Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Hello again, everyone! Let’s chat.
Q. Family names and dating: I have been out of the dating game for a while and recently started again through dating apps and the occasional socially distanced or masked walk if we’ve been talking for a while. There is a recurring issue that is coming up for me: I can’t really consider anyone with the same name as a family member a viable romantic option. I understand avoiding someone with the same name as a parent, sibling, or a lousy ex, but I’m talking about cousins and my parents’ siblings as well. It really limits the dating pool when you’re from a large family, and it feels a bit unreasonable to discount a person because they have the same name as an asshole cousin. With a recent date I tried to fish and ask if they had any nicknames I could work with, but they wanted to use their full name. As friends or just talking, things are fine for me, but as soon as I think about using the name in the bedroom I get too grossed out. Is this common or have I gone too far? Ideas I’ve thought of so far: Say a name a thousand times until it loses meaning, see a therapist, or be avoidant and call a sexual partner “babe” forever. Any other suggestions, or should I just keep swiping left?
A: I’m not sure if just saying “Robert, Robert, Robert” over and over again would be enough to satisfactorily destroy all family associations for you. (If you’ve got the time, go for it and let us know whether it works out.) I wonder if part of the reason this is coming up now is because you’re mostly meeting strangers on dating apps. It’s a little different if you befriend someone who shares a distant cousin’s name, get to know them as an individual, and eventually develop totally independent mental and emotional connections to “Sara from Tristan’s party” than those you associate with “Sara, my mom’s sister.” But when you first know someone as a name and a profile on your smartphone, it’s a lot harder to shake the Sara you’ve known your whole life.
That doesn’t exactly solve your problem, I realize. And I suppose you can always just try not saying someone’s name in the bedroom and see if that helps any—you’re not required to use someone’s given name during sex. If you still feel grossed out, you don’t have to take things any further. But this is the sort of connection and aversion that’s pretty hard to lose, given that you’ve known these relatives your whole life. And while you say it’s a recurring issue, you also mention going on multiple walks with various people and that you only worry about this policy because it might be a “bit unreasonable.” But wanting to feel comfortable with a possible partner’s name is hardly an unreasonable desire—or rather, I don’t think it’s very important to apply a rubric of “reasonableness” to your associations with your relatives’ names.
If any other readers have experience happily swiping left on strangers with relatives’ names guilt-free, or have successfully exorcised the connection and were able to date someone who shared a cousin’s name, do let us know!
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Q. Keeping my surgery private: After over a decade of multiple abdominal surgeries, I was left with a lot of loose skin. Despite constant efforts, nothing changed. It was the cause of very low self-confidence for years. My husband and I had discussed the possibility of a “tummy tuck.” (My abdominal surgeries are now all long in the past.) Since we couldn’t travel this summer, we decided to use the money we’d normally spend on a vacation, and I had the tuck a few weeks ago. I’m very happy with the results. My surgeon even repaired a few weaknesses in my abdominal wall that would likely have turned into hernias, due to me having had so many surgeries in the same area.
The problem is my husband’s family. They are all local, and they’re very judgmental. We don’t want to tell them. Even though we have always been financially stable, they will tell us we can’t afford it. They’ll tell me I didn’t try hard enough to change my stomach through diet and exercise, even though I’m quite active. I haven’t seen them since Christmas, but I know I’ll see one of them (socially distanced) later this month. I’ll still be in a compression garment and won’t be able to participate in many physical activities. Is it appropriate to simply tell them I had a hernia repair surgery and leave it at that? They will notice my flatter stomach, surely, but I would rather not say anything about it.
A: Yes, absolutely. This goes for anyone, by the way, not just in-laws with a history of rudeness; you don’t have to discuss any of your surgeries, cosmetic or otherwise, with anyone you don’t want to. Just because someone’s nosy doesn’t mean they have a right to pry into your medical history—wanting to know something is not the same as needing to know.
Q. She doesn’t seem to be taking the hint: About a year and a half ago, a woman who I went to college with started Facebook messaging me (I’m also a woman) pretty regularly. We had a few classes together but rarely spoke, and we definitely weren’t friends. She said she wanted to reconnect because she always liked how thoughtful my responses were in class. But my gut reaction to these out-of-the-blue compliments was that she wanted to recruit me to some sort of MLM scheme, which wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. I said something pleasant but noncommittal. She’s since sent me her number, asked to FaceTime, sent me a video message on my birthday, and followed up every couple of months just to see what I’m up to. Sometimes I respond to these; sometimes I don’t. She clearly wants to be friends, but I’m just not interested. We don’t have a history, we don’t have much in common, she lives four hours away, and I’m already having a difficult time maintaining virtual contact with my actual friends during a pandemic, so I really don’t have much more to give here. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but she really doesn’t seem to be taking the hint. What should I do?
A: You have a lot of options! You can continue mostly ignoring her messages on Facebook (turning off notifications and sound alerts will help there, if you haven’t done so already) and only write back when you have something to say, or feel up to it. You can send a generic response to her latest attempt saying, “[That’s great/I’m well, thanks]. I’m not on Facebook too often, so I may not respond to some of these, but I hope you’re doing well.” You can be a touch more direct and say, “It’s been nice to catch up, but I’m pretty overwhelmed trying to stay on top of things during the pandemic, so I won’t be able to keep up a running conversation or make plans to speak over FaceTime. Take care,” and unfriend her afterward. All of those options are perfectly polite and appropriate, and none require the threat of an MLM pitch as justification. Just because someone else solicits your friendship doesn’t mean you owe it to them, even if they solicit it politely.
Q. Old friends gone: I’m nearly 33 and have found myself without close female friends. I have a good romantic relationship and good family relationships, but something is missing. Lately, I’ve been thinking about two women in particular. Ten years ago I had a falling out with a friend. Three years later she wrote to me to apologize, but I never responded. Six years ago I had a falling out with another friend, my best and oldest, and we haven’t spoken since. In both cases the estrangement wasn’t my fault, but being in the right is cold comfort when I know I could have done something to save or rekindle the friendships. I’d like to write letters to both women to acknowledge the distance between us and how sad it makes me, and to generally wish them well. The letter would be an end in itself, a kind of closure, but if it resulted in a reconciliation, so much the better. Is this wise? Harmful? Selfish?
A: I don’t think it’s selfish or harmful to respond to someone else’s apology, even if it’s more than a few years in the past. When it comes to the first woman, I think you definitely have grounds to reach out, although I think you should go a step further than just acknowledging your distance and wishing her well—you should tell her what her apology meant to you, accept it (I’m assuming you feel you can now), and offer your own apology for not responding sooner. Then you can leave the possibility of further conversation or reconciliation up to her.
When it comes to your other friend, the one you fell out with six years ago, I think the type of letter you described sounds pretty suitable. There’s no guarantee that she’ll respond or that she too believes you were in the right and she was in the wrong, but since you don’t plan on litigating your last fight or telling her you want an apology, you don’t really have to worry about that part. All you want is to let her know that your door is open.
Good luck. Even if you don’t hear back, I hope you experience some relief in writing both letters and that you’re able to prioritize and pursue platonic friendships again soon.
Q. Colonialist table lamps: I love ’50s-era kitsch, and so when I was looking for lamps for my bedside tables, I wanted one of those “boy-girl” sets that used to be popular. I ended up using a pair of ballet dancers, but I also acquired a pair of “islander” table lamps. They are a kneeling couple of indeterminate race: The man is playing a small hand drum, and they are both wearing jewelry and feathers. Their skin is a “tan” color, but not very dark. Maybe their dress is distinctive of a specific culture, but I’m not sure. It doesn’t feel right for me, a white person, to display them, but they seem too charming to destroy. I’d give them to anyone who felt represented by them! So what should I do with them?
A: I think actively seeking out people who feel represented by kitschy “islander” figurines to regift these lamps is a pretty tall order. You might find someone who likes them, but I’m not sure you’ll have much luck finding someone who says, “These lamps make me feel seen as never before.” If you don’t feel good displaying them in your own home and you don’t want to throw them away or otherwise dispose of them, you can try to donate them, but I think it’s a bridge too far to start canvassing people on whether they think these figurines represent them. My best suggestion is to research museums and archivists who specialize in the history of colonization and objectification of Polynesian “figures” and see if any of them are accepting donations—the best place for these figures might be in an exhibition where their context in a racist history is front and center.
Q. Can’t get virtual family therapy across state lines: I’m very concerned that my family is on a path that will lead to my brother cutting my parents and me out of his life. All three have agreed to pursue family therapy, which gave me tremendous hope—until I discovered that therapists will not counsel us because we live in three different states. Due to conflicts with treating across state lines, we’re having difficulty finding a family therapist to work with us. I desperately want to reconcile with my brother and heal our family. Can you help?
A: Can you find an individual therapist who can work with you in your home state in the meantime? I’m afraid I don’t know what rules govern family therapists treating patients in multiple states (family therapists, feel free to chime in if you can shed more light on the situation!), but I do know that you can still pursue therapy on your own, which should prove helpful as you try to find new ways to talk to your brother. It will help, I think, to treat any potential therapeutic relationship not as a way to prevent your brother from choosing estrangement but as a way to help you deal with your own fears and anxieties, learn how to listen without judgment or defensiveness, and find a solid emotional foundation regardless of what your brother chooses to do next.
Q. Ex uses daughter’s money for his own bills: My ex refuses to pay child support for our 7-year-old daughter to me personally because he fears I would use the money for myself. So his child support—plus our government child-related benefits—is put into an account we both have access to. We’ve put in writing that money can only be spent on our daughter (child care bills, clothes, sports etc.). Every month since our split, he has called me to tell me he would be taking “a little bit” of our daughter’s money from that account since he could not pay for groceries. The “little bits” have added to about 300 euros already. Financial trouble was one of the reasons for our split. I would propose a budget, he would say yes but not follow it, and a week after payday our accounts would be empty. In the nine years we were together, I saw all savings go down the drain, even the savings we had made for our daughter. I know he received two large amounts of money in the past two months that he used on things like expensive clothes, shoes, and a watch. He sent me screenshots of the amounts of money transferred to him, and pictures of the things he spent his money on. But how can I tell him to stop when I in the past have also used daughter’s money for my own bills? Am I being a hypocrite? Am I being too lenient? What boundaries can I draw? I need some outside perspective, please!
A: This seems like a question for a lawyer, and ultimately a child support agreement that’s determined and enforced by a court, especially since it sounds like you two share custody across national borders. If your ex is taking money out of your joint account for your kid’s expenses (especially to buy new suits), it’s less helpful to try to talk him out of a habit that sounds like it’s been years in the making than it is to establish a legal foundation for what he owes your child and make sure he’s not paying child support into an account he can also make withdrawals from.
I can’t speak to whether you’ve been hypocritical in the past. If you were using that money to pay for bills you incurred as a direct result of having primary custody, I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy in paying for electricity or heating or food your daughter’s benefiting from. But the point here isn’t whether you’ve ever done something wrong so your ex can justify retracting his child support payments, but about determining what’s in your daughter’s best interests. To that end, I think your best option is to speak to a lawyer and establish a new, separate, inviolate account for your daughter. Good luck.
Q. Re: Keeping my surgery private: You don’t have to tell them, but have something on hand when they ask: “It was just something I had to take care of, nothing to worry about.” You could, if you like, say it was connected to the surgery you had a few years ago, and nothing to worry about. That might stop any follow-up questions.
A: I suppose one odd silver lining here is that the letter writer has had a number of similar surgeries, so it will presumably seem like more of the same rather than something out of the ordinary (although they’d still have every right to shut down questions even if it were). But if their in-laws do start to pry or make little comments about how “something seems different” about this one, I don’t want them to feel pressure to then make up further explanations, or go into greater detail, or justify why this surgery isn’t like a different surgery from 2008: “Honestly, I’m just tired of talking about these abdominal surgeries, and I hope this one is my last. I’m bored to tears with them. Let’s talk about anything else.”
Q. Re: Keeping my surgery private: You might be surprised! I had a chin implant in my 20s to counterbalance some overly aggressive teenage orthodontia. I loved it and thought it made a huge difference. But no one was able to put their finger on what had changed about me: “You look great. Did you get a haircut?” was the most common response. People rarely hold a photo-accurate picture of you in their memory. Say whatever you want to say about the compression garment—or say nothing—but I wouldn’t worry they’re going to guess you had a tummy tuck. If pressed, most people will be satisfied with “I lost a few pounds. Have you seen that new puppy surfing video?”
A: It’s so weird what changes do and don’t immediately register to others, especially people who see us most often. I assumed top surgery was going to make a bigger splash back in 2018, but I ended up surprised myself by how many people in my life also couldn’t quite put their finger on what was different about me. A rich tapestry, life!
Q. Should I warn the women I date that I’m a sociopath? I’m a 31-year-old male and consider myself to be a borderline sociopath. I view this as a neural development disorder where many people fall along a spectrum, not something to be “treated” or changed. I have a strong “logical morality” and do not wish harm to anyone, but I do come first and don’t commonly feel guilt or remorse. This seems to work in most areas of my life, but dating is a problem. By all recognizable accounts I am easygoing, successful, charming, and normal. However, I do not feel love the way I imagine many people do. My love for someone peaks around the two-month mark in the relationship and I can feel that way for nearly anyone who meets my dating criteria. But I have been the “love of their life” for many women, who form incredibly deep bonds and end up devastated after they realize our relationship will not progress and it ends for seemingly no reason. In some of these relationships I have even been entirely up front that I simply don’t “feel” the way most people do and they have not been deterred. So, what am I to do? I don’t enjoy hurting others, but I do enjoy when others care for me. Do I just continue this pattern throughout life, enjoying each relationship for what it is and knowing that if the woman gets her heart broken she will eventually get over it and go on to better relationships? Or is that callous and morally demanding of a better approach? 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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