Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Afternoon, everyone! Let’s dive right in.
Q. Copycat alert! Just imagine working in an office and having someone copying everything you wear. This person is my co-worker, who sits next to me. We are medical professionals and see the same patients. She comes from a rural area and wanted to fit in. That’s fine, but she has started to copy me. It’s not flattering, it’s plain irritating. She just goes and buys the same sweaters and shoes that I wear; she got the same haircut from my hairdresser too.
How do you deal with a colleague who imitates you to this extent? I’ve stopped sharing the details of my clothes, but she now knows where I shop and what I buy and already owns everything that I wear, so some days we are twinning. I have to work and deal with this person daily, and even though I’m trying to maintain a distance, it’s just making her more clingy. Now, she’s calling and texting me desperately, trying to keep a friendship. Would really like your expert thoughts on how to handle this.
A: I suppose my first question would be whether you used to consider her a friend before her imitation game really took off, or whether she’s always been working overtime to force a friendship when all you’ve ever wanted was to be collegial. You’d still be entitled to back off in either situation, but if it’s the latter, you don’t have to worry quite so much about being diplomatic. If she texts and calls you too often, tell her so straightforwardly—”You’ve been calling me a lot after office hours, and I need you to stop. It’s too much.” If that makes her “more clingy,” you can continue to be firm and unapologetic. “Too much” and “needs to stop” will be your watchwords, and you don’t have to go into more detail in justifying yourself.
As for the wardrobe factor, I’m afraid I just can’t think of a realistic, achievable way to get her to buy different shoes. You could, I suppose, switch hairdressers, but you may like yours and feel (rightly) that you shouldn’t have to change, and anyhow it wouldn’t do much to address the underlying issue. Focusing your energies on the things you can control, like how much time you spend talking to her outside of work or encouraging her belief that you two are actually good friends, will go a long way towards minimizing your frustrations and turning things like “same shoes” into petty annoyances, rather than the straw that’s about to break the camel’s back. You can’t (and shouldn’t try to) manage her internal experience, whether or how she feels about her rural background, what “fitting in” looks like for her, or how she feels about your wardrobe or appearance or anything else. But you can definitely let her know she’s calling you too often and that you don’t want to be best work buddies.
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Q. Vaccine timing: I’m a fat person in my 30s. I work from home and a retired family member has been podding with us to provide child care. My BMI is high enough that it puts me on the CDC’s list of pre-existing risks, and I could sign up to be vaccinated in my county. I am choosing to wait to sign up on the basis that I can work from home and afford things like grocery delivery (with large tips!). My spouse is struggling with this decision—they would like us all to be vaccinated as soon as possible and are worried that I’m putting myself at risk by waiting. I know that my waiting doesn’t magically get vaccines in the arms of every essential employee—but I’m doing the right thing … right?
A: I think if you are eligible for the vaccine, and there is an appointment slot available for you, that you should sign up. As you say yourself, no one else will benefit if you delay your own appointment—it’s not as if you can offer someone else your spot on a lifeboat as if you were on the Titanic—so I think this has more to do with a general sense of guilt and unease that the vaccine rollout has been at times slow, inefficient, has failed to prioritize the most vulnerable populations, and is generally imperfect. All of that’s true, but you can’t fix any of those problems by putting off your appointment. You can still work from home and tip generously after your jab. I think you should go for it, and hope you and your family are able to continue to stay safe and healthy.
Q. Betrayed by mother-in-law: Short rundown: My husband had a mistress for two years and he used his mom as a go-between for them for the majority of the affair (while it was still unknown to me). My mother-in-law developed a relationship with this woman and lied to me the whole time.
Now that my husband has ended the affair and is working on the issues that led him to such a terrible place, his mom wants to “reconcile” with me. I don’t want anything to do with her given the fact she was willing to participate in and form a relationship with my husband’s mistress. I had thought of her as my second mother until I found out what she had done. I am hoping to build a new marriage/relationship with my husband and for our children. My question is: Am I wrong to want to cut my mother-in-law out of my life? She has barely apologized to me, but my children love her very much as well and it is causing strain and sadness for them.
A: You’re not wrong for being hurt and angry, certainly not. And if your mother-in-law has “barely apologized” after a serious, ongoing betrayal like the one you describe, it stands to reason that you’d want to keep your own distance. You mention that this is causing “strain” for your children; I don’t know if that’s because they’ve maintained a relationship with her throughout and are sad the two of you aren’t on speaking terms, or because you haven’t allowed her to see or speak to them. If it’s the former, all you can do is try your best to work through your grief and anger towards your kids’ grandmother. You’re not single-handedly responsible for lifting the strain your kids may feel as a result of this multifaceted betrayal. It’s a very strained situation! If it’s the latter, I think you should reconsider letting them speak to her. You don’t have to be part of those visits or phone calls, and you don’t have to pretend everything’s OK between the two of you either—but theirs is a separate and independent relationship with their grandmother, and they ought to be allowed to see her. Let your husband coordinate those conversations, though, if parental coordination is necessary. That’s work he should be cheerfully doing on your behalf.
Speaking of work—you say your husband is presently “working on his issues.” I don’t know how much your children know about these issues, his mistress, or your decision to stay together (or how old your children are, which would necessarily inform just how much you two might choose to share with them, and under what circumstances). Certainly you don’t want to overwhelm the kids with details that could only hurt them, or displace any of your conflict onto them, but I hope you’re both planning to talk with them, if you haven’t already, and offer them some version of what’s going on in your marriage, what you’re doing to rebuild trust and safety, and provide them with a therapeutic outlet of their own. Kids are pretty perceptive about emotional dynamics, and I’d wager they’re already pretty tuned into the fact that things aren’t going very well between you and your husband these days. They don’t need details or names, of course, but they do need to know that they’re not just imagining things, and that their parents aren’t in denial.
I won’t tell you that you ought to forgive your mother-in-law, or that you ought to withhold forgiveness from your husband. I don’t know the circumstances under which he disclosed his affair to you or what kind of apology he’s offered, but regardless, you have every right to try to rebuild your marriage and to see if forgiveness is possible. But it can be easy, if you feel you must forgive your husband (because of the financial/social/emotional side effects of divorce, because this affair feels like a threat to your dignity, because you’re afraid of how separating might affect the kids, etc.), to displace some of the anger you feel towards him on a “safer” target. You say you “don’t want anything to do with her, given the fact she was willing to participate in and form a relationship with my husband’s mistress,” but by that same token, your husband was willing to enlist his mother in covering up his affair. It certainly makes a difference if he’s willing to apologize and she isn’t, but before you can contemplate forgiveness and reconciliation with a partner who has betrayed you, you must first take an honest, clear-eyed inventory of the depth and scale of that betrayal.
Q. Catfished by cousin’s boyfriend? I matched with “Mitch” on a dating app months ago, and we’ve been texting, FaceTiming, and occasionally sexting since. So I was shocked when my cousin posted a picture of her and Mitch kissing, calling him “Aaron” in the caption and saying she was excited to move in with him!
I don’t know what to think. I wasn’t catfished per se, as I’ve FaceTimed him, but I don’t know how to describe this any other way. It’s more likely that I was lied to than my cousin, but who do I confront first—her or Mitch/Aaron? And what should I say in either situation?
A: I’m pretty sure catfishing is inclusive of FaceTiming! Don’t let the fact that you video-chatted occasionally hold you back from clearly assessing Mitch/Aaron’s deception. Just tell the truth! You don’t have to have a particular script in mind, and you don’t have to apologize for having painful information to share with your cousin. He’s been dating you both and using fake names to do so; that’s the main headline and really all you need to focus on. (I’m sorry! That’s awful!)
Q. Should I take a DNA test? My mother had a long-term relationship with a close childhood “friend.” They both got married to other people but continued their affair for over a decade. My mother had three children—”a miracle” because her husband (my supposed dad) was apparently impotent.
My childhood was a nightmare, filled with sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and terror. I cut off contact with my dad when I was a teenager and my mother confessed that he was never my real father. Since then, I have wondered about my biological father, but also resented the fact that he has been able to secretly father three kids while still maintaining his perfect marriage. I am now 40 and am aware that people in his family have done a DNA test. (My mother still is friends with his family.) Should I do the DNA test and open Pandora’s box? Is this cruel? Or do I deserve to know my half-siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins?
A: Leaving aside the question of whether you “deserve” to know these people, the more important question is whether you want to, whether you feel prepared to establish contact with any of them, or what you might hope to gain from any possible interaction. You don’t have to achieve a perfect state of neutrality or resignation in order to decide you want to connect with your possible relatives—that’s not a reasonable expectation for anyone contemplating a decision like yours—but it will help to have a better sense of your hopes, your feelings, and your goals before moving ahead. If you feel a great deal of resentment and anger toward them—have you expressed that resentment to anyone else before, or would this be the first time you gave free rein to those feelings? If it would be the first time, I’d recommend some therapy first, or some journaling, or speaking candidly to friends whose judgment you trust, so that your long-lost aunts don’t get the first wave of years of pent-up anger. You should also prepare yourself to learn things that may contradict some of your assumptions, like how “perfect” your biological father’s marriage has been—it may turn out that it hasn’t been perfect at all.
The gist, I think, is that you’re certainly entitled to do such testing if you’re interested in learning more, and to reach out to your other relatives if you’re curious about them, but that if what you’re really interested in is processing some more of your feelings about your abusive childhood, the man you grew up believing to be your father, and your own mother’s relationship to your abuser, that you have a number of additional outlets for doing so that are equally worth pursuing. Meeting your half-siblings will only be part of a lifelong process of addressing and trying to heal from your painful childhood, not the end-all and be-all. Good luck.
Q. Life must go on: My husband died when our three children were young. I struggled, but was able to go back to school and give my children a stable life. It was lonely. I tried to date a few times, but my children, particularly my daughter “Lola,” reacted badly. She would throw tantrums, run away, and act out. Nothing I seemed to say or do would reassure her, and most of my romances fizzled out before they barely got to begin. Therapy was too expensive; I was raising three children by myself. I always hoped things would get better as my children grew up.
Lola is now nearly 20. She has been living with her boyfriend and several friends since she graduated. She works but doesn’t want to continue her education (it has been a bone of contention between us). I have been seeing a widower for several months, and while we aren’t planning any big changes, we are serious about each other. I have met his children on a video chat; he hasn’t yet met mine. I finally worked up the courage to tell my children about the relationship. My other two children were extremely happy for me, even excited. Lola reacted badly. She told me I couldn’t do this, I was “awful,” and my boyfriend (whom she hasn’t met) could never measure up to her father. I told Lola that her father was dead and had been for over a decade, that I loved him but I deserve love in my life, and I deserve to be happy. Lola screamed at me—it was either him or her. I told Lola I would never stop loving her, but she doesn’t get to dictate my romantic life, any more than I get to do hers. I would not be breaking up because my adult daughter demanded it. Lola hung up. She has blocked my number and social media. I have sent her a letter and according to her roommate (whose mother is my friend), Lola ripped it up.
I am still paying for Lola’s car and phone. I have no plans to stop, but the future looks so dark to me now. Lola was her father’s darling, and she took his death hard, but she is acting now like she did as a teen when I tried to date. I am terrified of losing my daughter but I am barely in my 40s—I am tired of going to sleep in a cold bed and waking up to an empty house. Will it get any better? Is it wrong for me to want more than the role of mom?
A: I don’t know if things will ever get better between you and Lola, and I won’t pretend to know whether the pain of estrangement will hurt less years from now, if this estrangement proves permanent. I certainly hope she will eventually realize how much pain she’s caused you and offer you a meaningful apology. But what you want—to date someone you care about more than a decade after the loss of your husband, when all of your children are grown and out of the house—is so far from “wrong” I can’t even imagine applying a rubric of right vs. wrong here. It’s sane, healthy, appropriate, and human. (There’s an old Douglas Sirk movie called All That Heaven Allows you might enjoy, where Jane Wyman plays a widow who falls in love with Rock Hudson in front of a series of improbably Technicolor sunsets as her children disapprove. It’s over-the-top, lovely, and poignant.)
You treated Lola with great care and respect, even as she lashed out and treated you horribly— I’m impressed by the restraint and compassion you displayed towards her, and hope you can give yourself credit for both. It’s kind and generous to continue making Lola’s car and phone payments; I have no advice for you on that front, except to say that if that ever changes, for whatever reason, you should give her advance notice in writing so she can make alternate arrangements. Lola’s quite young, so I think you should be patient and play the long game. I understand your terror at the prospect of losing your relationship altogether, but you can’t control that. Given that she was only willing to continue your relationship if you promised never to date again, I think the kind of relationship you had was not a sustainable one to begin with. I hope at some point in the future, a new kind of relationship is possible between the two of you. The best you can do in the meantime is look after your own happiness, keep your heart open, and hope that someday Lola realizes you’re not the architect of her pain in the way she seems to imagine now.
Q. Re: Copycat alert! There is the possibility for some petty fun to be had with this situation. Maybe consider dressing in ways that are slightly ridiculous (but would otherwise not jeopardize your standing at your job or run afoul of dress codes) just to see if your imitator follows suit. Then up the ante if they do. On the one hand, if they match you outfit for ridiculous outfit, you could just have fun being the puppetmaster. On the other, they may catch wise to what you’re doing and knock it off entirely.
A: I can’t sign off on this strategy, I’m afraid—at least not when both parties are colleagues who work in the same part of the office. Pettiness is only going to backfire and make work more difficult, rather than less.
Q. Re: Copycat alert! Ugh, the creepiness factor in all of this; I’m having bad flashbacks to Single White Female as I write this. It is incredibly frustrating to be in this situation, but one way to diminish the amount of twinning would be to keep another shirt or sweater in a locked drawer in your desk in order so you can quickly and unobtrusively change your clothes. You might also consider buying or wearing somewhat different clothing for a while in order to throw her off. In general, people who know you and observe your interactions with her will see what is going on and understand that this is not a situation of your making.
A: An occasional emergency sweater, on the other hand, I can definitely sign off on. Hopefully this colleague backs off once the letter writer is clear that she doesn’t actually want to be best friends; while it’s possible she’ll still try to keep forcing a bond where none exists, I think it’s likelier that she’ll drop some of this afterwards. But if the letter writer just wants to throw something on over her outfit for days of accidental twinning, having a few things in reserve sounds fine.
Q. Re: Vaccine timing: The purpose of the vaccine queues and priorities is to minimize the chances of large numbers of people coming down with serious cases of COVID that put strains on existing hospital and medical resources. If you are at greater risk of having a serious case or needing medical or hospital resources for any length of time, it is not selfish of you to get vaccinated early. Figuring this out may result in some people getting vaccinated sooner than they “should,” but the point is to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible to take the pressure off the system and let us all return to some kind of normalcy as soon as possible. If you meet the criteria and are being offered the chance to get vaccinated, take it. COVID is serious, deadly and has long-lasting, detrimental health effects.
A: Thank you so much for this reminder; there are a lot of similar responses coming in, and I think you’ve summed up the consensus quite well. Get the shot if you can get it!
Q. Re: Catfished by cousin’s boyfriend? Who knows? Maybe Mitch is Aaron’s twin brother.
A: I can’t believe I forgot about twins! It’s a slim possibility—very slim—but worth asking about first before going in with “I’ve been catfished.”
Q. Update: Vaccine timing: Letter writer here—OK, I’m convinced and will sign up! I’ve also talked to other trusted family members and friends about this decision, and have been roundly told to get the vaccine. It really helps to hear the same advice from people who do not know/love me though. Thanks!
A: Glad to hear it!
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Q. Awkward: My future in-laws stayed with us for several days a few weeks ago. They live on the other side of the country, so I have actually only met them once (though my fiancé generally only has good things to say about his parents). Well, one morning when they were here, my fiancé was showering and I was making everyone breakfast. I stepped in our bedroom for a moment to get something and found my fiancé’s dad sniffing a pair of my panties from the laundry basket. Dirty underwear. Eek!! I acted casual about it like I hadn’t noticed and he said he was looking for a sweater that my fiancé had offered to let him wear. This kind of creeps me out though. I haven’t told my fiancé and I’m not sure if I should because I know he gets along so well with his mom and dad. Any thoughts?
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