Dear Prudence

A Close Friend Shamed Me for My “Relationship” With My High School Coach

Was I groomed or just reckless?

Teen girl texting
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Dear Prudence,

This is embarrassing to write, but I had a strange “relationship” with my coach in high school. He started when I was a 16-year-old junior, and my home life was in total chaos. One of my parents was an alcoholic, and the other was dealing with a chronic illness. “Steven” was funny and in his late 40s and showered me with praise. He had a stellar reputation and was on a private contract (meaning he wasn’t employed directly by the school). When he took me under his wing, I was ecstatic. His approval meant the world to me.

We stayed in touch over phone and via email, even after I went off to college. He sent me birthday packages, teased me about college life (“You’re sleeping with all the football players, aren’t you?”), and even proposed to me over the phone. The problem was my reaction: I didn’t stop him. A big part of me felt loved. Sometimes I would tell guys at parties that I had a long-distance boyfriend. I recently told a close friend about this, and she scolded me for leading Steven on and engaging with him. I think I agree with her—I sent him selfies of myself in tight clothes and told him I would consider being with him. It’s shameful and disgusting, but I felt so special. Even though he stopped pursuing me my senior year of college, my actions haunt me. Was I groomed? Or was I just reckless? Or was it both?

—Groomed or Not?

I am so sorry, and angry beyond words, that your close friend scolded you for having been groomed. A middle-aged man went out of his way to convince you that his private, sexual boundary–pushing was mentorship and friendship, slowly escalated each violation so that you already thought the world of him by the time he did something outrageous like proposing marriage over the phone, abused his position of trust and authority with children to cultivate a wildly inappropriate relationship with you—and subsequently dropped you when you aged out of his preferred demographic. When you were 16, you were having trouble at home and trusted your coach. When you were 16, or 17, or 19, you sent him pictures of yourself all dressed up, because he had spent the previous few years working overtime and in secret to convince you to trust him and to seek his approval in all things. That’s not leading him on, and it’s disgusting anyone would say so, as if an infatuated and lonely 17-year-old is just as responsible as a man pushing 50 who coaches teenagers in order to convince them to text him in secret. Your friend is wrong, monstrously so. I’m so sorry that your first attempt to speak to someone else about your experience being groomed went so badly, and that you were met with hostility, shame, and blame.

Grooming is dangerous and damaging because it works—there are laws and rules limiting the kinds of relationships adults can have with children because children cannot be expected to already know the rules. No one else in your life was able to tell you that what this man was doing was wrong, and turning 18 didn’t magically mean you woke up one day knowing all the ways he had lied to and manipulated you. Of course it’s taken time and experience to realize the full extent of the harm he caused you. You were not reckless; you were a teenager who trusted a man who claimed to love her, and the other adults in your life failed to protect you from him. Do not trust this “friend” with any more of your confidence. I hope the next person you disclose to, whoever that may be, is able to offer you genuine support as you figure out how you want to pursue healing, justice, and accountability. You deserved better from the authority figures in your life as a child, and you deserve better treatment from your friends now.

Dear Prudence,

After 11 years of marriage and two young children, my husband killed himself, and I became a widow. It’s been a few years now, and I’ve been seriously dating a man for nine months. It’s a great fit and is a very loving and respectful relationship that I see lasting for a long time. He’s been spending more time around my kids, starting a few months ago. The problem is that my 13-year-old daughter hates him! She is openly rude and complains when he comes over (about once a week). I have reinforced the expectation that we treat everyone with respect and kindness, but her behavior persists. (My son, who is 9, likes the boyfriend a lot and enjoys hanging out with him.)

I do know that seeing me with someone else brings up grief for her dad, as it does for me sometimes too. We talk openly a lot, and I listen and give lots of hugs. I think it’s important to note that she had met my previous serious boyfriend and loved him! She’s young and handling a lot of complex emotions and a challenging situation, and I’m proud of who she is and how she has handled her father’s death. But how do I navigate this? I think I’m hesitant to give her consequences when she’s rude because I don’t want to drive a wedge further between us and make her feel like she’s the odd one out.

—Angry Teenager Ruining My Love Life

My first instinct here is to ask what’s different between the last boyfriend and this one—and to recommend you ask your daughter that question, too. Yes, kids can be rude and self-centered, especially kids grieving a complicated, freighted loss like the death of a parent to suicide, but don’t miss the opportunity to take your daughter’s dislike of your new boyfriend seriously. That doesn’t mean you should dump him tomorrow just because she resents him, but at least consider the possibility that she dislikes him for cause and that cause might extend beyond grief for her father. Ask her if he’s ever said or done anything to make her uncomfortable or unsafe. Give her time, and don’t press her for an answer right away. Be prepared to listen patiently and without rushing to judgment. Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep, and don’t ask leading questions or try to direct her toward any particular answer. It may very well be that her answer is nothing more than “No, he’s never done anything strictly wrong, I just really don’t like the guy,” at which point you can continue to stress the importance of bare-minimum politeness. (I assume, by the way, that your daughter has seen a therapist or a grief counselor at some point since your husband’s death, but if she’s stopped, this might be a good time to resume sessions. Not as punishment or to induce her to “behave,” but because 13 is a tough enough age on its own before adding complicated grief and a new relationship to the mix. If she’s never seen someone, now’s also a good time to start.)

To that end, I think you’re right to hesitate about punishing her, even as you strive to correct her. It is quite difficult to be 13 and dislike the man dating your mother. She can’t go to her own apartment, or drive to go see some friends, or exercise much control of any kind over anything. I wonder if you might ask her for suggestions on his future visits. That’s not to say you should hand over the reins, but something like this might go a long way toward making her feel like you’re on the same team: “I really care about this guy, and I’m going to keep seeing him, and think we can expect the weekly visits to continue. What do you think would help make those visits easier for you?” Again, if her first response is something like “Dump him,” you can let the moment pass without taking the bait, and let her try again. But if she can come up with a reasonable compromise that she thinks she can stick to—say, a civil exchange of “hellos” after which she can disappear to her room with a book—I think you should look for ways to grant her continued space and neutrality.

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Dear Prudence,

I am a 43-year-old man, married with three kids. I’ve been a minister in the United Methodist Church for 20 years, and I was raised in a very conservative home. I had no idea that coming out was even possible when I was a child. When I went to college, I saw many others come out, but I knew I would lose my family if I tried it. Before we got married, I told my wife about my orientation, and she was willing to give things a shot anyway. Even after 20 years of marriage, I feel like I wake up every morning and live a lie. Last year the UMC ruled that clergy who are even simply attracted to the same sex are not welcome. This is the church that raised and shaped me. I knew I had to do something and told my wife, who agreed that it was time for me to be me, whatever that meant for us as a couple, and no matter how hard it might be. Oddly enough, my daughter came out at the same time (we reassured her that she is surrounded and loved just as much as ever). I left my ministry in the summer and have gone back to school. I’ve also told several close friends and have started counseling. At some point my family is going to need to find out. But I’m so afraid of being cut off forever. My counselor has helped me to realize how unhealthy my upbringing was, but that desire for connection, that desire to be loved and accepted by Mom and Dad is still there. Do I just rip the Band-Aid off, or do I continue to pretend until they pass (which could be today or 25 years from now)?

—Almost Out Now

I wonder if you have any out gay friends in your life now. You don’t say much about your nonfamily relationships (and I certainly don’t encourage you to ask your recently out daughter for advice), but if all you have are straight friends, then you won’t have much of a sense of how people actually survive a primal fear like coming out to an unsupportive family. If you do have such friends, ask them about their experiences and for their advice. If you don’t, seek them out. Spend some time with your counselor exploring the fear of being “cut off forever” so you don’t just keep flinching away at it. How might you try to grieve that loss? What solace and comfort might you seek out, and from what quarters? What might it feel like to let yourself get angry at the years you’ve spent cringing in fear from possible rejection by your parents? Can you imagine wanting your own children to live in such fear or calling such fear “love”?

I don’t want to read too much into your word choice, but I can’t help but notice you’re not able to use the word gay even once in your letter. You’ve spent the past 20 years trying to reshape your life in order to fit the terms your parents have laid out for you, and now you’re contemplating the possibility of modifying your coming out in order to placate them for anything from another week to 25 years. I don’t say this because I think you have to hate your parents to come out or to persuade you to be angry with them all the time if you don’t want to be. But I think if you already felt loved and accepted, if staying closeted for their approval was working, you wouldn’t be writing to me, and you wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed by anguish and fear, hoping this cup might pass from you.

You’ve been pulling this Band-Aid off very slowly for at least two decades. If another two decades of slowness were going to spare you pain, I might recommend it, but I don’t think it will. I think it will be more flinching, distress, and fear that the other shoe is going to drop at any moment. Talk to your therapist, to your wife, to your trusted friends about coming up with a coming-out plan. Discuss the best- and worst-case scenarios and think about what you’d like to do afterward no matter how things go, so that you can make sure you’re surrounded by love and support once you’ve told your parents. Don’t feel that you have to do it tomorrow, alone, and without reinforcements. Think of it as something that you get to do, rather than something you have to do. Even if they respond as badly as you fear, at least you will have gone beyond the fear of rejection and into rejection itself. There is a limit to how many times your parents can reject you. There is no limit to how many times you can torture yourself by anticipating a rejection that is yet to come.

Help! I Can’t Pretend to Love My Kids Anymore.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Austin Channing Brown on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

Subscribe to the Dear Prudence Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dear Prudence,

I have been living with my partner for a few years now, we are deeply in love, and I would like to marry them. The thing is that my partner has an 11-year-old child from a previous relationship. They can be a handful once in a while, but I have a nonparental relationship with them, and we get along great. I feel like I am already pretty committed to this relationship, and I want to take it to the next level, but when I do some soul-searching I know that deep down I don’t really love their child. I like the kid, but I don’t really have the same love for them that I have for my own family. I know I’m already an important figure in this child’s life. Is there more work I should do before I propose, or am I just in the wrong situation?

—Don’t Love the Kid

I won’t try to haggle with you about your definition of love, although I’d encourage you not to compare your feelings for your sort-of stepchild with your other adult relatives. You feel affection for your partner’s kid, you understand your responsibilities toward them (and seem prepared to continue administering them), your relationship is a good one, and neither the kid nor your partner seem to expect you to take on a more parental role in the future—all of that’s very much to the good!

This seems like something you ought to discuss with your partner at least once before getting engaged. Obviously don’t say to them, “So, as long as you understand I don’t really love your kid and probably never will, I think we should get married.” But you can (and should) describe your relationship with and responsibilities toward their kid and ask your partner if they feel the same way. If “love me, love my kid” is clearly important to your partner, and you’re faced with the prospect of hiding your true feelings for the rest of your relationship, it may be that you’re in the wrong situation after all. But if your partner’s outlook is closer to “my kid doesn’t need anything more than ‘genial older cousin’ from you,” then so much the better. Regardless, the only work you should be doing is clarifying your commitments with your partner—not trying to gin up feelings of “love” for this kid you’ve already known for years because you feel it’s what you ought to do.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“This closet is sturdy as hell.”
Danny Lavery and Slate podcast producer Daniel Schroeder discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

My husband broke his marriage vows and cheated on me last year. We started going to a family therapist. I will never forget what he did, but I decided to forgive him. I knew he wasn’t perfect when we got married, but I still love him. A few months ago, I told my best friend “Jill” about what he had done. Last week our mutual friend “Patricia” told me that Jill told other people about my husband. She said that Jill made a “meme” of me by combining me with a TV character to make fun of me and send to everyone. This doesn’t sound like something Jill would do, but Jill is the only one I told. I don’t know how Patricia knows. If I confront Jill, I risk shooting the messenger and making Patricia look bad. Deep down, my instinct tells me that Patricia somehow found out about this and that it was she who made the meme. What should I do?

—Betrayed on Both Sides

I’m reluctant to encourage you to trust your instincts here. Leaving aside how Patricia could possibly have found out unless Jill said something, why on earth would Patricia tell you something she had done and pretend someone else had done it? Especially over something as relatively easy to prove as a message sent to “everyone”? It would be asking for trouble. That’s not to say it’s impossible. Sometimes people act both badly and bizarrely! But I simply can’t imagine why Patricia would come to you, unprompted, and claim Jill did something that she herself did. At any rate, neither you nor I can guess our way to the truth. All you can do is tell Jill what you’ve heard and ask her if it’s true. If it makes Patricia “look bad,” so be it. You’re not telling tales out of turn or making something up; you’re asking Jill to confirm or deny a direct claim from Patricia. I see no reason why you shouldn’t ask her.

Perhaps the more pressing issue is that at least one of your close friends has been mocking your decision to stay with your husband, and you have no meaningful support outside of your husband and your therapist as you work through the pain his cheating caused you. I hope very much that the rest of your friends haven’t all joined in the mockery, because you should be able to turn to your friends for support as you try to rebuild your marriage.

Dear Prudence,

I’m in my mid-20s. I vote in every election, including local elections. I follow national politics, mostly on my phone. Although I live in the U.S., I prefer to read global news. But lately I’m just burnt out. I recently sent in my absentee ballot (I’m voting for Biden). But I didn’t watch the latest debate, and I’m muting people who keep talking about it on social media. I’m sick of talking about the election with my friends. I just want to stick my head in the sand. When I was younger, I was very into political activism and never thought I’d feel apathetic, but between dealing with extremely taxing physical and mental illnesses, a full-time job, and grad school, I just can’t work up the energy to care beyond what’s right in front of me. I’m convinced Trump will win again so it’s pointless to get fired up about it. I know not everyone has a choice and that people’s lives are at stake with this election. But I just can’t make myself care. My friends are calling me a shitty person for not caring about activism and voting and the whole thing. Can I be “apolitical” and still be a good person?

—Over It

I’m not sure we agree on the definition of apolitical. Based on what you’ve shared in your letter, it seems like your friends primarily object to your muting discussion of the presidential debates on Twitter, refusing to participate in endless political discussions, following the news, and voting despite a sense of pessimism. I can understand why your friends might not share your certainty about the outcome, but it seems to me a step too far to say that someone must feel upbeat about voting. It would be one thing if your friends were busy planning direct actions (organizing bail funds, getting people registered to vote) and were frustrated with you for skipping out, but it sounds like they’re mostly frustrated with you for failing to produce a sufficiently optimistic affect about current politics, which has very little to do with being a good person. That’s not to say, “Go forth, never care about politics again,” either. But telling a sick, overworked person in crisis who’s already voted that they’re a shitty person for not talking more about how they already voted with their friends who already plan on voting the same way is absurd.

Classic Prudie

How can we let our new neighbor know that everyone on the block can see through her windows? She keeps curtains over them, but when the light hits just right they are virtually see-through. There are a lot of children around and it has been a topic amongst them that you can see “Ms. Smith” naked most evenings. We don’t want to embarrass her, but it certainly needs to be brought to her attention.