Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Good afternoon! We’ve got a very neighbor-heavy mailbag this week—let’s try to mend some fences.
Q. Don’t fear the peeper: I like to walk through my town at night and briefly peer into people’s windows to see their interior design. I’m not hoping to see people per se, just domestic space; it’s a comforting, quasi-social experience in a completely isolated time (my country has been locked down for the majority of the last few months). If I make eye contact with a person, I immediately look away and keep moving. For additional context, I am a woman.
The problem is, my partner gets very upset when I do this when I’m with them. They’re convinced we are making people feel unsafe and are going to have the police called. I’ve never received any indication of this (although one time months ago, someone did step outside the house and ask me to move along). Am I doing anything intrinsically wrong?
A: You have, I think, received one fairly clear indicator that people felt at the very least uncomfortable by this habit, since you yourself say that someone came out of their house to ask you to keep walking and stop staring into their living room. The fact that you were there long enough for someone to notice what you were doing, decide to object to it, then step outside to speak to you suggests that this isn’t an errant glance through an open window to admire someone’s wallpaper. And of course you know it makes your partner very uncomfortable when you do it while you’re together. I don’t know how likely it is that someone will ever call the police on the strength of your staring—or what, if anything, the police might do in response—but I think you have plenty of inducement to scale back already. That’s not to say I think it’s “intrinsically wrong” to want to look through an open window on a walk, but the context clues suggest you’re lingering too long.
Keep your glances momentary, and don’t stop and stare; people can’t intuit your intentions if you’re standing in their driveway goggling at them. If you want to look at other people’s interior design choices for more than a few seconds, pick up a copy of Architectural Digest or look online; if you’re feeling isolated (perfectly understandable!), call a friend or speak to one of your neighbors when you’re out on your next walk.
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Q. Scented bakery: My friend has been giving us lots of home-baked treats lately while we’ve been going through a rough patch. It’s so kind of them, but I’m not sure if there is a tactful way to let them know that we do not eat any of them because they taste like scented trash bags. I think they store their baggies and containers in the same drawer as the trash bags, and they’re steeped in that flowery chemical smell. Everything is baked to perfection, but they have to go right in the trash. I feel badly about it, but I can’t think of a way to address it. We avoid artificial scents in our house and we’re pretty sensitive to them. I’m sure my friend just doesn’t notice.
A: I’m sure your friend doesn’t notice either! But since they’re sending over a lot of baked goods to help cheer you during a rough patch, it’s safe to say that your friend is prepared to go a little out of their way to try to cheer you up, so don’t worry too much about taking advantage of their good nature, if that’s partly why you haven’t said anything yet. Of course one doesn’t want to seem churlish, or appear to be dictating how one’s friends deliver gifts! But it’s not as if you’re saying, “I’d really rather have butterscotch chips, no fewer than nine per cookie, wrapped in parchment paper and delivered only on Thursdays where the date is not a prime number,” or making an unreasonable demand. You’re especially sensitive to scents, and your friend isn’t; once you let her know, she can either decide to store the baked goods elsewhere, switch to bringing you tea, or something else.
“I’m sorry to mention this, because it’s been so kind of you to bring us blondies every week, and it’s meant so much to me to know you’re thinking of us—but we’re really sensitive to scented products, and I think the blondies must be stored near scented liners or something similar, because there’s a strong chemical smell.” You don’t have to suggest what she ought to do instead, or mention that you think it’s probably trash bags; let her offer a solution or ask a follow-up question and proceed from there, making sure to stress how much you’ve appreciated her thoughtfulness and hard work. But you can’t help what you smell or what you’re sensitive to, so you don’t have to apologize beyond the usual courtesies.
Q. Is my mom a bad therapist? My mother’s been a therapist specialized in behavioral therapy for a decade now and her methods have been making me feel very uncomfortable for quite some time, specifically when it comes to boundaries. I know not all types of therapy establish the same kind of distancing between psychologist and patient, but I think she crosses way too many lines. For instance, she gets frequent text messages from patients about their day-to-day lives, and she encourages it. She tells them personal things about her family life—small things but ones that certainly don’t pertain to therapy. She tells my sister and me details of patients’ problems. She also becomes Facebook friends with former patients and often exchanges messages with them and their families on social media. I’ve overheard her in online therapy (I try not to but the house is small) giving excessive input and seeming to steer patients too much in a specific direction.
My sister and I have repeatedly told her to have supervision sessions with a peer so she can discuss these boundaries, but she refuses to and feels like she has nothing to gain from spending money on that. I worry that her behavior might be bad for patients but she won’t listen to us and thinks we have an outdated view of therapist-patient boundaries. Do we?
A: I don’t think you necessarily have an outdated view of therapeutic boundaries, but I do think it’s unlikely that you’re going to convince your mother to seriously overhaul her professional conduct in your capacity as her child. You can certainly address the things that directly affect you, like when she tries to tell you about her patients’ problems: “I’m not comfortable hearing about this; it’s none of my business.” If you know she has a habit of disclosing personal details about you to her patients, even if those details are “minor,” you can scale back on how many personal details you share with her, and let her know that you’d prefer she not discuss you with clients. For whatever it’s worth, the American Counseling Association’s 2014 edition of the Code of Ethics has this to say on the subject of socializing with clients after the therapeutic relationship has ended: “Counselors avoid entering into nonprofessional relationships with former clients, their romantic partners, or their family members when the interaction is potentially harmful to the client. This applies to both in-person and electronic interactions or relationships” [emphasis mine]. How one determines what may be “potentially harmful” is a matter of interpretation. That’s not to say that your mother’s conduct sounds ideal, or even that it’s common—other therapists might consider what she’s doing to be boundary-pushing. But it’s not a clear, categorical ethical violation, either. Texting with patients isn’t unheard of these days either, especially if she’s seeing them all remotely. Being a therapist’s child can be a difficult prospect, and it makes sense that you find yourself craving distance from your mother’s therapeutic relationships and approach.
If you think she’s giving a patient “too much” input in one direction or another because you can’t help but overhear her sessions, the best thing you can do in such a moment is put on headphones, close your bedroom door, take a walk, or take whatever other independent steps you can to minimize how much of those conversation you overhear. That falls into a different category, in my opinion; you may disagree with her directness with clients (and she could probably be doing more to keep her sessions inaudible to other members of the house), but not all therapists share a consensus on what constitutes direct advice, what sorts of feedback might be useful to a patient, or how to remain neutral. You’ve already told your mother what you think on more than one occasion, and she’s declined to take your advice. Without saying that you should simply trust that she “knows best,” I think your best available option is to cultivate more distance on your own behalf, rather than continue to try to influence her behavior.
Q. An unwelcome guest, during COVID: My husband has a good friend who has been traveling pretty extensively during the pandemic. We live in a city that is pretty popular among winter sports fans and is a wonderful place to visit (although maybe not during a pandemic).
This friend is traveling to our city for some vacation and, against my protests, my husband has offered our home to his friend who has decided to stay with us for a few nights while he is in town. I have told my husband that I do not feel comfortable with this and quite frankly I am pretty upset that my concerns were dismissed, although this is more on the fault of my husband than his friend. My question is, am I really obligated to be a gracious host in this situation? We have overall been extremely cautious during the pandemic and I understand that everyone is getting a little tired of the restrictions, but I feel extremely uncomfortable and upset opening up my home in this situation.
A: You’re not obligated to be a host, much less a gracious one, for a guest you did not invite and whose presence in your home during a pandemic poses additional health risks. Frankly, your husband is putting both you and his friend in a terrible position; you because your husband has waved away your concerns and overridden your protests, and his friend because your husband apparently hasn’t been honest about the context of this invitation. It’s one thing to be tired of restrictions; it’s quite another to say to your spouse, “I don’t care if you’re uncomfortable having an overnight guest who’s been traveling throughout the pandemic, I’m doing it anyway.” You have good reason to object to this plan, and do not have to simply go along with your husband’s wishes because you’re afraid it would look “ungracious” to do otherwise.
Q. Weighted blankets: My brother has a new girlfriend whom I have never met in person, but we have had some virtual introductions. She moved in with him in April, two months after they met. I sent them holiday gifts and two weeks later received one of these gifts, a weighted blanket, back in the mail. His girlfriend believes this gift was “appropriating autistic culture,” though she’s not on the spectrum herself and has no autistic people in her life. She demanded that it be returned and insisted that she and I will have no more virtual engagements until I apologize for the insensitivity of the gift. She also posted some things on Facebook about what a monster her boyfriend’s family is for giving such a gift. It hurts that my brother chooses to play along with his girlfriend. I would really feel terrible if I did something truly offensive here, but my weighted blanket has been a huge comfort to me over the past year.
A: Decline to apologize. It is a shame that she is behaving unreasonably, and an even bigger shame that your brother is going along with it (I don’t know if he’s “playing along” because he doesn’t want to disagree with her, or if he genuinely thinks she’s in the right here), but you do not have to do anything here. If she wants to stop chatting on Zoom with you because you bought her a weighted blanket, then she is free to do so; you can express brief, nonspecific regret (“Sorry to hear that!”) while making it clear you thoroughly disagree with her wild assertion that this weighted blanket is somehow taking something away from, or otherwise harming, autistic people. When someone else is loudly and angrily wrong, it can feel distressing and unsettling, and the urge to do something to “fix” the situation can feel powerful. But she’s simply wrong, and angry. She is free to stop being angry and wrong at any moment. All she has to do is stop. Continue living your life.
Q. What’s in a name: We have been friends with another couple for close to 10 years. They have three kids, and we just had our first child a year ago. We adore their kids and have doted on them as if they were our nieces and nephews. Our friends were excited about our child.
The problem is that they can’t seem to remember our child’s name. They have met our baby, and we all vacationed together before COVID. Even after being corrected in the moment, they keep using the wrong name over texts/emails. It’s not a hard name (think our kid is “Jack” and they call him “Jackson”). It’s soured the friendship for me. I don’t want to keep correcting them after the first few instances, but it feels like they don’t value us or our friendship. I’m fine with letting the friendship just fade out and not investing energy into keeping in touch. My husband agrees that it shows a lack of consideration but wants to just ignore it and still keep in touch. What would you do?
A: Neither of those options! I can’t imagine why your husband wants to just ignore this and give your kid a new nickname based on someone else’s forgetfulness, but neither would I want to end an otherwise valuable relationship of 10 years without at least one serious conversation first. I can understand, of course, why you don’t want to just keep saying “It’s Jack,” over and over again. But why not simply tell them what you’ve told me? “Guys, I don’t know why this keeps happening, but even though we’ve corrected you more than once, you keep calling Baby Jack ‘Jackson’ over text. That’s not his name. That’s never been his name. It’s not his nickname, either. I realize it’s been an intense year and that everybody’s struggling, but it’s really frustrating and makes us feel like you don’t care about our kid, or about our friendship. I know that you do, so I’m asking you to please make a concerted effort to get his name right from now on. Whatever you have to do to remind yourselves, just do it—I don’t want to have to keep correcting you over something this basic.” This is a reasonable frustration to express, and you have every right to be clear and unapologetic. But I think if you simply let the friendship fade without ever saying how this makes you feel, your anger will continue to burn bright. Speak up instead! Even if they react badly, and the friendship ends anyway—I hope that doesn’t happen, but let’s prepare for the worst—at least you’ll have the peace of mind from knowing you said something.
Q. Attraction or resentment? Last April, I got dumped. Since then, I’ve graduated college and gotten a job. I decided to stay near my friends until my workplace reopens, so I still live in my college town … around the corner from my ex. I can’t take a walk without scanning the street for his face. I recently saw someone that looked like him and immediately felt stressed and sad. If I pass by his apartment and glimpse him with his roommate, I feel incredibly resentful that (in my mind) he’s having a great time with friends in college, while I live with strangers and do work that doesn’t feel as impressive or exciting as I expected. Plus, though we haven’t talked in months, I’m always tempted to ask our mutual friends about him. I can’t tell if I still feel something toward him or if he’s just an easy target to project my dissatisfactions onto. How do I disentangle myself from my spider web of negative emotions?
A: I hate to say it, but this sounds like a pretty typical response to a bad breakup. You might very well still feel something toward him, even if the only thing you feel is “God, you’re an easy target for projection.” I’m not so sure those two things are at odds. You live really close to him, so it makes sense that you often worry you’re about to bump into each other. He dumped you, and you haven’t spoken in months; you don’t actually know anything about his current internal state, so it makes sense that you’d be worried he’s just having a great time, and that this great time would somehow come at your expense. You know, I think, on some level that this is not a causal relationship, that if you see him smiling with his roommate it’s not because he’s siphoned away some psychic energy that you could have used to get a better job, so don’t be too hard on yourself for feeling crummy once in a while. As long as you maintain a rational sense of perspective, allowing yourself the occasional irrational flash of indignation that he gets to be in college while you’re struggling with your first day job is just fine.
I’d pay attention to the part of you that’s always tempted to ask your mutual friends about him. That doesn’t mean you should just do it, but if you’re stewing in frustration and resentment and keeping it all to yourself, it might help to speak to a friend or two. You don’t have to unload everything onto them all at once, and I certainly don’t recommend making inquiries about him, but it might really help to be honest about how you’re still struggling after your breakup last year and wish you didn’t live so close to your ex. That won’t immediately disentangle you from the spiderweb, but you can only do that one strand at a time anyhow.
Q. Re: Don’t fear the peeper: While I was reading through the post, I was thinking, “sure, nothing wrong with that, I like to do that too”—until I realized … you STOP!? That is super creepy. Walk by, glance in, even slow down … but keep moving! And, it should go without saying, don’t leave the sidewalk (or road) to get a closer view.
A: I think it should be said here! We should not take “it goes without saying” as a rule in this letter, because I think what feels “natural” to the letter writer reads as invasive or too much to many others. Glancing in an open window when you’re out on a walk is fine, provided you keep moving, don’t leave the road/footpath, and don’t linger. If you do any of those things, you’re liable to unsettle someone.
Q. Re: Don’t fear the peeper: Intrinsically wrong or illegal? Probably not (as long as you’re remaining on sidewalks while you do this and not going into people’s yards). But slightly creepy (at least from the other person’s perspective)? Almost certainly. It doesn’t matter that you’re a woman; having someone stare at you (or into your house as it is) for an extended period is probably going to make most people uncomfortable at a bare minimum. I’d probably try to cut down on this habit if I were you and get your interior design kicks from Pinterest or Better Homes and Gardens, where people purposefully display the insides of their homes for the consumption of strangers.
A: Thank you, I knew Architectural Digest wasn’t the magazine I was thinking of, but I couldn’t remember the name—Better Homes and Gardens was escaping me for whatever reason. You don’t have to cover your eyes if you walk past a well-lit living room with the curtains opened, but neither should you treat people’s homes like a museum piece, where lingering and staring is considered perfectly appropriate.
Q. Re: Scented bakery: You can also give your friends a handful of your own Tupperware and ask her to package things in there! When she drops off the next batch, she picks up a clean container for the following batch. No smell, less waste.
A: That’s a lovely idea, thanks for it. Of course, the letter writer should wait to see what their friend suggests; if they don’t volunteer to keep baking, they shouldn’t hand over some Tupperware and act like it’s a given. But if they’re up for it, that would be an easy solution.
Q. Smothering my faithful wife: My wife and I are trying to rebuild our marriage after she caught me in bed with another woman. It took almost losing her to realize how much I love my wife. I am 100% committed to reconciling with her, but since she only discovered the affair two months ago, her emotions are still very raw. She vacillates between wanting to reconcile and wanting to move in with her best friend so we can separate. I’m terrified she’ll divorce me and I’ve become clingy. I follow her around when she’s home and want to go with her when she runs errands. I’ve even hovered in the bathroom while she took a shower. My behavior isn’t helping us reconcile, but ‘m so scared she doesn’t know how much I love her. She’s told me I’m smothering her, and that’s true. How can I stop being so afraid of her leaving me?
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