Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hi everyone! Thanks for joining, and I hope your Monday is off to a good start. What are your questions?
Q. Spiritual blackmail: After an awful battle, my mom died from ALS last year. In the intervening year since, her husband, who was my stepdad for most of my young adult life, has taken it upon himself to see that my (gay, spiritually something) soul is saved. I have him blocked on social media and from my phone, but on a regular basis, I will receive proselytizing letters or unmarked Amazon packages filled with evangelical Christian literature, along with extremely presumptuous notes from him about this being what my mom would have wanted and how sad she is I won’t be joining her in heaven.
I’m still grieving, and to say I find this upsetting is an understatement. I even went so far as to instruct the rest of my family to not give him my new address after moving, but sure enough, he found me anyway! I have always had an awful relationship with this man, and I can’t say I care so much about his opinion. In truth, toward the end of her life, my mom and I were very communicative and reconciled about our beliefs, and my stepdad isn’t even being factual in this bizarre crusade. So why does getting this mail bother me so much? Am I overthinking or is this harassment? Is there any way I can get him to stop?
A: You didn’t mention whether you’ve asked him to stop. I assume you have, but if you haven’t—do that!
If he already knows that he’s sending this stuff to you against your wishes, that’s awful. Sadly, to constitute harassment, I believe the mail would have to contain something threatening. But he doesn’t have to know that. Can you temporarily unblock his number and text him to say, “I’m going to ask you one more time to stop sending me packages and letters. I’ve sought the advice of a lawyer about how to deal with your harassment, and if I receive another piece of mail from you, I am going to take whatever action is available to me.”?
I suggest reaching out to any other relatives who have better relationships with him and asking them to intervene. The next idea I had is that you could start sending him materials that he would find equally offensive, but that’s probably not a healthy use of your time and wouldn’t lead to a great outcome. This is tough! Maybe lawyers reading this can tell me if I’m right about the harassment issue, and others can help with additional ideas.
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Q. Batty in the bathroom: My wife and I have a three-bedroom house. Our bedroom has an en-suite bathroom, but without a closing door. Essentially, you can see the shower and bath from the bed.
My wife’s adult daughters moved in several months ago after they lost their jobs. It was a difficult adjustment as we have never lived together for longer than a holiday trip. I married their mother when they were in college.
A month ago, the upstairs shower broke and we are on a waiting list for repairs (we live in a hurricane area and every plumber is swamped). The toilet and sink work, though. I understand the frustration of having to share one bath with four people, but my stepdaughters will not adjust their schedules. One will only shower in the morning, meaning I can’t sleep in on weekends. The other wants to go last at night, so I can’t relax and read in bed. They are fine with each other or their mother being in the bedroom (and obviously not me), but it is frustrating.
My wife and I are the ones paying the bills here. I don’t think it is out of line to expect my stepdaughters to adjust to our schedule. My wife is a soft touch and has tried to “reason” with her daughters, but they still act like this. I am ready to dig my heels and write down a schedule on my terms, and they can accept or leave it. Help.
A: A practical fix: Can you just hang a curtain or a sheet where the door would be so that they can have privacy whenever they shower?
If that doesn’t work for some reason, you’re completely in the right. But your wife is the issue here—she should really be the one to deliver the message about the schedule to her daughters, who you barely know and shouldn’t be debating and negotiating with. Decide on a couple of hours in the morning or at night when you’ll agree to clear out of the bedroom, and let her know that you won’t be leaving at other times unless there’s some sort of special circumstance. If she refuses to be the messenger, go ahead and post a sign on the door.
Q. No place like home: My husband and I became homeowners later in life than many, for various reasons. We live in a different state from my family of origin, and we are not close with them. My mother, however, sometimes travels near where we live and has said several times that she wants to see our house. (We sometimes meet her and her husband for a meal, but have never had them at our home.)
The thing is, my mother is highly materialistic and judgmental, although she couches it all in a naïve sweetness that makes it hard to call out in a concrete way. Growing up, we lived in what she considered an embarrassingly small house, and never invited anyone over. We were discouraged from inviting friends over. She would drive me around to the “rich” neighborhoods to point out aspirational houses. Since then, she has married someone more well-off and they live in an unnecessarily large house in a boring suburb. Meanwhile, our house is about the same size as my childhood home, in a place with a fairly high cost of living. It’s not luxurious, but has all the space we need, and we have put a lot of work into it.
I’m afraid it will not be good enough for my mother, and have told her as much. I already feel that she looks down on us for taking so long to buy, and now she’s going to be expecting something much more grand. Even if she doesn’t insult it out loud, I’ll be worried and demoralized wondering what she’s thinking. Should I let her visit and, if so, how can I mentally prepare for the experience?
A: You don’t have to let her visit if you don’t want to, and you can tell her exactly why: “Mom, you’ve always been really judgmental about smaller homes and I just can’t handle having you over and wondering what you’re thinking about where we live. Let’s meet somewhere in the middle.”
But if you want to get past this, “How can I mentally prepare” is the right question! You have to decide not to care what she thinks. I know, I know. If “decide not to care” were easy, everyone’s family and relationship problems would immediately be solved. But I actually think it’s doable here. You have a full understanding of your mother’s issues and her history, you’ve decided that you’re a different kind of person with different values, and you know it’s unlikely that she’ll change. Just like your judging her unnecessarily large house and boring suburb doesn’t do anything to stop her from enjoying and being proud of where she lives, her judgment of your little home doesn’t have to change how you feel.
Some things that might help: 1) Remind yourself of everything you love about where you live, and how much happier you are now that you’re not encouraged to be ashamed of it. 2) Get pep talks from several friends before her visit, during which they can affirm that you are fine and your home is fine and your mom is a bit ridiculous. 3) Joke with your husband about all the things she might judge, take note of any judgment during the visit, and laugh about it when she leaves.
Q. Vaxxed and vexxed: My company has recently returned to in-person work at our office. Many of us are still working a few days a week from home, but here we are—vaccinated, masked when appropriate, and just trying to muddle through. Over lockdown, it seems that more than a few of my co-workers got into some questionable ideas about COVID, including how it’s treated, where it came from, and the circumstances around it becoming contagious in the community. These theories are bupkis at best and dangerously conspiratorial at worst, but they’ve become water-cooler conversation in my office.
Is there any way to somehow … make this stop when it’s brought up around me? I’ve tried playing dumb (“Oh I hadn’t heard that, wow”), deflecting (“Interesting—while you’re here could you show me how to access the new report files?”), and even countering with science (“I actually read that study in the medical journal you’re referring to, and that’s not what it said at all”), but none of it seems to make a difference. I can shut down the conversation one day and then the next day, the same people are back talking about the same old thing. It’s never brought up in an aggressive or targeted way so I don’t feel that I’m being bullied or singled out; my colleagues literally talk about this stuff in the same way I might make small talk about the weather or reality television.
We are all vaccinated so I don’t feel there’s a massive physical health risk to me here; just a mental health one of having to listen to background chatter about conspiracy theories all day at work. Please help!
A: “You know, it’s been a rough couple of years and I’m totally over talking about this pandemic. Like I don’t want to discuss it even a little bit. I’m sure you understand!” If they’re not speaking directly to you but just around you, try headphones.
Q. Alone: My husband, who teaches at a nearby university, is thoughtful and kind. We have been married for more than 30 years. While I consider us both introverts, we have a modest social life—completely at my urging. If I don’t make plans, either together or with friends, we would do nothing!
As it is: my husband’s “friends” are mostly my friends (I have several close girlfriends). He and I share dinner occasionally with one or two “couples,” but hubby has no male pals. He doesn’t reach out, and when male friends reach out to him, he often finds an excuse. He has two brothers, both of whom—no matter how many times I subtly encourage him—he seems to have no interest in. They rarely speak.
What do you think about him not having interest in friends or family? He seems just fine without anyone (but me and our puppy), but I worry if something happens to me.
A: This is just the way some people are. As long as he’s happy—and it seems like he is—I don’t think there’s any reason to push him to change. Plus, if he’s a professor, he probably has to interact with students and colleagues all day long, so it’s not as if he’s totally isolated. It’s sweet of you to be concerned about how he’ll cope if something happens to you, but I don’t want you to damage the relationship you two have while you’re alive by nagging him to set up a support system for when you’re dead.
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Q. Re: Spiritual blackmail: Every time your stepfather sends something, make a donation to Planned Parenthood or an LBGTQ charity of your choice in his name, and send him the receipt.
A: I kind of love this. Make sure to include “I received the reading material” so he knows why he’s getting it.
Q. Re: Spiritual blackmail: Former lawyer here! Keep a written record of as much as you can—photographs of packages, email exchanges (especially if you send him a message asking him to desist). If he’s sending you material that explicitly says you’re going to hell for your sexuality, you’ve got legal recourse for harassment on grounds of orientation.
A: Ooh, great advice. Thank you, former lawyer.
Q. Getting over my cheating ex: I was with my significant other for 16 years. We have two boys together and had just purchased our first house last fall (in his name, since he had better credit). We were elated! He was getting ready to open a new restaurant this spring. In January, he went out and came home pretty drunk, with scratches on him. Something did not feel right, and I asked him if something had happened. He brushed me off and told me I did not know what I was talking about, and blamed me for being paranoid. He kept disappearing one or two nights a week for the next few months.
Then in June, he came to me and said he was not happy and wanted to take a break. After the past few months of his behavior, I agreed. I moved out with our kids on Aug. 5, and he decided on split custody. The next day he texted me to let me know that he had met someone else. I checked his Facebook, which he had updated, and learned that they started dating in January! He is moving her into our house right now! He wants the kids to meet her next week, and he wants her and I to be friends!?