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My father and I have never had what you would call a “conventional” relationship. We’ve smoked weed together, and he often likes to tell me about his sex life. He’s successfully ostracized everyone else in our family, and I think I stick around out of a sense of responsibility, even though I don’t like the way he treats me. He’s married to a younger woman (he’s 65, she’s 40) whom I’ve known since I was 14. I’m 37 now. It’s a long story.
He wrote me an email a few days ago detailing how he and his wife had been discussing the idea of her having sex with “one of their friends”—and then told me that friend was me! He asked me what I thought about the idea and that he’d be interested in watching. It was very enthusiastic and not at all joking. I was horrified and responded that he needed to see a therapist and that it would take me a very long time to be able to speak to either of them again. He then claimed that he’d just been joking and that it was clear I had “never loved him.” So that’s where we are now. I know I’ve been gaslit by my father for most of my life (he’s really good at it), and I know it’s happening now. I’m not crazy, right? What he wrote me is wrong, right? Was my response out of line?
You’re not crazy, your response was not out of line, and he wasn’t joking. What would the joke have been? A detailed, written sexual proposition is not a common joke format, and the sharpness of his reaction gives further lie to the claim that he was “just kidding around.” Imagine saying this sentence out loud to your most open-minded, nonjudgmental friend: My father says I “never loved him” because I objected to the idea of having sex with his wife while he watched. Do you think they’d say, “Well, he kind of has a point,” or would they respond, as you did, in shock and horror? All my money’s on the latter. This is not an isolated incident but part of a long-standing pattern of alienation, aggressive boundary-pushing, and sexual harassment. It may feel strange or jarring to think of your father’s behavior toward you as sexual harassment, but I think that’s the appropriate term.
Just as a thought exercise, and in the hopes that it will quell some of your anxieties about your reaction, remind yourself of this when you begin to doubt yourself: Even if it had been a joke, you’re allowed to dislike a joke. You’re allowed to object to a joke. Saying “It was a joke” is not a magic wand that means no one’s allowed to have an opinion on something you said. Telling your father, “I don’t want you to joke about watching me have sex with your wife, and I’m so uncomfortable I don’t want to talk to you for a while” is an extremely reasonable, moderate thing to say. He does not treat you lovingly, respectfully, or safely, and I wish you nothing but luck in staying far away from him.
My sister and brother-in-law are refinancing their home from a 30-year to a 15-year mortgage. They’ll pay more each month, but with lower interest rates. They say it isn’t significantly more than what they have been paying. This decision upsets my mom. She has anxiety issues, especially around money and finances, that have been definitely magnified by the pandemic. My parents are financially comfortable professionals, but my mom had a working-class childhood. There were times my grandparents struggled to make ends meet when she was a kid. It still affects how my mom thinks about money issues. She is genuinely afraid that agreeing to higher monthly payments is risky for my sister’s family—say, one of them loses their job and they can’t make the higher payment. She has lost sleep about this, worrying about the potential for foreclosure, her grandkids losing their home. She’s broken down with me on the phone about it and another time with a close friend.
My dad asked my sister and brother-in-law if they could, for my mom’s mental well-being, consider a 30-year mortgage and just make payments as if it was a 15-year loan. They said no because the shorter mortgage further reduces their interest rate by 0.5 percent. My dad offered to make up the difference, which is less than $100 a month. My brother-in-law refused to even discuss it. He said that our mom would just have to live with their financial decisions, anxiety or no anxiety. My dad’s plan gives them everything they want financially and will ease my mom’s mental state. We all understand this is their decision to make, but I think my brother-in-law is being unreasonable. I need a script that allows me to make clear the damage his obstinance could do without being overly emotional or losing my cool. Any advice?
Stay out of it. It is not reasonable for your parents to ask their grown child and her husband to reconsider joint financial decisions just because your mother has anxiety. Your mother is not a co-signer of their mortgage, and your sister is not a minor. You say you understand that this is “their decision to make,” but it doesn’t sound like you or your parents have actually internalized that belief. It really is their decision to make. They are not damaging your mother’s well-being by refinancing their home. They’re just refinancing their home. It may or may not prove to be wise, but it’s their decision, and they have a much more detailed sense of their own finances than the rest of the family does. Your parents have made their case to your sister and her husband, and they’ve declined. That’s the end of it.
It’s a mistake to think that the only way your mother’s distress can be eased is by getting what she wants. The voice of anxiety often says, “If only other people would act in thus-and-such a way, then I’d have peace of mind.” But trying to control other people’s behavior, even with the best and most generous of intentions, is not a long-term solution. If your mother is regularly breaking down over this, and your parents have money to spare, they should use it to find a mental health professional who can help her deal with her anxiety, whether through therapy, medication, or both. (It also may help you to see your own therapist if you’ve made it a habit to try to manage your mother’s anxiety by trying to intervene in your siblings’ personal lives.) There’s nothing unreasonable or damaging about that choice, and nothing that will prevent your mother from getting practical, effective treatment for her anxiety. Just because she feels distressed does not mean they are hurting her, and it will do you good to remind yourself of that whenever you next feel tempted to revisit the issue.
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My girlfriend is pregnant and moved back home with her parents while I work an “essential” job with incredibly long hours. If I get home, shower, and eat, it’s a win. On my days off I try to schedule video chats with my loved ones, but I don’t have energy for much else. I’ve asked people not to text or call me on days I’m working unless it is an emergency. My girlfriend can’t get it through her head. She agrees, then gets bored and texts me several times a day. I don’t want to block her phone in case something happens to the baby, but getting a dozen messages of “U ok?” “You ok?” “You okay?” is like sandpaper on the skin. It breeds anxiety and angst. I want to be with her, but I can’t leave my job, and her parents are pampering her. The baby isn’t due until late November.
I have been ignoring her texts for the past week, and when we video chatted, she pouted and accused me of not being a “supportive papa.” I lost my temper and told her that her mommy made her breakfast in bed the last three days and she spent all her time on Instagram modeling clothes her daddy bought her, I have actually been working like an adult. She cried and hung up. We apologized to each other, but she is still texting me. I want to beat my head against the wall. Her parents refuse to accept any money from me and say they will take care of their “little girl.” We were together nine months before this, and I don’t know if I want to continue the relationship. It is stupid. It is childish. But she keeps texting me, and I am going insane. I will be there for the baby, but my commitment to our relationship is wavering. My mother was a military spouse with five kids and never acted like this. Help!
It’s frustrating to get five or six variations on the same text message in a single day, especially when you’re working, and I don’t doubt that your work has made life tremendously stressful. But you ascribe stress, worry, doubt, and anxiety to your own behavior, and boredom, petulance, and being spoiled to your girlfriend’s, and I think that’s a mistake. Presumably she moved back in with her parents because she’s concerned about her health and your baby’s—being pregnant during a pandemic and without your partner at your parents’ house, unable to see other people, is stressful and anxiety-inducing too, even if you’re not working. I don’t think it’s merely boredom and thickheadedness that leads her to text you. She’s going through a tough time too, and she’s not a child for wanting reassurance and contact from her co-parent and partner. Nor is the fact that she occasionally takes selfies in her new clothes a sign of frivolity and stupidity. She needs new clothes—maternity clothes—because her old clothes will no longer fit her pregnant body. (And if your girlfriend’s parents don’t want money from you, don’t send them money.)
It will do you nothing but good, whether you and your girlfriend stay together for the next 50 years or merely share custody amicably, to refrain from comparing her to your mother. Your girlfriend is not your mother, and no one likes to hear that their partner thinks of them as a lousy replacement for a parent. You also need to find ways to stop yourself from scolding her like a child. It will be good to break yourself of that habit before your own child comes into the world. Let judicious restraint of tongue and pen be one of the character traits you can demonstrate to your child by example.
I also think you should consider relaxing the “no texts or calls except on my days off” rule for the mother of your child. That doesn’t mean her repetitive “You okay?” texts are fine and justifiable or that you need to be available 24/7—tell her you’ll be putting your phone on Do Not Disturb during your shifts. Have another conversation with her when you have the time and energy and see if you can’t come up with a reasonable compromise about checking in that seems manageable to both of you. If you want to say no to a request of hers or tell her that you won’t be available on certain days, you can do so without demeaning her.
Help! We’ve Got Way Too Many Cooks in Our Kitchen During Quarantine—Literally.
Danny M. Lavery is joined by Peter Labuza on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.
I grew up in a family that combined narcissism and religious abuse with good old-fashioned military “discipline.” Everything I did, said, or consumed was monitored and controlled. Everything in my life revolved around pleasing my parents. I’m a reasonably well-adjusted adult parenting two children of my own, but I am still unable to fully escape my childhood conditioning that says I should be agreeing to my parents’ every whim. They significantly eased up by the time my two youngest siblings were old enough to notice, so they’ve basically had a totally different childhood. I’ve been told over and over that I’m lying about my own childhood.
My father is retiring soon, which is a huge deal in the military, and my mother has already told us all that we’re expected to go to their house for his party. She has said that since she “never asks for anything for herself,” it is especially important for us to attend. I don’t want to. There are going to be a bunch of people talking about how great my parents are and what a good job they did raising us. We’ll be expected to be appropriately subservient and grateful to the parents who “gave up so much” to provide for us. I want to avoid the whole charade altogether and not force my kids into a stressful situation. But I know if I don’t go it will turn into a thing, and I will never stop hearing the end of it. Can I have permission to just not go and make up an excuse and not feel bad about it?
—Retirement Party Blues
You certainly have my permission, although as a stranger I don’t think my word will carry much weight in your family. I think you’re right not to want to attend. It would be emotionally taxing at best and grounds for a one-sided, four-against-one public confrontation at worst. But you don’t have to have a huge, no-holds-barred conversation about your childhood every time you want to decline a request your parents make of you, especially when you know any attempt at such a conversation will be met with dismissal, minimization, and accusations of dishonesty. Even if you come up with a plausible fake excuse—about work, or COVID-19 risk, or whatever else—you may still “never stop hearing the end of it,” so you should prepare for pushback no matter the explanation you furnish for being unable to attend.
I do believe it’s possible, although difficult and often painful, to override the childhood conditioning that drives one to please a parent at any cost. You can pursue it at your own pace, on your own terms, and with the help of your friends and (I hope) a therapist—but you don’t need your parents’ permission or your siblings’ encouragement in order to do so. If you accept as a given that they will attempt to punish you or lash out every time you pull away, that won’t necessarily make the process feel any easier, but you’ll at least know how to prepare for it and not be surprised by it. The anger of a parent can be terrifying to a child, and it’s hard to let go of that fear as an adult. Saying to yourself, “My parents will be angry with me as long as I refuse to deny the past and offer them praise on demand. Therefore, it’s impossible to avoid their anger, and I cannot make avoiding their anger my primary goal,” may help. In the long run, it might be better for you to minimize your contact with your family as long as that contact is predicated on treating you like an unreasonable, ungrateful liar. But that call is yours to make, and if you believe it’s still worth staying in touch, then my hope for you is that you can find ways to calmly but firmly refuse to engage in guilt trips. I wish you all the strength and support in the world.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“ ‘I feel anxious’ is not a blank check for you to control other people’s choices.”
Danny Lavery and Nicole Cliffe discuss a letter each week for Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
In early April my wife and I let our friend “Brandon” move into our apartment’s spare room, since our roommate was moving out and Brandon had just broken up with his longtime girlfriend, “Regina.” Brandon was trying to get together with an ex of his, “AnnMarie,” and my wife and I were treated to endless play-by-plays about when AnnMarie called, what she said, etc. A few weeks ago Brandon found out AnnMarie was dating someone. He broke down in tears and told us he’d actually been dating both AnnMarie and Regina for over two years, while they both thought they were in an exclusive, long-term relationship with him. He has no intention of telling either of them the truth and doesn’t consider it lying. He wants to try to get back together with AnnMarie.
We’re neighbors and very close with Regina’s best friends—they’re the only other household we see during the pandemic (we’re friends with Regina too, but she now lives across the country). Brandon wants us to keep this secret from them and from Regina, and we feel terrible, like we’re participating in a lie. We’ve told him how we feel, but he thinks we’re being unreasonable. Now we’re quarantining with a lying, cheating, mopey man who wants us to lie for him. We’re not sure that telling Regina is the right thing to do, but we’re also not comfortable keeping this a secret. It feels like a trap. What do we do?
—Roommate’s Double Life
You can always decline to keep a secret on someone else’s behalf, especially when it’s a secret you neither solicited nor condone. In declining to keep Brandon’s secret, you would not be risking his physical safety or endangering his ability to make a living, so you don’t have to worry about causing harm. Regina is a friend of yours, so keeping this secret would put an unnecessary strain on your own relationships, and Brandon has no grounds to demand this of you. If I were in your position, I’d be straightforward with him: “You asked me to keep this information secret from Regina and our friends, and I’m not willing to do that. I think she has a right to know, whether that comes from me or you. You may disagree or be angry with me, and I’m prepared to accept that. You did lie to her—you lied to both of them—and I’m not going to participate, as much as I care about you as a friend.” I imagine this will considerably shorten the length of Brandon’s stay with you and your wife, and it may spell the end of your friendship with him if he considers this an act of betrayal. But he put you in an impossible situation, and that’s not your fault.
I broke up with my live-in partner at the beginning of the year. He wasn’t a bad guy, but we had different visions for the future. In April, I got a new, higher-paying job, so I was finally able to move out of our place and into a cozy little apartment. I love it here. I have a renewed sense of energy. I’m finally starting to relax and enjoy myself without someone commenting on my weight or appearance (I’m nonbinary). Everything is great. I love being on my own. (Ask me about my sourdough starter!)
But so many people are suffering right now. Many of my friends are struggling after being stuck at home for months on end. Even if they’ve kept their jobs and are meeting their basic needs, they’re still finding it difficult. I feel guilty whenever we talk about our lives because I’m doing well, and there’s often a mismatch of energy on both sides of the conversation. Any tips for either feeling less like I’m unintentionally rubbing my happiness in people’s faces or stopping myself from doing that in the first place?
—Doing Better Than Ever
The good news is that you would not help anyone else by suffering yourself right now. The world and your friends do not need you to be in pain in response to the state of things. When it comes to that “mismatch of energy” you’re noticing, it might help to channel some of your extra time and exuberance into meaningful community work. Can you join a local mutual aid group? Canvass the other tenants in your apartment to talk about rent relief? Deliver groceries to the elderly? Bring a sourdough loaf to a friend who’s going through a hard time, contact nearby jail support teams to see if they need supplies, donate time or money to any local organizations you think do good? That’s not to say you need to devote 30 hours a week to community work in order to justify your happiness, merely that it might help address your sense of uncertainty about what to do. Concrete actions go a long way toward counteracting vague unease.
When it comes to speaking with your friends, give them a chance to let you know what they’re prepared to discuss, and take them at their word if they say, “Yes, I’m having a tough time, but you’re a kind and sympathetic listener, and I don’t begrudge you your relief at being happily single now.” It may be that some of them are even relieved to get a chance to hear from someone who’s doing well! It doesn’t sound like any of them have complained to you that you’ve been so wrapped up in your own happiness that you’ve ignored their problems or rubbed anything in their faces, just that this is an anxiety of yours. Most of the joy you’re experiencing is relief from getting away from someone who regularly criticized your body, and good friends won’t begrudge you that.
I dated my wife for three years before we married. We were both in our 30s and had had all of the important discussions before we decided to marry (kids, religion, etc.). At the time, she told me she was agnostic, and not really into “the whole religion thing.” Now, less than six months into our marriage, she tells me she’s joined a church and expects me to join her for Sunday services. It’s only now that I learn that she has extremely right-wing, religious views. After talking with some of her friends, they couldn’t believe I didn’t know this about her. I asked them why they wouldn’t have mentioned this when they found out we weren’t having a church wedding and they told me that was probably done for my benefit. Now, instead of our not wanting any kids, she wants at least five and maybe more. Instead of no religion, she wants strict adherence to her religion. I feel I’ve been duped and that she’s lied to me about herself. Is there any way out of this short of divorce?
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