Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Smoking Fetish: Although I myself do not smoke, I have a real fetish for women who smoke. I try to always carry cigarettes with me, just in case someone (preferably an attractive female) is looking for one. Well, this plan worked; a single woman bummed a few cigarettes from me, and now something is developing (maybe just a friendship, but I’m hoping for more). When she realizes that I don’t smoke, however, she’ll wonder why I keep cigarettes. Would there be any good way to answer this question without scaring her off?
A: This is … oddly charming, in a weird way! It’s not a very wholesome habit, obviously, but you don’t need me to remind you that smoking isn’t healthy. It isn’t, at all! Better to quit. Everyone who’s still at it, please quit at once.
But in the meanwhile, it doesn’t sound as if you leap across the paths of good-looking women to stuff cigarettes in their mouths, which is all to the good. You simply lurk around bar entrances and roped-off smoking sections in the hopes that someone attractive will approach you. (What do you do while you’re waiting to be asked for a smoke? Do you pull a cigarette out and pantomime lighting it? Do you pretend to text someone? What are you going to do when everyone is vaping and analog cigarettes are obsolete?)
You have two options, as I see it, both with this particular woman and with other babely furnaces in the future. Well, three: You could quit handing out cigarettes to attractive women, which has to be at the very least expensive, to say nothing of the dangers of constant secondhand smoke. This is, I think, your best choice. But if you insist on doling out cigarettes to the women who catch your eye, we’re back to two choices. If she asks you about it (and she may not! perhaps she is very self-absorbed!), you can gently lie, and say that you keep an occasional pack on you to be social, or that you’ve just decided to quit. Call it an eccentric, oddly chivalric affectation. She might find that plausible. But she might not.
Or you can say that you find it’s a great way to meet the type of woman you’re interested in. (I’d save the word “fetish” for after you’ve established that she’s interested in dating you.) She might find that off-putting! But she might not.
Q. Wife on Tropical Holiday: “If the Opportunity Arises, Take It”: My wife and I have been married many, many years, with all the ups and downs that long-term married couples are familiar with. She will soon go to a sunny resort with her girlfriends and is looking forward to relaxing and having fun.
I would like to suggest to her that if the opportunity arises to have an erotic encounter she shouldn’t feel guilty. At the same time, I don’t want her to feel like I am pushing her away or that I expect reciprocation. We still have the hots for each other. Should I even raise the subject, and if so how do it tactfully and lovingly?
A: It’s fine to broach the possibility, but right before she leaves on vacation with a group of her friends probably isn’t the best time. “Have fun with the girls! I’d like to raise the subject of an open marriage, call me when you land!” You can bring it up with her, but “just before she boards a plane” is not a great time. If you want to talk about it, talk about it, don’t just tell her what you want without giving her the chance to consider or reject the idea.
It’s a bit disingenuous to phrase your interest in this as a generous offer—“I could take it or leave it, the idea of you sleeping with someone else, I just thought I’d let you know that it would be fine with me, in case you’ve secretly been cherishing the thought but felt guilty about it. Because I would hate for you to feel guilty for even a moment. Not that I’m interested in the idea. I am not. This is purely borne out of my deep consideration for your hypothetical feelings.” You have to acknowledge the fact that this interests you; you can’t try to mitigate a possible rejection by pretending you think this is what she wants, but has been feeling too ashamed to bring it up with you.
I’m sure you can find a way to bring this up lovingly, but I’m less sure about how to make it tactful. This is not a tactful subject! It’s a bold request, and one that she might very well reject. There are a few ways you can try to make sure you frame it as kindly as possible, although there’s no guarantee that she won’t say no. Make it clear that you’re happy with your sex life the way it is (it sounds like you are), and this is purely a sexual bonus round, rather than something you need in order to stay happily married but have been keeping from her for years. Tell her it interests you, but if it doesn’t interest her, you won’t push her on it. Then genuinely don’t push her on it if she says no.
If you bring it up, you run the risk of her being angry and hurt at the very idea. If you don’t bring it up, you run the risk of never finding out she’s into it, too. It’s up to you to figure out whether or not this is worth the risk. Either way, you’re lucky enough to have been married for a long time to someone you’re still in love with and attracted to. Congratulations!
Q. Ideals vs. Gut-Level Discomfort in a Monogam-ish Marriage: We’re a late-20s, super happily married couple, both bisexual to varying degrees, who keep things monogam-ish (we have threesomes with friends and acquaintances but we don’t keep partners on the side). We recently realized we’re both comfortable with the other having solo hookups on the side … but only if it’s same-gender. We’d both feel more threatened by an opposite-gender hookup than a same-gender one. We feel terrible about this because it’s so heteronormative (and clichéd as hell)! But a gut feeling is a gut feeling. Should we structure our “rules of engagement” around that admittedly dumb gut feeling, or try to bring ourselves to get out of a retrograde way of thinking?
A: I don’t know if it’s retrograde or not, but you certainly can’t guilt yourself into enjoying one another’s opposite-sex hookups. That spoils all of the fun of an open(ish) marriage. Can you imagine sending one another out unhappily into the night to find a partner of the opposite sex out of a grim, dutiful sense of gender equality? I assume you’re not saying you prefer same-gender hookups because they’re not “real” or don’t “count” (much as I assume you don’t leap out at same-sex couples and declare them imaginary), just that you would rather keep something exclusive between the two of you. Which is fine! You can feel guilty about not hooking up with an equal amount of men and women if you want, but it seems like a waste of your time. Keep whatever rules work for you, as long as they work for you.
Q. My Bridesmaid Broke My Cousin’s Heart During My Wedding Reception: I found out after my wedding that one of my bridesmaids, who has had a decadelong on-again-off-again relationship with my cousin, and who attended my wedding with said cousin, made out with my brother after the bachelorette party, then professed her love for him during the reception, which broke my cousin’s heart. My brother is not interested in her. She has not talked about any of this with me. My brother and my cousin have, so I have only their views of the weekend—confusion and pain, respectively. It’s in the past, and I still love her and value her as a friend, and while I’ve gotten over the urge to scream, “BACK OFF OF MY FAMILY,” I feel like we at least need to address this. She’s coming to visit soon for Thanksgiving, and I want to broach the subject when it’s just us. Is there a good way to do so? Or should I just continue to pretend like it never happened? My plan right now is to take the approach of, “I know what happened, and I get that you’re probably embarrassed, but you can’t pretend it never happened. We need to clear the air.” I’m a big believer that not talking about things just makes them worse.
A: I have never been to a single wedding that was even one-third as interesting as yours was. Maybe not even one-quarter as interesting. It does sound that for you things were less “interesting” and more “bewildering and painful,” and it also sounds that you’re determined to talk to your friend about it. If your brother isn’t interested in her and your cousin has accepted that things are probably off-again for the foreseeable future, there’s nothing you really have to do here. But it’s certainly fine to discuss with her, should you want to, if for no other reason than it’s probably very uncomfortable to pretend someone hasn’t kissed your brother when she most decidedly has.
She may or may not be embarrassed. She may not have the reaction you’re hoping for (I’m guessing a chastened apology is something in the neighborhood of what you’re expecting). You’re probably better off framing it as “My brother/cousin told me what happened at the reception, and it made me uncomfortable. Can we talk about this for a minute?” rather than “You have kissed my brother and betrayed your intermittent relationship with my cousin, and I expect your apology at dawn.” What’s done is done; she can’t un-dump your cousin or un-kiss your brother, but you might find yourself better able to continue your friendship after talking about it, rather than pretending it never happened.
I do think it might be wiser to talk to her before her visit, rather than putting it off until afterward, because the holidays are not a great time for successfully suppressing resentments. Better to have a talk on the phone, no matter how initially uncomfortable, then to find yourself suddenly snapping at her during Thanksgiving.
Q. Re: Vacation Fling: If my husband suggested I have a fling during a vacation with my friends, I would be devastated (and probably assume that’s what HE wants for himself). I don’t know if our 33-year marriage would survive.
A: Another risk worth considering before bringing it up. Hopefully he knows his wife well enough to have at least a vague sense of how hurt she could be by the question, and wouldn’t bring it up if he thought it would devastate her. But one doesn’t always know!
Q. Boyfriend Better When Depressed: I met my boyfriend a year ago. He seemed like a gentle, quiet man. His compassion, emotional openness, and empathy were what drew me to him. When we began to date, he admitted that he suffered from depression. I have suffered from depression in the past and the shared experience helped us grow closer. Slowly his mood began to improve—he lost weight, quit smoking, and became involved with the community. He has said many times this was due in large part to my support. But not all of the change is positive. He’s become loud, arrogant, and condescending: Because he’s accomplished so much, he looks down on anyone who has been unable to get out of a difficult situation—financially, romantically, psychologically. I’m torn. I feel terrible for liking him better when he was suffering depression, but at the same time, so much of what attracted me to him seems to have been a part of that. I don’t want to leave him—there are still many things about him that I love—but I don’t really like who he’s become. What should I do?
A: How difficult this is. It’s a shame to see someone go through a painful, challenging experience like long-term depression and become less empathetic to others as a result of it. Your boyfriend seems to have decided the lesson to be learned from his bout with depression is that other people’s suffering is the result of personal failure.
Luckily for you, compassion and emotional vulnerability aren’t functions of depression; they’re important characteristics in a decent human being. So you don’t have to frame this discussion entirely around his depression or suggest that he’s only likable when he’s in the depths of despair. But you do need to have a discussion, and ask if he’s realized how the way he treats people has changed during your relationship. It’s possible that he has been overcorrecting after months or years of emotional numbness without realizing it, and will pull back on the condescending bellowing once it’s been gently pointed out to him. It’s also possible that he loves his new, arrogant self, and plans on bellowing for the foreseeable future, in which case you may have to decide to pull up stakes.
Q. Re: Bridesmaid Broke Cousin’s Heart: The over-under for the flinging-mashed-potatoes-at-their-Thanksgiving comments is set at 42.
A: I can’t imagine trying to make it through an entire Thanksgiving dinner before talking to someone I was angry at for kissing my brother. Maybe she’s exceptionally good at wearing the mask?
Q. Poor Puppy: My husband and I recently purchased our first home. We love the neighborhood and location but have met only some of the neighbors. We do not know our next-door neighbors very well and they don’t seem interested in getting to know us at all. Not long ago, they brought home a young dog. He’s a sweet boy and sometimes runs over to say hi when we are out in the yard playing with our own pup. My concern is that this poor dog is constantly tethered (with no shelter) in their yard whether my neighbors are home or out for the day. It doesn’t matter if it is hot, cold, or raining outside. He cries incessantly and it’s heartbreaking to hear. Last night it was in the 30s and instead of bringing him inside to warm up, I heard the husband yelling at him to shut up. I don’t know what to do! Part of me wants to anonymously call some agency to come and pick up the dog, but I know that doing that could be detrimental to the dog. Another part of me, wants to go knock on their door and offer to have the dog over for a play date with my pup, or offer to take him on my daily walk, but I feel like that might be construed as an insult especially since we don’t know them. We certainly don’t want to start any kind of feud since we will be living here for at least another 10 years. I just can’t stand aside while this poor pup is neglected. Please help!
A: That is sad, and slightly tricky. If you knew them better, it might be better to talk to them first before calling an agency, as anonymous phone calls aren’t usually the best first choice. But in this case, if the dog is crying for most of the day (and night, it sounds like—is he ever allowed in the house?), and if your neighbor’s response when the dog is crying in near-freezing temperatures is to yell at him, a conversation might not be very productive. It’s only going to get colder out, as we’re barely halfway through November, and this dog doesn’t have any shelter or place to keep warm in the backyard. It’d be another thing if he was outside a lot of the time but seemed content and had a doghouse he could retreat to when he got cold, but this is pretty clearly distressing and painful for the dog.
If they seemed more clueless, you could go over and offer to spend some time with their dog, but it sounds like they’re actively neglectful and even cruel to him. I think making an anonymous call to your local animal rescue is the right thing to do here, preferably one that would find the dog a new home.
Q. Re: Boyfriend Better When Depressed: Consider too that he might not actually be better. These are pretty significant behavioral changes that might be signs of something else going on. The condescending arrogance strike me as possibly still symptoms of a mental issue.
A: That’s something to consider that I haven’t thought of—these changes in behavior may not necessarily be functions of increased mental health. You don’t have to diagnose him when you talk, but it’s helpful to remember that his newfound rudeness might be a different manifestation of his depression, not a sign that he’s doing better emotionally. At any rate, he has more options than “miserable but empathetic” or “cruel and happy.” Thanks for pointing that out.
Q. The Right Pronouns: I’m transitioning (female to male) and I don’t pass. Quite often people call me ma’am or her. While I’m getting better at dealing with friends, it is the casual conversations with strangers (customers at work, grocery store clerks, etc.) that really get me down and remind me that I don’t pass. Should I say “It’s sir, please” or do I just have live with it? I don’t want to be a jerk to strangers but it makes me so depressed.
A: “It’s sir, please” or “it’s mister, actually” or any variations on a similar theme are perfectly polite things to say! It’s no more jerk-ish to correct someone on your pronouns than it is to let them know how you pronounce your name. You will, I think, be able to judge best when it might be worth your while it to alert someone they’ve misidentified you. You’re not obligated to get into a long discussion about identity with strangers, but you’re also not bound by any imperative to answer to “ma’am” just because someone who doesn’t know you says it.
If I call someone by the wrong name, I’m not offended if they offer me a polite correction. It’s just a mistake. Your proposed correction is short, succinct, and entirely reasonable. There are a great many things we all have to live with, but I don’t think this is one of them.
Mallory Ortberg: We did it! Made it through the first live chat with life and limb intact. Thanks for your questions, and talk more soon.