Dear John: A Clean Break With a Messy Past
Wednesday, April 04, 2012
What’s your problem? Write to John at [email protected]
I’ve been dating a great guy for a few months now. I really, really like him. I’m a junior in college, and when I started school, I went a little wild. I was relieved and excited to be away from home, but also scared and emotionally a mess, which led to too much drinking, too many guys, too many mornings waking up not sure how I got where I was. It was not good. I’m in a much healthier place now. The thing is, like I said, I really like this new guy and one of the things I like about him is that he’s so normal and well adjusted. We go to a small school and every day I’m afraid he is going to hear something about my past exploits that will make him question whether he wants to be with me. I have even thought of taking control of the situation and telling him everything just so I can at least have control over how he hears it and pray that he’ll understand. I really want us to stay together. I’m just not sure which way that’s more likely to happen. So should I just get it all out there, or do I say nothing and hope for the best?
Your letter strongly conveys the sense that you feel you’re very lucky to have this guy. What’s missing is an equally strong impression that he’s lucky to have you.
So you coped with the stress of this new phase in your life by drinking too much, and you did what a lot of college students do when they drink too much. Is the relevant fact here that you did those things or that you managed to get it together and put all that behind you? I’d say the latter. I don’t think the real question is whether he should learn this stuff from some gossipy classmate or whether he should hear it from you. The real question is how you’ll present yourself should the knowledge come out: as someone desperately hoping he’ll deign to overlook your shortcomings to give you one more chance, or as a strong young woman who made some bad choices, saw them for what they were, and emerged from a difficult time wiser for it.
Stop apologizing for yourself. If he’s going to stand in judgment of everything you’ve done that’s made you who you are today, I don’t think it really matters whether he hears it from you or from someone else. And if he’s the great guy you think he is, his reaction will be the same either way: “Wow, you must have been going through a really hard time. Do you want to talk about it?”
When I was growing up, my father was a classic domestic tyrant control freak. He ruled our house with an iron fist, and everything – his self-serving decisions, his crackpot opinions, his financial irresponsibility – was not to be questioned, ever. I think he cared about us in his own way, but I don’t think he ever understood or got comfortable with the give-and-take of family life, and the only way he could be part of our family was to play the role of unchallenged, unquestioned, infallible leader. My mother, unfortunately, was the perfect wife for this kind of setup and my father’s direction freed her of the need to agonize over anything. She was happy to do as she was told. I know this is coming across a little more bitter than I mean it. I will be the first to say they did their best, but for me, family life was something I fled as soon as I could.
I’m in my late 30s now and my father died quite a while ago. I feel like I successfully left those days behind me, and the only time I have a problem with them is when I get together with my mother and siblings as I will soon do at Easter. (I live quite a distance from all of them now.) We will have dinner together, and invariably they will start to reminisce about what family life was like when we were kids, and I don’t even recognize the people they’re talking about. They have created this idealized childhood of warmth and laughter and they all seem to agree that’s how it was! When I challenge their collective and selective interpretation of events, they get quite hostile at this threat to the lovely past they’ve created in their minds, and things just degenerate from there. I don’t want to sever contact with them, but I don’t want this year to be like that, either. Should I just go along with their stories, even though that feels wrong? Is there a way to get them to see things more as they were so they can accept it? A flawed reality is preferable to a fantasy, right?
Good Memory, If Not Memories
Dear Good Memory,
Isn’t there a chance that they’re all thinking to themselves, “How can we get Suzie to see that things weren’t nearly as bad as she recalls?” Maybe your siblings aren’t kidding themselves. Maybe they’re not simply too mentally weak to face the truth of their childhoods. Maybe they genuinely remember those days differently. Whatever the explanation for your different points of view on an experience you all shared, I think you should stop trying to convince them they’re wrong. One of the most relationship-undermining tendencies people have is the need to convince others that we’re right and they’re wrong. I think it’s quite possible you’re all “right” as far as your own values are concerned. Of course you needn’t sit at the dinner table chuckling along at what a madcap fun-lover dear old Dad was, but you don’t have to confront everyone either. There’s a difference between saying, “Hmmm, my recollection is a bit different,” and, “Brenda, is that someone else’s childhood, or did you make it up, because it certainly wasn’t yours.” Accept that you have different takes, agree to disagree, and try to enjoy each other’s company. Perhaps you can spend one evening watching Rashomon together.
I have a friend who has an autistic son. She is very involved in the movement of people who believe there is a link between autism and vaccinations. I love her dearly – I’ve known her so long I can’t ever remember not knowing her – but I believe she has lost perspective in this. I think she’s too close to it and too personally affected by it to see clearly. I have never been really honest with her because I’ve wanted to be supportive, but I don’t think there’s any connection between vaccines and autism. I’ve done enough reading on the topic to believe the evidence refutes any such conclusion. Increasingly, I find my friend expects support from me that I just can’t in good conscience provide. For example, she recently accused me of “not caring” because I refused to share an article on Facebook that she asked all her friends to share. I DO care; I just thought the article was rubbish. I dread being asked to donate to a fundraiser I know is coming up. If it were harmless, I’d gladly write a check to make her happy, but I think spreading this misinformation is anything but harmless. I think it harms kids whose parents have second thoughts about having them vaccinated, and I think it wastes the resources and emotional energy of parents of autistic kids. John, I truly don’t want to lose my friend, hurt her feelings, or upset her in any way. How can I be supportive when I don’t agree at all with what she’s doing?
(Want To Stay) Her Friend
I think when the opportunity presents itself (like when she asks about the fundraiser), you should talk with your friend and tell her how you feel. Emphasize that you love her and her son and that you would happily help them in some other way, but you just don’t agree with her as far as vaccinations go. Don’t try to convince her she’s wrong (unless she unexpectedly seems willing to entertain the possibility); just let her know that you don’t believe there’s a link, so you can’t in good conscience be spreading what you consider harmful theories. How she reacts to this is out of your control. Your relationship may suffer, but that would be her choice, not yours. If the only way to satisfy her is to take her side in this debate, it seems inevitable that your relationship will suffer anyway.
John is a middle-aged family man from Providence, Rhode Island. If you learn from your mistakes, he’s brilliant. Write to him at [email protected]
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