This special edition is part of our Guest Prudie series, where we ask smart, thoughtful people to step in as Prudie for the day and give you advice.
Today’s columnist is award-winning author Emi Nietfeld, whose memoir, Acceptance, was chosen as a best book of 2022 by NPR, Amazon, and more. A former Google engineer, Emi advocates for former foster youth and is a frequent writer for places like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Teen Vogue. Originally from Minnesota, she lives in New York City with her husband and stuffed animals.
We asked Nietfeld to weigh in on family jokes, a shocking pregnancy announcement, and listless fantasizing:
My daughter has spent most of her 20s trying to find her feet—between careers and relationships. My sons both knew what they wanted since they were little. Naturally, the family ribs each other so there was some light teasing about her excitement over her new job. She left early saying she was feeling bad. When I later called her, she blew up. She said she was tired of being the family joke and she would be taking a break from family functions for the near future for her own mental health. I told her to stop taking it so seriously and she had to come. Her grandmother isn’t in good health and she only had a few good years left. Did she really want to waste them? My daughter told me that the conversation was done and has since not taken any calls from family. When my husband and I drove down to see her in person, her roommate asked us to leave and was willing to call the cops if we refused. I have never been so insulted in my life. We are very concerned because this has come out of nowhere. What do we do?
You write that your daughter’s estrangement—which is what this is—“has come out of nowhere.” Your surprise surprised me! To me, the signs of escalating conflict were apparent. Typically, people estrange themselves as a last-ditch effort. Something in a relationship is causing serious distress, but previous attempts to communicate have failed. It’s the nuclear option. And it’s a way to protect yourself when the person you love can’t, or won’t, listen.
I am estranged from both of my parents. Four years ago, I took the plunge with my mom, after agonizing over the decision for years. See, I loved her. During my adolescence, my mom was the one person who believed in me. She is also a severe hoarder who had me medicated rather than deal with her own problems. In high school, I spent time in foster care and homeless, sleeping on friends’ sofas, in my car, and in a shelter because there was nowhere for me at home. When, at 17, I was set up by hostel employees and raped, my mom blamed me for accepting a single alcoholic drink, which may or may not have happened.
None of these circumstances caused our estrangement; I, more than anyone, wanted a joyous, healing reunion. Eventually, though, I had to step away because my mom was unable to take any responsibility for her role in what happened. For years, I lived with the crushing guilt of believing it was all my fault—from foster care to assault—because that’s what my mom told me. When I tried to bring it up, my mom doubled down. She didn’t react this way because she was a bad person or didn’t love me, but because she couldn’t understand how her actions were hurting me.
While those particulars are (hopefully!) very far from your reality, I also see some similarities. In your letter, I notice multiple occasions of your daughter expressing her unhappiness; in each case, you ignore it, minimize it, or tell her she’s overreacting. You express concern that your daughter has suddenly distanced herself, but you never convey fear about how you might have hurt her—or even acknowledge that your behavior contributed to her need for space.
It also seems like you think about this relationship through the lens of obligation. It sounds like you expect your daughter to put up with a lot—including being compared to her brothers and teased on sore subjects—without ever objecting or getting upset. Intentionally or not, you’ve made it hard to set boundaries, insisting that your daughter “had to come” to family functions, regardless of the reason why. When you showed up at her home, unannounced, uninvited, and unwelcome, you felt insulted, likely because you believe she owes you and your husband a face-to-face conversation, regardless of whether you’re listening to her. The truth is, your daughter is an adult. Healthy adult relationships, family or not, are based on mutual care and respect. It doesn’t sound like she’s getting that from you. It’s unclear that you even agree that’s important.
Frankly, I’m worried about your chances of reconciliation. This rift will not resolve itself. If you are serious about seeing your daughter again, you need to take action. This does not mean showing up at her house: She’s set clear limits, which you need to respect. Instead, I urge you and your husband to read The Rules of Estrangement by Joshua Coleman, a psychologist who specializes in helping parents heal ruptures. Seek out a therapist who specializes in estrangement and show them the letter you sent me. While there are support groups for parents in your shoes, they are often counterproductive and more focused on kvetching about spoiled spawn than about finding a solution. In the meantime, encourage her grandmother and siblings to reach out—not as your emissaries, but as relatives whose relationships with your daughter need not be tainted by your conflict. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will send a message that you care about your daughter and her best interests. Good luck!
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I’m 30 years old and have been married to my sweet, loving partner for seven years. We recently moved into our first house and have just remodeled the downstairs to our preferred style. We have little nieces and nephews on both sides whom we adore. Work’s work, but it pays the bills and then some, which I know is fortunate, especially in these precarious times. I’m also an active volunteer for a cause I really care about. So why am I always bored and wishing for something more? I thought this feeling would go away as I got older. Does everyone feel this way? Or is it just me who’s fantasizing about swimming with giant turtles in a clear, blue sea when, in actuality, I’m slacking off from my desk at work because there’s not much on my to-do list today? Crucially, Prudie, do you have any advice?
—Bored But Not Buried
Dear Bored But Not Buried,
I can totally relate to your dilemma. I spent my adolescence fighting to get hard-won stability. I fantasized that when I had my own apartment, a good job, and a life partner, I’d walk through each day satisfied and fulfilled, drunk on my good fortune. What a shock when I got to college at Harvard, met so many people who had those things, and then witnessed how empty and hollow their lives seemed! It was even worse when that perfect, shallow life was mine.
What you’re going through is completely normal. Honestly, I’m disturbed when people living in comfort do not feel existential malaise. I’m so happy you’re asking yourself—and Prudence!—these hard questions instead of tamping them down by buying a boat. I could tell you to change jobs. I could encourage you to get a dog, have kids, start rock climbing, or attend Burning Man. Any of these might do the trick. They might be what you want to do anyway! But as someone who grew up Evangelical Christian, I’ve never been able to shake the sense that there’s a lot more to life than happiness. Often, that comes in giving back. And it sounds like you have a tremendous capacity to give.
Maybe this does take the form of a career shift, but perhaps it’s simpler. Since you’re bored at the office, perhaps there’s something you do when you have capacity during the work day, like a pro-bono project or mentoring a young employee from a non-traditional background. Outside of work, can you get more deeply involved in the cause you care about? You note that times are precarious—can you support a local political candidate who’s fighting to restore a social safety net?
If you need a suggestion for a cause that’s near and dear to me, you could explore becoming a court-appointed special advocate or guardian ad litem for foster youth. When I was involved in the child welfare system as a teenager, I never had a guardian ad litem, but I did have a mentor who my social worker found for me. My mentor is how I imagine you: She drove a clean Hyundai, wore practical capri pants, and had a picture of sunflowers on her living room wall. From what I could tell, she hadn’t been through any special traumatic experience; that was totally fine with me. And she was stable—one of the only stable adults in my life. She didn’t do anything magical. She took me on walks, talked to me about college, and remembered my birthday. She couldn’t fix my family or save me in some dramatic Hallmark movie way, but in other real ways, she really did save me. Today, we get to gossip about Botox and the advantages of hardwood versus engineered flooring, which makes those earthly pleasures feel a little more meaningful.
Finally, I wonder if you can have a conversation with your spouse. How are they feeling? Maybe they’re completely content and might be willing to support your endeavors by, say, making dinner when you’re out there saving the world. Or maybe they’re feeling the same itch and finding something more is a project you can take on together.
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I met my best friend “Beth” 12 years ago during our freshman year of college—we spent our early-20s partying, drinking, traveling, and generally enjoying single life together. We talked a lot about maintaining that lifestyle forever. However, when I was 24 I started dating my husband and we got married when I was 27. I worried Beth would be upset when I got engaged, but she was thrilled. She and my husband get along really well, she was my maid of honor, and I was able to continue visiting her, traveling, and generally maintaining the friendship. During COVID, we FaceTimed and texted regularly. I figured this was a sign we could still be close friends even while going down different life paths.
However, over the last two years, my husband and I started seriously discussing children. We kept it close to our chests but started saving, taking parenting classes, reading books, etc. I’m now 15 weeks pregnant and I’m so, so excited! I’ve been planning this for years and now it’s finally happening. But when I told Beth, she was very upset. All of our other friends and family are really excited, but Beth just asked me if the pregnancy was planned in a flat tone and then said she had to hang up the phone when I said yes. That was three weeks ago and I haven’t heard from her since. Where do I go from here? I knew she might take it hard but I’m devastated to have that confirmed. I’d really hoped she’d be an aunt figure to my child. But now I’m reevaluating the friendship entirely.
—Should We Break Up?
Dear Should We Break Up,
Congratulations on your pregnancy! I’m so sorry that your dear friend reacted in this way to a decision you thought through so deeply. Because parenting is so personal, I can imagine the extra pain Beth’s response caused. And since the topic is so fraught, I also urge you to have a conversation with Beth before breaking off the friendship.
Your bond with Beth reminds me of one of my best friends, my boarding school roommate whom I’ll call “Jane.” We had extremely different backgrounds—I was there on scholarship; she came from comfort in Silicon Valley—but she was my confidant, my wing-woman, my sister. Yet, despite my love for Jane, sometimes her success made me deeply sad. I was jealous of the support she got from her family. She explored her interests while I slogged my way through training for a difficult, lucrative job. Later, the tables turned. When I got a boyfriend, Jane was jealous. When I got married, and she was single, it stung. There was nothing I could do to change Jane’s luck in love and little she could do, either. My attempts to “help” with advice deeply hurt her.
We all know that we are supposed to be happy for our friends when good things happen to them. Frankly, that’s just not realistic. Eventually, I realized that Jane and I could be friends forever if we weren’t friends all the time. There have been years Jane and I haven’t talked and other times when we’ve texted every day. As we get older, I hope that there will be many more of both of these seasons.
In your letter, it sounds like Beth is committed to the single lifestyle and implies that she doesn’t want the domestic bliss you’ve found. But immediately I wondered, what if she desperately wants kids? Maybe she’s thinking about an abortion she once had. Maybe she wishes she had a partner to pick her up from the doctor when she’s sick or give her health insurance or even just wished she had married privilege. Maybe she judges people who are parents and doesn’t understand why you’d ever do it; perhaps she simply feels left out that you were planning a pregnancy that she wasn’t privy to. I don’t know what’s going on for Beth. Maybe you don’t, fully, either. There are a lot of reasons why she’d respond in an insensitive way without ever intending to hurt you. But you won’t know unless you ask her.
If you can find it in you, I encourage you to ask Beth what’s going on. You do not have to play therapist. You can make it clear that you’re hurt but that you care enough to have the conversation. A text like this might suffice: “Hi Beth, I was very sad about the way you responded to my pregnancy. I love you and I really want you to be part of my life. What’s going on for you?” Maybe you can reconcile now, maybe not. Parenthood is a big change that many well-established friendships don’t survive. But life is also long. No matter how Beth responds, I think you’ll feel better having shared how you felt and left the door open to pick the friendship back up whenever it’s right.
I’m a woman in my late-20s, and I’ve been in only two serious relationships in my life. They tended toward “intense” and “rollercoaster edging on emotional abuse” and I vowed to do better. Now, I’ve been seeing someone for about a year and I’m concerned I don’t love him enough because I don’t feel constantly on the precipice of loss and unavailability. My current boyfriend is sweet, supportive, consistent, and an excellent communicator. He listens to my needs, and I feel like I understand his. Even when we disagree, we talk it out respectfully.
I’m happy when we’re together, I love the way his brilliant, kind brain works, and I’m proud of the life we’re building. But when he talks about marriage, I feel panicky and scared that something’s missing. I don’t get that relieved zing when I see his texts, and I’m even sometimes annoyed to hear from him (he wants a lot of communication, always). I try to imagine us breaking up and I feel deeply sad about missing him and not experiencing life together. On the other hand, I can’t tell if I love him enough because that obsessive intensity isn’t there for me. Did I see my tumultuous relationships and go too far in the other direction? How happy is stability supposed to feel? How do I know if it’s enough? I can’t imagine what “more” would feel like in a relationship without the low.
—Stepped Off the Rollercoaster
Dear Stepped Off,
First of all, kudos to you for recognizing that obsession is not the same as love. Especially for those of us who grew up in disorder and faced a lot of betrayal and loss, it can be easy to fall for manipulators who know how to pull our heartstrings and hard to value stable partners. That said, are you really into your boyfriend? It sounds like he’s a great guy and that you two have a healthy relationship. But do you like him, like him?
You write about trying to balance between tumult and predictability, but I’m wondering if that’s a false dichotomy here. Yes, it’s easy to feel passion in a stormy relationship. That push-pull generates anxiety that fuels obsession. The response is so predictable that there’s a billion-dollar industry teaching these mind-control techniques. Not only do those tricks feel like infatuation, they also cloud our judgment of whether we are truly compatible with someone. When you’re worried a guy will ghost you, you don’t have time to wonder if you’ll still want to bang when he’s saggy and covered in age spots.
This relationship seems much harder, because you see things clearly. And now you’re left with the hardest question of all: Is this good, kind dude the dude for me? A question, no doubt, made harder by your past.
I can relate to you: Before I met the man I married, I’d only been in one serious relationship. It was super toxic and vicissitude-filled. Like you, I promised to do things differently. Just six months after I broke up with my ex for good, I started bumping into a friend of a friend. He was a typical software engineer, an extremely nerdy cyclist with bangs in the middle of his forehead who only wore running shoes. The type of guy to turn down a booty call to do his laundry. It took me a minute to warm up to him but once I finally made my move, the chemistry was immediate.
In a way, I was obsessed with him. I was never on a precipice of loss, but I wanted to know all about him. We stayed up past our bedtimes. We skipped workouts. We made out so much that my chin developed a giant sore that oozed pus. He had a secure attachment style, never played any games, and was always clear that he liked me. And we still fell in love! So it is possible. Some people say no one is ever sure about marriage, but by the time we got engaged, I was sure.
Maybe this story resonates with you and makes you feel that you’ve discounted the good thing you’ve got going on. Or maybe my experience illuminates something that’s missing. I noticed in your letter that you never mentioned chemistry. Even in a stable relationship, that’s really important. Romantic spark is a chemical, hormonal phenomenon. Some pairings have it, others don’t. It’s true that nine years later, my husband and I do not stay up necking. That initial chemical rush has faded. (Thank god! I need nine hours of sleep to function.) But if things aren’t great in the beginning, how will they stand the test of time?
I hope you also give yourself permission to really explore what it is you want and if your reservations about marriage may be related to some fundamental incompatibility. Even something like not liking how much your boyfriend pings you might be a sign of mismatched communication styles. (My ex was a frequent, jealous texter; nothing makes me happier now than going out with friends and coming home to my boo whenever I want, no text updates needed.) A therapist who specializes in relationships might help you disentangle your feelings for this guy from your past; the wisdom of elders might be even better.
Also, Stepped Off, I just want to tell you that you have time. You might make a different choice if you were in your late-30s and seeking out a co-parent for biological kids. But you are still young and at the age where people often break up only to quickly settle down. If you end things with your boyfriend, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s married in a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re married in a year, despite your current reservations about marrying this guy. You’ve built a great foundation which shows you have the skills you need. If you do break things off, I’d also encourage you to see multiple people simultaneously before you commit—a now-rare phenomenon once knowing simply “dating”—so that you get a sense of who’s out there, who you want to be with, and who you fall for without the drama.
When Andrew Sean Greer Was Guest Prudie
My husband is very, very smart. He graduated from an Ivy League college, has published in academic journals in multiple fields, and achieved success in a competitive field while still in his 20s. That is all great, but what I like best about him is that he always wore his intelligence lightly. He prefers to ask questions than to expound, answers questions clearly and simply without being patronizing, and is always looking to find people smarter or more knowledgeable than him—he has no desire to be “the smartest guy in the room.” But that has changed in one specific context.