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.)
Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone; let us comfort one another while we are all young and alive and chock-full of advice. Let’s chat!
Q. Too trivial to break up over?: I accidentally overheard my fiancée telling a friend on the phone, “John might not have a lot of money, but at least he doesn’t have any parents to annoy me.” My parents both died in a car accident in my early 20s. Shocked by this comment, we took a short break afterward. My fiancée said that it was something stupid she said as a joke and that she was sincerely sorry and didn’t mean it. She and I have much history together, and I love her. Yet, even after getting back together, I can’t forget or totally forgive her for what she said. I may have been an adult when I lost my parents, but they were my whole world. Is it crazy to throw away a whole relationship based on this one comment?
A: It’s not crazy. I have a fair amount of sympathy for your fiancée, who I don’t think is necessarily a secretly callous monster for making a grim joke about not having to deal with in-laws to a friend of hers, but I can also understand why this would haunt you. If you have a long history together and she has always treated you kindly and well, you must know on some level that she does care about you and is not secretly rejoicing at the death of your parents—that moment of gallows humor was not necessarily a reveal of her true, callous character but a way of acknowledging the painful reality of your situation to a friend.
But if you don’t think you can forget it, tell her so. You can’t take her back only to secretly resent and suspect her for the rest of your lives. Tell her that what she said hit you very hard and that it hurt you to see her make light of the most painful experience of your life, even if she did not say it directly to you. You’re not crazy for entertaining doubts about your relationship, but I do think it would be a mistake not to at least try to move past this together. You would likely get a great deal out of a few weeks or months of couples counseling around this particular fight. Make it clear how much this has hurt you—don’t try to act like you’ve moved past it when you haven’t—and if her response is compassionate and apologetic, then I think you can trust her. Your parents may have been your whole world, but if she’s going to be a part of that world, you’re going to have to be able to fight and hurt one another and apologize and forgive.
Q. Not a virgin, Mom: I’m a 25-year-old woman getting married in the summer. My mother is very old-fashioned and proper, and does not believe in sex before marriage. She also believes that my husband and I are virgins and will remain that way until our wedding night. Both of us have been sexually active since high school! My older sister told me that my mom is planning on giving me a sex talk and explaining how everything works and “how to please a man” before my wedding. I would like nothing less than to listen to my mother explain sex to me, but I’m worried she’ll be angry if I tell her I’m not a virgin. What should I do?
A: There are more possible responses to “Darling, I’m going to explain sex to you now” than either “Sounds great, I’ve never done sex with my body” or “Too late, we’re both extremely deflowered.” Tell your mother, if she brings the subject up, that you’re well-informed about the mechanics of sex and don’t require a “birds and the bees” conversation. While I don’t think you should be living in fear of your mother finding out you’ve had sex before marriage, it’s also none of her business how much or what kind of sex you’ve had. It’s perfectly appropriate to tell her that you’re up to speed on what goes where, and that you don’t want or need any wedding-night instruction from your mother, without confessing your sexual history.
Q. Colleagues who drink—a lot.: I recently got a position at a company that apparently still has 1960s Mad Men relationship with alcohol. I belong to a nondrinking church. I had always thought it wrong to bring religion to work. Therefore, at the first office “Friday Bash” I simply declined to drink, thinking that it would be no big deal in this health-conscious day and age. I was then set upon by people trying to force drinks upon me. I was eventually rescued by a co-worker, who came over and said she couldn’t drink either on account of a medication interaction. (What she doesn’t know is that they call her “the nutcase on medication” behind her back. And it’s just the excuse she came up with to get them off her back.) At the following “Friday Bash” I again declined to drink and, when pressed, I finally said, pleasantly and nonjudgmentally, “My church doesn’t allow it.” I then got called in and told not to bring “religion” to work. I just don’t want to drink, and I want to be left in peace. I know, legally, I have that right. What should I do? It is too soon to job-jump as my minister has suggested?
A: I can understand why hearing “my church doesn’t allow me to drink” might have startled some of your co-workers, but I absolutely cannot understand why it is so difficult for some people to hear “No thanks, I don’t drink,” as “No thanks, I don’t drink.” There’s no reason to demand a justification when someone says “No thanks” about food or drink, especially at work. “No thanks” stands on its own. If you feel comfortable following up with your boss, tell them that while you’re not interested in pushing your religion on anyone, you felt repeatedly pressured by your new colleagues to furnish an excuse for not drinking, and you’d prefer that in the future, you not have drinks forced into your hand by your co-workers. (An eminently reasonable request from an employee!) It sounds like this is the kind of office that knows how to make work confusing and unpleasant for anyone who doesn’t fit in with the frat-house vibe; I don’t think it’s too soon for you to start looking for a job somewhere else.
Q. Wedding woes: I plan on proposing to my wonderful girlfriend within the next few months. I’m certain I want to marry her, and we’ve had honest and open conversations not only about our wedding, but also our future together. The problem is that I do not think her parents can or will pay for our wedding. I’m sure they will contribute to an extent, but that amount will leave us significantly short of the final number. My parents not only have the resources to pay for the affair but would welcome the opportunity to do so. My question is: How do we tactfully move forward without hurting any feelings? I would much rather ask my parents to step in than go into debt to pay for the wedding (my girlfriend and I don’t have the savings to foot the bill on our own). The last thing I want is to offend my future in-laws and especially my fiancée, but I don’t really see any other option.
A: Unless they are extremely proud and sensitive people, I do not think your in-laws will be hurt if they hear “By the way, my parents would love to help pay for the wedding.” People love hearing that someone else wants to pay for something, especially when it’s presented as fun and exciting news, rather than “Now, I know that you are too broke to afford your daughter’s wedding, so my more-successful parents are going to step in and save the day.” It’s awfully kind of them to offer to contribute anything; paying for your child’s wedding is an act of generosity, not an obligation.
Also, anyone who wants to chime in about their own extremely frugal wedding is welcome to do so now. “We got married in a ditch! We found some tacos on a park bench and everyone brought their own justice of the peace! We made $80 by acting as our own valet! Anyone who spends more than $7.50 on their wedding is an idiot,” etc.
Q. Re: Colleagues who drink—a lot.: Whenever I’m in a situation where everyone is drinking, I just take a glass of soda and if someone asks I say it has some alcohol. As long you have a glass in your hands and pretend you’re having a great time, no one will bother.
A: I think that’s great advice for most situations, but this workplace sounds like it’s full of nosy and insistent jerks. I worry it’s too late for the old “soda water with lime” gambit; they don’t seem like the kind to stop bothering the letter writer, especially now that the LW has been established as a religious buzzkill (along with the “nutcase on medication”—this office has a real problem with people who don’t drink or who use prescription drugs.)
Q. LGBT family problems: A few months ago, one of my aunts sent me an email telling me how wrong my “lifestyle” is and how much I’m hurting my parents (I’m gay and marrying my love), and attached a list of Bible verses about whore-mongering and such to help make her point. When I sent a calm reply explaining that I am happier than I’ve ever been and at peace with my sexuality, she replied with an email that said, among other things, that I make her glad she never had children.
I haven’t had to see her since, and I don’t know how to react when my parents mention her and her husband in conversation. I think that if they know anything about it, it must be minimal. But my question is this: She’s just sent me a Facebook message saying that she misses me and loves me. I feel like my replying would be an invitation for more abuse (and since I’ve worked hard to get out of their conservative fundamentalist worldview myself, it’s painful to deal with people who try to tell me my sexuality is sinful), but at the same time, I hate feeling like I’m abandoning my family and treating them like they could never change. How do I reply, if at all?
A: People can change, but usually not within “a few months” of telling their niece that her being gay is such a blight on their own happiness it makes them relieved to be childless. Had she sent you an apology, that would be one thing, but I think you’re right to intuit this is a gambit designed to get you to let her back into your life for another round of How Your Lifestyle Disgusts Me. Don’t think of this as a situation where you have “abandoned” your aunt. Being unwilling to accept abuse is not abandonment.
If you decide to reply to her message—it would be perfectly reasonable not to—tell her that you’re sorry to hear that she misses you, but you’re rather surprised to hear it so soon after her last note, and that you won’t be able to maintain a relationship with someone who periodically accuses you of being an affliction and a disappointment to your family. My guess is that when you refuse to apologize for her cruelty, she will switch tactics again and go right back to calling you names. You are not treating someone unfairly if you refuse to take their abuse; what you are doing is demanding that, at the minimum, the barrier to entry for being a part of your life is not sending you abusive screeds about your sexuality and intimating that it would have been better for your parents had you never been born.
Q. Loud neighbor’s clock: I live in an apartment building and my elderly neighbor next door has a clock that plays music every 15 minutes and chimes on the hour (12 chimes for 12:00, etc.). I’m a graduate student in a really intense program, and the noise is maddening. I don’t like confrontation, and I tried tolerating it for a few months (studying in the library, etc.), but I learn best at home and hate feeling like I’m being chased out of it. I’ve complained to management, and while he’s lowered the volume, I can still hear it. It’s not loud enough to clearly register on a cellphone recording, but in person it’s audible. I’ve tried using a white noise machine, but that just means I have to turn the volume on my computer up really high to hear lecture videos, and the sound will likely travel to my neighbor’s apartment, giving him cause to complain about me. (I’m prone to ear infections, so wearing headphones all day is not an option.) I’m not unreasonable, and I don’t mind some noise. There’s a small child who lives down the hall and plays in the hallway on rainy days with his grandmother, and my other neighbors sometimes have parties. This is fine, because the noise is temporary. The clock, however, is a constant annoyance, and it disturbs my studying literally every 15 minutes. Help!
A: You’ve complained to management, but have you ever tried actually talking to your neighbor about it? I’ve had some bad neighbors in my day, so I won’t pretend that speaking to him politely will put a guaranteed end to your suffering, but that’s certainly an option you haven’t yet tried. If he was willing to turn the volume down at a request from the management, he may very well be amenable to hearing from you. He doesn’t know you’re sitting in your room being driven slowly mad. Knock on his door, be friendly, introduce yourself, and tell him that having a clock go off every 15 minutes (even at a quiet setting) interrupts your studying, and that you’d be so grateful it if he’d consider turning the alarm off for at least part of the day.