Dear Prudence

Dear Prudence Live Chat

For March 13, 2023.

Update, Monday March 13, 2023, at 1:30 p.m.: The chat is complete! Find the write-up in the Dear Prudence archive, and continue the conversation on the Prudie Facebook Page. Submit questions for next week’s chat here.

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Jenée Desmond-Harris

Hey everyone! What problems can we solve in the next hour?

Q: No trip

My sisters and I have frequent girl trips where we will pick and explore a city for a few days rather than try and rush as many activities as possible. Our sister-in-law is a lovely person, but has such a type A personality. She is never calm and chill, something has to be done every second of the day or it is time wasted. Just spending a holiday with her is tiresome and that is with our brother there. She will complain if we sleep in later than 8 a.m.

She has been making noises about joining us on these trips. How do we discourage her without hurting her? Asking my brother to field the request is asking for trouble.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

The best thing to do in situations like this is to be very honest, with a lighthearted touch and maybe a little self-deprecation. Try to insert a little humor into the situation to counteract any awkwardness. Something like this: “Were you really interested in coming on one of our sister trips? You know we love you so much and would love to have you, but fair warning, you might lose your mind when we want to sleep until noon and do nothing but wander around and get coffee all day. And honestly, we might have to fight if you get up and start rummaging around the hotel room at 7 a.m. Basically we want to be super lazy and waste a lot of time. Does that sound good? Think about whether you can match our type B vibes—if that’s the case, it would be so fun to have you—or if you’d want to kill all of us by the end of the trip.”

Q: Your Friendly Neighborhood Cyclothymic In Love

So, a few years ago, I destroyed a relationship with a long-term partner I loved very much after five years and some huge sacrifices. It wasn’t the first instance of self-immolation in my personal and professional life, but, since this was my first experience with actual love, it destroyed me. I realized something was seriously wrong with me, so I began deep and intense therapy to figure myself out. Nearly two years and a ton of pain and confusion later, I was diagnosed with cyclothymia—horrifying, but also a tremendous relief: It gave context to a lot of stupid stuff I’d done in the past. 

For a little over a year after the diagnosis, I stayed celibate whilst adjusting to my meds, learning methods to achieve balance, delving deeper into my psyche in therapy, and working hard to rebuild from scratch. I left my job as a consultant (which I hated) to change careers entirely, and took a great job in an industry that I love. I founded a support group for bipolar people who work in creative fields, which now includes more than 20 people. I was on track to becoming whole again. And somewhere in the midst of all this, I met a woman (let’s call her May).

May is younger than me: I’m 37, she’s 29. She took the initiative in kickstarting the relationship. We’ve been together happily for over a year now. She’s better-looking, smarter, more talented, and way cooler than me. Really, she’s just too good for me by every objective standard. Yet, she seems to like me. She knows about my cyclothymia, she’s beyond supportive, I’m so grateful for this, and the truth is (between us) I’m in love with her, which terrifies me. May recently received admission to her dream grad program. I’d say I’m proud of her, but that falls so far short of how I feel about her achievement. I know she’s bound to do wonderful things. She deserves to fully immerse herself in this program and her cohort to figure out the best means to get there and learn about herself unencumbered. I refuse to be an impediment on this path to her future success. 

Cyclothymia obviously has no cure, and, even though the meds and therapy work surprisingly well in tandem, there’s always risk. It can be difficult for partners no matter what. Knowing this is causing me to pull away ever so slightly, and I can tell she feels it and it upsets her. There’s a tension that wasn’t there before. I desperately don’t want to hurt her, but, like I said, I’d have a hard time living with the knowledge that she lost opportunities due to shouldering some of my burden (or whatever you want to call it). My question is this: Would it make sense to end the relationship now so she can seize this moment with all of her focus and energy? It’ll hurt both of us, but it should pass relatively quickly for her, and maybe we could remain in each other’s lives some other way. 

Simultaneously, I also can’t help but wonder if this is some of the old self-destructive tendency rearing its stupid, ugly head again, preying on my insecurities, sending out warning signals that too much vulnerability could cause too much pain and therefore I should put a stop to it now. Maybe it’s both? I don’t know. I do know that I want to be with her. I just think it may be better for her if we weren’t. I just want to try and do the right thing here.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

I only know as much about cyclothymia as I could learn from a one-minute Google so I’m definitely no expert here (For readers who are also new to this, the Mayo Clinic calls it a rare mood disorder that “causes emotional ups and downs, but they're not as extreme as those in bipolar I or II disorder”) but I will say, I see nothing in your letter indicating that your moods have caused problems in your relationship. May is a nearly 30-year-old graduate student who sounds like a very impressive woman who knows what she wants. Unless you’ve left something out, things are going well between the two of you. Definitely raise your concerns about your own self-sabotage with your therapist, but in the meantime, I think you should leave it up to your girlfriend to decide whether the relationship is working for her. I’m confident that she’s up to the task. Meanwhile, keep your focus on whether you are coping with your diagnosis the way you should be and whether the relationship is adding what you want it to add to your life.

Q: Call Back?

My boyfriend of five years said his ex-wife’s dad had a massive heart attack. He needed to fly to his hometown to take care of his 12-year-old daughter. A week later he messaged me saying he owed me a long conversation when he had his head on straight. More than a week after that, I haven’t heard anything more from him. I’ve messaged twice and called once with no response. What should I do?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Get back on the apps. Either a) he and his ex-wife are back together or b) he’s decided he doesn’t want to be with you for some other reason. I’m really sorry!

Q: What About Charlie

My 8-year-old son is very shy so when “Charlie” moved in next door we were very happy. Charlie is the same age as our son and they became inseparable. Charlie's mom will send Charlie over basically every day so she can go out often until very late. She rarely responds to our texts beyond a few vague comments about when she will be back.

Charlie often will eat dinner with us and even take baths in our house because my husband and I can't in good conscience send him home without his mother there. Talking to Charlie's mother gets us nowhere. She is abrasive and rude with a chip on her shoulder over being a single mother. Charlie's father isn't in the picture. My husband and I are debating what steps to take next and if we should get the authorities involved. Charlie isn't being abused or neglected in any obvious ways, but the situation can't continue. We need some outside help please.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Do not get the authorities involved! With no actual abuse or neglect they couldn’t even do anything. Beyond that, I wish we lived in a world where you could make a report and magical, kind people would show up to support a family with the goal of making a child’s life better, but that’s not how it works. Charlie could be removed and just end up in a different horrible situation, with strangers. Unless the circumstances were extremely dire, I wouldn’t recommend this course of action. 

This is the way to look at the situation: Charlie is a kid with a really hard, bad life. Either he can have that life without you in it or he can have it with you in it making it better. I think you should choose the latter! Should his mother be taking care of him? Absolutely. Do you have to make extra dinner and run extra baths when you didn’t sign up to care for two kids? Nope. But think of it like this: There’s a lot of suffering in the world that you can’t do anything about but this is something you can really help with, right in your own home. Here is an innocent kid who needs care and consistency, and you can offer it without too much extra effort. Continue to set an extra place at the table. Charlie’s mom may never appreciate you but he will.

Q: Can’t Take the Heat

I have ADHD and often perform poorly on the first exams of the semester because transitioning from one schedule structure to another is tough. But I always end the semester with great grades and all my teachers say I am a stellar student. I am interested in a professor's field but when I asked him how I could get involved, he mentioned I did poorly on the first test. I said "Yep" and nothing else, which created an awkward silence until he pointed me to some journals. I'm not always comfortable disclosing my condition to people because they may judge me but I also understand why he'd be hesitant to encourage me if at the moment I seem like a bad student. How can I deal with situations like this in the future to show I will be academically ready for challenges?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

A person who pushes an interested student away because of a poor test score is almost surely not going to be more understanding about ADHD. There are self-important jerks and wonderful, kind supportive people in every profession. You happened to encounter a self-important jerk. Ask around and find another professor to talk to about your interest. Going forward, if you aren’t comfortable disclosing your disability and don’t want to have to explain early-semester low test scores, you can wait to approach potential mentors and supporters until you have a stellar report card in hand.

Q: Light at the End of the Cohabitation Tunnel

My partner and I just broke up after several years together, and while it was very mutual, foreseen by both of us, and the right thing to do, we're having very different reactions to it. I feel hopeful, like myself again after a long period of doubt and stress, and excited to move into a new phase of my life. I care deeply about them but am relieved to no longer be responsible for carrying some of their needs (a major stressor in the relationship).

They, on the other hand, are apprehensive about moving, sad that we didn't work out, and are now struggling to manage some day-to-day tasks and emotional needs that I am gently extricating myself from. They request physical and verbal affection that I don't really want to give anymore, and get visibly sad when I attempt to talk about any kind of logistics (talking about anything emotional is pretty much a nonstarter). Ultimately, I think they're going to be fine, but the contrast between our emotional states right now is really stark, and it's clear that I'm thriving while they are struggling.

We're going to be living together for another couple of months (I'm working on getting out as soon as I can, but it's just not doable to pay double rent where we live) and I'm worried I can't sustain cohabitation without it becoming really obvious that I'm not reacting to the situation the same way they are. The house we share isn't big enough to avoid each other completely, and there's only so much extra work or socializing I can do without burning out. How do I manage this kindly?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

If it didn’t hurt you to see someone who you care about struggling, that would be a bad sign. You’re a good person with a kind heart having a totally normal reaction to a tough situation in which the real bad guy is astronomical rent. I know it’s hard, but work on making peace with the fact that your ex partner is going to be upset. Put the focus back on yourself: Are you being reasonable? Being kind? Taking care of the practical things you need to take care of? Standing up for yourself? Doing the tasks that Future You will need to have done? Think less about how they are reacting and more about whether you’re being the kind of person you want to be in this difficult situation. If you are, you’re good. Also, use written communication. A text or email might be the best way to say, “I’m not comfortable with physical affection anymore, so please stop asking me. While I care about you, it’s not appropriate or welcomed anymore,” “The landlord is showing the place on Thursday afternoon,” “I’m going to try to sell the futon unless you want to keep it” or whatever logistics need to be handled.

Q: This Close to Ripping Out the Plug

My husband absolutely rages at video games when they aren't going his way. I understand the frustration of glitchy games or getting close to winning a level or beating a boss and lag causes you to lose. I don't mind the occasional exclamations when that stuff happens. But my husband will just completely go off for 30 minutes, ranting and raving, screaming at the TV. When this happens, I feel my heart rate go up, I get anxious and angry, and it just really ruins my day. I've tried asking my husband to reel it in. I've explained how awful it makes me feel. When he's away from the games, he'll admit the way he acts is uncool. But it doesn't stop his reactions.

I was so mad about it the other day, I resorted to banging around loudly in the kitchen. I know it wasn't very mature of me, but obviously, my pleas haven't been helping. My husband came out to see what was going on. I said I was upset that he was yelling at the TV, and he said, "Oh for f*** sake!" and stormed out like I was the unreasonable one. He has trouble managing his emotions in other difficult situations and is easily frustrated. I enjoy playing video games, too, but I'm not particularly good at them. This doesn't really bother me, but my husband will literally get upset with me if he's watching me play and I keep messing up the controls or have trouble solving a puzzle that he thinks is obvious. He acts like a giant toddler sometimes and will acknowledge this outside of whatever it is that frustrates him. But he won't modify his behavior and it's really stressing me out. What can I do?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

 I’ve received a lot of letters from people whose partners get in bad moods over video games. But 30 straight minutes screaming at the TV? That’s really troubling. So is the fact that this isn’t limited to one scenario. Storming around in the kitchen isn’t going to solve this. You can decide whether you need him to stop this behavior when you’re present (which might not be something he’s even capable of) or limit it to 30 seconds, or if you need him to seek professional help for his behavior and the deeper issues behind it. Then sit him down and let him know. Yes, offer an ultimatum. 

Q: Homebody

Our childhood house is tiny with only three bedrooms and one bath. It was awful when it was just my brothers and me battling it out for space. Now my poor parents have to deal with my unemployed brothers, my pregnant unemployed sister-in-law and her two kids. The house is in a constant state of chaos. If my mother isn't complaining about my sister-in-law not doing anything, it is my brothers sniping at each other, or the kids screaming at the top of their lungs.

I own a three bedroom townhouse nearby. I like my privacy, my peace, and not having to pick up after another person. I am also not the most patient person. My family is pressuring me to take in one of my brothers. One is a complete and total slob. And the other comes with soon-to-be three children and a wife who doesn't cook, clean, or even take care of her children most days. Every business has “help wanted” signs. Even if it isn't the start of a new career, at least it is income coming in (rather than living off our parents). I have been keeping my opinions to myself because it wasn't my place to stay anything. Only this is my place.

“It’s not an option for him to live with me. I understand that everyone would like him to be out of mom and dad’s house. What I am willing to do to help is to look over resumes, drive to two job interviews a week, and provide a security deposit when he finds a new place [or whatever you’re willing to do—nothing is also an option!]. Again, it’s not an option for him to live with me.”

Jenée Desmond-Harris

“It’s not an option for him to live with me. I understand that everyone would like him to be out of mom and dad’s house. What I am willing to do to help is to look over resumes, drive to two job interviews a week, and provide a security deposit when he finds a new place [or whatever you’re willing to do—nothing is also an option!]. Again, it’s not an option for him to live with me.”

Q: Lisa

I have a very low stakes question: my friend "Lisa" has a habit that drives me crazy— when she tells me a story over text message, she will break it up into multiple short messages, instead of sending one or two long texts. I know I could just mute her conversation, but then I'll forget to unmute it and will miss an actual important text. Is there any way I can talk to her about this without looking like a crazy person?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Try something like this: 

Lisa: Wild story from today…wait for it…

You: OMG I can’t wait to hear this. Can you put the rest of it all in one long text? I don’t want to turn notifications off to avoid all the dings but I also don’t want to miss it! Anyway, what happened??

Q: Fearful Former Bully

I was a bully in high school and middle school. I made cruel comments about others’ clothing, cut friends out from our group, and was in general a mean little terror. My stepdad was wealthy and a city council member and I exploited that for popularity (this was in a small Midwestern town). But that same stepdad was mentally and physically abusive to me and my sisters and mom for seven horrific years. In seventh grade, I missed curfew, so he drove me to the middle of a field with my new kitten and forced me to abandon it. That was when he wasn’t using a belt to beat us bloody where nobody could see marks. He convinced us that nobody would believe him, and I internalized that. I was angry that I had to hide so much pain and took it out on everyone else, which I deeply regret. 

In junior year, I called the police when he almost killed my mom, but he then shot himself in front of us when the cops arrived. After that, I spent part of senior year with my grandparents and missed a lot of school, but the whole thing was pretty hushed up. I somehow managed to graduate, went to college (and lots of therapy), and have moved away to get my masters degree. As part of my therapy, I wrote handwritten letters to the people who I remembered targeting, explaining my situation at the time and expressing my sincere apologies and desire to be a better person, and also saying that they didn’t have to forgive me or acknowledge the letter. I don’t want to return to that town ever again. But I was recently messaged on Facebook by a woman who I had bullied and had sent a letter to, and she accused me of lying about what I went through and said she “knew the truth: that I was evil deep down, and even if it was true, I deserved it.” She said that she would post the letter all over Facebook and then I would be exposed as a liar. I am terrified by this—my stepdad’s death was explained away as a tragic accident, and my mom and little sisters moved away to escape the memories. Everyone in town loved him, and if my letter is posted, I know my family will be targeted by his friends and neighbors. But I also have wondered if this is just karma for how I behaved, if the terror I feel now reflects how I made her feel then. I caused this woman pain and was horrible, I can’t force her to forgive me. Yet I also am now living in fear that I will wake up to a flood of messages and comments agreeing that we all deserved the abuse or calling me a liar. What should I do? How should I respond? Please help!

Jenée Desmond-Harris

 You have been through some deeply traumatizing experiences, overcome them, taken amazing care of yourself, and worked to undo any harm you caused. It would be such a shame to let this woman’s threatened Facebook campaign against you derail all that progress. In fact, when you think about her threats, I want you to consider how mild they are compared to what you’ve already survived. You are a very strong person. If (and this is a big if…My guess is that most people will see any letter she posts on Facebook and go “What the hell is this about? Seems messy” and keeps scrolling) she manages to rally people against you, I want you to feel confident that you can handle it. You can sign out of Facebook and continue to focus on your own healing journey, with the help of your therapist. You will be okay. You always have been. 

Jenée Desmond-Harris

We’ll wrap it up here. Thanks for joining, and I’ll talk to you next time.