Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Hello, everybody! I hope you’ve got your most interesting problems and your most practical advice with you. Let’s get started.
Q. Can’t support a pagan friend: I’m a thirtysomething who lives in a midsize West Coast city with very liberal sensibilities that I share. There’s a reason I moved here! I am also a Christian who goes to a mainstream Protestant church. I’ve never seen much disconnect between the two and I have many friends of other faiths, primarily Muslim and Jewish, whose religious functions I sometimes attend, like a wedding or a child’s entry into life or their religion. I value getting to experience these things with my friends and learning more about them, their religions, and the world. I grew up poor in the South but was lucky that we were always clean, well-fed, and warm. A good friend who lived in my neighborhood could not say the same and her unfortunate start in life has affected her ability to thrive as an adult. She is divorced from an abusive husband, in recovery for alcoholism, and trying to support two children with little help from her ex and often active hindrance from her dysfunctional family. Health issues make it hard for her to work, and poverty gets in the way of her work as well, as she sometimes can’t afford a uniform she needs or fix her car to get to work, and has been fired from one position because of her bad teeth that are a result of years of not having money to care for them. I have a lot of sympathy for her and her children.
She has written a few children’s books about her faith and has set up a small independent internet business to offer services connected with her belief system. I would love to support her, but she is pagan/Wiccan. This isn’t exactly a problem, as I don’t think it’s immoral. I just don’t want a children’s book on spells or to spend money on a tarot reading. My old friend spends a lot of time online talking about things like her “marriage” to a Norse deity that just make me roll my eyes in a way I know I should be ashamed about. I could probably get over my aversion to this and at least donate to her nonreligious crowdsourcing page that is just asking for money for utilities and food for her kids, but she also spends a lot of time online talking about how awful Christians are. Just Christians. While I know I’m not fully supportive of her faith, at least I know it’s bad of me to judge her on hers. I would never publicly demean her or her religion, much less do it several times a week. I feel so bad for her and would like to help, but every time I get close to donating, I just think about how much she hates people of my faith. Should I donate anyway?
A: I imagine at least part of the reason you’d never speak angrily or demeaningly about Wiccans or pagans in public is because Wiccans and pagans, as a group, do not wield a disproportionate amount of social or political power in the United States, whereas non-Christians in this country (particularly people who were raised Christian) don’t always get to choose how or when or on what grounds they experience Christianity. That doesn’t mean you’re obligated to listen to her vent or that you should apologize for your own faith, but it might prove a helpful corrective when you’re tempted to compare your respective situations. It doesn’t sound like she’s trying to strong-arm you into debating when you get together in person, so if your main problem is how she conducts herself online, I’d encourage you to mute her posts on social media so you don’t have to read them. And you certainly don’t have to buy books you won’t read or tarot readings that don’t interest you! She sounds like a person who’s speaking from a great deal of pain. That doesn’t mean she’s perfect or justified in everything she says or does; if she speaks rudely to you or you’d like to register an objection to something she says, you are absolutely within your rights to do so as a friend. But it is a useful and important context, I think. Look for opportunities to be gracious and patient with her.
As to whether you should donate, you are of course free to spend money and choose friends as you like. But if you’re looking for guidance in keeping with your own religious tradition, I’d encourage you to meditate on Matthew 5:44 (“I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you and persecute you”), Proverbs 3:27 (“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so”), Proverbs 11:25 (“The generous soul will be made rich, and he who waters will be watered himself”), Luke 6:32–38 (“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. … If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? … Give and it shall be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you”), Matthew 6:3–4 (“When you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly”), and Matthew 19:21 (“Jesus said to him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me’ ”). There’s also the option of occasionally offering to babysit or take the kids to the dentist, shop at the grocery store, or help run errands if you don’t have the funds but want to give her a hand. Build up for yourself a treasure in heaven where thieves cannot get in and steal, where moths and rust cannot destroy; give gratuitously and without expectation of reciprocation or praise, and you will be acting in accordance with your religion.
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Q. Adventure or settle? Four months ago, I was in a pretty bad car accident. I have an unidentified illness that had been causing me increasing exhaustion for several years, so normal treatments weren’t working. A specialist was called in and I underwent an experimental treatment. I’m happy to say that after two months of extremely hard work, I’m back to new. It’s even helped my exhaustion. I feel like a new person.
The problem is, I met a guy shortly before the accident. “Dave” is wonderful and nice and I saw myself settling down with him. That was until the accident. Being exhausted for years meant I put most of my dreams on hold. Before that, I was working a ton and really didn’t have much of a social life after college. I’m set to get a lot of money from the accident in the coming months and want to travel and make up for my 20s. I don’t think this is the kind of life Dave wants. I’m 30, which is still pretty young, but over the last couple years, I had gotten used to the idea that it was time for me to settle down. I feel really torn between my desire to settle down and my desire to travel and party. I’m not sure Dave will be around in a year or two when I’m all adventured out. But I think I will be unfulfilled if I decide to settle down now. My friends are all really supportive of me finally getting to travel and let my hair down. How do I figure out what to do?
A: Talk to Dave! You say you “don’t think this is the kind of life Dave wants,” which means you have not got a straight answer out of him, which means you have not asked him! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve acted as if I had already had a serious, thorough conversation with a partner because I convinced myself that I knew their mind and didn’t need to bother running the risk of being honest about what I wanted. Those times did not work out great for me; those relationships did not work out! Not necessarily as a direct result of me treating my own assumptions as gospel, but that certainly didn’t help. It may very well be that Dave is into the idea of traveling, or is comfortable with the idea of you traveling and periodically meeting up and dating long-distance for a while, or is ready to try being friends and revisit the question of a relationship a few years down the road, or … you get the idea. He may say, “I’m happy for you and I want you to get to travel, but that’s not what I want so I think it’s better for us to break up now.” That might be sad, especially in the immediate aftermath, but surely it’s a good thing for Dave to be able to make an informed decision about his own future happiness, even if that means you two break up.
On the one hand, you have a concrete desire to travel and the money and means to do so, and on the other hand, you have a vague sense that “it’s time to settle down” and that Dave, who is nice and wonderful, wants something else. I don’t think making decisions out of a vague sense of obligation and “it’s time” is especially worthwhile. I think your best bet is to be honest with Dave about what you’re contemplating, ask if he’s at all interested in joining you, and wish him well if the answer is “No.” Have fun!
Q. Is it a job or an access point? A few years ago, I had an abrupt and bizarre falling-out with my beloved but severely mentally ill friend, “Jessie,” that cut off my contact with her young daughter “Kayla,” my honorary niece. I later learned that Jessie’s parental rights were terminated soon thereafter and her brother and sister-in-law adopted Kayla. Based on the circumstances, I have not spoken to Jessie since and think it’s unlikely I will ever resume our friendship. Kayla’s adoptive parents informed a mutual friend they will not allow any of Jessie’s friends or their kids to have contact with her. My husband and I have deeply grieved for both these relationships and have resigned ourselves to sporadic social media updates on Kayla from Jessie’s sister. Now, for today: I’m in the job market and recently came across a listing that’s a perfect fit for me. When I looked up the address of the office to get a sense of the commute, I realized that Jessie’s sister-in-law—Kayla’s adoptive mother—is on the leadership team at the company. And it’s a very small company. She wouldn’t affect the hiring decision and, although we have met a few times, probably could not pick me out of a police lineup in the first place. (I do suspect she thinks all of Jessie’s friends are bad by association.) But the idea of being close to this situation again horrifies me. I’m eager in what is likely an unhealthy way to be in the same building as my sweet little Kayla’s adoptive mother. I’m upset by the notion of finding myself in Jessie’s orbit again. I’m wondering how awkward this all could end up being. I thought I was in a better place than this mentally. Am I overreacting to the idea of just submitting a résumé to this place? Or should I stay away from this opportunity to keep my distance?
A: If you worry about your ability to do your job so close to Kayla’s adoptive mother, and fear that you wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to use that proximity to try to force something that Kayla’s mother doesn’t want, then I think it might be wise to look elsewhere. But it’s perfectly understandable that you miss Kayla and that the thought of being near someone who’s still in touch with her fills you with hope and longing. I don’t think that feeling is, in itself, a sign that you shouldn’t apply. But if you do apply, I think you should do so with the expectation that this will be a purely professional relationship. Happy to hear other perspectives on this one, if anyone has been in a similar situation.
Q. Doctor-patient friendship: I’m about to complete a course of physical therapy for pelvic pain. When I began treatment I was worried that it would be awkward and uncomfortable—after all, it does involve a stranger touching some very intimate parts of myself—but my physical therapist was so funny and personable that I felt totally at ease. I find myself sad at the thought of not seeing her regularly anymore, and I’d like to ask her about being friends outside of physical therapy. Is there a polite, no-pressure way I can invite her out for coffee or a drink while acknowledging that she may not wish to for a variety of personal and/or professional reasons? (I’ve always struggled to make friends, so please tell me if I’m being inappropriate or overthinking this.)
A: I don’t think you’re overthinking anything; you seem to have thought about this both thoroughly and appropriately. Waiting until your treatment is finished is the right idea. Just wait until your last session and then say: “I’ve really enjoyed getting to talk to you. I was so nervous about physical therapy but you’ve totally put me at ease. Now that we’re done working together, I’d love to get coffee or meet up as friends if you’re interested. If not, I totally understand. Thanks for everything.” As long as you clarify that it’s a friend date and not a date-date, and emphasize your flexibility about the fact that she may as a policy not hang out with former patients, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in simply asking her if she’d ever like to hang out.
Q. Secret girlfriend … ? I’ve been with my boyfriend for over a year. (We’re both in our late 20s.) I’ve never been happier in a relationship, but something peculiar has been thrown into the mix, and it’s seriously throwing me. I thought we’d been very open about our past relationships. He had a short marriage in his early 20s as well as another yearlong relationship afterward that he was very transparent about. He also said he had been single for about a year before we met. At the beginning of our relationship, I’d see this girl’s name pop up often: on his Netflix account, in old cellphone bills, and in his texts. When I asked, he told me it was just an old college friend and they split some services to save money for a while. I thought this was a little odd, but it was early on and not a big deal. A couple of months later, he helped a buddy move and would go feed their cat when they were out of town, no big deal. Recently, we began the process of looking for a place together and he gave me access to his email to search for some information we needed to pull for rental applications. In searching for info related to housing, I found exchanges between him and this woman dating back a couple of years. Turns out, they had moved to our current city together, lived together for at least a year and a half, owned pets together, and had only stopped living together three months before I met him. I confronted him, and he said they had lived together “for convenience,” as they were both moving to the same city for work and the pets were just hers. I asked if it was her cat we’d been feeding intermittently and her he’d helped move (this was months ago now) and he admitted to that and apologized for the deception. He promises it was over when he met me, and I have no reason to believe that part isn’t true, but I don’t know what to do about this bizarre lie! When pushed a little further, he admitted he “was in a low place” when they were together and said she wanted more and thought it was more serious than he did. But they were also living together—that’s pretty serious to me! He said he “just wanted to forget about that time in his life” and didn’t want it to bleed into his relationship with me. What should I do? On the one hand, I do believe this is all in the past, and I believe they’ve had no contact now for more than six months. He’s long since separated their mutual accounts, and I haven’t heard her name in months. It seems pretty clear to me that the contact in the beginning of our relationship was them unraveling threads of a serious relationship that had recently ended. But he still denies it was ever serious. That’s weird! Should I believe him that this is all in the past and chalk this up to a bizarre rationalization on his part? His past is his past, but I don’t want to ignore red flags, and I’m too close to the situation.
A: You do kind of have reason to believe “that part” isn’t true, inasmuch as he has never once voluntarily been honest with you about this relationship for as long as you’ve known him. I think it’s important to take his answers with a grain of salt! I’m not going to make a ruling on whether he cheated on you with her, or her with you, or both, or whether you ought to leave him. But I do think it’s safe to assume that you don’t have the full story and he’s been trickle-truthing you, as the kids say: “You’ve lied to me about this relationship constantly, and over seemingly small-stakes things, like whose cat you were feeding, or why the two of you shared bills. Why is that?” If he’s able to speak honestly and compellingly about the reasons he chose to lie to you, and you feel reasonably sure that he’s going to address whatever those reasons are in future, you might decide it’s possible to move on from this. But if he just sticks to “I was in a low place” and “we don’t talk anymore,” I’d be pretty skeptical that the future is going to look any different from the past.
Q. Uncomfortable bachelorette party: I recently learned I’m going to be asked to be a bridesmaid in my partner’s sister’s wedding. I’m honored, and I love that she goes out of her way to make me feel loved and included. The problem is I know her bachelorette party will be an all-weekend thing that will require a plane ticket and possible paid time off. That would be fine, except I don’t know any of her other bridesmaids and I’m a socially anxious introvert. Is there a way to say “Yes” to being a bridesmaid but politely decline the weekend trip?
A: “Thank you so much for asking me. I’m honored! I’m afraid a destination bachelorette party isn’t in my budget, so I won’t be able to join for that, but I hope you have a fantastic time.” Multiday bachelor and bachelorette trips aren’t inherently bad things, but the bride or groom in question needs to understand, at the very least, that these are pretty big requests to make of their friends, and that saying “No” has to be an option. A polite bride will say: “Of course, that makes so much sense. Thanks for letting me know.” If she tries to argue or push back, then that’s the opportunity to save yourself months of headaches and say: “I don’t think this is going to work out, and it would be better if I attended as a guest. Thanks for thinking of me.”
Q. Need some adult time! My wife and I have two kids, one in middle school and one in elementary school, whom we love dearly. We both have full-time jobs and keep very busy with kid activities. I enjoy traveling, and before we had children, we agreed we would travel on kid-free trips after the kids were born, with my wife’s parents babysitting. Her parents are not elderly and can handle the kids. Since our second child was born, though, my wife has refused to be away from the kids, even for a single night. She will only agree to vacations with our kids to theme parks, water parks, and the beach. I am totally burned out and desperately need a relaxing trip that does not include chasing the kids around. What can I do?
A: Has your wife been able to talk openly about her reasons for not wanting to leave the kids overnight? Is she anxious about their ability to function? Is she in the habit of demanding perfection from herself as a parent? Is she trying to avoid spending time with you because there’s something she’s afraid to talk about? You don’t mention how much you two have talked about this or whether you’ve had a more in-depth conversation beyond “Want to take a trip, just the two of us?” and ”No, we can’t, let’s go to a water park.” Certainly I don’t think you’re asking for the moon; trying to schedule your first adults-only vacation in at least five years is a reasonable request. Tell your wife that this is important to you and that you’re genuinely curious and prepared to listen to whatever has been going on that makes her anxious or afraid to take a trip together. And good luck! I hope you get that vacation soon.
Q. Re: Is it a job or an access point? Taking you at your word that this is a coincidence, the primary question you need to ask yourself is this: If you were to get this position in this company, would you be able to do your job and honor the very clear boundaries that Kayla’s adoptive parents have established (leaving aside to what degree you may feel those boundaries were fair or reasonable to begin with)? Even if you feel like you could do it in the short term, do you think it’s something that you could keep up in the long term? And lastly, even if you feel that you would not cross boundaries, also reflect on what having to work in such close proximity to this woman and having to honor these boundaries would do to your own mental health over the long term. In your own words, you don’t seem to have completely come to some sort of peace with the situation with Kayla and I’m afraid being so close to establishing contact again but forcing yourself to not do so would put an undue burden on yourself over time. If possible, seek job opportunities elsewhere and pass on this. If the job is just too good to pass up, then (again, if you get it in the first place) you probably want to consider therapy at least at first to help you cope with your grief over your relationship (or rather lack thereof) with Kayla.
A: This is an extremely thorough and very helpful set of questions to consider before submitting an application. Thank you for this. Respecting the limits this woman has set as a parent, even if you think they’re unreasonable, might be a tall order; I think many people are tempted to dismiss limits they personally disagree with (which is part of why limits can be so difficult to set and why I have a job in the first place). I’d certainly be tempted in the letter writer’s position, so I have a lot of sympathy here.
Q. Re: Can’t support a pagan friend: The best example you can ever set for how to be a Christian is to love your friend even though she bashes Christianity. The whole point of following Christ is loving and showing love to everyone—even when it’s difficult. You state she’s a good friend. Then show her love. Donate, ask her if she needs groceries, get those groceries, buy her a gas card, see if she needs some help around her house, and do things that show the love. We’re called to love our neighbors.
A: I do want to add the qualifier that I don’t think the letter writer should turn this particular friend into her spiritual growth project, bombarding her with love and affection and gift cards to local restaurants on a daily basis. Just leave open the possibility to offer her help when you can, even if it never changes her perspective on Christianity.
Q. Re: Is it a job or an access point? The letter writer hasn’t actually even tried to initiate a conversation with Jessie’s brother and sister-in-law. She’s operating entirely on secondhand information. Why not just try to reach out in a noninvasive way, explain that she is NOT in touch with Jessie and is unlikely to be in touch in the future, and say that the relationship with their honorary niece has been very important to them in the past. As long as the attempt is made in a nonintrusive manner (e.g., email or letter) that explains that they will only make this request once and respect the decision, what do they have to lose?
A: I agree that would be a possibility (I don’t think I’d strongly encourage it, but I’d allow for it as a possibility) if the letter writer weren’t considering applying for this job, but I think the combination of sending that email and an application would be too much at once. It would at the very least create the impression that the letter writer was applying for this job in order to reestablish contact, which would be pretty counterproductive.
Q. My husband secretly corresponded with prison inmates for years: Years ago, before we were married, my husband suggested we write to prisoners all over the country to get their thoughts about life. I was dismissive of it for all the reasons someone might be wary of writing to prisoners. Over the years, whenever we got in fights about my not paying enough attention to his creative endeavors, I would think back to this idea and recognize that it was interesting. Well, it turns out he’d gone ahead and sent out his survey to prisoners. He rented a post office box and the ensuing correspondence has continued for seven years. I only recently learned of it because some of these men are starting to be released. I am sympathetic to those recently released from prison and the challenges they face. But my husband is not prepared for the role he has come to play in these men’s lives. Several have shown up at our house wanting to speak to my husband. It is unsettling, and I am afraid to disappoint them. My husband can’t say no to these men’s repeated, insistent requests to visit our house, borrow the car, get help finding work. I feel terrible cutting these people off after they evidently know so much about us and have considerable emotional investment in our family, but I do not want them in my life or my young children’s lives. I feel like everything I don’t like about my husband is part of this predicament: carelessness with others’ feelings and time, inability to finish projects, poor planning, and general lack of awareness about social justice issues. What should I do about these men when they show up or contact me, and what on earth do I do about my idiot husband? Read what Prudie had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.