Daniel 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.)
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone. Hope everyone’s sound and full of boundaries today. Let’s chat!
Q. Teacher tattoos: I had a professor last semester who I am really, literally in love with. She’s married with a kid and I think straight, so it’s not something I would ever even attempt to act on. I’m fairly sure she knows I have a crush on her—it’s not subtle—and my guess would be that she finds it flattering. She just offered to be my adviser, and I was obviously ecstatic and said yes. The problem is, I have a couple of tattoos related to her. One is a small word in her handwriting, which is really cute, distinctive handwriting, that I got sort of in the spirit of unrequited love, and because it was a positive affirmation she’d written on some of my work, and having her say something like that about something I wrote just meant a crazy amount to me. The other is a line from some of her published writing; I’d sent an artist friend of mine a list of poems and articles and essays and other things that meant a lot to me, including some of this professor’s work, and asked her to turn it into a tattoo, which she did. My question is: Do I need to make sure to keep them covered whenever I know I’m going to be seeing her? (They’re on my foot and ankle, so not super difficult to hide.) Will she be creeped out and hate me if she sees them?
A: Oh, honey. I wish I could hug you out of your recent decisions. I have a lot of sympathy for your feelings, but there’s nothing we can do about those now; let’s go ahead and tidy up your actions. I’m glad, at least, that you are aware that your married professor does not return your feelings and that it would be unwise to offer romantic overtures she would have to politely reject. If she is a responsible person, she would not have offered to be your adviser if she knew the extent of your infatuation. I want to tell you to find another adviser, but I’m worried that’s advice you simply won’t take. I think you should find someone else to advise you immediately—yesterday of immediately—but at the very least, yes, cover up your tattoos when you are around her. Do not put her in the supremely awkward position of realizing she’s sitting with a student who has had her compliments permanently etched into her skin. That would move your crush from “flattering” to “impossible.”
I wish you a speedy recovery from your feelings.
Q. Soiled sleepover: I can’t really wrap my head around what happened and what I should do—if anything. Our 6-year-old daughter had a sleepover at her grandmother’s house with an 8-year-old friend. We don’t know the parents well. Our daughter told us that during the night, while they were watching a movie, she smelled something really bad and told her friend so. Her friend ignored her and said she didn’t smell anything. After some time passed, our daughter decided to just ignore it and try to get some sleep. In the morning, she said she saw her friend’s underwear on the table lying face up with a fully formed poop in it. Now, I know kids still soil themselves at all ages and this can often be because of a medical condition, but according to our daughter, her friend sat in it for some time, did not tell an adult, did not seem embarrassed, shrugged off our daughter telling her something smelled, and continued to play video games.
My question is: Do we have an obligation to tell the parent? I don’t want to overstep my boundaries with a stranger here, but if my 8-year-old daughter pooped her pants, sat in it, and left the evidence on the communal coffee table, I would want to know. I am worried about embarrassing the father in the event he is already aware of some sort of psychological issue she suffers from.
A: It seems odd to me, but I am going to punt this one to our readers who have or work with children, as I have no idea whether this falls into the realm of “slightly strange but not terribly-unusual kid behavior” or “call a doctor.” What say you, friends?
Q. No sex for me: My boyfriend and I are in our mid-40s and have been together for two years. We have settled into an easygoing relationship. Neither of us has children, so that allows us a lot of quality time together. We are truly compatible when it comes to the social side of our relationship, and have a true respect and admiration for one another. However, our sex life is a dud. I’m a woman with strong sexual desires, while my boyfriend would prefer nothing but cuddling. He is so uncomfortable during sex. He’s completely quiet, and any kind of dirty talk completely embarrasses him. He even uses kid-friendly terms when referring to male/female anatomy. We’re lucky to have sex once a week, and I have stopped initiating because of the constant excuses. Could there be an underlying trauma from childhood or his past that creates this embarrassment and discomfort?
A: Maybe. Maybe not. It hardly matters. Rather than rummaging around his past looking for hidden trauma, why don’t you go looking for a boyfriend you’re sexually compatible with? It doesn’t sound like you two have ever had a satisfying sex life; perhaps you could both do better with someone else.
Q. Re: Soiled: My son suffered from encopresis as a kid, and absolutely, I think talking to the girl’s parent(s) about this is important. But you have to somehow let the parent(s) know that you are in no way being judgy. Let them know you are in their corner, that you understand kids can suffer from this problem, and that doctors can often help with this, but it’s very important for the girl to learn about cleaning herself up when such incidents occur. Let the parents know that their daughter is still more than welcome to a sleepover with your daughter. You can treat this as an opportunity to teach your own daughter about compassion, especially as her friend is more than likely being bullied over this at school. It might be an opportunity for her parents to gain a friend in you, too. … I recall having other parent friends and even my son’s friends being extremely valuable to me, on those days when my son “had a bad day.” I don’t remember now how old my son was when he finally outgrew the problem, but when we were going through it, It was good to know who my son’s *real* friends were.
A: That’s so helpful, thank you!
Q. Daddy issues: My father is a recovering alcoholic. His M.O. has always been emotional abuse and manipulation. I have dealt with it with the help of my mother (they’re long divorced) and therapy. He has never had custody of me. I’m now 23, living hours away, and last Christmas he absolutely blew up at me for not telling him the second I arrived home at my mother’s house when I was driving into town. I texted him three hours late and he threatened to disown me, telling me I don’t love him—the whole song and dance. This past Christmas, he blew up at me again and we have not spoken for two months. I am fed up with his behavior.
His birthday is in early March and my life has been so wonderful without him in it, but I don’t know what to do! Should I try and make peace before his birthday by just calling him that day and giving him a civil “happy birthday,” or just ignore him completely? I’m a really good daughter and person and I don’t deserve to be treated like this! However, he is so stubborn and mentally unstable that he will NEVER apologize or try to see things from my perspective.
A: “My life has been so wonderful without him in it” is your answer. Don’t un-make a good choice out of a misplaced sense of guilt. I think all you are looking for is someone to reassure you that it is OK, and you are not a bad person, for keeping your father out of your life. You have it.
Q. Re: Teacher tattoos: This has gone beyond “awkward” and into “disturbing” territory. This student needs to seek some professional help on this issue. Someone getting tattoos related to another person with whom they are not in a relationship is disturbing and indicates some form of compulsion.
It’s good that she’s recognized this is a problem but she needs to talk to a professional about this obsession.
A: An excellent point. I understand wanting to get a tattoo of some meaningful literary quotation, but positive feedback from a professor suggests something more unsettling and worrying.
Q. Re: Soiled: I have three kids (11, 9, and 5), and I would *definitely* raise this with the parents. Something is going on here and I am sure the 8-year-old either was mortified or bizarrely defiant—but either way, needs help and maybe no sleepovers for a while!
A: The majority of the replies I’m getting to this letter suggest that it’s very unusual behavior. The subsequent question, then, is whether or not the girl has a medical or psychological condition her parents are likely already aware of, or if it’s a sign of possible abuse in the home. Unfortunately, the LW doesn’t know her parents well at all, so there’s a fair amount of guesswork. I think it’s probably better to err on the side of saying something.
Q. Fed up with being put down: My husband of 10 years resorts to personal insults any time he is upset with something. Instead of telling me he disagrees with what I said or does not like how I did something, he tells me I’m an idiot, or I’m a mess, or my voice is too shrill. The name-calling ranges from the mundane (“You’re out of touch with reality”) to the profane (“Bitch,” “fat bitch,” “dumb bitch,” “dizzy bitch,” etc.). This problem began four or five years ago, and has become progressively worse over time. I have tried a number of interventions—couples therapy, going to therapy on my own, making a note every time he does it, and recording him doing it. Lately, I state to him directly that I do not like to be put down, and when he persists, I leave the room. This has resulted in almost a complete inability to have any substantive conversations. The only time we can talk is when we go out to dinner, where he is too embarrassed to get into a big public fight. We both work a lot, so this only happens a few times a month. This is not going well, and I/my therapist am/are out of ideas. I am not prepared to end our marriage, and I would love your fresh perspective.
A: You are out of ideas because you have tried them all. I do not have any other ideas for you. You have asked him to stop calling you names, gone to therapy both together and separately, documented his abuse, and are now hardly able to be in the same room because he is unwilling to stop calling you a bitch for five minutes at a stretch. Your marriage has already ended if the only place you can have a conversation is in a restaurant where he’s too embarrassed to call you names. Work with your therapist and figure out a way to get prepared to end things. Be gentle with yourself, but if you’re not ready to leave him yet, you need to work on getting ready to leave him. You deserve infinitely better than being trapped in a house with a man who hates you. And make no mistake, he knows exactly what he is doing and how badly it’s hurting you. He does not love you. He will never treat you any better than he does right now. Get ready to get ready. You can do it.
Q. I don’t want to hate myself forever: My ex and I broke up almost a year ago and I’m still hurting from it, because I caused it. I would guilt him over everything—bringing up things he said or did years ago that still hurt me, getting jealous when he had something I didn’t—anything and everything. When I didn’t guilt him, he would guilt himself, and this went on for five years straight.
Now, I have fulfilled the “crazy bitch ex” trope: suicide attempts, violent mood swings, abandoning my friends—everything aside from contacting him (because he’s asked me not to). He’s better off without me, and I feel like a monster. I’m so angry at myself that I can barely function. Nothing is enjoyable anymore (not even my 21st birthday last week). A part of me feels like I deserve to be miserable. But I don’t want to be this way forever. Please help.
A: Go to therapy. Go consistently. Find someone you trust and can afford, and go now.
Q. Complicated situation: I’m in a relationship with a married man. It’s not like you think it is—his wife suffered traumatic brain injury and has been in hospice for several years. We’ve been dating for a few months, and I really like him, but I’m feeling slightly rushed. There are times he talks in passing about getting me pregnant, but we’ve never explicitly discussed having kids (he already has a 4-year-old daughter from a different relationship). He’s also said that if he gets me pregnant he wants to get married. Having only been dating for this short time, are these red flags that should make me run in the opposite direction? I would never want someone to marry me out of obligation, nor do I want to commit to a man I don’t fully know just because we got pregnant. I’m also significantly younger than this man—he’s in his mid 40s and I’m in my mid 20s. I feel like all of these factors make my head spin. Please help.
A: Leaving aside his dying wife, any man who talks casually about getting his 20-years-younger girlfriend of “a few months” pregnant so that he can marry her is a man you should be running away from. I’m glad you only really like him, because it’s a lot easier to lace up your running shoes before you fall in love.
By the way: If he’s repeatedly talked about impregnating you, and you haven’t said anything, you have explicitly discussed having kids. You just chose not to participate in the conversation. You are very free to say things like “I don’t plan on getting pregnant.”
Q. Pee on the floor!: A few times every week, I’ll see that my 34-year-old husband has dripped a bit in front of the toilet. It’s usually two-to-four large drops with maybe some splashy droplets around. He claims that this is just something that men do and will clean it if I point it out, but doesn’t look himself. I claim that it’s incredibly gross and the toilet room (small and separate from rest of bathroom) ends up smelling like old urine. What say you?
A: Clean up your own piss. This rule applies to everyone not suffering from a medical condition that requires assistance with basic bodily functions. It should not need to be said, but: clean up your own piss, and do not attempt to use “being a man” as an excuse for leaving urine on the floor and ignoring it.