Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Unwilling confidante: I have been friends with a woman, “Jill,” for the last four years. She has been married to her husband “Jack” for nearly 10 years and they have two children, both around the pre-teen age. A few months ago, she announced that she and Jack will be getting divorced. I was floored to learn he had been having an affair, something she discovered. Jack has always been so kind, considerate, and caring that I’m amazed he was cheating on her. He is very contrite about the affair and wants to reconcile, but Jill is steadfast.
A week ago, I asked her why she wouldn’t see a counselor so they can save their family, and what she told me once again left me stunned. It turns out that Jill has wanted out of her marriage for years now, only staying with Jack because he had never done anything bad enough to warrant divorce; she didn’t want to bear scrutiny for ending a great marriage because she was bored. Jack’s affair provided her the perfect excuse to walk away, although she admits that her family (who really like Jack, or at least did) still want her to work things out if only for the sake of the kids.
I have to say that I always felt Jill took Jack for granted, never giving him much credit for the things he did for her. Frankly, if I had been told SHE was the one cheating, I’d believe it. (I’m not convinced she isn’t, by the way. When we’d go out to bars and clubs on girls’ night, she would never hesitate to remove her ring and flirt with men.) She asked me to keep the truth a secret, but I have to be honest: I’m struggling not to inform Jack. I consider him like a friend, and feel bad that he’s taking the brunt of criticism. Jill doesn’t hesitate to let everyone know about the affair, all while hiding that she just wants out of the marriage. I also worry that her children will grow up feeling resentful towards their dad. While Jill has enough tact to not tell them why their mom and dad are breaking up, her loose lips make it so that they could hear from another party.
I know it’s not my business, but would it be bad to tell Jack? The only downside is that Jill will naturally find out what I did. I think she already regrets telling me because she keeps asking me to remain silent, almost begging me. Frankly, I don’t mind the friendship ending since I’ll never be able to look at her the same way.
A: Yes, it would be bad to tell Jack. You know this isn’t your business, but you should remind yourself each time you start to think it’s your job to take some action here. Relationships end in all kinds of different ways and it is not your job to manage the fallout or manipulate how people feel.
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Q. Scared of death: My boyfriend and I have been together for 2.5 years and are completely in love. We rarely fight, but we do disagree, though we’ve never gone to bed mad at each other. We are able to talk about anything. We don’t live together because he cares for his two elderly parents who are ill and cannot take care of themselves. We had a conversation that we will not be able to get married or live together until his parents pass, and I am fine with that. Some people think this is a cruel conversation to have, but we needed to decide if we would wait for each other.
The thing is, his parents are getting worse and he’s not ready to admit that they are going to die. I think one will die soon. I try to bring it up and he completely shuts down. I’m trying to respect his boundaries, but he’s been caring for his parents for so long, I’m terrified of what’s going to happen when they do pass. I am prepared for him to pull away a bit and I’m prepared to be there and support him how he needs to be supported. He likes alone time and I am happy to give it to him. He still gives me attention. But I don’t know how to prepare him, me, or us for this moment, and I don’t want to lose him in his grief. I have lost a parent who I cared for for several years, so I do understand his situation. But how can I make sure I don’t lose him and can get us through this together?
A: I’m reading a lot into this but the feeling I’m getting from the way you wrote your letter is that you know he’s not as excited about a life with you as you would like him to be; you’re worried that caring for his parents is just an excuse; and part of you knows that once they pass on, he still won’t want to move forward, or might even pull back. After all, I’m sure you are aware on some level that plenty of people who are caring for elderly parents figure out a way to get married or move in with someone. It is absolutely not impossible. He just doesn’t really want to do it.
“How can I make sure I don’t lose him” is such a tough question because, well, you can’t. A really difficult thing about relationships is that there’s no way to make someone feel the way you want them to feel about you, and if they do, you can’t guarantee that it will last forever. It sucks!
So I think your job now is to ask yourself how this relationship with this man and his hesitancy to fully commit and his need for alone time makes you feel, and if you want to keep feeling that way. Are you getting a lot out of this relationship now? Will you be satisfied with it if he pulls back while he’s grieving? Assuming there’s nothing you can do to change how he acts or feels—now or in the future—do you still want in? Or could you possibly be happier with someone else—or on your own, free from the work of trying to change another person?
Q. Scared for a friend: (Trigger warning: eating disorders) The long-term girlfriend of a close friend is exhibiting signs of a severe eating disorder. We haven’t seen our friends in person much due to COVID. Two months ago, we met up for a small group outing and she looked thin, but relatively healthy.
Unfortunately her boyfriend recently confided that she is refusing to eat most foods, and only eats at all just a few times a week. When she tries to eat something outside of those foods, she throws up. She even had a panic attack when presented with some small snacks; she ran out for more than an hour.
Her parents are experiencing major health issues of their own, and they aren’t able to help out. We’re all in our twenties. I’m concerned she’s going to hurt herself or die, but I have no idea what to do from a distance; we live an hour away. The boyfriend is deeply concerned but also doesn’t live with her, and has no legal ties or guardianship over her. We don’t want to call the police or have anything end up on a public record, we just want to help her get helped. What can we do?
A: Okay, you are on the right track when it comes to not calling the police on someone for turning down snacks and struggling with health issues! Absolutely do not dial 9-1-1 over this.
It’s always heartbreaking to watch when an adult (even a young adult) isn’t taking care of themselves mentally or physically, because there is not a lot that you can make them do. So I think you should advise her boyfriend to switch his mindset—forget about guardianship or anything else that would legally force her to get help, because that’s not happening. (Also: I wouldn’t just assume this is an eating disorder—it could be that her reasons for vomiting after eating are purely physical and require medication or some other treatment.)
Instead, he should come up with a narrow goal: Get her to one doctor’s appointment to figure out what the issue is and get her help. He should explain to her that he cares about her and wants to help her and that she will not be forced to take the doctor’s advice. And he should have the conversation with an open mind about what’s stopping her. Does finding someone feel overwhelming because she’s anxious and exhausted? Is she concerned about the cost or time off work? Perhaps you can volunteer to do some research on specialists or kick in some money if she’s uninsured. Maybe you two could come up with a list of several local doctors with relevant specialties who have great reviews for being responsive and compassionate (and are accepting new patients without long waits). Let her know that as soon as she’s ready, you’ll drop everything to take her and cover whatever is associated with the appointment. And then keep offering, over and over, repeating the message that you care and don’t want to see her suffering any more, but you understand that the decision is hers alone.
Q. Not urban, not yet suburban: One of my best friends just informed me, after I called him out on avoiding me for weeks, that because I am moving from the city where we both live to suburbia, he is no longer “feeling the friendship” and wants to end it. The TL;DR is that he has an enormous fear of being abandoned, and I think proactively decided to abandon me so I couldn’t do it to him—except that I had no intention of abandoning him, and was caught completely off guard.
He is single; I’m married with a preschooler, who adores him, by the way, and will definitely notice the lack of his presence—and he talked about how now I could be a “suburban mom” and forget all about my city friends. He gaslit me, making it sound like I had told him I wouldn’t miss him, wouldn’t come visit the city ever again (I’m moving 20 miles and a direct train ride away; it’s hardly a hardship to come see friends!), and because he doesn’t have a car and can’t come see me, there was no point to staying friends at the same level we have been. I never said or even came close to any of this! I admit that I’ve been talking a lot about my move very positively—it really does feel like a fresh start to me, having a home and yard after living in 750 sq. ft. apartment for the pandemic with a toddler—but he claims I’m just too happy about leaving the city and he loves the city so much that we can’t be friends the same way.
I’m so angry at him right now that I can’t see past any of this to consider contacting him again, but to not contact him would mean that he’s right, I moved away and abandoned him. But…is this a friendship worth salvaging? And if so, how? This all feels like so much bull to me. We’re in our 40s, by the way!
A: I can very much imagine getting a letter here from a single man saying, “One of my best friends moved from the city to the suburbs and all she talks about is countertops and lawn care and finding a nanny and it’s so boring and I just don’t feel like we connect anymore and don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.” I would probably tell him to make an effort to talk about things that interest him, to give you a little space to be excited about your new life, to be deliberate about making plans together, and to hold off on declaring the friendship dead until trying these things.
But instead, he just cut you off. To me, that’s a sign of being a bit immature, selfish, and inflexible—and that he only valued you for the way you fit into his current life rather than who you are. If you don’t feel like contacting him, don’t—after all, he’s basically ended the friendship without your input. But maybe, like you said, this is just a tantrum over feeling abandoned. If once you get settled, you decide you’re still thinking about him and want to be the bigger person (and the person who rides the train to meet for dinner), tell him you miss him and offer to meet up somewhere convenient to him. If he accepts, you can feel out whether you enjoy the new iteration of your friendship and what it takes to maintain it. If he declines, you have your answer and you can live your suburban life in peace.
Q. I was a horrible child: I recently found a cache of voice memos from a recording device I had when I was 11 or 12. I thought it would be a nice trip down memory lane, but I unexpectedly came across recordings of myself and my childhood BFF doing deeply racist comedy skits (pretending to own a Chinese restaurant, racist stereotypes, accents, etc.). I had no memory of this and can’t believe I ever thought this was okay! I knew that my upbringing was not so great on the anti-racism front, but I am shocked that I was such an active participant, rather than just absorbing those messages and having to later work to unlearn them.
My question is, in the present moment, what kind of action does this call for from me? Should I be apologizing to anyone, re-examining my biases, all of the above? I wish I could erase this from existence, but really, the one thing I happened to record for posterity must have been only the tip of the iceberg of things I said and believed.
A: If you’d written that this brought back a flood of memories about how you antagonized your Chinese classmates or wrote racist op-eds in the middle school newspaper, I’d definitely tell you to make some amends. But it seems this was all behind closed doors (thank God). I definitely think we should all reexamine our biases all the time—so yes, do that. But you don’t have to do anything special. You can reframe this to be proud that you left behind the bigotry you were taught as a child, and commit to keep learning and trying to be a better person as time goes on.
Q. Re: Unwilling confidante: Wow, he cheated on her and you want to tattle that she was dissatisfied in her marriage before this happened? Probably because she was picking up on the same lack of respect and care that allowed him to justify cheating.
Stay out of it and realize you are being a bad friend and blaming someone for getting cheated on. Ugh.
A: It’s totally possible that Jill was unhappy because she was picking up on the lack of respect from Jack. Or not! And there could be a million more facts that the letter writer doesn’t know. There’s no good or helpful way to get involved here.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: That’s all for today! Next Monday is a holiday so we’ll see you here at noon on Tuesday. Enjoy the long weekend.
From How to Do It
I’m a 39-year-old woman. When I was 20, I met my first very well-endowed man, who in a way “trained” me to take a large penis. Since then, I’ve been in two monogamous long-term relationships, both with average-size men. I hate to admit this, but I left both those relationships because the length just didn’t cut it for me. I needed more. I’m great at taking it, and it’s the most satisfying way for me to come. Currently I’m involved with two partners who more than measure up, but I don’t see either of them too often, and I’m still out there dating. My question is, how do I put it out there in the online dating world that anything less than a hard 8 inches will only disappoint me? I’ve tried stating in my bio things like “bigger is better,” but ended up with delusional men who were even less than average. (Cue awkward encounters.) I don’t want to come across as too slutty or overexperienced—I’m really quite reserved—so asking straight off “Hey, how big is your dick?” seems a bit off-putting. Any suggestions to help a girl out?