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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! Let’s chat.
Q. Student stalkers: My husband is a teacher who is many of his students’ favorites. They have his work email, but he doesn’t share any other contact information. However, he’s gotten gifts mailed to our home address, most recently last week, from students who have looked up this information online. I find this behavior very unsettling, and I’ve asked him to return the gifts and tell the students it’s inappropriate to look up people’s addresses when they have refused a direct request to provide them. Apparently this rejection would “crush” his students, so he keeps the gifts but doesn’t send out a thank-you letter or other acknowledgement. I completely disagree with his handling of the situation—how is that response kind? And what if a student shows up at our house?—but other than sending the gifts back myself without telling him or doing something similarly deceitful, I don’t know what recourse I have. Should I just let this go?
A: I’m pretty sure most states have limits on what types of gifts instructors are permitted to receive, as well as their monetary value, and your husband could pretty easily find this out by asking the school administration. There are also probably a number of good reasons to make sure your home address isn’t so easy to find online, so I’d encourage you both to take steps to address that. I think your husband’s students are a little more resilient than he gives them credit for; if he comes up with a clear gifts policy that everyone knows about and abides by, no one is going to be “crushed” or irreparably damaged as a result. Frankly, his compromise seems like the worst of all possible worlds: The students never know for sure if their gifts arrived, you feel uncomfortable and worried about privacy, and he behaves rudely.
I spoke with a friend of mine who’s a high school teacher, and she had this to say on the subject: “It depends on the school, but this seems really inappropriate. He should report this to the administrator—students should not have their teachers’ home address under any circumstances. If the school has its own gift policy, the kids should give the gifts directly or via school mailbox. I’m concerned that he used the word crushing to describe a totally normal and appropriate boundary between teacher and student, and I think the letter writer should make it very clear that this has to be reported to the school. The best-case scenario is that they’re hoping to bribe their way into better grades or just say thank you after graduation. Current students should not be giving gifts at all.” If any others, particularly teachers, have thoughts, feel free to chime in.
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Q. My “boyfriend” spanked his young daughter: I have been dating a man for about six months. He is married with two young kids; he and his wife are polyamorous and it’s all on the up and up. Our relationship is sexual, and we have also been developing a deep, intimate friendship. I have consistently found him to be kind, caring, and respectful. I’m a mother myself, and we don’t know each other’s children, though we often talk about our kids, vent about the trials of parenting in a pandemic, etc. In describing a conflict at home with his 8-year-old daughter he casually mentioned that he “swatted her butt a few times.” He didn’t even share it confessing shame or remorse—he mentioned it casually and offhandedly! It makes me question everything I thought I knew about him. It is clear to me the spanking was within what is legal in my state, but I firmly believe that all “spanking” is abuse. I am horrified. He has been my only sexual relationship during COVID as well as a core source of emotional support to me during an isolating and hard time. I am ashamed to say for the past few days I’ve been attempting to write it off as “not my business,” but I want to do better than that. Do I dump him and lecture him about spanking on the way out the door? Is that too judgmental? Is there something else I can do so the little girl doesn’t get hit again?
A: I don’t think you have to fear seeming “judgmental” here: You’ve already made a judgment, based on your own values and an honest conversation. You’re not plastering his picture up at the post office or clapping him in irons; you’re allowed to make decisions about romantic relationships on the strength of someone else’s parenting, and you’ve only known this guy for six months. Own the fact that you have made a judgment and you judge him to have acted wrongly! “I was really troubled by our last conversation where you talked about spanking your kid. I know it’s legal, but I think it’s wrong to physically punish children, and I feel strongly enough about this that I don’t want to keep seeing each other. I hope you’ll stop doing it, but regardless, I don’t want to set up another date.” You can also thank him for the good times you’ve had, and you don’t have to get drawn into an argument about whether he’s a good person. Too often I hear from people who worry that dumping someone is the exact same thing as a permanent moral evaluation. It simply isn’t. You’ll feel worse than you already do, I think, if you keep putting this off, because trying to ignore it hasn’t worked. But you don’t have to tell him he’s a monster either, just that you think the spanking is wrong and you hope he stops—and that you’re ready to move on to someone else.
Q. Oldest friend ghosted me: I just discovered that my childhood best friend, “Sara,” has unfriended me on Facebook. No message, no call, just … deleted. I had commented on a post of hers recently enough that I know she can only have deleted me in the past week. We didn’t message often, as we’re both busy people and live across the country from each other, but we had no fight or disagreement that I can remember. We hadn’t even exchanged a message since January; that was perfectly friendly and she seemed as enthusiastic about chatting as ever. We grew up together, practically lived in each other’s houses, and knew each other’s families. Even after she moved away, we always met up when she was back in my part of the country (where we grew up) and we’d click back into our old rapport right away. I have honestly no idea what has happened or why she deleted me after 25 years of friendship. It’s clearly no accident, as her spouse has deleted me too, also with no warning or fallout. I am truly upset and don’t know what to do. My husband thinks she’s no great loss if this is how she ends a decadeslong friendship, and that I should ghost right back, but I very much want to contact her and find out what on earth has happened. Should I? I’m pretty sure I still have the right number for her if she ignores me on Facebook. (My messages might only reach her spam box since we’re no longer friends there.) Should I call and try to find out, or do you think her obvious decision to ghost me needs to be respected by reciprocal lack of contact?
A: Of course you can ask! She may not respond, or she may give you an answer you find unsatisfactory, but you haven’t been given such a clear rebuff that any further attempts at conversation would be rude or inappropriate. Just tell her that you noticed the change and wanted to make sure you hadn’t said or done something to offend her, then give her the chance to respond. Bear in mind that lots of people try to pare down unwieldy friend lists without any malice or ill will—she may simply be looking to spend less time on Facebook, and it’s not necessarily a sign that she doesn’t want to catch up the next time you’re both in town. You can also mention that you were hurt; I think your husband’s suggestion that it’s “no great loss” if she did ghost you intentionally is more of a self-protective gesture than anything else, because of course your feelings would be hurt if a friend of 25 years suddenly stopped speaking to you. I hope that’s not the case. Give her a call or a text, and good luck!
Q. Wedding gift we haven’t received: My husband and I got married in August. We had registered for a number of items in the winter, back when our wedding was still planned as a large event with friends and family flying in from all over the country. Since then, we’ve had to downscale to a small livestreamed ceremony this year, with a larger reception planned for next year. One of his relatives bought us a coffeemaker off the registry in the spring (or so the registry website tells us), but we have not received it. Is there an appropriate time to inquire? If they are waiting until after the wedding (now-ish) or before the reception (a year from now) to send it, we don’t want to seem greedy. It’s just that not sending a thank-you note could signal that we haven’t received it or that we’re ill-mannered twits. For what it’s worth, our current one is on its very last legs, and this is a very, very nice one. It seems silly to buy a replacement for ours if there is a new one arriving any day, but also, coffee maker.
A: Since this is a relative, you have more latitude to gracefully double-check than you might otherwise; your husband can just ask. Given that a lot of people have lost their jobs or had their incomes reduced in the last few months, he should do this delicately, but all he has to say is something like this: “We got a note from the registry website that you’d gotten us a coffee maker. Thank you so much. We can really use it, because our old one is on its last legs. I’ll keep an eye out for it in the mail, since it hasn’t arrived yet, but let us know if there’s a tracking number we can use to follow it.
Now available in your podcast player: The audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.
Q. Bye-bye, bestie: My best friend has been dragging out her divorce from her alcoholic husband for years. It’s her choice, yes, but it’s not fair to their 4-year-old child. She had an affair with a married man; her husband found out and spiraled out of control. I’ve always been there for her, and I encouraged her to work things out when it still looked like things could be fixed (pre-affair). I’ve always been honest with her, and she has become passive-aggressive. She’s basically stopped talking to me. I’ve always had to be the one to reach out, and I’ve decided I’m done. I reached out for the last time a week ago to make sure everything was OK with her. She said it was and that she’s stressed and “shutting everyone out.” I said I’m concerned we may stop being friends if I don’t keep reaching out and she said that’s just how life seems to be right now. That was especially hurtful, and I’ve decided it’s not worth reaching out anymore.
Is it unfair of me that I’m finally just done trying? She’s refusing to divorce her husband and is living in a state of stress and misery, not willing to hear anyone’s advice even while complaining about how miserable she is. I know I must sound cold; I promise I’m not. I’ve been there and supported her for years. The fact that she has seemed to forget that is especially hurtful. Basically, it’s hard to have a one-way friendship. I guess I just need some reassurance that it’s OK for me to move on from a friendship and it’s OK to grow even though it’s hard—people need to make their own choices, right?
A: For what it’s worth, it doesn’t sound like your friend has forgotten that you’ve supported and advised her for years, but her current state of immobilization, anxiety, and depression has overwhelmed her sense of priorities and ability to act. I don’t doubt your sincere love for her, or your desire to be helpful, but I wonder if part of the reason it feels so impossible for you to continue this friendship is because you’ve expended more energy than necessary: It’s one thing to be there for a friend whose marriage is in crisis, but it might have been easier for you to stop giving her advice once it became clear she wasn’t willing or able to take it. You say you’ve always been honest with her, but from your letter it seems like you never expressed your frustrations about how she was treating you until you told her you were thinking of ending the friendship.
Of course you have reason to be hurt, and yes, you have every right to stop calling her if she never reciprocates. And I can understand why you felt hesitant to say anything sooner when she was so obviously in crisis. But you also don’t have to formally break up with her as a friend in order to stop calling her every week; if you want to simply back off for a while and leave the door slightly open for a possible reconciliation in the future, I think that might be your best option. The most important question for you to answer, I think, is: “Can I imagine continuing this friendship even if she doesn’t leave her husband? How would I make sure we spend at least some of the time talking about me and my life instead of trying to manage her divorce for her?”
Q. Home: I am a homebody. I love my house and have been working from home since I bought it. I do socialize, but it’s mostly online, especially now. My sister is the exact opposite and has been “climbing up the walls” because she can’t go out and see people. She also doesn’t “believe” in social media. She has been calling and texting everyone nonstop since May. Every day. She has alienated a huge chunk of our friends and family because of her inability to accept reasonable boundaries. Now she is clinging to me and I am drowning. She will text me nonstop everyday (think “I had soup for lunch”) and will want to have hourlong conversations about topics we have already covered. If I try to limit our contact, she will cry and complain about her mental health. I feel guilty, but I am burning out. We didn’t talk this much when we were teenagers and had to share a room.
A: It will help to remind yourself that giving in to your sister’s anxious demands won’t actually help her, that even if you did respond to every one of her texts with a description of what soup you ate that day or spoke to her for an hour every afternoon about the same set topics, it could never make up for what she’s lost in being unable to socialize with the rest of the world in person. So when you limit your texting availability or the length of your phone calls, you’re not unilaterally cutting her off from the one thing that’s keeping her going; you’re maintaining your own sanity and pushing back against the mistaken belief that repetitive conversations are going to make her feel better. If she’s losing friends over this but still can’t stop herself, I think it’s safe to assume she’s not doing this out of malice but an inability to regulate or assess her own panic. That doesn’t make drawing boundaries necessarily easier—she’s your sister and you care about her, and it’s always hard to interrupt someone who’s crying in order to tell them “No”—but I think you should keep limiting contact, and be clear about when you are and aren’t available. If you haven’t encouraged her to speak to her doctor and/or a therapist about this, please do, but don’t feel that it’s your job to spend hours on the phone persuading her she needs to seek professional help either. Just recommend it, speak to her when you can, and set her to “Do Not Disturb” when you can’t.
Q. Done, but I love my son: After 20-plus years of abuse, alcoholism, and infidelity, I finally got fed up and put my partner, “Marc,” out of the house we share. Our son is 20 years old and currently away at college. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, he will be returning home soon. I struggle to find a way to explain why his father is no longer residing in our home without sharing any hurtful details. I want my son to continue to feel good about himself in relation to his dad, but I also worry that others are not safe around “Marc”: I believe he may have abused others while we were together, possibly including minors. How do I talk to my son in a way that is honest while avoiding sharing information that is guaranteed to hurt him?
A: I imagine that if your son lived in the same home as Marc for the first 18 years of his life, he’s got at least some idea of Marc’s alcoholism and abusiveness. Given that you’re concerned Marc may have abused minors and your son was the nearest minor available for years, I don’t think your primary goal here should be euphemizing your concerns (although I agree you should try to speak tactfully and use noninflammatory language) but asking your son what harm, if any, he may have suffered from your ex over the years.
That’s a very difficult conversation to have with your child, of course, even though your child is now a young adult; I’d encourage you to find a family therapist who can guide you through the process and possibly mediate some of these questions. It may also mean hearing things from your son that cause you pain, including anger at you for failing to protect him. This isn’t just a conversation where you tell your son something he doesn’t know, but one where you should ask questions, be patient, invite a response, and listen carefully and nondefensively. That doesn’t mean you should jump in with “Did Marc hurt you? Tell me everything,” both because that’s too intrusive for an initial conversation and it frames disclosure as a responsibility of your son’s to give to you, rather than something he’s entitled to, at his own pace, and to the recipient(s) of his own choosing.
Q. Re: Student stalkers: Chiming in to say that if your husband’s students are (semi-)regularly looking up his personal information online and he feels they’d be “crushed” if he set better boundaries, it’s worth asking the husband to take a really critical look at the way he’s engaging with students in order to find ways he might be inviting or possibly encouraging boundary violations. It’s pretty normal for “favorite” teachers to get cards or even small presents at work … beyond that raises flags about the teacher (more than the students) for me.
A: I’m inclined to agree! Not that the letter writer’s husband necessarily or automatically has bad intentions, or is attempting to solicit his students affections in inappropriate ways, but there’s a lot he can do here to clear this up, and it’s odd that he’s acting as if his hands are tied because his students would be so upset by something as commonplace and ordinary as protecting your address or telling students you can’t accept gifts sent directly to your home.
Q. Re: Student stalkers: The letter doesn’t say what level he teaches. If it is public school it is common for students to give gifts as small tokens of appreciation. I, as a teacher, always thanked the students and have kept many of their gifts. But if they sent them to my house, that is a step too far. And if they are current students in college-level classes, it is even worse unless they have completed the course. I think he should confront it more directly. Maybe a general announcement at the beginning of the class each year?
A: I assumed that if he taught at the college level, the letter writer would have mentioned it, so I think it’s reasonable to intuit that the kids are old enough to purchase and mail gifts on their own but not young adults or college students. All the more reason for the teacher to set clear guidelines, since kids that age are still figuring a lot out.
Q. Re: Oldest friend ghosted me: The friend could have simply deleted her profile. I thought an old friend did that to me, but it turned out she deactivated her whole Facebook. It has helped me to think of your social media contacts as a rolodex of people you’ve met, rather than as a statement on your friendships.
A: That feels like the key to me here, even if it doesn’t turn out that she deleted her entire account. The point is that Facebook is not a referendum on affection. Whatever response the letter writer gets may prove either relieving or painful, but the point is that she doesn’t yet know for certain and has every reason to ask politely before reacting.
Q. Re: Wedding gift we haven’t received: That seems really passive-aggressive. A direct ask would allow room for the potential gift giver to respond with “I didn’t get it,” or “Oh, we’re waiting for the reception,” or anything else. The way it’s written now sounds like a demand couched in fake politeness.
A: I don’t think it’s passive-aggressive to ask for a tracking number (or rather, let’s say I was shooting for tactful rather than unnecessarily evasive), but of course it’s possible to be more direct and simply ask outright without squeamishness or fear that you’re mentioning the unmentionable.
Q. I can’t get over my wife’s sordid sexual past: I have been married to my wife for two years, and we’ve been together for five. We have a great relationship, and both of us consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have found each other. However, so that I could understand her better, she recently told me some things about her past that have troubled me quite a bit. She said she has had quite a wild sexual past. She has slept with male strippers, been involved in aggressive sex with multiple partners that involved hitting, slept with a number of married men, cheated in most relationships, enjoyed getting choked during sex, and possibly even shared a sexual partner with her mother. She said she did these things because she was sad and depressed and sex made her feel better. She told me these things not to make me jealous or to hurt me, but for me to understand she is happier since she met me than she ever has been and doesn’t need to do these things anymore. I am having a hard time getting these images out of my head. Furthermore, I’m afraid this sounds like sexual addiction and that it could resurface. I’m desperate for advice. Read what Prudie had to say.
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