Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Right time, right place, right wrongs, let’s chat.
Q. My husband’s “Likes”: We have close family friends with a beautiful and charming 19-year-old daughter. She is like a niece to us. My husband has made her uncomfortable twice by remarking, “Mmm! Look at Kelly!” when she’s entered a room dressed up for an outing or work. (The “Mmm!” being the sort of sound one makes in appreciation of a delicious-looking food, for example.) Her discomfort was clear—she turned red and exited the room both times.
He now is following her on Instagram and “likes” EVERY single post she puts up. (And she posts frequently!) I’ve spoken to him about not commenting on her appearance, especially with the loud, “Mmm!” noise. He seemed slightly mortified. Do I need to suggest he stop with all the Instagram attention? It seems kinda creepy to me, but perhaps I am seeing something that isn’t even an issue. I remember receiving unwanted attention from middle-aged men in my teen years, so I could be projecting here.
A: It’s not “projecting” to say: “Twice now you have so thoroughly humiliated a teenage girl by growling at her like she was a Thanksgiving turkey that she turned bright red and left the room; I remember being a teenage girl and receiving unwanted sexual attention from grown men, and I didn’t like it any more than Kelly does. What’s worse is that you’re not some catcalling stranger on the street, but a family friend she’s known all her life who she feels obligated to be polite to.” You do not need to “suggest” to your husband that he should stop smashing that like button every time Kelly posts anything on Instagram (someone liking every single one of your posts, especially as soon as they go up, is pretty well-understood as a demand for attention on social media); you need to tell him to back off in no uncertain terms. Please don’t start to doubt your own response here; you know what your husband is doing, it’s incredibly obvious, and you’re not inventing what you’ve seen with your own eyes.
Kelly deserves to hear from an adult that your husband’s behavior is not normal or OK, and that it’s not going to happen again. If a 19-year-old is so humiliated by an adult’s come-on (plausibly deniable though your husband may insist those come-ons were) that she runs out of the room, then it’s incumbent upon one of the other adults present to see how she’s doing, to offer her support and reassurance, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I promise you, it is an issue that a man who’s “like an uncle” to Kelly has suddenly started smacking his lips when she dresses up for a special occasion and hearts all of her posts every hour of the day, all while the other adults in her life apparently ignore this newfound objectification.
If your husband’s response is anything like “I’m just trying to pay her a compliment,” call bullshit; he saw her run out of the room just as much as you did, and he knows perfectly well that she doesn’t like this kind of attention from him. He is taking advantage of their familylike relationship to ogle her and dog her every step. You are not making a big deal out of nothing. Your husband is sexually harassing a 19-year-old girl, knows she doesn’t like it, and enjoys the fact that she doesn’t feel comfortable saying no to him. You feel worried about “suggesting” he stop stalking her social media posts because he was “slightly mortified” the last time you asked him not to sexually harass a teenager. You are seriously under-reacting. Everyone who has seen your husband treat Kelly this way and done nothing is also under-reacting! Start reacting appropriately.
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Q. How can I just tune out? I’m sick of the election. I’m queer and progressive, and I’m just done with hearing about it (I’m writing this when the race hasn’t been decided yet). My friends and family are decidedly progressive and politically minded as well; my social media is constantly filled with angry screeds, infographics, and exhortations to vote liberal. I just want to talk about something else—even if just for a few minutes—before going back to being scared for my ability to marry or have an abortion. I can’t handle drowning in the fear, anxiety, and negativity 24/7.
I’d like to pull back from election-related conversation for the next few months. The problem is, none of my friends do! It’s all anyone talks about. Do you have ideas for how I can stay connected to people and talk about something else? I’ve tried muting the most vociferous folks on social media, but I just end up feeling less connected and lonelier, which is exacerbated by the pandemic. I love that the folks in my circle care enough to actively engage in this topic, but Prudie, I just need a break. I made this request of one friend and she accused me of being privileged by being able to step away. Sigh. What should I do?
A: As always, there’s a world of difference between total political disengagement and saying, “You and I are on the same page and have discussed this topic endlessly; I’d like to talk about books and movies for half an hour.” If your friends are convinced that an unending state of anxiety is the same thing as activism, they are incredibly mistaken, and most likely heading straight for burnout themselves. Obviously “conversations about the election” aren’t going to go away in the next few days, and conversations about hugely important political issues like climate change, “Medicare for All,” the eviction crisis, etc., aren’t going to go away at all.
It may help to focus on one or two specific ways you can dedicate your time, resources, and energy toward an issue that’s particularly important to you, so you can develop a stronger distinction between active engagement and “endless worrying.” (Worrying is not praxis!) It may also cut down on objections from friends who might feel politically committed to anxiety if you can say, “I’m focusing on XYZ as a direct action; I’m not burying my head in the sand, but I want to have a well-rounded life and a wide variety of interests, too,” when asking for a new topic of conversation. Good luck! It’s actually a good thing to be able to focus on, you know, good things. You are not suggesting an ostrichlike lifestyle to anyone by asking to swap recipes, or take a walk together, or talk about music.
Q. Car trouble: A year ago, my parents very generously offered to finance a new car for me. I couldn’t get a loan myself due to poor credit. My credit is steadily improving, but I still can’t afford to put the car in my name. I made the down payment on the car and make all of the payments. The car technically belongs to my parents, but they don’t pay for it. They’ve become very picky about it. They get outraged when I visit them and see that the mileage has increased. They also get annoyed when it’s not as clean as they’d like (despite having messy cars themselves). Every time I go to their house for dinner, they make an excuse to go outside and inspect the car. If the car doors are locked, they just peer in the windows. I’m grateful they helped me out but at what point does it stop? It’s not like the value of the car significantly depreciates if there’s a stray McDonald’s cup in there. How do I get them to back off?
A: Right, the value of the car significantly depreciates the minute you drive it off the lot (although I imagine your parents wouldn’t be able to see the humor in that just now). It’s tricky, of course, because there’s a limit to how much you can push back when their names are on the title. I wonder if you’ve talked much about your shared expectations beyond the initial offer and acceptance. Maybe it would help to ask them about it: “I know you’ve been really anxious about the car ever since we decided to share financing. Is there something I can do to put your mind at ease? My understanding was that the most important part would be making regular, on-time payments, which I’ve been able to do with no trouble, but it seems like you’ve been disappointed by what I’ve understood to be pretty regular wear-and-tear. Are you worried about resale value? Something else? I’d love to know more, because I want us all to be on the same page as much as possible.” Beyond that, if you want to park a few blocks away when you visit them—or leave the car behind, or slightly cut down on your visits—you’re free to do that, too. Happy to hear from readers with more specific suggestions, too!
Q. Roiled in residency: My boyfriend is about six months into his first year of a medical residency program. He works 80-hour weeks and is constantly emotionally abused by his supervisors. This is par for the course in his specific program and, though he would like to make changes when he becomes a supervisor, he has little to no power to effect change now. The problem is this: He cannot, or will not, engage in any deep conversations when we spend time together. He’s so tired and emotionally fried that all we discuss is his day, some events in the news, and updates on our respective families. So many of the conversations I want to have are “off-limits”: hopes/fears/dreams/worries about our future together, trips I’d like to plan after COVID, anything that could remotely cause conflict.
I’m sick of having to manage his emotions and walk on eggshells. He has 10 days of vacation time for the whole year and can’t really use it because he’ll get in trouble with his team. He has a day off once every week or so, and he spends it catching up on sleep and playing video games to “unwind.” Even when he was in med school, he still made me and our relationship a priority. I feel like I don’t know this man anymore. I suggested counseling but the same issue comes up—he doesn’t have the bandwidth to discuss anything beyond our immediate day-to-day life. I’m at my wits’ end. What should I do?
A: It feels a little lazy to say this, but if you’re at your wits’ end, if he’s not willing to go to counseling with you, and nothing’s changed despite repeated attempts on your part, I think you should probably break up with him. Yes, even if you used to have a better relationship in med school, even if you think he’s a generally good person, even if you understand why he’s so fried all the time. It’s reasonable to believe this dynamic is going to continue for years, it’s reasonable to decide you don’t want to be in a relationship where such a dynamic is present, and it’s reasonable to walk away even if you know he’s not personally responsible for the overwork and mistreatment of medical residents generally. This relationship isn’t working for you, and this relationship isn’t changing; I think what you were hoping for is that I could offer a suggestion that would finally convince your boyfriend to take your frustrations seriously and do what you’ve been asking him to do. I don’t have such a suggestion! I just think you should leave wits’ end, even if it means you can’t take your boyfriend with you.
Q. Stuck in the middle of wedding drama: My 18-year-old sister, who has always been a bit flighty, recently announced she’s getting married next month to a guy she met six months ago. Needless to say, my family is not happy. My mother and father are livid. My stepmother (father’s wife) and stepfather (mother’s husband) aren’t thrilled but are trying to ride it out and pretend to be supportive and hope they’re not asked directly to give an opinion. No one in my rather large, close-knit extended family has ever done anything like this, so there’s a lot of gossip flying around and it’s unfortunately making my sister even more hard-headed about this decision. I tried to gently dissuade her from this plan but she screamed at me. Now I’m just trying to be neutral, but everyone is constantly asking me about it and trying to get me to take sides. Help!
A: “I really don’t know! I’m afraid you’ll have to speak to [Sister] directly about that” should become your go-to response whenever any of your relatives tries to gauge your true opinion, or tries to get you to “take sides,” or wants to know the latest gossip about her wedding planning. Usually if you’re at the point where you have to “try to be neutral,” it’s because no one else around you wants you to be neutral, which means you’ll very rarely find neutrality an easy position where you receive a lot of support and encouragement. If it’s a mistake, it’s her mistake to make, and you’ve already tried to give her your opinion—so I think neutrality is your best bet in this situation, even if nobody thanks you for it.
Q. I love you too, but not right now: There are many people in my life that I love: partners, friends, and family. I like to tell them this with passion, as often as I can. Sometimes though, they’ll say “I love you” to me when I’m not in a good space to feel love. Depression and low self-worth make it hard for me to feel worthy of their love, let alone for my own to matter enough to say out loud. Most often, I feel mere gratitude, sometimes frustrated deservedness. I know how much they matter to me, but those feelings aren’t at hand. I’d rather say something true than a filler response. Understanding my own internal state is hard to convey, what are some sorts of responses that may be true but nor hurtful? I’m mostly looking for phrasing or language here, ways to draw the line around my state that doesn’t discount others.
A: Since it sounds like you’re mostly describing an issue that crops up with people you’re pretty close to, I think you can gesture toward your depression/self-esteem issues without worrying you’re oversharing or inviting a follow-up conversation you’re not prepared to have: “Thank you for that. I’m having a hard time hearing ‘I love you’ right now, but I really appreciate it.” (You can also just respond with a sincere “Thank you,” or “That means a lot to me,” especially if you’re talking to someone you’ve exchanged countless I love yous with in the past.)
And I’ll put in a plug for reconsidering whether saying “I love you” when you’re having a difficult time accessing feelings of warmth is a filler statement, or even untrue. That’s not to say you have to start saying “I love you” during these dark periods, of course, especially if the idea of saying it when you feel already isolated and unworthy feels like it would compound your sense of alienation, but that the love your family and friends display toward you isn’t wholly dependent on an interior condition but also deeply tied to action, care, time, and attention. Whatever you decide to say, be patient with yourself.
Q. Re: My husband’s “Likes”: If this is how this man treats a teenager he knows when his wife is physically present, what is he doing to strangers when no one else is around? I shudder to think!
A: Yes, if he’s this comfortable hitting on his 19-year-old unofficial niece in front of his wife, it certainly raises the question of what he’s comfortable doing when his wife isn’t around, although I’m less worried about strangers and more worried about what his DMs to Kelly look like. Someone needs to check in on this kid and get this creep to back away from her.
Q. Re: Car trouble: The letter writer can take an Uber to the parents’ house and tell them they got a ride to keep the mileage down on the car.
A: Hah! I like this—charming, obstructionist, “there’s nothing in the rulebook that says a dog can’t play basketball”—very neatly handled. Thank you!
Q. My brother’s giant genitals make me doubt we have the same father: I am the middle of three boys and we are all in our 20s. Our parents separated shortly after my younger brother was born and eventually they went through a bitter divorce. Recently, my father, brothers, and I went to a camping-style family wedding together. The facilities were spartan and we all ended up in a communal shower. I’m sure this was the first time all four of us were naked together, and it was certainly the first time I’d seen my younger brother naked since he was little. In the shower, there was a definite “one of these things is not like the other” moment. While my older brother, dad, and myself have fairly similar, if modest, endowments, my younger brother’s male parts were noticeably different (and “better”) than ours in almost every way possible: size, shape, even complexion (!). It was like seeing a great white whale breaching alongside dolphins. None of us look strikingly like our parents, but we are clearly brothers, except for this newly discovered alien appendage on my younger brother. At the reception, my older brother brought this up to me immediately, and we worked out the theory that mom had an affair that gave rise to my baby brother, and his decidedly different genitalia, and the divorce. I don’t think full brothers could have such variation, and the fact that my younger brother’s package is a definite upgrade plays into the theory that maybe mom was shopping around for a better deal. We’d really like to get to the bottom of this, but we’re not sure how to broach this already difficult topic with either parent when our only evidence consists of this sensitive observation. Read what Prudie had to say.