Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Afternoon, everyone! Let’s solve some problems.
Q. Brother “borrowing” my stuff: Last year, I lent my brother an expensive piece of photography equipment. After a few months, his wife sold it on eBay; I didn’t find out about it until I asked for it back for a project. He apologized and said it was an accident (she thought the equipment was his). He offered to buy a replacement, but I said there was no need. Fast forward a year later, my brother asked me to borrow another piece of equipment, which I mailed to him at the beginning of the pandemic. This week I got a text from my brother asking if he could sell it on eBay and if he could keep the money. I told him I’d rather he didn’t; it’s my equipment, but I’d be happy to let him borrow money if he needed it. Today my mom called out of the blue to tell me my brother complained to her that I wouldn’t let him sell my equipment even though I “clearly didn’t need it.” I’m a grad student and my brother makes more money than me! I’m so offended, especially since he went and complained to our mom.
Am I the jerk here? My girlfriend says my brother’s probably having some money problems and is too embarrassed to ask for help, so I should just let him do it. I say he wasn’t embarrassed enough to ask to sell my stuff, but I see her point and I’m just annoyed about it, especially since this happened last year as well. I’d love an outside opinion on this. What are your thoughts?
A: My thoughts are that you should tell your brother to send your photography equipment back, and that you’re not going to lend him any more in the future. If a sibling asks to borrow your stuff, sells it, lies about their wife selling it “by accident,” then tries to run the same scam on you a year later—and sends your mother to accuse you of not using your camera enough—it seems remarkably short-sighted and naïve to say, “Well, he’s probably having some money problems, and thought this was less embarrassing than just asking for money.” Even if he is having money problems, and he’s embarrassed to discuss it straightforwardly, “being embarrassed” isn’t a license to behave rudely or to sell your siblings’ stuff. Your offer to lend him money was a kind one (although I think you should assume that if you ever do lend him money in the future, you’re not likely to get it back), but you have no obligation to go any further. You can politely tell your mother that you’d rather discuss your issues with your brother directly with him, and that you won’t take her advice on the subject, and stick to your original commitment.
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Q. Superspreader Christmas wedding: My wife’s sister is going forward with an indoor, mask-optional, 100-plus guest wedding, buffet, and reception five days before Christmas. As a bridesmaid, my wife is expected to attend an indoor, maskless bridal shower, fly to another state for a maskless bachelorette weekend, and attend a maskless indoor rehearsal dinner. When we voiced our concerns about the health risk, they said we could wear a mask if we aren’t comfortable except when pictures were being taken and during the ceremony. We pointed out that going to this event five days before Christmas would mean that we can’t visit my elderly parents on Christmas without potentially exposing them to the virus. They couldn’t care less. Nor do they care that every person at the event will also be putting their families at risk at Christmas gatherings. We feel a moral obligation to do our part and stay apart and have done so all year, but now we’re being forced to compromise our principles to serve someone else’s selfish desires. We’re at our breaking point on this—what do we do?
A: You two should not go, be honest about why you’re not going, and encourage your sister-in-law to reconsider holding such a risky event.
Q. My partner’s severe anxiety around marriage: I’m a 31-year-old woman and have been with my partner for five years. We love each other deeply, live together, and share values and life goals around marriage and kids. We’ve had a really wonderful time living together and have plans for getting engaged. But when he started to look for a ring, it triggered a severe case of anxiety that has been unrelenting for weeks. He is someone that struggles with debilitating anxiety during life milestones and transitions—I’ve seen it with job changes, etc. As a child of divorce (his parents split in college), he has been having obsessive thoughts about failing as a husband and father and repeating some of the mistakes he witnessed in his parents’ marriage. He wants to push out our engagement until he is in a better mental state, which is a given since he is not in the right state of mind.
I’m just deeply saddened on a number of levels, worried for him, and feeling helpless and heartbroken. I want him to feel his best because I know how unbearable his anxiety can be for him. He tells me he wants to be with me and to get married one day, but it’s very challenging to feel rejected and alone in a relationship due to mental illness. He is working with therapists and a psychiatrist, and we are looking into couples counseling to get through this time together. Depending on the hour, I’m at a loss on what to do and also how to feel hopeful in a relationship that leaves me feeling alone. What advice do you have for couples that manage mental illness in a relationship without it corroding the connection?
A: My first piece of advice is for you not to convince yourself that it’s your primary job to “feel hopeful” right now, any more than it’s your partner’s job to “feel nonanxious.” He’s receiving professional treatment and you haven’t done or said anything to imply you hold him responsible for his compulsively anxious thoughts, so ease up on the pressure you’re applying to yourself. If you’re sad and heartbroken, be honest about that; supporting your partner through a crisis doesn’t mean you have to put on a happy face 24/7 and pretend you don’t have any needs or desires of your own. You can save those conversations for a relatively stable time, and you can describe them tactfully—but of course you’re sad! Of course this is affecting you. That’s to be expected, and it’s neither shameful nor unsupportive for you to acknowledge how your partner’s terror at the idea of getting engaged affects you. Do whatever you can to move from “looking into couples counseling” to finding a couples counselor you can meet with as soon as possible; I think it will help you speak honestly about your own feelings if there’s a mediator present, so you don’t have to worry so much about how your feelings might affect his.
And don’t just speak to your partner and your counselor about this—be honest with your friends and family too. That’s not disloyal or cruel. You’re not speaking out of turn or airing his dirty laundry by speaking honestly about a crisis in your relationship and asking for additional support during a time when your partner can’t offer you his. Of course I don’t mean that you should start texting everyone in your acquaintance, or that you should share intimate details about his mental health treatment, but you need ongoing, meaningful advice, support, and care from the people you love. You seem to have a very clear picture of how this is affecting him, and just how difficult his anxiety makes day-to-day life, and that’s wonderful. But don’t let your ability to empathize with his experience lead you to overidentify with it and convince yourself that his are the only feelings that matter.
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Q. Interfaith in Ithaca: My wife and I (we’re both women) are in an interfaith marriage. I’m a member of a tiny religious minority and my wife is an atheist. Before we got married, we agreed we’d raise our kids in my religion—monthly religious service attendance, religious summer camp, etc.—and then let them choose whether to pursue the religion when they turn 18 and move out. My parents were much more prescriptive with me and I ended up rebelling against it for a long time. It was important to me that our kids make a choice for themselves once they turned 18.
However, my wife is tacitly supportive but pretty much “opts out” whenever she can. She works long hours and basically never wants to come to our religious service because she wants to catch up on sleep. I end up taking the kids by myself. My kids are teens and, seeing my wife opt out, are wondering why they can’t opt out either—which is super valid. My parents always warned me I shouldn’t marry outside the faith so I can’t talk to them about this, because all I’ll get is an “I told you so.” I can’t make my wife a role model for a religion she doesn’t believe in, but it’s incredibly important that my kids have a strong religious foundation and then make the choice from there. What should we do?
A: I’ll preface this with a disclaimer that I’m not part of your faith, either, and any advice I give you will be marked by that difference. I do think you’re entitled to say to your kids, “Your mother isn’t a member of our religion, and isn’t bound by our traditions; when you’re an adult, you can make your own choices about whether to attend services, but in the meantime it’s important that you join me and learn about our family’s faith.” Since it might feel somewhat arbitrary and even self-defeating to say, “You have absolutely no say in your role in religious observance until the day you turn 18, at which point you can do whatever you want,” and your kids are teenagers now, it might be helpful to offer them occasional weekends to catch up on sleep themselves. I’m not saying you just leave them at home every time they say, “I’m kind of tired,” especially because teenagers are very often kind of tired, but it might go a long way toward making services feel less like something to rebel against if you don’t push the point every single weekend.
It also might be a good opportunity to check in with your kids now—do they feel like they have a strong religious foundation? Do they have questions for you about what you get out of your observance? Do they feel personally committed to this faith, do they believe in God, are they interested in other faiths, etc.? I’m not suggesting you ask them and feign nonchalance about their answers. But even though they’re not yet 18, they may already have strong feelings on the subject of religion, and it’s better to ask and listen now, while they’re still living with you and you have more opportunities for conversation and engagement.
Q. My roommate’s friends becoming my friends: Due to COVID-19, it’s been very difficult to forge new relationships in real life. About three months ago, I moved in with a new roommate in a new city. The only people that I have made friends with in real life are my roommate’s friends. My roommate and I are good acquaintances, which is fine with me, but I have never hung out with her and her friends together, apart from her birthday party that she hosted at the park. I am 99.9 percent sure the only reason I was invited to the party was because I am the roommate, which is the polite move. Should I feel bad about befriending her friends but not hanging out with her (outside of being her roommate)? Advice, please!
A: Very rarely will my advice to anyone be simply, “Feel bad, and be done with the matter.” Your roommate invited you to a party, and you befriended some of the other attendees, which is neither an unexpected outcome nor an unwelcome one. Even if she did invite you mostly out of politeness, and your relationship as roommates is merely one of “good acquaintances,” you can surmise that the mixture of politeness, shared proximity, and her obvious willingness to become your roommate in the first place are evidence that she generally likes you. Nor does it sound like she’s said or done anything to suggest a sense of ownership over her other friends, so I think you can go easy on yourself.
You can, of course, try to get to know her a little better in her own right, occasionally return her invitations, or simply express your gratitude and appreciation that she’s introduced you to so many of her friends, since it’s hard to get to know new people right now. But you’re not doing anything wrong by making friends with people you’ve been introduced to, and you shouldn’t assume your roommate expected you to remain a wallflower when she invited you to her party. Have fun and stay safe!
Q. Need some sunshine in my life: How can you tell if you’re a negative, miserable person, or if you really have been wronged in life? I cannot tell if I truly have reason to be so angry at my life or if it’s all in my head. What if I am just a miserable person who focuses on the negative? A person’s disposition isn’t something one can change, despite attempts at antidepressants, meditation, etc. I am constantly seething over things that seem unfair at work, in my marriage, with my parents, etc. But what if they’re not so bad, what if they’re average, and I’m just defective in how I process the world? Anyone can write about their life, and depending on which events they write about and how they describe it, it can come across as horrible or wonderful. Everything is so subjective—is it useful to say that compared to people living in poverty and with disease that I’m lucky? And if I really have had a raw deal in life, how does one accept that and focus on what’s positive? Any tips for happiness appreciated!
A: I’m afraid it’s not always an either/or proposition—someone might have had a very rough go of it indeed without automatically becoming negative and miserable. Having a difficult life, or going through hard times (I’m not sure there’s really a standard “fair share” of hard times, although I can of course imagine a life of extreme circumstances), isn’t necessarily the sole determining force of a person’s disposition. Nor is a person’s disposition a perfect predictor of their behavior! There’s a world of difference between adopting an artificial attitude of forced cheer and simply being considerate and mindful of others.
If you are “constantly seething,” I think that’s a pretty serious indicator that whatever you’re doing isn’t working for you. That doesn’t mean it’s now your job to become chipper and easygoing. Maybe you’re in a lousy marriage, or maybe you need to push for healthy conflict with your parents. But it’s a question of focusing your energies on where they can have the greatest effect. It’s very unlikely that by constantly seething, dwelling on grievances and perceived slights and ongoing agitation, you’ll be able to ensure you get a perfectly “fair” deal out of life. But such agitation can often lead to clarity about things that need to change, like unhealthy relationships, one-sided emotional dynamics, or an exploitative boss. Or it may be that you get a certain delight out of feeling aggrieved and angry, that it provides you license to lash out at others, to take solitary pleasure in the sense of having been wronged and misunderstood. (It may sometimes be both!)
What you need help with is figuring out how much weight to assign your various frustrations, as well as the ability to unwind and relax even in the face of provocation—not to only focus on the positive, to dopily smile when things go wrong. To that end, therapy, judicious consideration of medication, and meditation can help you clarify your goals. But they’re not tools to ensure you simply feel good or upbeat all of the time. Feeling good about everything all of the time shows no more discernment than feeling bad about everything all of the time!
Q. Struggling with authenticity: My dream is to write for television. In one of my college classes, I’ve been assigned a personal branding assignment where we try to sell ourselves as professionals. Our instructor wants us to focus on authenticity and use our personal experiences to make us memorable.
I’m transgender. I’m stealth and don’t tell people unless I have to. I’ve also struggled with mental health issues, suicide attempts, etc. While brainstorming this assignment, I mentioned resilience as one of my best traits. My professor encouraged me to talk about my past and the journey I’ve been on.
I’m struggling with this. I know that in order to make it in the industry, it helps to stand out from the crowd. I know being out as a “trans writer” could open a lot of doors for me. And I know that authenticity is key, but there’s very little I can say about my journey without labeling myself or basically marketing my trauma. Is there a way to market myself authentically and “prove” that I have a unique voice and stories worth telling while not talking about these parts of my life? Is it possible to be a successful writer without being willing to share so much of what has shaped who I am? Could refusing to be open about being trans damage my chances for success?
A: I’m incredibly skeptical of anyone who tells you that you need to be hugely vulnerable and disclose intimate details of past trauma in order to succeed in your chosen field, even if that chosen field is a creative one that sometimes (or often) calls upon personal experience. Nor do I think we live in a world where trans people are so celebrated that simply coming out will significantly increase the odds you’ll land a job in a writers’ room. How many TV shows (besides those explicitly about trans people) have full-time trans writers? The WGAW Inclusion Report for 2020 has some more breakdowns about television writers here, but aside from a quick line about achieving relative parity with the national LGBTQ population at around 6 percent, there’s not much information (and there’s often a significant difference between the LGBTQ community broadly and trans people in particular). “Standing out from the crowd” is one thing, but it’s a mistake to believe the only way you can stand out is by coming out, or that it’s impossible to discuss your resilience without going into detail about your mental health history. Most writers are not hired on the basis of perceived “resilience”; even if I thought it were likely to get you a job, I’d advise against it, but the fact that I don’t think it would even help you achieve your goal is another mark against disclosing during the hiring process.
None of this is to say that you have to remain closeted, or that there’s no good reason to come out. But your professor is giving you terrible advice in suggesting that you have to furnish intimate, personal details about suicidality, trauma, or your transition in order to “stand out” from the crowd of job applicants. You should come out if and when you feel safe doing so and believe it would improve your life, your relationships, or your general well-being.
Q. Re: Brother “borrowing” my stuff: Sounds like the letter writer has both a brother problem and a mother problem. The brother problem is dealt with by not ever loaning him anything again. The mother problem may require more work than simply telling her to not get between the two siblings. If this were my child calling to complain their sibling wouldn’t let them sell the sibling’s property, I’d call them to the carpet for being selfish and tell them that they should pay the sibling back for any property that was borrowed and not returned. That’s what a fair parent should do. The fact this mother did not do that, but instead called the letter writer, is very telling about where her priorities are. I have a sneaking suspicion Mom has a favorite here and that the letter writer is expected to cater to his brother. If that’s the case, simply telling Mom to get her nose out of their business won’t work. The letter writer may have to endure a lot of “buuuut faaamilyyy” for a bit, while setting boundaries with everyone.
A: Yes, it’s not only odd that the letter writer’s mother would call her adult child to say “I hear you won’t let your brother sell your camera he borrowed,” but that she would then justify that phone call by saying, “Well, you don’t use your camera very often.” Whatever’s going on here, I agree the letter writer shouldn’t countenance it. But even if Mom doesn’t listen to “This isn’t your business,” that’s still the right line, and the letter writer is going to have to figure out how to let their mother get upset without rushing to placate her. It’s really not her business! She really doesn’t get to intervene the way she might have when they were kids fighting over a toy.
Q. Argument hangover: My fiancé comes from the home of an alcoholic parent and an absentee parent. As a result, he is incredibly uncomfortable around alcohol. I come from a family where wine is drunk nightly and alcohol isn’t a big deal. When we first started dating, he would also drink wine or beer with me. However, now he very rarely drinks (maybe once a month and only if we are going out) and dislikes it when I do. I like to have wine usually on a nightly basis, but these days, it always becomes a big deal between us. He says that it is wrong for me to drink every night (two-to-three glasses of wine over a five-to-six hour period) and that I have a problem with alcohol. I do not feel this is the case, but sometimes won’t enjoy a glass of wine just to avoid an argument with him. I also now think about alcohol much more than I ever have before, but is it because I have a drinking problem or just because of the issues it causes between us? I am getting sick of it being a huge issue but don’t know how to defuse the situation besides giving into his demands and not drinking at all. Read what Prudie had to say.