Is it okay not to date a guy because he’s a Trump supporter? By the way, this guy is wealthy and really good-looking, although I can’t say his looks really turn me on.
—Turned Off in Turnersville
It is okay not to date somebody for just about any reason. We therefore need not even consider your specific reason—although I will point out that, if this guy’s being a Trump supporter is a turnoff, many of his other beliefs and attitudes probably will be, too. So unless he has recently awoken from a long coma (ballpark: he came to last week after being insensate for 40 years or his whole life, whichever is longer) I would steer clear of him.
A night with good friends, or even with Ben and Jerry, is better than a date with someone who does not attract you and whose views you abhor. Besides, there are plenty of anti-Trump fish in the sea. More every day, one hopes.
La Wally’s Response:
Do not date him! Run!
My cousin Peter lives nearby. In fact, he and his parents each have apartments in the same condo—and my parents do, too. I tell you this because it is hard not to see and interact with him quite often, especially now that both our sets of parents are getting older and depend on us more for companionship, rides to the doctor, shopping help, and so on. Actually, I provide most of the help, but that is a small part of the story and something I can deal with.
What I am finding much harder to deal with is the way everybody bends over backwards to accommodate and cover for Peter. And make excuses for him all the time. And let him take advantage of them. And try to get me to buy into all this.
Peter has always been a selfish, moody, manipulative, and dishonest human being. When we were little—he is three years older—he used to bully me and torment me until I cried. Luckily we lived across town from each other then, but when we did get together he would get me to do his chores, or make me promise not to tell about all the bad things he did, like stealing from my mom’s purse, or letting the parakeet out, by threatening to expose me in some way, either by telling a secret he had somehow found out, or by outright lying. He was very good at making up believable lies. One time he crossed the train tracks and said that, if I either told on him or didn’t cross along with him, he would tell my mother that I’d bragged about being smarter than him—which is exactly the sort of behavior that would have made my mom too mad to ask for any verification—and, anyway, I was proud of my brains, and how could 11-year-old Peter have made something like that up?
As we all got older my parents started to see how difficult he was, and were sympathetic and supportive when he was obnoxious to me, or tried to weasel out of helping his own folks and make me take over. They also stopped letting him take advantage of them, which he had started to do—things like borrowing and dinging their car, or getting them to watch his horrid little dog, who tripped my Mom and sent her to the E.R.
But now he has been diagnosed with mental illness, and all of a sudden he and everybody else seem to think that having a couple DSM numbers assigned to him gives him an official license to be as obnoxious and selfish as he wants. He even brings the awful dog to family gatherings because he says she is now an emotional-support dog. My poor mom was afraid to get out of her chair during her own birthday party, and I am pretty sure she had an accident.
It seems that I am back to ferrying all four parents everywhere and also being asked to do little favors for Peter that I know he can do himself, like taking his cat to the vet or choosing and wrapping his family’s holiday gifts for him—for which I get reimbursed only partially, if at all, and after much nagging. And, of course, I now have to host holiday dinner for everybody in his family and mine, including a cadre from his father’s side, none of whom I had even met until they showed up this past Thanksgiving. The other day he asked my parents for their car again, and they gave in right away, even though Peter has a great job and plenty of money and could easily buy his own car, much less call the occasional Lyft. He seems to love to ask for favors like that in my presence. Sometimes I swear that he is taunting me.
What can I do? Does having a diagnosis of mental illness give people some sort of free pass?
—Bitter in Baltimore
Some people with debilitating mental health issues cannot be held accountable for their actions, and really do require assistance in almost every aspect of their lives. But your infuriating cousin does not seem to be one of them. Like other health problems, mental health problems fall along a continuum. You have not said what Peter’s diagnosis is, but from your description of his life pre-diagnosis, along with his currently holding down a “great” job, it sounds as if he functions fairly well despite his mental problems, and would probably continue do so even if he had to arrange and pay for his own Lyfts, vet visits, and holiday gifts, perhaps even host a family dinner now and then. If, as you and I both suspect, Peter is quite consciously using his diagnosis as a license to behave like a jerk, he should be held accountable for his jerkiness.
On the other hand, there may be times when whatever is ailing him does require some accommodation. But where do we draw the line, and why do we draw one at all? Your letter raises the broad philosophical question of free will and determinism: that is, are we all, both the “healthy” and the “mentally ill,” hard-wired to behave as we do? Or are the healthy among us free agents, while those labeled mentally ill are somehow less free and therefore less accountable? I tend to believe that we are all determined, by our brains and bodies and environment, to do what we do. But I also strongly believe that—except in cases of the gravest mental illness, where people experience an altered reality or have a severe, demonstrable lack of impulse control—the determinism-free will issue is not especially relevant as a practical matter. We have to function as nations, families, and social groups, and must therefore set up rules where actions have consequences and free will is presumed—although the presumption is pragmatic rather than factual, and rebuttable rather than absolute.
Let me dismount from my high metaphysical horse and put this another way: there are gradations of mental illness, and Peter’s illness does not seem to be so severe as to rebut the presumption that he should he held responsible for what he does. He may well need understanding and assistance sometimes, but, from what you write, he seems to be playing the diagnosis card way too often.
It is true that one benefit of Peter’s diagnosis is that, if accurate, it can help explain his conduct and give those around him new grounds for understanding and compassion. Peter’s diagnosis, especially if properly explained by a disinterested expert (not Peter, I am thinking), may help you to grasp his needs and motives, which may in turn lead you to make excuses or accommodations for him on certain occasions. But these should not rise to the level where they damage other people’s lives. As a psychologist I sometimes consult assured me, you and your family have the right and duty to take care of yourselves.
Peter has duties, too. His diagnosis should add to his self-understanding. And this understanding will create new responsibilities for Peter. He will need to help himself—by getting treatment, taking medication if warranted, and perhaps making changes to his environment and habits.
I hope that Peter is getting some therapy or counseling, and that whoever is providing it lets him know that that he cannot use his diagnosis as an excuse to manipulate those around him. I also suspect—bearing in mind that I do not know Peter’s diagnosis, and have no credentials to evaluate it in any case—that not making a habit of giving in to Peter may be part of what he needs. Learning to stop taking advantage of his elderly relatives and regularly imposing on his cousin may prove quite therapeutic for him. But even if it’s not, you need to protect your parents, and possibly his. Resist Peter when he goes too far. Run interference for the older generation and warn them if they will listen. Set firm limits. You need some time for yourself, and you need to improve the situation enough to keep your admitted bitterness in check. Even—perhaps especially—when it is justified, resentment corrodes the soul.
La Wally’s response:
No, he does not get a “free pass,” but maybe you should still adjust how you feel about the situation. Don’t worry so much about what he gets out of it—just take care of yourself and the old people.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.