Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. For this edition, Mark Joseph Stern, Slate senior writer covering courts and law, will be filling in as Prudie. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
I have a slightly older friend who is successful in a certain creative field and often in the public eye. We started talking because of unrelated mutual interests and while we’ve never met in person, I look up to them a lot, received advice and emotional support from them during some personal crises last year, and have been inspired and encouraged to try my hand at their form of art. I’m glad to have them in my life, but I keep worrying that I’m not worthy of calling myself their friend. Part of this is low self-esteem and thinking I don’t measure up, but they’ve also dealt with creepy and invasive “fans” on multiple occasions and I fear ending up like those people in any way. Talking about their work to anyone else I know feels like namedropping, and I don’t know where the line of acceptable behavior is or how to know if I’m overstepping when I call them a friend. Obviously, it would be weird to just ask them that, and I have a feeling that to any other person (who’s not autistic as all hell like me) our friendship would not be something to question, so how do I shake my insecurities and manage being in this position?
—The Unfamous Friend
Just follow the three Ds:
Demystify: Regardless of their fame, your friend is still just a person with regular human needs, including companionship. Stop fixating on their celebrity (and the attendant problematic fans) and stay focused on your own individual relationship with them. If you value this person for their kindness and creative spirit—as you obviously do—you won’t “end up” like an invasive fan, so put that, and similar insecurities, out of your mind. Instead, think about your friend as one human being among eight billion, who just happens to have talents that draw adulation from the public.
Disentangle: Admiration and friendship often go hand in hand, but I sense that you are struggling to identify a border between the two. I suggest that you frame this individual in your mind as a friend first and an inspiration second. Any emotions that arise out of your friendship should be presumed reasonable and acceptable. Any emotions that arise out of your inspiration might merit a gut check: “Am I over-stepping or over-adulating? Am I putting this person on a pedestal rather than acting as a confidant and buddy?” If yes, try to recenter your intimate personal connection and put the artifice of celebrity out of your mind.
Demonstrate: As you note, your fears about this friendship are fueled largely by low self-esteem. To overcome this problem, I advise you try a time-honored solution: fake it ‘till you make it. Think about who you would be with high self-esteem. How would that person navigate the world? How would they settle into the comforts of friendship with a creative person who happens to be famous? Then try your best to act like that image of yourself, even if it feels strange and unnatural at first. Act like you might if your insecurities fell away and you believed deeply in your own goodness, confidence, and strength. Demonstrate to yourself that you can be that person, with some extra effort, and you may well become that person with time.
I’m a gay man who married the love of my life last year. No one from my family was at the wedding—I didn’t even tell them about it until after. My parents responded to my coming out in my teens by trying to abuse me back into the closet, in ways I won’t go into detail about here (including my dad saying he would kill any boyfriend I tried bringing home). But because relationships are complicated and in a lot of ways they were actually good parents (sent me to a great school, went the extra mile taking me to sports and hobby events I enjoyed, and were keen to pay for my college expenses even after the coming out disaster), I did maintain contact with them throughout college and beyond. I just never told them about any boyfriends and sought therapy when I could get it to help me process. They never asked about my dating life, and we could have nice conversations so long as I never brought it up.
I told them I was married in a straightforward, practicality-focussed way on the phone: “I’m not going to be around for Dad’s birthday because John and I are going on our honeymoon. You might have heard from [cousin on Facebook] that I got married.” My mom went silent, started to cry, then hung up. I thought she would get in touch again acting like everything was normal and we’d never spoken about it. Instead, she and my dad sent a huge cheque in the mail, with a congratulatory card addressed to me and John, saying it was a wedding present. They are both suddenly acting as though they want to meet him, asking about my life in a normal way, and responding to me asking what’s going on with, “We’ve realized we need to move on. We don’t want to be cut out of your life.” They have not, however, apologized, and told me not to be “small” when I tentatively mentioned I need an apology—at least!—to actually trust them again.
The thing is, I was planning on cutting them out of my life. John and I want kids, and we’ve discussed at length the impossibility of feeling safe ever having our children around my parents. The thought of them hurting my future child like they hurt me makes me physically sick. I’d resigned myself to enjoying the last dregs of our semi-nice relationship this year, before going completely no-contact. Their new behavior has thrown me for a loop. I want to believe they’ve really changed and we could have a good relationship, but I also want to never speak again and focus on the future. It feels cruel to reject them just as they’re finally trying to make amends, but so much damage has been done that I don’t think I could ever trust them to meet John, let alone our future kids. Can you please advise me on how to handle this? How do I be the bigger person while protecting myself, my husband, and our future kids? I love my parents but the relationship hurts so much.
—Seriously Belated Amends
It’s remarkable that such awful parents could raise such a wonderful son. You owe these people nothing, and you should give them nothing—at least not until they apologize, hold themselves accountable, explain their change of heart, and promise to give you the love and respect you deserve moving forward. And even then, I’d be wary. It is emotionally manipulative for your parents to perform this about-face after so many years of abject cruelty, then demand that you unquestioningly accept them back into your life. I appreciate that your parents were sporadically “good” throughout your childhood, but their decision to assist in your education (which all good parents with the means to help do) does not make up for their refusal to accept and affirm your identity. They wielded bigotry like a truncheon to punish you for expressing that most basic need, the ability to live honestly and authentically. Your father’s death threat against any hypothetical boyfriend is justification enough to cut him out of your life forever and never look back.
So rest assured that it would not be “cruel” on your part to resist their attempt to re-enter your life; what’s cruel is their insistence that they do it on their own terms, not only declining to apologize but criticizing you for daring to request an apology. This response suggests to me that they have not really learned any lessons, or sincerely reflected upon their own malicious behavior, but simply have a selfish desire to be a part of your evidently joyous life, especially with the possibility of grandkids down the road. I appreciate that you love them despite everything, which speaks incredibly well of your own kindness and generosity. And it must be emotionally wrenching to resist the entreaties of two ostensibly reformed parents after so many years of partial alienation.
But you do not have the luxury of thinking only about yourself. Think, too, about your future children, and who you’d like to have in their lives. Are your parents really on that list? Do you truly believe that you can trust them to be good influences on your kids? And to go a step further: If your parents are only coming back into the picture because they have so many incentives to do so, what will happen when the going gets tough? If you have a child who is disabled, transgender, or who otherwise doesn’t conform with your parents’ vision of who a person should be? Will they bounce once again, leaving you heartbroken? Or, worse, will they deploy the same tricks they used on you to bully your kid into conformity and shame?
I don’t want to be overly pessimistic here. I can see a path forward, one that starts with your parents commencing the long and difficult work of actually making amends by expressing their profound regret over their misdeeds and asking how they can ever make it up to you. Until that happens—and until they follow through in a way that fully satisfies your own emotional needs—tell them that they are not welcome in your life.
How do I know if I’m the problem? My husband and I both come from difficult backgrounds where a cruel, diagnosed-but-willfully-unmedicated spouse remains married to a generally-lovely-but-downtrodden spouse. We both have wonderful siblings who mostly navigate the situation by showing up infrequently and keeping in-person interactions light.
I just cannot manage this. I adore my mom and want to spend time with her. But I can’t stay silent when my dad SNAPS HIS FINGERS at her so she’ll fetch him a beer, or my mother-in-law calls my husband a slur because we’re leaving town and she has big feelings she can’t manage. When I engage in a way that I would say is enforcing boundaries—”That’s unacceptable behavior/language. You can’t treat her/him that way. I’m leaving.”—the proverbial stuff hits the fan, and often our siblings and/or the “victim” spouse is mad at me for upsetting the alleged peace. Do I have to stay away if I can’t bite my tongue? Is there value to advocating for people who don’t want you to? Am I the problem?
—Scared to Look in the Mirror
You have control over exactly one person in this situation: yourself. It must be infuriating to watch your father bully and boss around your mother, but you cannot save her. Sure, you can privately counsel her to stand up to your father, establish her own boundaries, and develop the tools she’ll need to protect her interests more assertively—up to and including a divorce. And I think you should do all of that! This situation sounds like a toxic, misogynistic nightmare. But you can’t do any of that stuff for her. And if you try, you could inadvertently provoke your father to inflict even more fury and callousness on your mom. It sounds like that’s already happening, and leading your mother to resent you for “upsetting the alleged peace,” which illustrates the futility of this approach.
I would instead focus on the impact that your father’s actions have on you. Rather than telling your father “You can’t treat mom that way,” explain that you find it offensive and distressing when he treats your mom like a servant. Rather than deeming his behavior broadly “unacceptable,” explain that you find it unacceptable and hurtful. Tell your dad that you will leave as soon as you witness him treating your mom that way. Regardless of their dynamic in private or around other people, make it clear that you will not silently serve as witness to such ugly, disrespectful behavior.
Ideally, this tactic will work in tandem with your mom’s journey toward greater independence, assertiveness, and self-care. But that is out of your hands. If your father responds negatively, you’ll need to draw on the only leverage you have in this situation—that is, get up and walk the hell out. You need to prove that you will not tolerate, or become complicit in, this atrocious treatment of your mother. If your dad wants the gift of your presence, he will have to treat your mother with dignity, at least while you’re physically present. Explain to your siblings that this is the most loving and ethical option for you in a difficult situation. They can join you if they want. Or they can keep quiet. But be explicit that you will not brook criticism for “upsetting” a peace that never existed in the first place.
One last thing: Your husband can experiment with this approach, too, but he will have his own journey, quite apart from yours, and you should avoid viewing the two situations as identical. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; don’t assume that you know what your husband or his parents need to navigate out of this dynamic. The most you can do is listen to him, respect his needs, and encourage him to stand up for himself when he feels it’s appropriate. Beyond that, it’s his battle to fight.
I met my boyfriend David on Tinder five months ago, and it was a match made in heaven. He’s compassionate, attractive, and a bombshell in bed. Recently, at our physical, I learned something. David is 5 feet, 8 inches tall. On his Tinder profile, he lists himself as 6 feet. On our first date, I asked him [if he is] really 6 feet. He got agitated and said yes. I feel lied to and betrayed.