Dear Prudence

My Mom Found Out My Dad Was Poisoning Her Food

Now she’s set up family counseling with me and my two adult siblings. I don’t want to go.

Photo collage of a woman in therapy and a therapist taking notes
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by lorenzoantonucci/iStock/Getty Images Plus and KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

Two months ago, my mom left my dad after toxicology reports showed he had been secretly poisoning her food. I know it sounds like a Lifetime movie, but it really happened. Obviously it’s been incredibly trying as she’s had to come to terms with what she now realizes is abuse, on top of a divorce case. When she first told me, I dropped everything and drove six hours to be with her for a week. I helped her get rid of all the food in the house, find a divorce lawyer, let her vent, and pack up my father’s things. This has been incredibly traumatizing for her, and I want to be supportive. But my mom has set up family counseling with me and my two adult siblings to process this (in addition to her individual therapy).

I’ve been to therapy before and found it helpful. But I don’t want to process this with my family in group therapy. I’ve attended three sessions now. I don’t want to talk about my feelings. I don’t want to discuss our family history. I want to process this on my own. Having to talk about it as a group makes me angry and frustrated at my mom. She’s the last person I want to be angry with right now. How do I let my mom lovingly know that I can’t keep going to therapy with her?

—Keeping My Mouth Shut

I’m not sure you’ll be able to avoid talking about this with your family members for good—it would be difficult to maintain a relationship with your mother and your siblings if you insisted on never talking about your father’s campaign to poison her again—but you don’t have to commit to more group therapy sessions. All you have to do is tell her what you told me: that you love her, that you support her, that you’ve given group therapy a good-faith effort but it’s not helping, and you’re not up for any more sessions. You can stress that you’re still available to listen to her vent, help with the divorce filing, run errands, or anything else that needs doing, but you don’t have to rush to try to “make up” for quitting therapy. Be sure to avoid anything like “I’m not up for this right now” or suggesting “maybe someday” you’ll want to join in again. Then let the therapist know you won’t be attending future sessions after you’ve told your mother.

Help! I Accidentally Screen-Shared Erotic Fan Fiction During a Work Meeting.

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

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Dear Prudence,

My roommate of three years and I get along great, and I consider her a very close friend. I own the house, and she rents a room. Last year, she asked if she could get a dog. I love animals (I have three cats), and I said yes. We were both clear that I was never responsible for walking or feeding the dog. We did not discuss training, which I now regret. The dog jumps up to lick the counter dozens of times a day and guards my roommate’s room and growls if I walk by the door. She displays aggression toward me about once a week (growling and jumping up to scratch my stomach and back). I have already decided that if she bites me, I will tell my roommate the dog cannot live here anymore.

My roommate has been talking about sending the dog to an intensive training program for a couple of months, but it keeps falling through. Recently, after another scratching incident, I told her that she had to get the dog into a program. She said everywhere was closed or had long waiting lists because of the virus. Do you think I should lay out a specific deadline at this point, like: The dog needs to be in a program in the next 60 days or she needs to rehome the dog or move out? We have had a lot of discussions about the dog’s training, but I have never raised the possibility that the dog will need to leave, and I am afraid she will react very badly to that suggestion. She has also brought up money as a barrier to training the dog a lot. We have vastly different socio-economic situations, and I really don’t want it to sound like I am saying, “Spend all this money or I am kicking you out.” I really don’t want to hurt my friend or cause damage to our friendship, but I also don’t want to be scared of a dog in my own house.

—Walking on Eggshells

The good news is that you are not saying “Spend all this money or I am kicking you out.” You’re saying, “For over a year, I’ve tried living with an untrained dog that growls and scratches, and that’s just not working for me.” You’ve avoided having specific, necessary conversations out of fear that you’ll hurt your friend’s feelings, but she seems unconcerned that her dog has been hurting you, so it doesn’t feel like that care is going both ways. She’s put you in a difficult position by refusing to care for the dog—a dog she shouldn’t have brought into your home if she didn’t have the time, money, or intention to train it.

It’s time to have one more conversation where you ask her to enroll the dog in training immediately or start considering alternative living arrangements. You do not need to capitulate any further to her assertion that she doesn’t have enough money (many humane societies or pet stores offer reasonably priced group training, even for reactive dogs, and most have virtual options right now). It will likely be a difficult conversation, but you’re not the one who’s damaging the friendship. Since she’s your tenant, you’ll also want to review your lease agreement and relevant local laws and ordinances about pet ownership, and maybe talk to a lawyer before you have this conversation to make sure you stay on legal territory. But there’s nothing cruel or disrespectful about saying, “I can’t keep living with an untrained dog. This has to change now.”

Dear Prudence,

I’ve been estranged from my father ever since I was 15, when he broke into my mother’s house and assaulted me because I’d cut back on weekend visits. Then he called the police on me for “intimidating him” (I didn’t touch him, or even insult him, while he was attacking me, just told him to leave), and we haven’t spoken since. Recently, my mother called to tell me a woman had been asking around about me—she’d called my work, then my childhood home, to get a hold of me. This woman is 10 years older than me and claims to have discovered we share a biological father through a genetic testing service. Apparently, my father gave her all the information he had about me.

I had no idea. My mother told me it wasn’t a big deal since my father had “mentioned” having another child once. I’m not opposed in theory to connecting with a sibling, but I’ve worked hard to keep any personal information away from my father, and she seems to be developing a relationship with him. Also, I’m nonbinary trans and have no idea how my sister would react. I’ve had her phone number for over a month and still haven’t called. Is it selfish to call and insist on terms for a relationship with a complete stranger? Is it selfish to leave her in the dark?

—Sibling-Shy

Self-protection isn’t selfish. Neither is wanting privacy, especially from an abusive parent. Just because your sister wants a relationship with you doesn’t mean you’d be selfish for declining—you’re not obligated to strike up a friendship with a stranger just because you share a relative.

Both of the options you’re considering are reasonable, respectful, and appropriate. Take the terms you’d be “insisting on” if you did call her: You’d like her not to misgender you, and you’d like her not to share personal information with a man who’s attacked you. What reasonable, low-effort terms those are! If you’re curious or interested for your own sake but feel prepared to close the door if she can’t agree to the basic ground rules, go ahead and establish those terms as necessary preconditions to meeting for coffee and to catch up. But if the only reason you’re open to connecting with her is some vague sense of duty, give yourself permission to put her phone number to the side. Good luck!

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From Care and Feeding

I’m not a parent, so I’m not sure if there is a polite way to discuss this with some close friends of mine. These friends have a lovely toddler. He is a delightful kid. However, when my friends invite me over for dinner or to watch movies on the weekends, their son is always up pretty late (for a toddler), and until he goes to bed, all socializing revolves around him.

When I go over to watch a movie, I’d like to know that we might start it before 9 or 10 or whenever they put him to bed that night. Also, sometimes I don’t want to watch Paw Patrol and color with him until he’s ready for bed. But if he is awake, all of us are basically entertaining him.

Is there a polite way to say, “I’d love to hang out more, but I don’t actually always want to play trucks with your toddler for two hours before we start watching Hereditary?” Especially if I’m coming over after 8, which is later than the bedtime of my other friends’ little kids?