Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, my tender darlings. I have spent the last week in a cave contemplating mystery and meaning ever since I read that maid of honor letter. Let’s try again today.
Q. Beat not broken: Many years ago I was married to an emotionally and physically abusive man. It was a dark time but we did produce a beautiful little girl together. I ended up finding the courage to leave him. He never harmed our daughter and due to state laws we still share custody of our daughter. I am always hyperaware of her interactions with her father, which for the moment are good.
How do I teach my daughter about violence in relationships without also talking about this history? I don’t want to damage her relationship with her dad, but it’s important to talk about. My family hates his guts and thinks I should start talking with her in age-appropriate ways (she’s 10). What are your thoughts?
A: I don’t have a great deal of specific ideas, and I welcome input from readers who have been in a similar situation. I think your watchword should be to proceed carefully. Check in with a therapist specializing in family therapy and recovering from physical abuse before initiating conversations, and make sure that your daughter is able to see a child therapist to help her process what she eventually learns about her father. Whatever your family wants you to do, if they’re motivated purely by animus toward your ex, then I think you should put their opinions to the side.
You’re her mother, and it sounds like you’ve balanced courage with empathy just beautifully so far, so check in with your own sense of judgment. What are your goals for your daughter? What do you want to make sure she understands, what do you want to facilitate for her? Making sure she knows what she needs to know (but not so many details that would make her feel overwhelmed, frightened, or out of control) should be your primary goal. Ask yourself what you would do if your daughter told you she didn’t want to see her father anymore, or if she asked him about what you’d told her, and how you’d want to want to handle those possibilities. It’s important for your daughter to know what physical and emotional abuse can look like, that no one deserves to be treated that way, and that she’s loved and safe. You can certainly start by talking about those general topics with her now, while waiting to share the specifics about why you had to leave her father until you feel like she’s ready to hear them.
Q. When to say something?: I recently took a trip with a group of friends. While I was there, my friend got worryingly drunk two nights in a row (couldn’t speak or walk, had to be led to bed). One of those nights she also confided in me about an eating disorder. Her husband was with us and witnessed all the worrying behavior but didn’t seem concerned.
I reached out after the trip to say that I was there for her and recommended she may want to look into counseling for the eating disorder. She totally shut me down and said she’s fine. Do I keep trying? I am very worried about her.
A: You can’t force her to have a conversation she’s not ready to have, but this is worrying enough to merit a follow-up. “I know you said you’re fine, but I also saw you get worryingly drunk and you tried to talk to me about having an eating disorder. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed or self-conscious, but I think you should talk to someone else about this, and I think you deserve to get help and to be well. I’m not going to force the issue, but if you ever want to talk about this confidentially, I’m always available.” If she brushes you off, that can’t be helped, but at the very least you’ll have let her know you’re ready whenever she is.
Q. Don’t want a ticket for the guilt trip: I’m having some difficulty with my mother. I’ve recently taken steps away from her and my father as my way of dealing with their drinking problems. I’ve made it clear that I am still willing to talk to them on the phone, have them come visit me (where I can control their access to alcohol in my home), go out for lunch, etc., but I’m not going to visit them where they might be drinking.
My mother has decided that this means I am punishing her and refusing to have a relationship with her. To complicate matters further, she feels that any steps toward a stronger relationship have to be made by me, with no effort on her part. I would have to call her, set lunch dates, visit, etc. She’s started in the last few months to try to guilt trip me into more of a relationship with her than I’ve told her I’m willing to have at this point in time.
I want to tell my mother that her attempts at emotionally manipulating me just make me want to pull even further away, but I know that wouldn’t be effective. Any advice?
A: Pull even further away from your mother and have less to do with her. Spend the time you’re not spending managing her emotions and reactions on seeing a therapist, attending a support group for the adult children of alcoholics, or going to Al-Anon meetings. You say that telling your mother her manipulations make you want to pull away further “wouldn’t be effective,” but there’s an implied end to that sentence—namely, it “wouldn’t be effective” in either getting her to agree with your point of view or getting her to change. That can’t, and shouldn’t be, your goal. It would be very effective if your goal were “to tell your mother what you are no longer willing to do for her,” and to decide to take a step back from your relationship. If she gets angry or tries to manipulate you further upon hearing this, that’s not a sign you’ve said something wrong—it’s a sign that you’re making the right decision.
Q. Wedding gift olive branch: I just learned that an old friend from high school and college got married this weekend, and I’d like to send a gift. The problem is she stopped talking to me after we graduated from college, even going so far as to unfriend me on Facebook.
We used to hang out fairly frequently, but I wasn’t very fond of her boyfriend—now husband—in college, and a mutual friend told her about some not-so-nice things I said about him. I’m not sure if that was the inciting incident that severed our friendship, but she did stop responding to me suddenly around that time. (The last I heard from her was a nice note to my husband and I about not being able to attend our wedding).
I feel awful that the things I said could have hurt her so much, but I am truly happy that she has married someone she really loves. Is it worth sending a gift to help communicate that I still care about her happiness, or could it be I’m sending a gift simply to make myself feel better?
A: The fact that you spoke critically about her then-boyfriend, now-husband is very clearly the inciting incident, given that your friend stopped talking to you immediately after finding out what you said. If what you want is to apologize and mend fences with your former friend (assuming you don’t think her husband is a danger to her or others), then you should reach out with an apology and make it clear that she’s under no obligation to respond to you if she’s not interested. But you two need to have a conversation if you’re ever going to reconnect, not Fiestaware.
Q. Re: Beat not broken: I’m a child psychologist. Talk to your daughter about how she deserves to be valued and treated with respect in a relationship. Ask her about people who make her feel good and why they make her feel that way, and incorporate her ideas into the multiple discussions you’ll have with her. Give her warning signals that a potential partner may not be good for her (controlling, treats her unkindly, doesn’t listen) and let her know that if anyone pushes or hits her, she should tell you as that is not a healthy relationship. Don’t sit her down for the conversation as much as have bits and pieces of the discussion when you’re driving in a car, watching TV, or if you can fit a point organically into another conversation. Comment on heathy and unhealthy relationships you see on TV and get her opinion so you can see where her head is at. Such conversations can also entail friendship respect as fifth and sixth grades are when most bullying occurs. Most of all, model healthy relationships for her. You don’t need to mention yourself or your history (thumbs up for realizing this).
A: These are such great, specific, concrete steps the letter-writer can take (and probably all parents). Thanks for this.
Q. Little red hen: I have a pretty stressful job and like to spend time gardening after work to decompress. After years of my partner offering to help out in the garden, and years of my partner not following through when I’ve needed help, I’ve decided to let parts of it go while focusing on growing a few things that I like. My partner says that it’s become an eyesore and I need to clean it up. They would also like me to grow things that they enjoy. The last time I did that, they bought from the store and let the food in the garden rot. (They said it was my fault for not harvesting it, even after I told them it was ready in the garden.)
Since my partner doesn’t help and only gives me grief, I believe I should be able to grow what I want in the garden. Am I being selfish?
A: Unless you’ve got Children of the Corn–style cornstalks blocking the sun, you have my blessing to no longer accept input from your nongardening partner about the state of your garden. If the overgrown sections of the garden are turning into an eyesore, consider adding a pruning day to your schedule in the near future, but you’re not a plant DJ—you don’t have to take requests.
Q. Re: Don’t want a ticket for the guilt trip: Please go to Al-Anon. This is a long-term problem that will escalate as the alcoholic in your life sees that she is losing her ability to control you. Al-Anon is not therapy, although that is useful too. It is a community of people who grew up in or are somehow involved with people with addiction. Setting boundaries is an important first step, but getting the ongoing support of a group of people who truly understand the issues of growing up with alcoholism is key to changing this relationship and holding your ground. At least it was for me. Al-Anon is free, supportive, and readily available in most places, or by phone meeting. It has become my family of choice when my family of origin was not an option.
A: That’s a great plug—it can only help for the letter-writer to meet other people in the exact same situation and draw succor from their experience, strength, and hope. If the letter writer would prefer a secular alternative, since there is a spiritual (although not strictly dogmatic) component to Al-Anon, they might also want to check out Harm Less or SMART Recovery’s Family and Friends program. If any other readers have experience with other secular/agnostic/atheist alternatives to Al-Anon, please let us know in the comments and I’ll boost those, too.
Q. Missing my friends: How can I repair long-term friendships after taking some time off? I live on the other side of the country from my core friend base and was not always front and center on a lot of things. I wasn’t avoiding them, just needed time to get settled in a new city and a new job. Now I feel like I’m not really a part of their world anymore.
Any suggestions on how to repair or rebuild these friendships? Trying to Skype or Gchat hasn’t always been fruitful.
A: Ask them! “I know I haven’t been very available for the last few months while I was adjusting to my new job, but I’ve missed you. Now that I’m more settled in, I’d love to catch up and hear more about what’s going on with you. When are you free?”