Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.
Six years ago, my wife’s cousin called her to decline our wedding invitation because he’s a pastor and it wouldn’t be a good look if his congregation knew he was attending a gay wedding. He thought telling us this was the polite thing to do. We have rather easily cut him and his immediate family out of our life because he lives many states away. Now, my wife’s loving and accepting grandmother has died and there will be a small memorial for her in the coming weeks. My MIL thinks our response to his phone call is ridiculous since “there were probably other people who declined for the same reason” and we just don’t know it. She wants our kids to play together and spend a long weekend celebrating the life of my wife’s grandmother. How should we behave during this memorial weekend family reunion? Should I allow my 4-year-old to play with his young children knowing very well that he teaches them hate? What do I do if he tries to say hi to me like everything is normal? I’m just so sad that all of these people who supposedly love my wife and myself and our children think that we are irrational and he isn’t.
— Tired of Being Tolerated
You know, it’s funny. I bet when the pastor called to let you know that he cared more about the views of his bigoted congregation than about your feelings and your relationship, he didn’t first ask himself “Now how will this affect my kids’ relationship with their cousins? I wouldn’t want to do anything to damage that.” But you—the victim of intolerance in this story!—are expected to make that calculation. Not fair.
When he declined to attend and said to your face (okay, over the phone) that he was choosing backward-ass hateful views over his relationship with you, he demoted himself from relative to acquaintance who is kept at arms’ length. Treat him as such. Feel free to say an icy hi to him. Also feel free to say “I have to be honest, we’re still really hurt that you let homophobia get in the way of being a part of our special day, and it’s made me reevaluate our relationship.” Even consider getting a hotel if the original plan involved you staying under the same roof. Either way, you’re not going to be close to him going forward. How could you be? Therefore, your kids don’t need to build a relationship with his kids any more than they need to build a relationship with the average person on the street who thinks there just might be something valid to “don’t say gay” legislation.
I hear you when you say it hurts that people who supposedly love you, your wife, and kids don’t understand. There’s your wife’s cousin, her mother (whose expectation that you suck it up is homophobic too!) and the other people who may or may not agree with them. That hurts. Fill the space this realization has opened up in your life with chosen friends and family who definitely love you and—here’s the key part—behave in a way that shows it.
My good friend never answers their cell phone. This normally isn’t a problem; however, I know they do this because they were bullied as a kid due to their lisp. They never answer the phone and return all calls with a text or email and sometimes an invite to talk in person instead. I feel it’s detrimental to their well-being to do this and it really bugs me, but is it proper for me to tell them to answer the phone and just talk when I know the reason behind why they don’t?
— Am I a Bad Friend?
Dear Bad Friend,
No. Your friend has made their own calculations about their well-being, and they are more qualified to do that than you are.
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I need advice on how to handle my relationship with my dad. We have a contentious relationship due to years of his enabling my alcoholic mother’s abuse of me, although he likes to pretend everything is great between us. He complains multiple times a call about how little he sees me, then when he does see me, he spends easily an hour (sometimes more) miserably lamenting how he wishes he could see me more and how whatever activity we’re doing (getting a meal out, going to a concert for his birthday, for instance) isn’t making him as happy as “just seeing [me] more” would.
We’ve had variants on this exact conversation many times:
Him: “Oh, I wish I saw more of you.”
Me: “Well, you’re seeing me now! Do you want to get drinks after this meal?”
Him: “Yeah, I guess … when will I next see you?”
Me: “I don’t know right now with work! Definitely around your
birthday/Thanksgiving/whatever holiday, though.”
Him: “Oh, that’s ages away. It’s very hard with your mother right now. She’d love you to come stay with us again, like you used to.”
Me: “I won’t be doing that because she’s been violent to me when I’ve stayed in your house, as we’ve talked about, remember? Can we just have a nice time now?”
Him: “I suppose so.”
He then carries on moaning about how little he sees me andseems to enjoy nothing we’re doing … while also mentioning how fun it was last time we met up and did something, and how we must do that again some time. I’ve said to him that it makes it hard wanting to hang out when he spends the whole time complaining that we don’t see each other anymore, but he doesn’t take it on board.
I recently called to let him know the dates my partner and I would be available to see him around Christmas and try to arrange something, and he acted as though my suggestion of a get-together around Dec. 18 would “ruin the holidays” as “that’s nowhere near Christmas Day itself.” I lost my temper and brought up a lot of things I’m angry with him about that prevent me staying in his house over Christmas, which led to him tearfully telling me he wouldn’t speak to me when I was being irrational and hanging up. Now I know he’ll be waiting for me to call and apologize and doubtless to make arrangements (he never suggests anything himself) for the holiday.
I don’t know what to do. I really want to just never call again and spend all Christmas with my partner and in-laws (lovely people), but I know that’s an unkind idea. My dad doesn’t have any other family besides my mom, who I don’t see anymore. Do you have any suggestions on how I can handle things better with him? I love him, but it’s hard maintaining a relationship like this.
— Relentlessly Negative
Dear Relentlessly Negative,
Oh, this is so incredibly annoying! Nothing makes you want to see or talk to someone less than knowing you’ll spend the whole time hearing about how you don’t see or talk to them enough.
I have a theory about people who are, as you put it, “relentlessly negative.” I think sometimes they aren’t actually that passionate about the negative things they’re saying, they just aren’t very good at conversation and have gotten used to using these remarks as a social crutch, and, weirdly, a (misguided) way to connect with people.
But it sounds like with your dad, there’s something deeper going on: He is actually in despair over how broken and distant your family is. And for good reason. He didn’t protect you the way a parent should when you were a child, and, as a result, his relationship with you as an adult doesn’t look the way he’d like it to. I’m sure that’s devastating. It’s also not your fault, nor is it about the amount of time spent together. “I wish I saw more of you” is standing in for a lot here: “I wish I didn’t let you down”; “I wish you would forgive me”; “I wish I’d been a better parent”; “I wish I knew how to have a relationship with your mom and with you”; “I wish I didn’t have so many regrets.” No amount of convincing him to edit down his remarks about how little time the two of you spend together you will really fix that.
Take this holiday season off, as a break. Spend some time thinking about what you would need from him in order to have a relationship that works for you. A sincere apology? An explanation? A promise to be there for you in ways he hasn’t been? Freedom to talk openly about how he’s hurt you, without being punished with anger or the silent treatment? Then come back in the new year and tell him that you want to replace all the “I never get to see you” comments—not with small talk, but with whatever it will take to help you heal and possibly even want to be in his presence more.
My girlfriend rescued a small, fluffy, abused dog. We have been working on the training, but one behavior will not go away: the dog hates kids. He will growl and try to hide if one approaches him. Taking him on walks is hazardous because there is apparently an uncountable number of idiot parents who think letting their screaming spawn run up to an unknown dog and stick their hands in its face is fine. Half the time I have to pick up my dog because they will not listen when I say not to approach and my dog isn’t friendly. I actually had a mother argue with me that her kid “knows” when a dog is friendly and implied my dog would be better off put down than out in public. I told her she was better off putting a leash on her own kid.
So, my sister knows all about the situation with our dog. She came over with her new girlfriend … and the girlfriend’s 8-year-old kid. We put the dog in the upstairs bedroom and closed the door. My girlfriend explained that he was a rescue and not good around kids, so no going upstairs. The adults went out on the porch for drinks and the kid was playing on their tablet. The next thing you know, the kid comes out bawling and says the dog attacked him. He went upstairs, into the bedroom, and tried to drag our dog from under the bed.
Once we made sure the kid hadn’t been bitten, the fur flew. My sister’s girlfriend started to rant and rave about our “dangerous” dog and threatened to report our dog to the authorities. My girlfriend lost her cool. She told my sister’s girlfriend that she was a “moron” and a “bad mom” considering her kid refuses to follow basic instructions and thinks going through a private area is okay. At that point, I told my sister it would be better if they leave. My sister is furious with my girlfriend and demands an apology or she is skipping Christmas. This has my parents very upset. The thing is, I think the girlfriend owes my girlfriend an apology. We explained the situation and put our dog in our bedroom. The fact her son thought it was alright to wander throughout home and stress out our dog—that is on his mom.
A couple of rules to live by: Don’t tell people to put their children on leashes and don’t call those children “human spawn.” Don’t call anyone a bad mom or an “idiot parent.” These things make it kind of hard for you to claim the moral high ground. And don’t spend too much time worrying about whether a person who’s mad at you owes you an apology. I mean, what’s the point if you know the person doesn’t mean it?
That said, you and your girlfriend were right when it came to how you handled the dog, and your sister’s girlfriend made a bad choice when she left her son alone in the house, presumably knowing about his capacity to follow instructions. Sure, from a legal and trying-to-avoid-having-your-pet-taken-by-the-authorities perspective, you would have been smarter to refuse to allow a child to be unsupervised with access to an aggressive animal. But you didn’t do anything that justifies your sister’s anger.
She can skip Christmas if she wants, although I think she’s bluffing and will actually be there. You and your girlfriend don’t have to do anything at this point—except hire a really, really good dog trainer.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
I met a guy on Hinge who is sweet and smart, and we have great chemistry. Unfortunately, he is a fourth-year med student, and he is hoping to get matched for his residency in my city, but there is only a 50 percent chance of that happening. We won’t find out for six months, during which time he will be traveling, interviewing with other hospitals.
Neither of us wants to stop dating, but we don’t know where he’s going to end up living, and I don’t want to add the stress of a relationship onto the interview process. I’m not even sure what we’re doing. We tried to talk about it, didn’t know what to do, said goodbye, and now we’re flirting with each other in our DMs. Should we go cold turkey, or be friends without flirting, or try a relationship even though we don’t know where one of us is living?
— Long Distance or Not
Dear Long Distance,
I think the expression is “Don’t borrow trouble,” right? Keep dating! The time to break up due to distance will be when distance is a reality and the relationship is no longer working for one of both of you. Until then, enjoy.
Give Prudie a Hand in “We’re Prudence”
Sometimes even Prudence needs a little help. Every Thursday in this column, we’ll post a question that has her stumped. This week’s tricky situation is below. Join the conversation about it on Twitter with Jenée @jdesmondharris on Thursday, and then look back for the final answer here on Friday.
My husband and I never wanted children—we preferred to travel and spoil our dogs. He got the snip before we even met. Only, six months ago, we found out that he has a 13-year-old daughter, “Ella,” from a college fling. The mother gave up the baby to a relative for an adoption; only for the family to fall apart when the adoptive mother died. (A relative tracked my husband down on social media and we had a paternity test done.) The adoptive father dumped his daughter back with her birth family and never looked back. Ella currently is sleeping on the couch of her great-aunt and has no stable adult in her life. Her grandparents are disabled and sickly, the biological mother is in jail, and the rest of the family isn’t great.
My husband feels obligated to take Ella in. We talked to Ella via phones and Zoom. She seems to be a perfectly nice girl who got dealt a bad hand, but I have no idea how to parent a teenager. I had severe mental health issues growing up and while therapy and medicine have helped, it isn’t a cure-all. My own mother suffered from severe depression and was told that having a baby would “fix” her. Instead, she had my brother and me—and took her own life when I was a teen. I refused to inflict that horror on someone else.
I know my own capacity and taking on the full-time care of a troubled teen isn’t it. If Ella was much older or younger, I would be fully on board financially. But she is too young to live alone and too old for a nanny. We have given the great aunt money for Ella’s care but she has bluntly told us that my husband needs to come and get her. My husband tells me he can’t do this alone and needs me. Help!
— Not a Mother
Is there a good way to dump a friend who dumped your friend? My good friend “Emily” dated a “Adam” for four years. I became friends with Adam through her, and everything was great until he dumped her unceremoniously. He was cruel and selfish and revealed himself to be the kind of person I would never choose to associate with. The end, right? Except Emily has forgiven him and wants to remain friends. She is dating someone new but keeps inviting Adam to group outings because “he is still an important friend to me.”
Prudie, I don’t want to tell anyone how to conduct their relationships, whom to date, or whom to befriend, but my dislike of Adam is about the kind of person he revealed himself to be, so even if Emily wants to be his friend, I don’t. She invited him to a party recently and he cornered me and asked “what can I do to become friends again?” I stammered something about still being friends and disappeared, but what do I do next time? How do you dump someone that a dumpee wants you to be friends with? I feel like I’m on all the wrong sides here. Help.
— The Transitive Property of Break-ups
Dear Transitive Property,
This seems like a good time to use the old, “I just feel like we’ve grown apart” line. It’s true! He grew into someone who was selfish and cruel, and you grew into someone who didn’t like it, which made you less close. You don’t have to go into all the details. In fact, you probably shouldn’t because they’re really Emily’s business. But you are entitled to your feelings about Adam, and hopefully, he’ll recognize that and refrain from cornering you in the future.
My brother-in-law is a 48-year-old permanent student, who lives off his parents and spends his days (by his own admission) smoking weed, watching porn, and jacking off. He is a lovely, smart, sensitive guy who just failed to launch, partly due to an attention disorder and largely because everybody in his life indulged him. I love the guy, but I do not want to be responsible for him after his parents are gone. My wife and I are both worried that he will never be able to take care of himself, but nobody seems willing to push him to get a job, clean up his act, or take any kind of responsibility, and it feels like time is running out. How do we communicate that we will not bail him out? How do you change the behaviors of a lifetime?
— The Worst Inheritance
Dear Worst Inheritance,
First, you’re not going to change his behavior. Just won’t happen, sorry. Second, I really don’t think “I, an adult, don’t plan to take care of you, an adult who is not my child or parent” is a thing that requires announcing. You seem to feel responsible for him, so if you or your wife have somehow suggested to him that you’ll be paying for his life when your parents are gone, by all means, correct that misunderstanding. But otherwise, you just … don’t. And he will do whatever he would do if you two didn’t exist: Find a partner who has some money, sleep on a friend’s couch, or maybe even finally get a job!
My girlfriend, “Jane,” and I moved in together during the pandemic, since her roommate was an essential worker and I lived alone. We figured it wouldn’t last that long (yeah, yeah), and it would be better than being all by ourselves. We’ve fought a bit, but mostly in a way that confirmed we were good for each other, and overall things have been great. Except for this: Jane doesn’t believe that men can or should do any domestic chores. She thinks we should leave it to women to “do it right”…