter waited until her mother was out of town to talk to you, so there may be some reason—real or imagined—that she doesn’t trust her mom to handle this information. I think you should continue to gently encourage her (although not constantly) to talk to her mom, reminding her that her mom has promised to be in her corner and support her when it comes to sex. Offer to help her with a script or to provide moral support during the conversation, if she’d like. However, if your stepdaughter is pregnant, it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep her mom out of the loop. But 14, while definitely young, is also legally old enough to make reproductive choices. And her choice, at least for now, is to share that with you and not her mother.
If you decide this isn’t a secret you feel prepared to keep, tell your stepdaughter, “I’ve thought about it, and I can’t honor my promise to keep this a secret from your mom. I understand this may upset you, but she’s your mother, and this is something I’m not comfortable keeping from her.” Then offer her the chance to approach her mom first. If she declines, you don’t have to come up with a special plan for telling your wife. Just tell her what happened, explain that you decided you’d want to know in her position, and talk to her about planning that doctor visit.
I’d also encourage you to ease off of the warnings. She’s already had sex, she’s freaked out, and it doesn’t sound like she’s on the verge of dropping out of school or making any other big, life-altering decisions. I think it’ll be better for everyone if you live up to your original goal: that she can come and talk to you about anything, that you’re there to listen and to help, and that you want to help her access every resource available to stay safe.
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My husband and I are adopting rather than having biological kids. His whole family thinks the decision is up for debate, but his sister recently crossed a line. I don’t know if it’s because of her personal obsession with her infertility, but she told me adoption is a mistake and we “can’t possibly love” an adopted child. I assume she forgot I was adopted by my stepmom when I was 3. She is the only mother I have ever known since my other mother died when I was a baby. I told her I hope she never becomes a mother if her ability to love her children is that shallow. I thought she was going to slap me. My husband pulled his sister away and told the family the subject is closed.
We have been asked to apologize, but my sister-in-law refuses to do the same. My husband reminded his parents that I am adopted, and my mother-in-law said, “That’s beside the point.” My husband is ready to just not talk to his family anymore. They are difficult, but I am not comfortable asking him to do this. I really don’t know how to solve this. Can you help?
I’m so sorry that both of you have been having to deal with this kind of harassment. But I suspect your husband isn’t only considering cutting his family off for your sake. This isn’t something you’ve asked him to do, but a boundary he may need to draw in order to feel ready to become a father himself. Yes, his sister’s cruelty was pointed at you, and your husband was right to defend you, but I don’t think you’re the cause of this rift. Anyone might be shaken to learn that their own family members are capable of naked cruelty and embarrassing selfishness and find themselves unable to stomach having friendly conversations about the weather or work once they’ve revealed their characters in such a fashion. If the rest of his family has called into question your ability to love the children you’ll adopt (as well as the adoptive mother who raised and loves you), then taking at least a temporary break to focus on going through the adoptive process without the additional stress of dealing with their antagonism strikes me as a perfectly reasonable decision.
I’m a junior in high school who was home-schooled until ninth grade. My first year in school I made almost no friends. During sophomore year I dropped my antisocial shell and made a couple of good friends. Now, I have even more confidence and friend prospects than I did before. Usually they create a single shared document and let others add to it so they can plan various events. I was recently invited to share one of those documents for the first time, and I was ecstatic—I hadn’t had a group of friends to hang out with since elementary school. This lasted for a few hours until I was removed from the doc with no explanation. It seems silly, but I was, and am, heartbroken. I was certain that it was a joke to make fun of me. Eventually I called a friend, “Jade,” and found out that it was only one person in particular, “Nathan,” who hates me. I have almost no connection with him and have no idea why he reacted this way. Jade says he was being a total jerk and that everyone was shocked at the way he reacted. Now I’m at a stalemate. I haven’t been added to make any more plans, he hasn’t (and probably won’t) apologize, and now the entire group feels awkward. I want to make friends for once! Is there any right way to react to this? If I should confront him, or anyone else, how do I do it in a way that doesn’t make me seem self-absorbed?
—Google Doc Drama
Asking someone who hates you for anything—an apology, an explanation—is a misuse of your time, and I don’t think you should waste your breath trying to get Nathan to agree to treat you with respect. That’s not to say that you should just put up with bad treatment without saying anything! But I think it’s better for you to focus your attention on maintaining friendships with the people who you know actually want to be your friend. It may be that some of them are more interested in keeping Nathan from getting angry with them than they are in maintaining a friendship with you. That would be a shame! But it would also be their problem, not yours, and it’s never too early to learn that trying to placate an unreasonable person who takes sudden antagonistic whims toward others is a waste of time. Ask Jade and some of the others if they want to go see a movie with you this weekend. Give them an alternative to putting up with Nathan. If they have any sense (or just enjoy having fun), they’ll choose an easygoing afternoon with you in a heartbeat. If they say no, and if the group generally seems more inclined to want to placate Nathan than spend time with you, then I’d encourage you to give this group a wide berth and stick with the friends who treat you reliably well.
Also, I’m just sorry! This happens in high school, but it shouldn’t, and I hope you’ve gotten your last taste of in-group dramatics.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“I am seriously going to talk to my own husband about how to handle this if it happened to him.”
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I just found out one of my good friends who lives abroad gave birth to a baby girl earlier this year and subsequently suffered very severe postpartum psychosis. She attempted suicide. Afterward, her husband took the baby to live with his parents a 12-hour drive away. She hasn’t seen her baby in months. I only just found out about all this, since we only chat every couple of months. I have yet to speak to her on the phone. What do I say when I call? When I visit her next month (we have a preplanned trip), do I suggest taking her out, or do I only visit her where she is? How do I stop thinking that if I were still living in that country, I would have been able to notice that something was wrong, or she would have felt safe enough to confide in me, and I’d have been able to call for help in time?
—Long-Awaited Trip Meets Unexpected Tragedy
Without in any way diminishing your sincere concern for your friend or your (totally human!) desire to have intervened before she reached the point of wanting to die, I can’t imagine that you could have done anything that the rest of her friends and family who were there during this crisis couldn’t have done too. Whether or not she felt safe around you otherwise would have been moot: Postpartum psychosis brings with it delusions, paranoia, hallucinations, and breaks from reality. It’s also quite uncommon, and there’s no reason you should have anticipated she might suffer from it. This is not a productive or worthwhile pastime. If you start rehearsing mental scenarios where you burst in at the last possible second and save the day, be patient with yourself; remind yourself that you are not a doctor, a mind reader, or available 24/7 and that you can better help your friend now by asking what she needs than by wishing you could travel back in time. Don’t beat yourself up for having those thoughts—they’re born out of desperation and sadness and a desire to do good—but remind yourself that they’re based on a fantasy of control, not reality, and let them go when they inevitably arise.
When it comes to your trip, I think it makes sense to call as soon as you can in order to express your deep sympathy and interest in your friend’s welfare. Is she feeling up to receiving visitors? If not, you should be prepared to postpone your trip or make arrangements to stay elsewhere. She may be focused on recovering her mental health right now, on trying to reestablish a relationship with her child and co-parent, on physical therapy, or any number of things. Make it clear that you’re available for anything she needs, whether that be spending time with her in her home, going with her to a doctor’s appointment, or even coming to visit another time when things aren’t quite so dire. I think it will mean a great deal to her to hear from you, and you’ll likely feel a little less frantic and powerless once you’ve heard her voice and been able to ask, “What do you need? I’m here to help.”
Recently I looked up a professional acquaintance from several years ago, and he was immediately interested in talking to me. When we worked in sales together, we would take an afternoon off every other month or so to go drinking. I switched jobs and almost never drink anymore. He apparently developed a problem and ran a high-paying sales management career off the rails. After a divorce, rehab, and more than a year of unemployment, he has a midlevel sales job again and is getting his life back together. I missed all of this when we were not in contact. I like hanging out with him, and I want to be supportive of him now.
The problem is that he frequently wants to talk about his sobriety, but he still smokes pot, has the occasional beer, and claims to have quit smoking cigarettes but lights up in front of me. He says he never did hard drugs but has to get regularly drug-tested. I’d never mention these inconsistencies, but he keeps bringing them up. What is the best response? I am not too invested in our friendship, so my options are pretty open.
—Working Relationship With an Addict
He’s an old work buddy whom you haven’t seen in years, there’s not much in the way of a preexisting relationship when it comes to emotional intimacy or difficult conversations, and you sound reasonably prepared to drop the acquaintanceship. I know you like hanging out with him, but I don’t think you’re in a position to offer him meaningful support, and if you find his continued conversational choices irritating or feel like you’re being asked to prop up obvious lies, you should hang out with other friends.
But if it’s fun to get together every couple of months to catch up, then keep doing it! You’re certainly not obligated to serve him with an intervention just because he occasionally rounds up his sobriety. You don’t have to either agree or disagree with his claims. If you’re interested in gently challenging him, you might ask leading, open-ended questions about what sobriety means to him, what his recovery goals are, what support he’s sought out, and so on. But if you’d rather keep things light, you’re allowed to steer the conversation in a different direction.
“I recently got engaged to my boyfriend. He is from a northern European country where engagement rings are usually simple gold bands, worn by both the man and the woman. The big diamonds that American women expect are very rare and considered rather vulgar by most. My engagement ring is a cultural compromise: A gold band set with a very small (1/6 of a carat) diamond. I love my ring, but back home in the U.S., many people seem personally offended by it. My mother is urging me to have my ring ‘upgraded’ because a respectable American middle-class woman needs a bigger diamond. Other people have made comments along the lines of ‘That looks like a promise ring that a high schooler would give to his girlfriend.’ To many American women, the size of the diamond engagement ring seems to be a symbol of their success and worth as women, and the message that I have failed at this goal comes across loud and clear. It stings a bit when they wave their giant rings in my face while making their little comments. What can I do to get them to stop?”
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