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Danny Lavery: Hi, everyone! Let’s chat.
Q. My toddler’s birthday party: It was my daughter’s 2nd birthday, and we had both of my husband’s sisters at our house with their husbands. One of those sisters has three kids, who were also there (ages 4, 3, and 9 months). My 6-year-old daughter was also present. Shortly after the birthday cake, I found a small bag of cocaine on top of my trash can. I questioned everyone where it had come from. My brother-in-law (the one without kids) confessed that he had dropped it and that he had bought it for later in the week. He was very drunk (as he usually is—we believe he is an alcoholic), but he apologized profusely and took the drugs out of the house. My brother-in-law stayed at our house that night, and the next morning he basically hid in bed, ashamed, until he and his wife left. He didn’t mention what had happened. As the next day wore on, my husband and I became more and more angry and disturbed by what had happened.
My husband and I are both incredibly angry at my brother-in-law for bringing drugs into our house, where both of our kids could have easily eaten them, thinking it was sugar. The whole family seems to think my husband and I are making a big deal out of nothing—but I really don’t think we are! The sister with the kids isn’t that upset, even though two of her kids could have easily had access to it. The sister who is married to him thinks his drug use is between the two of them, but I say that’s not true anymore, not after he put our kids in danger. Everyone seems to think we should forgive and forget. I do consider drug addiction a health problem, and I believe he needs help, but the man brought narcotics to a 2-year-old’s birthday, and a kid could have died because of his drunken negligence. Are we crazy for being absolutely outraged at this (still, two weeks later)?
A: Yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to be angry with your brother-in-law for leaving coke on your trash can during a toddler’s birthday party. I don’t mean to sound glib, but it’s a little remarkable he’d forget where he put his cocaine; usually anyone who brings secret cocaine to a cocaine-free type of party is hyperaware of exactly where their cocaine is. Your kids are safe, which is great, but it’s also fine to tell him that you’re concerned about what might have happened and that you might need to set new limits with him in the future. (And you might want to set those limits regardless of the cocaine, because it’s unpleasant and uncomfortable to have a wildly drunk guest at an event where everyone else’s drinking is pretty restrained.) That doesn’t mean you have to make yourself his personal drug monitor for the rest of your life, but, especially when it comes to family events, you have every right to set limits.
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Q. An unwelcome summer roommate: For the past year, I’ve been in a relationship with an amazing woman with an equally remarkable 5-year-old son. This is my first time dating someone with a child, so there has been a lot of learning on my part, but I feel like I’m starting to settle in the unique role of “My Dad Friend,” as he calls me. We live on the East Coast and his biological father lives on the West Coast. He sees his father once or twice a year and largely due to his mother’s effort. Out of the blue, she recently got a call from him saying that he wants to spend the upcoming summer with his son. (I should also add that there is no custody arrangement and that the father has not signed an order of paternity.) Since she really doesn’t want to send her 5-year-old to the West Coast for the summer (out of concern over the environment in which her son would likely be living) she is considering offering his father to come here to stay in our home.
Should I be bothered by the fact that she is considering allowing her son’s father to come stay with her for up to a month this coming summer? We currently live together, though I’ll be away a lot this summer and he would be there while I’m away. They haven’t had a very good relationship over the years, but I know that she really wants to encourage her son’s relationship with his father. (I am also a little put off by the fact that she wouldn’t ask me if it would bother me, but just said, “Oh, well, he can stay with us.”) Knowing a lot of their past, and how little effort he’s previously made to help with the raising of his son, I really have a hard time with this. I don’t fear that they will rekindle some former passion, but it just makes me rather uncomfortable that he would be staying at our house for an extended time. Of course, I don’t want to discourage her son from seeing his father (which is how I’m afraid she will take it when I tell her how I feel). How should I approach this?
A: I think the most pressing issue is that the two of them don’t have a custody agreement! My guess is that they’re probably going to want to get one, although since neither of them has written to me, I suppose that’s slightly off-topic advice. I wouldn’t advise you to worry too much about whether the boy’s father has signed an order of paternity; it strikes me as a slightly sideways attempt to discover whether you and your girlfriend can talk him out of trying to get to know his son better. You do, I think, have grounds as her live-in partner to talk about some of your concerns. I can understand why you were frustrated that she didn’t consult you when she suggested inviting him to move in temporarily, but it doesn’t sound like she’s actually made the suggestion to him yet. So I do think she’s making at least some room for you to join the conversation. This is a decision that would affect your living situation, even if only part of the time; you have grounds to offer insight and share your concerns, and I hope you can both put what’s best for her son in front of everything else. (Would it be possible for her ex to sublet a place nearby?)
As you love both your girlfriend and her son, I understand your instinctive defensiveness at the thought of her ex coming back into their lives in a more significant way. But if he’s interested in becoming a better, more involved father now, I think that’s a good thing, even if you personally feel skeptical of him.
Q. My best friend broke up with me three years ago and I can’t get over it: Three years ago, my best friend “K” broke up with me without explanation in a two-line email. My mind was blown: while her relationship with me—but also our friend group—had been a bit rocky for a year (she had recently decided to get sober and this was a hard-partying clan), I assumed our 30-year friendship would weather this period in our lives.
Quick backstory: K’s parents and mine were friends before we were born, we grew up as best friends, and after my only sibling died we had many explicit conversations about us being “sisters.” We ended up living across the street from each other after college. We had all our first drug experiences together in high school; she took me to the doctor the day after I lost my virginity; we’ve talked for decades in explicit detail about literally every aspect of our personal, romantic, and sexual lives, and about how we cherished our once-in-a-lifetime friendship.
Although K’s email baffled me, in retrospect I think I know what motivated her:
1. I was going through a divorce while K was getting sober. This meant I was drinking and fucking a lot, and while I went out of my way to plan sober group and solo get-togethers with K, in retrospect I think my lifestyle was hard for K to be adjacent to.
2. I had no boundaries: Because of our long and close relationship, I assumed I could tell K everything, and I did. She never explicitly asked me to stop, but looking back I think there were nonverbal cues I ignored.
K has a history of forming very tight relationships with women and then cutting off all ties for opaque reasons. She also has a history of holding things inside for a long time. (Example: I missed a yoga class we’d scheduled. She brushed it off at the time but was a bit distant for a couple of months. Finally she admitted she was mad at me about it. I apologized again and we patched things up, but this sort of thing was not uncommon.) But, again, I assumed that these tics of hers could in no way jeopardize our rock-solid friendship.
This happened three years ago and I still miss K deeply. She is a sparkling person and I love her. My brother’s death has compounded this grief. K is the only one I had left who has the special knowledge of a sibling: what birthdays and Christmas and school uniforms should look like.
What do I do? In the past, K let some of the banished women back in her life after they wrote mea culpa emails. A mutual friend told me that K expressed to her that she could imagine reconciling with me someday, though she remained cagey about what led to the breakup. I think if I did some groveling K might relent. (I’ve sent two brief and neutral emails to K to date, one in response to the initial email and one a year later. No response.) That being said, in addition to being sad, I’m pissed! K was going through a tough time when she dumped me, but so was I, and I think our history deserved more care—at least a conversation. Should I take the hit and beg for K’s forgiveness, even if I think she has just as much if not more to be forgiven for? Do I send a final email in which I lay out all the shit that’s been bothering me so I can at least stop muttering about it to myself? Or do I see this as another tragic loss that must be grieved through and just let it go?
A: Take the third option. I don’t think you’ll get much out of sending a third email when you know she’s barely looked at the last two; if she’s this indifferent to bland, brief missives, I don’t think you should take that as encouragement to share something detailed and vulnerable with her. And if you beg for her forgiveness while privately thinking she’s just as much to blame as you are, you’ll only reset the clock for another inevitable blowup, unless you’re planning on spending the rest of your life always going along with what she wants. You’ve attempted to reach out to her twice in good faith and she’s made it clear she doesn’t want to rehash the past or talk about the ways you two might both have hurt the other. As much as you might miss her, I think it would be acutely painful to have her back in your life on the condition that you commit to a policy of dishonesty and swallowing your own resentments or concerns.
You might, at most, send her another brief email telling her you miss her and that if she ever wanted to get together and talk about what happened, you’d be happy to meet her, but I don’t recommend you send anything longer or more personal than that—and I think you should be prepared to hear nothing in response. Nor do I think you should take thirdhand insinuations that she might someday be prepared to reconcile very seriously, especially when those insinuations are vague and shadowy. It would be better not to meet at all than to go through a pantomime of true reconciliation.
Q. The one that got away? When I was in high school, I dated a sweet, gentle boy who worshipped the ground I walked on, and I adored him. My abusive parents, however, hated us together, and did everything in their power to make sure we didn’t see each other. They made me break up with him multiple times, but I always found a way to keep in touch. Finally, when they found out I was still talking to him, they told me to get out of the house. My boyfriend and his family were on their way to pick me up and take me in when my dad came home from work.
Almost 10 years later, after I cut my parents out of my life, I reached out to my ex to give him and his parents the thanks I hadn’t felt able to before. I told him that I never forgot his family’s generosity and that it was the single sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for me. He responded in kind and said he deeply appreciated my reaching out and that he was worried all these years that he’d done something wrong. Prudie, I’m married, and I can’t stop thinking about this man. I’d always felt he was the one that got away, but now that feeling has intensified. I try to reason with myself: I don’t know him anymore! We’re different people! I love my husband so, so much! But there’s this nagging feeling that I still love my ex. I’ve not reached out to him again, but part of me thinks that seeing him will provide closure and some finality that we’re clearly not compatible anymore. Is this just a lie I’m telling myself to open a taboo door? Is closure even real? Can you provide some guidance? I read the messages we exchanged to my husband, and he was really happy that we were able to provide clarity for each other. He doesn’t know that these feelings have cropped up. I love him and appreciate him so much, and I hate that I could feel this attraction to someone else.
A: I hope you’re able to share some of these feelings with your husband. First because I don’t think you need to be ashamed that you have strong, tender feelings for someone else; that happens to many people from time to time and doesn’t mean you suddenly stop loving your partner or become less committed to them. This man was an extremely important part of your life at a time when you weren’t receiving much in the way of love or affection, and you were prevented from even saying goodbye to him. It may be that the two of you don’t meet again, and I’d encourage you to proceed slowly and talk it through with your husband first, but I think it might be deeply meaningful and powerful to catch up with him. Whatever you decide to do next, I hope you realize that you have a lot of options, that there’s nothing shocking or wrong about your feelings, and that it’s possible to deeply care for, and love, past partners without diminishing the love you have for your husband.
Q. Confess to friend in unstable relationship? I recently broke up with my boyfriend of two years, for good reason. (I was miserable.) I have a friend I’ve had feelings toward for some time, but whom I never confessed my feelings to or flirted with because I was in a relationship. After my relationship ended, this friend told me that several months ago he’d started a long-distance relationship (across the world) and expressed indecision about whether to continue because being apart is so difficult. Should I tell this man about my feelings? If he were single, I would, but I feel crummy about the idea of trying to get him to break up with his girlfriend. I’m only considering it because he has expressed being “miserable” about his relationship.
A: You can tell him how you feel, accepting the possibility that 1) he doesn’t feel the same way and things become uncomfortable between the two of you for a while, regardless of whether he breaks up with his girlfriend, or 2) he is interested in you, he breaks up with his girlfriend, and you play a role in the end of his relatively brief long-distance relationship. I don’t think that would irretrievably poison things between the two of you if that’s how you got together, and I don’t think you’d be proposing anything underhanded or cruel if you said, “I realize the timing isn’t ideal, but I’d love to go out with you—if things don’t work out with this girl, I hope you’ll let me know.”
Q. Obligatory friendship? I have a large extended family but only one cousin close in age. Growing up we were always pushed together at family parties and expected to be friends. As I grew older, I came to realize that I’d had difficulty cultivating a real friendship with her because, I suspect, she is to some extent “on the spectrum,” though I don’t think she has a diagnosis and my extended family never acknowledges this directly. I’ve always had a hard time spending time with her. Conversation is stilted and usually about topics that don’t really interest me. She often invites me to things I really have zero interest in and have never expressed interest in. She doesn’t have much interest in the things I’d like to do, either. I have kept our friendship intact with occasional get-togethers out of a sense of obligation. She has a few childhood friends and college friends, though I don’t know how authentic these friendships are, and she recently abruptly ended a childhood friendship for reasons I’m not sure of. I worry that if I don’t keep in touch with this cousin she will have few if any friendships, but we truly have little in common and I find myself dreading the time we spend together. I feel like a complete jerk feeling this way but I also feel like she shouldn’t want a friend like me. Is it OK for me to cut back on our time together? Normally I don’t feel bad at all if I don’t get along with someone. I figure they will make friends elsewhere. I just don’t think that’s true for her, though.
A: Certainly you should continue to be friendly and engaging with your cousin when you get together at family events. But consider this: Do you think she’s better off looking for friends who, if they don’t necessarily share her every hobby, at least find her interesting to talk to, rather than someone who usually has to grit through teeth through most of their interactions? That’s not to say that friendship can or should only be founded in constant mutual excitement, but I don’t think you need to offer your cousin a feigned closeness just because you’re worried she won’t find friends without you. Maybe she will; maybe she won’t! But it’s her life to navigate and she’ll have to find ways to connect with other people, deal with feelings of loneliness, seek out social situations that appeal to her, etc.
I’d also encourage you to stop privately worrying about whether she’s on the spectrum. Maybe she is and maybe she isn’t, but speculating in your own head doesn’t do her or you any practical good. Nor does worrying about whether she ought to want a friend like you—maybe she would want a friendship on those terms and maybe she wouldn’t. That’s not really the point. The point is whether you get much out of this friendship. You’re not proposing dropping her from your life entirely, just throwing off the family pressure to act super close because you’re both roughly the same age. Moreover, you don’t say anything like “She’s always telling me how much our friendship means to her,” so I think she might experience relief very similar to yours once you relax a little and stop trying to force a connection.
Q. Re: An unwelcome summer roommate: The letter writer and his partner may want to have a proactive plan in place in case of the living circumstances becoming untenable. What do you do if the dad starts behaving badly? Where are the hard boundaries? If this living situation is likely to occur, these items should be thought about ahead of time.
A: That’s a great point. They’ll probably need to come up with a short-term lease or sublet agreement, or alert the landlord if they have one, just so everyone’s on the same page about what they owe one another, what they can expect, and the foundational terms of the living arrangement (and maybe that will pave the way for a written custody agreement!).
Q. Re: My best friend broke up with me three years ago and I can’t get over it: I understand how painful it is to have a long friendship end so abruptly and without any explanation. It’s hard to process what happened. That said, I have learned that it isn’t a friendship if one person can hold grudges that can explode at any moment without warning. Mourn what you had, but don’t try to resurrect something that wasn’t really there.
A: I think there’s wisdom in this, although I don’t think the letter writer has to assume that there was nothing real about a meaningful friendship of 30 years. But it’s certainly true that any friendship in the future would be untenable if it were consciously based on the knowledge that K keeps secrets and nurses grudges and the letter writer might never know when she’ll explode again.
Q. Re: The one that got away? For heaven’s sake, ignore the advice to meet with the old flame. This is how marriages are destroyed. What you need to do is seek a therapist who can help you sort through these feelings without jeopardizing your life.
A: I’m inclined to disagree here! All I’m counseling the letter writer to do at present is talk to her husband—he may not have a restrictive, fearful response to the knowledge that she feels strongly about the teenage sweetheart who tried to help her escape an abusive situation. If they were to talk and he were to express anxiety and insecurity, I’d encourage her to be patient and listen to her husband’s side of things, not say, “Good luck with that, see you later, I’ve got a lunch date with my old flame.” I just don’t agree that honestly and openly acknowledging these feelings will put her on an irrevocable, life-jeopardizing path.
I’m married to a gorgeous younger woman. When she appeared to have interest in me, I was flattered and shocked, and I decided to make it permanent if she would have me. We were married after a short romance. Now, a year into the relationship, I am having serious second thoughts. As it turns out (actually, I knew this from the beginning), she’s not particularly interesting or, and I hate to say this, bright. I’m no Einstein, but I have a degree in computer science and am knowledgeable about economics and other intellectual pursuits. She loves reality TV. Now here I am, barely able to have a conversation with the woman to whom I am married. I don’t want a divorce, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life watching The Bachelor. Is there a middle path that allows me to continue my marriage (the sex is incredible) while not forcing me to give up on having a stimulating partner with whom I can share my interests? Or am I forever condemned to being married to an incredibly hot woman for whom I have not an iota of intellectual respect? Read what Prudie had to say.
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