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. Heart problem: About three weeks ago I started dating a nice guy. Recently we were talking and I told him about some childhood issues. He got really excited and confided to me that when he was born he had numerous congenital heart defects. He’d been hoping to find somebody who would understand that he still needed frequent medical care, might need surgeries, and would probably die fairly young.
This threw me. To tell you the truth I wanted to walk out. I’d been telling him about my childhood to tell him how hard it was to grow up with a brother with congenital heart problems. The stress of the situation broke up my parents’ marriage. My sister struggles with depression and other issues. I live in the same city as most of my family and rarely see them, because all of the stress of my brother’s care and his eventual death tore us apart.
Now I’m supposed to do it all over. I can’t. I feel like a horrible person, but I know how hard this is and I just can’t do it again. I’ve tried to bring it up to my boyfriend, but he is so thrilled to find “someone who understands” that I feel evil even thinking about breaking up with him.
A: You’ve only been dating for three weeks. You can’t choose a boyfriend based on his current health status and likelihood of dying in his sleep at 83—anyone can die at any time, for any reason, and even if you dated the healthiest man in the world, he could get hit by a bus and spend years needing intensive rehabilitative care. You’re not a horrible person, but the longer you live, the more deaths you are going to experience. Your new boyfriend was not asking you to take on his medical care or drive him to surgical appointments; he merely expressed excitement that you might understand his difficult physical situation. If you are this overwhelmed at the prospect of dating someone with a heart defect, you owe it to the both of you to be honest about what you can and cannot do.
I’m sorry for your loss, and I hope you seek therapy to deal with the trauma you still feel years after your brother’s death—if it’s been this long and you still can’t bring yourself to visit your family because of it, I think you’re carrying around a lot of extra emotional weight that you might need help putting down.
Q. God. A problem?: So, I was raised in a highly religious home. I married when I was young and we were both deeply devout at the time of our wedding. We have young kids and have attended our church for a long time. We live in a small community where the religion is the communal culture and it influences everything that goes on. However, I’ve reached personal conclusions about the religion that are fundamentally at odds with the religious culture and doctrines. I’ve not told anyone about my current thinking, not even my spouse. I worry that doing so, along with leaving the religion, will result in the loss of my family, friends, and business associates, and turn everything inside out. How should I approach this major life issue?
A: That all depends on when you feel ready to begin turning things inside out. You’re right in that this will change things, likely permanently, although I hope your friends and family will be able to listen to your thoughts without dismissing or rejecting you. It will be a challenge, particularly with your spouse, to let him in on a process that’s already led you out of your shared religion, since he may not have seen it coming.
Ask yourself what you are and aren’t willing to do. While you personally no longer believe in your former religion, are you comfortable staying in an environment where most people are? Would you rather live elsewhere? Will it bother you if friends and colleagues continue to assume you’re religious? Would you be able to share your beliefs with your children, or would your husband try to insist you keep it a secret from them? Know what it is that you need before you have the conversation. That’s not to say that compromise and mutual understanding isn’t possible, just that you need to know your own limits before raising the topic. Don’t worry about the outcome: You can neither predict nor control how your friends and family will react to your beliefs. All you can do is be honest about what you think. Start with your husband; be honest, be gentle, answer questions, but don’t apologize for anything, because you’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t know what the future looks like for you, but I can promise you whatever happens as a result of your honesty will be better than years of feigned religious enthusiasm to please everyone around you.
Q. Brother won’t move out: My younger brother is a 29-year-old man who lives at home and does not work. My parents generally provide for him. Over the years, he’s gotten into some trouble, including incurring a felony for the sale of drugs. This has caused him extraordinary anxiety in seeking a job. He’s extremely bright, but also anti-authoritarian. He refuses to work a “job with no future” but has failed to break into the corporate world. We don’t even think he’d be happy in the corporate world. Still, I can see that living at home in this way is enabling the worst of his behaviors (he remains on the right side of the law, but struggles with alcohol and gambling). It’s also a great stress on my parents (now 60). They fear that if they kick him out, he’ll die. I fear that if they keep saving him from his self-destructive streak (one that I have overcome myself), he’ll never learn to survive. My dad is not interested in counseling. I want to help my brother find himself and grow into the man I know he can be. I also want to help my parents assert themselves and take back this decade, which could very well be the last one spent in relatively good health. What can I do?
A: Nothing, I think. I don’t mean to be flippant, as I understand why you’re worried, but you cannot make your brother find himself and you cannot force your parents into counseling or self-actualization. Self-assertion is not something you can do on someone else’s behalf. You’ve expressed your concerns, and your parents have disregarded them. Maybe your parents will kick him out someday, maybe they won’t. Maybe your brother will achieve his potential, or maybe he’ll hit rock bottom, or maybe he’ll continue to coast, not quite failing and not quite succeeding, fumbling dimly for the rest of his life. You don’t have to like the arrangement and you don’t have to encourage it, but it will do you good to accept it. It’s an unpleasant situation—I wouldn’t like it myself—but the less time and energy you spend trying to manage it from a distance, the happier and healthier you yourself will be.
Q. Not a caterer: A friend is holding a surprise party for her husband this weekend. Another family I don’t know is hosting, and it was explained that dinner would not be provided but that everyone was free to bring a snack to share—”but it’s totally optional so don’t feel obligated.” I was planning to bring a big bag of chips and dip, or some store-bought cookies, because that’s usually what is expected in situations like this. A couple days later, my friend mentioned that she was nervous about pulling off the surprise, so I told her to let me know if she needed help. I truly meant it—I try not to make empty promises—but when she later texted to ask if I could provide food for 30 people, I was taken aback. I was expecting to be asked to bring an appetizer. But instead, she sent a list of recipes that her husband likes. I only know a handful of the guests who will be there, and she didn’t offer to reimburse me, or to ask other friends to help. I feel bad for offering to help and then not being willing to help in the way she needs, but I feel like I am being taken advantage of. What should I do?
A: “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to cater your party for you. I’m happy to bring a bottle of wine and some garlic bread.” Offering to help someone doesn’t then mean you are obligated to do whatever they ask. This isn’t a fairy tale and you just haven’t offered a mysterious guest in your hall to grant whatever request they have of you, even if it be unto half your kingdom. Also, bring garlic bread. Everybody loves garlic bread.
Q. Re: God. A problem?: Mallory, just as a note, the “God. A problem?” writer was gender-neutral and your response assumed he/she was a woman. I actually would have guessed male, but that’s because of my own assumptions about male/female religiosity as well as who in a conservative religious environment is more likely to be dealing with “business associates.”
A: Gosh, you’re right; I did assume the LW was a woman. I don’t think I would change my advice, but we don’t know the writer’s gender. I’ll have to be more careful about my assumptions in the future!
Q. Not on board: My brother-in-law got married last year. Now he and his husband want a baby and want my wife to be the mother! My wife and I have two kids, which is enough for me, but my wife always wanted more. We both agree that any more would not be doable on a single income, but she is very gung-ho about being a surrogate for her brother. They want a child related to them and offered to pay expenses and basically fund my kids’ college tuition.
It seems like a win-win, except I hate the idea. The idea of my wife being pregnant with someone else’s child just bothers me. What should I do?
A: This seems very much like a deal-breaker to me. Your wife wants to carry another couple’s child, and you want her not to. You can’t do anything about it, but it’s worrying that she would be willing to do this if it came at the expense of her relationship with you. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a surrogate, and there’s also nothing wrong with being uncomfortable at the prospect of your partner being a surrogate. You’re neither of you in the wrong, exactly, but there’s hardly a compromise here. She either will carry their child or she won’t. If she knows how much you oppose the idea and still wants to do it (does she see this as a “bonus” third child? How involved would she be in its life?) I’m not sure your marriage can be salvaged.
The worst thing you could do, I think, is to be snappish and unsupportive during her surrogacy if she goes ahead with it, and make it clear for the rest of your lives how much you resent her having done it. State your objections kindly but firmly and decide what you can and can’t live with. If she’s bound and determined to go ahead with things, can you find a way to make your peace with it? Can you see a therapist together? Or is this a decision you simply can’t bear? Answer that question in your own mind before you make any moves.
Q. Apology unnecessary?: I would say I swear more often than the average person, but mostly out of habit or to express hyperbole. I never use pejoratives that would offend someone. Recently, I’ve developed a new friendship with a man at a sports club who’s a Christian and more conservative than I am. He is a great guy, and I’m hoping to become closer with him as buddies. I never noticed him taking issue with my cussing, but a mutual friend pointed out that this person experiences a good deal of discomfort when I curse, especially since I “take the Lord’s name in vain” liberally and often. While I’m not particularly religious, I do think this is a good opportunity to wean myself off of cussing since I assume it does more harm than good for me beyond the scope of my friendship with this person. Since I’m doing this partly because of his sensitivity to foul language, should I apologize for past incidents and let him know my intent to stop cussing so that he feels more comfortable around me, or do I quietly curb my bad habit and hope that he notices? Generally, is announcing an attempt at habit change to make amends beneficial or unnecessary?
A: If he’s never mentioned your cursing to you, there’s no reason you need to bring it up with him. I’m sure he’ll appreciate your increasingly mild language, but if he’s never asked you to refrain from cursing around him, you don’t have to make any apologies about having done so in the past.
Q. Re: Brother won’t move out: Sure, Mallory, try to dump the crappy letters on us. I would like to point out if the brother has a felony conviction for drugs, if the parents continue to harbor him, and he gets even deeper into the sales side they could lose their home in a seizure of assets, depending on the state where they live. The “la-la-la-la” ignore the problem response is fine and well for the LW, but it ignores the real dangers of living with a druggie.
A: Had his parents written me asking for advice, my answer would have been different. Accepting a situation as it is after having repeatedly registered your concern is not the same thing as plugging one’s ears and humming loudly. If the parents get into future legal trouble because of their son’s poor choices, that will be a shame, but it will be a direct consequence of their actions and not something their daughter—who lives elsewhere—should try to manage or control for them.
Q. Not allowed to be my boyfriend’s friend: I have been with my boyfriend for four years and we have lived together from the beginning. He has always been secretive with his cellphone, but I knew the password and would occasionally check the time or look something up. We’ve had our trust issues with both of us doing things the other felt were major offenses (no cheating—that would be a deal-breaker for both of us), but I believe we’ve largely worked through them. I’m happy and satisfied with my relationship, with one exception: He blocked me on Facebook during a fight and refuses to re-add me despite the fight being over. He feels I was using it to “spy” on him. I simply get bored and scroll through his photos or occasionally look at his friends that like or comment on his page if I don’t recognize their name (he has lived all over the world and has many friends). He is fairly active on Facebook, posting photos of our dogs or sharing articles, funny memes, etc. I think it’s extremely embarrassing when a friend mentions something he posted and I have to pretend like I know what they are talking about. I also think it’s weird that he won’t allow me to be a part of the most public aspect of his life because he wants privacy. He thinks we can be in a relationship but not be friends on Facebook and when I try to talk about it he shuts the conversation down. Do I deal with it or push the subject?
A: I would like to offer a slight correction: Your boyfriend is not “secretive” about his cellphone but “private” about it. There’s nothing unusual about having a password-protected phone, or in not wanting to share it with your girlfriend. It sounds like you used Facebook to constantly probe him about his friendships (commenting on every post left by someone you didn’t recognize must have taken up an awful lot of your time) and to check up on his activities. I’d have blocked you too.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone!