Dear Prudence

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Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend is nice to her son but says she’s “only an 8.5.”

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

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 prudence@slate.com.)

Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone! I’m so glad to be back and ready to peer into the Veil of Mysteries. Let’s chat!

Q. 8.5: I’ve been with my boyfriend for about six months. He’s been wonderful with my 4-year-old son (who has started calling him daddy!), and we recently started living together. The problem is he just told me he considers me only an 8.5 on the hotness scale and doesn’t think our sex life the best he’s ever had but that he’s happy to settle based on the whole package. I think we’re very well-matched (hotness-wise), but I don’t compare him to other men in that way. I’ve also tried to improve our sex life, without much luck. My question is: How should I feel about his revelation? Do I deserve more from a partner, in terms of feeling sexy and loved? Or should I stick with it for the sake of my son?

A: I’m trying to imagine how this came up in conversation. “Darling, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I’m so happy to be able to tell you … you’re a solid 8.5 out of 10. Very nearly a 9. I understand if you want to take a minute and call your parents. Also, I’ve had better sex in the past. I won’t bother you with the details but … it’s been better. I’m not going to dump you over it. It’s definitely good enough for me. Anyhow. An 8.5. A solid 8.5.” I don’t think it’s a requirement that a happy, fulfilling relationship also provide the best sex of all time, but I do think it’s incredibly odd and casually cruel that your partner thinks it’s necessary to a) rank you on a 10-point scale of hotness, b) inform you of your ranking, and c) describe your sex life as something he’s “happy to settle for.”

It sounds like your boyfriend is interested in making sure you feel like you’re not quite good enough and that he’s doing you a favor by overlooking your physical and sexual inadequacies. These are some deeply damaging and manipulative games he’s playing. Meeting your child and moving in together at six months is awfully fast. I don’t think it should be a point of pride that your son has taken to calling him “daddy” so quickly. You deserve more from a partner, and your son deserves more from a potential co-parent. A longer screening period will go a long way towards protecting both you and your child from guys like this.

Q. Need silence: My husband and I have separate bedrooms since I am an intolerably light sleeper and my husband thrashes like a beached whale when he sleeps. (I seriously got a black eye once from it!) Going back to his hometown means an expensive flight and not much money left over, so getting a hotel room is out of the question. How do we raise the fact that we need separate bedrooms? The last time we were here, I was only the girlfriend and spent the entire week exhausted and catnapping until people started asking if I was sick. I just do not want to raise any gossip, since separate bedrooms means marriage trouble to so many people. Can we just make up a medical reason and lie?

A: I think there’s an easier solution to this temporary problem, which is to have your husband sleep on the floor. If it’s only for a few days, you can make up a reasonably comfortable pallet next to the bed, you can sleep without fear of violence, and you can hide the evidence from prying eyes every morning. (I assume he’s been to the doctor about his sleep-thrashing, but if anyone in the comments recognizes this as some sort of alarming medical condition, by all means, let us know!)

Q. Husband doesn’t get it: I suffer from very severe clinical depression and anxiety disorder. I am under a doctor’s care, but I still have times when these issues overwhelm me. Recently, my life has been more stressful than usual. I have tried to talk to my husband about my depression in the past, but he just tells me that I have a good life and I shouldn’t feel that way. I told him I don’t feel like I can talk to him about what is going on with me because of these responses. He assures me he is my biggest supporter and I can talk to him about anything. This past weekend I told my husband I was feeling very depressed, and his response was to roll his eyes and say, “What’s wrong with you now?” I told him again that these reactions are why I don’t feel like I can actually talk to him. His response was to get angry with me because I refuse to realize how good I have it. I have explained a million times that that is not how depression works, but he can’t seem to understand. I am at the point now where I think it may be better for my mental health to go forward in my life without him. What should I do?

A: What an odd, awful response to someone else’s depression. Depression cannot be overcome by listing a series of good things in one’s life, any more than a broken foot can be healed by thinking about all the other bones you have that aren’t broken. You are not trying to suggest the material circumstances of your life are unpleasant; you simply have clinical depression. “You have a good life” is no more an answer to “I have clinical depression and am feeling extremely anxious today” than “I have been to the zoo” is an answer to “I have cut my arm, and am bleeding profusely.” One doesn’t affect the other.

Your husband’s misunderstanding of the condition appears to be almost willfully perverse. If he is not willing to listen to you about the nature of your condition, perhaps you could bring him with you on your next doctor’s visit and have a medical professional explain to him that depression is neither caused nor cured by having a nice house or a good job. That said, I’m skeptical that your husband is going to listen to anyone else, if he’s refusing to listen to you, the person actually suffering from clinical depression. His words and his actions are not in alignment. He seems to hold you responsible for willing yourself into a different state of mental health, which is not only medically inaccurate but deeply cruel. If your “biggest supporter” rolls his eyes and gets angry when you try to describe your symptoms, I think you may have to move on without him as well.

Q. What would be ethical?: I have been dating a guy for nearly a month. He is a very nice and handsome man. But he suffers from halitosis, popularly known as bad breath. How do I tell him about the problem, so that he can actually get treatment, without offending him? What is the ethical way of doing this?

A: Tell him he has bad breath. That is the ethical thing to do. “Maxlington, I like you very much, and I’m a little embarrassed to bring this up, but I’d want someone to tell me: You have bad breath all of the time, it’s very noticeable, and you need to go to the dentist immediately to rule out the possibility of gum diseas, and to find out how to reverse it.” (How have you been able to kiss him this whole month? How can you bring yourself to do it? This is for your good, for him, and for the good of everyone who has to talk to him in close quarters for the rest of his life. Do it for the greater good.)

Q. To contact or not to contact?: I recently cleaned out a box of mementos from college. I came across a football that a former boyfriend signed and wrote a sweet note on. (He played football for the colleg.e) A few years after he graduated, he passed away suddenly. We graduated over 20 years ago. Should I try to locate his family to get this item to them? They never met me and probably have never heard about me since we weren’t that serious. I don’t want to cause any upset, but I think it would mean more to them than it does to me. Advice?

A: I think it would be lovely for you to pass it along to them. You don’t have to go into the details of your relationship, but you can say that you knew their son in college and remember him fondly and thought they might like to have this old note of his. It would be, I think, very meaningful for them to hear that 20 years after their son’s death, there are still people out there who remember and think of him. It would not upset them—sometimes people fear that mentioning someone else’s death would be a painful reminder to his loved ones, when in fact the subsequent silence is more painful than any fond mention could be. Get in touch and pass along the note, as well as something kind about your old boyfriend. I’m sure they’ll be glad to hear it.

Q. Re: Husband who doesn’t get it: Depression can be very, very hard to understand for people who have never had it. It is also very hard for partners of depressed people to withstand the unending need for support that depressed people can have. It’s emotionally hard. I think a little compassion for the Husband Who Doesn’t Get It is warranted. Yes, he needs some education in mental health issues, but he probably also needs counseling himself to learn patience and strength in what is otherwise a crazy-making situation.

A: I’d normally be inclined to agree with you, but the LW mentioned that she’d explained the nature of depression to him multiple times—it concerns me that he doesn’t seem to be listening when the education is offered to him.

Q. Destination weddings: I had the most awkward conversation with an old friend. I sent out my wedding announcements/invitations last month. The wedding will be on a cruise in June. On our website we specify that we do not want gifts and that we are registered if guests would like to donate to cruise activities but also that we are not even expecting that. Furthermore, we specified that everyone is invited but that we are not paying for tickets. Back to the old friend. She is truly offended that we aren’t paying for our guests to hop aboard the boat. Sure, we would love to be rich … but we also are not willing to mortgage the house to pay for everyone’s vacation. Who is right?

A: No one is right when it comes to destination weddings. It’s a big ask, requesting people take time off work and fly off to take a cruise just to see you get married, and they’re perfectly justified in saying no if they don’t have the time, the money, or simply the inclination. But you also don’t have to apologize for deciding to have an expensive, distant wedding; she can simply decline to attend without berating you for not putting everyone else up in style. Tell her kindly that you can’t afford to pay for anyone else’s travel expenses, but don’t feel the need to take any responsibility for her indignation. She can be as offended as she wants and stay at home. You can go get married and have a great time.

Q. Re: Husband who doesn’t get it: I’m on the other side—my husband suffers from bipolar disorder, and it has taken me years to understand the fact that sometimes just getting through the bare minimum of his day can be tough for him. Even after suicide attempts, I just didn’t get why he didn’t appreciate the life I provide for him.

It took me a long time to empathize and understand how our two brains process things differently, and I’m still not perfect. I disagree with Mallory that your husband won’t listen to a therapist: Sometimes the best person to point out a couple’s miscommunication is an outside party. When it came from the therapist, I went from “Oh, this again?” to “Maybe this is something I really need to try and understand.”

A: Thanks for sharing that! I’m glad to hear from someone who was able to hear something for the first time from a therapist she couldn’t quite get from a partner. That’s at least one point in favor of the possibility he could learn and change with an outside perspective.

Q. Part-time partner: I am in my mid-40s with two college-age kids. My husband passed away 10 years ago after a brief, agonizing struggle with cancer. (He was gone in six months.) I am not looking for another love, since I was so blessed to meet my soul mate early on, but I do want companionship. I have recently met a man who is funny, gentle, and kind. We get along beautifully, but his poor wife has come down with early-onset dementia. He is devoted to her, but the wife he married is gone. He cares for her at home with an aide, but he will come out with me to see concerts or dinner or to just be quietly held while we sit in my backyard.

I was lucky, as my husband died surrounded by his family. My problem is his in-laws and my youngest girl. She hates the fact I am dating, especially with my being the “other woman.” His in-laws don’t know about us and don’t have a friendly relationship with him. He needs peace in his life, and I am afraid of adding more stress. I care for him. Do you have any advice?

A: How wonderful that you and this man have managed to find companionship and peace with each other. I’m very sorry that your daughter is having a difficult time, but surely she doesn’t expect you to remain a widow for the rest of your life. You are not “the other woman”; he is caring for his wife as best as he can, but his marriage is effectively over and he has a right to seek out companionship and solace where he can find it. I think you’re right not to bring this up with your boyfriend’s in-laws—there’s no point in adding complications to what is currently a pleasant, low-stakes commitment—and you should give your daughter time and space to grieve. Is she afraid that your dating again means you no longer care for her father? That you’ll have less time for her? She’s a college-aged adult, not a little girl, and it’s time for her to realize that you’re a human being with a need for partnership and affection, not just her mother. Neither of you are doing anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean this will be an entirely pain-free situation. Don’t let your daughter’s feelings dictate your choices, but, at the same time, try to listen to her about her fears and resentments. Hopefully in time she will come to understand that you can love her father and care for someone new in your life at the same time. I’m so glad you’ve found some happiness; please don’t allow yourself to feel guilty over it.

Q. Re: Husband doesn’t get it: Two things the depressed woman should say to her husband, maybe multiple times: “I don’t think you understand … My depression means that I can’t see that”; and “I’m not asking you to fix this, or comment on it really, I just want to get it off my chest without feeling judged.”

A: That’s extremely helpful—it may be that he’s feeling frustrated at his inability to “fix” the situation and this will be a useful answer for him.

Q. Office romance?: I work in IT support for a large corporation. Last week I got a call for assistance in fixing an executive’s email account. During the course of the incident, I read some of the emails. It turns out that she uses her work email for personal business as much as for work; there was one long conversation with a friend about how she was attracted to a woman working in the mailroom. This caught my eye because the younger woman is my sister. She was unable to get a job for a long time after college, and I got her the job about a year ago. While grateful to have a job, she’s understandably frustrated with the menial nature of it. Also, while in her senior year she came out to me and close friends, but has never had a girlfriend—something that also depresses her—but she’s shy and doesn’t know how to go about dating. I want to tell my lovely, talented sister what I know about the executive’s interest. I think that it could be helpful for her to know that someone successful is interested in her, and if something came of it, it couldn’t hurt her career prospects either. What do you think?

A: I can think of about 47 different ways this could go horribly wrong. Say nothing. What on Earth could your sister do with this information? “Hey, I read one of our executive’s emails, and she thinks about you, like, all the time. So, the next time you hand her her mail … make a move.” Just because this woman wrote to a friend about her workplace crush doesn’t necessarily mean she’s available or interested in a relationship with your sister. There’s also no guarantee that this executive’s romantic interest would actually help your sister’s career. Nothing good comes of reading other people’s emails. Let your sister work on her romantic shyness and career prospects on her own, and try to forget what you read.

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