Dear Prudence

A Former Student Confessed Her Love for Me

She later emailed to say she is embarrassed about “what happened between us” but wants to keep in touch.

Young woman holding her head in her hands with an older man looking serious
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Ivan Aleksic/Unsplash.

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Dear Prudence,

I am a happily married 47-year-old teacher. Every couple of years, former students get in touch to ask me to lunch or coffee. If they’ve graduated at least five years ago, I usually go. This also happens to my colleagues, and they have similar policies. I always have a nice catch-up session, and I’ve never had an unprofessional or romantic relationship with a student. Last month, my former student “Rachel” (in her mid-20s) contacted me to ask for coffee. I hadn’t spoken to her since I taught her 10th grade science class, and I didn’t know her very well then.

She showed up in a very emotional state, said she had just taken drugs, then declared her love for me. She started crying and said she wanted me to leave my wife. I was extremely taken aback and was trying to keep her calm, so I did not explicitly turn her down (which I should have done), but I think I conveyed through my body language and my rapid exit that I was not interested. I was thoroughly freaked out. Rachel has since emailed me to say she has been in therapy and is embarrassed about “what happened between us,” but she also wants to keep in touch. It’s only been a month. I don’t feel comfortable keeping in touch, and I don’t want to put myself at professional risk by engaging further with her. At the same time, I feel sorry for her because she is clearly vulnerable and I feel some duty of care toward her. I’m not sure if I should ignore her completely or send some sort of response wishing her the best but making it clear that I don’t want to continue the correspondence. I told my wife, and she was the one who suggested I write to you for advice. What is the kindest thing to do here?

—Freaked-Out Faculty

The kindest thing you can do is to acknowledge you are not in a position to help this poor woman. She sounds like she’s in a great deal of distress, and your compassion for her is admirable. But she’s already demonstrated an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality and has behaved erratically toward you in both public and private. You’re not her friend, you’re not her teacher, and you’re not her therapist. You’re not meaningfully a part of her life in any way, and the connection she believes the two of you share does not exist. There’s nothing you can give her besides space. You know that she’s currently in therapy, which is good news and means that she’s already seeing someone who’s professionally equipped to help her in ways you simply can’t.

Before deciding whether to respond to her email, speak to your head of department at school. Update them on the situation; outline your concerns, should she attempt to escalate things in order to force a response from you; and ask for institutional support if you need to take further steps to protect yourself. Once you’ve done that, if you decide to write back, make it clear you don’t return her feelings, and tell her not to contact you again. You should prepare for the possibility that any rejection, however kindly worded, may lead her to act out further. If that’s the case, remind yourself that doing nothing will be the best outcome for both her and you.

Dear Prudence,

My in-laws recently moved to our city and live close by in a nice condo. They ask to (actually, inform us that they plan to) stay at our house when we are out of town. I believe they think of it as a kind of vacation. I think that this is weird and unnecessary. (We do not have any pets, children, or plants that require sitting.) That’s my main hang-up—it’s just not necessary for them to be in our space. My husband says we have no good reason to say no. I can definitely name some reasons, not the least of which is preparing a home for guests, but is it enough to simply value our privacy? If so, how do we communicate this to them? I don’t want to create an expectation that our home is available to them as a kind of hotel whenever it’s empty.

—Not a Hotel

I imagine this problem is at least slightly theoretical for now, but here’s hoping one day you’ll have to worry about in-laws inviting themselves over again. Your husband believes that he cannot say no to his parents unless he has an exceptional reason for doing so. You believe that not wanting to give someone else free rein of your house is a good enough reason to say no. I am very much of your party when it comes to this sort of thing!

The most important goal is to find common ground you and your husband can agree upon, because it won’t do you much good to say no to your in-laws if you know your husband is going to cave and say yes when they ask him next. But if you can impress upon him that the responsibility for preparing the house for guests falls upon him if he wants to say yes, you may find he’s more willing to compromise. (And even if he doesn’t, at least you don’t have to get the house ready anymore.) Is he willing to meet you halfway and agree upon a yearly limit on these “housesitting” vacations? Would he be more flexible if you were willing to be the bad guy and pass that no on to his parents? He might be more amenable if you put it like this: “I know you think we need a really good reason to say no to your parents. You may not weigh this as heavily as I do, but I find it intrusive and unnerving that they assume our place is available to them automatically whenever we leave town. There’s a lot of work that goes into getting the house ready for guests, which means extra work for us every time we need to leave town. I want to be able to set our own limits with our respective parents, not just say yes to whatever they want from us. These reasons are real, and they matter to me, even if you don’t hold them in the same importance.”

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Dear Prudence,

About a year ago, I moved in with my partner after spending much of my 20s living alone. I have been struggling to articulate a problem I’ve been having for quite a while regarding meals. My partner is a very tall, active man who eats about three times as much as I do. I’m short and petite, and I’ve gained a substantial amount of weight since we moved in together. I know that’s not uncommon in long-term relationships, and I’m trying to deal with it appropriately. But every night when I get home from work, the first question is “What are we eating?”

He expects us to have a full, traditional dinner seven nights a week. My go-to supper of chicken and veggies isn’t enough for him. Sometimes, if I’ve eaten a big lunch, I don’t want much of anything for dinner, but I feel pressured to cave and cook what he wants or order in, essentially eating a meal I wasn’t hungry enough for in the first place. I know managing dinner is stressful across many households for many reasons, but to have it also be at odds with my own needs is pushing me over the edge. I’m not happy with so much tension centering on what should be a bonding occasion at the table. I know factually that I am responsible for the bites I take and my weight gain is no one’s fault but mine, but am I relegated to making two separate dinners for the rest of my life? Should I tell him to make his own dinner?

—Feeling Force-Fed

First, I hope you can learn to part with language like “I know factually that I am responsible for the bites I take.” That kind of punitive thinking around food and body size leaves little room for eating for pleasure or thinking of one’s body as anything other than a machine that is either working correctly (and staying thin) or malfunctioning (and gaining weight). That’s not to say it’s wrong to want to lose weight or that you have to eat meals you aren’t hungry for! But you seem inclined to be harsh with yourself for a perfectly understandable series of problems that many people have difficulty with—how to live with someone else, how to push back against a partner’s expectations, how to resist pressure to eat more than one wants to under the guise of “sociability,” and so on. You also say that this is your own fault but then ask if the solution is to make two separate dinners for the rest of your life. Why are you blaming yourself for both your and your boyfriend’s part in this situation? How can both his behavior and yours be your fault at the same time? It might be worth asking yourself why your go-to solution is to blame and punish yourself.

Talk about this problem with your boyfriend. He expects you to cook for him, and it doesn’t sound like he ever offers to cook for you in return. Have you ever told him that you want to cook for him every night? Is the “pressure to cave” primarily internal—something you can share with him so he can help you work through it? Or is it primarily external, and he’s going out of his way to push you into cooking and eating when you don’t want to? If the main problem is that your boyfriend is unaware of how difficult this is for you and he’s merely been thoughtless in assuming you’re “happy” to take on the the responsibility for getting dinner ready, it may be that you two can find more satisfactory compromises. But if the problem is that he expects you to alter your own habits to make life easier for him, regardless of how inconvenient or unpleasant that makes things for you, it may be time for a larger conversation about what he can reasonably ask of you.

Help! My Boyfriend Acted Carelessly and Got COVID-19.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Monika Tomsinski on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

Subscribe to the Dear Prudence Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dear Prudence,

About two years ago, after years of abuse, I decided to cut my father out of my life. It was the right decision, and I’m very happy with the results. However, I recently decided to move back to my hometown because I got an incredible job there working in the arts. I’ve reconnected with old friends, and I’m really excited to build my life here again and reclaim the city for myself. My new job involves fundraising and event planning in some of my stepmother’s professional and social circles. She’s my father’s third wife and a very well-to-do schmoozer and networker. I may presumably have to raise funds from people she knows.

My worst anxieties have me thinking about two terrible scenarios: one where someone I’m working with recognizes my last name and asks me about my father or his wife, and one where they’re actually involved in an event I’m hosting.  Every time someone mentions my father to me, I struggle to keep calm. And when I’ve been in situations where I’ve accidentally ended up in the same room as him post-estrangement, I’ve had full-on panic attacks. My city is big, but not that big, and I’m sure it’ll come up eventually. Should I lie and say there’s no relation? Should I say he’s my uncle? Should I just be frank? I don’t want to air my dirty laundry in a professional setting, but I struggle to think straight when it comes to my manipulative father and his equally frustrating wife.

—Struggling Already

I don’t recommend claiming not to know him or saying he’s your uncle, only because remembering those little lies likely would make you more anxious and increase your worry about what might happen if they ever found out and asked follow-up questions. If someone asks if you’re related to your father, you can reply, “Yes, we’re not close.” It’s a perfectly civil answer, and one that makes it obvious you’re not interested in follow-up questions. I do think it’s less likely to happen than you fear it will, and even if your stepmother is a fixture at galas and fundraisers, she’s not Bruce Wayne. You’ll be able to make a name for yourself in a midsize city without facing constant questions about your connection.

That said, if you’re feeling this anxious about the possibility of hearing either of their names and you’ve suffered panic attacks during previous accidental run-ins, now is a great time to speak to a therapist and/or psychiatrist about possible treatments for your anxiety, if you haven’t done so already. I don’t say that to suggest you can simply toss medication at the problem to make it go away, merely that this is causing you real, sustained distress, and you may benefit from talk therapy and/or anti-anxiety medication.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“You were panicked and flustered that someone unexpectedly announced they were high and in love with you!”
Danny Lavery and Nicole Cliffe discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I’m a lesbian in a long-term relationship with another woman. Some of our close friends introduced us to a couple they’ve befriended, and they are generally as sweet as can be. But I have been wary about getting close to them. “John” has a bunch of religiously themed tattoos, and both he and his fiancée, “Mary,” are devout Christians. John and Mary have never treated us differently than our straight friends, but I feel uneasy at the idea of getting closer for fear that they are the type who “love the sinner, hate the sin.” “Jack,” our straight male friend, thinks I’m being silly. Is there a way to find out their views without being rude or awkward? Am I being overly paranoid since they have been welcoming so far?

—New Friends

It isn’t silly to worry about homophobia, and nothing you’ve yet done or proposed to do is overly paranoid or judgmental. Many devout Christians wholeheartedly affirm and respect gay people, and other devout Christians are friendly and polite toward gay people merely because they’re savvy enough to have realized “love the sinner, hate the sin” no longer passes as acceptance in polite society. I think you’re right to consider this a problem to be addressed in the future, since there’s no pressing need to ring them up as they shelter in place and ask, “Hey, do you think my girlfriend and I are going to hell?” If, as you get to know them better, you want to ask if their church is affirming, you certainly can. “Affirming” is the key word here; plenty of churches try to dodge specific policy questions with pleasant-sounding pablum like “Jesus welcomed those who didn’t belong.” You’re asking specifically if their church affirms LGBT leadership and gay couples. It’s a personal question, to be sure, and you can certainly acknowledge the awkwardness of your position in asking, but it’s not an inherently rude one. You can take any answer that is not a clear yes as a no and decide whether you want to continue this friendship.

Dear Prudence,

My two roommates and I have worked from home since before the lockdown. They’ve always been very big on cuddling and spending time together, and so am I—with my own friends. But I am not friends with my roommates. They have been casually racist and homophobic toward me many times, though I’ve never felt comfortable calling them out. We share chores and make rent on time, so I’ve been keeping to myself and figured I’d move out in the fall.

Since the pandemic started, my roommates have amped up their efforts to make us one big happy family. They want me to join them on the couch for movie nights, to gossip about our sex lives, etc. I don’t want to. At all. It’s becoming more and more obvious that I wouldn’t want to hang out with them if they were truly the last people on earth. But the “make do and mend” spirit of the pandemic is making me wonder if I should suck it up just to make them feel happy and needed. Should I swallow my discomfort? Or am I allowed to stay in my personal space like a sullen teenager and have karaoke night with my nonhomophobic friends over Zoom?

—New Roommate Rules

There’s a real limit to how much good a “make do and mend” spirit can do, and I think you’ve found it. Don’t require constant forced cheerfulness from yourself on top of everything else right now. Doing your chores, paying rent on time, and spending time by yourself isn’t the behavior of a sullen teenager but rather a reasonable adult struggling to get by amid unpleasant circumstances. You are still entitled to privacy and to make your own decisions about your social life even though you’re living under newly constrained conditions. Cheerfully decline their invitations to gab about your sex life or join their cuddle parties with the clearest of consciences.

Classic Prudie

My boyfriend and I have been together for two years and just moved in together. We’re both 30 years old and have no plans to marry. My boyfriend’s parents won’t take no for an answer, and after we move in together they asked us when we wanted the wedding. We told them we weren’t getting married, but they complained that we were being ridiculous. This crazy argument went on for a few weeks when his parents upped the crazy by a notch. They’ve booked their church for our “wedding” for next year and have also reserved a ballroom at a large hotel (deposits are due at the end of the week). They want us to decide on a band, flowers, food, etc. We told them that they can hold the wedding, but we won’t be there. My boyfriend’s mom also gave her travel agent my phone number and she’s already left a couple of messages asking when I can come in to plan our honeymoon. This is beyond weird. What else can we do to convince them that we are not getting married? My boyfriend has been as forceful with them about this as I have, so it’s not a case of us sending mixed signals.