Dear Prudence

Help! A Young Man I Dated 15 Years Ago Wants an Explanation for Our “Inappropriate” Relationship.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

Silhouette of a man reaching out with a bouquet of flowers while a woman looks at him with a hand on her face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jelena Stanojkovic/iStock/Getty Images Plus and  OlgaLebedeva/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

About 15 years ago, when I was 38, I briefly dated a 23-year-old. He pursued me, and I told him from the beginning that the age difference troubled me—we had nothing in common and it made me feel ridiculous. He kept arguing that it didn’t matter, and he got his friends and his parents to lobby on his behalf. I told him I didn’t want to date anyone—I was deeply depressed, had quit my job, and had moved in with my parents to attend a therapy program. He wore me down and we dated for a few weeks before I ended it (clearly and respectfully). Recently, I got a middle-of-the-night LinkedIn message from him saying his therapist tells him the age difference made it an inappropriate, exploitative relationship. He wants me to explain myself. What should I do?

—Revisionist History

Dear Revisionist History,

I don’t know what the rules are when it comes to what makes an age difference in a relationship exploitative (unless, of course, it’s an adult pursuing a minor). Maybe, as an advice columnist, I should have an opinion about this, but I haven’t given it enough thought. So, when I read your question and your account of what seemed like an outrageous message, I had my gut reaction (which was something like “What the hell??”) but I also wanted to make sure I didn’t unintentionally let you off the hook for something weird you did or encourage you to dismiss a vulnerable person.

Turns out, I had no reason to be concerned there. At least, according to the readers who responded when I asked them for help with your dilemma. They were confident that you owed nothing to this former partner who (with the help of his friends and his parents) aggressively pursued you, as an adult. A younger adult, but still an adult.

That is the age difference between me and my husband. I thought he was older but went ahead and dated him after finding out he was 23. We’ve been happily married for nearly 25 years now. —@tapati

It’s a big age difference but he was not a kid, he was an adult with agency. If you get your friends and parents to lobby a person to date you, you cannot then say that person exploited you. He should probably consider growing up. —@theblairlair

She shouldn’t have to apologize. If she was upfront and he insisted (he didn’t take her feelings into consideration at all) she did what he wanted she’s not responsible for him not being honest in therapy about his actions and behavior. —@Cheymerri

Aside from shock and horror that this exchange took place over a professional networking site where DMs typically say things like “I just submitted my resume to your employer and I would love to hear about your career trajectory,” rather than, “You took advantage of me a decade and a half ago,” the clearest theme of the responses was the word “block.”

Let me go look up how to block people on LinkedIn. —@Loni_Christine

Whew and then BLOCK him everywhere. —@DesJones17

I would block so fast. —@akmattos

I know I’m wrong. I know that I am out of step with therapized culture. I know that we are supposed to entertain foolishness to be nice. I know all of those things. I also know that you don’t have to respond to every bid made of you. Ignore, block, & let’s all abolish LinkedIn. —@tressiemcphd

This is a clear case of “block and ignore.” There isn’t anything to apologize for and she shouldn’t have to go through the lab or of explaining her version of events—what good would that do? —@BeakFinch

The message here: Your former dating partner is so far of line that not only should you resist the guilt trip, you should refuse to respond and make sure he can’t contact you again.

If you do feel you want to write back, though, many people shared helpful sample language.

“I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m glad the relationship ended. Wishing you the best in all future endeavors.” (Don’t respond again.) —@soledadobrien

We remember these events very differently. I hope you are able to work through your issues. —@realaftonnelson

 And maybe include in the middle: “I told you from the beginning I was uncomfortable. You pressured me, and got your friends and parents to pressure me. I relented, then respectfully ended things a few weeks later. There is nothing to discuss.” —@emilycrockett

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” —@MutumboRumble

 “Hi. Wow, 15 years. I hope you find therapy healing. I recall the origins of our brief time together differently. [Relay details] I agree with your therapist, this is worthy of exploration. However, I am not sure I should be the focus of that exploration. I wish you the best.” —@revjmmcdonald 

I hope some of those lines help, if you do decide to respond. And when you’re done, remember what everyone said: Block. And move on with a clear conscience.

Classic Prudie

This is embarrassing to write, but I had a strange “relationship” with my coach in high school. He started when I was a 16-year-old junior, and my home life was in total chaos. One of my parents was an alcoholic, and the other was dealing with a chronic illness. “Steven” was funny and in his late 40s and showered me with praise. He had a stellar reputation and was on a private contract (meaning he wasn’t employed directly by the school). When he took me under his wing, I was ecstatic. His approval meant the world to me. We stayed in touch over phone and via email, even after I went off to college. He sent me birthday packages, teased me about college life, and even proposed to me over the phone. The problem was my reaction: I didn’t stop him.