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Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Happy Tuesday, everyone! Let’s chat.
Q. Not-so-studious sister: My younger sister is trying to finish her bachelor’s degree. (School doesn’t come easily to her.) My dad is pressuring me to take some classes on her behalf to help push her finish. This feels wrong. How do I politely decline? Or, should I help?
A: I don’t think it would help push your sister to finish if you took classes on her behalf. More importantly, if any of her professors found out, she could face serious penalties and possibly even expulsion. If she needs extensions, additional counseling, extra help from her school’s writing center, etc., then the school has a number of resources she can tap into that will help her far better than you can. This is wrong, and it could actually hurt her; you should definitely decline. I realize it can be difficult to say “No” to a parent, especially one who’s already pressuring you, but it’s worth doing here. If he pushes back or keeps trying to convince you, stress the possible negative consequences: “I’m not willing to do anything that would risk her student status, and she could be penalized or expelled for this. I’m sorry, but this wouldn’t actually help her, and might very well hurt her.”
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Q. Trapped and trans: After years of self-hate and repression I finally came out to myself as trans earlier this year. I mustered the courage to tell a couple of my close friends, but then the coronavirus happened, my college campus closed, and I had to move across the country and back into my childhood home with my family. Now that I’ve finally reached some degree of self-acceptance, it feels unbearable to keep hiding this part of myself, but everything I was hoping to do—bring this up with my therapist, come out to more friends, seek out trans support groups or community—is now complicated by the fact that I live with my parents. We’re in a small house with little privacy in a crowded area, and I know they can overhear my conversations if they want to. I think they’d probably be supportive, but obviously I don’t want them finding out by accident, and I really don’t feel prepared to come out to them now and to deal with all their questions and concerns while this new part of me still feels very vulnerable.
Do I have any options here? Text or email seem like really blunt and impersonal ways to tell people I love, “Hey! Everything you thought you knew about me is a lie!” And considering the overwhelming anxiety I feel about this whole process, I think I need to talk through my feelings with my therapist or just anyone who’s been where I am now. Should I try to wait this pandemic out? Come out to my parents prematurely and try to handle the aftermath? Talk with my therapist and cross my fingers that no one overhears? Each option feels scary right now, and I really don’t know what to do.
A: In the short term, and if it’s safe for you to do so, can you schedule phone sessions with your therapist while you’re out taking a walk so you don’t have to worry about being overheard? You mention that your neighborhood is crowded, so I realize this isn’t ideal and doesn’t completely diminish the risk of being overheard, although there is less risk associated with a stranger walking past you than there is with a parent in the next room. Giving yourself time to process your thoughts with a therapist seems like a good move to me, as does waiting until you have a bit more distance and privacy to discuss the transition with your parents. I also hope you don’t feel like you have to say something like “Everything you thought you knew about me is a lie” in order to come out. Obviously you know your own pre-transition life better than I do, so if that’s an accurate representation of how you feel about it, I don’t want to dissuade you from speaking honestly. But it’s not necessarily or inherently the case that, just because you used to understand yourself as a cis person and know you’ve realized you want to transition, everything that came before this new understanding was a lie, or fraudulent, or necessarily wrong. You don’t have to apologize for “deceiving” anyone.
I think the key here is that you say you “really don’t feel prepared” to come out to your parents right now, and to that extent you should focus your energy on confidential conversations with your therapist and/or other trans people. Even if you weren’t thinking about transition right now, you’d still be entitled to a reasonable amount of privacy and alone time while living temporarily with your parents. I think sometimes it can feel like “Now that I’ve realized I want to transition, if I don’t tell everyone who loves me about it within a week, it means I’m selfishly withholding crucial information they need to know about right now, and I’ll have to apologize for it later.” But that’s actually not the case: You’re just beginning to come to terms with something that you’re not yet prepared to share with your parents. The fact you’re living at home right now makes things complicated, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re a young adult who’s entitled to imagine various possibilities, plan for your own future, and determine your own identity without immediately running it past your parents for approval. I wish you all the best in carving out time to think about transition and in eventually finding a way to discuss it with your family when you’re not living cheek to jowl.
Q. Wife messaging abusive ex: My wife of nine years told me she needed to reach out to her abusive and controlling ex to try to get closure. I said OK. When I noticed that the passcode on her phone had changed, I got into her messenger and saw their messages. She told him he was her one chance at true love and her soul mate, and that she missed sex with him. I told her she couldn’t have a husband and a soul mate and that she should take time to figure it out. She said she wanted me. The day after couples counseling, she texted him again with a lot of the same things. I found out a week later. She said it was just online and that she sent him a final message about how great I am and how he was a mistake. It’s been two months, but I still feel insecure about our love. She doesn’t want to talk about it anymore; neither does the marriage counselor. But I’m still insecure and I feel like it’s not all me being “too insecure.” Is it rational to doubt your wife after having that happen twice?
A: Let’s leave aside the question of rationality for the moment and focus on this part: “When I noticed the passcode on her phone had changed, I got into her messenger and saw their messages.” It doesn’t sound like you’ve apologized to her for violating her privacy, nor does it sound like you’ve discussed in couples counseling your decision to break into her phone when you noticed she’d changed her passcode. That’s pretty salient, I think, and it’s not a great sign that your wife can trust you, either. What was going through your mind in that moment? How did you justify your decision to violate her privacy, and why did you decide to do that instead of asking her about it? If you don’t trust your wife to tell you the truth in general, what’s your plan—to read her text messages in secret every couple of weeks to make sure she’s not lying to you? Does that seem like the kind of marriage you envisioned when you two first got together?
I don’t bring all that up to minimize the pain your wife has caused you. And I agree that it’s rational to doubt your wife’s word when she’s repeatedly lied to you about the nature of her contact with her ex. But I don’t think you’re going to get anywhere by going through her phone. It won’t actually get you what you want, which is a relationship in which honesty and trust predominate. I’m not sure why your marriage counselor no longer wants to discuss these incidents. But without insisting you all go back and relitigate those specific text messages, I think it’s crucial that you two figure out how you can deal with uncertainty, suspicion, and complicated desires together, because reading your wife’s messages is no substitute for knowing your wife’s mind, and letting her know what’s going on in yours.
Q. Spend some peace of mind to save some money? My lease is ending soon, and I’ve been looking to rent a house next, since I have a dog. But signing a contract for a year just to be close to an office that’s closed for at least another few months is hard to swallow. This is where my parents come in. I’m an only child, and they’ve been angling for me to move home since my long-term relationship ended two years ago. They say now is the perfect time. I wouldn’t need to pay rent, and I am fortunate enough to still have my job. I’d get to spend time with my aging parents and pay down some debt. I know how lucky I am.
Here’s where I’m struggling: My parents hate each other. Each of them will complain to me about the other when given the chance, until I explicitly ask them to stop. My dad can be especially brutal toward my mom, usually stopping just short of calling her names. It’s exhausting to watch, especially as I recognize traits they dislike in one another in myself. I often feel as though they want me to join in on trashing the other. When I have tried to talk to them about this, they agree it’s inappropriate in the moment but then quickly slide back into the same patterns the next time I see them.
I know my parents are eager to spend more time with me, and I know they want desperately for me to escape some familial financial patterns, but I can’t help feeling like what they really want is a distraction from each other. Am I looking a gift horse in the mouth by being nervous about the emotional load of being around them 24/7? Or is there something to my instinct to keep our households separate?
A: This is not a gift horse. You would be paying for this “free rent” in a hundred other ways, all of them exhausting, demoralizing, and fruitless, and I think you would be desperate to find a living situation you only had to contribute money toward after about a week. If it’s possible to renew your current lease (maybe on a month-to-month basis if you want to keep your options open), I think that’s your best bet. Otherwise, check with your friends to see if any of them are looking for new roommates, or look for an affordable home to rent somewhere in your own city. The fact that your parents have been angling for you to move back home for two years just because you went through a breakup doesn’t bode well. That’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with living with your parents, but you certainly don’t seem to want to live with them, and based on the household dynamic you’ve described, I wouldn’t want to live with them either. I agree with your suspicion that they want you in the house not only because they miss the pleasure of your company but because they want to rope a third party into their nonstop production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? You say you don’t want to repeat “familial financial patterns,” but you don’t say you’re in unmanageable debt or in danger of being unable to pay your bills. If you have any other options besides living with your parents, pursue those.
Q. Love letters: Last year my husband had an affair (four to five months long). I found a book of romantic poetry that she gave him. After I confronted him, he ended it. He has recommitted himself to me, our marriage, and our family. He tells me that I’m his whole world and he can’t believe he jeopardized our marriage. I believe him. We’ve had the help of an amazing therapist, and we’re moving forward. I recently found that poetry book again, and another, in the spare tire space in the trunk of his car (which I borrowed with his knowledge). The books have love notes inserted between the pages. She says that talking to him “makes her heart so full it might burst” and how kissing him under a cherry tree “right next to his memories” was “some kind of magic.” I am gutted. Her notes paint an emotional affair, and I am traumatized all over again. A physical affair hurts, but the idea he shared memories that were created with me by his side (something I can discern from context) is so much more unbearable. Can I destroy them?
A: You can destroy the books and notes, but I don’t think that will destroy the pain you’re feeling now. You say you’ve been “moving forward” in therapy, which may have something to do with why you feel reluctant to bring up what you’ve found now—this feels like a real step backward, like all of your propulsive efforts up to this point have been wasted. That’s understandable, but I hope you won’t bottle up your honest reaction to this painful revelation in the interests of forward momentum. You’ve learned more about the nature of this affair and the ways in which it wasn’t just sex, and it all hurts in a brand-new way. That doesn’t mean you can’t still commit to rebuilding your marriage if that remains your goal; it’s possible for you to honestly share your grief, hurt, and anger, for him to listen, apologize, and slowly rebuild trust, and for the two of you to find a way to try to heal together. But for healing to be possible, you both have to know the extent of the wound.
Q. Mask offender: In late April an old friend of mine from high school (we weren’t close) posted a picture of her 13-month-old son on social media wearing a face mask, with a comment in his “voice” that he loves wearing it. The CDC guidelines say no children under 2 can wear face masks because they can suffocate. Without thinking, I responded to her privately saying the dangers of a baby wearing it per the CDC. A few days later I got a two-page response deriding me for claiming she was an unfit mother, that she doesn’t care what the CDC says, that she knows her child better than the CDC does, that I should be ashamed for offering unsolicited parenting advice, and that I’m cruel and judgmental. I apologized profusely because I never intended it that way, but I was worried (and still am) about her son.
Was I way out of line to mention the CDC recommendations? I cannot imagine him suffocating because he cannot take off the mask and cannot communicate that because he’s so small. I also would never want people to think I’m criticizing their parenting. I doubt I can patch things up with this acquaintance, but in the future is it really inappropriate to share what the CDC is saying, even if a small child’s life could be in danger?
A: I can understand your reluctance to criticize someone else’s parenting, especially when it’s someone you don’t know especially well and haven’t talked to very much in years. But you didn’t write her a message saying, “You’re a terrible mother and your child is going to die”—you politely alerted her to something you had reason to believe she didn’t already know. I imagine many parents, even very conscientious ones, might not have known the CDC had an age recommendation for mask wearing. I think you’re right that this particular conversation is pretty much finished, and I doubt you’d be able to get your former friend to listen to you again. But while it’s possible you could have couched your message in more delicate terms, I don’t think you spoke to her rudely or were wrong to bring those guidelines to her attention, and I hope that in a more reflective moment she’s able to reassess her mask strategy.
Q. Re: Wife messaging abusive ex: By going through the wife’s messages, the letter writer did find something constructive, finding out that his wife lied about her reasons for messaging someone she calls “an abusive ex.” When confronted she just messaged more of the same crap and then claimed that she’d sent a final goodbye message. While I normally agree that going through a partner’s phone is not the way to build trust, the wife already broke that trust when she told her ex that she missed sex with him and he was her soul mate and last shot at true love.
A: To be clear, I don’t think the letter writer should apologize for going through her phone by saying, “Since I shouldn’t have done that, I’ll pretend I didn’t see what I saw,” or by putting on a hair shirt. Nor do I think he should try to equivocate the two—him going through her phone doesn’t cancel out what she’s hidden from him. But I do think it’s appropriate to say: “I shouldn’t have gone through your phone. It was a moment of weakness, and I’m sorry I violated your privacy. But I can’t unsee what I saw, and I think it’s clear that there’s been a real breakdown of trust that started before I looked, and I want to talk about that too.”
Q. Re: Wife messaging abusive ex: “She doesn’t want to talk about it anymore; neither does the marriage counselor.” Can the letter writer and wife start going to a different marriage counselor? If they can’t or won’t, then the letter writer needs to find a counselor they can go to and with whom they feel comfortable discussing what they need to discuss.
A: I think that’s worthwhile! I do wish I knew more about why the counselor has deemed that subject unproductive or off-limits. But I certainly don’t think you have to abide by that particular counselor’s ruling, and if I were in the letter writer’s position and felt like the very subject we needed to seek counseling on was forbidden, I’d look for a new counselor too.
Q. Re: Love letters and Wife messaging abusive ex: I’m wondering why you took the texting wife’s husband to task about violating his wife’s privacy but don’t have an issue with the cheating husband’s wife reading hidden love letters and even destroying them!
A: Certainly. The former went through his wife’s phone because he saw that she had changed her password; the latter found the book by accident when she went to grab a spare tire. Those are two very different circumstances.
I do disagree with the idea that I “took him to task” for it. I think what his wife did was far more destructive to their shared trust than what he did, and I think he still has every right to be upset and feel betrayed. I just also think he should have done something else with his suspicion and uncertainty in that moment. Given that he already snooped, I don’t think he has to pretend she’s in the right and he’s in the wrong, or beat himself up. But I think he’ll be better-served in the future by finding alternatives to deciding to snoop.
When it comes to someone who comes across an obvious gift from a former lover through the ordinary course of trying to change a tire, and given that a book of love poetry isn’t nearly as crucial to someone’s day-to-day life as a smartphone, I think the circumstances are sufficiently different to warrant a different response. I suppose my ultimate “take” on snooping is that there are times when the temptation is sufficient to overwhelm most reasonable people and there are times when it’s a very conscious and unnecessary decision; generally I don’t think it contributes to the flourishing of trust, but it’s not necessarily an unforgivable sin, especially if it only happens once. But I do think it’s important not to think of snooping as a solution to uncertainty or mistrust, but a symptom.
Q. My son found nude photos of me as a teenager: My 14-year-old son recently came across some Polaroid pictures of me that his father took of me back when we were 14—we have been together for a long time and got married when I was pregnant with my son. The pictures were in an old shoebox filled with baseball cards and other adolescent memories. The problem is that the pictures are nude shots! You can’t really tell that the pictures are of me, as my appearance has changed pretty dramatically since I was 14—hair color change, weight difference, boobs, etc. My son came to me really worried with the concern that his father was potentially hoarding teenage porn. I didn’t directly tell him that the pictures were of me, but assured him that his father didn’t look at or keep teenage porn and that I would speak to him about it. But should I be more direct? Which is worse, thinking your father has kiddie porn or knowing that you just saw a 14-year-old version of your mother naked? Read what Prudie had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.