Dear Prudence

My Best Friend Is Telling Everyone We’re Dating

I thought it was clear we were just having a little fun during quarantine.

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Dear Prudence,

Over the summer, my best friend of nine years and I shared a house in the town where we both grew up. During those few months, we started sleeping together, which was great. That also involved lots of clear communication about our expectations. We both agreed this wasn’t a long-term thing, just something fun to occupy us during the pandemic. When both of us moved back, I thought we had a clear understanding that we were going back to being just friends—but she is telling everyone that I’m her new girlfriend! I don’t want to hurt her, but I know the longer I let her believe it, the more hurt she will be in the end. How do I breach the subject and clear up this misunderstanding in the most gentle way possible?

—Friendly Fog

Assuming this isn’t just a misunderstanding and that you have real evidence your friend has been misrepresenting the nature of your relationship to your mutual friends, I don’t think maximum gentleness should be your goal. If you were really clear about going back to being friends, and she’s lied repeatedly about being girlfriends, then you should strive for firmness of purpose over gentleness. Remember that she has hurt you and that your feelings matter too! I’m not suggesting you start yelling at her, but you can kindly tell her: “I thought our last few conversations about sleeping together this summer were really clear and that we both understood we were going back to being friends, so I was surprised to hear that you’d told [friend’s name] that I was your girlfriend. This was really unexpected and painful, because I thought we’d both worked hard to be honest and straightforward with each other, and I found it embarrassing to have to correct her. What am I missing?”

Help! My Partner Has Turned Our Home Into a Horror Show of Quilts.

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

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Dear Prudence,

My partner, “Camille,” and I are both women in our mid-20s. We’ve been together for five years, are still spectacularly in love, and we just signed a lease together. Camille comes from a fairly conservative family and is only about “half-out” to them: Her mom knows we’re together but never talks about it, and her dad doesn’t know at all.

I love tattoos and have always wanted them, and last year I got my first one. It’s very small and easy to cover up. Camille was supportive, but when I talked about getting more a few weeks later, she was upset and anxious, as she could never get a tattoo herself because her parents would quite literally disown her. If her parents knew I had a tattoo, they would hate me. But lately I can’t stop thinking about getting more tattoos! I fantasize about designs and placements and have been looking up local studios. I mentioned some of this to Camille, and she seemed to feel positively about it, but maybe only because it is still in the realm of fantasy. Would it be disrespectful to my partner and her relationship with her parents to get more tattoos? Would it be disrespectful to my relationship? I know, my body, my choice, but my choices impact her, too. I’m asking so I can go into a sensitive, self-aware discussion with her. It’s not like I need more tattoos, and Camille’s happiness means everything to me.

—To Tattoo or Not

I strongly encourage you not to think of your body, your appearance, or your self-expression only in terms of need and what you can “do without.” That’s such a restrictive, joy-rationing approach, and one that frames healthy, necessary conflict as disrespectful rather than simply uncomfortable. But it’s not disrespectful to Camille’s parents if you were to get another tattoo (or three or 10). Nor can I agree that Camille’s happiness requires that she never disagree with her parents! Her decision to remain partly closeted and to defer to their body-modification preferences is just that—her decision. It’s not the only decision available to her. It’s not even necessarily the best decision available to her! It’s merely what she has chosen to do so far. If you chose to get more tattoos, it might make things slightly more difficult for your partner in some ways, but “difficulty” and “disrespect” are not synonyms, and it is not your responsibility to make Camille’s life as easy and unruffled as possible.

Of course, as her partner, you want to provide her with strength and support. That’s only natural! And I’m not suggesting you tell Camille you’re going to kick down her parents’ door tomorrow, shove your matching tattoos in their faces, and demand they get over it. But it might be time to reconsider some of her commitments. What does it mean to have a relationship with someone who you believe would disown you if you got a tattoo? How do you build trust and mutual respect under such conditional terms of love? What if Camille’s parents decide to disown her over something else? Can either of you imagine a world where you still care for her parents but don’t go out of your way to accommodate their extreme homophobia and conservative standards of appearance? It is possible to respect one’s parents without pretending to adhere to their values. More than anything, I hope you can stop thinking of “respect” and “deference” as the same thing. Such a distinction will make difficult decisions feel a lot easier.

[Read how Stoya answered this letter in the Sept. 23, 2020, How to Do It.]

Dear Prudence,

I grew up with two siblings. After a lifetime of conflict and mental health challenges, I cut off ties with my older sibling a month ago. My mental health has improved immensely, and I am working with my younger sibling and our parents on navigating our new dynamic. I’m grateful for their support. How do I update other people if the subject ever comes up? What’s the right amount of detail to share? How should I answer questions like, “How many siblings do you have?” I am not necessarily trying to go into a long, complicated family history on a first date but want to be honest.

—Middle Child No More

If it’s someone you don’t know well, aren’t likely to see again, or don’t trust with personal information, you can just say, “I have two siblings,” and then move on. The only reason I don’t advise you to say “I’ve only got one” is because it increases the possibility of an awkward exchange down the road. That possibility may not be very high—there aren’t many circumstances in which someone you don’t know well will ask a series of pointed questions about your siblings—but it’s better to avoid it if possible. A bland “we’re not very close” will satisfy all but the most impertinent of questioners, and if you want to discourage further interest, adopt an attitude of boredom and detachment. If you want to share more details with close friends who are already aware of your complicated family history, do so, but I can tell you from happy experience that the majority of new colleagues and acquaintances aren’t in the least bit interested.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

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More Advice From Care and Feeding

My younger sister has made a lot of choices in the last few years that my family has struggled with. After shocking us with a divorce, she’s now engaged to a man twice her age who’s in prison for an inappropriate relationship with a previous student (also half his age). She met him at church before he went to prison, and says that he’s turned his life around and is heartbroken for his past transgressions. They plan to marry this fall. The entire situation has been tough for our family, but I’ve worked hard to support her and love her through everything, even though she knows I don’t necessarily agree with her decisions.

The issue is how to handle this when her fiancé gets out of prison, and they get married. My husband and I live across the country and only come home a few times a year, but we have a young daughter, and I’m not comfortable with her being around a registered sex offender. My sister casually mentioned that next year they could join us for our yearly family vacation, and my heart stopped. The thought of being under the same roof with that man scares me. Am I being irrational, or is this a valid concern?