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. No more children: My wife and I struggled with miscarriages until our twins were born, and it nearly cost my wife her life. The boys are 4 now, and my wife keeps bringing up how much she wants a daughter. We are at an impasse—financially, medically, and emotionally, we can’t go through another pregnancy. Our doctor agreed, and my wife switched to another one. It is killing our marriage, and I have taken to working late so I can sleep in the guest room rather than face my wife. Any overtures of intimacy make me suspicious that she is trying to get pregnant. We tried counseling, but I felt bullied by the therapist, and we stopped going. I love my wife and I love my sons, but I can’t see any way around this.
A: If you’re actually worried your wife would try to get pregnant without your consent, your relationship has broken down to a state of emergency. Find another therapist, one who understands the gravity of your situation and does not attempt to bully you into going along with his or her ideas, and start going now. Go together if you can, but go alone if you must. You know there are alternatives to pregnancy if you want another child; normally I’d recommend the two of you discuss fostering and adoption, but I’m deeply concerned by your suggestion that your wife is willing to risk her own health and manipulate you into a situation that could kill her. She needs to agree that she will not make a unilateral decision about having more children without your consent, and you need to figure out if you can trust her. Sleeping in the guest room and hoping she doesn’t notice is not a solution to your problem.
Q. (Maybe?) creepy guy at work: There’s a part-time guy at work who makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I’m not sure why—other than a few horrifyingly awkward attempts at flirting and some uncomfortable staring, he hasn’t really done anything to set off that feeling. I’m not at all interested in him (I find his personality grating, and he’s one of those guys who’s vocally bitter about being single), but I’m trying my level best to be professionally cordial without, uh, “leading him on,” which has worked well so far for most of the day. Still, I dread the one hour between the end of my other co-worker’s shift and my own where I’m alone with this guy, and I can’t seem to figure out what’s making me so anxious. I’m not about to confront him over an involuntary gut feeling, and I’m certainly not going to go to our supervisor when he hasn’t objectively done anything wrong. So what can I do to deal with this on a personal level?
A: I think he has done something. He’s flirted with, and stared at, a co-worker who found his attentions unwelcome. That doesn’t make him a monster, but it’s certainly inappropriate, and far from “nothing.” Trust your reaction, and don’t doubt your own reaction to his romantic overtures. What’s making you anxious is the fact that your co-worker has tried to flirt with you in a way you found unwelcome, and you’re worried he’ll try it again, which he very well might. You have a right to be treated professionally at work, and it’s your supervisor’s job to make sure all their employees can perform their duties comfortably and safely. Tell your supervisor that your co-worker’s attempts at flirtation make you uncomfortable, and that you’d prefer not to work alone with him.
Q. Recurring dreams: I’m not going to ask you, “What does my dream mean?” Don’t worry. However, I do have a problem with recurring dreams. During high school, I had a crush on this guy, Dallas. He was a good friend, and he knew that I had a crush on him but did not return my feelings. After high school, I met a great guy, and we’ve been together for nearly 10 years. Here’s the problem: I dream about my high school crush multiple times a month. When I wake up, it frustrates me. I don’t want to dream about this guy. I haven’t even talked to him in years. My question for you: Should I unfriend the guy on Facebook? I don’t really want to unfriend the guy. Do you think that’d help make the dreams go away? I’m still interested in the successes that he’s had, and I like having useful contacts for the future.
A: I don’t know of any way to control the subject of one’s dreams although I’m fairly certain there are more than a few types of psychoanalysis dedicated to the topic. I don’t think unfriending your old crush on Facebook will do much other than remove him from your Facebook feed. Don’t beat yourself up over what you dream about; there are a lot worse things that could slip across the transom of your unconscious mind than an old high school crush who was always nice to you. Enjoy your relationship with your boyfriend and don’t worry about the people or situations you dream about. Once you wake up, they’re over; let them go. If you do ever end up connecting professionally with Dallas (who I’m unable to picture as anyone other than Patrick Swayze in The Outsiders), don’t mention the dreams. You’ll be just fine.
Q. Don’t want to donate: This is a totally hypothetical question that a friend asked me and which is now leading to a fight. My friend asked me if I would ever be a living organ donor to a stranger. I said I wouldn’t. My friend then asked if I would donate to somebody I knew slightly, like an acquaintance or a co-worker. Again I said no. My friend then asked if I would donate to a good friend (we were good friends). I said no, I would not. This is where my friend got mad. My friend is in perfect health and does not need a kidney or any other organ. My friend asked why I would be so selfish. I told my friend that, working in the medical field, I know that there are no guarantees. You can die or have complications from any kind of surgery, and donating a kidney is major surgery. Plus, I would be out of work for a while. Plus, I have a host of relatives I would donate to, including my spouse, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, etc. For some bizarre reason this has caused a huge rift in what was a good friendship. Do you think it is selfish to not want to be a living donor to anybody but a relation?
A: I do not think it is selfish to want to donate a kidney “only” to family members. It is, as you say, a deeply personal medical decision, and I have no idea why your friend is so determined to punish you for failing to give the right answer to her hypothetical transplant question. You are not opposed to organ donation in any way. You are not suggesting you would never donate an organ under any circumstance. You have particular conditions for undergoing an invasive medical procedure. I don’t quite know what she wants you to say to her—“Sharice, I’m sorry I didn’t fake-give my kidney to someone I used to know from work but have since developed an independent friendship with, so she’s really less of a colleague and more of an honorary sister”? Tell her you care about your friendship, you’re sorry to see this hypothetical situation come between the two of you, and you’d like to let the subject drop and move on. If she can’t drop it, that’s a shame for her, and you may have to keep both your kidneys and your friendship to yourself.
Q. Re: No more children: I would actually go further: I think the letter writer affirmatively needs to go to counseling alone. I’m sorry to have to say it but reproductive coercion like the threat of a nonconsensual pregnancy is a hallmark of abuse, no matter the gender of the perpetrator, and it’s well-established in the psychological literature that sending someone to couple’s counseling with their abuser can reinforce rather than dismantle abuse patterns. The fact that the letter writer already felt bullied at the first trip to couples’ counseling really confirms my concerns here that couples counseling is not in his best interests. The letter writer needs someone to address his concerns one-on-one and help him assess this situation.
A: That’s an excellent point. It’s more than a little frightening that the LW’s wife would be willing to get pregnant against her husband’s direct wishes. She may not see it as a threat or sign of abusive behavior, but it’s never OK to make reproductive decisions on another person’s behalf.
Q. Mourning or desecrating?: My mom’s first love died recently. The plan for his remains is for them to be cremated and then for his current wife to keep them in an urn. My mom wants to take some of his ashes from the urn and to then take them to their old spot and scatter them, assuming she can do so without alerting his family and thus adding to their pain. She thinks it will help her mourn and that it will not do any harm to him or his family, especially since she will do it only if she can be sure they will not find out. I think it is disrespectful to his remains and that, if he wanted his ashes to be scattered someplace special, he would have talked about it with his wife. Should I stop her? Is this a strange but OK reaction to the death of someone important to her, or should I encourage her to seek other ways of mourning?
A: Yes, you should stop your mother from trying to steal her old boyfriend’s ashes, even if it’s just “some of them.” His family will want all of them. I understand that your mother is grieving, but I think this is a wild, irrational response to grief. Of course, wild and irrational plans are a perfectly understandable response to the sudden loss of someone you loved deeply. I don’t fault her for having a mad, daring plan for claiming a part of the man she felt she lost. But that doesn’t mean she should follow through with her plan. I’m not even sure how she could. There is no way your mother could siphon “just a few” of his ashes unnoticed; it would be a shock and a scandal and deeply upsetting to her ex’s family. It would harm them and humiliate her.
It may be simple grief, or it may be a sign that your mother’s mental condition is not what it was, if she thinks she can pull this off. She needs to find a less intrusive way to mourn their connection, and you might need to have a serious conversation with her about boundaries and her state of mind.
Q. Re: Donating: “Hey, you’re a great friend, but I don’t care enough about you to give you a kidney if you were dying” just doesn’t give me that loving feeling.
A: Then do not ask your friends if they would hypothetically give you a kidney! Your problem is now solved. Surely you understand that there’s a little more to the situation than “I just don’t care enough.” Not wanting to give everyone in your life one of your kidneys is not the same thing as hoping they die of kidney failure.
Q. Best friends … forever?: I have a good friend whom I met at 5 years old; we are now 34. She is my emergency contact (after my husband). She remembers my birthday, wedding anniversary, etc., and sends us flowers and thoughtful cards. When my appendix burst seven years ago, she drove six hours to stay with me in the hospital, using all of her vacation time! If she sees my family around town, she spends half an hour chatting with them. She’s a great person, but each year I think about cutting her out of my life. She thinks black people are naturally “less intelligent,” gays are “gross,” she loves Trump, she bought her dog from a puppy mill and didn’t care about the horrible conditions there, she declawed her cats, she thinks feminists are just being “babies” and poor people probably deserve it. She doesn’t broadcast these things, but I know her and this is who she is. When I have black/gay/feminist friends over, she is completely polite and kind to them and they usually love her, but I know how she feels inside! When I try to sway her thinking, she doesn’t want any part of it. She also doesn’t try to make me think like she does. She is a great friend and her husband is a great guy. We have fun together, but I feel icky when I think about what I consider to be her HUGE flaws. I just don’t feel good about the friendship, but I care about her. What should I do?
A: I do not agree that your friend is a great person! She has treated you kindly in many instances, which is very nice, but that is not the same thing as being a great person. “Not being virulently and overtly racist against black people” and “treating gay people like human beings” are necessary conditions of greatness, and your friend fails both of those tests. It’s wonderful that you fall into the category of “people she considers people,” but you know perfectly well that her kindness is conditional. Acting politely in front of someone black and/or gay and then making horrible claims about their intelligence or worth as human beings after they leave the room is not kindness—it’s hypocrisy. Frankly, it’s additionally unsettling that she continues to think of nonstraight, nonwhite people as subhuman even after spending time socializing with them. You don’t have to “sway her thinking,” but you do need to speak up when she espouses homophobic and racist sentiments. If she continues to do so even after you voice your objections, you may have to re-evaluate just how great she really is.
Q. Is this a deal-breaker?: My boyfriend and I have been together for about a year. Everything is good except for one thing: He is an outdoorsy sort of guy. He likes camping, hiking, fishing—that sort of thing. I don’t. He wants me to go along on all his outdoor trips, and I don’t want to. I wouldn’t mind going on one or two a year, but I don’t want to go every weekend. I’ve been getting some not so subtle hints from his sister that he may be about to propose. I’m torn. I love him, but not enough to spend every weekend for the rest of my life in the woods. Is this a deal-breaker?
A: I don’t think so, but then again, I’m not your boyfriend. Make it clear to him that while you love him and want to be with him, you aren’t interested in spending more than one or two weekends a year in the great outdoors, and that he’ll be taking most of his camping and fishing trips alone or with friends. (That sounds like a great setup to me, but life is long and life is wide and different people want different things.) I don’t think this is something you two should break up over; surely the two of you can compromise on how many weekends you spend together every month and whether they’re in a tent or a building with a roof on it.
Mallory Ortberg: At last, a deal-breaker that actually wasn’t! Let’s try to find another couple I can advise to actually stay together next week. This is a delightful change of pace for me. Until then!