My younger daughter was quite extraordinary as a child—observant, empathetic, sweet, and kind. Her dad and I tried to raise her as a caring, loving person, and it worked. For a while. During her teen years, she was greatly influenced by close friends who didn’t have good behavior modeled for them at home: swearing, no manners, obnoxious behavior. We are quite liberal, and she normally embraces our values but seemed to turn away on other things. She lost the sunny disposition she once had.
Her senior year she started dating a girl we knew very little about but who seemed to make her very happy, and as she said “made her feel beautiful” (I’m biased, I know, but my daughter is gorgeous). The most I could find out was that her girlfriend had a rough home life, but their teachers praised my daughter for being a good influence on her. Her girlfriend came to school more and did her homework, as urged by my daughter. That made me proud. Then, tragedy. On an evening when she promised to come watch my daughter’s game, she didn’t show. Turns out, she got into a car with a bunch of other friends who were on a mission to steal drugs and money from a home. Armed robbery and murder followed. Within a couple days all of them were arrested. My daughter was devastated but stood by her. I tried to talk to my daughter about them having no future now, as her girlfriend pleaded out and is going to prison. But due to COVID, her sentencing has been delayed, and she’s still at home. In addition to this, I see signs of jealousy, manipulation, and control. How do I help my daughter see this is not a healthy relationship? I’ve never felt so helpless.
Feeling helpless is a very difficult feeling to have to contend with. But the path to something like (relative) serenity begins by acknowledging the people and situations you have no power over. You cannot force your daughter to stop loving her girlfriend, to break up with her, to consider their relationship unhealthy, or to abjure the company of people her own age who may swear, behave obnoxiously, or otherwise act out. The harder you try to exert your will in those areas, the more thwarted you’ll feel and the faster your daughter will pull away. You’ll have limited, circumspect opportunities to share your concerns or ask thoughtful questions, and if you navigate those opportunities with a light hand, you’ll likely get a lot further with your daughter than if you try to push. Offer your daughter support where you can; don’t offer her advice unless she asks you for it; and seek out friends and/or a therapist when you need to vent or cry about your baby girl.
I will also offer caution about dwelling on fond memories of your daughter’s childhood, which can sometimes be a barrier to establishing an honest, emotionally balanced relationship in the present. It seems like you may be longing for a time when you were readily able to keep your daughter safe and close, but for her that would mean longing for a time before she was able to make her own decisions, fall in love, or cultivate her own values. Trying to appeal to your daughter by reminding her what a great kid she used to be will likely make her feel as if you’re questioning where she went wrong or are unwilling to see her as an adult, so I’d save those remembrances for another time. All your feelings here are perfectly understandable, but you can’t process them with your daughter, who is striking out on her own as an adult.
About two years ago I was in a relationship with someone who was very submissive in bed, which suited me well, as I was just realizing I prefer to be dominant. (We both now identify as nonbinary, but at the time I identified as a woman and they identified as a man.) They were also less experienced than I was and were generally more shy. A few months into our relationship, they said to me that they had a much lower libido than they were letting on, and that they wanted to have sex less often. While this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, it made sense and we worked out a system. They still wanted me to initiate (since it caused them great anxiety to do so themselves), but I’d check in multiple times, ask if they were in the mood, and always stopped if the answer was “No.” I thought this was working well and went from initiating sex once or twice a week to something more like once every two weeks. I thought that was fine, but when we broke up, they revealed to me that they actually hadn’t been interested in having sex any of those times but felt pressure to say yes. I feel nauseated just typing that.
I am afraid that I am a rapist and have not talked about this with almost anyone. I know that no one is a mind-reader, but I didn’t think I was coercing my partner, and I feel very uneasy trying to retroactively “read” their body language for clues. Should I have known? What makes matters worse is I now know my ex identifies as asexual from their social media. It may be relevant to mention that I have OCD, which I know often manifests as constant worry about committing crimes or immoral acts. The one friend I’ve confided in actually felt that I had been wronged, because my former partner was withholding important information, and I would never have wanted to have sex under those circumstances if I’d known. But I don’t know if she’s just going too easy on me. I’d like to talk to my therapist about it, but it’s been two years, and I still haven’t mustered the courage. I’m afraid that everything I fear will be true, and that my therapist will confirm I’m a rapist. What do I do, Prudie? If I haven’t gotten over this guilt yet, I’m afraid it will never leave me—and maybe that’s a sign that I deserve to suffer with it.
—Overwhelmed With Doubt
Living almost entirely alone in a repetitive cycle of self-loathing can be so damaging. I’m so sorry you’ve felt unable to discuss this with your therapist, and I want to treat your anxieties with great care and respect. But a sentence like “If I haven’t gotten over this guilt yet, I’m afraid it will never leave me” strikes me as the result of isolated, obsessive, condemnatory thought patterns, not as a thoroughly reasoned judgment. I realize this cycle is not going to disappear just because a stranger has reassured you, but take a look at your own letter. You and your ex had multiple conversations about how you both felt about initiating sex, as well as how to signal interest (or lack of interest) to each other in the moment. You were honest about your own interests, needs, and desires and took your partner at their word. You didn’t try to bypass or wear down responses you didn’t want to hear. Your ex shared after your breakup that they felt nonspecific “pressure” to round up their libido or interest in sex, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that anytime someone experiences an internal sense of pressure that their partner is directly responsible for it. This isn’t an either/or proposition. You don’t have to choose between “I must have caused all that pressure myself” or “My ex must have knowingly withheld that information and is therefore responsible for the years of distress I’ve been experiencing.”
You don’t have to do anything. But I do think you should speak to your therapist, especially if your work together has anything to do with treating your OCD. Trying to punish yourself endlessly because you think you should have known something your partner either couldn’t or wasn’t ready to share with you several years ago has done nothing to resolve your anxieties, enable you to treat yourself and the people you love with care and respect, or brought you anything approaching peacefulness. I do not believe that your therapist will “confirm” your fears. I believe your therapist will be able to help you treat them in the context of your OCD. And even if you had deliberately tried to undermine your partner’s consent in the past, if you were now prepared to acknowledge the pain you had caused and ready to live your life on a different basis, you would deserve the opportunity to do so in a safe and confidential setting, with the help of a therapist and the support of others in your life.
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How do I get past my anger at friends who created a “social bubble” during the pandemic that didn’t include me? And then they’re always inviting me to attend parties … that I can’t attend because I’m not in their social bubble. Then they send me pictures of what I’ve missed or call me crying because of how much they miss me! I’ve never asked my friends to change their lifestyles. They have kids who have friends who visit them; they’ve got other friends they visit too. They’ve celebrated every birthday and holiday with other people since the pandemic started. They have traveling houseguests, and they crisscross the state monthly to visit each other. One kid’s 13th birthday party back in the summer had at least 20 people in the pool, eating at the same tables, without a mask in sight. And yet they all complain about how they can’t wait to get back to normal “when it’s over.”
As far as I can see, their lives haven’t altered much. Sure, their youngest children started remote schooling. But they still played with neighboring children after class ended, had sleepovers on weekends, and had lots of people in their “bubble.” I can’t do any of those things. I don’t want to risk my health or the health of my parents. But I’m angry that my friends didn’t work harder to see me safely if it was that important for them. How can I move past my anger, when I realize it was also my choice to keep my own bubble small? I don’t want to yell at my friends once we can actually socialize in person again. But honestly even my siblings haven’t been maskless around me and our parents or each other’s households. We’ve firmly committed to it.
I hope you can balance two slightly competing truths as you consider renegotiating your friendships post-vaccination. The first is that you’re perfectly entitled to your frustrations about the past year, and you don’t have to immediately sweep them out during an emotional spring cleaning. The second is that it may very well be possible that your friends didn’t change their daily habits in the same ways that you did, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the pandemic hasn’t altered their lives “very much,” either. Whenever possible, consider your friends’ choices with as much tolerance and generosity as you can, especially when you consider how disruptive and overwhelming having young children suddenly attending school from home every day must have been. That doesn’t mean you have to co-sign every risk they took or affirm that every birthday party and overnight houseguest was planned according to the most rigorous and thoughtful safety plan. Nor does it mean you have to pretend to feel good about things! You can be honest about your own isolation and resentments, particularly as it relates to your friends’ decisions to call you crying about their inability to include you in their social lives. But your goal should be to work through those frustrations without litigating each child’s birthday party or last summer’s weekend houseguests down to the letter. Continue to stick to your own commitments, talk to your friends honestly about your experiences now (instead of waiting to yell at them in person in a few weeks or months), and give yourself a break. You’ve been through a lot.
Help! My Partner Questions Every Little Thing I Do.
Danny M. Lavery is joined by Rax King on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.
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My ex and I were together for almost two years. He was my first relationship and first sexual encounter. He is also 15 years my senior. We met when I was 18. I didn’t know his actual age or the fact he had a girlfriend on the other side of the country (we were both new to the area at the time) until we’d been dating for a few months. I was vocal about wanting a nonmonogamous relationship from the beginning and continued to be until the end. However, he wanted more. When a dirty message came up on my phone several months after we met, he angrily told me that he didn’t want to be with me if I wouldn’t be exclusive. I was scared of losing him and knew that he was pressuring me into a more exclusive commitment.
I justified my sleeping with other men on two separate occasions, as well as sending explicit photos, because I gave him a multitude of chances to see things my way or to leave (which he ultimately did and should have a long time ago, as much as I hate to admit it). I knew he wouldn’t be OK with what I was doing, but at the time, I thought I was justified in my actions. I realize now that I was not justified and seriously betrayed him, even though I was never caught. I think it may be for the better for both of us now that it is over, although that is no excuse for what I did.
I am seeing a therapist now to work through both the end of the relationship and how I contributed to the unhealthy environment. I still love and care about him so much. He was my best friend. All of this information makes everything even worse, because I wonder how could I have ever done that to someone I know means so much to me. Do you have any advice for me on how to work on forgiving myself and moving forward?
—Guilt Over Ghosts
Do not worry about forgiving yourself! Let’s look at the record: You started dating a man in his 30s when you were 18. He lied to you about his age and the fact that he had a girlfriend. It’s not clear from your letter how you found out about either, nor whether he ever apologized for his deception. You were honest and straightforward about your commitment to nonmonogamy from the beginning and made it clear that if that was going to be a deal-breaker for him, he should date someone else. He berated you for your consistency. He lied to you more than once, tried to make you feel ashamed of your own honest relationship to sexual desire, attempted to pressure you into a monogamous relationship he knew you didn’t want (and, let’s not forget, was applying this pressure right around the same time he was hiding another girlfriend from you). I think you deserve better boyfriends and better best friends.
You are not responsible for the fact that your ex “wouldn’t be OK” with what you were doing when you slept with other men. You told this man repeatedly that you wanted a nonmonogamous relationship. Then you had a nonmonogamous relationship with him. The fact that he didn’t like it was not evidence you did something wrong; it’s just evidence that he didn’t like it. You were anxious about losing the man you loved, and it sounds like he was fairly skillful at taking advantage of your relative inexperience in order to get what he wanted or manipulate your feelings. You feel guilt now for not bending over backward even further to accommodate him than you already did. I invite you to stop feeling guilty! I invite you to feel proud of your commitment to honesty and frankness, to consider this guy a chump, a coward, a liar, and a sorry excuse for both a boyfriend and a friend.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“That said, I think it’s fine to try to have a frank talk about how murder is not a value one was raised with.”
Danny Lavery and Matt Lubchansky discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
My daughter is now almost 4 and will be 4½ by the time our second child will be born later this year. She is excited for the new baby boy and often kisses my belly and says “hello.” Due to the pandemic, I’ve had to transition to working remotely, so I’ve spent a great deal of time with my daughter at home. She has gotten very attached and used to me being there all the time. Oftentimes she will get jealous and will not allow me to talk to others or even go to the store alone. She wants me all to herself. Is this a sign of her feeling that someone new will come into “her” territory and she is becoming possessive of me and envious of this unborn baby, or is this a phase that too shall pass?
—Worried Mother of Two
I’ll start with the important caveat that I have no children, so I can’t speak to just how common or uncommon this might be. I canvassed a friend of mine with two kids and got this incredibly world-weary response: “It’s a phase. It’s always a phase. Everything annoying your kid does turns into some new annoying thing in a month.” It will almost certainly pass at some point—it’s very unlikely that your daughter will still insist on accompanying you during every errand when she’s 15 and thinks you’re an idiot—but I don’t think you have to simply write this off as an inevitable, fixed stage of development such that intervention is impossible. If anything, I’d take your daughter’s increased dependence not as an indicator of her feelings about the new baby but as an indicator of just how challenging living through a pandemic is for little kids. The size and scale of her social world has shrunk amazingly over the last year! You can affirm her need for reassurance and remind her that you’re there for her, but you don’t need to give in to her every demand either. If you need to talk to someone else and she’s distressed about it, be patient but encourage her to practice being by herself for a few minutes.
“I think a lot of parents forget to tell their kids about their own needs and feelings, but she’s old enough to start thinking about the fact that you sometimes need a little time to yourself, too,” my world-weary friend adds. “ ‘I know you’re sad I’m talking to someone else. I really want to hear what they have to say, and I’ll talk to you when we’re done.’ It’s a good way to help prepare her to think about her little brother’s needs when he comes along, too.” Your 4-year-old will still sometimes get jealous or demanding, won’t be able to fully incorporate your interiority the way a fellow adult might, and won’t always be able to immediately call upon her reserves of patience and self-reliance when you want to do something without her. But you can start to schedule small periods of time throughout the day where you two aren’t joined at the hip, and encourage her to think of a little “alone time” as something both parents and kids need and enjoy. Good luck! It’s a lot to deal with, and I hope your daughter’s next developmental stage is something like “helps with the dishes without being asked” or “quietly reads in her room.”
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For the past year, I have been acting as the caretaker to my elderly parents, who are in poor health. This has been very stressful, as I have had to be exceedingly careful about my COVID risk, often going far beyond the precautions the general public has to take. I was thrilled last week when I was able to make an appointment to receive my first vaccine for the virus. I shared the news with an old college friend I’ve reconnected with during the pandemic. Her reaction was not what I expected. She accused me of only wanting to go to sex resorts and blamed me for taking vaccines away from “African American grandmothers.” (My friend is white.) I know this is hard for her, as she has been battling a medical condition that is not recognized by many doctors and does not qualify her for the vaccine. But now she is threatening to expose me on social media, saying that I do not need to be vaccinated and am only getting it in order to behave irresponsibly. (It’s true that we’ve had text exchanges where I talk about wanting to eat in restaurants and go to the movies; my friend has always said she will continue to avoid those things.) I don’t want to cancel my appointment, which has been a lifeline for me. But I also don’t want to “go viral.” What should I do?
—Friend Doesn’t Want Me Getting Vaccinated
I think your friend’s sense of scale has been permanently warped by the pandemic. Her accusation that all you care about is wild hedonism and not public safety or your parents’ health is clearly baseless, but beyond that, it’s not irresponsible to want to get vaccinated so one can resume enjoyable activities like going to the movies again someday. It’s pleasurable, and it’s unrelated to life-threatening concerns, but that doesn’t make it irresponsible.
Your friend is overwhelmed and frustrated, which is perfectly understandable given her circumstances. But it’s also clear that she’s attempting to displace her own sense of scarcity onto other people—she’s angry she can’t get an appointment. Everyone needs to get vaccinated, including you, and your work as a caretaker is an important, relevant factor. Giving up your own appointment won’t help your friend (or anyone else). Vaccines work just as well and do just as much good regardless of the motivation of the person getting jabbed. Give your old college buddy a wide berth for now, because it’s clear she’s not in a position to listen to reason, but don’t lose any sleep for fear that she’s going to turn the tide of public opinion against you. She doesn’t have evidence you’re a bad person out to screw vulnerable people over. All she has is misdirected anger, and she’s free to stop aiming it at you anytime she likes.
I did something bad. Two years ago my brother-in-law died suddenly. Needless to say my in-laws were completely devastated, and my MIL was put on sedation for a few weeks. My husband’s pushy cousin stepped in and took over a lot of the decisions being made. One of them was to place my BIL’s beautiful guitar that his mother had given him in the coffin to be buried with him. I didn’t feel it was my place to speak up, but I thought it was a stupid thing to do. After the visitation at the funeral home I said to an attendant that I thought it was awful that they were going to bury such a valuable object. Since it was to be a closed casket funeral he offered to take the guitar out and set it aside before the coffin was sealed, and I agreed. Later he gave it to me and I brought it home and hid it. Now all this time later my MIL often bemoans the fact that we did such a dumb thing, and says how much she wishes she could have the guitar back to remember her son by. If I speak up and tell what I did, everyone in the family is going to be furious at me, including my husband. I would feel terrible selling it so it remains hidden. Should I face the music and give it back?