Getting Past the Past

Getting Past the Past

Getting Past the Past

Advice on manners and morals.
Oct. 15 1999 3:32 AM

Getting Past the Past

Please send your questions for publication to prudence@slate.com.

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Dear Prudence,

I was adopted and grew up in a very abusive home. I don't seem to be able to get past the bitterness and resentment I feel for my parents. For years I have wanted to confront them about the beatings I took, my mother's drinking, and my dad's complete indifference. At 30 years old, I am sober and reasonably successful, despite having not completed my bachelor's degree in accounting. I've had my own struggle with alcoholism, and I have difficulty concentrating on much else besides how I grew up--though I'm trying to get past it.

Meanwhile, probably to assuage their guilt, my folks constantly ask me questions such as, "Did we raise you right?" It is hard to bite my tongue and lie to them, telling them they spent plenty of quality time with me, etc. My fiancee has been very supportive and has suggested that when my folks open the door with their questions that I should take advantage of it and unload.

What's your take?

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--Closed door in D.C.

Dear Closed,

It certainly sounds as though your parents have accumulated many debits in your emotional ledger. Prudie salutes you for pulling yourself together considering some overwhelming obstacles. It's clear that you need to unburden yourself, either to a counselor or to your folks. Until all the resentment gets out, it will eat away at the vessel it is stored in: you.

It is interesting, and Prudie thinks meaningful, that your parents continually pose these questions. At some level of consciousness, they know the answers. This might be their way of asking you to give voice to your feelings and to confront them. You certainly have nothing to lose. Next time such a question is posed, ask them if they really want the answer. If they say yes, then try to hold yourself together and, as calmly as you can, give a truthful response. Tears are OK; hollering is not. This may be what they've been waiting for so that they can talk about the past and apologize. They, as well as you, might need to give the disastrous past an airing. A repair is possible, but if it doesn't happen, you've unburdened yourself, let in some sunlight, and lost nothing. Prudie is for realism and honesty, and hopes the balance sheet comes out with an improved bottom line.

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--Prudie, encouragingly

Dear Prudence,

After 20 years of marriage and raising our children, my husband and I have decided to stop torturing each other. We broke the news of the divorce gently to friends and relatives, and now are in the process of dividing 20 years of assets. Because we see no sense in causing more financial distress than necessary, we are still under the same roof while we work out the details.

The problem is: We are not enemies. It seems no one can stand this, and whenever we encounter friends or relatives, they invariably ask personal questions to try to get each of us to speak ill of the other. As we don't do this, the next comment is always something like, "Well, then, why are you getting divorced?" The worst one was, "I don't think you really want a divorce, or you would have gotten one by now." Please, do you have an answer for these "well-wishers" that would not require giving them private and personal information?

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--shan

Dear sha,

Who are your friends--a bunch of divorce lawyers? Prudie thinks it's marvelous that you and your spouse of two decades are able to unhitch in a civilized, amiable manner. Unfortunately, it has become a commonplace for about-to-be exes to badmouth each other to whomever will listen. Friendly divorces are somewhat unusual, but possible. (Prudie has even had one.)

The next time one of these yentas tries to goad you into dishing your soon-to-be-former mate, just smile and say, "Oh, I am saving our life together for my memoirs." That kind of non-answer always conveys the subtext: nothing forthcoming here; on to the next subject.

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--Prudie, admiringly

Dear Prudence,

For my roommate's birthday last year, I took her out to a very expensive restaurant and bought her a nice gift. One month later, for my birthday, she took me to a relatively cheap Mexican restaurant and gave me a Beanie Baby. (I hate stuffed animals, and she knows that.) We are both in similar financial situations, and I felt cheated. Her birthday is coming up soon. Should I take her out again, or just give her a small gift and forget our tradition of the birthday dinner?

--Living With Selfish

Dear Liv,

If you are sure that the two of you are in financially similar circumstances and also that she knows of your dislike for stuffed animals, Prudie suggests you send out for Chinese food for her birthday dinner and give her back the Beanie Baby with a funny card. Prudie says this because the roomie is obviously cheap--and maybe even hostile. If she remarks on the "tradition" being different for her birthday this year than last, simply tell her that you are following her lead about what level of celebration is appropriate. This may totally louse up the living situation, so be prepared. Because you refer to her as "selfish," however, you may not wish to keep this arrangement going forever. Maybe stick a birthday candle into the fortune cookie.

--Prudie, reciprocally

Dear Prudence,

During college, my best friend was a fellow named Jay. We operated a small business together and continued daily contact for over 10 years. Things have gone smoothly for for Jay: He moved to Washington, D.C., and has worked as a high-ranking government official. Since his move, however, our friendship has hit some snags. (He hangs out with pompous members of the political establishment, has grown arrogant, and doesn't have time to return my calls.) Late last week I heard that Jay is getting married (to the youngest daughter of a political crony) and has failed to invite me.

Here's where I'm stuck. Even though my feelings are hurt, should I send Jay a polite note of congratulations? Shall I assume our friendship is over because he didn't invite me? I welcome your insightful advice.

--Joey

Dear Jo,

The fact that Jay didn't invite you, by itself, would not signal the friendship's end, but the too-busy-to-return-phone-calls does. You two have obviously grown apart. Time and Life (not the magazines) often cool formerly warm relationships. Prudie thinks it would be fine, as a tip of the hat to what used to be, to write him a congratulatory note, if that is your inclination. Don't do it, however, if its purpose would be 1) to get an invitation or 2) to give him the needle. Just by the by, it sounds as if you disapprove of this man's "pompous friends" and growing arrogance, so give the friendship a decent burial, emotionally, remember the good times, and move on.

--Prudie, realistically