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Should I Intervene? — With Meghan Daum

When we decide to meddle, it can often backfire. The Sugars, along with the writer Meghan Daum, answer letters from people who see loved ones heading down the wrong path, but worry intervention might be the wrong move.


Dear Sugars,

Last night at an annual work party I was repeatedly groped by a co-worker's boyfriend. I didn't realize that it was happening until he was full-on squeezing my ass during a conversation that the groper, his girlfriend, and I were having. I was absolutely stunned. After the conversation was finished he whispered, "Sorry I was inappropriate with you. We've all been drinking." It was only then that it hit me that his touching was intentional and not in my head. I'd been making excuses for him all night long, thinking he was accidentally brushing up against me over and over again. I was irate but couldn't find any words in the moment. Sugars, I feel a responsibility to tell his girlfriend that he touched me inappropriately. If my partner were groping women without their consent I'd want to know. I'm scared that this occurrence was not unusual for him, especially given how casual his apology was. My fear is that he thinks it's OK to do things like this and he'll continue to do them. I don't want his girlfriend to get hurt. I also want to tell the groper how angry I am and how offensive his actions were. I was sexually assaulted recently and I'm still recovering. I already feel small and him touching me in this way made me feel so powerless and stupid. I have notes drafted to both of them but when I actually think about sending them I get nauseous. Groper and his girlfriend have moved in together and are most likely getting engaged soon. They're moving across the country together in a few months. She seems so happy and I was excited for the two of them until last night. Do I hope this was a one-time, bizarre occurrence and let it slide? I'm scared to stir things up even though I know what groper did was wrong. I would love to know what you two think is the right thing to do. I'm pretty sure the right thing to do is to tell the gropers girlfriend about the incident but I'm scared that I'm blowing things out of proportion and that I'm going to ultimately bring more harm than good to all three of us. Thank you for any light you can shed on the matter.

Signed,
Groped

Steve Almond: Groped, my advice is to tell the girlfriend exactly what happened. The reason I think you know somewhere inside of yourself that you have to do that is it's not just that the girlfriend could get hurt, it's that you were hurt and that other women could get hurt. What I think you need to be very clear about--and I think you should meet in person, not in a note, not on the phone. You need to be very clear about exactly what you can remember: everybody was drinking, it was a party, all you owe her is the truth. Be as clear in your own mind about what happened to the extent you can recall and why you reacted to it in the way that you did. She just needs to know this guy was touching you in a way that was not OK, repeatedly.

Cheryl Strayed: Groped, I think you should tell them both, in whatever way feels comfortable to you, whether that be an e-mail, a letter, together, separately. And I don't think it's really about intervening in their relationship. I think it's about your right to speak your truth, to say you touched me inappropriately, you grabbed my ass. It's not OK. And I think that that's a very clear thing. And you should really stop feeling kind of weird about not saying something in the moment. We see this over and over and over again. It's come to the point where the question shouldn't be "well why didn't you say anything" but rather "of course you didn't say anything" because most of the time when we're in situations like this we don't say anything. We're stunned. We're uncomfortable. If you're female you have years and years of social conditioning that tell you to be polite, to be nice, to not disturb the peace. And also people won't believe you. People won't believe you if you say "that guy just grabbed my ass" because all that guy has to say is "I didn't grab her ass. She's just crazy." Historically, we have believed men in that situation instead of women. You don't need to be like "I need to rescue this woman from her relationship with the terrible groper guy." I think that she gets to do with that information whatever she wants to do. To set this experience right in your life and in your mind you need to speak the truth about it. That's why you wrote to us. So write to them. I don't think you have to sit down with them. If that makes you feel uncomfortable then just send an e-mail.

Almond: Groped, what I think is important is you know, because of your experience having been assaulted, that the culture of consent is one of silence, of not saying things. If this guy would do this in front of his girlfriend, in a public setting, what happens if he's drunk and worked up and he's with another woman in private? The only way that it's eliminated is if you are able to say this happened. You can do with it what you want, girlfriend. Boyfriend, you can make whatever excuses you want, but you're going to have to hear how it made me feel. You're not going to be able to wiggle away. I agree that maybe it's less about intervention and more about about saying what happened.

Meghan Daum: I had a lot of questions. One of them was whether or not she had talked to other coworkers for instance? Because that's the kind of situation where I would be curious if other people had experiences and that would be one way to put some of this in perspective.


Dear Sugars,

I'm a 55 year old mother of two adult children, a son and a daughter. My daughter is 30 and has been in a serious relationship for six years. She's been living with her boyfriend for five years. She's a nurse practitioner with a great job. Her boyfriend is a landscape architect who works full-time and has great benefits. More than three years ago my daughter told me how much she wanted to get married and have a child before she turned 30. I encouraged her to discuss this with her boyfriend, honestly. She did and said he talks about getting married all the time but no plans are in place. When she talks with him about having children he has some existential crisis about "bringing children into a broken world" but she says he's coming around to the idea and would like a child "in a few years." While he's a seemingly sweet, good guy, he seems hyper-focused on his needs and wants. He's an only child from a very wealthy family and has lived on easy street. He spends a lot of money on himself and his hobbies. He buys her gifts, but very often they're expensive things that will augment his interests like camping gear, new skis, etc. My husband thinks he's selfish and immature so I'm not alone in my ambivalence about him. They're looking to buy a house in L.A. and he's insistent on living in the very desirable and hip sections of town even though they're priced out of the market. His mother will lend him the down payment. She's told me that some of the fixer uppers that they can afford are literally uninhabitable. My fear is they will buy themselves a project and my daughter's needs and wishes will once again be ignored. Bottom line, my perception is that he's calling all the shots in the relationship and she appears to be going along and giving into his plans and timetable for all these major life events. Her desires to move things along with marriage or children or where to live don't appear to be taken to heart. I feel like he's used to getting his way and while he's not abusive, he's manipulative and controlling, but in a hipster, nice-guy kind of way. We live on the east coast so we are not privy to their daily lives. When we're all together, he's funny and personable and treats her well, so we can only know what she chooses to share. This makes me believe things aren't necessarily what they seem. Sugars, here's the big question: Do I say something or stay out of it? Do I risk becoming the enemy? I fear that no matter how gently I communicate my feelings based on what she tells me I'll be stirring the pot and that never, ever ends well. How much can or should one say to his or her independent adult children about their relationships when one sees potential landmines? So many of my friends wrestle with how forthright to be with their adult children, especially when it comes to potentially damaging relationships. I would be interested in hearing what adult children have to say: do you want mom and dad to stay out of their personal lives and relationships? What are the boundaries here?

Signed,
Damned Either Way

Daum: I think there's a lot of room between saying nothing and just unleashing an unrestrained opinion that feels like a judgment. So yes, she's damned either way, but she's not damned in the middle there. I sometimes think that when we're concerned about somebody's choices the thing to do is ask them questions. Think in terms of asking them questions, rather than telling them things. Maybe the mother should say, "how do you feel about the way things are moving? What do you want your life to look like in five years, in 10 years, and 20 years?" And that opens up a conversation rather than a lecture. 

Almond: One of the great parenting books is this book called "How To Talk To Kids So They'll Listen And How To Listen To Kids So They'll Talk." And it's fascinating and this is exactly what you're saying, Megan. What really gets people to talk about their lives, whether they're 3 or 33, is asking them questions and then shutting your yap and listening to what they have to say. Because as we all know, you know when you're getting worked, you know when somebody is leaning on you. But in fact one way of looking at this, Damned Either Way, is you don't really know the deal. And you don't know how much these decisions are being made mutually and how much they're passive-aggressively enforced by this nice, manipulative hipster guy that your daughter has been in a long relationship with and is going to move in to a house with. You need more information. And it's not even that you need it, you would like it because you want her to end up with things she wants.

Stayed: The reason I said that I'd love this letter is basically, Damned, your daughter's boyfriend is awesome. OK? He's like, a great guy. He has a full-time job! He has great benefits! He seems to love your daughter! They want to buy a house! He's rich! He's everything. I want him to marry my daughter! I know, Megan, you share my fondness for real estate, he can also renovate the damn house! He can do things, he can work with his hands! And yet I completely understand this because I'm just thinking about any number of my dear girlfriends who will go for a walk or go have a drink and then they start telling me about their relationships or their marriages. And they'll say, "he said that." And I'll say, "That's not ok why would you think that's ok?" You can kind of gently critique the partner of your friend or daughter without casting judgment across the whole thing. There are gentle ways that you can support your daughter, Damned, to maybe assert herself a little more in this relationship. As Megan said, ask her questions, give her a little feedback.  You can give kind of gentle advice that isn't telling people how to live their lives or what to do in their relationships. There's something in the middle.


New episodes of Dear Sugars are released weekly. Do you have a question for the Sugars? Email dearsugars@nytimes.com

 

Katherine Brewer Twitter Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Katherine Brewer is a producer of podcasts and new programs at WBUR.

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