Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Good afternoon, everyone! Let’s get together and solve some problems.
Q. Sex dream from hell: I’m a happily married woman, and I’ve known my best friend since childhood—we tell each other pretty much everything. The other night, I had a very vivid sex dream about her. This has never happened before, and I woke up very disoriented and uncomfortable; not only was I sleeping next to my husband, but historically I’ve never been attracted to my best friend. That has not changed since the dream. She’s one of my favorite people ever, but no thanks.
The problem is I can’t stop thinking about it, not in a sexy way. Frankly, I’m creeped out—I do not like that I had this dream about someone other than my significant other, especially someone I’m so emotionally close with. My husband adores my best friend and vice versa, but given the circumstances it almost feels like I’m cheating on both of them. Normally I’d talk this through with my best friend or my husband, but I don’t want to make either of them uncomfortable. Do you think this means anything, and should I try to talk to them about it?
A: I think dreams can have a number of possibly meaningful interpretations, not because there’s a particular message the sleeping mind is trying to send the conscious mind but because our reactions to our dreams can carry real insight. You dreamed about a type of intimacy with a very close friend whom you don’t want to pursue in your waking life. Your discomfort right now stems from the fear that some part of you must actually want something that makes you feel alienated, turned off, and creeped out (“or else why would I have dreamed it?”). But you didn’t cheat on either of them—nothing even close. You’re entitled to privately consider dreams that make you feel uncomfortable. That’s not the same thing as withholding important information, deceit, or even fantasizing (which you would still be entitled to do, if you wanted).
You might find journaling helpful, not on the subject of “Why did I dream this?” (the whole thing about dreams is the un-why-ness of them, given that they can’t be consciously planned out or controlled) but “What do I feel about my dream?” and “What do I feel about my response to my dream?” and “What do I feel about my response to my response to my dream?” and so on, until eventually the dream recedes into something less bright and immediate, less like the flashing of a secret hidden truth about you and more like part of a collection of memories/impulses/associations/combinations/fears/hopes/curiosities that run through your head every night.
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Q. Too old to be parented like this: I’m a 22-year-old graduate student who recently moved back home due to the coronavirus crisis. I brought my boyfriend with me to stay, which I’ve never done before. We have a guest suite with a bedroom, bathroom, and living room that he’s staying in. My mother has not had a single conversation with him since we’ve been here and hasn’t even thanked him for everything he’s done to pitch in around the house, including making dinner almost every night and cleaning up every day. Today, she pulled me aside and told me that I couldn’t be in his room with the door shut. I was livid. I told her that she’s being ridiculous. She “compromised” that I can shut the door if I promise not to ever have sex and to never sleep overnight there. I’m too old for her to be monitoring my private life and I’m outraged by her expectations. She said that it’s “disgusting” that I’d have sexual relations with someone before marriage and that she can’t tolerate wondering if that’s happening in her house. I’m fortunate enough to have the means to move out (I’m financially independent, and I’m only staying with my parents due to the coronavirus upheaval), but I’m wondering, is there any public health obligation to stay put for now? I’d be moving with my boyfriend to an apartment where we’d of course continue to socially distance from others. If I do have a moral obligation to stay put for now, how in the world can I deal with her? How do I balance “it’s her house” with my autonomy and appropriate boundaries?
A: If you’re able to visit and secure an apartment without coming into unnecessary direct contact with others—if it’s financially possible, if management is willing to do a semidistant key handoff and/or remote tour of the place, if you’re able to move your own stuff without needing to hire movers or ask multiple friends to be in an enclosed space at the same time—then that’s great, and you should certainly go for it. Living with someone who’s so horrified by the mere possibility of premarital sex that she’s unable to have a civil conversation with the person who’s making her dinner every night sounds pretty unbearable, and I’m not surprised you want to get out of there as quickly as possible. Good luck!
Q. People keep congratulating me on my friend’s death: Over the past few years, I became friends with a neighbor, a widow who lived alone and had no close family. I am in my late 20s and she was 70, but we had many hobbies in common and would have long chats nearly every day. This wasn’t some good deed—I liked her! Earlier this year, she had an aneurysm. I rode with her in the ambulance and held her hand while she died. It was awful. In a stunning act of kindness, she willed me her house. It’s a beautiful but very unusual property, and she knew that I adored it while her distant family decidedly did not.
I have spent most of my adult life poor enough to have to skip meals and have lived in dangerous situations because I couldn’t afford to leave. I am hugely grateful and touched, and I’m aware of how many other people don’t have the stable home I now have. But I am grieving, and boxing up her things in order to move in my own has been incredibly painful. And, Prudie, people keep congratulating me! Word has gotten around about why I’m moving, and virtually everyone I know feels the need to tell me how fantastic this is. (If it matters, they are mostly financially comfortable and are not aware of how bad things have been for me.) One person went so far as to tell me I must have great karma. It’s clear they think of her death purely as a windfall for me. What do I say in response to these odd comments? They leave me wordless and missing my friend.
A: “I can appreciate that you mean well, but right now I just really miss my friend, and it doesn’t help to try to look on the bright side of her death.” If this is someone you’re close with, and you want to have a slightly more in-depth conversation about how much you miss your old neighbor, or what else is going on in your life, or how your friend can better support you right now, feel free. But if this is just a tone-deaf acquaintance who needs to be politely corrected on how not to discuss your inheritance, you can simply leave it at that and change the subject.
Q. What’s my loyalty? My firm just sent out a notice about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, as it is required by law to do. I feel like a lot of my colleagues, including some direct reports, stand to benefit from exercising their right to paid leave in order to care for children whose schools and day cares are closed. But I can tell my employer would prefer that employees not take advantage of that program because it would be costly for our firm (which admittedly is in danger of bankruptcy because of COVID-19 disruptions). I’m part of the management team. What is my ethical obligation here? Should I make sure that eligible employees know that they may want to consider taking this leave, even if I know my employer would prefer that I stay silent to reduce uptake?
A: Your ethical obligation is to make sure every eligible employee knows about this leave, and to encourage them to take it. What an easy question!
Q. After coming out: I’ve been out as queer for many years, and though it’s been a difficult road, I couldn’t be happier with who I am becoming. My mother’s family consists of devout evangelical Christians, and I was raised as such. It’s complicated! I have a lot of religious trauma! My aunt used to be my hero, until she threatened to cut me off financially, ignored my coming out (multiple times), and sent me an article from a hate group when I opened up about discrimination I’ve faced (I was fired on the spot after coming out). I sat down and wrote her a heartfelt letter inviting her to know me as I am, without seeing me as aberrant or in need of correction. Her reply was awful. She first denied she ever sent the article, then called me empty and a bad person due to my chronic depression. She urged me to pray and repent from my sins so I could be healed from my brokenness. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, I guess. I’ve blocked her, and I don’t want to speak to her again unless things change. As I told my parents, I can have a relationship with someone who does not understand my identity, but I cannot have it with someone who doesn’t respect my boundaries.
She lives with my grandmother, who was at least compassionate when I told her about my job and came out. My grandmother isn’t taking my side in this, though. The last time we spoke, she was adamant that my aunt loved me and that I needed to talk to her because “she was hurting.” Which I didn’t do. I assume this is at least partially because they live together. But I hurt too, and no one seems to acknowledge that.
Is there any way to have a relationship with my grandmother but not my aunt? I don’t see a way forward here that involves one and not the other, but I know it’s sometimes harder to solve these things from the inside.
A: I think the line you’ve drawn (“I can work with someone who doesn’t understand my identity but not with someone who sends messages from hate groups or believes I’m inherently broken and in need of corrective therapy”) is an excellent one. The tricky part, as you know, is figuring out how to categorize someone who falls into the category of “defends people who send messages from hate groups and believe I’m inherently broken,” someone who thinks your aunt’s “hurt feelings” over your identity are somehow equivalent to your hurt feelings over being ignored, demeaned, berated, and condemned. If you think it will be possible to maintain occasional, not-in-person contact with your grandmother without her attempting to force you to speak to your aunt, and you feel emotionally prepared to maintain that relationship, you certainly have my permission to do so. But if you think it would be too painful for you, or that your grandmother would try to turn those conversations into guilt trips about how sad your aunt is that you’ve acknowledged her bigotry, then it would be perfectly appropriate to recognize the choice your grandmother has already made: to be polite to your face when you came out, but to defend and support others who hate you for coming out. You say that you “hurt too,” but I don’t think that’s actually the case. I think you’re the only one who’s been hurt here. I don’t believe your aunt has actually suffered because you were fired for coming out; I believe she’s bigoted and homophobic and just savvy enough to weaponize the language of “hurt” in order to force you to take responsibility for her homophobic cruelty. If your grandmother finds that argument persuasive, then I think what might have looked like “support” at first was actually just softness. She’s as homophobic as your aunt. She’s just a little more two-faced about it.
Q. Looking for a way out of anger: A year ago, my ex sat me down and said that I “deserved better” without providing further explanation. Devastation is an understatement. He moved out the next day saying that he needed time, while also coming in and out of my life at his convenience. We ceased contact after he ignored my requests to either explain his reasons or to stop contacting me about nonbreakup-related issues. I now think he lied to me about being divorced from the mother of his child, a lie possible to maintain due to geography. I am incensed by this—by what he did to me and what he did to his wife. I am even more angry about how he is justifying it to himself. Therapy aside, is it a good idea if I write him a letter stating my feelings? I don’t think I would need a response. This eats at me almost every day and I am looking for a way out.
A: Sure, you can write him a letter! I feel like someone in my position is supposed to say something like “Don’t waste any more time and energy on this guy who clearly didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about your feelings,” but you strike me as a fairly decent candidate for writing such a letter—partly because you’re prepared not to get a response, and partly because you describe your feelings reasonably and rationally in your letter to me, so I’m not worried you’re about to go hog-wild and send something like “I hope you step on razor blades every day for the rest of your miserable life, you scum.” The one thing I’d caution you against doing is including anger on behalf of his wife in your letter; you have perfectly legitimate grounds for discussing your own anger about the things you know that he did. But you don’t actually know whether he lied to the mother of his child or how she feels about it, so stay on solid territory and stick to speaking about yourself.
I also think it will be good to come up with a backup plan for the very real possibility that this letter isn’t a permanent way out. What if you write it and send it and never hear back, and it still eats at you every day? What if you write it and send it and receive a response that makes you even angrier than you were before? What’s your strategy for acknowledging and honoring your own anger and cultivating satisfaction in your own life regardless of how your ex behaves? Writing and sending the letter may help a little or a lot, may do nothing, may make things slightly worse at least for a while. That’s where that “therapy aside” line might come back in handy.
Q. Socially distant therapy: Our family has become socially distant. I’ve been working from home for years, and my husband is an essential service, so the only thing different in my day to day is my teenage daughter being home. Prudie, my daughter is amazing. She’s kind and loving and helps around the house. She also battles anxiety and depression, with suicidal ideations resulting from abuse in her formative years. Luckily, she has a therapist who is conducting sessions via video chat.
What’s the problem, you ask? She’s decided the best place to have these sessions is in the living room while we, the parents, are present! I know that this probably sounds irrational, but listening to her tell her therapist her dark thoughts makes me really uncomfortable. I’m also afraid that she’s unconsciously using this as an excuse to not tell her therapist everything since “Mom’s in the room.” I’ve asked her to go upstairs to the office or my bedroom, but she always “forgets” when the time comes. How do I help my daughter get the help she needs while also not contributing to my own anxiety about the situation?
A: This is entirely within your control to fix, and you have every reason to want to fix it! If your daughter forgets to move into a different room when the time for therapy comes, remind her. Hopefully it won’t come to this, but if need be you should have the support of her therapist, who surely doesn’t want eavesdroppers (even unwilling ones) in the middle of a session and can agree to wait to start a session until your daughter is truly alone. You can certainly ask your daughter if there’s something about the living room that feels particularly helpful to her as a therapeutic space (maybe it gets the best light in the house or has the most comfortable place to sit); if so, you and your husband might be able to avoid being in the living room for an hour a week. If nothing else works, announce to your daughter and her therapist that you’re leaving the room for the duration of their session and find a private place of your own for the next hour. But you really don’t have to resort to that. Just tell her, kindly, to leave the room when her therapist calls.
Q. Re: Looking for a way out of anger: As someone who went through a similar set of circumstances, and who did write such a letter, I would advise you not to unless you are prepared for him to use it as an excuse to contact you and then keep on contacting you. While there was the initial gratification of seeing my ex so hurt by my detailed letter of his abuses toward me, the whole thing didn’t end up doing much good. For almost an entire year, he used the letter as a reason to keep reaching out even after I told him to stop.
Write it, feel every bit of rage/sadness/whatever, and then let it go. Unfortunately, some lessons are very devastating. In the end, this exact move did far more harm to my moving on than good.
A: Thank you so much for sharing this painful lesson with us. I hope it helps the letter writer to hear from someone who’s been in such a similar situation. I think the most important possible result of writing a letter would be the chance to construct a meaningful narrative for herself; to sort through her desires, fears, and resentments; and to attempt to make sense of her own experience of that relationship. You don’t have to send the letter for that to happen.
Q. Re: Looking for a way out of anger: No, no, no, no, no. Do not write a letter. Do not call. Do not send an email. Do not send a telegram, singing or otherwise. This guy is out of your life. Open a line of communication again, and he’ll use that as a way to creep back in.
A: It’s worth noting most of the replies coming in on this topic are along the same lines—namely, not to send that letter.
Q. My boyfriend has a tattoo rating every woman he’s slept with: I recently discovered that the unfinished rosary-like tattoo on my boyfriend’s back gets one new pearl for every girl he sleeps with or dates. He “gave” me four pearls on his back as a “surprise present” for our second year together. Before, I always assumed it was a religious tattoo (he has a lot of tattoos) and never asked, but he volunteered info on almost all the others. So when he did the “surprise” I thought he was joking and just wanted pearls. I laughed. Then I was incredulous. He’s got his sexual and dating history on a rosary on his back, come on. He took it very badly (four pearls is the most any girl got, apparently) and won’t talk to me until I apologize. We’re in our mid-20s, and we’re good together, but am I wrong to think this is a red flag or do I lack empathy? Read what Prudie had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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