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.
Q. Don’t Want to Hear About It Anymore: Is there ever a point at which you can tell a friend that you cannot bear to hear about their terrible relationship anymore? It sounds awful, but I don’t know if I can have another conversation with one of my oldest friends, “Kiera,” about her horrendous girlfriend, “Jess.” For context, Kiera and I are both queer women, and I’m one of the only close friends she has who is LGBT and who she feels able to talk to about particular homophobia and family issues. We’ve been there for each other through a lot and she was a bridesmaid at my wedding last year.
Jess was invited to the wedding and completely disgraced herself. She got blind drunk, hit on MY NEW WIFE, and made several loud nasty comments to Kiera about her weight in comparison to the other bridesmaids. They left early, and while it was mostly a wonderful day, Jess’s behavior soured my memories of it and I hated that it was all Kiera and I talked about for the next month—we had a small argument about why I did not want to be texting her about it from my honeymoon. This is just one incident, but believe me, Jess is reliably awful. She and Kiera have been dating for four years, although Jess broke up with her for a short period to sleep with one of Kiera’s other friends. I have made my views on Jess very clear to Kiera, stating that I think she deserves better, that Jess is not welcome at any more of my events after her actions at my wedding, and that I will be glad to help if Kiera ever needs to move out of their apartment. Kiera always apologizes for Jess’s bad behavior but goes on to defend her, citing Jess’s various issues (Her parents divorced! She hadn’t had enough sleep before the wedding! She might have had the flu! All reasons Kiera has given to justify her girlfriend).
Kiera wants to talk multiple times a week about how difficult things are with Jess, and I just can’t take it anymore. How many times am I supposed to say, “Mmm, that sounds really rough. Yeah, she shouldn’t treat you like that. That was a really unkind thing for her to say. I’m sorry that’s happening,” while NOTHING CHANGES? It angers and upsets me to hear about this awful woman, to the point that I’m liking Kiera less. At the same time, I do still want to be there for her if she ever gets out of this relationship. What should I do?
A: You know I’m always telling people to deal with the terrible partners of friends because people with terrible partners need good people in their lives—especially when their relationships end. But this is too much. You’ve done everything exactly right, and it’s enough.
“Kiera, this is hard for me to say because I want to be there for you—and I will always be there for you—but I need a break from hearing about your problems with Jess. It’s too upsetting and frustrating for me and it’s taking a toll on our relationship. I’ve told you before how sorry I am that you’re being treated this way and I still feel for you, but I don’t feel like anything I say is helpful at this point. Can we talk about something else?”
Q. Younger Daughter: I’m a late-in-life kid to my dad, with a half-sister “Meghan,” who is 13 years older than I am. Meghan has always been friendly but never close, and I get the impression that she’s jealous of my mom and me. She drops weird comments about my “perfect” childhood. She doesn’t spend holidays with our dad, and never does more than an occasional lunch and sends a card for milestones. I know it hurts him that she and her kids are very close with her in-laws.
Long before I was born, dad struggled with alcoholism, and ultimately triumphed over it. Although he’s been sober for decades, he’s now suffering from serious related health issues and my mom needs help with his care. She sat down with Meghan and me and asked us to help, especially for us to bring our families around to cheer him up.
Meghan reacted in the cruelest way I could imagine: She said she wasn’t going to bring her kids around and that she was “glad” that his “selfish choices are catching up to him” and that she hoped he “got what he deserved.” Then she walked out. My mom is heartbroken, and so is my dad. They asked me to reach out to Meghan, but I don’t think, given how jealous she is, that I’m the right person. How do I support my parents but still tell them no? They’re really suffering and it’s not fair but I don’t think she wants to hear from me.
A: This is extremely painful. And I’m sure it’s painful for Meghan too, in a different way. You and your mom, as the people who love your dad and feel loyalty to him, need to operate as if Meghan doesn’t exist. Because (again, likely for a pretty good reason, even if it’s one that’s hard to hear!) she doesn’t exist as a person who is interested in cheering your dad up. The reason not you shouldn’t reach out is not that she’s jealous of you, it’s that she simply doesn’t feel the connection to your dad that would inspire her to step up at this time. Say to your parents: “This is a tough time and I don’t want to spend any of it negotiating with Meghan. I also don’t think it will work, and any conversations will only be upsetting to all of us. I want to focus on how I can be here for the two of you. What can I do?”
Q. Bottled Water Battle: I think that drinking bottled water is wasteful. I live in a city with perfectly good tap water, so that’s what we use and drink in our house. My in-laws, on the other hand, only drink bottled water. They even use it for cooking and brushing their teeth. They used to live in a house with well water, and I guess they weren’t sure about its safety. They’ve since moved, but this habit moved with them. The problem is when they come to visit our house. I always cook with tap water and serve glasses of filtered tap water from the fridge, since that’s what we normally do. I guess they had never noticed before, over 10 years of visiting us, and they assumed we were using bottled water like they do in their house. But on their most recent visit, they noticed that I filled the water glasses for dinner using the filter on the fridge and they freaked out about it. They refused to drink it and my father-in-law went out and bought a case of bottled water. The thing is, I don’t want to go buy them bottled water before their next visit. I think it’s ridiculous! But this is clearly a big deal to them! Was it rude to serve them tap water in the past? It took them 10 years to notice, and it never occurred to me that it was an issue during that time. Is it rude to not buy them bottled water in the future?
Q. Raised by a Village Versus Raised By Wolves: My fiancé and I have very different relationships with our respective families. My parents supported me through college and two graduate degrees. I met my fiancé shortly after finishing school. He is only a few years older chronologically, but much further advanced in his life and career. He lost both his parents at a young age and was sent to boarding school. He graduated college young and started working immediately, and was pretty wealthy by his late-20s. He has almost no living family and almost no experience with “family obligations.” My parents and my extended family are very big on celebrating every milestone (every fifth anniversary, every cousin’s high school and college graduation), and they assume everyone will travel to attend these celebrations. Having been financially dependent on my parents, I was not really in a position to say no to these things, whether I was interested in going or not.
My fiancé is nonplussed at the idea of giving up a weekend of, say, skiing, to go to my cousin’s bar mitzvah. He will cheer me up if I tell him with a straight face that I actually want to go. But he refuses to attend if I am just going out of obligation. His view: “I don’t have family, which sucks, but a small consolation is that I don’t have annoying family obligations.” The problem is that for most of the events, it is only a lingering sense of obligation that sends me there. He has never pressured me not to go, but I think it is pretty clear he would rather spend the time with me, doing something we both enjoy. Do I need to learn to say no? Does he need to learn to say yes? Should I be going to these by myself?
A: You know how every once in a while people on Twitter fight about whether you should sleep with a top sheet? It’s actually not really a fight, it’s just a series of people on both sides being shocked by the revelation that others set up their beds differently, with everyone wondering out loud how the other side can possibly live that way (“that way” being without something washable separating them from the duvet or, alternately, “that way” being an annoying extra piece of fabric to get tangled in). I feel like the issue of how much time to spend with family is similar. There is no wrong way, there’s only what you were raised with, what feels like a fit with your life, and what makes you happy. But within the range of normal, what’s standard to one person could feel absolutely unworkable to someone else.
That said, I think you’re asking all the wrong questions. The things you need to be thinking about are not, “Do I need to learn to say no?”, “Does he need to learn to say yes?”, and “Should I be going to these by myself?” They are:
1) “Do I want to attend these events?” Really think about it! And consider that “want” can be informed by a sense of tradition or obligation. It doesn’t have to mean you find them thrilling. But seriously contemplate what a life that is meaningful and enjoyable to you would look like in terms of family birthday party attendance; and
2) “Is there a way in which the life I want is compatible with the life my fiancé wants?” That doesn’t mean you want to feel the same about the events. It’s a question about whether there is a world in which you can both be happy. Maybe that means the two of you attend the most important event each month or each quarter. Or maybe it means you go to everything and he comes along for half.
The important thing here is that the two of you can come to some kind of agreement about what you’ll do when married and that you’re both reasonably happy with it. If you’re not in premarital counseling, that would be a perfect place to start to talk through it. While you’re at it, decide if you’ll use a top sheet!
Q. Meaty Microaggression: Last week, a young woman I work with, Celeste, came into work after a menu tasting with her wedding caterer. Due to scheduling constraints with the vendor, she had to come directly from the tasting to her afternoon shift at work and brought several containers of leftovers that she left in the break room refrigerator with a note that staff was welcome to help ourselves to this food. She also labeled each container with the name of the dish (“herb roasted chicken,” “bacon wrapped scallops,” etc.).
While most of the staff were thrilled by her generosity and happily portioned out a small serving of these leftovers during that shift’s meal break, I couldn’t help but think of another co-worker, Mona, who is vegetarian for religious reasons (this is well known about her). She was unable to sample any of these entrees or appetizers because they almost all contained meat in some form, and when someone else asked about the contents of the mac and cheese bites for unrelated allergy reasons, Celeste was unsure if they contained bacon or other meat products. I felt terrible for Mona, who sat with everyone else and ate the meal she brought from home and was not able to partake in this makeshift picnic. No one else seemed to have noticed and if they did no one spoke up. I feel as though Celeste should have brought something for Mona so she was not visibly left out—surely the catering company makes salads! Or she could have stopped and picked up Mona’s go-to sandwich from a nearby deli. I feel that this othering of a vegetarian (and a religious minority) is unacceptable in the workplace and I need guidance on how to address Celeste’s faux pas with her. She and Mona are friendly so I don’t think she excluded her out of malice, but her shortsightedness has had me seething for several days.
A: Nope, nope nope. Thank you for your concern for Mona but Celeste did nothing wrong. Just think about it: On the morning of her menu tasting, all of your colleagues were at home, making a plan for what they’d eat that day. Perhaps they planned to pack leftovers. Maybe they thought they’d treat themself to lunch out or figured they’d snack on almonds at their desks. But the point is, no one, including Mona, had any reason to depend on Celeste for sustenance. I’m sure many colleagues passed on the food for various reasons of their own: Some people were on diets and couldn’t touch any of it. Some people didn’t like scallops. Some people, concerned about germs, had a problem with entrees that had already been picked at. All of that is OK because nobody was entitled to a bonus meal from a colleague! Now if we were talking about the work holiday party, that would be another story—I’d expect your employer to provide a vegetarian option. I love your concern for Mona and your desire to get justice for her, but you can stand down and stop seething. If, as a friend and colleague, you want her to have the experience of a free meal, go ahead and invite her out to lunch and pick up the tab.
Re: Q. Meaty Microaggression: There’s a lot of difference in effort between generously sharing leftovers from a catered tasting and bringing someone their go-to sandwich. If your co-worker was getting lunch for everyone on the team, they would need to consider Mona. But if they’re just bringing in leftovers to share with everyone I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them to bring a special dish for the one person who can’t partake.
As someone with my own dietary requirements (vegan w/ various allergies), I don’t anticipate that every food brought in to share will meet those requirements.
A: Exactly. And I’m sure Mona had absolutely no expectation that someone’s leftovers would meet her needs.
Re: Q. Bottled Water Battle: Bottled water is bad for kids because it doesn’t contain fluoride. It is bad for the environment (all those bottles). And it is bad for anyone who drinks it because it contains a lot of plastic particles and is not managed by the safety standards that tap water typically adheres to. IMHO it is ok to use it if you are on a job where water is not available, you are in a situation where you would otherwise get a soft drink from a machine, or you know that the tap water is unsafe. Your filtered fridge water is safer than bottled water (but you could be filtering out the fluoride which you should correct—ask your dentist). Prudie will tell you how to handle the in-laws, but don’t let them tell you that what you are doing is unsafe.
A: Correct, I’m no fluoride, plastic, or water-quality expert so I will stick to how to handle the in-laws. And again, they can have all the unsafe (?) bottled water they want, as long as they bring it.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: We’re going to wrap it up here. Have a great week!
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