Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. The things we hang on the walls: My wife and I moved into our house last year and over time have met all the neighbors in the immediate area. We became friends with a couple near in age to us and wound up spending time together, even going on vacation together. Recently I was at their house and while on my way to grab a drink from the fridge, I noticed a small framed picture. This wasn’t hidden, it was placed at about eye level so I just couldn’t miss it. My wife says I am just super observant and that’s why she never noticed it before. It is a framed picture of Adolf Hitler and various military generals looking at the original Volkswagen with Ferdinand Porsche.
Now, I can appreciate cars just like I can appreciate other things, but this is a very odd way of showing your support for Volkswagen. I have tried to make excuses for why he would have the picture but I can’t find any good reason to hang it in your house. My plan so far has been to wave, maintain distance, and always make sure my six is clear when I see him. My wife still hangs out with his wife, and I don’t want this to be a point of contention between us. What should I do?
A: “What’s the deal with the Hitler picture on your wall?”
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Q. Cracking with COVID: My state has never put out a mask mandate, but I live on the outskirts of a major city where masks are mandated in public. We still get lots of improperly worn masks and conspiracy theories. I moved here about two years ago, and to be honest, don’t really have any friends outside of my circle of cousins (we’re a close-knit family). I live alone with my dog and work from home. I have been very strict about quarantine since the start.
The problem is that all of my wonderful cousins who love and support me also fall into various stages of COVID denial. Some will wear masks but won’t observe social distancing, while others don’t wear masks at all. Over the summer we were able to do some things relatively safely outside and I socialized maybe six times. I don’t hug anyone, and keep a physical distance. But as things get colder, activities are moving inside.
Am I a bad person if I socialize with them? Long and short, I’m cracking. I’m getting weird, and yeah, part of me feels like after months of being pretty careful, I deserve a break. If I socialize with them, I’m the only person I’m putting at risk since I live alone … except for the health care professionals who have to take care of me if I’m sick. I know it is wrong to go to events with people who aren’t protecting themselves, but I just need you to remind me it is wrong! I’ve always been content with my own company, but now I really crave just being around people. Slap some sense back into me!
A: I do not think that you need to be slapped! The fact that you feel desperate for close, friendly contact after socializing “maybe six times” over the summer seems like the most natural human response imaginable to isolation, uncertainty, and fear. You’re aware that your exhaustion isn’t rational—having taken precautions in the past against an ongoing danger doesn’t protect you today, any more than wearing a seat belt last week can protect you in a car accident if you drive this afternoon—but that doesn’t mean your exhaustion isn’t understandable, that it’s come out of nowhere, or that your desire for contact and warmth is merely a sign of weakness.
Berating yourself for a normal human impulse won’t help keep you safe, I fear, but it might paradoxically push you toward riskier behavior, if it feels like your only two options are fastidious isolation or a sense of “fuck it, YOLO.” I’d encourage you to read as much as you can (here’s some information from the EPA and Seattle’s public health department) about how to minimize your exposure if you do sometimes socialize with your cousins indoors, and to find ways to regularly and calmly discuss contact tracing and safety measures with your relatives, even if they don’t follow the same protocols, so that you can stay informed about the risks you may decide to run. Discuss this with your primary care physician and find out where your nearest testing center is—getting regularly tested, if it’s possible for you to do so, is not a replacement for social distancing, mask-wearing, etc., but it is a part of an arsenal of harm-reducing and risk-management behaviors that you should keep at your disposal. Do your best to stay safe, for your own sake and the sake of others; remember that transmission often happens when people aren’t displaying symptoms; expect decision fatigue as a matter of course so you can prepare for and guard against it; and if you have any friends out of state you can call for support or reinforcement, please do. Think of this in terms of getting support to make difficult decisions, not as an excuse to berate yourself for being lonely and tired. I wish you all the best.
Q. Am I making too much of this? My friend and I are not romantically involved and our relationship is limited to once holding hands when I cried over personal issues or giving him a hug after discussing his problems. He recently had to move and was sore afterwards. I used to be a masseuse, so it seemed normal when he asked me if I’d give him a massage. Afterwards, he wanted to repay the favor by massaging me. He is not a masseuse, but I saw no harm.
Something changed while he massaged me. He started demanding I tell him I liked it and then he started choking me and pulling my hair. I was confused. What is happening? Why is he doing this? His phone rang and he had to leave. He didn’t touch me anywhere inappropriate and he also didn’t harm me and yet I feel really weird about this. Am I making too much of this? His friendship has been important to me—should I let this go?
A: I am so sorry your friend did this to you. I want to challenge the idea that this man didn’t touch you anywhere inappropriate and that he didn’t harm you. He choked you, out of nowhere. He absolutely did harm you, even if you were able to recover physically afterward. His touch was inappropriate, given that it was unsolicited and unwanted. A person’s hair can absolutely be an inappropriate place to touch without invitation—it’s intimate, personal, and vulnerable. You are not making too much of this. Your friend, whom you previously cared for and trusted, asked you for a massage because he was “sore from moving,” then insisted on massaging you as “payment” (for a favor he asked for, not an arrangement you two came up with together) and during that massage he assaulted you. Of course you were shocked and confused, because you did not expect that your friend would suddenly betray your trust and vulnerable position by choking you, demanding you tell him you liked being choked, then leaving abruptly. But don’t take your shock and confusion as evidence that you must simply have misunderstood what happened. You feel weird because your friend hurt you out of nowhere, then vanished. Do not rush to forgive him or overlook this just because he was your friend. It is precisely because he was your friend that he was able to take advantage of your trust in order to hurt and exploit you.
Please don’t let this go, and please don’t convince yourself that you’re making a big deal out of nothing. Your friend assaulted you. That is a big deal. Please talk to someone else about what happened—a therapist, another trusted friend, a doctor, a relative, someone at the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673)—and consider what you need to do in order to preserve your own safety and well-being.
Q. Boyfriend versus cat: I am planning on moving in with my boyfriend in the next year when our leases are up. We thought about moving in sooner but decided against because we are both working at home. We’ve been dating for over three years and our relationship is strong. Here’s the BUT: He is pretty uncomfortable with my cat. I adopted her two years ago and she is mostly very sweet but does bite me lightly at times for attention or when she wants something. She’s not the best-behaved cat ever but far from the worst! And of course I love her.
I’ve talked to my boyfriend about my worries that they won’t get along if/when we live together. He is apprehensive about it but hasn’t said it is a dealbreaker. There was a time when I felt very sad about him not sharing in my love for my cat, but we’ve worked past that. Are we setting ourselves up for failure?
A: Not necessarily! You’ve previously decided you weren’t ready to move in together just yet because of your work-from-home schedules and need to maintain some distance, which strikes me as a really reasonable, well-thought-out decision that should go a long way toward preserving your sanity and affection for one another. And you still have time before your lease is up to train your cat not to bite for attention! It’s not like you’re hoping to train her to do something really challenging like use the toilet or walk on a leash, and there are so many resources on how to safely discourage something like biting for attention (your own vet, Jackson Galaxy’s My Cat From Hell, local trainers, websites, etc.) that I have full confidence in your ability to start addressing her biting now.
You should also ask your boyfriend if there’s anything else that makes him uncomfortable besides the biting that you two should discuss before you move in together. It’s one thing if you love the cat and he merely tolerates her, as long as you both generally agree on house rules. But if you love talking to her all day, want her to sleep in the bed with you at night, etc., while your boyfriend wants her to sleep in the living room, and generally to pretend she doesn’t exist, it’s better to figure out whether compromise is impossible now, rather than three weeks into a yearlong lease.
Q. Pissed off in the PNW: Last year, during the first semester of our sophomore year of college, my roommate was having a hard time keeping up with her workload. One week, I gave her advice to speak to her professor before a quiz, even though it was last-minute, hoping that she could get an extension. Instead she told her professor that she couldn’t take the quiz because she’d had to take me to the emergency room the night before, fabricating an imaginary suicide attempt. Since her professor was a mandatory reporter, they told our school’s mental health office, kicking off an intervention process that lasted months and required multiple follow-up meetings. I had not been in the emergency room.
Partly because the meetings were mandatory, and partly because I’d been having mental health issues anyway (not that my roommate had been especially curious or caring about them), I took advantage of the meetings when I could. I also worried I would be institutionalized if they believed I was resisting help. After my roommate told this massive lie, she burst into our room crying, saying things like “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I’m the worst person in the world,” and working herself into such a panic attack about the idea of my being mad at her that I felt pressure to forgive her right away.
It’s a year later now, and she’s still inconsiderate and hasn’t really earned my trust back. I know she knows I’m still upset, and she’s resorted to giving me unsolicited gifts that I don’t want or need, and asking “Why do you hate me?” after getting drunk with me and our other housemates. I deflected and moved on because I didn’t want to get into it in front of everyone. Is it my responsibility to start a conversation with her, or am I justified for wanting her to take initiative to care about my feelings for once? She has also been irresponsible about COVID spreading and refuses to do her chores, so nobody else is really happy with her either, but I don’t want to be the one who continues to disrupt the house community. What should I do?
A: You should look for somewhere else to live—anywhere else to live—and get as far away from this woman as you possibly can, both physically and emotionally. This is not a relationship worth mending, and I’m so sorry you’ve had to spend the last year living with someone who violated your privacy and your safety in such a disastrous fashion. I’m almost at a loss for words here. I can’t believe your other housemates, assuming they were aware of your roommate’s deception, have allowed her to continue living with all of you. I don’t think you should push her to “care about your feelings,” because I think she’s an ongoing danger to you. What you need from her is less attention, not more. I don’t know what, if any, mental health treatment you’re receiving now, but if you’re still seeing a therapist and you haven’t yet discussed the fact that last year you were forced into treatment against your will because your roommate invented a suicide attempt in order to postpone taking a quiz, please say something immediately. Please also consider making an official complaint—at the very least—to your school’s housing office.
You have absolutely no responsibilities toward this woman. She forced you into treatment on the strength of a lie (a lie made all the more painful by the fact that you were actually struggling with your mental health at the time), put you at risk of being put on a psychiatric hold, and continues to pressure you (a full year later!) to not only keep this a secret for her, but to forgive her and make her feel better. All this because she didn’t want to deal with the risk of saying “I’m not ready for today’s quiz” and asking for help. The fact that she’s also casual about COVID exposure and doesn’t do her part when it comes to household chores is simply icing on what has to be the worst cake in the world. Her histrionics upon confessing what she’d done and her subsequent crying jags are not indicators of sincere remorse and preparedness to change, but additional manipulative tactics designed to sidestep the consequence of her actions. Please do not think of her as a friend (or even a friendly roommate) you’ve had a fight with, and please don’t worry that you’re the one “disrupting the house community.” The person who faked someone else’s suicide crisis to get out of a quiz is the person who disrupted the house community. You cannot trust her, you are not safe with her, and your only present responsibility is to find a safe, stable place to live and ask for help making sure this woman stays away from you.
Q. DNA surprise: I had a baby as a teenager that I released for adoption. We found each other a few years ago. She is an adult with a wonderful family, career, etc. We both had our DNA analyzed by one of the commercial websites and I discovered that I was mistaken about the identity of the father. She has not met him and has expressed little interest in him. I am embarrassed and ashamed that I have misled both of them, although it doesn’t seem to have affected either of them very much. In addition, it is still unclear who the father is, as the two possibilities are related. One was a one-night stand and the other was a good friend from whom I am now estranged. Should I tell her? I don’t think either of these men would welcome this news, especially since I can’t identify the actual father unless one of them gets a DNA test. I want to do the right thing but don’t want to create a lot of unnecessary drama.
A: Since she hasn’t expressed interest in meeting her biological father, I think you can trust that any correction you offer will be received in a spirit closer to “Oh, that’s interesting; thanks for the update” rather than “This changes everything.” You don’t appear to have misled anyone deliberately; you didn’t have access to a paternity test or DNA analysis at the time of her birth, and presumably you made the best guess you could. It was an honest mistake, and as you say, it would not have affected your decision to pursue adoption at the time. You can clarify things with her now (that the man you previously believed to be her biological father isn’t, and that you’re no longer sure who it was) if that would relieve your anxieties, without going into detail about an obvious source of self-recrimination and shame. You can also tell the man who previously thought he was the child’s father, although again, since she was given up for adoption and they don’t seem to have ever met or even spoken, it’s not as if much about his life will change either way. Mostly, I hope you can stop being so hard on your past teenage self. Your child grew up happy, safe, and healthy, and you two are able to have a relationship today, and that’s worth celebrating.
Q. Three hearts and only one got hit by Cupid: I met “Mark” about two months ago, just a week after my move to my current city. Our first week of getting to know each other was wonderful. It felt like a honeymoon; we already acted as if we’d been seeing each other for months. We eventually realized everything was a bit too much and we needed to slow things down. He has his own issues with past relationships he must deal with and doesn’t feel ready for a relationship, so we decided to just be friends. And we are. It’s been great.
Then I met “David.” We take long walks together and we share our lives and thoughts even though we’re both very introverted and reserved. I miss him the second he says goodbye and every time, I wish our hugs could last longer. One night, David and I went out for drinks. I drank a little too much and I asked him if he was attracted to me. He said he thinks I am beautiful but he never felt any physical attraction. We spend a lot of time together, we share a lot with each other, he (not normally a toucher) is always touching my arm, looking at me in the eyes, complimenting me for little things, telling me that he cares about me. He’s always doing things he doesn’t like to do. I am quite sure he is flirting.
The issue here is that Mark and David are best friends. I wonder if that has anything to do with David’s rejection. I think the more I spend time with him, the more I like him. I am starting to have feelings. I don’t know what to do. Is this unethical? Should I just shoot my shot? Would it be best to let things go the way they are for a while and see what happens? What if he never feels attracted to me? I really don’t know what to do.
A: There’s nothing unethical about having a crush on someone, especially if you’re both single adults; different people have different outlooks when it comes to dating someone who’s previously dated a mutual friend, but there’s certainly no universal ethical boundary that you’re obliged to honor here. The fact that you and Mark had a brief, powerful fling that quickly resolved into a warm and frictionless friendship is to both your credit and Mark’s, and although it’s possible David’s worried about that history, I don’t think you have to assume Mark is the reason David demurred when you asked him if he was attracted to you. If David never feels attracted to you, then you two will never go out and you will be sad, possibly even heartbroken, and you may need to take a break from your friendship until you’re no longer counting every arm touch and missing him every moment you’re apart. But that’s no reason to “wait and see what happens,” since you already know you’re in deep and you’ve already asked him one risky question.
You’re so close to resolution, one way or the other; you’ve already done the difficult thing in broaching the subject, even if you did have to get tipsy to do it. Broaching it a second time is a lot easier: “Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve felt like a lot of our contact lately has been really charged. Normally when I spend this much time with someone, with this kind of emotional intensity and hearing so many compliments, I feel pretty confident that we’re both interested in the same thing. So if I wasn’t clear when I asked you if you ever felt attracted to me, let me be clear now. I’m attracted to you. I’m really into you, actually, and I think there’s something real here, and I want to go out with you. If you don’t feel the same way, I might need a little time to get over this before I’m ready to go on another long walk. But I hope you do.” Just don’t keep going on increasingly agonizing soul-bearing walk-and-talks in the hopes that he’ll eventually have to feel the same way because of the strength of your connection. That may seem tempting, but it’s a recipe for frustration. Be clear, get your answer, and then either have fun getting together or good luck getting over him.
Q. Update: Secret impasse: This is following up on the question I had about my wife, whom I suspected of having voted for Trump. We did have that talk. She had been out of town for quite some time. Now that she’s back, I asked her. She said in 2016 she had not voted for Trump, but might do so now. She won’t tell me definitively. I guess that’s fair enough, because I don’t really care who she votes for. What she hit me with next was worse: some rather baldly racist statements about the protests this past summer, fears about Democrats favoring minorities, and her feelings about certain minority groups. It makes the vote moot because it is quite clear now: We don’t share the same values on this.
I don’t want to give the impression that her statements are entirely out of character, but the nakedness of the sentiment this time metaphorically punched me in the nose. I’m not so naïve to think that I can change her heart and mind. I also don’t want to worry about it right now. I want to get through the election, get through COVID, and see what’s on the other side. For reasons I won’t get into, I am not so concerned about her attitudes rubbing off on the kids, but still, a difference of opinion on the equality of cultures and ethnic groups is quite a difference to live with and I am unsure of how to evaluate the rest of our relationship history in light of this.
A: I’m sorry! I’m glad, too, which I know is an odd combination, but this is the sort of clarity that provides reassurance even as it causes pain. You can, of course, take your time to process the new light your wife’s recent statements shed on her values and her character, but I do hope you take this time to actually process it and not simply try to push it out of your head because you don’t want to worry about it, especially when there’s no telling how long it might take to “get through COVID,” if you get through it at all. Don’t rush, but don’t kick the can endlessly down the road either. Above all, I hope you can start talking to someone about this, so you’re not carrying it all by yourself.
Danny M. Lavery: There was an awful lot of today. Take it easy on yourselves, if you can, and save your energy for the fights you must have by avoiding the optional ones. See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. This sucks: My 18-month-old son has developed a deep, deep love of the vacuum cleaner. He loves to watch Daddy vacuum. He loves to watch Mommy vacuum. He loves to push buttons on the unplugged vacuum and push the unplugged vacuum across the floor. He does not accept toy vacuums or DustBusters. Those are inferior products and he is no fool. He has recently broken out in extreme hives, and his doctor suspects the vacuum to be the culprit. The vacuum is banished to the garage, but he is now constantly banging on the garage door, pitching full-on screaming tantrums that can be heard from outside the house. The nanny texts me about it all the time, but I tell her we do not negotiate with terrorists. He accepts no comfort or redirection. His hives are gone. What to do? Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.