Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: How was everyone’s long weekend? What, besides the fact that it’s now basically time to start shopping for holiday gifts, are you stressing about? Let’s talk!
Q. Paso-Doble Life: I need an outside perspective on something that continues to bother me about my partner’s past (we are both in our early 30s). To start with, I completely trust him and am not concerned about him cheating on me. However, I have a problem with the fact that one of his past lovers, who he became close with while they were dance partners, was married at the time of their affair. This really bothers me—it makes me doubt the state of his moral compass that he sees no issue with having been complicit in infidelity, even if it was not his marriage. He was single at the time and claims it would have been “disrespectful” to make decisions for her about how she wanted to handle her own marriage. That feels like such a cop-out to me! They’re still close friends and she has asked him to be her “maid of honor” in her upcoming second wedding, so I am reminded of the situation somewhat frequently. Am I being unreasonable here? I really respect his out-of-the-box and thoughtful approach to most things, but this just doesn’t sit right with me. Please help!
A: I have to give it to your boyfriend here. “It would have been ‘disrespectful’ to make decisions for her about how she wanted to handle her own marriage” is perhaps the most creative excuse I’ve ever heard.
I don’t think you are just worried in a general way about his moral compass. I think you’re worried about his relationship with his past lover and what it entails today. This isn’t a question of being objectively unreasonable or not. You don’t trust this guy, and you need to listen to yourself.
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Q. Concerned Auntie: My nephew is 17 years old and in the last three years has been really fixated with his personal hygiene. If he’s touching his glasses (while fixing them over his nose), he has the urge to stop what he is doing and run to the bathroom to wash them. This process takes several minutes and it’s done in strict detail (there’s a thorough examination of where the fingerprint or dirt might be while the glasses are being held up in the air for a better look). Once he washes his glasses, he’ll rewash his hands and if the bathroom door is suddenly closed, he has difficulty touching the handle to leave the bathroom. He has the same issue with being touched (like a pat on his arm during a discussion). He’ll excuse himself to leave the room (and go to the bathroom and wash his arm).
The skin of his hands has turned red and rough. His mother has tried to talk to him to find out where this sudden change of behavior is coming from but is met with the response that what he is doing is normal. His shower routine lasts more than 30 minutes and sometimes twice per day. The pandemic played a big role in frequent and thorough washing of hands but I think now, it has gotten out of control. How can we approach the conversation to try and help him, when he doesn’t recognize that he needs help in the first place? My sister is considering signing him up for a backpacking trip in remote locations hoping that being close to nature will help him understand that being dirty will not kill him.
A: It seems like you’re concerned your nephew has OCD. And, who knows, he might. I’m no expert. That said, I’m pretty sure that if he has a diagnosable condition, dropping him off in the woods for a week of forced filthiness is not going to be your solution. Please emphasize that to your sister. Mental illness doesn’t respond to “See, being dirty is fine. Put this backpack on.”
While what he’s experiencing doesn’t sound to me like a total crisis (after all, the worst impact on his life at the moment is some raw skin) I can absolutely understand your family’s worry that his preoccupation with cleanliness will eventually take a heavier toll on his life. Your sister should immediately make an appointment with his primary care doctor or a therapist. Time is of the essence. He’s 17 and before long, he’ll be an adult, his medical issues will be none of her business and she will have little to no ability to guide his care. So she needs to do what she can to get him help now. I realize that the fact that he’s a minor doesn’t mean she’ll have great luck forcing him into a doctor’s office so maybe saying something like, “I know you think this is normal and you may be right but I’m concerned so please but just humor me” could work. Or perhaps the two of you could tap into the National Alliance on Mental Health’s resources for families and get some ideas from people who have experience supporting loved ones with similar issues.
Q. Young Adult Or Youngest Child: I just finished up my first year of college and came home for the summer. On the first night, my mom yelled at me so hard I cried myself to sleep (I don’t typically cry) and within the week it’s become clear that my parents still see me as a little kid while still demanding adult responsibility. I’ll tell them about something I’m proud of and they start ranting about how I could do it better or what the next steps are, they always assume I’m clueless and helpless. I think they’ve always done this, but being away for a year has really given me some perspective. It doesn’t help that my sister is a moody 15-year-old who hates everyone and everything right now and takes every chance she gets to lecture me.
I can’t talk to my mom because she either cuts me off to lecture me or blows up at me. We just had a fight in the car where she twisted my words and got me all confused. I ended up saying some things I didn’t mean to say about my sister (mom does this fairly often, I feel like I need a law degree to talk to her). She also wants apologies for things I don’t want to apologize for (like setting boundaries) and refuses to talk about the first night when she made me cry. My dad is similar, where he has his own expectations of how things should be, and when they don’t match up, he gets pissed. Prudie, I try really hard to get my family to like me, but no matter what I do, they always find a way to turn it into a fight. I love them but I can’t keep going like this for a whole summer. My parents would also never consider going to therapy, because “that’s for people with issues.” What do I do?
A: In a strange way, I think your distress over how poorly and unfairly your parents treat you is great news. It proves that going away to college for a year changed your perspective and let you see clearly that your family’s dynamics are not normal or healthy, and you deserve better. Celebrate that. You know they’re unreasonable. You know they don’t respect boundaries. You know they are wrong to reject therapy. This is so much better than going home and thinking, “These people are treating me terribly so I must be the problem.” You’re winning. Be proud of yourself.
The way to endure the summer is to disengage as much as possible. All the energy you’re putting into trying to talk to your parents and hoping they’ll understand you? Redirect it to give yourself the love and support they’re denying you. Fill the remainder of your time at home with friends, books, counseling, fun, and self-care. Remain hopeful that your relationship with your mom, dad, and sister will improve at some point, but this is a delicate period in your life. You need to solidify your mental health and confidence before you take on the work of asking your family to do better.
Q. Wanting Forgiveness: A few months ago I did something to a close friend that I thought was funny because I had seen it on social media (TikTok). She did NOT see this as funny at all and she was very upset. Did not speak to me for many months. She has two young daughters who I consider my “nieces.” I have been in their lives since birth. I love them very much and I would be devastated to not see them again. The 10-year-old has forgiven me but the 12-year-old will not even consider forgiveness. That’s what their mother (my friend) has told me. It hurts me so bad and I want to get her forgiveness but I don’t know what to do or say to a child who is 12. It is very upsetting to me.
A: I have to know what you did. What did you do??? (Readers, what do you think the LW did? We’ll discuss and then decide if forgiveness is possible.)
Q. Re: Concerned Auntie: Backpacking is a bad idea!! This sounds like the beginning of OCD, and that’s not something you can reason or force out of someone. He needs treatment (therapy, medication) and understanding.
A: Yes, I’m not going to make a diagnosis but we can definitely agree that backpacking is 1) probably not something a person who doesn’t like dirt would enjoy, 2) not something anyone should be forced to do, and 3) not a substitute for actual treatment if this is, in fact, a mental health issue.
Q. Re: Wanting Forgiveness: Forgiveness isn’t something you can demand or even want. It’s up to the people you wronged, not you or a crowd. Take this as a lesson not to blindly ape what you see on social media and give them some space. Stop making this about you.
A: I think you can want forgiveness! But that doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Especially from a 12-year-old. Whatever you did, LW, it’s probably time to be the bigger person, accept that it was a mistake, and hopefully learn from it.
I work as a personal assistant to an actress. Almost anyone would recognize her and know her name. She is a normal and down-to-earth person who has become my friend. A few days ago, my father died. My family is in the middle of making funeral arrangements. My boss made a comment about attending the funeral to pay respects to my dad, whom she became friendly with because he is such a fun, lovable guy. But here is the thing: I feel sick to my stomach at the thought that everyone at the wake and reception will be gawking at her, trying to subtly take pictures of her and asking for autographs.