Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.
My husband of five years (together for seven) has a family place in the country where we spend most weekends, and I often invite my friends and family. This has been a dream come true because I’ve finally been able to return to horseback riding, after taking lessons for several years as a kid but having to give it up for financial reasons. Along with a flock of chickens, a few peacocks, and a rescue pig, our farmlet is home to my two horses. “Selena,” my first horse, whom I’ve had for about siz years, is a 20-year-old, 15.3 hand Thoroughbred mare weighing just over 1,000 pounds. “Apollo,” my new horse, whom I’ve only had five months, is a 6-year-old, 17.2 hand warmblood gelding weighing about 1,400 pounds. Selena is quiet and gentle enough that I can lead her around with a complete beginner or let them ride her in the round pen with supervision. Apollo is a huge sweetheart but still somewhat green, energetic, a bit of a goofball, and needs at least an intermediate rider. I don’t let anyone on him but myself or my trainer—I can too easily see him sensing this person doesn’t know what they’re doing, tossing them playfully, but forcefully and from a great height, into the dirt, and bounding away, kicking his heels up and farting in glee.
So recently, my parents and sister visited us in the country, along with my sister’s new girlfriend “Faye,” whom I hadn’t met before. My sister only recently came out to our parents (I had known for much longer) and they’re a bit awkwardly overeager to demonstrate their liberal bona fides by embracing whoever she chooses to date.
Faye is a person of size. She wanted to ride a horse. She claimed to have quite a bit of riding experience, but admitted it was many years ago, and also probably (although she did not admit this) many pounds ago. She wouldn’t tell me her weight, but she was significantly bigger than a close friend of mine about her height who weighs around 300. I told her, and showed multiple citations online, that a horse can be injured by being forced to carry more than 20 percent of its own weight. For Selena this is about 200 pounds, which has not been an issue with anyone who’s been interested in riding her previously. So Faye asked if she could ride the big horse. I explained that, while Apollo is perfectly sweet and huggy on the ground, he is (A) not a beginner-safe horse like Selena, and (B) even if he was, his weight limit would still be about 280 pounds, which I couldn’t verify she met.
Faye got mad. My sister got mad. Our parents got mad. I got upset that I was being asked to put Selena—who, as the first horse I’ve ever owned or competed on, I have a strong bond with and a lifelong commitment to—at serious risk by plopping a third or more of her body weight on her elderly spine. My husband got mad that they were upsetting me, and invited them all to leave. They left. I haven’t spoken with any of them since. First of all, how could I have handled this better? Second of all, how can I make up and apologize for all the unpleasantness, while making it clear that I’m not apologizing for refusing to endanger and will never endanger my horses’ welfare?
— Weighing the Issue
This would have been the perfect occasion for a little white lie. “I’m sorry, both horses have been sick/are acting erratically/need rest and no one can ride them today” or “I’m not really comfortable supervising a ride right now” or “I’m extremely neurotic about legal liability and have been less comfortable letting people ride the horses lately—maybe we could all go for a walk instead” would have been great options.
You say you want to apologize for the unpleasantness but not for the source of the unpleasantness—your refusal to endanger your horse. That’s a tough balance to strike and definitely risks entering “I’m sorry if you were offended” territory. Maybe you could try something like, “I’m sorry that I didn’t manage expectations around riding the horses safely before the visit, and for getting wound up during our exchange. I was really excited to have Faye over and I hope we can all meet up again, put this behind us, and get to know each other better.”
I’m tired of my boyfriend’s ex-wife coming between us. She is the mother of his child, and he evades setting boundaries with her for the safety of his son. She is unstable, and oscillates between nostalgic reminiscing and flirty texts, to sending inappropriate and negative remarks about my relationship with him. They text every day because they have to coordinate their parenting schedules, but depending on what mood she is in they are either old chums or she is completely souring our night and manipulating him into ruining our plans. When I (childless and never married) bring up my concerns, he tells me it’s none of my business how and when he talks to her, and that he needs to appease her because it’s what’s best for his child. How do I ask him to set boundaries without blowing up our relationship, and how do I not let her get under my skin?
— Sloppy Seconds
Dear Sloppy Seconds,
My reaction reading the first four sentences of your letter was, “Okay, this isn’t great but it’s not the worst either. This guy is putting his child first and handling the situation as well as he can right now. It may be some time before he’s ready to draw some better boundaries, but they can talk about it, especially if the letter writer is willing to focus on her partner’s actions instead of the ex’s actions.”
My reaction after reading the fifth sentence (the one that contains “he tells me it’s none of my business”): Oh, this unfortunately isn’t going to work.
It would be tough—but doable—to encourage a well-intended boyfriend with a tough situation and a lot of baggage to set some boundaries. But that’s not what you’re dealing with here. You’re dealing with someone who dismisses your feelings. It would be really hard to turn him into someone who might want to compromise or even listen respectfully to you. “It’s none of your business” is just not something that a person who aspires to have a healthy relationship says—even if they think it! Can I share a suspicion? I think you may be focusing on your boyfriend’s ex-wife and her antics, blaming her for your relationship problems, because that feels more manageable than asking yourself whether he even has it in him to be as open, respectful, and caring as you would want a partner to be. Something tells me that if the mother of his child became 100 percent reasonable, you’d still be left with some major challenges.
Think about it.
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I got COVID at the very beginning of the pandemic and have been suffering from long-COVID ever since. My life has completely changed. I no longer have the energy for my previously very active life. It’s been really hard not being able to do much besides work. Through the process, I’ve made some local friends who have chronic illnesses as well. They’ve recommended so much to help me and now I have a limited social life, but I still can’t do any physical activities besides very easy yoga.
One thing they recommended was using a wheelchair or scooter when I have to go out and run errands. It doesn’t happen a lot, as I usually opt for grocery pickup, but sometimes that just doesn’t work. It should be noted that I can walk but it does exhaust me somewhat easily. I was in the store the other day when I came across someone who was also in a wheelchair. I heard them talking on the phone about a game of wheelchair basketball. I asked them about this and they gave me some information. When I got home, I started watching some videos. I asked my neighbor to use their basketball hoop. I absolutely love doing this! Furthermore, it’s one of the only physical things I can actually do that doesn’t seem to tire me out.
I would like to join a wheelchair basketball league, however, my friends said this would be inappropriate since I don’t have a physical disability and since I don’t absolutely need a wheelchair all the time. Even some of my chronic illness friends were concerned this might not be the space for me. I realize I could reach out to the league and they would maybe allow me to join, but I really don’t want to take away a spot on a team from someone who has so much more difficulty in life. What do you think?
— Basketball Blues
Dear Basketball Blues,
You might want to check out the blog post “I’m a Wheelchair User and I Can Walk,” where the author interviews several people in your situation and writes, “So many people think of wheelchair users and think of spinal cord injuries and being paralyzed, they think of something binary. You can either walk or you can’t walk. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.” “Why I Use a Wheelchair When I Can Walk” makes a similar point. Also read this Medium post by Nicola Sarsfield that explains, “There are many reasons why a person may be an ambulatory wheelchair user, or indeed use other devices designed to improve the freedoms and quality of life for people of all ages who have mobility issues. Wheelchairs and other aids are not exclusively for individuals who have paraplegia or absent limbs, they are also used by people with lower body injuries, unstable joints, chronic pain, debilitating fatigue, unsteady balance or postural orthostatic issues including frequent fainting (syncope).”
Hopefully this will confirm for you that there are many valid reasons to use a wheelchair, and that many wheelchair users don’t use them all the time. Also, you do have a physical disability. What else is a case of long-COVID that makes it difficult to walk while doing errands? I think you’d absolutely be a valid member of this basketball league and will feel comfortable joining if you slightly change your thinking about what it means to have a disability and who qualifies as a wheelchair-user. To put your mind at ease, ask the organizers. I strongly suspect they’d love to have you.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“I cannot imagine they were getting along fine, she did one thing, and suddenly he disowned her.”
Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
I haven’t spoken to my brother in seven years. His then-girlfriend cheated on him constantly, so when they got engaged, I was honest—I told him it was a mistake and that he needed to have some self-respect because no one deserved to be treated like his girlfriend treated him. So he cut me out of his life—wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t see me, wouldn’t even be at the same family event if I was there. He skipped our father’s funeral because I was there.
Recently, out of the blue, he called me several times and left messages about catching up. I called our mother and low and behold, his wife had left him for her rich boss and is pregnant with this guy’s baby. Mom says he wants to reconnect. I have no desire to. My mother is begging me to reconsider—for her sake at least. I told her I would be polite if my brother wanted to show up at family events while I was there, but that was it. She cried harder than when our father died. I feel awful, but my brother chose this route a long time ago. How do I get my mother to understand this? And what do I do if my brother wants to talk?
— Seven Years
Dear Seven Years,
Forget about getting your mother to understand. That’s not your job. She’s upset that her children don’t have a relationship and will need some time to accept that things are beyond repair, even now that your brother is divorced. That may take a while, or she might never get over it! Now let me be totally clear: You are completely justified in deciding never to forgive your brother. He cut you off for seven years., and he really took things to another level when he skipped your dad’s funeral. That’s a lot, and it makes me wonder whether there were existing challenges in your relationship when you confronted him about his engagement. I’m reading into your letter, but could there be some deeper pain or shared trauma behind what happened? It just seems to me that in a healthy sibling relationship, when one said “Your fiancé treats you so poorly! You deserve better!” the other would say “Listen, I love her and I don’t want to hear it.
You don’t get it. Are you still going to do a reading at the wedding or not?” and move on. With that in mind, I wonder if this could be an opportunity to talk about any long-standing issues that have existed between the two of you, and how you might make a fresh start? If you agree, and he wants to talk, talk about that. If not, just don’t answer. He did it to you for the better part of a decade—he’ll have to understand.
Give Prudie a Hand in “We’re Prudence”
Sometimes even Prudence needs a little help. This week’s tricky situation is below. Join the conversation about it on Twitter with Jenée @jdesmondharris, and then look back for the final answer here on Friday.
My wife is a sweet, happy extrovert who wears her heart on her sleeve and is wonderfully, warmly, and utterly exhaustingly empathetic. She gets goosebumps if I don’t dress warmly on a cold day, limps if I stub my toe, and feels everything. Me … not so much. She recently found out that a friend has stage-two cancer, and I am bracing myself for daily, agonizing updates, like the emotion fest when her brother was sick, or her friend broke a leg, or the neighbor’s cat died, etc. I don’t want to suggest that I don’t care, but I am not interested in maundering over problems I cannot solve and find the agonizing and emotional outbursts a little self-indulgent and very, very tiresome. I need a script for shutting down all feelings, or at least deflecting, diverting, or redirecting them.
— Overwhelmed by Empathy
My stepsister was horrid to me growing up. She would use homophobic slurs against me, get her friends to lie and say I was staring at them in the changing room, and basically made my teens a living hell. Even a decade later, I avoid being in the same room as her if I can. She recently came out as gay and everyone in our family, except me, threw her a ticker tape parade. She is so “brave” and everyone is so proud of her. It honestly makes me sick.
She recently reached out to me to “clear the air.” Basically a non-apology where she soft-pedaled all her previous actions as a teen and using the excuse she was just a “confused kid.” I haven’t responded. What is there to say? I don’t forgive you for being the biggest bullying bitch to me because you happen to like girls now? You gave me nightmares? I hated going to school with you so badly it made me physically ill? She didn’t even contact me privately but on my open social media where our entire family saw and have been making comments to me. How do I deal with this?
— Don’t Forgive or Forget
Dear Don’t Forgive,
While I feel for any closeted teen who copes with the fear they’re experiencing by using this kind of homophobic projection/deflection, the behavior is still incredibly harmful, as your story demonstrates. It sounds like your sister (as well as your larger family) does not understand how horrible this abuse was for you. So feel free to tell her: “I don’t forgive you for being the biggest bullying bitch to me because you happen to like girls now? You gave me nightmares? I hated going to school with you so badly it made me physically ill?” All that is a great start. In addition, you can mention that while many kids are “confused” about their identities, they don’t all lash out and mistreat others, especially in what sounds like a really intense, prolonged way. If there is something she could do (sincerely apologize? Somehow make amends? Show changed behavior?) that would change your mind, let her know. But you are under no obligation to “clear the air.” It’s great that your stepsister has made peace with her sexuality, but she still has to reckon with her actions—and if she’s truly a changed person, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.
I moved to a new city about nine months ago, and while I’ve started building a group of wonderful friends, at this point it primarily comprises roommates and co-workers because my demanding work schedule doesn’t allow time for much socializing. I will be turning 30 in a few weeks. I have never been incredibly invested in birthday parties, and generally hate being the center of attention, but it would feel a little sad to let this milestone pass without celebration. None of my friendships are at the point where they would organize something for my birthday, but I think many of them would be glad to help me celebrate. But planning my own birthday party seems gauche and a little desperate, since I am newly forming these friendships. What’s the etiquette here?