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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: We’re all here! Let’s make the best of it and chat.
Q. Can’t teach everyone: I’m currently home-schooling my 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, since I have an education degree. My 12-year-old stepdaughter has moved in with us full time because everyone agrees the pandemic will not be over by August. “Anna” is my stepdaughter’s mother, and she has two stepdaughters of her own. They are only a little younger than my stepdaughter and live primarily with their mother. I am familiar with the girls, since they’ve often joined the other kids in family activities, but have only met their mother a few times. Anna has asked my husband and me to include her stepdaughters in the home-schooling. She, her husband, and their mother will be unable to care for them. Their mother would drop them off at my house for “school hours.”
I appreciate her need, and we don’t have a bad relationship, but I have no idea what the girls are like at school or what their educational needs are. I already have my hands full creating a middle school curriculum for my stepdaughter, in addition to one for my own children. How do we disengage the request while keeping our co-parenting relationship solid? This isn’t just watching them for a weekend! Help.
A: I think you just tell her that you can’t do it and hope that she responds rationally and compassionately, instead of torpedoing your co-parenting relationship in retaliation. As you say, Anna’s in a difficult situation, but trying to teach two elementary-age students and three junior high–age students five days a week is no small feat and would mean creating—and teaching!—multiple lesson plans simultaneously. You might encourage Anna to speak to some of her stepdaughters’ friends’ parents about sharing lesson plans, remote and at-home teaching, and/or child care. But I think you’re right to turn down this request, and I have every confidence that you can do so respectfully, citing your own limitations of time, energy, and resources, without either breaking a promise or feeling guilty.
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Q. Sad dad begging for bad book about bedbugs: My Willy Loman–esque father has gotten into his head that he has a multimillion-dollar idea for a book—a book that will quickly turn into a multimedia franchise. Movies, sequels, video games, the works. Though he is aggressively paranoid that someone will steal the idea, I don’t mind sharing it. The concept is, simply, what if bedbugs took over the world? In the 30 years that I’ve known him, my father has never read a book. Actually, neither of my parents have. But they know I read a lot. I also have a couple of side gigs tangentially related to publishing, but they don’t know about those, and I’m terrified of them finding out.
I thought the idea would quickly fizzle out, but a year after he first brought up his idea to me, he produced a full (triple-spaced) page of the beginning of his novel and asked for my opinion. It is bad. I couldn’t stop laughing. He was genuinely hurt. He wants me to edit his book, type up his handwritten pages, and help him out in the publishing world. I told him his writing was bad. He said he knows and that’s what editors are for. I told him he can’t look for a publisher until the book is done. He replied, “Rocky was written in three days.” I don’t know what to do. I’m glad he has an outlet and I’m impressed that he’s actually committing to something, but I don’t want to be involved. I’m currently living with my parents and trying to repair a rocky relationship with them, but I don’t know how to approach this book thing. He is so certain it will make him Stephen King.
A: The part where you all live together makes things a little trickier, because it’s a lot harder to put space between yourself and someone who sleeps in the next room rather than with someone who lives across the state. But it doesn’t really change what’s in front of you, which is just a question of sticking to your original answer: “No, I can’t help you with this.”
You can apologize to your father for laughing at him and hurting his feelings. You don’t have to pretend to like his book, nor do you have to agree to become his editor, but it’s understandable that he was hurt by your derision. I think it would be meaningful to apologize for the way you responded, if not for your actual response.
But rather than trying to argue with him again about how publishing works—at which point I think you can assume he’ll always trot out an exception like Rocky to keep the argument going and wear you down—I think you should really commit to the principle of not helping your father with this book. That includes attempting to give him advice (especially advice you know he’ll reject), trying to convince him he ought to take this or that step, telling him what you think of his writing, etc. Just reiterate that you can’t help him with this project but you wish him luck finding someone else who can; repeat as often as necessary. (And good luck finding another place to live! I hope you can move out soon.)
Q. When do you know it’s not working? I’m a 23-year-old man with a 22-year-old girlfriend. We’ve lived together for a little over a year, and throughout our almost three-year relationship, things feel like they’ve mostly ranged from pretty bad to kind of good. Is this normal? We have genuine trust and love and cute stories, and our families both love us individually and as a couple. But I just don’t know if I’m happy. She struggles with a (diagnosed) anxiety disorder and has extremely volatile mood swings (rage, frustration, helplessness)—full-on stomping and slamming doors on a more-than-monthly basis. As I get to know her family more, I see this is not new. As hard as I know dealing with mental health problems can be, I don’t want to always be on the edge of an eruption. It feels like I’m constantly wading through negativity and going further to bring my partner to a place of positivity and growth. I don’t want to be the guy who leaves when his partner’s having a tough time. But I feel like we’ve been on the wrong side of a tough time for almost three years now. We all know when it’s too bad to continue. How do you know when it’s not bad bad but you’re not thriving?
A: I hope this doesn’t come across as flippant, but I don’t think we do “all know” when something is too bad to continue; this letter strikes me as a prime example of that divide. The relationship you describe has, in three years, never achieved a greater height than “kind of good.” When listing what’s right in your relationship, you include “our families love us” right after “cute stories,” which doesn’t strike me as a ringing endorsement. You also say that you feel like things have been mostly wrong for three years, which is the entire length of your relationship. I don’t know where you got the idea that regular door slamming and stomping fits of rage are things you have to accept as part of the deal when it comes to anxiety or mental health issues in general—if your girlfriend has said as much, that’s extremely worrying—but it’s simply not true. You can have all the compassion and patience in the world for her anxiety disorder and still expect to be treated with respect and safety. Her anxiety disorder does not justify her fits of rage, nor does it make it impossible for her to treat you kindly.
It sounds like you care for this woman but you don’t like the way she treats you or responds to her own anger, and you haven’t seen any improvement in three years. I think you can say this relationship is too bad to continue right now.
Q. Cancer diagnosis: I was recently diagnosed with cancer. I’ve shared it with a few close friends and my siblings. I don’t want to go public with this news right now because I don’t think I can handle the questions and attention. I also planned not to tell my elderly father until I have a clear course of action. Am I doing the right thing?
A: I’m so sorry about your diagnosis. I hope you feel a lot of freedom to disclose when it feels least exhausting and open-ended to do so. And whenever that time does come, I hope you can say—or deputize someone to say on your behalf—that what you’d find most helpful is to not be asked a lot of follow-up questions about your treatment. In my experience, many people thrive on being told what to do in a crisis. It may be useful for your friends to hear, “Right now, the most useful thing you can do to help ____ is to save your questions for [whichever friend or sibling you’ve deputized as your point person] and talk about regular, everyday topics with _____ to help maintain a sense of normalcy.”
I think it’s fine to hold off on speaking to your father about your diagnosis until you’ve figured out what you’re going to do. It might be different if you worried your siblings wouldn’t be able to keep a secret, but it’s not as if you’re planning on avoiding him for years. You’re in a difficult position, and if you need a few extra days or weeks to focus all your energies on figuring out what you want to do before talking to your father, I think it’s well deserved. If anyone with similar experience wants to share what worked, or didn’t work, when it came to sharing a diagnosis with friends and family, please let us know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!
Q. Not quite comparable: I am a nonbinary lesbian, and one of my closest friends is cis, straight, and demisexual. She often talks about her struggles to join a queer community and how in high school she was ousted from the LGBT support club for “not being gay enough.” She also has a distaste for PDA, which she says is why she dislikes Pride events. There are times when she will complain to me about “our” community, like saying she doesn’t “like” it when being gay is “someone’s whole personality,” and honestly it makes me angry. I grew up in an extremely religious town that greatly affected my self-image and suppressed my ability to come out even to myself until after college. It’s taken so much time and mental energy and digging through self-loathing to arrive at myself that I feel very annoyed when she talks like our experiences are similar. While I don’t think it’s right to demand that queer people suffer in order to receive acceptance by their community, I also don’t have a lot of sympathy for her situation. I can understand that it’s difficult to date straight men when sex isn’t on the table until much later in a relationship, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with my experience either.
She’s very sensitive on the topic because of that experience in high school, and I just don’t know how to bring this up with her without creating a huge mess. Our friendship is long distance now, but I talk to her in some way every day. I’m afraid that as I finally begin to seek out my own queer community in my city, she’ll start up again about demisexual exclusion and PDA. Should I even bring this up with her? Is it worth it to call out the things she says or has said that annoy me when we’re not even in the same city anymore?
A: I’m a little surprised to hear your friend was kicked out of an LGBT support group in high school—in my experience, most high school support groups of that kind were and are GSAs that welcomed anyone on board with the general principle of LGBT rights, no matter their orientation. Regardless, as you say, the fact that some of your friend’s gay classmates treated her unkindly in high school, while sad, has no bearing on your desire to seek out sex, romance, friendship, support, parties, gay bars, or Pride events now. (I’m trying to avoid the catchall “queer community” because, as you no doubt already know, there are a number of queer communities, and no one person or group speaks for all of them.)
If you say to your friend, “I’m planning on [asking someone out, going to a gay bar, riding with Dykes on Bikes, joining a queer meetup group]” and her response is “Some of those people might kiss in public or fail to include me in community events,” then you have every right to reject that misdirection and tell her it isn’t up for debate. You also have the right to call some of this homophobia, even if she doesn’t agree with you; dismissing people as “too gay” is a homophobic response.
I do think this is worth bringing up, because it’s bothered you to the point where you no longer feel sympathy or patience for a friend you talk to every day, which means it’s taking up a lot of room in your relationship already. She has every right to be hurt by her high school classmates, to dislike PDA, and to seek out relationships she finds affirming and meaningful. But attempting to dictate your decisions in order to redress her own individual grievances is a bridge too far.
Q. Old love: We reconnected by phone after some 40 years. He told me that I was his first love and he has never forgotten me. We both married other people and saw each other occasionally over the years, but nothing significant. He said he used to keep in touch with my family just to hear news of me. When he divorced his first wife he visited me to see if there was a chance for me and him. He saw what he thought was a happy marriage and left. He later remarried and has been with the same woman for 15 years with two kids. We connected a couple of years ago by phone and that was when he told me that I was his first love and he has never forgotten me. He keeps me in his heart. He said the most amazing things to me and I confessed that I always fantasized about him. Our relationship grew by video chat and we did cross boundaries. He said he was happily married and loved his wife but also loved me. He said he doesn’t want to lose me.
He says that he doesn’t want to lose what he has with his wife or hurt his kids but he can’t forget me. He is overwhelmed by his feelings for me. If he could he would run away, but that can never happen. He tells me I am his dream woman and he is so sad we missed each other. He doesn’t see this as cheating on his wife. I believe that he can’t love her if it was so easy to get into a relationship with me, albeit long distance. He had no benefit for keeping in touch with me, as our relationship is not physical except for that one time. We used to speak every day, then once a week, and now, because his family is home, he calls me at least once a week for a few minutes. I am frustrated and jealous. I have no right to be. What am I to do? He is madly jealous of any man who he thinks may have designs on me.
A: I fear the answer you’re looking for is something like this: “Offer him the following specific ultimatum. Use these exact words. Then wait a week: He will suddenly wake up with renewed strength and resolve, leave his wife, and whisk you away; he’ll follow through on all the promises he’s made about loving you more than anyone.” I can’t give you that answer. The best I can offer is this: You can’t control how often he calls; you can’t control the promises he makes to you, or the assurances that if only the timing had worked out a little differently you’d be together right now; you can’t control his attempts to keep you from moving on by dating someone else. It sounds like he does what he wants, when he wants—calls you when he thinks he’ll get something out of it, doesn’t call you when it’s not convenient, picks you up and puts you back on a shelf according to his own fancy, says “amazing things” when he wants to encourage your fantasies about him, goes silent when he’d rather be with his family, tries to keep you on indefinite reserve for him by discouraging you from going on dates with someone available. You can safely assume that he’ll keep doing this as long as he still gets something out of it, namely, your attention. I don’t think you can count on him to ever fish or cut bait, to either say, “I’ve decided to stay with my wife and really commit to this relationship, so I’m ending things between us” or “I’m ready to stop blaming time and circumstance and commit to being with you.”
Enough about what you can’t control. What can you control? If you get something out of this intermittent, mostly phone-based relationship, and you can envision yourself mostly happily continuing with it, knowing as you do the upsides (intensity, a sense of private exclusivity and of being in on a glorious secret, familiarity) and the downsides (furtiveness, unpredictability, lack of commitment, not dating anyone else), you can keep taking his calls. But if the idea of a future that looks a lot like your past doesn’t appeal, you can stop taking them.
Q. Re: Can’t teach everyone: “We enjoy a relationship of comity with you because of our common interest in the well-being of your daughters who reside in our household. But this comity does not compel us to care for your other spawn.”
A: I can’t in good conscience recommend that the letter writer say “This comity does not compel us to care for your other spawn” to anyone she wants to keep on speaking terms. I agree with the principle but can’t imagine anyone responding positively to being spoken to like that.
Q. Re: Cancer diagnosis: I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February of 2019. You do not have to tell! My immediate family is all who knows. I haven’t told extended family or friends or anyone, and it’s just a relief to not have nonstop intense “How are you?” conversations every day.
A: Thanks so much for that reminder—this really is a situation where I think it’s important for the letter writer to put their own interests first. You’re the one dealing with cancer, and you have the right to carefully control how much time and energy you spend on draining conversations, however well-meaning the conversationalists may be.
Q. My former intern is trying to blackmail me: I’m in the middle of an intense emotional affair at work. I am separated, his marriage is on the rocks, but nothing has happened beyond hand-holding. We get an incredible amount of support from each other and thought no one at work noticed. The issue is my summer intern: She did notice and is now threatening me that I have to write her a letter of recommendation better than the one I did or else she will “tell.” She did an OK job but was not the best or brightest, so I wrote a B-plus recommendation. She confronted me and mentioned she knew everything. So should I write an even more enthusiastic letter or stand my ground? I really feel like I haven’t done anything wrong with my colleague but don’t want to deal with any awkward questions. 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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