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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: Good afternoon, everyone! Glad to have made it another week. Let’s get started.
Q. Raiding the food pantry: My neighbor has started going to “free food giveaways” over the past few weeks. I don’t think she realizes she is going to food pantries. We are part of the military, living on base, and there are usually weekly food pantries because some service members make so little money they are on WIC/food stamps. My question is, do I say something to her about it? From many prior money conversations, I know for a fact she is not struggling financially.
A: I want to leave open the possibility that your neighbor knows perfectly well that she is going to food pantries and she has made a point of claiming to be “doing well financially” because she’s embarrassed and wants to save face. And many people who were doing well a few months ago are finding themselves in need of food pantry services for the first time in their lives. I think the odds that your neighbor is going to food pantries instead of her usual supermarket by accident are very low, and the odds that any attempt to say “Hey, did you know that bag is from a food pantry?” would humiliate and stigmatize her are very high. Better to leave well enough alone here, I think. If you are very concerned about the food-insecure right now, and you have the means to do so, why not make a donation to your local food pantry today?
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Q. Was it passive-aggressive? My daughter-in-law claims to suffer from something called “anxiety disorder,” which apparently causes her to feel uncomfortable speaking her mind for fear of being misunderstood, looking foolish, or hurting others’ feelings. Although this makes no sense to me, I try to be understanding. However, in a recent Zoom conversation, she told me that she “admires my ability to be forthright and not overly fixated on the things I say.” At the time I took it as a compliment, but later my husband told me that it was just her way of saying that I had no filter on my speech and that I’d probably insulted her earlier in the conversation. To be fair, she is easily insulted by the things I say, but I can’t imagine what I might have said that would have caused her to be so passive-aggressive. Should I address this with her? And, if so, how? Everything I say seems to rub her the wrong way.
A: I’m not so sure you’re as incapable of understanding anxiety as you claim to be! You’ve described it fairly clearly and directly here: Your daughter-in-law is sometimes afraid to speak her mind because she’s anxious about the prospect of looking foolish or hurting someone’s feelings. I don’t think you’re missing anything about the core concept of anxiety. You have contempt for it, which is not the same thing as not understanding it. Here I think it will be best for you to be guided by the old axiom of “If you don’t have anything nice to say [about someone else’s experience with anxiety], don’t say anything at all.” It’s not applicable in all situations, but I think it’s applicable here.
I don’t know if your husband’s claim that your daughter-in-law’s compliment was in fact a buried complaint is true, and I don’t think you need to assume that he’s necessarily right in how he read her statement. Two things may very well be true at the same time: It’s possible that you might sometimes (or even frequently) say things that rub her the wrong way, and it’s also possible that she might genuinely admire the ways in which you’re able to speak with confidence and without relentless self-recrimination. I don’t think it will help your relationship with your daughter-in-law if you start to assume every compliment is in fact a veiled criticism just because your husband seems to think so. Take what she said at face value, and don’t go looking for trouble.
Q. Staying behind? My partner recently matched for residency in City X—her No. 1 choice, but one I was only tepidly excited about. It’s an expensive place to live, and we currently have no social support there. Originally the plan was for me to quit my job here and get a new one there starting in June or July. Now I’m rethinking everything. It seems wild to try to job search right now, much less move to an entirely new city where I will be able to interact with no one in person. Whenever I think about moving I find myself feeling resentful and negative. This can’t be a good way to move, right? Engagement is on the horizon, but all I want to do is stay here for a few months and join her later. Is this sure to strike a death blow to our relationship? Am I being selfish for not wanting to put her needs 100 percent above my own right now?
A: That last line feels like it’s framed as a bit of a gotcha—no, it’s not necessarily selfish to decline to put someone else’s needs “100 percent” above your own, but I think you already knew that. The question you’re facing isn’t “Is it right to place someone else’s needs 100 percent above my own,” but “How do I honestly and non-anxiously talk to my girlfriend about the fact that I have serious reservations about moving with her when she’s so excited and relieved to have been accepted by her No. 1 choice?” And the answer to that is pretty straightforward:
“I’m really excited that you got accepted by your first choice. But I’m reconsidering the prospect of quitting my job right now and trying to move to another city and looking for another job once I get there. I love you and I want to make things work, but what I want to do is stay here for a few months and join you later.” (At this point it might be worth asking yourself: Do you really want to stay here for a few months and join her later? Aren’t you still only tepidly excited about that city? What do you think is going to change in a few months that will make moving there seem worthwhile? Is this an attempt to downplay what you actually want because you’re afraid it will make her upset? If what you actually want is not to move at all, it’s better to be honest with yourself and your girlfriend about it now rather than say, “I’ll come join you in a few months,” only for a few months to go by and find yourself saying, “Actually … ”)
It’s not an automatic death blow to your relationship. It will come as a disappointment to your girlfriend. She may be upset. That means you two will experience conflict, which is not the same thing as a death blow; you can allow her to be upset without blaming yourself for changing your mind as the situation became clearer. She’s allowed to be disappointed; you’re allowed to change your mind. Maybe you two will be able to think of a few possible compromises. Maybe you two will break up. Maybe you’ll date long distance for a while. There are a number of plausible outcomes! But you need to start by being honest.
Q. I can’t decide whether to stay home with my mom this summer! I go to university in the city and usually come back to my mom’s house, which is only a few hours away in a more rural area, for breaks. My mom wants me to come home whenever I can, but we sometimes argue when I am actually home. She can be a bit volatile: When she’s in a good mood we have a lot of fun, but sometimes she has moods where she sees everything negatively, especially me and my sister. I thought our relationship had gotten better, but since I have been home (my university moved online) we have had a few issues, and today she blew up: telling me she didn’t want me to ever speak to her again, that our only relationship was arguing (which wasn’t how I saw it), and that I could stay in the house this summer as I planned but only if I didn’t talk to her.
I was really looking forward to this summer, especially under the circumstances, because of the area’s beauty and our garden and the beaches close by! My sister is staying in an apartment in the city that has an extra bedroom and really wants me to come live with her. I’m torn because I was so excited for this summer and do feel maybe I could work to fix things with my mom if I stayed, because I do really want us to have a positive relationship. I worry if I leave now on bad terms I will have ruined everything, and family is really important to me! However, I know it is maybe dumb to deliberately stay somewhere with conflict when I could go somewhere where I am fully welcome. It just makes me feel bad to think of leaving on these terms and I worry it will fully ruin our relationship and that I will no longer have a real home, and I was originally really excited for my time at home.
A: Having a good—or good-enough—relationship with your mother will not ultimately hinge on whether you spend a single summer living with her. If “fixing your relationship” is a goal you both share, it’s absolutely possible to make progress on that front without becoming housemates again; adult children who spend college vacations away from the family home do not “ruin everything” in so doing. I think you know on some level that what your mother is claiming is ridiculous: that you should never speak to her again but come live with her, in silence and self-recrimination, because you’re such a bad and argumentative child that you should be forced to live with someone who can’t stand to speak to you. It’s an attempt to manipulate and control you, not a heartfelt request to get closer.
If you decline to accept your mother’s manipulative terms, you will not be ruining your relationship with her—you will be refusing to buy in to her obvious lies about what a good relationship looks like. She uses claims about “relationship ruining” in order to get you to stifle your own completely age-appropriate independence. Go stay with your sister and have as lovely a summer as possible. (The beaches might not be open, but I hope you can garden to your heart’s content.) If a real connection with your mother is ever possible, I hope you two are able to find it, but it won’t be on the grounds she’s currently proposing.
Q. Guilt over racist comment to friend: I’ve been consumed with recurring feelings of guilt over the past few years regarding something I said to a friend several years ago, when I was a freshman in college. She is a black woman, and I made a joke about her having an “African face.” I believe it made a painful impression on her, because I remember her being quoted anonymously as part of a campus article on microaggressions. The time to apologize was then, of course, but I didn’t. I was a very selfish and deeply troubled person at the time. I hate that I hurt someone who was only ever kind to me. We drifted apart after freshman year and haven’t spoken in years. There’s no excuse for what I said, and I suppose guilt is the way we feel the necessity of changing for the better. I think I’ve changed a lot since then, but it doesn’t erase what happened in the past. I’ve debated apologizing to her, but I don’t want to bring back a painful memory, which will probably only be for my benefit. I don’t want to put the emotional burden on her to feel like she has to forgive me, for example. At the same time, I wonder if I’m being cowardly or whether there’s something I can do to atone for the harm I did or stop obsessing over this hateful thing I said, which I think about often and which leads me to some dark places that are not very mentally healthy. I have a therapist I go to about self-harm thoughts and other issues, but she is also an older white woman who doesn’t seem to quite understand issues around race. (I’m also a person of color.) Thank you for your help.
A: I think this is a possibility worth exploring, as long as you do so carefully and with several key priorities in mind. I agree that your therapist doesn’t sound like the ideal candidate for guiding you through this process. But in many ways you sound fairly prepared to proceed: You know what you said was wrong and why, you don’t want to pressure your former friend into feeling like she has to hear you out or forgive you, and you want to make sure you don’t burden her with your own concerns about self-harm if and when you apologize. This is not to say that your thoughts of self-harm are intrinsically burdensome. They aren’t, and you deserve real help, care, and support in dealing with them. But in the context of apologizing to a former friend for a racist joke, they’re not relevant.
If you’re able to get in touch with her, you might say something like this: “Years ago I said something racist to you and hurt you. I owe you a profound apology, and if you’re ever available, I would like to offer it to you. If you would rather not hear from me, I won’t try to get in touch with you again and will leave it at that.” I don’t know if she would consider an apology to be primarily for your benefit or if it would mean something to her—only she knows that. I think the best you can do now is give her the opportunity to decide whether she wants to hear it. Then you can perhaps put some of your energies into figuring out what long-term work you can do on your own time, and with your own resources, to deal with your guilt and work to further the cause of fighting anti-black racism.
Q. Pandemic distance: My boyfriend has been pretty distant since the pandemic started. We don’t live together, and we have been together for almost a year. I understand we are all suffering, and he’s says that he’s just trying to get through the days. I am empathetic to that and trying my best to care for myself while leaving him alone. That being said, I’m pretty hurt that he hasn’t made more of an effort to maintain our relationship during this time. I’m not ready to leave because we have an otherwise solid foundation, and we are all grieving right now so I have patience, but I worry sometimes maybe I’m being a doormat. In the past I’ve picked the wrong partners and given too much to men who were not able to give back, men who could be abusive and have sexually assaulted me as well. I’ve been in therapy forever, but in this isolation I’m finding myself much more easily gnawed at by relationship fears. Am I being unreasonable to want more?
A: No, you’re not. I wish I had more of an answer to give you, but it seems like a pretty straightforward question: No, it’s not unreasonable to want to hear from your partner more often. I think the underlying question is something like, “If I’m not being unreasonable, and I accept that my partner isn’t giving me what I want, how can I stay with him?” This is a difficult situation; your partner is suffering (as are many people—as important and necessary as shelter-in-place restrictions are for public safety, there’s also a very real emotional and mental toll those restrictions exact on people who are spending most of their days in near-isolation and without the contact or comfort or presence of others) and trying to keep his head above water, and you are also suffering from feeling so cut off from your partner. It doesn’t sound like your boyfriend is behaving cruelly or abusively, and I hope you can remind yourself that you’re neither a doormat nor somehow to blame for his distance. But it’s possible for you to be honest about missing him and wanting more from him without being “difficult” or breaking up with him on the spot. Nor do you have to “leave him alone” all the time—if you haven’t yet told him how much you miss him, or what you’re hoping for from him while you two are apart, now’s the time. Good luck.
Q. My dead brother’s first grandchild: My older brother died more than two years ago, and his son, now 19, cut off my family almost entirely (blocked his grandparents’ number, blocked me on Instagram, doesn’t show up to the house on holidays even though he’s invited). This past Christmas, he saw my dad and spoke to him for the first time in I don’t know how long—he then went to dinner with my parents and gave them his new phone number. He and his girlfriend are expecting a baby in September. I reached out to him via Facebook Messenger and got no reply. I want to send a gift for my brother’s first grandchild. I’m heartbroken that I may never meet this baby and hope I can convey that while I hope to reconnect, this is a gift of love with no strings attached.
Would it be out of line to contact his girlfriend, whom I’ve never met, through Facebook? I don’t want to put a pregnant woman in an awkward position in the middle of this stressful pandemic (a situation I also find myself in as I’m expecting my second in June). How do I convey that this gift is one I dearly wish the baby to have, that I don’t expect anything in return, but also I would openly welcome contact from my nephew?
A: This is such a painful, fraught situation. I’m so sorry. It’s clear all you want is to offer a gift, if at all possible, and that you’re thinking very carefully about all of the ways in which your nephew’s girlfriend might be under great pressure right now. But I do think that, even if your intentions are totally pure, your nephew would be inclined to read such a move as an attempt to circumvent him and would likely respond by pulling back even further.
There’s a chance that he just doesn’t check Facebook Messenger very often. Since your nephew is now speaking to his grandfather (your father) again, and they’ve at least got each other’s new phone numbers, I think that’s the best route through which to double-check. If your father is willing to carry the message on your behalf, ask him to tell your nephew that you’d love to send a baby gift and, if he’s interested, to either put the two of you directly in touch or to arrange for the gift to be sent to the right address. I hope he responds, and good luck with your own upcoming baby!
Q. Re: Was it passive-aggressive? Danny, I think you missed the clues in this letter! The mother-in-law sounds like a rotten, mean woman, and her husband was clearly pointing out to her that she is the one with the problem. He’s probably observed her abusing the daughter-in-law more times that he can count, and when she started in on bashing the daughter-in-law once again, Hubby stepped up and pushed back. The nasty tone of her letter was clear from the first line.
A: Oh, I think there were clues aplenty that the letter writer is often dismissive and hostile toward their daughter-in-law! But I think it will not help things for the husband to get into the habit of “translating” messages from other people, or for the letter writer to start scanning statements for possible second meanings. I think the best thing the letter writer can do is 1. stop demeaning their daughter-in-law’s relationship to anxiety and keep their mouth shut on the subject, and 2. let this particular (probably pointed, but also possibly genuine) comment go.
Q. Re: Staying behind? I’m now four years out of residency. I’m a woman. My then-boyfriend (now husband) and I did increasingly longer distances of our long-distance relationship during my post-baccalaureate, med school, and residency, for over 13 years. We got engaged three years into med school and married four years into my residency. You can do this. It’ll be fine.
A: I’m so glad this worked out for you! I don’t want to promise the letter writer that things will work out just fine for them, of course, but it’s certainly not unheard-of for couples to date long-distance for at least a portion of residency or grad school. I think the real problem for the letter writer is the fear that because they once agreed upon something, they’re now going to be the bad person for having reservations—but lots of people change their minds once plans move from “Maybe X will happen and we’ll try Y” to “I’m moving to X city during a pandemic and job crisis.” They’re not doing anything wrong by having reservations or wanting to do something different!
Q. My husband wants a threesome with his unattractive best friend: My husband and I are in our 20s. We’ve been together over 10 years and have two kids. Our sex life is great, but my husband does masturbate a lot. He found a porn video with a girl who looks exactly like me—super creepy! He asked me several times if I had cheated on him. About a week later he asked me if I would want to have a threesome with his childhood best friend, someone I’ve known for 18 years. He said he picked him because he’s seen him naked before, and because he’s not married and not attractive (at all, eww, although my husband says he’s not THAT bad) and therefore not a threat to steal me away. I don’t know if it’s just super gross and offensive because of who he picked or if I would feel like that with anyone. We do like to get kinky, but I don’t know about this. Please help. 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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