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. My cheatin’ ways?: Back when my husband and I were dating, I cheated on him (there were extenuating circumstances, but I still greatly regret it). We’ve now been married a number of years. I thought we had worked through things more or less, though I’ve never been certain he completely trusts me. Recently, he brought up the fact that he’d like to open our marriage. I’m clear I don’t want this—if nothing else, the toxic stew of jealousy and hurt around the cheating episode convinced me. When I said I wasn’t comfortable with an open relationship, he told me I was a hypocrite and have no legitimate objection because of the cheating episode. I feel rotten about the pain I caused my husband but don’t want to be bullied into polyamory or constantly punished for something that happened in the past. Is it time to walk away?
A: It certainly doesn’t bode well that your husband thinks you’ve forfeited the right to make decisions about what kind of marriage you two will have because you cheated on him years ago while you were dating. You’re absolutely right in that your husband is trying to wield your former cheating like a club in order to convince you that you “owe” him an open marriage, which is cruel and ridiculous and not something you have to stand for. I don’t know if you two have tried the usual bout of couples therapy, but it could be helpful, even if you two decide to separate, in figuring out what you can and cannot ask of one another. I’d suggest it not as a last-ditch attempt to save your marriage but as a tool that can help you figure out how to discuss what you want now and what you feel about the past in ways that aren’t damaging and punitive.
Q. Reunion with mean ex-BFF worth it?: As a teen and young adult, I was part of a classic dysfunctional girl duo. We were both troubled, unhappy, and inseparable. She was prettier, more popular, and constantly belittled me in backhanded ways. After many years of fights, drama, and my trying to get her to change, I told her I didn’t want her in my life anymore when we were in our mid-20s. I felt terrible, but never regretted the decision. Now, our teenage group of friends are supposed to meet up in 2016. I would love to initiate this reunion. Yes, I’d love to flaunt my happy, successful, out-of-the-closet self to the people who knew me only as an insecure wallflower. But also, I want the chance to show my former BFF (who is married, has children, and is on her way to a brilliant career) that I remember the good times we had fondly and wish her well. Our mutual friend, however, has told me that my former friend was devastated when I ended the friendship and to this day responds bitterly when my name comes up, wondering aloud why I ended things (I made my reasons very clear over our years of frenemy-ship and believe they were self-evident to anyone who knew us and had eyes). I want to believe this reunion will be lighthearted nostalgic fun, but my friend thinks my former BFF is likely to turn it into a confrontation about how I hurt her. Even if that doesn’t happen, I can easily imagine her worst self emerging, and the many passive-aggressive and hurtful things she might say to me (especially on the subject of my queerness. Yes, obviously I was a little in love with her sometimes, but I don’t want her to use that against me unfairly. It was not the reason I ended the friendship). Should I give her the benefit of the doubt that she is now an adult and will behave graciously, or ditch the whole idea based on my memories of who she used to be at her worst?
A: I think you’re asking a lot of your former BFF if you want the first time you meet since dumping her 15 years ago to be at a big reunion party, surrounded by all of your old friends. “How have you been since I told you I don’t want you in my life anymore? Because I’ve been terrific” isn’t much of a nostalgic conversation starter. I don’t think you did anything wrong either in ending that friendship—it sounds like the two of you brought out the worst in one another—but you’re being more than a little naïve if you think chattering away over cocktails as if nothing ever happened is a likely outcome, should you invite her. If you’d like to make peace with your high-school frenemy, give her a call or send her an email and discuss what happened between the two of you in private. But if all you want is to have a conflict-free get-together with some old friends, invite a few of them out to drinks yourself and leave her out of it.
Q. Break-up 101: I found out some unsavory things about my roommate around September of last year from a mutual friend. I am now dating this mutual friend, but, given the circumstances, I’m looking to break it off; my roommate and the mutual friend/my now-partner dated and are still friends, though my roommate is textbook abusive toward her. I’m also completely lost as to how to say, “I can’t do this,” without sounding insensitive. On top of the stress it’s adding to my life, we’re just totally incompatible in my eyes. Is that an acceptable way to broach the break-up? Should I wait for an “appropriate time” to do it? (Is there an “appropriate time”?)
A: If you think you and your girlfriend are totally incompatible, there’s no reason to bring your roommate into the break-up. There is no way to dump someone in a way that is entirely sensitive, so go ahead and release that expectation now. You can and should behave sensitively toward her, of course, but you’re absolutely going to hurt her feelings. Do so as honestly and as quickly as you can, so that she can move on. End the relationship (“We want the same things, and this isn’t working for me”), look for a different roommate when your lease is up, and next time, don’t leave out the juicy details when you write to an advice columnist (“Unsavory” how?).
Q. Alcoholic roommate?: I live in an apartment with several people, and I suspect our newest roommate has an alcohol problem. She frequently drinks alone, and I often find multiple empty bottles in our recycling in the middle of the week. (None of the rest of our roommates are heavy drinkers.) While the drinking has not affected our living situation or her work (that I know of), on at least two occasions she has become so drunk at casual networking events that she’s needed help getting home. I am friendly with this girl, but not best friends, and my relationship to her is primarily as a roommate. If a close friend or family member were doing this, I would speak to them about it, but I’m not sure how to talk to her about this without sounding judgy, or without jeopardizing our pleasant and casual roommate relationship. Should I bring it up with her, or just let her drink in peace?
A: If her drinking doesn’t affect your living situation and you don’t have an existing friendship with her, I think it’s wisest to say nothing. What you’ve described doesn’t sound like the healthiest relationship to alcohol, but she also hasn’t endangered anyone or failed to live up to her responsibilities. If you were good friends, that would be different, but you don’t know her well enough to bring up her personal choices or offer constructive criticism about issues that don’t concern your apartment.
Q. Problematic plans: My husband and I are good friends with another married couple. We are in the same social circle and spend plenty of time together as a group. But when the wife of the other couple has plans (visiting family out of town, baby shower for a nonmutual friend, etc.), the husband makes plans with my husband to spend time with him solo. I normally don’t find out until after the fact, and it makes me feel like I am the butt of an ongoing joke that I am set up to sit home alone while everyone else is busy. How do I address this with my husband? Is it worth mentioning, or is it too petty to discuss?
A: I’m of the firm belief that nothing is too petty to discuss, as long as you don’t pretend something is more serious than it really is. If you want to tell your husband that sometimes you feel lonely or left out, I think you should tell him, not because it’s his fault, but because he’s your partner and you can safely discuss your feelings with him. There’s nothing in your letter that suggests to me anyone is trying to treat you like a joke. Sometimes, when your friend’s wife goes out of town, he likes to spend time with your husband. I think that’s about the long and short of it. I’m not sure if you’re upset because your husband comes home late without explanation, or because you feel like he ought to invite you along during “guy time,” or because you think he’s obligated to make complementary social plans for you whenever he sees friends (this list is offered in descending order of reasonable justification, for those of you playing at home). Figure out what it is that you want (Is it to be invited along on these occasional boys-only get-together? To be kept updated so you can make your own arrangements? To never have to be at home alone?) and what’s a reasonable expectation for your husband to meet, and then figure out how you can best meet your own needs.
At the risk of sounding condescending—surely you don’t need me to remind you that you have other friends—perhaps when your husband goes out with his friend, you could call someone you know and haven’t seen in a while, and make arrangements to get together by yourself.
Q. Can’t get past grandfather’s death: My grandfather passed away three years ago. It was the first death in the family I’ve experienced. I was absolutely in bits when he died. He was very healthy all of my life until that point. He had an ongoing “flu” for a couple weeks that turned out to be cancer, and he passed within a month of letting all of the immediate family know about the diagnosis. He did not opt for treatment that would have lengthened his life, which I absolutely am grateful for. He passed on his own terms in his home.
I remember him dearly and thought I was past his death until this last weekend. One of my best friends and I decided to have a girls’ night with some wine, and she brought up her wonderful grandparents. I ended up breaking down—and I mean I was sobbing … about my grandfather. It has been on my mind since, and it makes me sad on a daily basis. Should I be seeing someone about this? Did it just touch a nerve that I haven’t dealt with fully? I’m not really sure what to do.
A: If you’d like to see a therapist, it’s rarely a bad idea, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you. Crying, even sobbing, over the death of someone you loved dearly (even if they were quite old! Even if they died years ago!) is a perfectly normal response to death. Death is awful, and it takes away the people we love, and I don’t know that there’s anyone who has “fully” dealt with it. Talking about someone you loved who has died with a good friend and crying about your pain seems extremely normal to me. It doesn’t sound like you are unable to function or in any way impaired by your grief—you’re just sad. It’s not keeping you from experiencing other feelings, or from your daily activities, but it’s a very real presence in your life. Your grandfather sounds like he was a wonderful person. I think your response makes perfect sense.
Q. Re: Alcoholic roommate?: If you’re having to give this person rides home, then it DOES affect you. And this issue has the potential to turn into a situation where roommate is not able to make obligations (i.e., pay her share of the rent). It might be better to intervene now than to wait until the problem becomes huge. I say intervene, or perhaps let roommates family members know about situation. Or else throw her out of the apartment before her drinking becomes an issue.
A: It wasn’t clear in the letter that the roommate is the one giving her rides home—my read on it was that someone else from the networking events dropped her off—but of course if it does start affecting their living situation, or if the letter writer starts to feel like her roommate is making her indirectly responsible for managing her drinking, she has the right to speak up. But throwing someone out of their apartment because they’ve gotten a ride home a few times and drink alone on weeknights feels premature.
Q. Best friend with cheating husband?: One drunken night a few years ago, my best friend’s husband made a pass at both my boyfriend and me, asking us to have sex with him and kissing my boyfriend’s neck. We are close friends with them and chalked it up at the time to drunkenness. We did not tell my best friend. Now, years later, he has been staying out all night, lying about his whereabouts, and not answering his phone. She thinks he has a drinking problem, but, based on my personal experience with him, I think he may be cheating on her. She is not willing to consider cheating as a possibility. Should I tell her about the experience? I feel that the time to tell her has passed, but I don’t want to be withholding information that could help her move on with her life.
A: I think it’s entirely possible your friend’s husband could both have a drinking problem and be cheating on his wife, but I’m not sure it would do you any good to tell her about his long-ago clumsy, drunken pass. She already knows that he’s lying to her and staying out all night, so it isn’t as if she’s blindly convinced her husband is happy and her marriage is solid. If she’s not willing to consider the possibility that he’s cheating on her, I’m concerned that she might not believe you if you told her what he did, especially after a few years had passed, and that you might ruin your friendship without helping her marriage.
That said, I’d certainly want to know if my partner had tried to seduce mutual friends of ours, and there’s definitely a case to be made for truth-telling. If you decide to tell her, I think you should explain that the reason you never brought it up before was because you hoped it was a one-time, out-of-character lapse, but now that he’s avoiding coming home at night and causing her distress, you have good reason to think he may be cheating on her. This may backfire, especially if she decides that your having withheld this information is a greater betrayal than what her husband has done. If you decide to take this route, proceed with caution. There’s always the chance the two of them will reconcile and she’ll cut you out of her life, rather than continue a friendship with someone she now sees as a threat to her marriage.
Mallory Ortberg: Some heavy stuff this week! Thanks for tuning in, everyone.