Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Shaken: I’m a 66-year-old woman in good health. I got back from an international trip in January and self-quarantined, and I am now following the guidelines put out by the CDC. My boyfriend of several years, who lives three hours away, came up to visit yesterday. Within minutes of his arrival, he began criticizing, ridiculing, and needling me for wearing a face mask and going “over-the-top neurotic” about the pandemic. And then to my horror, at one point he leaned in and deliberately coughed in my face! I was stunned. I still am. We had a huge fight and I asked him to leave. He emailed when he got home saying I was right and what he did was wrong and dangerous and I deserved better. I am shaken by this incident and I can’t wrap my head around his actions. Please give me your thoughts. What kind of man would do such a thing?
A: A man you should dump immediately. I’m glad he realized what he did was wrong and dangerous (and disrespectful, and unkind, and unnecessary, and a whole host of other things), and that you deserve better than someone who would treat you that way. He’s absolutely right. While I’m glad he was able to come to his senses and apologize, I don’t think that detracts from how bewildering and frightening his visit was in the first place, nor does it automatically reestablish the trust he broke when he mocked you for taking your health—and the health of others—seriously.
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Q. Open-mouthed masticator: Almost every day, without fail, my co-worker has a container of raw carrots and celery with his lunch, and while I applaud him for trying to get his five a day, the way he eats them is sending me over the edge. I get that raw veggies aren’t the quietest foods to eat, but while most people can finish a carrot stick in two or three bites, he eats his like he’s feeding it into a wood chipper, with no fewer than 10 tiny bites per piece! If that wasn’t enough, he then proceeds to chew with his mouth partially open, so I can hear everything smacking and rolling around. I realize I’m being a bit (a lot) dramatic here, and I’ve definitely been bothered by co-worker’s chewing before, but I’m not sure how to address this politely, especially since my co-worker is older than me and we work together a lot. (I call him my work dad.) Both of us wear headphones during “the act,” but I can clearly hear it through my music or podcasts, and he seems blissfully unaware that he is slowly driving me mad. Should I just suck it up and deal?
A: Don’t compare him to a wood chipper or tell him that he’s single-handedly driving you to the breaking point. Wait until you’re feeling relatively composed, and when he’s not already eating, and tell him politely: “You may not have noticed this, but when you snack on raw vegetables, the sound is pretty noticeable, even when I have headphones on. Could you please chew more quietly?” It’s a perfectly reasonable request, one he should be able to accommodate. If he tries his best but doesn’t immediately have an intuitive sense for how loud he’s chewing, you can certainly—but again, politely!—let him know in the future: “Sorry, Ralph, but you’re doing it again. Mind keeping it down?”(I say all this knowing you may very well not be working in the same room as Ralph for quite some time.)
This is part of the reason I think it’s important to avoid language like “work wife” or “work dad,” by the way. I realize part of this is about finding more-human and less-corporate way to refer to your co-workers, but there’s something about assigning a “fatherly” role to someone you have a professional relationship with that makes it more difficult to have professional conversations. He’s not your father, and no one needs to act as someone else’s father in the workplace. I don’t say that because I think you’ve done something terribly wrong, or trapped yourself. It’s just that I think there are better ways to develop friendly terms for your colleagues that don’t involve trying to make the workplace feel more like the family home.
Q. Is it ethical? My boyfriend and I both live in large group homes. We want to continue spending time together during this pandemic, but we’re not sure if it’s ethical to be going back-and-forth between our two houses, especially since we recently learned that one of his roommates has asthma. Should we maintain a virtual relationship indefinitely, or should I ask my roommates if he can temporarily move in (even though it would be a strain on them)?
A: I asked a friend who’s a registered nurse to weigh in (and I’d also recommend you contact your city’s non-emergency health line in case it has any specific instructions for someone in your situation): “The answer is no, especially to the going back-and-forth between each other’s houses. If the letter writer wants to ask the roommates if the boyfriend can temporarily move in, that’s definitely a better option. The issue is that if he lives with a bunch of other people, there’s no way to know how strictly they’ve all been observing social distancing, and therefore no way to know whether the boyfriend is incubating anything. So, from a physical and public health perspective, the letter writer and the boyfriend should maintain a virtual relationship until public health officials say it’s OK to relax the regulations. But relationships are really crucial to people’s mental health, and this is a scary time. I really want to find a workaround for them. I just don’t really see a good one.”
Q. Brotherly love: My brother, “Ari,” is 32 years old and has a history of making poor choices. A couple of years ago, he came home from a fairly long stint in prison. I kept in touch with him during that time through phone calls, I’m happy he’s back, and I want to be supportive. But, while he claims he has matured, and he has stayed out of trouble since being out, he’s not making a huge effort to improve his life. He has been working here and there, but he recently got injured pretty badly in an accident (which was actually not his fault). He’s about to get a pretty substantial sum of money as a settlement and is already talking about how he’s going to spend it: His main goal is buy an all-terrain vehicle and buy a plot of land that he can ride it on. I’m past the point of lecturing him when he talks to me about his ideas (a fault of mine that I recognized and worked on), but I also cannot bring myself to be happy for him because it’s just ludicrous. He then gets upset when I don’t share his enthusiasm and accuses me of not being supportive. But seriously, how am I supposed to endorse his irrational actions? How do I talk to him without bringing him down, but in a way that lets him know he needs to get his act together?
A: I wonder if it might be useful to reconsider what’s being asked of you, and whether it’s possible to find a middle ground between “endorsing” your brother’s actions and trying to dictate how he spends his settlement. Can you find it within yourself to experience vicarious happiness for your brother, not because you believe buying an ATV is going to ensure his future financial security but merely because he’s excited about it? Can you find a way to muster up at least satisfaction that this plan is not illegal and does not hurt anyone? “I’m not going to try to change your mind about how you spend your money. You already know what I think, and you’re 32 years old. I hope everything works out, and I’m glad that you’re feeling good about it.” What would it look like for you to make peace with the possibility that your brother may never “get his act together,” at least not in the way you might consider “together”? That’s not to say you should just peacefully say “Right on” whenever he does anything; you’re not being asked to mindlessly sign off on anything your brother does for the rest of his life. But within the context of safety and legality, he has the right to make choices you wouldn’t make, and you don’t sound like you’re in any danger of pretending to approve of something you don’t. Why not accept that you’ve done your level best to persuade him to do something else? If things don’t work out, he’ll be the one who has to figure out a response, not you. I think a distant fondness for his own autonomy is an achievable emotional response for you. Good luck!
Q. Different mother to different kids: My parents married very young. They divorced and I ended up with my gran who was “old school” (abusive). The abuse came to light and I ended up with a family friend. Mom visited.
My mom remarried when I was 14. I was 17 when she had my sister. It is alienating to see her play good mom to my sisters when I didn’t have that. I keep my visits short because otherwise I end up with an upset stomach. Please do not tell me to seek therapy; I can’t afford it in my area. I have looked. My mother has been pressuring me to take out my sisters and “help out” more. I just want to see her. We’ve had terrible fights. I just want to be a daughter. Am I awful?
A: You’re not awful, and there are plenty of ways to take care of yourself and tend to your own grief that don’t involve scheduling therapy sessions you can’t afford. I don’t know if you’ve ever gone into detail with your mother about how her abandonment affected you as a child, or if she’s ever expressed any sorrow or sympathy or remorse for the abuse you suffered because she wasn’t present to raise you. If you two haven’t discussed it much, and the fights have centered rather around her requests to have you babysit more often, it might provide useful emotional context, even if the idea of bringing that up with her might feel daunting. But I think it would be powerful, and important for your mother as she considers her relationship with you, to have an honest conversation about what attempting to reckon with and partially heal the past might look like. She may not always be able to see you without her other children, depending on their age, and I don’t think it’s practical to assume you’ll be able to have a relationship with her that doesn’t involve them in any way, but you can certainly ask for the occasional visit or phone call that’s just about the two of you.
If, on the other hand, you have discussed this with her before, and she’s still leaning on you to babysit her other children, then I think it’s better to save your time and energy; if your mom’s sole emotional response is “The past is the past, and you need to help me raise the kids I have now,” then I don’t wonder at your having a stomachache after your visits. I would have one too. If you need to start thinking of your mother as a person with very limited emotional resources, where else can you turn for sympathy, emotional support, nurturing, and affection? In what ways can you try to provide that for yourself? You may find some of the writing on self-parenting or the concept of “becoming your own loving mother” useful—at times it may jar or seem a bit hokey, but I’d encourage you to read with an open mind and adopt whatever might be helpful.
Q. Estranged friends in an emergency: I used to have many friends in NYC, long-distance and mostly online. After a vicious falling out with one of them, I ended contact with all the others since we were mutual friends, whether or not they knew about our fight. I had no logical reason to drop away from everyone uninvolved and with no reason. I simply panicked and overreacted. With the current health emergency in NYC, I’m very concerned and scared about their well-being. Should I reach out to the mutual friends for emotional or other support? At best, it can help to know someone is still thinking about you and there might be ways for me to help from afar. At worst, I could be breaking a silence and intruding at a time of incredible stress. One thing: I do not intend on communicating at all with that one particular friend because they clearly drew their boundaries. I just don’t know how to or whether to approach the rest when I dropped the ball so hard and for so long.
A: I don’t mean to dismiss long-distance, mostly online friendships, but I think the best use of your time and energy right now is to look for opportunities to support your local community and the friends you have in your life right now. That’s not to say you’re not allowed to get in touch with them! But maybe reach out to your actual in-real-time friends right now, find a local mutual aid organization and seek out (healthy, appropriate) volunteer opportunities, and then check back in with that impulse in another week or two. Do you still feel the same urge to reconnect? If so, are you prepared to handle rejection gracefully? Are there other means you could use to address the fact that sometimes your response to conflict is to panic and cut people out of your life, means that don’t necessarily involve people you’ve dropped in the past?
If you do all that and carefully consider those questions, and you still feel moved to get back in touch, you certainly can. But I’d keep the contact brief and to the point: Tell them you’re thinking of them, that you hope they’re well, that you’d like to help in any way if you can, and that if they’d prefer not to hear from you again, you’ll leave it at that.
Q. Gifting: We give our 40-year-old son, his wife, and her son $100 each year for their birthdays. They do not reciprocate with birthday gifts, or Mother’s or Father’s Day gifts, for my husband or myself. They both make good money. My husband at 71 is about to retire. Do I continue to offer gifts on retirement income? Do I say something? Did I not instill in my son a sense of giving (he is an only child)?
A: You have lots of options here, I think. There’s no one universally agreed-upon way to smoothly transition from childhood gift-giving to a more laid-back approach to adult birthdays. The most important thing I’d stress is to keep the conversations about what you can afford to give, now that your husband is retiring, separate from the conversation about not getting gifts in return. They’re both important conversations to have, but having them at the same time makes it seem like you’re attempting to leverage something out of them. (That’s not to say you don’t want your kid and his family to give you gifts—it sounds like you do, and very reasonably so!)
If I were in your position, I’d talk with your husband first to make sure that he’s on the same page. Then I’d let the others know (in a polite but matter-of-fact update) that you won’t be sending checks anymore. You’re free to mention your husband’s retirement or not to. Frankly, I think it’s perfectly ordinary to not send a 40-year-old $100 for every birthday without having to mention your budget in order to justify it.
Q. Born-again school: My nephew (14) sent me a letter soliciting donations for his school. According to the letter, these donations are for things like team sports and new lockers, etc. After checking out the school website, I found out the school doesn’t hire anyone not “born again” or who doesn’t believe in creationism, and it prohibits any sort of same-sex relationships and support thereof. Since I can’t in good conscience donate to the school, and any effort made to possibly discuss why with my nephew could result in another prohibition from interacting with my nephews and niece one on one, would it be petty to make donations to other organizations and send those receipts and reasoning to the school? The donations are supposed to be made directly to the school anyway—I’m just debating whether to inform the school and/or my nephew why I won’t be contributing.
A: Just don’t send a donation! You don’t have to pretend to share your relatives’ conservative religious outlook, but sending notifications of antagonistic donations to the school doesn’t strike me as productive. Your nephew is 14, he’s not personally responsible for his school’s anti-evolution and anti-gay practices, and you’re worried that pressing the issue may result in his parents barring you from seeing him or his siblings again—so just ignore the letter. Ideally (especially given the present economic situation), your nephew and his parents will understand if you don’t have spare cash to fund nonessentials like new lockers for his high school and won’t press the issue. If they do press, you can either say just that it’s not in your budget or that you don’t share the school’s values. If you don’t want to wait to be prompted, and you want to say briefly, “I can’t in good conscience donate to a school that opposes my values,” you definitely can. But there’s a difference between giving an honest answer and forwarding receipts for counterdonations.
Certainly if you can afford it and you feel so moved, make as many donations as you like to whatever organizations you do support! But it’s not going to hurt the school’s feelings, or change its anti-gay stance, or improve your relationship with your nephew, if you forward the school your donation receipts. Think of it this way: You’d like the opportunity to have a productive conversation with your nephew at some point about creationism, homophobia, and secularism. Starting it by saying, “I’ve sent a bunch of charitable receipts to your principal” isn’t going to help you with that conversation. I hope that when you do have it with him, he’s open-minded and willing to listen.
Q. Re: Gifting: Please, I beg of everyone, do not assume things about all only children! Certainly not all siblings are great at sharing and remembering giving gifts. Can we please get past the idea that all only children are a certain way and that it’s sad not to have sibling? People are individuals and there are strengths and weaknesses to anything. I am an only child; I give gifts; kindness and thoughtfulness were watchwords in my household and were instilled in me. Have you talked to your son about the fact that you feel neglected?
A: Oh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t quite known what to make of the “only child” parenthetical at the end of the letter, and I see your point that the implication seems to have been that this was a result of him not having siblings. I’m of your party here. I don’t think this is a problem unique to only children and I do think it would have been more than fine for the letter writer and her husband to have had a conversation with their son a long time ago about wanting to receive something, even just a card or a call, on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and birthdays.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.
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From How to Do It
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Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.