Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. (R. Eric Thomas is filling in as Prudie for Jenée Desmond-Harris while she’s on parental leave.)
Q. How Can I Let This Go: Like many, I have decided to spend some time working on my mental health. During my sessions, I have figured out that some of my personality issues (think trying to please everyone all the time) tie back to a lengthy period in school when I was the victim of some serious bullying. I am older now, in my 40s, but as a kid, schools didn’t take this as seriously as they do now. My family ultimately moved away and I was able to escape my bully. After a recent therapy session, I decided to look up my bully—maybe out of morbid curiosity. What I discovered was that she was a teacher, and it appears a good one. She’s been nominated more than once for teacher of the year honors in her state. She strives to create an environment where all children can succeed. I think this is a great thing, but it chaps me a little—she absolutely terrorized me. Part of me wants to reach out and let her know how much her terror has followed me, but the adult in me says let it go, she’s clearly a good person now.
A: I think you should reach out to her and let her know how her behavior affected you. Don’t do this because she won an award and you’re trying to take her down a peg; do it because she caused harm and it’s something that’s come up for you and you don’t want it to keep eating you up. She may take the opportunity being offered and attempt to make amends. This would be the best result for both of you. You get a resolution and an apology; she rights a wrong that she committed. But even if she doesn’t apologize, I think getting this off of your chest will help you to let it go.
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Q. Incorrect Correction: A friend from a local softball team moved across the country, and I happen to keep in better contact with them than the rest of the team since we have other online interests in common. Because of this, I end up relaying news about them to our team members. Although I love that our team asks about them, they sometimes misgender them in casual conversation (they use they/them pronouns). Usually, when someone misgenders someone, I either politely and quickly say their correct pronouns, or I phrase their question within my answer with the correct pronouns “interview style,” depending on which would be less disruptive to the conversation. They are almost always apologetic and acknowledge that they misgendered them. What is the polite way of responding when someone corrects themselves after misgendering someone who is not you?
I’m wondering how to move past their apology, because I’m not the one being misgendered, and I’m cis, so I shouldn’t be accepting their apology. I say “it’s OK” to mean “I know it was a mistake and you weren’t being malicious” not “I forgive you,” but I’m wondering if there’s a better way to acknowledge it and move on. I haven’t asked my friend, or any of my trans friends, because it feels unnecessarily mean to bring up instances of people getting misgendered to trans people. I tried Googling it and the only results I got were aimed at trans people being misgendered, which is obviously the most important resource, but I would like to know if I’m not being helpful.
A: I hate to give a non-answer here but I think the truth is you don’t have to acknowledge it at all. I am cis as well and when I hear a friend being accidentally misgendered in conversation I’ll do the same as you—”Sal’s pronouns are they/them”—and leave it at that. If someone apologizes, I don’t say anything and let the conversation continue. I tend to think belaboring an apology in those cases where the person being spoken about isn’t there centers the cis person and any feelings of awkwardness they may have, which we don’t need to do. They can just keep talking. I feel like that “I’m sorry” is more of an “excuse me” and, as such, is just about acknowledging and moving on.
Q. Grafting Myself Back to the Family Tree: In my teens, my dad tried to separate our nuclear family growing up because the extended family (on both sides) is part of a mainline denomination while he became part of a more fundamentalist one. My mom quietly keeps in contact with her siblings via holiday cards and once-yearly visits, but they are not close because my dad disapproves. My dad occasionally contacts his family via email regarding his mom’s nursing home arrangements, but that’s it.
I am everything my dad hates: atheist, gender-nonconforming, overeducated, working in a “men’s field” (tech), etc. I moved to the other side of the country after college, and maintain a polite distance from my parents, contacting them monthly and never about anything that matters. It hurts a lot to not have a close family the way other people do, to not know family stories, or even to be able to answer medical history questions. I’d like to build independent relationships with my extended family as an adult, but I have no idea where to start. I have fond memories of my aunts, uncles, and cousins as a kid, although I know that may not still carry over. I could probably get addresses from my mom if I asked the right way. But how do I begin? “Hi my parents are estranged from you but I don’t want to be?”
A: Yes, I think that’s exactly how you can begin. Your extended family knows whom your dad is and experienced his attempts to separate you all from them, so it’s unlikely they carry a grudge against you. They may actually welcome your efforts to get to know them. Proceed with caution, however. This bridge won’t get rebuilt overnight and there are surely some residual weird feelings all around. Those don’t have to be deal-breakers, though. If you have the patience to build a new relationship from the ground up, you stand to reap great rewards.
Q. Exhausted By Friend Drama I am having trouble with a friend. I feel like she does not listen and truly does not like our friend group, but when I recently told her I needed some space because I felt our friendship wasn’t serving either of us, she said I was being really mean and blew up on me. She repeatedly said she “didn’t need this group of friends,” but just felt like this came out of nowhere and I could have phrased things better.
During the pandemic, she often made excuses to not come to small gatherings we had after everyone was vaccinated during dips of massive outbreaks. I understand not everyone was comfortable doing things but she would still attend concerts, parties, and movies. She has also snapped at several people in the group when she thinks we’re being dismissive about her feelings or her interests. She often asks for advice and rejects it. When I said I thought we weren’t maybe equipped to alleviate her anxieties and suggested addressing it with a professional she got very mad. Some of us have also been having a hard time with our jobs and job searching and, in our chat, she keeps complaining about how many interview opportunities she’s had when she’s not even sure if she wants to leave her job. It’s just very frustrating and tone-deaf.
At this point, I regret managing her feelings and coaxing her back into the group, but I know now if I bring anything up again it will not go well. At this point, I have become less active in the group and am considering just trying to find new friends to avoid her. Am I being mean and unreasonable? I don’t want to be a bad friend; I just don’t think we’re right for each other anymore. How do I communicate this without getting yelled at and ruining our group dynamic?
A: It’s odd that your friend is sticking around the group because it really seems like she’s over it. But we all do strange things sometimes. She may not realize that she’s over the group, even though she’s said as much, which may be what prompted her to blow up at you in the first place. Friend breakups are really hard for this reason—friendships have much fuzzier boundaries than romantic relationships and there isn’t as much of a precedent for ending a friendship as there is for ending other relationships. Before you cut yourself off from the group, you may want to try having a friend-intervention. Now, this is tricky because it involves talking to your other friends about your one friend behind her back. This very well might blow up in your face. However, if everyone else is also struggling with the relationship, it might be helpful to put it in the open in as non-confrontational a way as possible.
Q. Confused and Lovesick: I met this guy about four years ago from my best friend’s brother. Just up until about a year and a half ago, we never talked. Even when we began to talk, it was very short and surface level, like talking to a classmate on the first day of school. About a year ago, he found out that his high school sweetheart turned fiancé had cheated on him with his now ex-best friend in May.
We began to talk a little more frequently then, and beginning in early September it became daily. We’d talk about everything you could possibly think of, sunup to sundown. He would compliment me, say some flirty things, and give me signals he was interested. I pushed this down at first because it felt like a rebound move, and my inner voice was shouting the “don’t date friends” mantra at me. Fast forward to today, I developed real feelings for him. We don’t talk as frequently now, but it is still daily with maybe a day or two in between. Everyone claims they think he has feelings for me too and will make a move. The last few times we saw each other in person, it was more of a flirty vibe. Do you think he is interested in me too? Should I make a move myself or do I wait for him since his past relationship caused trauma and I don’t know his healing capacity yet?
A: You’re right to be cautious—he’s in a precarious position emotionally and you don’t want to set yourself up for disappointment. It sounds like there is something there, but whether it’s platonic or romantic or a mishmash of the two is hard to tell. So, you have to ask him. The questions you asked—about whether he has feelings for you, whether his past relationship still has him messed up, and whether he has the capacity for something new are totally acceptable to ask in conversation. Often, we wait to make a move, thinking that the physical is going to lead us to the truth. But relationships are built as much on conversation as they are on physical action. So, have dinner together, bring up your shared past and the value you place on your relationship, and ask him where he stands.
R. Eric Thomas: Thanks for your questions and comments, everyone! I’m off to listen to Beyoncé’s single, which—in case you forgot—is out.
From Care and Feeding
Our family of three lives on the top floor of a two-unit building in a busy urban neighborhood. Before we had a kid, we knew our downstairs neighbors were noise-sensitive: They kindly let us know how hard the front door closed, when the garage was opening too early, and that our indoor workouts bothered them. But in the past three years, it’s gone to a whole new level.