A few months ago I got engaged to a wonderful man. He’s kind and sweet and I love him very much. When I met him, he was fairly upfront about his past, which included a lot of drugs and illicit activities. After a friend of his overdosed, he decided to get clean. It’s been five years, and he’s doing great. The problem is that his past just caught up with him. He was arrested this week after an old associate was swept up in a bust and outed my fiancé’s previous activities. My fiancé isn’t completely sure whether he did the things he’s accused of, but since he was so high, he doesn’t remember.
We don’t know whether he’s going to be getting charged or offered a deal. Everything is so up in the air right now. I’m feeling terrible, but I’m considering leaving him. He’s wonderful, but what kind of a life will we have if he’s in jail for two to five years and then has a record after that? Am I a terrible person for thinking this? When he told me about his past, I never thought it would actually catch up with him. After talking with him and his lawyers, I think I was being incredibly naïve. Part of me wants to stay and see what happens, but a part of me is worried that even if he gets out of this, something else is right around the corner. He’s such a good man now, and I hate to use his past against him. What should I do?
—Don’t Want to Stay
You have every right to decide for yourself what you are and aren’t prepared to deal with. The most important thing is to be as honest as possible with yourself, with your fiancé, and with a few trusted friends before making any decision. If you feel too ashamed to even discuss the possibility of calling off your engagement and end up disappearing without a word, I think you’ll continue to feel guilty and self-conscious for a long time to come, whereas if you talk through all the possible outcomes with your fiancé first, with a frank assessment of the support you think you’re capable of giving him, you’ll at least have the satisfaction of having been forthright.
Your question about life during his possible jail time and afterward is very much worth putting to your fiancé! Investigate some of the resources available to family and loved ones of people in prison, such as those compiled at the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated. Ask yourself what issues concern you most: Is it the nature of the crimes your partner may possibly have committed? The prospect of a prolonged and enforced distance? The social stigma of imprisonment? How this might affect your finances? What kind of external support do you think you can expect from your own friends and family? It’s not using your fiancé’s past against him to ask practical questions about your future relationship, but I do think he deserves the chance to have these conversations with you before you decide whether you’re prepared to stay together.
Our son married a woman who is a firm believer in boundaries. Just hers though. We were barely consulted for the wedding but expected to pull out the checkbook. They moved near her family, and we were only allowed to visit twice a year and forced to stay in a motel (she was “uncomfortable” having us in her home overnight). After their twins were born, no one in our family was allowed to visit for two months, but her family was there at the hospital. Trying to have an honest discussion is useless. Our daughter-in-law will stand up and tell us we need “to respect my family’s boundaries or you will not see us,” and leave. Our son apologizes but tells us his wife comes first. Then the silent treatment comes until they need something, usually expecting us to babysit at a moment’s notice.
Our daughter has given up on her brother. She had a small child-free wedding last year. Our daughter-in-law was “insulted” her twins were not part of the ceremony and refused to attend, even though we offered to find a babysitter. Our son declined to come at all. All this breaks our hearts. We love our grandchildren and our son, but having them dangled in front of us and dragged away hurts. The last straw was our son telling us we were calling him (and him alone) “excessively” and “we” didn’t think this was healthy. Now we are forbidden to call and must wait for when our son and daughter-in-law decide they want to. My wife and I don’t know what to do. Help.
—Not Our Boundaries
For the time being, at least, you should not call your son, since he has asked you to stop. I’d also encourage you to take this break from regular contact to reflect on some of your grievances. Having children who don’t live close by is not a personal attack. Neither is being asked to stay in a hotel during visits! You have, I think, missed several opportunities to stop taking fairly straightforward logistical decisions personally. I fear you also missed an opportunity to be gracious and understanding when your daughter-in-law gave birth to twins and postponed your first visit until she and your son had been able to develop something of a manageable parenting rhythm. I can appreciate how eager you were to meet your grandchildren, but being asked to wait two months is a reasonable request. If your daughter-in-law decided she wanted to have some of her own relatives in the hospital with her during the birth, she was well within her rights to do so, given that she was the one actually giving birth. Nor do I share your resentment about their wedding; it’s often customary (but hardly mandatory) for the parents of the bride and/or groom to contribute financially without buying themselves the right to dictate the event itself.
Your daughter-in-law’s decision to treat your daughter’s child-free wedding as a personal slight also strikes me as an unreasonable one. I can appreciate your frustration that neither she nor your son decided to attend even after you offered to help them find a babysitter. But what’s done is done on that front, and I don’t think you should use that as an excuse to start calling again when both your son and his wife have made it clear that you’ve been doing it too often and too forcefully. It will serve you better to think of your son not as a prize that someone else can “dangle in front of [you]” or drag away but as an adult who has let you know the terms upon which he’s prepared to have a relationship with you.
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When I was in high school, I became quite close with my father’s coworker’s kids. We hung out regularly, played on sports teams together, and goofed around like teens do. They were easily the best friends I’d ever had—until my father was arrested and charged with child molestation. He had numerous victims, including his coworker’s daughter, my friend. I had to move away when this happened.
It has been 20 years since I last spoke to my friends. I was ashamed to have a father who could do that, and I spent much of the last few decades trying to forgive myself for not protecting my friends and working to see myself outside of my father’s abusiveness. I’m in a great place now, but I miss my friends. I was scared to reach out before because of everything that happened, but now I want to quit letting my fear limit my connections. But it’s been 20 years. They’ve never reached out to me either. I wonder if the reality of what my father did means I should err on the side of caution and not reach out. I don’t want to cause any more pain, but I also want to share my life with people who made me feel loved and supported. Is there a right answer here? I cut my father out of my life years ago, and I am ready to reconnect with my past in a healthy way.
—Sins of the Father
I’m so sorry for how far the effects of your father’s abuse have traveled and how many people he’s hurt both directly and indirectly. I do think it’s possible for you to reach out to these former friends, but you should keep your expectations very low and be prepared for any number of possible responses, especially since it’s been so long. Keep any exploratory messages brief, and make it clear that you won’t try to contact them again if they’d rather keep their distance. It’s entirely possible that these friends might find renewed contact too painful to contemplate without ever blaming you for your father’s abuse. But since it sounds like you’ve never spoken directly with them about your father’s abuse, you’ll need to say something about it in your initial message, albeit as diplomatically as possible, so they don’t have to wonder if you’re going to argue on his behalf or dismiss the pain he caused them. Something like: “I’ve been too ashamed of my father to reach out before, but I wanted you to know I care about you deeply and think about you often, and I’m so sorry I didn’t know sooner and couldn’t have done more to help stop him.” I can’t guarantee that even the kindest, most open-ended message is going to result in you sharing your life with these people again—that much is impossible to predict—but expressing your support and solidarity is a lovely idea. At the time you were a child who had no idea that your father was molesting other children, and you are in no way responsible for his crimes. I wish you nothing but peace and joy in your ongoing healing, and the same for your friends, too.
Help! My Teenager Prefers the Pronouns “It/Its.”
Danny M. Lavery is joined by Charlie Jane Anders on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.
I’m a fairly liberal gay guy living in an incredibly conservative state. Some of my co-workers oppose women’s suffrage (!), think homosexuality is evil, and believe that another civil war is imminent and hoped-for. When I go to the grocery store, something like a third of the other shoppers don’t wear masks. I also see a therapist to deal with depression and suicidal ideation. Our last meeting covered how much I hate living here, since so many people don’t share my values. I mentioned being upset by how many people refuse to wear masks and how it seemed like a lack of respect for one another’s health.
My therapist asked what I thought of people who were vaccinated and didn’t wear masks, and I said the CDC says to continue wearing masks in public. My therapist said, “Oh, you believe in the CDC?” Then my therapist brought up a situation with another patient who couldn’t wear masks due to trauma and asked if I thought the same of that patient and if that patient should wear masks even if vaccinated. The discussion left me feeling uncomfortable. Is my therapist an anti-masker? Should I trust their judgment? Was I a jerk for calling my therapist’s town a place filled with disgusting jerks?
You are always free to disagree with a therapist and to use your own judgment as you attempt to discern how much weight you should give someone else’s judgment. Asking if you “believe” in the CDC’s recommendations as if it were tantamount to “Oh, do you believe in God?” is such an odd, hostile evasion. Saying, “I know someone who can’t wear masks due to unspecified trauma” is a similar dodge, as it’s clear to both you and your therapist that the grocery store was not full of shoppers with mask-specific trauma. If you want to bring this up before your next session, you certainly should. You could say something like: “I’m frustrated that during our last session you dismissed my feelings and treated one of your other patients as a ‘gotcha’ as a distraction from my concerns about public health.” Depending on how your therapist responds, you may find it’s time to look for a new one. Either way, learning how to openly disagree with your therapist (and others) is an invaluable skill that will serve you well in the future.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“If you ever told your kids ‘I want good attitudes and smiles for the rest of this trip’ while they were fighting in the backseat of the car, this is the time to turn that energy on yourself.”
Danny Lavery and Lisa McIntire discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
How much of my health information do I need to share with my family? I’m an adult woman. Both my mom and my sister are very involved in my physical health. My sister is a nurse practitioner, and I rely on her a lot for quick questions here and there. She loves what she does and has explicitly said she’s happy to answer questions anytime from anyone in the family. My mom accompanies me to most doctor’s appointments because I have terrible doctor-induced anxiety and panic attacks, especially around needles. Since they’re both so involved, they think they’re entitled to my information—for example, my mom just accompanied me to get lab work done, and now she wants to know the specific results. Both my mom and sister can be really overbearing. They both have loud opinions about my health, test results, and diet that I don’t care to hear, because I want to make any medical decisions in tandem with my doctor, whom I trust very much. But I am not sure where I can feasibly draw the line. It’s not really a problem when everything is fine, but recently I’ve been having some health problems and boy, do they want to weigh in.
—Supportive or Entitled?
It’s perfectly fine to decline to share your lab results with your mother, even if she accompanied you to get your blood drawn, and even if that makes her feel excluded because she wants to influence your response to your results. You may decide at a certain point that you’d rather start calling a nurse practitioner hotline (there are many options, some of which may be available through your health insurance, and some of which are available to the general public) than asking your sister, even if she genuinely doesn’t mind, because you’d rather get a little emotional distance with your medical advice. To that same end, if at some point you feel like managing your mother’s expectations outweighs the benefits of having her in the waiting room with you, you might consider asking a friend to come with you instead, and/or seeing a therapist to manage your medical phobias and come up with alternative coping strategies. If you can afford to hire a professional patient advocate, that might be another option. You can also check with your health insurance company to see if it provides advocate access as part of your benefits. You can draw the line with your sister and mother as much as you like, but if you find that wrangling their expectations is taking up too much of your time and energy, you do have other options.
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.
I’m having a problem at my job. My workplace is small, with a single supervisor and just a handful of subordinates. We all work on similar but freestanding projects, so there’s some coordination, but my coworkers and I are largely unaffected by one another’s work. I recently learned that my supervisor did something that I consider inexcusable, effectively damaging a coworker’s reputation with important collaborators and setting them up for failure. My supervisor has not acknowledged the impact of this action and has aggressively minimized my coworker’s concerns. I’m feeling both outraged and conflicted about it. How can I best support my coworker through this horrible experience of sabotage? And how can I continue a working relationship with a person I’ve lost a lot of respect for? The term of my project is almost over, and if I walk away before completion I’ll have nothing to show for years of work.
The best person to answer your first question is your coworker. Ask them what, if anything, they might need from you as they try to salvage what’s left of their project, and offer to back them up if they want to raise their complaints with HR (if there is an HR department), but don’t make any moves on your own before you’ve spoken with them directly. As for your second question, I have some good (albeit slightly depressing) news: You don’t need to like or respect your boss in order to get your work done. Having a vicious or incompetent supervisor can make life much more difficult than it needs to be, but bad bosses are hardly uncommon, and the best thing you can do for yourself in such situations is to try to minimize their ability to mess with your work. Sometimes that means keeping your head down and leaving the office exactly at quitting time. Sometimes that means joining forces with your colleagues to try to bargain together for fairer, more consistent, or more transparent terms of work. Sometimes it means privately thinking your boss is a jerk and avoiding them as much as you can without risking censure. By all means stick around until your latest project is finished. You won’t do anyone any good by damaging your own career. You can finish your own work to your satisfaction without respecting your boss. Millions of people do it every day.
A few years ago, I bought my girlfriend (now my wife) a print of a photograph she liked: a black and white portrait of a young woman wearing only a dinosaur mask and cowboy boots. We framed it and hung it on the wall of our bathroom. Now, 99 percent of the time I have no problem with it hanging there; it’s only an issue when my parents visit. My mother is fiercely, vocally anti-pornography, and while I don’t feel the picture is pornographic, it is explicit, and I don’t believe she’ll see it the same way we do. Up until now, we’ve agreed to take it down when my parents visit (although it’s been a bigger and bigger argument each time), but this time my wife insists that we leave it up, her argument being that this is her space and if someone doesn’t like the picture, that’s their problem. My concern is that my mother will not only hate the picture, it will put her in a sour mood and spoil much of the visit, and that knowing this is the sort of thing we like may alter my relationship with her. My wife feels this will help my mother see me more as the man I am. I only get to see my parents a few days a year, and I just want to keep the peace. Is my wife being unreasonable, or am I worried for no reason?