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 email@example.com.)
Q. Christmas presents or Planned Parenthood?: My family and I don’t see eye to eye on most political topics. They are very religious and they have very strong negative opinions about homosexuality. I support marriage equality, have many gay friends, and am not religious. We often fight about religion and politics because I cannot understand how they can call themselves Christians and still condemn people for who they are and whom they love. I also am pro-choice and stand firmly with Planned Parenthood. I don’t know what my family’s stand on choice and PP is, but considering their other political views, I could imagine their being against Planned Parenthood. I have already donated money to PP and would like to donate even more. I also want to make clear to my family that I stand with my political views. Can I donate money to Planned Parenthood in the name of my family members instead of buying them presents? Or would that be a mean thing to do if this is a cause they would not support?
A: It would be rude! Give all the money you want to Planned Parenthood—it’s a wonderful organization that does great work—but do it under your own name. It sounds like you and your family members are already very clear on each other’s political views; making a donation to an organization they don’t support instead of buying them Christmas presents would be unnecessarily antagonistic.
Q. My parents “politely” open my mail for me: I go to college in another state, but I still live at home with my parents over breaks. Whenever I come home, there is a pile of opened mail on my desk waiting for me. I’ve asked my parents not to read my mail, but they say they are only opening it for me and leaving it there. I have my doubts about that. My mail tends to be innocuous (like bills from my university), but I’m worried someday something sensitive will come in the mail that I won’t want them to see. Am I wrong to distrust my parents? How should I approach this?
A: It’s not wrong to ask someone not to open your mail. It is, in fact, a federal offense to open mail that has not been addressed to you, even if you’re related to the person. Since you’ve already asked them to stop opening your letters and they’ve kept on doing it, I doubt they’ll respond well to “Technically, I could report you to the U.S. Postal Service.” Have your mail forwarded to your school address (you can also rent a P.O. box quite cheaply) through the USPS website. If they can’t be trusted to leave your mail alone, remove the temptation.
Q. Dating for two months, now I’m pregnant: I’ve been seeing my current boyfriend for a little over two months, and everything is going really well. However, I have been irregularly taking my birth control pills and had fully believed that I was unable to get pregnant (which I realize now was foolish). I’m about seven weeks pregnant. I intend to get an abortion. My concern is whether or not I need to tell him. I have more or less decided not to. I think it would upset him or make him worry about me. He doesn’t want kids (yet), so I’m sure this would be his choice as well. But this is my consequence to deal with entirely because I was irresponsible. And yet I don’t want to keep a secret from someone I could have a future with. I don’t think, given the circumstances, this is a big deal, but he might. My friends say, “Your body, your choice” and to keep it to myself. But everything I’ve ever read in this column makes me think honesty is the most important thing.
A: You may not need to tell him, but you may also decide that you want to tell him, which are two very different things. Part of the point of being in a relationship with someone is that you support one another emotionally. Inviting someone you’re seeing to worry with you is how you build intimacy. It sounds like you believe he would agree with your decision to get an abortion, so it’s not as if you’re trying to keep this from him for fear of how he might react; rather, you’ve decided to handle this alone because you want to punish yourself for not taking your birth control consistently.
Whether you decide to tell him you’re having an abortion or not, I think the two of you should have a serious conversation about contraception; you should introduce a second level of protection like condoms so that the burden of not getting pregnant doesn’t fall solely on you.
You can keep this to yourself. You do not have to keep this to yourself. I hope you can see that distinction and realize that while it’s important to take birth control regularly (it sounds like you’re planning on doing so in the future), you do not “deserve” a solitary, shameful, self-flagellating abortion experience as punishment.
Q. Free law: I am a lawyer at a practice dealing primarily with family law. I’m very close with my own family, which is huge, full of cousins, and especially full of ex-spouses. At almost every family event, I’m accosted by two or three relatives who want some free legal advice on how to deal with Ex-Wife No. 1, or how to write To-Be-Ex-Husband No. 2 out of the will, etc. I’m happy to talk to my relatives about their family situations, but dispensing free legal advice feels unethical and weird. How do I shut down these conversations without offending my family?
A: When will people learn not to ask for free legal and medical advice from friends and relatives? A smile and a “Sorry, I can’t give legal advice to anyone who’s not a client” should hopefully put them off. Any other lawyers out there want to share their strategies for kindly deflecting requests for free legal aid?
Q. Strange dating world: A friend and I are mutually interested in each other, but her girlfriend doesn’t want her to get involved with me. They’re in an open relationship, and the only reasoning she gave was that we were “close friends.” I don’t want to cause trouble for my friend and her girlfriend, but it seems like a weird double standard. I maybe am just confused by the whole poly queer dating scene altogether. Maybe I should just adopt more cats.
A: Being in an open relationship doesn’t necessarily mean either partner can date any person without checking in at any time. Some couples are comfortable with their partners dating someone they’re already friends with, some aren’t. Two people in an open relationship might have a lot of rules they’ve agreed upon about what they are and aren’t willing to do with other people. They might not seem fair or sensible to someone else, but these are the rules that work for them. If this woman’s girlfriend is uncomfortable at the prospect of you two dating because of your pre-existing friendship, then that’s a good enough reason not to do it.
All dating can be confusing! Throwing queer polyamory into the mix can be an added complication, certainly, and it may or may not be the scene for you. But just because things didn’t work out in this particular instance doesn’t mean you have to give up entirely; you have more options than just this one woman or a life of solitary cat-tending. There will be, I hope, many queer couples in your future just bursting at the seams to date and/or approve of you. Sail on in the direction of those gay open waters!
Q. Re: Parents opening mail: I think they are reading your mail. I would open my adult children’s mail if I’m paying for their schooling, have any sort of joint financial accounts (student checking, auto insurance), or still supporting them in general. Especially if they aren’t going to be around to open it themselves for several weeks. Maybe this is wrong? If it’s obviously some kind of personal card or letter, I would leave it for them.
A: One vote for “they’re definitely reading your mail.”
Q. Re: Free law: I’ve been in the same boat. You should look into whether your law firm’s policies permit you to dispense legal advice outside of firm business. (A number of firms/policies do not permit employees to do so due to malpractice concerns.) If the policy doesn’t permit it, it seems like an easy out: ”I wish I could give you more concrete advice, but I can’t because of my practice’s policies!”
A: I do love an easy out.
Q. Re: Free law: Shut down the conversation by saying that you aren’t permitted to provide legal advice to family members. Generally, providing legal advice to a relative—even if by marriage—is a violation of the Professional Responsibility Code in many jurisdictions. You’re right if you sense it to be unethical—it could subject you to sanctions if someone complained about your advice to the bar.
A: Even better!
Q. I’ve made a huge mistake: I foolishly moved across the country for a boy. I got a job in the city where he lived, which I hate, and moved in with him about 10 months ago. This was also in spite of my mother, who insisted I was making a mistake, and I’ve been desperate to prove her wrong. I’ve been in denial for a while, but I’m really struggling. I’m unsatisfied with my job, haven’t been able to create a support system here, and, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m deeply unhappy in my relationship. First, how do I swallow my pride and get out of this? Second, logistically speaking, how do I break a lease, and break it off with my boyfriend? He’s sweet and kind, and I don’t want to hurt him, but I’m ready to move on. Have I picked the worst time? Should I stick it out until my lease is up?
A: Logistics first: Most leases are for a year, so I’m guessing you have another two months to go before yours is up (this depends, I suppose, on whether your name is also on the lease agreement, or if it’s just his). Check with your local tenants’ union, as laws vary from state to state; you’ll also want to reread your lease agreement to see if it mentions an early termination fee. It may be cheaper to pay the last two months’ rent up front rather than try to get out of your lease early. You’re going to have to hurt your boyfriend, unfortunately; hurting him can’t be helped, but you can be as conscientious as possible in the moving-out process. Be kind, be honest, and give him as much advance notice as you can so he can arrange a new living situation.
As for pride-swallowing, isn’t it the absolute worst? Wouldn’t it be so much better to never be wrong? Isn’t the smugness of an “I told you so” almost impossible to bear? But it would be so much worse to stay in a relationship and a city where you’re clearly miserable because of the sunk-cost fallacy.
Q. Re: Dating for two months, now I’m pregnant: Prudie, you missed a great opportunity to spread the word on the value of LARCs (long-acting reversible contraception) in preventing pregnancy. Current versions of the IUDs are extremely safe, much more effective than the pill, and are even recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for precisely the reason the writer got pregnant. Once you have the device, there is no compliance issue. I have used an IUD for over 10 years and absolutely love it.
A: Oh, thank you for this (and shame on me for forgetting to recommend some additional forms of birth control)! Lots of people find taking a daily birth control pill difficult for a variety of reasons. An IUD may be a great alternative.
Q. Mother’s love: My fiancé (who is almost 30) still gives his mom a peck on the lips whenever they see each other. Normal?
A: My verdict: odd (I don’t kiss any of my family members on the lips and don’t know anyone else who does) but not a deal-breaker. A peck on the lips is a little strange, but it’s not as if this is a new habit; it’s just how they express affection in that family. Pay it no mind!
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for the help, everyone! At your next holiday party, I hope you can force politeness in conversation with friend’s girlfriends you hate, stop yourself from asking for free legal advice from near-strangers, and don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish unless you actually are.