Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers on Mondays at noon ET. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hey everyone! What problems can we solve in the next hour?
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 us, 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!
A: 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 she manages to rally people against you (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), 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.
Help! I Want a Baby, But I’m Worried About Mental Health Issues That Run in My Family.
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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.
A: 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: Just Tell Me What Happened: I have a 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?
A: 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: 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.
A: If it comes up, try saying this: “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: 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?
A: 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.
Before meeting and marrying my wife, I had many different sexual partners. I’m her first. We are in our first year of marriage. During a conversation about our sex life, I mentioned that I had been more attracted to past partners than I am to my wife. She became visibly upset. I tried explaining that I am attracted to her—it’s just that the physical dimension of our relationship is less important to me than the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual connections we share. Did I overstep a boundary? I thought I was just being honest, but my wife is clearly hurt, and I don’t know how to reassure her without lying.