Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Good morning, everyone! Welcome to the chat. Let’s discuss the antics of your siblings, spouses, co-workers, and everyone else who isn’t living up to expectations.
Q. Bad feminist and bad mom: My 17-year-old daughter just landed her first job at a restaurant near our home. I am proud of her and glad she was able to find something in our very small town. The issue is her boss. He is the owner and this is not a chain, just a single restaurant. He is old enough to be her grandfather and she sees him patting the rear ends of the other waitresses. She asked one of the women if he does that to everyone and was told, “If he is comfortable with you.” Neither of us want him to be comfortable with that, and she wants to quit to avoid that possibility. Otherwise, the job works for her with the location and the hours she is scheduled. She is unlikely to find anything else nearby and we only have one car, so driving to another town could be problematic. I have told her that what he does to the other women is wrong and that she in no way has to put up with that if and when it happens. He did put his hand on her shoulder and I showed her how to pivot away and to firmly say, “I am not comfortable with that,” and I told her to call me immediately to be picked up if she feels unsafe or pressured to accept such advances.
However, we do not have much money and she will have to work during college to help support herself. She will encounter plenty of dirty, old men and pushy, young men in her life and, even though it is completely unfair, I feel she needs to learn to set her boundaries and not just quit. My daughter feels I am not being supportive. I feel she will lose out on lots of opportunities in life if she won’t be near men behaving badly. I want to be a realistic mom, but am I being a bad mom?
A: You are not a bad mom. Your advice to her about setting boundaries is great, as is your promise to come get her if anything happens. This would all be perfect if she were telling you she wanted to figure out how to keep this job. But since she wants to quit, there are two possible lessons you can teach her at this point and you have to choose one:
1) Never quit. Money is important.
2) Listen to your intuition and get the hell out of any situation that makes you feel scared, grossed out, or victimized.
No. 1 is valid. You do want her to be able to support herself. But in the last year before you send her out into the world on her own, during a summer that is your last opportunity to share your values with the hope that they’ll shape hers, I think No. 2 is much, much more important.
“I feel she will lose out on lots of opportunities in life if she won’t be near men behaving badly,” reflects a legitimate fear, but I want you to imagine more for her. How about “I want her to know she never has to put up with men behaving badly—especially when she is not even an adult yet”? It is not actually true that there are creeps groping people in every single environment and it kind of bugs me that you would encourage her to just accept that as a fact of life.
Again, I don’t want to minimize your concerns about the practical side of this. She does need an income. But this is really one of those situations that will save her on therapy co-pays in the future if you handle it right. Take some of the energy you’ve put into strategizing about how she might handle an abusive boss and redirect it to how she might find a different way to bring in some money in a way that doesn’t require her to set herself up to be groped.
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Q. Maskless in heaven: I went to a cousin’s wedding and was thrilled to be maskless and see family members I haven’t been able to see for a year. At dinner, my husband and I were seated with several of my other cousins, and the conversation turned to the pandemic and vaccination. My husband and I are both immuno-compromised, so we said we were delighted to get vaccinated and what a relief it was to feel somewhat safe again.
One of my family members, an evangelical Christian, said she wasn’t vaccinated and wasn’t interested in getting vaccinated because she “knows where [she’s] going.” I was completely floored. First, her absolute certainty that she was on the guest list for heaven was annoying, and she can’t possibly understand that COVID can be an extremely painful way to die. Moreover, there’s a great chance that she’d take other people with her; my aunt and uncle (her parents) are in their 80s and spent the last year in hard lockdown to avoid COVID.
I didn’t want to start a gigantic fight at this wedding celebration. But, Prudie, this has been haunting me ever since. How can I approach this woman to try to convince her that protecting not only herself but those around her really doesn’t have anything to do with knowing “where [she’s] going”?
A: I do think there’s a place for having conversations with loved ones who are vaccine-hesitant. Some people need more information to be convinced that the vaccines are safe. Others might be won over by the case for herd immunity and protecting vulnerable people who can’t get the vaccine. But if someone literally doesn’t care whether they die, they probably don’t care whether anyone else dies either. I mean, maybe you could try, “Hey, I’ve reflected on my life and I’m not actually sure I qualify for heaven, so I don’t know where I’m going like you do. Can you get the vaccine to make sure people who don’t have your level of faith don’t die early and end up in hell?”
But I am not hopeful, in part because she probably doesn’t care where anyone else spends the afterlife. Sadly, this feels like a lost cause. Maybe instead of approaching this relative, you can redirect your energy and try to convince one other person—like a neighbor or Facebook friend—to get vaccinated. The trick will be to find someone who is hesitant but not living in a totally different reality.
Q. Unstable on Instagram: I run a small online social media–based business. A few months ago, “Alex,” a total online stranger, made an order and we briefly messaged back and forth to discuss it. After this, Alex attempted to strike up a friendship with me due to a couple of shared interests, despite us not having that much in common otherwise. I’m not a very “online” person and struggle to reply to even my existing friends immediately, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and frankly uncomfortable with the way Alex interacts with me. When we first began talking, I neutrally wished them luck with something in their life, and they reacted as though I’d sent them a check for a million dollars and told me that I could talk to them about anything (OK???). In response to me fulfilling their online order, they put together a painstakingly assembled and expensive care package over the course of many months; when I attempted to thank them for it, they insisted that it was a horrible gift and they knew I was just lying to make them feel better about themselves. Multiple times a week, Alex will bombard me with dozens of messages in a row, and when I again politely remind them that I don’t spend that much time on my phone/online, they’ll self-flagellate and beg for my forgiveness for bothering me, then insist that I never have to respond to them, even though that’s clearly not the case. Sometimes they also go on mildly condescending, unprompted, long rants about how amazing I am and how worthless they are in comparison; sometimes there are also reassurances that I’m valid and talented, when I haven’t expressed any self-doubt at all. They also overshare about personal mental health and financial issues that make me increasingly uncomfortable.
I feel like I’ve tried everything to set boundaries: replying gently and neutrally to their obvious manipulative efforts to get over-the-top consolation from me, informing them when I’ll be offline, and straight-up ignoring their messages. Nothing works. They cannot take a hint and they will not leave me alone. Alex is clearly very unstable and I do not want to be friends with them, but I feel so trapped in all these interactions and I’m worried that if I respond honestly to one of their “I know I’m trash please feel free to tell me to shut up I’m just such a horrible weird awkward disgusting friend I know you must hate me” messages with a simple “yeah, please stop,” they’ll truly explode. Help!
A: This has gone on for too long. I know you don’t want to be unkind, but you can’t keep going back and forth with them. How about one final message: “Hi Alex! I’m letting my contacts know that I’m trying to cut down on my social media use so starting today I won’t be corresponding with anyone in my DMs beyond what’s required for the business. I hope all is well with you! Take care.” And then DO NOT OPEN ANY MORE MESSAGES FROM THEM, EVER. They can say whatever they want, but it won’t affect you or stress you out if you can’t see it.
Q. Momma Bear and boundaries: I have been estranged from my younger sister for more than three years now. She is recovering from drug addiction and has been sober for four years, but still is physically and verbally abusive at times. (She has been all our life due to some personality disorders; we were told by the family therapist in treatment.) Although I have a firm no-contact boundary, she continues to reach out to build relationships with my teenagers through their social media. They say they want to be in touch with her but I am worried she might manipulate them as she has with me over the past 30 years. Should I let them engage and formulate their own relationship, or continue to hold the boundaries for me and for them?
A: The teen years are a good time to transition from controlling everything kids do to giving them the tools to make what you hope will be good choices. Since the kids want to be in touch with your sister, I think you should let them, but not without sharing your concerns. Maybe you can have a conversation about what she has done in the past and what you’re most concerned about when it comes to their relationship with her, and try to agree on some rules. For example: Don’t give her our address, don’t send her money, and let Mom and Dad know if she says anything that makes you confused or scared. Work together to decide what behavior crosses the line, and what they’ll do if she becomes inappropriate or even just annoying.
And keep in mind, your sister’s drug addiction and personality disorders don’t make her a bad person. This can be an opportunity to talk with your kids about how a person living with mental illness deserves compassion and shouldn’t be isolated or ignored because of what she did when she was unwell, while also reminding them that they have a right to protect themselves from abusive behavior if it does come to that. Before you know it, they’ll be out in the world having to deal with difficult and manipulative people on their own, and this is as good an opportunity as any to start practicing.
Q: Disturbed divorcee: I got married soon after college, at a relatively young age. Although my partner and I loved each other very much, we faced a number of obstacles (including living 3,000 miles away from one another) that eventually led to the dissolution of our marriage. We separated about five years ago and finalized the divorce about three years ago. When we signed the divorce papers, we had both recently started long-term relationships with the people we are still seeing now.
While scrolling through social posts recently, I discovered that my ex-husband had gotten remarried to his current partner. Although I am ultimately happy for them, it provoked a number of what seemed like normal emotions—in particular, renewed grief about the failure of our marriage and the loss of my in-laws as family.
But once the initial shock wore off, I noticed something unusual about my ex’s wedding: He got married on the exact same date of our wedding, on what would have been our 11th anniversary. This seems really weird to me, and has stirred up more emotions than I felt before about his remarriage. I’m having a really hard time wrapping my head around why he and his partner would pick that date. It feels to me like it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.
Does this seem weird to you? Can you imagine any reason why someone would do this? Would it be crazy for me to ask him?
A: Eh, not that weird. Once you pick a season for a wedding and start eliminating dates based on conflicting family events and the venue’s availability, there’s often not much left. I think it’s a coincidence. Also I just can’t imagine what the sinister agenda behind intentionally picking the same date would be—what would anyone get out of that?
That said, all the emotions that were stirred up by seeing this are real and deserve your attention. The grief about your marriage and your in-laws is totally understandable, with or without a copycat wedding date.
Q. Re: Unstable on Instagram: Considering that Alex is “a total online stranger,” this is exactly what the “block” feature is for. Anything more than that is an unnecessary amount of maintenance to provide to a stranger who is totally overstepping. I think most of the issue is that the letter writer wants to continue to be seen as “nice” by Alex, so letting go of the need to be seen by them in a positive light may provide the letter writer some relief. They can also try some breathing exercises whenever the guilt of blocking them bubbles up. Allow Alex’s feelings to be Alex’s responsibility, and start treating this person as the stranger they are by simply blocking them.
A: There is never a wrong time for breathing exercises!
I agree that blocking would be totally fine. But I don’t think a person who wrote a tortured letter about an online stranger would be able to do that without a lot of guilt. Hopefully the quick note will put the letter writer’s mind at ease.
Q. Threesome? My boyfriend “Ted” and I have been together for nine months, and we’ve been living together for the last six (yes, I realized that we moved in together very fast). We support each other, share responsibilities well, and have an active and engaging sex life. I see myself spending the rest of my life with Ted. Ted has a sexual bucket list, and No. 1 is a threesome. He mentions wanting to have a threesome at least a few times a week, and points out various women in my life, like my co-workers, as potentially the third participant. At this point, I’m incredibly uncomfortable engaging in a threesome, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Ted says that a threesome is something he would do only before we’re married, because after that it would be weird. What do I do? Do I cave and have a threesome because it’s something that’s really important to him? Do I give him his freedom to have a threesome with two other girls, knowing I probably won’t be OK with it after it happens?