Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Offensive mother: My mother is a very rude person, but she doesn’t see this about herself and becomes very offended when you point out that she’s said something thoughtless or hurt someone’s feelings. She makes remarks directly to people about their homes being unclean, tells people that she’s noticed they’ve gained weight or that they’re too big to be wearing something, and has made comments to service industry staff about getting “real” jobs. I’ve learned to deal with her and sometimes I push back, but mostly it’s easier to just let what she says roll off my back.
I’ve started dating someone and I’m sure this will be long term. I’m terrified of the things I know my mother will say to him. She will not like the way he dresses or the job that he has. She will have a comment about the neighborhood he grew up in. I’ve tried to prepare him for this but I really care about him and can see myself losing it if she says something hurtful. I’ve also told her that it’s important to me that she be more mindful before she speaks, which was met with a look that said, “Who? Me? What do you mean??” I don’t want to fight with her but I see the way my sister cowers away when she says hurtful things to her husband, and I swore to myself I would never put up with that kind of treatment of my partner. Any advice for how I can tackle this problem without causing a rift?
A: You’ve already tried to get her to change and it didn’t work, so I think you should introduce your boyfriend to the idea of your mother being a clown who says ridiculous, inappropriate things—that are absolutely not personal—to everyone. Then when she spouts off, it will be entertainment and you’ll kick her under the table and roll your eyes when she turns her head, and laugh about it on the way home.
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Q. Oh no! It’s vacation time again! Every summer, my wife wants to take a vacation with her three adult children, their spouses, and children. Sometimes it’s twice a year. I, on the other hand, don’t always want to do this. I have in the past gone on these vacations and it is a little overwhelming and not always enjoyable for me.
This matter is a bone of contention between me and my wife (I’m her second husband). I don’t want to be viewed as a bad spouse and I’m really not seen as a stepdad. I also have adult children, but I don’t feel it’s necessary to vacation with them, and they understand. I think a reasonable compromise is to explain to my wife that it’s fine for her to join them every year, but I may only join them every other year. Doesn’t that sound reasonable and fair?
A: Yes, totally fair. Even every third year!
Q. Help me help you: I recently returned from a trip to visit a dear friend of many years whom I hadn’t seen in 18 months (thanks COVID). They are struggling with an abusive work environment, specifically an abusive relationship with their boss. I can tell it’s putting a strain on their romantic relationship (they live with their partner) and they revealed on this trip that in four years in this city, they have made no friends of their own (they moved for the job and to be nearer to family for caretaking reasons). My friend is isolated and dejected and knows their boss is abusive, yet couldn’t even take a full five days of vacation when I visited—they worked about two hours each day I was there, after working 75-hour weeks for several weeks previously. While I was there, I tried to gently encourage them to enforce small boundaries, but they insisted on immediately answering any work call that came in (without even knowing if it was an emergency or just a routine inquiry). I offered before and during the visit to take time to help them look for new jobs, but they said they didn’t want to or couldn’t muster the energy to think about leaving. I then learned they actually HAD another job offer in February and turned it down out of fear that their boss would retaliate. Their boss is draconian, retaliates frequently against employees (including torching a woman’s career in their niche research field), and sometimes illegally discriminates too.
This is my best friend in the world and we have a pretty honest relationship. I was open about my worry for them and my feeling upset when they took four hours of work calls on my first day in town. Why won’t they just quit?
A: I’ve been that person who works way too much and is way too stressed, and I can say that having loved ones constantly harass you to take it easy is not at all helpful, because they aren’t going to be the ones who have to deal with the consequences when the irrational expectations of the toxic workplace aren’t met.
So normally, I would tell someone in your situation to stand down, because the workaholic has the job they want and there must be something about it that’s working for them. But this is different—the line about how they were afraid to leave for another job because of potential retaliation from their boss is really concerning. So instead of antagonizing them about working long hours and taking work calls while on vacation, focus any support you offer on thinking about how your friend might avoid the worst-case scenario outcome of quitting, and on helping them identify and (pay for, if possible) the people who might be able to help. I honestly don’t know if they need a lawyer, a great career counselor, or a therapist who could put the fears about the consequences of leaving in perspective (maybe readers have suggestions?), but this feels like a job for a professional if your friend is open to that. You already know the answer to “Why won’t they just quit,” and it’s definitely not because people like you haven’t told them they should.
Q. Failed hot girl summer: I thought I wanted a hedonistic, bacchanalian hot girl summer after 14 months locked up with my relatives. I’m grateful to have survived such a tough time during the pandemic, and wanted to engage in some bald-headed heaux sh*t to celebrate being vaxxed, waxed, and snatched. However, after dipping my toes in the proverbial waters the past few weeks, I’m left feeling like I actually want a boring vanilla relationship. How do I do that in this post-COVID world? Dating already felt like a huge challenge pre-pandemic, and I’m no spring chicken. Advice on finding love under these conditions?
A: Boring, vanilla relationships are so much harder to get than hot girl hookups, so this will take some work. The best idea I have—which will in no way guarantee that you’ll be taking pictures in matching pajamas by Christmas but might get you a little closer—is a three-part plan.
1) Continue going out with your friends, having fun, being grateful for being alive, and enjoying being vaxxed. It will be good for your spirit and keep you from feeling bored and desperate.
2) Have your good friends critique, update, and edit your dating app profile, and then make a part-time job out of looking for people who say they want a relationship and going on dates with them. Aggressively block anyone who says they just want something casual.
3) Tell all your friends—and really, anyone who will listen—that you’re looking for a relationship and would love for them to play matchmaker if they can think of anyone who might be a good fit.
And remember that by being self-reflective and clear about what you want, you’re doing much better than most people when it comes to finding love. Good luck!
Q. Uneven friendship: I was recently having dinner with a friend and confessed that I was struggling during the pandemic and feeling disconnected from my life. She chose that moment to say she felt disconnected from me and then went on to say that I was a bad friend to her because she has to reach out to me to make plans and I’ve been neglectful about contacting her during the pandemic. I felt terrible and guilty and apologized. Upon reflection, I do keep this friend at a distance BECAUSE she is lacking in empathy. I think she wants a deeper friendship than I do and I don’t know where to go from here.
A: “Hi [empathy-lacking friend]. I gave some serious thought to what you said at dinner the other night and I think you’re right—I haven’t been holding up my end of this friendship. But I also realized I don’t think I’m at a place in my life where I can take responsibility for reaching out a lot. It’s not anything personal. I care about you and I would love to still be in touch and I don’t want to hurt you by setting expectations that I won’t be able to meet, so I just wanted to make sure you know that if you feel disconnected from me, it’s nothing personal.”
(“Not anything personal” is a white lie, but that’s fine. I don’t think someone who lacks empathy would take well to being told they lack empathy, so there’s no point in going into it.)
Q. Re: Offensive mother: Have you considered scaling back your relationship with your mom? You don’t say a single nice thing about her in the entire letter, no “she says horrible things, but…” Do you feel like you have to spend time with her even though you don’t enjoy it? You say you don’t want to cause a rift, but not why. Is it because she’s a wonderful mother in other ways despite these comments or is it because you fear the tantrum she’d throw if you scaled back? If it’s the latter, I think it’s worth speaking to a good therapist a few times to reevaluate your relationship with your mom and figure out what is stopping you from scaling back contact.
To be honest, she sounds like a completely unpleasant person and frankly I wouldn’t want to date someone whose attitude was “My mom will say offensive things to you and we just sort of laugh about it.” I wouldn’t laugh about it. I would consider breaking up. So be prepared for that as well.
A: Yeah, it would be totally OK to scale back contact, but I feel like someone who would be happy doing that would have already done it and wouldn’t have written in saying they didn’t want to cause a rift. But that’s a good point about the partner—not everyone will be into the “detach, take notes, and have a wild story to tell” plan, so the letter writer should definitely check to see if the innocent bystander (who doesn’t love the mean mom) is OK with hearing nasty comments.
Q. Re: Offensive mother: Really? Just pretend this toxic woman is a clown and laugh at her on the way home? This woman is an insensitive bully. If the letter writer is resolved to not subject their partner to her insults and put-downs, she should feel free to limit or cut contact with her mother—you know, like you advise other people to do.
A: “Insensitive bully” is fair but I guess I didn’t really see it as that serious because I didn’t get the impression that her comments had a theme (like racism or sexism or whatever) or that she had an agenda. To me she just sounds like an unpleasant, unhappy person with serious issues relating to others, and who doesn’t have a filter and probably won’t get one. When it comes to people like that, I find it empowering to mock them (in my head) and to remember not to take anything personally.
I assume everyone knows that they are free to limit contact with anyone in their life and that’s a really easy solution if it feels good. But if anyone needs to hear it, please amend the following to this response and every one like it: You are allowed to pull back from anyone in the world if you don’t like them. There are no laws against this.
Things get trickier when you, like this letter writer, don’t want to pull back or have conflict and need a workaround.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Thanks, everyone! Go into your week knowing that nobody can stop you from disowning your mother or being naked around the house. Talk to you next time.
From Care and Feeding
What are 13-year-olds supposed to do all summer? No, but really.
My 13-year-old daughter is lovely and bright, and we are close. She has no trouble making friends at school, but when she’s home, she is HOME. She hasn’t seen any friends all summer and doesn’t want to. She reads a lot. She stares at her cellphone a lot. She enjoys such activities as watching television, staring into space, sitting still, Instagram. She doesn’t want to go outside, or do things outside, or do things generally, or move physically, though she is somehow slim and in good health. She wants to sit around the house reading and playing games on her cellphone for two solid months. I am a teacher and I am home in the summer, so I can keep her company. Is this what other 13-year-olds are doing? Do I just leave her alone and let her take the sloth life to new levels? I’m going crazy watching her, but maybe that’s my problem? It’s so much phone-staring, though. So very much phone-staring. But also reading! Oh God, I don’t know.