Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Friend pretended to be dead—how to move on? I know it sounds unbelievable, but a formerly close friend who is mentally ill pretended to have killed herself. She went on a string of unstable-sounding rants to me on her Facebook, through her messaging app, and finally in an email a couple of months ago, accusing me of terrible things that supposedly happened 20 years earlier. “Friends” of hers, who I suspect were really just her, took up the cause, contacting me through her accounts. Nothing I said appeased her/them. It ended after two days of frenzy, with an email from one “friend” saying that she had killed herself. Except … she hadn’t. Our county death records are public and published online, and she’s not on them. Her accounts are still active, and a real-life friend of hers told me that this had happened before, to the point where her friends held a wake and she finally came clean and admitted she was not dead. I know that it’s not her fault because of her illness, but I see old messages and comments (I’ve unfriended her) and wonder if it was all just BS and she secretly hated me all that time. Part of me wants to contact her and talk, but I don’t think I can handle that. Is the best option here to just move on and delete old comments, posts, and emails when they pop up? This is so far out of my wheelhouse. Please help.
A: Your friend did not choose her mental illness, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel pain or frustration when she acts in ways that hurt you, or that you can’t draw appropriate boundaries when she spends days making sock puppet accounts trying to make you blame yourself for her “death.” There is nothing that you can say to her in her current state that will make you feel any better or result in her changing her behavior; this is part of an ongoing pattern that would require medical and therapeutic attention to truly address. I’m so sorry for the anguish and bewilderment you’ve suffered lately. That sounds absolutely terrifying. I think the best thing you can do for her is wish her the best and hope she gets help from a safe distance. Continue to unfriend and block her accounts wherever you two have been linked, and find a trusted friend you can confide some of this in. You’ve just gone through an absolutely exhausting ordeal, and your mental health is important too.
Q. Mother wants to reconnect: I was disowned by my parents when I was 17. There were a lot of ways in which they viewed me as not having “worked out” in the way they wanted (my grades, hearing disability, personality), but primarily it was homophobia. I am 26 now and have built a great life for myself—after a lot of therapy. I’m finally comfortable with my sexuality, recently married my fantastic wife, and just started work in the field I love. So now, of course, my mother wants to reconnect. She found me on social media and sent me a long, at-times-touching message about what a “wonderful young woman” she thinks I’ve become, how she’s left my emotionally abusive dad, and how she would love to meet my wife and be a part of my life again.
Prudie, I am completely thrown by this. If she’d sent this message seven years ago, maybe I would be overjoyed and rushing to have a mother again. As it is, I have adjusted to the idea of myself as essentially an orphan and spent a lot of time in therapy accepting the fact that she would never really love me. I can’t undo that. I’m also troubled by aspects of her message, such as the actual lack of apology or acknowledgement of hurt caused. I sent a very short reply, asking, “So, you didn’t mean all that stuff about wishing I was dead rather than gay?” and she sent another long reply saying how “all that was in the past” and talking about the need for us to reconcile. I am conflicted. My wife says she’ll support whatever I want to do but leans on the side of not reconnecting with someone who has treated me the way my mother has. Would it be inherently bad to rebuff my mother’s (I think) earnest attempts at reconciliation? Should I try meeting her for coffee and see if it feels good or just painful? I feel so lost.
A: Your mother’s desire to reconcile may very well be earnest, but if it is not also thorough (that is, if she believes that she alone gets to decide what constitutes a meaningful apology, when and how you should accept it, and that reconciliation requires you to no longer have any feelings or questions about how she used to treat you), then I think you’re right to put her off. I think you’re right to be skeptical as well as touched by her message. On the one hand, it’s lovely and genuinely moving that she can see what a remarkable young woman you are and how beautiful the life you’ve built for yourself is. On the other hand, the fact that she seems to want to blame your father for her own homophobia, hasn’t apologized for disowning you, and has rebuffed your attempt to have a difficult, honest, specific conversation about your past relationship makes me think that the kind of relationship she’s offering is one you can’t accept. I think the best way forward is to say this: “Mom, thank you for the kind words in this message—I’m really proud of the life I’ve built, too, and I’m glad you can see that. I’ve had a lot of time to adjust to being disowned, and if we were ever to meet up and talk about the possibility of developing a new sort of relationship, it can’t come at the expense of pretending the past never happened. I’m not looking to punish you, but what you did hurt me deeply, and it took years for me to deal with. It wasn’t just Dad; you disowned and hurt me too. If you’re willing to meet me on those terms, I’d be open to that. But if you’re not, then let’s just wish each other the best and move on.”
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Q. Return of the ex: I dated a guy five years ago, and the relationship lasted, on and off, for about a year. It was clear, despite what he said, that he did not want a serious relationship, and after being blown off and lied to for the 100th time, I ended things with him. He would on occasion email me trying to come back into my life, and I would politely respond with pleasantries, but nothing more. He would always ask to meet up, and I would say no. I started dating my now-fiancé about three years ago. My ex emailed me after I got engaged (about two years ago), and I told him I was engaged and he congratulated me. But he still continued to email me on a more aggressive basis. I blocked him from my main personal email; he emailed me at work. I blocked him on there; he found me on LinkedIn and messaged me. I blocked him on LinkedIn, and for about a year I did not hear from him. I figured he was gone. But this past weekend, he emailed another account I hardly ever use. He stated he missed talking to me and wanted “to be friends.” I am again ignoring him. My fiancé knows all about it and he’s not the jealous type. He figures I can handle it on my own but will step in if I ask him to. My question is, do I answer my ex and provide a very stern “leave me alone” (again) or do I just continue to ignore him? I feel like providing any answer will encourage him, but I want to tell him to leave me alone as strongly as possible. I never felt threatened by him, and I don’t now—it is more of him just being a pest. What can I do?
A: If you genuinely don’t believe him to be a threat, and don’t fear that he’ll use any response as an excuse to escalate his efforts, I think it’s fine to send a brief response along the lines of “I’m not interested in being friends. You need to stop contacting me, because I don’t want to talk to you. I’m going to block you now.” You say “Do I provide a very stern ‘leave me alone’ (again),” but I’m not sure you’ve actually said “Leave me alone” directly to him yet. That’s not to say that you haven’t been pretty clear with him about not wanting to talk—it’s been years since you responded to any of his messages, and blocking someone repeatedly is fairly straightforward. But I think you do have room to say, “Leave me alone—I don’t want to be friends with you,” at least once, if you haven’t explicitly said it before. Once you’ve done that, I think it’s fine to continue blocking, to share updates with your partner, to possibly ask any mutual friends you have with this ex to intervene on your behalf, and to figure out other steps you might want to take to prioritize your own safety and well-being.
Q. Stepdaughter: I am a stepmother to a 15-year-old boy and a just-turned 12-year-old girl. My stepdaughter is amazing, creative, and smart; her mother laments the fact she isn’t boy-crazy and does not want to wear makeup. She is a sixth grader. I am unsure of my role. I get along with my stepkids, but my husband follows his ex’s lead. This tendency worked OK with his son, but I am concerned about my 12-year-old stepdaughter. What boys like should not be her focus in life, but that is the message her mother is sending her.
I don’t think my stepdaughter is gay, but the message she is getting is that male attention is the measure of her self-worth. At our home, the rules are that clothes must be clean, fit, and not full of visible holes. Hair must be clean and combed. There is no conflict at our home. Every school day is a battle with Mom for my stepdaughter. My stepdaughter has confessed to me that her mom gave her pink bras and threw away all her sport bras. She “hates being a girl.” I went ahead and bought her some black sport bras. I don’t think a 12-year-old girl should be sexualized. If she has a crush, OK, but a preteen being obsessed with makeup gives me the creeps. I don’t like the message Mom is sending, but I don’t know how to bring this to my husband. All girls rebel against their mothers, but here, Mom talks about her daughter dressing for what a boy would like. Am I crazy here? What should I do?
A: I definitely think it’s time to check in with your husband about his old “follow my ex-wife’s lead” policy. It may have worked great for his son, but it’s clearly not working now, and even if he only gently pushes back against some of his ex-wife’s messaging, his daughter needs his support in this, in addition to yours. I also think it would be appropriate for the two of you to sit her down and have a conversation where you don’t necessarily set yourselves up as opponents to her mother but make it really clear why you have such flexible rules about hair and clothes in your home, what your values are when it comes to personal appearance, and why you want to let her pick out her own clothes when she’s at your house. I’m not sure why you don’t know how to bring this up to your husband; this is his daughter and it’s very much in his wheelhouse to address this. My guess is that you feel a bit uncomfortable because he’s signaled in some way that he considers this “girl stuff” outside of his purview. It’s not! It’s part of his job as her parent, even if it makes him feel a little uncomfortable at first.
(This is less important, but I hope you can find a way to give a little slack to preteens who are obsessed with makeup. Oftentimes it seems like there’s no way for preteen and teenage girls to win. Either they’re too interested in boys and makeup and therefore shallow and uninteresting, or they’re not interested enough and therefore subject to a lot of gender policing. 12-year-olds who are wild about eyeliner and glitter aren’t creepy! They’re doing their best.)
Q. A #MeToo #MeToo’d me back: Recently, I privately shared with a colleague how upset I was about some very inappropriate sexual things he had said about “fingering” a young intern—things she had overheard in the workplace—and how uncomfortable this had made other young female staffers who’d witnessed it. He (about 50 pounds and a foot taller than female me) responded by calling me a hypocrite because he had “felt personally violated and unsafe” around me, because when I get enthusiastic about ideas in group meetings I would touch his forearm and once, apparently, his knee. He said this had happened three to four times and that he had asked me to stop and I hadn’t. I apologized, though I barely remembered this. He then said he could not see himself being civil with someone “who had abused [him] like that” and when I questioned the use of the word abuse to describe arm-touching, he walked off. He’s now telling this story to people, with him as the victim, and I’m not sure how to handle this: settle it, or move forward?
A: The fact that this guy had this story locked and loaded suggests to me that he’s been planning a “the best defense is a strong offense” strategy about his history of sexual harassment in the office. Without dismissing out of hand the reality that a physically small person can sexually harass a larger one, or a woman a man, I think the circumstances of this guy’s disclosure make it pretty clear that he’s being calculating and opportunistic, and attempting to deflect attention from his very serious, very inappropriate sexual harassment of younger and more junior women in the office. Please report this incident to HR, including the fact that your colleague responded to your request to not talk about “fingering” young interns in the workplace with “Well, you touched my arm three to four times in a meeting a while back, and now I can’t imagine being civil to you, my abuser.” The fact that he’s made these comments openly and in front of other employees means there are a lot of other eyewitnesses HR can interview to corroborate your account. This is worth getting on record, both for your own sake and the sake of all the other women in the office; don’t let the fear that this guy is baldly trying to manipulate the idea of sexual harassment in the office in order to get away with his egregious behavior stop you from doing the right thing.
Reading his comments with good faith dialed up as high as I can muster: It is possible that he is both a creep and a sexual harasser and that it bothered him when you touched his arm in a meeting! You have apologized and are committed to not touching his arm again (I don’t think that will be a problem for you) and may, if it continues to weigh on you, be more mindful about when you touch colleagues’ forearms at work. That is an appropriate and judicious response! No more soul-searching or internal angst is required.
Q. I’m trying! After a very difficult several years, I have been doing slightly better recently. However, the tides have turned and I find myself under a lot of stress once again. Trying to manage work, school, health, and relationships all at the same time is leaving me drained. More often than not I feel like I’m dropping the ball in at least one dimension of my life. I know that I have a tendency to pull away from people as my stress levels rise—self-care is important to me. The need for solitude is creating even more problems, though. I have one good friend in particular who has expressed disappointment and anger that I’ve pulled back. If I tell her I’m struggling and need to make space for myself, she’ll be offended that I don’t consider her a good-enough friend to ask for help. If I plaster a fake smile on and try to go get coffee like everything’s fine, she’ll see right through it. I don’t want to lose or alienate friends, but how can I explain to them that sometimes I just need space?
A: When it comes to your friends who haven’t complained, I think it’s best just to say something like “I’m going through a lot at work right now, and I’m feeling very stressed out and overwhelmed. Usually when that happens I tend to spend what little free time I have by myself at home, so I may be a little less available to hang out over the next few [weeks or months]. I hope you know it’s not because I don’t like seeing you. I’m just trying to batten down the hatches and get through this.” Letting them know why you’re suddenly less responsive, instead of simply vanishing without explanation, will go a long way toward maintaining your friendships in the long run. You may even find that some of them want to occasionally come by and bring a little food, or make some other brief and low-impact gesture of goodwill that doesn’t necessarily intrude on your solitude.
When it comes to your other friend, I think it’ll be useful to try to find possible compromises without bending over backward for her: “It’s not that I don’t consider you a close friend. It’s that the kind of help I actually need is graciousness and understanding as to why I need to be alone more often right now. I’m just not up for going out for coffee and catching up, but I’d love to get together once I’m out of the worst of this.” You might also consider asking her if she’d be interested in coming by for a brief visit and sharing a little bit more about what’s going on with you—I don’t know if you always feel like you have to plaster on a fake smile and pretend like everything’s fine when you get together with her, but it might help to have an honest conversation with her about what you’re suffering from and what you need.
Q. My friend is getting married just for the bachelor party! My friend is getting married, and I am worried that he doesn’t grasp the magnitude of the commitment he’s making. He’s Greek, so his attitude on marriage may not be the same as mine, but of even greater concern is the possibility that he’s only going through with it because he wants us to throw him a bachelor party. My friend has always loved a guys’ night out—”bro time,” as he calls it—and as many of the guys in our friend group have married or entered serious relationships, these parties happen less frequently. The rest of us are comfortable inviting our wives and girlfriends for a night on the town, but he wants it to be all guys. Bachelor parties are one of the only times he gets his way, and he loves them. He’s down for anything; strippers, cocaine, grab-ass, you name it. And he’s always pressing his friends on when they’re going to get married because he wants another party. He’s running out of single friends, so it almost seems like he took the plunge and got engaged just because it was the only way to bring about another bachelor party. I actually asked him directly if this was the case, and he said it was “honestly a big part” of the decision. I worry that this is bound to be a disaster. Will he even want to go through with the wedding after the bachelor party? Even worse, will he want a divorce after a few years without an all-guy blowout so he can have another one? I feel like maybe I should explain this to his fiancée, but I worry that it wouldn’t be my place. She’s trying to finish school, and I worry that a shock like this might throw her completely off course. What should I do?
A: I think you have plenty to talk about with your friend here without bringing his Greekness into it, so let’s go ahead and set that particular topic to the side for now. Are you comfortable with a strippers-and-cocaine, anything-goes bachelor party? If so, fine; if not, talk to him about why you won’t be able to make an appearance. If you’re really close with him and you’re this concerned that he’s only marrying this woman so he can have a blowout all-boys party, ask him about it before you worry about trying to talk to his fiancée. But these are questions you should be asking him first, not her.
Q. Return of the ex: I wonder where aggressors get the idea there was no real no. From Prudie’s kind of attitude, methinks. She said “again,” but gets a long lecture as to how she really hasn’t told him to leave her alone. That was inappropriately dismissive and condemning.
A: I’m really sorry that my response came off as lecturing. I don’t think the letter writer is responsible for this guy’s totally unhinged behavior—I agree that she’s been very clear and think any reasonable person who’s at all aware of social cues would realize she wants nothing to do with him. But I also understand the desire to say once, very directly, “I never want to hear from you again—here is me saying in writing that this contact is unwelcome,” and since part of her seemed inclined to do so, I wanted to encourage that. There are diminishing returns with that sort of statement, obviously, and I wouldn’t advise her to say “leave me alone” more than once. And if she decided to say nothing at all, and simply continued to block him, I think that would be totally appropriate and understandable too. But I agree that the letter writer has been very clear, and the responsibility for this guy’s terrible behavior lies entirely with him.
Q. Re: Getting married for a bachelor party: This was asked word for word on Dear Wendy today. I hope it’s someone double-dipping and not just copying.
A: I think double-dipping advice columnists is a pretty smart idea, because the odds that your letter is going to get picked by a single one are fairly small. There’s also no single national advice-column-letter database that we can all cross-reference before answering. My guess is that most columnists would give a version of the same answer to this question: “Talk to your friend about his upcoming wedding and don’t mention your weird theory about his Greekness.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! Due to some travel, next week’s chat will be on Tuesday, Sept. 10.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Our 18-month-old daughter prefers me to my husband. I don’t blame her! In watching him parent her, and seeing how he parents his much older son from a previous relationship, he clearly has control issues and wants her to simply do as he says. I am worried that is setting up a lifetime of conflict. Read what Nicole Cliffe had to say.
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